Life under Security Capitalism and How to Escape It
Mark Maguire and Setha Low



In early 2012, a teenage boy traveled with his father to Sanford, Florida, to spend time with his prospective stepmother. They intended to stay as her guests in Retreat at Twin Lakes, a small, gated community. During the evening, the boy walked to a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store, where he bought a bag of Skittles and a can of fruit juice. It was a dark, rainy evening, so he pulled up his hood, dialed his girlfriend on his mobile phone, and started for home. A short time later, a neighborhood watch volunteer passed by in an SUV and phoned the police to report a “suspicious guy.” Against the dispatcher’s advice, the neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman abandoned his vehicle and pursued the boy on foot. Minutes later, following a brief altercation, seventeen-year-old Treyvon Martin lay dead from a single gunshot wound.

Initially, the tragic killing attracted little public attention. Indeed, the media depicted the whole incident as a regrettable accident, like a car crash, but with the child being mowed down by security. Retreat at Twin Lakes was supposed to be a haven of middle-class prosperity and safety, but foreclosures, short-term letting, and burglaries increased following the 2008 recession. Residents became fearful, and some openly spoke of their intention to shoot home invaders. After all, people purchased houses in this enclave to avoid what they perceived as an increasingly chaotic and crime-ridden world. However, the security measures came in the form of anti-social design features that separated residents from the outside and each other. Retreat at Twin Lakes has plenty of fences, surveillance cameras, and alarms but few public spaces and even fewer sidewalks. The designers turned walking into a suspicious activity, and the trigger-happy neighborhood watch turned racialized suspicions into potential fatalities.

Consistent with Florida’s so-called stand-your-ground law, a trial jury acquitted George Zimmerman. Activists first uttered the phrase Black Lives Matter to express collective rage at the acquittal of a man who racially profiled and confronted a child. Their rage gave birth to an international movement. Around the world, from New York to Nairobi and from London to Los Angeles, there are calls to end violent, racialized policing and replace it with socially just public safety.1 To answer this call, scholars and activists are hunting for alternatives to modern policing. Surely things were done differently in the past, or perhaps alternative models exist in other countries? Reformers are searching for training programs and interventions to reduce police violence, but many of these “solutions” are ineffective, or they further inflate already bloated police budgets.2 Abolitionists are searching for new models of community safety, but they are accused of naïvety by a political class wedded to the status quo and comfortable with failure. It is abundantly clear that the problem of security is central to all of this, but it has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Security precedes the development of modern policing; security providers operate at the shadowy institutional borders of policing today, and if policing as we know it ends, security actors are ready to offer their services.

It is illustrative to recall that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Minneapolis pledged to defund its police force and reconstitute it as a public safety service. Despite the fanfare surrounding the pledge, only a few symbolic actions followed before the City Council voted down the proposal to defund the police in 2021. Nonetheless, private security operators immediately flooded into the perceived gap. Today, there are thirteen private security guards for every police officer in downtown Minneapolis. In the wealthiest suburbs, residents may avail of a “buyback” program to hire off-duty police to patrol their neighborhoods.

Before modern policing, we had Pinkerton detectives for the wealthy and vigilante patrols for the oppressed and enslaved. People in the Global South still live with a mixed security economy. In Nairobi, for example, small business owners hire off-duty police to protect them from their on-duty colleagues. As we learned in the Prologue, the wealthy enlist the services of expatriate mercenaries. In short, once interrogated, the modern institution of policing reveals itself as the child of a large family of security providers, kindred with whom it remains in suspiciously close contact. Of course, many of these security providers are just low-level players in the domain of security capitalism. However, this domain stretches from those who sell house alarms to retirees to those who sell autonomous weapon platforms to states. To understand the central problem of security in today’s world, we must attend to security capitalism.

