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




Clara and Hugo woke early on the morning of Saturday, September 21, 2013. They were to host friends for dinner that evening, and a shopping trip to the busy Westgate Mall was required. The British-Kenyan couple lives in the house Clara inherited from her father in Nairobi’s upmarket Westlands neighborhood. The house is a colonial-era mansion designed to be approached via extensive grounds. Over the years, however, the family’s holding has shrank back, yielding ground to advancing suburbs. Their wooden veranda now looks out on a modest garden, ringed by high walls and finished with barbwire. In Westlands, well-to-do residents live interior lives. They travel to and from gated homes, offices, and shopping malls in SUVs. They live in fear of intruders, carjackers, and terrorists. More precisely, they experience a sense of dread—they know their world will shatter one day. However, that Saturday morning Clara and Hugo’s minds were on the evening ahead: dinner, then bottomless glasses of wine on the colonial veranda. They aimed to spend no more than an hour shopping in Westgate.

Westgate Mall is a temple to security capitalism: it expresses in concrete and glass the force exerted by securitization, massive inequality, and the neoliberal privatization of public space. Although it occupies five aboveground floors, the mall squats on the side of Mwanzi Road, its windows squinting out from behind international brand logos. Such spaces are designed with specific customers in mind, especially those who arrive and depart by car to avoid the chaos of street life. Around noon that Saturday, Clara and Hugo’s Range Rover halted on the entrance ramp, and a uniformed security guard “inspected” their vehicle by immediately waving them on. Westgate was especially busy that day. The noise from dozens of children attending a rooftop cookery competition filled the building. Clara parked in a space on the uppermost floor. At the same time, an al-Shabaab death squad entered Westgate, pausing to murder shoppers, including children, at the main entrance.

Clara heard a loud noise, but she could not figure out what was happening. The full horror of the situation dawned on Hugo:

People, to begin with, ran into the corner and didn’t know what was going on. . . . And then they shut up very quickly when one guy started executing people, just, literally, straight in the back of the head. . . . Interestingly enough, it goes in waves: realization of what’s going on; rushing in a panic but not necessarily a really big panic, because you haven’t put two and two together about how brutal they are going to be. Then they tell you what’s going to happen. Then they execute a few people, and it’s, like, “Oh heck.” So, there’s a lot of screaming and crying, and then they execute some more, and it’s, like, “Oh God!”1

Hugo hid under the Range Rover, while Clara hid under a smaller car in the adjacent parking space. She knew that there was little point in calling Nairobi’s notoriously corrupt and ineffective police, and she suspected that the low-paid security guards were either dead or had fled. So, she sent text messages to family members while silently praying for a miracle.

A terrorist spotted Hugo and shot him where he hid. Clara stifled a scream so as not to betray her position. Though wounded and traumatized, they were among the lucky ones who survived. They lived because, at some point, a mature “European” man appeared. Holding a handgun by his side, he calmly searched for survivors. As if abiding by the terms of some secret agreement, the al-Shabaab terrorists yielded the car park to him. Like the terrorists, Clara read the scene instantly. In Nairobi, multinational corporations and very wealthy individuals employ ex-Special Forces mercenaries to provide rescue services. Clara was correct. The fearsome modern-day Praetorian retrieved his client and scooped up Clara, Hugo, and a dozen other “Europeans,” before exiting via an emergency stairwell. As Clara half-walked, half-carried Hugo down the stairs, she heard gunfire, and the screams resume on the floor above her.

How did we end up here? We are now discussing the price of security when here it denotes living behind walls or even paying for the privilege of rescue by a ferocious mercenary. Many people spend money on gates and guards these days; growing numbers are investing in surveillance technologies; others let the state and the police deliver violence on their behalf as a bureaucratic service. Of course, others pay a far higher price: security incarcerates, tortures, and kills many people to grant liberty to a few. This book adds to a growing body of thought about the problem of security in the contemporary moment.

Right now, there is a crisis in policing in many societies. Moreover, people are calling for an end to crisis-prone military adventures abroad and mass surveillance at home. The often nefarious role of major arms companies and shadowy security bureaucracies in each of these domains must be exposed and challenged. Social scientists have been quick to show how securitization is experienced in everyday life, especially by vulnerable communities. This effort to ground discussion is doubtless necessary. However, the effect of this positioning, together with the traditional social-scientific focus on institutions, has been to treat each area—policing, surveillance, international security, and counterterrorism—as distinct.2 But security traverses these seemingly separate domains, connecting them, and transforming them at a deep level.

