Through an engagement with the concept of ‘resilience’, Hamzah A. Rizvi illustrates the way that Prevent works to reproduce neoliberal subjects in socety as well as materially benefitting the vested interests who profit off the ever-expanding counter-extremism industry. He argues that Prevent should not be understood as an ‘exceptional’ form of policing, but part and parcel of governance in liberal capitalist democracies.
This article is published as part of CAGE’s new series of expert essays ‘Perspectives on the War On Terror‘.
In his speech, “Resisting Resilience,” Mark Neocleous argues that resilience has become “the new fetish of the liberal state.” Resilience discourse seems to be ubiquitous today and can be found in government documentation, IMF and World Bank memos, training memos for the US armed forces, and memos from the UK Cabinet Office. When the language of resilience becomes so common, adopted by even the most powerful institutions and agencies globally, our suspicions ought to be on alert.
Indeed there is something odd about the fact that resilience discourse is at once invoked by lonely young women with boyfriend troubles and, as Neocleous puts it, the “world of national security, emergency planning and capital accumulation.” Barack Obama’s first National Security Strategy (NSS), for example, refers to resilience 26 times in a 51 page document. Commenting on Obama’s strategy, Sabine Selchow observes that resilience is a prerequisite for US national security. Selchow states that in 2015 “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) incorporated resilience into its National Preparedness Goal from 2011, as well as into its second edition from 2015.” The objective of the National Preparedness Goal is to produce and maintain a “secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.”
We are often taught that resilience is a source of strength in our lives. Resilience after a divorce or the loss of a relative is, often rightly, something to be admired or even commended. Might we, however, have reason to be wary of the perpetual state of “structural” resilience seemingly demanded of us? In what follows, I will argue in the affirmative by focusing on the Prevent program in the UK. Close scrutiny of Prevent demonstrates that resilience restricts our political imaginations in ways that seek to rid us of alternative political possibilities, thus maintaining a neoliberal order. The widespread fetishisation of resilience discourse, as seen in dangerous programs like Prevent, should alarm us.
For Neocleous, resilience connotes “the capacity of a system to return to a previous state, to recover from a state of shock, or to bounce back after a crisis of trauma.” In other words, if one is constantly in a state of resilience, they are also constantly in a state of crisis. He adds that “resilience both engages and encourages a culture of preparedness. The state now assumes that one of its key tasks is to imagine the worst-case scenario, the coming catastrophe, the crisis-to-come, the looming attack, the emergency that could happen, might happen and probably will happen, all in order to be better prepared.”
Often in the name of emergency or other extenuating circumstances, governments afford themselves privileges and powers that would otherwise be deemed excessive – outside the purview of the law. Neocleous thus provocatively avers that our state of emergency started not on 9/11, but three days after on 9/14 when George W. Bush declared a state of emergency.
In the “Crisis response and resilience” portion of the UK’s National Security Strategy, the British government emphasises the “role of sub-state entities, such as emergency services, local governments, businesses, and the public, on whose relationships ‘the resilience of the UK ultimately rests.’” Prevent is one of many practical manifestations of the British government’s emphasis on sub-state entities. By taking up the mantle of resilience, Prevent relegates what was typically the duty of law enforcement to the public sector as a whole.
The Prevent duty “is a legal duty that was placed upon public sector workers in 2015 under Section 29 of the Counterterrorism and Security Act. The duty expects public sector workers from teachers to doctors to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’“
In other words, Prevent expects every single public sector employee to effectively become the eyes and ears of the state, trained to assume that any “oddity” is a potential sign of radicalisation or extremism. What worries many activists and rights organisations about Prevent are the program’s open-ended objectives and limitless scope. With programs such as Prevent, deeper questions arise: what are potential signs of extremism? What is extremism? What is to be deemed out of character? Does the state have a preconceived notion of what is normal, and is anything outside of that to be treated as a threat?
Prevent operates in the pre-crime space. Simply put, people can be reported for showing signs of extremism and have their lives ruined without ever having committed a crime – often without proof of intent being established against them. One should question, is it helpful to constantly assume that one is under threat from a looming attack? This is where resilience discourse steps in. In Neocleous’ assessment, the logic behind programs like Prevent is future-oriented.
