The Axiomatic of Counter-Terrorism

 

Rumor/Contagion
Here’s a story: In late 2012, a rumour circulated throughout the Bangladeshi community living in and around Mile End, London. A vampire was sucking the blood of children dry. This vampire would strike late at night and in the early mornings; he would avoid groups of two or more. Some believed the vampire was Somali; huddled groups of hijabed women began escorting their children to and from school. The rumour spread fear throughout the community; the imam felt compelled to address the situation in his Friday sermon: “Don’t believe everything you hear,” he said. “There is no such thing as vampires,” declared the imam, as the various members of the mosque from other communities — Somali, Turkish, Bosnian, Palestinian, Pakistani, Indian — looked around in wonder and puzzlement. When the Home Office caught wind of this rumour, it was marked as seditious propaganda by representatives of the UK Counter Terrorism initiative called Prevent, which among a wide range of interventions designs public relations and social marketing communications to combat “radical” ideologies in communities “at risk” of terrorist activities. I heard about this rumour from a Bangladeshi community activist working with Prevent to combat racism and extremism in his community (According to Home Office website, “Prevent is one of the four main workstreams of the overall UK strategy for Countering Terrorism, known as CONTEST”). His community-based group had responded by working with local young people to create a short film about “radical propaganda.” [An origin story: Apparently earlier in the year, in Birmingham, a violent brawl had broken out between two feuding gangs from different communities, during the course of which one of the gang members took a bite out of a rival’s neck. The incident virally mutated into a story of a voracious vampire wandering freely throughout England’s cities.]The story is important for several reasons. First, it suggests that rumour, contagion, sedition, communal and racial antagonisms, and religiosity are articulated together in contemporary British urban life in patterned but unpredictable ways; in the current capitalist crisis these rumours operate at and on several intensive and material thresholds at once (Guha 1980). Second, it points to a problem in the governance and control of specifically Muslim communities for the UK Home Office: how to combat “propaganda” within and between communities to maximize pacification during a time of massive economic upheaval and a new wave of primitive accumulation (i.e. austerity). Third, this rumour flow highlights the question of how community organizers involved in inter-community dialogue and self-organizing initiatives for autonomy can address both the integration of such viral rumours in strategies of governmental control and the problem contagious rumours pose for emancipatory and revolutionary politics.

Axiomatics

What is an axiom? According to Deleuze and Guattari, axioms are primary statements, which do not derive from or depend upon another statement (Deleuze and Guattari, ATP 451); a dictionary definition states that it is an unprovable rule or first principle accepted as true or valuable because it is self-evident; also, an axiom can be a statement or proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Deleuze and Guattari highlight some key features of axioms as a mode of power traversing global capital:

The axiomatic deals directly with purely functional elements and relations whose nature is not specified, and which are immediately realized in highly varied domains simultaneously; codes, on the other hand, are relative to those domains and express specific relations between qualified elements that cannot be subsumed by a higher formal unity (overcoding) except by transcendence and in an indirect fashion. The immanent axiomatic finds in the domains it moves through so many models, termed models of realization. It could similarly be said that capital as right, as a “qualitatively homogeneous and quantitatively commensurable element,” is realized in sectors and means of production (or that “unified capital” is realized in “differentiated capital”). However, the different sectors are not alone in serving as models of realization — the States do too. (ATP 454)

Without metaphorizing or stretching the definition, we can say that today the so-called democracies of the global north engage in a specifically biopolitical form of social marketing involved in the realization of capitalist axioms. I understand social marketing as the adaptation of commercial marketing technologies to planned programmes of social change that aim to influence the behaviour of specific populations; this strategy presupposes prior research into the behaviour of target users (Anderson, in Bove 2010, 6). By biopolitics I mean a continuous and intensive modulation or agitation of the bodily capacity to affect and be affected: its object is the semiotic and affective sphere and its objective is to influence behaviour before consciousness or opinion; biopolitical agitation directly refers to the incitement of the masses to act on single issues, reacting to and shaping a pre-existing public opinion (Bove 8). Agitational social marketing is a model of realizing the axioms of biopolitical control: demarcate borders, secure privatized space, accumulate wealth upward through the collapse of life into work (consumption as production), precaritize all modes of labor, financialize everyday life, allocate risks through the permanent audit, produce fear as the ontology of biopolitical life (Mitropoulos 29).

Counter-Terrorism as Axiom Laboratory

Consider this set of axioms of agitational social marketing: Terrorists are Evil; anyone who supports a terrorist is evil, infected with the evil, and all freedom loving nations and people must defeat this enemy by controlling the contagion of propaganda. This is in fact a public relations problem: How to influence the behaviour of populations that government and marketing research indicates are terrorist risks? But then again we should not forget that terrorism is also a form of public relations. After all, terrorist attacks are staged for their impact on public opinion; the timing of the two attacks in New York on 9/11 was such that following the first plane there would be plenty of cameras out when the second one hit. The thaumaturgical object of terror is to have a decisive yet immaterial impact, to shape the political climate by producing a feeling of undefinable threat. Terrorists hope to mobilize or paralyze different target audiences: their Community of Believers and the Enemies of the Faith. It is through its mixture of politics and crime with a mystical theatre that terrorism compels their divided attention.

