Casey McNeill – Danger and un-governed spaces in the US


Event Date: 22 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Casey McNeill
Johns Hopkins University





In Foucault’s account of biopower, as power that takes the life of the population as its object, he describes the ‘military-diplomatic apparatus’ of the modern state as being particularly resistant to biopolitical technologies, demonstrating instead the persistence of sovereign and disciplinary power. Questioning the continued relevance of this claim, I explore the prominence of biopolitical strategies in U.S. military interventions in Africa via the new Africa Command (AFRICOM). I aim to complicate critiques that AFRICOMis a neo-imperialist effort to gain access to Africa’s strategic resources. While, as a space embedded in historically produced relationships of power, the legacy of colonialism and imperialism in Africa remains, the practices and strategies of power that actualize these relationships develop and change over time. Describing practices in Africa with reference to a past iteration of global power—that of imperial conquest—precludes inquiries into temporal adaptations and evolutions in the distributive and circulatory effects of power across spatialdifference.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense defined “ungoverned spaces” as a new “threat paradigm” for Africa; this paradigm has since been consistently invoked to justify AFRICOM’s interventions in Africa. Following Foucault’s claim that “Liberalism turns into a mechanism continually having to arbitrate between the freedom and security of individuals by reference to this notion of danger,” I understand ungoverned spaces to be such a notion of danger. It arbitrates U.S. security practicesvia ontological determinations about what forms of life and freedom are dangerous and what forms must be secured, locating threats not in a regime or an ideology, but in a particular way of life – a life that is undergoverned or ungovernable.

The Sahara-Sahel region was one of the first areas identified as a dangerous ungoverned space. Currently, AFRICOM oversees a State-Department led program in the region, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and a military-led program, Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS). The goal of these programs, according to AFRICOM’s 2010 Posture Statement, is to “deny safe havens to terrorists” by “increasing border security, promoting democratic governance, and reinforcing regional as well as bilateral military ties.” The tools needed to achieve these goals reach beyond the traditional military apparatus. AFRICOM emphasizes the need for a “holistic view of security that includes defense, law enforcement, and customs and border security” and attention to issues like public health, economic development, and democratization.

AFRICOM interventions in the Sahara-Sahel demonstrate biopolitical rationalities and instrumentalities of governance. As a rationality, biopolitics arbitrateswhat freedoms and interests are valuableorthreatening according to its valuation ofways of life that must be protected. As an instrumentality, biopoliticsconnectsparticular people, practices and interests to these definitions of danger, as it securitizes discriminately. Thus, the rationality of ‘ungoverned spaces’ as a way to arbitrate between desirable and dangerous forms of life is instrumentally applied to the Sahara-Sahel region, enabling particular interventions.

According to AFRICOM’s biopolitical rationalities and instrumentalities, life in the Sahara-Sahel region is conceptualized in opposition to the resilient, productive, and adaptable population that neoliberal governance seeks to foster. In contrast, it is imagined as (a) not properly participating in processes of global circulation, particularly due to its large volume of unregulated trade and smuggling activities and (b) not adapting properly to a globalizing (post)modernity on any number of fronts, including (i)poverty/development, (ii)responses to illegal activities, and (iii)enforcement of national borders and related forms of government surveillance(especially among nomadic Tuareg populations).

How, according to this framework, might life in the Sahara-Sahel be made governable, and thus rendered less dangerous? The objectives of AFRICOMare to produce institutions and practices that signify a resilient, adaptable population according to neoliberalism’s (evolving) valuation of life. Adaptability to issues of poverty, terrorism and crime, climate change, disease and human rights are managed and regulated via particular institutions and knowledge practices, which produce authoritative assessmentsand cost-benefit calculations. This governance work, carried out under AFRICOM by the U.S. military, State Department, USAID, and non-governmental “partners”, participates in its own economy of resources, standing, and influence, in which a project’s correlation with hegemonic “best practices”

determines its viability. These governance practices produce assessments of regions like the Sahara-Sahel that identify vulnerabilities and then apply these “best practices.” As in the case of AFRICOM, these interventions oftendisrupt existing strategies of adaptability. According to regional analysts, the TSCTP and OEF-TSare exacerbating local vulnerabilities associated with environmental change, political marginalization of minority and nomadic groups, and poverty.US counter-terrorism military aidis strengthening contested national governments’ ability to repress, rather than negotiate with, dissident groups. This is the case for rebel groups, largely made up of nomadic Tuaregs, in Algeria, Mali, and Niger, whose demands include greater political autonomy and increased investments in economic development. Additionally, regional militarization is disrupting vital sources of income, including tourism and trading routes. These routes represent more than income, but the protection of a nomadic way of life that has been under threat, not only from the rigidity of international borders and systems of land tenure, but also by increasing environmental and economic pressures.

Observers who are attentive to ways in which these interventions disrupt or destroy local practices and livelihoods, and especially where theycirculate resources into the global economy to benefit corporations and financial institutions who are not accountable to local communities, call these practices a form of neo-imperialism. This is analogous to imperialism because it is a form of domination – domination over the ways in which life adapts and participates in global processes of circulation. This expression of power is made possible by hegemonic regimes of knowledge/power, expressed in discourses of security, development, humanitarianism, and human rights via states, the UN, civil society groups, NGOs, and humanitarian groups. This is an important claim because it shows how liberal projects to mitigate real human vulnerabilities can and do produce forms of domination that do not challenge states’ political violence, but rather enable it.


<== back to main conference page


share this entry: