By Yannick Tencha
A great number of issues has emerged across the different domains of liberal-democratic life in the past few decades, which are increasingly perceived to pose serious threats to the continuation (that is the continued security) of said way of life. To be more precise, there seems to be a notion spreading within contemporary security politics, whereby certain events, perceived as having potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences should they come to be, are also becoming increasingly imminent/urgent (both in the double sense that they are seemingly being incubated through processes in the present as well as drawing ever closer), while at the same time also being of an exceptionally vague, dispersed and complex nature, which makes it difficult to specify if and how the problematic they represent can (best) be resolved. Examples here, just to name a few, include international terrorism, the worldwide spread of diseases, global climate change, economic and financial crises, etc.
In response to the mounting ‘uncertainty’, ‘indeterminacy’ or ‘openness’ of the future resulting from these threats, or as Ben Anderson also calls it the growing ‘contingency of liberal-democratic life’, an extraordinary proliferation of anticipatory action has arisen in the various fields of both national as well as international politics in recent times. To be more precise, the amount of actions taken in the present meant to pre-empt, prevent or prepare for certain undesirable futures has greatly increased in the last years, and especially since the terrorist attacks perpetrated on 11 September 2001, which can arguably be identified as the main reason for the re-employment of (pre-emptive) warfare and other such controversial actions as measures meant to guarantee the continued security of liberal democracy. However, if, as stated above, the future to be is indeed becoming more and more uncertain/unknown, how then can we use it to justify and legitimize certain forms of actions in the here and now? In other words, how can we take actions in the present based on speculations about a future that may actually never come to pass? In some way(s) the future must somehow be made ‘actionable’, that is to say, it must somehow be conceptualised in relation with the present so that it can thereafter be acted upon.
Theoretical Background: Anticipating threats
There are many ‘traditional’ ways through which one can disclose and relate ‘the future’ to ‘the present’, such as by basing present actions taken upon foresight (meaning on the ‘good’ judgement of persons regarded as experts or moral authorities in a field) or upon predictions, made on the basis of evaluating and analysing similar past events and conditions. From a poststructuralist point of view, it could be argued that the discursive construction of threats might also be a manner in which futures can be rendered actionable.
With regard to the increasing uncertainty and openness of the future in the present, certain scholars such as Ben Anderson and Marieke de Goede argue however that a new ‘style’ of conceptualising the future, of making it known has emerged in recent times. According to them said style, termed ‘premediation’, is based upon a kind of ‘possibilistic thinking’, where the future is rendered actionable by determining the range of (all) possible futures that may eventually happen, thus allowing the achievement of a state of constant readiness and immediate adaptation to any kind of unexpected catastrophe that actually comes to pass. To put it in easier terms: Premediation is about making sure that certain futures never happen. An ideal example of premediation would be for instance the workings of the pre-crime unit in the movie ‘Minority Report’. Here we see how a so-called ‘trinity’ of precogs allows the authorities to achieve a state of nigh-omniscience, that is, a state of almost absolute certainty about the future that is most likely to be, thus enabling them to act upon it in the present. While the movie later goes on to show that said system is not without flaws i.e. that there is and always will be a certain degree of uncertainty about the future, it nevertheless provides an excellent example of how premediation works to render futures actionable.
Another question that arises from the movie, is how exactly premediation works to disclose futures, since in reality there are no precogs upon which we can rely on to make the future known. Instead, we have to rely on so-called ‘practices’, which make the ‘presence of what has not happened and may never happen’ be known and present. These practices include mainly calculation (the measuring of the world through various techniques and the extrapolation or estimation of possible futures based on the resulting enumerations), imagination (creative but plausible speculation via visualization and narrativization) and performance (speculation via embodiment, meant here in the sense of roleplaying, pretending and gaming). Anderson explains that futures are more concretely then made present through epistemic objects such as insights, trends, stories and models, through materialities such as images and reports and through anticipatory affects including fears, hopes and anxieties. What this means in short however, is that both styles and practices enable open futures to be rendered actionable, that is enable the demand, justification and legitimization of certain forms of action to secure liberal-democratic life.