Moreover, security is not just a force exercised from above by a Big Brother whose strings are pulled by dark-money puppet masters. Rather, security works through society, vertically and horizontally. Many people feel that security is a basic need, the force that holds chaos at bay; others welcome the feeling it elicits.3 Therefore, we must speak to the people willing to pay the blood tribute demanded, the people who buy security capitalism’s latest gadgets, elect law-and-order politicians, and keep the machinery going. We argue that failure to understand security in all its supply and demand forms will lead to narrow “solutionism” and the inevitable failure of efforts to challenge the overall system. Therefore, the opening chapters of this book address those who seek out the interior world of security capitalism. Later, we turn to policing, counterterrorism, and homeland security, security capitalism’s construction sites. This book is about the full cost of locking oneself inside a fortified space, turning on surveillance cameras, and hoping for a peaceful life.

But how does one initiate a conversation with people like Hugo and Clara about how they ended up trapped in a cage of their own making? A decade after the Westgate attack, Hugo’s wounds still pain him. In conversation, he seems anxious and exhausted. Clara’s response to the horror in Westgate is even more striking. She went out of her way to befriend the ferocious mercenary who saved her life that day. For his part, he believes they share a bond now, and he feels able to talk to her about experiences that only someone who has “been there” would understand. Clara sleeps better at night knowing that she can summon professional violence. This is a tactic rather than a strategy, a response rather than a way out. In truth, Clara and Hugo do not want to live as they do. In conversation, they fluently deconstruct life on their socially constructed veranda. Yet they are trapped there by the same conditions that produced it—colonialism, ingrained racism, inequality, institutional failure, and, above all else, a feeling that change is impossible. Yet, if offered the opportunity, they would not move house.

What to do? We do not hold a secret key that will unlock these complex structures and set people free. However, anthropological insights may help bring down the walls that divide us. This book scrutinizes people’s cultural investments in institutions and the values that guide their investment choices. We go beyond narrow solutionism in search of new thinking about seemingly intractable problems.

Each chapter of this book describes things as they are in public safety, policing, counterterrorism, and homeland security, to stimulate a conversation about how things ought to be. In our experience, representing decades of ethnographic research in multiple regions, people like Clara and Hugo are ready to talk. They were the lucky ones, after all, and they know it. Hundreds of people died during the horrifying attack on Westgate. Very few could afford bodyguards or rescue by elite mercenaries. Most were members of the army of poor cleaners, child-minders, assistants, and attendants who maintain the interior world of security capitalism. Some were so poor—members of an undocumented underclass—that no one bothered to catalog their remains. Today, many people want to talk about change, inside and outside the walls, up in the towers occupied by the elite, and down on the “chaotic” streets. Conversations are starting about societal investment in counterterrorism, surveillance, and brutal policing institutions. We are sure that meaningful change will only come when we recognize that all these areas face a common challenge—to escape the security trap.


1. This extract from a recorded conversation is one of fourteen such interviews with survivors of the terror attack in the upper car park area of the mall. The interview was part of an empirical study of public behavior during the first minutes of terrorist attacks in France, the UK, Ireland, and Kenya directed by Mark Maguire. See Mark Maguire and David A. Westbrook, Getting through Security: Counterterrorism, Bureaucracy, and a Sense of the Modern (London and New York: Routledge, 2020).

2. Of course, there are exceptions, and our ethnographic work acknowledges an important strand of Marxist political philosophy. See George S. Rigakos, Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); also Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008). However, following Michel Foucault, we also acknowledge that contemporary security does not seek total discipline or attempt to entirely remake the reality to which it responds, see Mark Maguire and Pete Fussey, “Sensing Evil: Counterterrorism, Techno-science, and the Cultural Reproduction of Security,” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 75, no. 3 (2016): 31–44.

3. Scholars who write about areas such as policy, technology implementation, and surveillance often assume that security is a techno-social process in a dialectic relationship with insecurity (or uncertainty). Academics and technologists thus practice different kinds of “solutionism.” However, in the areas we write about in this book, for example urban fortification and counterterrorism, research participants reveal (usually immediately) that security stands in opposition to chaos, variously defined. This is a key, and understudied, source of power and legitimacy for security capitalism—people will live with insecurity, or uncertainty, but are reluctant to yield to what they see as the forces of chaos.