‘Liberal Terror’ reviewed by Funda Hülagü

Liberal Terror

Polity, Cambridge, 2013. 224pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9780745665320

Reviewed by Funda Hülagü

About the reviewer

Funda Hülagü completed her PhD on Neoliberal Police Reform at the Middle East Technical …


With the escalating socio-political crisis of liberal internationalism, we, the peoples of the post-Cold War world order, have been living under an ever expanding politics of coercion and state authoritarianism. Freedom from fear, as an ordering principle of twentieth century world politics, has been replaced by resilience, the latest concept of the global governors, who ask us to find our own ways to adapt ourselves to an insecure world environment. This change has been the subject of various scholarly debates within the field of critical security studies. Brad Evans’s book, Liberal Terror, is a recent intervention in this field of studies from the perspective of continental political philosophy.

In his book on the reigning liberal atmosphere in the aftermath of the 9/11, Evans tries to understand today’s liberal geoculture and the new motives which condition current security governance all around the world. Readers may quickly notice that among the many merits of Liberal Terror, Evans’s insistence on the novelties of the liberal political doxa comes to the fore. In contrast to his many contemporaries who delve into the field of critical security studies, Evans attempts to demonstrate the break caused or stimulated by that major event, 9/11, on the very composition of the liberal thought and politics which restructure the social relations of security in our own crisis-laden world. It is therefore important to read the book as a modest manifesto against the Agamben- and Schmidt- laden tradition in the field of critical security studies. This school focuses mainly on the abnormalities of liberalism, the exceptional and interventionist usages of it, and thereby implies that there are better liberalisms. Evans tries to show that there is no such outside to liberalism. Instead we should acknowledge the new normal, if we are to break with the dominant epistemic assumptions.

In Liberal Terror, this new normal is mostly defined by a resurrection of an organic component of liberalism, namely a theological moment. Liberalism, according to Evans, has always had a tendency to depict a fallen human being whose salvation lies in the struggle against evil. The Christian theology of original sin and the eschatological moment was even a theme for the principal thinker of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant. In particular, the Kantian theory of perpetual peace, argues Evans, rests on an assumption of fallenness. Thereby, perpetual peace appears as a liberal governance model, as a way to create security in this world dominated by sinful creatures. In fact, departing from Evans, one can easily argue that in the aftermath of 9/11, liberalism has been fully restored to its former self, which was put in brackets during the short twentieth century, as a result of the political ascendancy of secularism and human rights politics. Indeed, the reasoning patterns of powerful political leaders such as Barack Obama and of influential think-tanks such as RAND, that claim to speak in the name of humanity, demonstrate that a new kind of religiosity conditions contemporary security governance. This new liberal reasoning terrifies us since it depicts the horizon looming in the future as the seed-bed of catastrophes and emergencies. It assumes vulnerability to be the leading motive of current politics.

This new liberal reasoning creates liberal terror, as the book’s title suggests, since it reduces all policies to the prevention or production of threats. This latter represents terror as an incident which can happen anywhere, which can target anybody and which does not discriminate its victims. Thereby, the new liberal thinking benefits from this image to eliminate all of the political alternatives and restructure all of the political problems as a human tragedy caused by evil: the evil in us.

Whereas Evans’s book meticulously deconstructs how new liberalism perceives the world and reproduces this perception by creating new modes of governance, new imaginaries and new kinds of (de)politicization, the book fails to recognize the conflictual socio-political legacy behind the changing social security relations. In other words, the post-structuralist method which guides Evans’s analysis, appears to ignore the dialectics of coercion, an important phenomenon of modern capitalist societies. The dialectics of coercion demonstrates that security governance cannot be determined exclusively by raison d’état but rather that the field of coercion is a relational construct, where not only the Leviathan but also the “dangerous classes” have a formative power. However, it appears that for Evans we are living in a world which is complex albeit completely created in the mirror image of liberalism. For Evans, there is no agency for those other than Western liberals. Although he correctly underlines the responsibility of the market state in the reproduction of the current terror, he does so to the point of making liberalism the generator of everything on the planet. Hence for Evans, there is no dialectics, only mimetics.

And yet, despite this important methodological lacunae, Evans’s post-structuralism is robust in its depiction of new life. It shows that the positivist binary referents such as war and peace, enemies and friends, soldiers and citizens, have all collapsed due to a new science of life which creates new organizational forms. This new global real has been crystalized by 9/11, a symbolic event which destroyed the categories of the ‘national’ and the ‘international’ and replaced them with the categories of planet (life species) and extra-territorial (threats, adversaries). The former represents a globe organized on space, thus on geopolitics, whereas the latter represents a globe reorganized over bare life, therefore over the human species. This results in bringing back the apocalyptic imaginaries of monotheistic religions. Thereby, terror is not only a discourse, a false flag for the hidden agenda of liberal regimes but a very substantial input which redefines liberalism and security governance. The notion of emergence comes along with it and the feeling of endangerment.