Of course, security is not simply supplied to an unknowing and unthinking public by shady businesses. We must understand the supply of security solutions, and the ascendency of “solutionism” in public discourse, but we also need to understand the demand for security. People are willing to go to great lengths to feel safe; they are willing to pay for that feeling, even if they must pay with the blood of others. “The wealthy drool for security,” Ayn Rand once declared, but the middle classes are also keen investors in security capitalism. Yet, they feel trapped by security, unsafe yet unwilling to do things differently. This is where we see hope for change. As Angela Davis put it, the challenge is to persuade those people that “safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.”3


This book starts from the position that security is not just about state police and private security guards, uniformed soldiers, and shadowy contractors. Rather, it is the primary activity of whole branches of government and entire sectors of the economy. Organizations that deliver policing, governance, surveillance, and international stability are fundamentally security actors. Of course, we are not the first to note this. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that nature, chaotic and brutish, will never provide security, and a small community will always struggle to protect its members. Security, he explains, is the primary duty of the State, so long as you give obedience in return.4 Jean-Jacques Rousseau expands on this basic formulation by imagining security as liberty’s shield. “It is . . . a fundamental maxim of political law,” he tells us, “People gave themselves chiefs to defend their liberty and not be enslaved by them. If we have a prince, said Pliny to Trajan, it is in order that he may keep us from having a master.”5 Karl Marx is similarly clear on the primacy of security. Upon reading the lofty Declaration of the Rights of Man, he notes, “Security is the supreme social concept of civil society. . . . The whole society exists only in order to guarantee for each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property.”6 The modern police, he tells us, is just one institutional form that follows society’s functional need to protect rights-bearing property owners.7 For the sake of brevity, in this book, we refer to this as security capitalism.

Westgate Mall in Nairobi and Retreat at Twin Lakes in Florida are both spaces of security capitalism—privatized, fortified, unequal—even though they are thousands of miles apart. Such places are experienced as similar because their walls and fences are designed to do the same job, to produce a safe interior by keeping the chaotic outside world at bay. However, the separation between inside and outside is illusory. Things must be bought and sold, and people must come and go, so security denotes not just the effort to contain and control but, precisely, to track human activity—everything is a potential target of security. Security capitalism is thus broader and more encompassing than “surveillance capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff’s catchy label for Silicon Valley’s business model.8 Though it is broader and more encompassing, security capitalism is also a more accurate term, as it explodes the myth that the digital industrial economy is the product of brilliant minds working in Palo Alto garages. Silicon Valley is the child of the US military-industrial complex, and recent high-profile leaks in companies like Facebook and Twitter show that it never flew the nest.9 Just as security precedes the development of modern policing, we also find that security capitalism precedes and structures surveillance capitalism.

Our aim in Trapped is to develop ethnographic portraits of life under security capitalism, the sites into which it has spread, where alternative possibilities still flourish, and thus the spaces where we can begin to contemplate escape. Much of our work as anthropologists during the past two decades has been about the intractable problem of security in various societies. Mark’s research has explored biometric security in the Middle East, predictive policing in the UK, and counterterrorism in Europe and Africa. Setha studies the rise of gated communities in multiple countries, the politics of public space, and the violent consequences of inequality and segregation. Together we have written about the spaces of security that now striate public life, spaces that erect walls between the few and the many.10

The ethnographic portraits of security capitalism we present here will show its supply and demand sides. We describe the growing security-industrial complex, the heartland of security capitalism, and the people who work there. Many are willing workers who are devoted to their role, while others are sickened by duplicity and corruption. We describe how security capitalism trickles down into society’s infrastructure, poisoning how the public sees travel, public space, and, ultimately, one another. Security capitalism has also transformed modern policing, we argue, diminishing its few redeeming qualities and making genuine reform harder to achieve. Uniquely, this book emphasizes the demand for security capitalism. Corporate interests and political machinations certainly shape the security landscape. However, ordinary, middle-class people populate the land. They seek safety in gated suburbs and urban enclaves, and, in so doing, they create investment opportunities for security capitalism. Various “solutions” are presented to reduce anxiety and uncertainty and prevent chaos. The desire is to produce a safe “interior life,” to borrow from philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.11 Ethnographically, we open these interiors and find people trapped in prisons of their own making.12 We must empathize with people like Clara and Hugo, the couple introduced in the Prologue, and the great multitude of others like them, while also holding them to account.