But populations in the global north are already primed or prepared to consume this sorcerer’s drama. That’s been the function of public relations since its inception in the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the spindoctor who coined the term (Bernays 1928). From the perspective of social marketing in control societies, the Public is a distracted, highly differentiated, networked agglomeration of fuzzy swarms. What data-episteme is commensurate with this agitated “smart mob”? What form of marketing research and communication can facilitate its control? With the increasing reach and intensity of the mass media, and their fusion with entertainment flows and marketing technologies across the social network, public relations experts fear that the modern public has become stupefied, supposedly captured by the technological sophistication and commercial power of media interests who offer spectatorship not participation. PR rationalists attempt to restrict PR to addressing the public only as a sovereign, participating, rational public, while most others follow a PR practice through which the modern public is habituated to non-rational spectacles, and to symbolic and ritual experiences of various kinds (e.g. commemorative, masturbatory, cathartic, confirmatory, and celebratory) (Richards 174). As one Public Relations expert puts it, in counter terrorism strategies:

A thematic is required which can be transmitted through all media channels via events, slogans, entertainments and images. This requires a similar response to terrorism as Band Aid was to famine, galvanising action through spectacle. It will need to celebrate democratic values while being mindful of global inequalities. The public relations profession hopefully has a role to play in shaping this response. (Barry Richards, “Terrorism and public relations,” Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 169-176, 176.)

It is in this context that I would situate the specific aesthetic style of the Hoodforts brand (their term) cited above. Its pastiche of hip-hop, public service announcement, counter-terrorism communication, liberal ideology, digital media, and youth empowerment practice (always also involving various kinds of unpaid labor) brings together the media ecology of social marketing with the governance of populations at risk of so-called terrorist contagion.

Through such practices, new axioms linking neoliberal subjectivity and racial and gender difference take shape and become common sense. “At the same time as capitalism is effectuated in the denumerable sets serving as its models, it necessarily constitutes nondenumerable sets that cut across and disrupt those models” (Deleuze and Guattari ATP 472). Thus, these practices are traversed as well by lines of flight, forms of refusal, escape, sabotage, contagion, just perceptible in the margins of the Hoodforts videos: in suppressed laughter and nervous ticks, in idiolects and styles of an uncontrollable becoming minor, or in the affirmation of creative street art and digital video practice.

This Message has no Content

If the aesthetic style of counter terrorism public relations is both a mode of control and a transversalized line of flight, its message is less about its content and more about the specific forms of power produced through its axiomatics. In the UK, so-called soft power models of counter-terrorism employ community-based counter-terrorism approaches to impact (mostly) Muslim communities and streamline communications, marginalize extremists and shore up social integration strategies. In the discourse, this is known as the “inclusionary model.” Roughly, the strategy runs like this: given the fact that most terrorist organizations aim principally at disrupting the national socio-political infrastructures and, subsequently — by exploiting governmental responses based on repressive measures — at further feeding terrorist ideologies and activities, the inclusionary model undermines the rhetorical ground on which terrorist organizations rely. The British model of counter-terrorism utilizes soft power techniques through “processes of persuasion, negotiation, and agenda setting” and the employment of community policing, and assumes that communities can help to provide useful information and further intelligence goals.

The aim of Prevent is to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists by challenging the spread of terrorist ideologies, supporting “vulnerable individuals,” and working in key sectors and institutions. The core principles of the Prevent strategy are centered on countering all forms of terrorism and extremism that is related to terrorism; an emphasis on the importance of “local authority leadership” of the multi-agency panel in delivering an effective support package for the “individual or group”; the new framework for assessment of risks and vulnerabilities, based around understanding an individual’s engagement with terrorist ideology, their intention to cause harm and their capability to do so; the protocols which govern information sharing and data protection to ensure that the rights of individuals identified by Prevent are “respected”; and the arrangements for monitoring and appraisal of cases.

Risk, its allocation and “ownership,” is a theme that runs through the entire axiomatic of counter-terrorism: risk to the individual; risk to the public; and risk to statutory partners and any intervention providers. In terms of safeguarding risk, its ownership lies with the multi-agency panel. This is defined as the risk to an individual as a result of their vulnerability to terrorism. The multi-agency panel is where the full range of an individual’s vulnerability factors is reviewed and addressed. The Chair of the panel is responsible for ensuring that any safeguarding risks are referred to the most appropriate agencies for action; until this happens the panel owns these risks. The support for some individuals will span several agencies; each agency involved will own the element of risk they are responsible for addressing through the support plan. As for the risk of involvement in terrorism, the ownership of this risk, according to the Home Office, lies with the police. This is the risk posed by the individual to themselves and society through their potential active involvement in criminality associated with terrorism.

