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Since the end of the Cold War, the world has seen rapid privatization of public spaces, services, and resources. The question intrinsic to the business of security becomes: How can an intangible concept like security be turned into a commodity to be packaged, labeled, and sold?

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This process is one of the neoliberal practices that have created so much recent demand for private security services, argues scholar George Rigakos. Neoliberal ideology suggests the private market is more efficient because competition can reduce prices and improve quality of products and services. But this requires a much more intensive approach to measuring and monitoring security workers and their tasks than ever before.

It is no longer sufficient, in other words, just to post security guards. Security is changing from the mere absence of a problem into “deliverable” proof—surveillance reports delivered in a timely fashion to clients. This shift has created new ethical considerations both in the monitoring of private employees and at the boundaries between private and public jurisdictions.

Complicating matters further, the security industry is dominated by a few large multinational corporations such as G4S and Securitas. They are constantly seeking to expand their activities into new markets both to find customers, and to retain a low-cost workforce. Sociologist Max Weber famously defined a state sovereignty as the “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” But the power and authority of these private security companies to displace public security like the police and army has considerably altered Weber’s definition of sovereignty for many countries in the twenty-first century.

This is the case particularly in Africa and Asia, despite individual countries’ attempts to regulate the security industry. Indeed, Afghanistan banned private security companies in 2010 in the wake of abuses during the U.S.-led War on Terror. A recent Taliban attack on the British Embassy in Kabul that killed five G4S employees working there reveals that many companies have easily re-registered as “risk management” companies.

Surveillance as a Management Tool

Private security forces are not new. They were a foundational component of industrial capitalism. Perhaps the most notorious early example is the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose members helped break up worker strikes such as the famous 1892 Homestead steel mill strike. However, Rigakos notes, private security in the present day has become much less explicitly violent and even less noticeable. Invoking Michel Foucault, he argues that private security now rests on surveillance, routines, and social control. From the start, any private company’s workers and customers agree to and even expect these security conditions.

Technology has furthered this trend, to the point that short of total automation with robots and cameras, guards must carefully follow an automated schedule of tasks and reports that produces salable data. Rigakos made ethnographic observations with the Intelligarde International company security guards hired to guard Toronto public housing projects. The timing and order of their rounds were governed by the requirement to swipe computer networked “deister strips” with key cards at locations throughout the grounds. The housing blocks were adjacent to private properties and businesses in the downtown area, which permitted guards to provide backup for colleagues in need. In the process, it extended a private network that overlapped with public police services, blurring their jurisdictions and making policing a “generic function” that is no longer a state monopoly.

With the goal of producing a commodity, the Intelligarde system made the management of security workers a higher priority than solving security problems. Rigakos highlighted the ways the workers subverted the system both to slack off and to protect themselves. Guards sometimes swiped the strips closer in time than scheduled to produce unmonitored break times. Others trumped up incident reports to justify skipping some strips to stay on schedule. (Rigakos, writing in 1999, anticipated the advent of GPS trackers to eliminate these tendencies). Guards used unauthorized radio channels to provide unscheduled support. Indeed, “panoptic” technology could backfire: in one building with a drug dealing problem, residents themselves had access to closed circuit camera video of their entryway, and often came out in force to prevent Intelligarde officers from arresting a fellow resident.

An Intelligarde manager noted with pride that many public companies (parking, utilities, etc.) were using their private service because “they don’t feel the police are answerable to them.” A legitimate question here is whether police service has actually worsened, or whether private security marketing has made people demand a more intensive level of service. One could argue it’s all part of the neoliberal project that has recast citizens as primarily consumers.

Private Security in Communist China

Private security services are expanding quickly around the world—nowhere faster than in China. Although much of the economy is still nominally public-owned, the explosive growth of official and gray-market business activities has greatly outpaced the budgets and capabilities of the police. While the government tightly regulates private security firms, criminal justice scholar Susan Trevaskes writes that the rapid expansion of private security has become a microcosm of the problems created by private wealth in a nominally communist society.

As an example, in 2006 there were nearly four million private security guards working for companies owned or monitored by China’s public security bureaus (the police), in addition to millions of unregistered workers. First licensed in 1984, there were 1,500 security firms in operation by 1997. Private investors cannot buy or establish security firms independently, but most enter official partnerships with the police. Firms are organized along provincial lines and remain small and fragmented, while the police maintain control over management appointments. Thus, the managers of private firms are often high-ranking police officers themselves, and maintain critical control over channeling lucrative investments to their families and cronies.

This doesn’t mean running a private security firm makes for easy profits. Workers must receive health and life insurance, and so wages are typically very low and companies see high turnover. Moreover, there is considerable competition from black-market security companies, some of which are tied to organized crime. The rate of urban expansion and the police monopoly is such that those who benefit from founding official companies simply can’t keep up with demand.

Plus, the pace of economic change in China has led to direct conflict between the public and security forces compared to the seamless shift to a surveillance state in Western countries examined above. In recent years, Chinese citizens have become more willing to voice their opinion on local grievances, staging tens of thousands of protests per year about labor conditions, evictions, and corruption. Resolving these incidents with the official policy of “peaceful containment” requires more training than poorly paid private security guards arriving on the scene currently receive.

Race and Recruitment in South Asia

It is clear from this research that categorizing and disciplining workers is at the heart of private security. For the most globalized security multinationals, this means achieving such aims with workers recruited from abroad, serving technically demanding jobs often in very dangerous conditions or even war zones. Finding such volunteers is difficult, which is why, Amanda Chisholm writes, security contractors often use Gurkha (Nepalese) soldiers retired from British Army service.

The British ruled their empire in India until 1947 through a careful strategy of dividing and conquering different nationalities on the subcontinent. By the racial logic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain nationalities, like the Gurkhas and Punjabis, were “martial races” more disposed to fighting and discipline. Recruited to the British Army in disproportionate numbers, this service in turn transformed their societies, making military service an important career path for young men. At the time of decolonization, the British arranged for half of all Gurkha regiments to continue serving with the British outside of South Asia, with the consent of Nepal and India. Despite political opposition to “mercenary service” at various times since, new generations of young Nepalese continue to serve in the British army.

Multinational security companies use the experience and (implicitly) the racial characteristics of their Gurkha workers as a marketing point for their services. Yet at the same time, the race and educational background exclude Gurkhas from making an equal salary to white contractors ($1,000 per month vs. $8,000-15,000) or assuming leadership roles. Although experienced ex-Army Gurkhas may speak English perfectly and have numerous technical qualifications, companies pair white British Gurkha officers with ethnic Gurkhas. Managers told Chisholm that is what clients will expect.

The private Gurkha security companies Chisholm studied, IDG Security and FSI WorldWide, thus effectively commodified the racial characteristics of their workers. They guarantee clients first the “authenticity” of their workers’ ethnic backgrounds, and then the paternalistic ability of officers to “get the best” out of their men. These companies were widely used in the prior decade in the War in Afghanistan.

Despite decades of decolonization, our new era of privatized wars has effectively created private security armies that follow the same language and organization of colonial armies.


Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly implied that Toronto’s public housing projects had four million security guards; this is incorrect and has been updated. 


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The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), pp. 381-409
Canadian Journal of Sociology
Social Justice, Vol. 34, No. 3/4 (109-110), Securing the Imperium: Criminal Justice, Privatization & Neoliberal Globalization (2007-08), pp. 38-55
Social Justice/Global Options
Security Dialogue, Vol. 45, No. 4 (August 2014), pp. 349-372
Sage Publications, Ltd.