Is rethinking security for the common good even possible while a tiny policy-making elite equates security with dominance and control? David Gee argues that our history of change-makers is more powerful than we may realise.

‘Never going to happen.’ So a friend replied after she asked what ‘rethinking security’ meant for me. To move towards real security for everyone in solidarity, away from a sham of security for the few by dominance – all pie in the sky, she thought. For certain, the ‘peace and security’ field is a hard place to go looking for hope, at least for those of us who think the world (dis)order is primed for dispossession and war, heaping misery on the many. Might my friend be right; is hope’s case hopeless?

A first thought is to point to some less fractious time than the present. The 1990s, for example, saw an encouraging turn, of sorts. No new dawn broke at the end of the Cold War, but military spending did dip, violent conflicts were fewer, refugee flows began to abate. Here and there, democracy inched ahead, autocracy retreated a step. The decade saw the first, halting, long-overdue steps towards curbing our collective impact on the climate, too. Could these be signs of a slow turn towards a less insecure world, even under a political system in hock to the powerful few?

Evidently not. Nothing in this litany of promising signs was a match for the multiple crises that were already gripping the globe. Nothing altered the essential structural injustice of economic and political power. Now the world slides again towards a new global pandemic of insecurity.

Adjusted to injustice

The issue is not that the security of people and planet is a sophisticated puzzle. The principle is simple enough: to establish conditions wherein ‘we, the peoples’ – all of us – may live in dignity, freer from fear and less prone to want. This is not complex, or even controversial, but the so-called ‘security discourse’ is not driven by solidarity with the insecure. It is preoccupied instead with the power of the state, its military, its media, and big business, to shape and control the world around them.

If the UK government, for example, were devoted to the security of its public, would it allow such disparities of wealth, abandoning so many to food banks? If it wanted security for people abroad, would it sell arms to Bahrain, Israel, or Saudi Arabia? Would it treat the climate crisis as an annoying inconvenience half-way down a to-do list? The UK does not cherish its aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons to protect the public – they are as militarily useless as they are financially profligate – but to shore up British standing in the eyes of others.

The reasons for this are not especially complex either. Policy-making – and much of the NGO field that critiques it – is still dominated by privately-educated white men. Elite schools and universities still train future leaders to construct ‘the West’ as the guarantor of peace and prosperity right across its ‘sphere of influence’. Billionaire press barons still beguile the public into bristling at the refugees who clamour at the border, and shrug at the climate chaos and wars that drive them here.

All the while, most of the world’s people live and die under the rampaging ‘free market’ economies, sanctions, Hellfire missiles, and now a lethally hot sky that define their experience of ‘global security’. What does the ‘top table of global power’ mean to them, other than the abject violence of elite indifference? When they speak, who is not so ‘well-adjusted to injustice’, as Cornel West puts it, to pay attention?

My sceptical friend had grasped the nub of the issue straight away: that reimagining security as solidarity is not a technical question of who has the blueprint, but a political question of who has the power. It goes right to the white knuckles of the powerful as they cling to their dominance, and says to them, ‘Let go.’ Never going to happen.

Hope as history

What can happen, then? What can face, on the one hand, the pressing urgency of a traumatised global landscape, and on the other, an apparent brick wall of elite power? On the face of it, little promises to work. Right now, the hopes of a liberal representative democracy – if only we can persuade the leaders or change them – seem pretty flimsy. The hopes of the revolutionary moment – if only we can kick out the rulers – and of traditional protest – if only dissent reached its critical mass – seem equally out of reach.

Looking ahead, the future might well condemn us to despair, but we can also look back. Consider the small groups who catalysed the people’s movements that culminated in nonviolent revolutions to bring down the Iron Curtain and end the Cold War. Or the years of hidden grassroots community work in Northern Ireland that laid the ground for a ceasefire and a reset of governance. Or the persistence of indigenous movements to institute sweeping nuclear-free regions across the globe. Or the Greenham women, who did more than anyone else to establish the social conditions for the ban on the mid-range nuclear weapons then dotted across Europe. Without their hopeful work against the odds, we might all have gone up in a mushroom cloud by now. And we still could, but these histories of hope’s work condemn us, in a sense, to hold faith.

Indeed, history has been so pervasively shaped and reshaped by the patient persistence of people without political position as to embarrass despair, not hope, as the less rational of the two. Just the last two or three decades have seen new treaties with wide-ranging aims, from empowering children to protecting biodiversity to a framework for abolishing nuclear weapons for good. Meanwhile, various institutions of violence that were formerly routine have been largely ‘abnormalised’, such as the use of child soldiers, landmines, cluster bombs, military conscription, and aspects of the arms trade. Incalculable numbers of people who would have been harmed in these ways now will not be, because the immovable objects of hard security were moved.

The energy driving these changes came from small groups and people’s movements pushing through the cracks in the edifice of power. Each time, the goal was scorned from the outset as never going to happen. Each time, governments and corporations dodged and stonewalled, the press mocked. But each time, agitators, journalists, scholars, NGOs, a handful of progressive lawmakers, and many invisible others coalesced as a complex ecology of social influence. Even as nothing seemed to change, public opinion was shifting, the parameters of political possibility widening by stealth. Through changing political winds from left and right, the times gradually ripened for change. The impossible goal grew to be the necessary goal, the obvious one. Suddenly the people in power were telling everyone how essential it was. And then it happened.

The uncertainty of hope

I would like this to be my reply to my sceptical friend. And I would like to invite her, with all of us, to own this history of humane gain as our hidden heritage. It has more than earnt its place in public consciousness. It should be the stuff of the school history lesson, if only there were room for it among the textbook hagiographies of monarchs and merchantmen, whose violence children are made to consume as their story. After all, our rights – incomplete, unjustly applied, but still real – to a home, to work with dignity, to learn, to be cared for in health, to have a say in how society works, and to love whomever we love, were not handed to us by kings and queens, but won from them.

This kind of hope seems to escape the usual definitions. It is neither liberal-democratic nor radically revolutionary, but makes room for both, marrying the defiantly utopian with the shrewdly pragmatic. Its vital force clearly comes from the outside in and the bottom up, but is also met in kind by those few individuals of political position willing to take the risk of their convictions. For me, this slow, uncertain hopefulness, with no words like ‘never’ – or indeed ‘soon’ – makes it more possible to face our new age of heavy arsenals and high walls. Not with the odds in our favour – we would be waiting till the cows come home – but with work to do that counts. This is work of many kinds by many hands, well beyond what usually gets called ‘activism’, and everyone has something to give to it.

I think of the ecological crisis, perhaps the most complex challenge the world has ever seen. At the turn of the millennium, ‘climate’ was barely a conversation in the UK. Now the crisis is talked about in living rooms and pubs with the alarmed concern it deserves, albeit decades after the conversation began in the majority world. Personally, more of us are asking searching questions about how we live and organise our societies, and what matters to us and why. Politically, more of us are willing to resist a neoliberal wrecking machine that consumes people and planet without pause.

The pace of change is agonisingly slow for the communities already rent by wildfires, rising seas and desiccated soils – and yet this also reflects the immensity of the challenge. ‘We the peoples’ have not only to turn the oil tanker around, but to coax it into the breakers yard while locked out of the ship’s bridge. The change cannot happen quickly as it should, yet it is at least happening, much thanks to leadership by younger people. Their skills in analysis, organisation, and creativity are quickly outstripping those of my own generation, in my view. But their richest gift to us all is that they have not forgotten how to love the earth and its people.

Hope’s choice

To be clear, this is no argument for optimism. It may be that history is turning out to be a circuitous epic of human progress, as proposed by a proliferating literature on the subject. But that feels too convenient, too comfortable for such Damoclean times as these, when the swords are proliferating over our heads. Such an easy confidence in tomorrow rings pretty hollow, too, while most of the world’s people remain economically and politically cheated today.

My argument is both simpler, and I hope messier, than that. As people in search of hope, we face the future pretty much as our ancestors did: with less than we want, but still with something worth living for, and working out what that means as we go. This, I think, is hope’s choice, and our descendants will want to know whether we took it.

David Gee’s book Hope’s work: Facing the future in an age of crises is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Wikipedia: Protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline demonstrate outside the San Francisco Federal Building, Jan 2017. After years of growing opposition, the permit for the pipeline was revoked by President Biden in Jan 2021.