The axiomatic of counter-terrorism finds its models of realization in the risk management of social insecurities and global threats. Through these processes of realization, preventative strategies of counter-terrorism target and discriminate against entire populations. This results in a kind of “terror of prevention” as a “day-to-day harassment of Muslims through stop and search to high-profile police raids [that] has had a corrosive effect on the relations between Muslim communities and the police” (Stefano Bonino (2012): Policing Strategies against Islamic Terrorism in the UK after 9/11: The Socio-Political Realities for British Muslims, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 32:1, 5-31, 17.) There’s another kind of risk here: for the axiomatics of counter-terrorism this racial profiling can be a public relations disaster as it can further radicalization and hamper those strategies that rely on a flow of information between the police and Muslim communities.

To hedge against this ever-present risk of alienating precisely those who must be co-opted, the axioms proliferate through a wide range of public relations interventions.

Life skills work on life skills or social skills generally, such as dealing with peer pressure;
Mentoring support contact — work with a suitable adult as a role model or providing personal guidance, including guidance addressing extremist ideologies;
Anger management session — formal or informal work dealing with anger;
Cognitive/behavioural contact — cognitive behavioural therapies and general work on attitudes and behaviours;
Constructive pursuits — supervised or managed constructive leisure activities;
Education skills contact — activities focused on education or training;
Careers contact — activities focused on employment;
Family support contact — activities aimed at supporting family and personal relationships, including formal parenting programmes;
Health awareness contact — work aimed at assessing or addressing any physical or mental health issues;
Housing support contact — activities addressing living arrangements, accommodation provision or neighbourhood;
Drugs and alcohol awareness — substance misuse interventions.

(HM Government, “Counter terrorism Strategy,” http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/counter-terrorism-strategy, pg. 21)

In short, the axiomatics of counter-terrorism are involved in models of realization across the entire spectrum of biopolitical life. Using risk allocation as a fundamental rationale of the strategy, and public relations as its mode of communication, the axiomatic has sought to contain (mostly) Muslim minority populations. As Deleuze and Guattari remark, minorities generally do not “receive a better solution of their problem by integration, even with axioms, statutes, autonomies, independences.” As we have seen with Hoodforts, their tactics often go that route. “But if they are revolutionary, it is because they carry within them a deeper movement that challenges the worldwide axiomatic. The power of minority, of particularity, finds its figure or its universal consciousness in the proletariat. But as long as the working class defines itself by an acquired status, or even by a theoretically conquered State, it appears only as “capital,” a part of capital (variable capital), and does not leave the plan(e) of capital. At best, the plan(e) becomes bureaucratic.” This warning is confirmed in the strategy to integrate community groups and religious leaders in East London with the risk allocating Prevent programs of the Home Office. These strategies by and large conform to the axiomatics of global capital: consumption, spectacle, security, measure, individualism, risk. But, “it is by leaving the plan(e) of capital, and never ceasing to leave it, that a mass becomes increasingly revolutionary and destroys the dominant equilibrium of the denumerable sets. It is hard to see what an Amazon-State would be, a women’s State, or a State of erratic workers, a State of the ‘refusal’ of work. If minorities do not constitute viable States culturally, politically, economically, it is because the State-form is not appropriate to them, nor the axiomatic of capital, nor the corresponding culture. We have often seen capitalism maintain and organize inviable States, according to its needs, and for the precise purpose of crushing minorities. The minorities issue is instead that of smashing capitalism, of redefining socialism, of constituting a war machine capable of countering the world war machine by other means” (ATP 472). To my mind, what needs to be done in the UK context today is precisely to link viably the revolutionary becomings of such groupuscules as Plan C, the Precarious Workers Brigade, Feminist Fight Back, and Nanopolitics, to community organizing initiatives such as Hoodforts.

References

Stefano Bonino (2012): Policing Strategies against Islamic Terrorism in the UK after 9/11: The Socio-Political Realities for British Muslims, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 32:1, 5-31, 17.

Arianna Bove, “For whose benefit? Fear and Loathing in the Welfare State,” (N.D.). Unpublished manuscript.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ray Eldon Hiebert, (2003) “Public relations and propaganda in framing the Iraq war: a preliminary review,” Public Relations Review, 29: 3, September 2003, Pages 243-255, 245.

HM Government, (2012) “Counter terrorism Strategy,” http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/counter-terrorism-strategy.

Arie W. Kruglanski, Martha Crenshaw, Jerrold M. Post, and Jeff Victoroff, (2007) What Should This Fight Be Called?: Metaphors of Counterterrorism and Their Implications, Psychological Science in the Public Interest December 8: 97-133.

Angela Mitropoulos (2012) Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. New York: Autonomedia.

Barry Richards, “Terrorism and public relations,” Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 169-176.

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