However, this emphasis on the constructive power of terror for contemporary liberal security creates another methodological limit for the work of Evans, who criticizes critical security studies over their entrenchment of the word `security’ and therefore paradoxically makes the term more powerful. Evans does the same for the concept of terror. As he tries to show that terror is not external to, but within new liberalism’s organic receipt, the concept becomes both an explanans and an explanandum. Although Evans argues openly that there are specific power relations which make terror an emblematic feature of new liberalism, the relational perspective has hardly any presence in his book. Rather, it appears that there is an omnipotent power which easily form-processes human affect and thus builds up new liberal subjectivities. Evans argues that today’s security governance becomes possible because of the existence of subjects who desire it. Despite the accuracy of this observation, the author underestimates the main issue: the political power and organizational ability of those who govern the globe. Indeed, although Evans frequently makes reference to the new global governors such as RAND to substantiate his arguments on new liberalism, he tacitly refuses to see these as parts of a transnational or imperial class on the grounds that such a conceptualization would be resorting to conspirational theories of power. Thus Evans’s discussion suffers from the usual problem of post-structuralist accounts: disassociating power relations from their socio-political context.

Evans’s work is indeed a story of change. On every page of his book he tries to point to the tremendous change we are witnessing. For him, the main reason that lies behind this change is liberal subjectivity. According to Evans, then, the novelty that we should acknowledge stems from the fact that the untamed liberal subject causes a crisis for sovereign forms of allegiance. Hence, the liberal subject, who cannot be captured anymore by already extinct sovereign discipline models, becomes the very source of danger for the entire system. According to Evans, we, the human beings, have never been so dangerous, as it takes the actions of only a very limited number of individuals to create the image of a security catastrophe. That is why the new liberal security governance is founded on future threats which can be anticipated only in the form of absolute danger. As the new liberal subject is not determined by any kind of ideology, but rather by his or her own catastrophe-creating power, the new security governance suffers from radical uncertainty. According to Evans, this is the paradox of liberalism, as the latter’s dream of non-ideological subject became its own biggest enemy.

This account of change in the formation of subjectivity and the potential problems it causes for liberalism should indeed be taken seriously today. However, it also risks reproducing a very idealist account of change, as if all material relations have evaporated with 9/11. Although it is true that the question of agency has become a big challenge for contemporary politics with the withdrawal of class- and ideology- driven politics, the evaporation of the latter should not be taken for the evaporation of class relations in their entirety. Is it, for instance possible to reduce the agency of millions during the Arab Spring or the recent Greek Crisis or in the Gezi Upheavals in Turkey, to liberal subjectivity? Have there not been demands for concrete socio-political rights which transcend the limits of liberal subjectivity?

Finally, this review should touch upon the issue of evil, so central to Evans’s argument. His critique of new liberalism is based on the latter’s security dispositif to de-politicize socio-political issues by aggrandizing the impact of theological over political thinking with the help of the issue of terror. According to Evans, new liberalism sees a single human being as the potential evil for the entire species. Yet Evans, himself too thinks that today there is a problem of evil that political philosophy has long underestimated. According to Evans, 9/11 in terms of its historical implications is similar to Nazism. However, says Evans, due to the weight of political science analyses of Nazism as a regime issue, the issue of evil has been underestimated until it came back with 9/11. It appears that for Evans, the issue of evil is more than an apparatus for liberal governmentality. It is the global real we are faced with. It is the real history of humanity, underestimated by the historical blip caused by modern politics.

If this is the case, Evans’s critique of liberalism and liberal terror becomes hollow. If new liberalism is not solely a political imaginary which colonizes alternatives but also a representation of a new ontological reality, if evil does exist, what kind of thinking might deal with this onto-theological reality? To this Evans does not seem to have any answers because not only the liberal imaginary but also evil as a real category haunts his own thinking. His pessimism, though has no originality as it is reminiscent of the Frankfurt School.

Liberal Terror, thereby, appears to be a valuable attempt to deconstruct the Zeitgeist of the post 9/11 global order and yet it stops short of demonstrating cracks of light and hope. And this appears to stem from the Evans’s method, which is antithetical to any dialectical understanding of life and history. 

18 December 2015

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