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There is nothing quite like writing and completing a book a couple of months before one of the worst pandemics in history and publishing in the middle of the crisis that has followed.

Our book, Privatising Justice: The Security Industry, War and Crime Control aimed to provide a general historical overview of the advance of the growing role of outsourcing to the private security industry in policing, the penal system and the military – that is, the coercive arms of the state. We don’t discuss the privatisation of utilities or health care important areas as these are.

We were originally motivated by the appalling consequences of the part-privatisation of the English probation service. But starting from here we realised that if explanation was to go beyond the obvious – the private sector saves money for an austerity-driven neoliberal state – then a wider and more historical approach was necessary. Our question was twofold. First, what are the common features of outsourcing across the main coercive arms of the state? Second. why was the nineteenth century a period of general retreat and marginalisation of the private sector – from mercenaries to private policing and prisons – while the period since the mid 1960s has seen their resurgence?

Without trying to summarise the argument in any detail, a key element in the demise of what we call ‘old privatisation’ was the advent of industrialised total war, the welfare state and mobilisation around ideas of national cohesion and ‘social citizenship’. As we remark in the book, how many small boats and civilian volunteers would have braved the trip to Dunkirk in 1940 if the stranded British army had been private mercenaries?

The rise of neoliberalism, the weakening of social citizenship and rampant inequality both within and between states has been one important factor in the re-emergence of the private sector. Wealthy residents and hedge funds owning large chunks of central cities are increasingly able to attend to many of their own security needs. Prisons and probation become less about rehabilitation and more about the warehousing of the poor. The continued impoverishment of much of the global south has reinforced the occurrence of illegal and clandestine warfare (from Afghanistan to Syria and beyond) opening up again opportunities for mercenaries and private military.

Mercenaries in Libya

British mercenaries in Libya (Credit: Reuters, Youssef Boudlal)

But what will be the likely impact of the coronavirus pandemic on these issues? Optimists might see the ‘rediscovery’ of the NHS, Keynesian economics and some de facto renationalisations, e.g. of rail, as symptomatic of a general halt to privatisation and outsourcing. On the other hand the UK government is using COVID-19  as a cover for further marginalisation of the NHS and local authorities by outsourcing contact tracing to the private security sector.

Indeed, a more dystopian view of the future envisages mass testing and the carrying of health passports which will become requirements for entry to public spaces, events, universities and colleges even whole areas of the city. Additionally the wealthy. from fear of infection, may minimise their interaction with the poor. Private gated housing and shopping areas with access control by facial recognition ‘smart cctv’ linked to health status databases would create a new urban totalitarianism managed by high tech private security companies.

When police were sent out to enforce lockdown regulations they were asked by the government to “persuade, cajole, negotiate and advise” the public to follow new rules of behaviour in public spaces. However badly the police behaved in some cases an orientation to ‘persuasion’ nevertheless sees the public as citizens with rights who will be prepared to change their usual behaviour only if directed by a police force representing the authority of the state. But once the restricted use of public space becomes clearly established then infringement can become an automatic offence akin to dropping litter or dog poo and, in response, an automatic penalty notice can be handed out in the now established way by the army of low paid private security guards employed by local authorities. With a general shortage of police officers the future opportunities for the private sector are considerable.

These opportunities will be further enhanced by the growing army of long term unemployed, rough sleepers, asylum seekers, all on the streets as a result of post-pandemic economic chaos and, additionally, branded as virus carriers. For this population, hardly now regarded as citizens in any meaningful sense, the legitimacy of their removal from the streets by means of ‘coercion for profit’ by private companies will be decreasingly questioned by mainstream media and political elites.

Removed from the streets, the mass of poor will find themselves in and out of a penal system continuing its journey away from rehabilitation and social reintegration and towards low cost warehousing.  Here, the acceptability of coercion by private companies is reinforced by the fact that warehousing, as we argue in our book, requires minimal supervision and few skills among either prison or probation staff. A probation service run by private security companies has already proved itself quite happy to manage this population cheaply with an army of low paid operatives. A future expansion of warehousing with working conditions likely to spread infection among prison staff and probation supervisors as much as inmates and clients seems much more plausible than some return to welfare and rehabilitation.

HMP Oakwood

HMP Oakwood, Featherstone, UK. Built in 2012 and operated by G4S, a private security company, it is one of the largest prisons in the country.

As the pandemic spreads to the global south it may in the short term reduce population movement and migration as borders are closed. In parts of Eastern Europe the patrolling of closed borders, increased surveillance and harassment of migrants is becoming ideal ground for low-cost security, in some cases verging on vigilante action. In the longer term if infection rates rise in the global south the ravaging of already fragile health care systems could make thousands defenceless against poverty and infection and add to the existing drivers of migration –  climate change, famine and armed conflicts over water, food and mineral resources.

Many of these conflicts have long ceased to be wars in the traditional sense – between the legitimate armies of states – and are more akin to gang warfare. There are no barriers here to the deployment of private military forces – mercenaries – both by the insurgents and states seeking to suppress them. These tendencies will likely intensify in the post pandemic world. Western states, meanwhile will fund – openly or covertly – private military ‘shadow’ armies to pursue their interests in these conflicts.

Across the spectrum of coercion – from domestic policing and penal policy to international armed conflict the private sector is set to play a major role in coercion in the post-pandemic world. Our book, Privatising Justice, although completed well before COVID-19 began its havoc, aims to capture some of the broader historical dynamics which have contributed to this dystopia.

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Privatising Justice: The Security Industry, War and Crime Control is out now.

You can watch a recording of the book launch online. 

Wendy Fitzgibbon is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Leicester. She previously worked as a probation officer. She is the author of Pre-emptive Criminalisation: Risk Control And Alternative Futures (NAPO 2004) and Probation and Social Work on Trial (Palgrave, 2011).

John Lea is a Visiting Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of several books, including What Is To Be Done About Law and Order? (Pluto, 1993) and Crime and Modernity (Sage, 2002).