Anticipatory Actions: Terrorism, climate change, diseases
Thus, once we have rendered said futures known, in which ways can we then act on them? There are many different kinds of anticipatory actions, however the three arguably most important and common modes of intervention in relation to today’s major threats are: Precaution/prevention, pre-emption and preparedness. Although these modes share many similarities and are also often undertaken in conjunction, they differ however in subtle, yet relevant ways from one another. Precautionary/Preventive actions are for example meant to mitigate or stop a series of already ongoing processes leading to a catastrophic outcome before it reaches a point of irreversibility. In other words, while the precise shape and the exact consequences of a threat are still unknown, there already exists a certain degree of certainty/unanimousness about the existence of said threat as well as about the potential apocalyptic proportions it could achieve. With regard to global climate change for instance, the politics of precaution informs decision-making that due to the grave impact global warming could have in the future upon the livelihood of mankind, regulatory action must be taken, even if the scientific evidence concerning the imminence and precise nature of the threat stemming from it remains disputed. The diagram below illustrates this mode of intervention:
Pre-emptive actions differ from precautionary intervention in that they mean to stop a threat that has not yet actually been determined or come to be as one from emerging in the first place (i.e. a threat of still indeterminate existence and/or potentiality). Current security policy concerning terrorism seems for example to have embraced a pre-emptive logic of action, meaning that anticipatory actions are taken to combat a threat even though there exists still a great degree of existential and/or consequential uncertainty about said threat (see for instance Ron Suskinds so called One Percent Doctrine, a security paradigm that says that the US should act to pre-empt security threats even if there is only a 1 percent chance of a particular threat coming to fruition). It is on the basis of this pre-emptive logic of action that many different policies such as the use of pre-emptive war under the banner of securing liberalism and democracy worldwide have been made possible, as seen in the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. What pre-emption means to achieve, is in other words to reshape life itself by neutralising the events and conditions that would lead to the emergence of such a threat (it possesses therefore a creative power over life). The illustration below shows how pre-emptive logic of action works:
The final ‘common’ mode of intervention identified by scholars in contemporary politics is preparedness, that is to say those actions meant not to stop the emergence of the catastrophic occurrence itself, but instead the effects of said event. Contrary to both precaution and pre-emption, preparation does not aim to stop an issue from becoming a threat then, but means to prepare for the eventual consequences that might result from this threat, should it indeed come to pass in the future. An example here would be the increased preparations made by the various health organisations and ministries worldwide in response to the relative ease with which diseases can now spread globally, as demonstrated by the SARS outbreak in 2003 or the 2009 flu pandemic. The image below exemplifies this final logic of preparedness:Conclusion: Questions to discuss
These three modes of intervention – precaution, pre-emption and preparedness – have in response to the notion of a growing uncertainty/openness of the future become increasingly prevalent in both international as well as national security politics in the past few years. And while the potential apocalyptic proportions and the sense of imminence/urgency of future threats such as terrorism and climate change do indeed seem to make immediate intervention in the here and now necessary, the important question, whether these calculated and imagined threats do truly serve as appropriate reasons with which to justify and legitimise certain forms of anticipatory actions has in my opinion still not been satisfactorily answered. If we allow the use of war, torture and other controversial means to secure the liberal-democratic life based upon what is ultimately nothing more but mere speculation about something that may actually never even happen, do we not paradoxically risk undermining the values that precisely define said way of life? Furthermore, what exactly would be the possible (political, social, ethical) consequences from acting in the present on the basis of the future? For instance, would we not be risking a possible displacement of responsibility for present action through a narrative of the future? Moreover, from my point of view, every attempt to stop, mitigate or prepare for a perceived future threat can also be regarded as a form of conditioning and conforming of the present to said threat. Can it not be argued then, that in anticipating a future and acting upon it in the present, we instead bring about said future we sought to pre-empt / prevent / prepare for (i.e. can premediation not be performative as well)? Finally, yet important, while climate change, terrorism, the spread of diseases etc. do indeed represent serious threats to national as well as international security, they can also be chances for profit and innovation, as seen for instance with the development of carbon offsetting, global terrorism risk insurances, biometric technologies, etc. Should we therefore contemplate these issues and events exclusively in terms of the designation of threats and the necessity of protection (at any cost) against them in security politics? Overall, there still seems to be a great many of questions that need to be further explored, before a definitive conclusion about future threats and their relation to present actions can be made.
Anderson, Ben (2010): “Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies”, in: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 34, No. 6, p. 777-798.
Aradau, Claudia; Lobo-Guerrero, Luis & Van Munster, Rens (2008): “Security, Technologies of Risk, and the Political: Guest Editors’ Introduction”, in: Security Dialogue, Vol. 39, No. 2-3, p. 147-154.
Cooper, Melinda (2006): “Pre-empting Emergence: The Biological Turn in the War on Terror”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 23, No. 4, p. 113-135.
De Goede, Marieke (2008): “Beyond Risk: Premediation and the Post-9/11 Security Imagination”, in: Security Dialogue, Vol 39, No. 2-3, p. 155-176.
De Goede, Marieke (2008): “The Politics of Preemption and the War on Terror in Europe”, in: European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 161-185.
De Goede, Marieke & Randalls, Samuel (2009): “Precaution, pre-emption: arts and technologies of the actionable future”, in: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 27, No. 5, p. 859-878.