This book unfolds over several short chapters. Each chapter provides an ethnographic portrait of security capitalism. We hope that our use of ethnographic essays will permit readers to understand the contemporary security landscape as a knotted and thorny place populated by diverse people. Nevertheless, when one stands back, the landscape does have several salient features that demand attention. In Trapped, we often speak of interior life, the anxieties that interiority produces, the solutions presented by security capitalism, and the security-industrial complex. We mention these concepts in the ethnographic essays where it is apt to do so. However, we also include brief notes on these concepts separate from the main chapters. The concept notes are guides to aid interpretation and, we hope, spur action.

Chapter 1, “Open the Gates, or You’ll Never Escape,” plunges us straight into the fears of crime, terrorism, and even noise and chaos, that ostensibly motivate people to move to gated suburban communities in New York and San Antonio, Texas. On close inspection, however, it becomes evident that fear is not the only explanation for this decision. Wealthy and middle-class people who wish to reside in gated communities are screened for financial well-being and social acceptability by homeowners’ associations and common interest developments. When they purchase a home, they buy into enclosure, surveillance, financial restrictions, and aesthetic choices. The price of voluntary imprisonment is high, but the residents pay to live with other “nice” people. They say they feel better having moved to a secure residential area and rarely want out, but they experience tremendous anxiety and doubt. They doubt the efficacy of security measures, especially because separation from the outside is more theoretical and symbolic than actual: caregivers, construction workers, and other service providers enter the gated community daily. Interior life in a gated community involves “fear talk”—rumors about criminals working for construction crews, for example. In the United States, all of this is structured by racialization, sometimes overtly, at other times coded as “nice people” versus “outsiders.” With the gated community, security makes physical, and thus naturalizes, racialization.

However, the decision to retreat to a homogenous racial and class redoubt does not suggest defiant middle-class strength. Whereas once the American dream was of home ownership, picket fence and all, and integration into a functioning society, today neoliberalism and globalization expose the cruel optimism of yesterday’s dreams. The gated community offers life in diminished form. Security from the chaotic outside is pretended, performed, but never absolute. Residents fret about workers from the outside because the walls and gates cannot sever relations with society. On the contrary, gated communities play an outsized role in society, diverting resources, and contributing to racialized segregation and societal fracturing. The only way out of the security trap is to bring communities back into societies, which may mean some people have to face their fears and live differently.

Chapter 2, “Take Back the City: Security as a Way of Life in New York City,” brings us to Hudson Yards, New York City’s sparkling new commercial and residential enclave. Opened just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the enclave is part of the largest private real-estate development in US history. The enclave is staggeringly expensive, trendy, Instagram-able, and clearly disconnected from the rest of the city—Hudson Yards is in but not of New York. The city authorities provided tax cuts and rapid permissions, while developers promised revitalization by attracting the “right kind of people.” Today, there are no bustling crowds in Hudson Yards, no chaotic city noises. The right kind of people expect to walk risk-free from their purpose-built metro station to shops or restaurants under the watchful eye of private guards and surveillance cameras. It is like a huge outdoor airport terminal.

Hudson Yards exists because of the financialization of the city. Private investors are required for major development projects. Rather than giving back to the city, however indirectly, urban life is cut up and sold to a cosmopolitan elite, who demand securitization, and this further undermines the city. The more securitization and spatial separation are permitted, the more the cycle continues. Plainly we must challenge this, but we cannot do so by appealing nostalgically for the return of earlier forms of capitalism. Today’s securitization is fueled by a history of national insecurity, fear, and racialized fearmongering, and the financial insecurity that drives the city to private developers goes back to the near bankruptcy of the 1970s. All the cameras and guards, then, point to a population stuck in deep ontological insecurity. But what was the alternative to Hudson Yards? If cities commit to equitable development for the good of the public, alternatives abound. We can develop accessible public spaces, funded by a diverse array of commercial and residential units. Things can be better, but nothing will change if we continue to fund securitization.

Chapter 3, “Reimagine Policing,” returns to the core problem introduced in our opening discussion of the killing of Treyvon Martin. Activists, especially Black scholars, have successfully highlighted the problem of racist police violence. Their efforts to challenge the legitimacy of modern policing are ongoing, though meaningful change remains elusive, as if there are no reasonable alternatives. Before attempting to transform policing, we must grapple with the intractable problem of societal security. Time and again, we have seen the desire for public security used as a barrier to meaningful change. But what does it mean to approach policing as a security problem. Where do we begin?

In this chapter, we trace the ethnographic story of Liam, a traditional Irish police officer—Ireland is where modern policing first developed—who recently turned his hand to consulting. His varied career involved community policing during an anti-terror war. Later, he spearheaded a mini–War on Drugs in a poor neighborhood. Later still, following a period in management, he began a career as an international security consultant. The ethnographic description of each period shows the degree to which policing is not a singular activity by an ideal-type modern institution but, rather, a fractured and violence-prone system that requires constant monitoring and reference to guiding principles. Despite all the metrics and audits that promise transparency and control, there is insufficient monitoring of policing today. Instead, modern policing is merging with private security interests, “solutionism” is ascendant, and guiding principles are forgotten. We hope that our ethnographic portrait of Liam’s varied career will alert us to the core problem of principles in modern policing. Scholars have long argued that inequality breeds securitization, but here we show that security is, by its very nature, antagonistic to equality. We can strive for public safety, equality, and justice, or we can retreat in groups behind walls protected by police, but we cannot do both.

Chapter 4, “Counter Counterterrorism,” is an ethnographic portrait of the forces driving and resisting security in the modern airport. Today’s privatized and securitized urban enclaves resemble airports: only verified persons may enter these stratified interior worlds where calm commercialism replaces the chaos of everyday sociality. The airport has long been a laboratory for testing and producing new security systems—what happens in LAX today happens in LA tomorrow. Thus, it is essential to identify and examine the continuities and contradictions produced by security capitalism in airport-laboratory conditions.

This chapter follows the story of Steve, an upper-mid-ranking police officer in a major international airport. As he sees it, his job is to keep airplanes and their passengers moving safely. He characterizes himself as a community police officer. However, the security experts orbiting Steve’s world regard him as a mere “practitioner,” the “end user” of their conceptual and technical solutions. For these experts, the mundane work of keeping the peace is uninteresting. Instead, applied academics, technologists, and representatives of significant corporations drive the introduction of new products, often regardless of efficacy. As Steve’s ethnographic story unfolds, however, we see not just an alliance between profit-seeking security-capitalist interests but also an entire pseudo-scientific edifice—theories about radicalization, the efficacy of mass surveillance, and mysterious detection techniques.

Desirous of less risk and more security, the public (strangely) accepts pseudo-scientific security theories.13 To effectively counter counterterrorism, we must challenge the counterterrorism edifice at home, in our universities, and explore alternative approaches, which may be already available locally. If we can counter counterterrorism in high-stakes environments like airports, then it can be challenged anywhere.

Chapter 5, “Reclaim Homeland Security,” tracks the rise of the European homeland or internal security sector by following the career of Sarah, a former Big Tech executive who reinvented herself as a security expert during the early 2000s. European countries have long been key players in international arms manufacturing. However, in the wake of 9/11, it became apparent to governments and industry that the European Union could play a more prominent role. Sarah opened a consultancy that forged alliances across national and sectoral lines, capturing significant resources as she did so. The growth of European homeland security followed a definite plan crafted and implemented by the security-industrial complex. The plan required large-scale societal cooperation from police, airport managers, policymakers, and the public. Consultants like Sarah worked feverishly to create the necessary connections and cooperation. Big Brother relies on many “ordinary” educated and middle-class helpers who buy into security capitalism. Sarah averted her gaze as European and North American colleagues sold their surveillance wares alongside old-fashioned weapons of war. However, when she watched the EU use the public purse to pay for technology to spy on citizens, she could no longer ignore the damage. She became an activist. As we follow her career in and out of the security-industrial complex, we show that security capitalism ultimately relies on public acceptance, access to public universities, and the public purse.

The Conclusion, “Defund Security,” sets out our vision for change. Here we argue that there are surprisingly straightforward ways to challenge urban fortification, violent policing, and counterterrorism. We know that urban fortification compounds social divisions and inequality and damages social cohesion and democracy. The people who seek out gated communities and exclusive city enclaves know that they are separating themselves from mainstream society. However, gates do not guarantee security, and abandoning a society that one is still deeply invested in has clear consequences. Many people now feel trapped in a prison of their own making, and not just in their homes.


1. Throughout Trapped we discuss public safety and the public interest. We are cognizant that “the public” is a product of self-identification, imagination, and governmentality. There are ambiguities and contradictions plated into the idea, and “counter-publics” may be more than opposition to exclusionary mainstream political culture. However, rather than constantly caveat every statement on public matters, we acknowledge that it is an essentially contested concept, see Michael Warner, Publics and Counter-publics (New York: Zone Books, 2002).

2. See Alex S. Vitale, The End of Police (New York and London: Verso, 2017).

3. See Angela Davis, “Freedom Struggle.” Democracy Now. September 7, 2020.

4. See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1651] 1909.). Some may object here: surely this appeal to Western philosophy, with its obsessive attention to states, war, and security is a limiting gesture? Yes, the “canon” is indeed limited. And yet all societies attempt to resolve the problem of security in some way, enlisting myriad resources between the individual’s strength and the nation’s army. Adventurous searches for security done differently—the romantic gesture mocked by Nietzsche—show few transferrable ideas. We are keen to look for alternatives in the contemporary.

5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality (New York: The Philosophical Library, 2016), 63.

6. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1843), in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker, 26–46 (New York: Norton & Co., 1978), 43.

7. Radical Black scholars have for a long time noted that the institution we call the police is historically and culturally contingent. See, for example, Terry Jones, “The Police in America: A Black Viewpoint,” The Black Scholar 9, no. 2 (1977): 22–31, 36–39. If the institution is contingent, they argue, then it can be made anew. But it is only recently that activists such as Angela Davis have pointed to the institutional provision of security as a critical dimension to this project.

8. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York and London: Profile Books, 2019).

9. See Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (New York and London: Public Affairs, 2018).

10. Setha Low and Mark Maguire, eds., Spaces of Security: Ethnographies of Security-scapes, Surveillance, and Control (New York: New York University Press, 2019).

11. Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization (London and New York: Polity Press, 2013).

12. Anthropologists are showing a renewed interest in traps and “entrapment” (for an excellent example see Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Chloe Nahum-Claudel, “The Anthropology of Traps: Concrete Technologies and Theoretical Interfaces.” Journal of Material Culture 24, no. 4 (2019): 383–400). Entrapment, as we have shown elsewhere, is logically entailed in security, and discussion of it should be sufficiently specific to illuminate that domain. See Mark Maguire and David A. Westbrook, Getting through Security: Counterterrorism, Bureaucracy, and a Sense of the Modern (London and New York: Routledge, 2020).

13. See Rob Flynn and Paul Bellaby, Risk and the Public Acceptance of New Technologies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).