This turns the citizenry into preparation subjects, constantly ready to go to war. In such a world, war mindset overrides alternative modes of thinking. Systems like Prevent simply become another form of state police power. One of the less obvious detriments of police power is not the physical violence that one endures, but the mental asphyxiation that comes with thought policing and self-censure – the detriment of which is felt by even those who have never been referred to the program. Consequently, Neocleous classifies resilience as a type of neoliberal ethic that operates for the purpose of maintaining power and ideological acquiescence.
The Modus Operandi of Prevent
Before I continue on resilience, I will cite a few Prevent referrals to demonstrate the modus operandi of the program. Tarik, a 16-year-old student, corrected his teacher on the meaning of jihad. For that, he was reported to Prevent, and this led to him being barred from sixth form college. Caleb, age 32 and diagnosed with autism, was referred to Prevent by his clinical psychologist for acting distressed. Adil, age 8, wrote that “Muslims are better than Christians” on a drawing of a mosque. He was referred to Prevent which then led to his mother being questioned as to why she takes her son to the mosque and why she attended a Palestine protest with her son.
It is very clear that Prevent is a mere outsourcing of police work to public sector workers. It serves less to prevent looming attacks, and more to extract data. Between 2015 – 2016, nearly 90% of the 7500 referrals to Prevent were false alarms. In a country where 4.4% of the British population is Muslim, 65% of referrals to Prevent were for the threat of “Islamist” extremism. Not only is the program ineffective, but it is Islamophobic. Prevent also creates a sense of distrust between physicians and their patients, and between students and their teachers. If anything, out of fear of being referred to Prevent, individuals self-censure themselves in front of the very individuals that are supposed to nurture and mentor them.
This in turn stifles free speech and dissuades the citizenry from expressing that which is too political, effectively maintaining the ideological power of the state. Instead of committing itself to social justice initiatives to counteract the possible onset of extremism and radicalisation, the British government cuts budgets and turns to the criminalisation of dissent, in turn expanding the penal sector. The perpetual silencing of dissenting views in fact breeds violent extremism by pushing people to the fringes of society. While Prevent may seem to be merely taking precautionary steps to supposedly keep us safe from the next threat, it exacerbates the very threat that it seeks to annihilate.
The logic of Prevent, and by extension resilience discourse, is contingent on the maintenance of an impending threat. In less than readily obvious ways, resilience serves the logic of capital accumulation. Programs like Prevent help keep an entire counter-terrorism economy alive. In 2017, police in Britain received £50 million in funds to “fight terrorism.” The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies report highlights that the European Union budget is set to “significantly increase” from the current budget of €400 million between 2007 and 2020. In 2011, the West Yorkshire Police received €291,000 for “Social Media Anti-Radicalisation Training for Credible Voice.”
If this is the amount of funding spent on social media campaigns and training, one can only imagine how large the budgets are for actual law enforcement. Without the perpetual threat of extremists, programs like Prevent can no longer justify their own existence. If the threat does not exist, one must create the allure of a reified threat. Tell a lie often enough and it will eventually become real.
The Emergence of Extremism
Prevent is built on the premise that it can help deradicalise individuals. Yet the former British Home Secretary, in a public video, claimed that he did not believe individuals could be deradicalised. This only strengthens the case that programs such as Prevent, which are deeply entrenched in resilience discourse, exist merely to serve the interests of capital accumulation and the logics of power.
Recall the definition of resilience. It is the act of bouncing back from crisis. Consequently, extreme means (such as Prevent) are necessary to counteract extreme circumstances (the looming threat of extremism). When perpetually resilient, extremes become the norm. Some may argue that “perpetual” is not an accurate descriptor for the state we find ourselves in – “permanent” may be more suitable given that the War on Terror may never end. A state of perpetuity falsely gives the image that we are oscillating between normality and a state of emergency. Prevent has taken on a state of permanence.
It is in these circumstances that extremism emerges. The act is two-fold. A threat needs to be exaggerated, if not completely fabricated, and a solution to that threat needs to be presented – the solution being the security apparatus and the economy it creates. In his book The Emergence of Extremism, Rob Faure Walker cites Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It is in the self-preserving logic of orthodox terrorism studies to not address the structural causes of radicalisation and extremism.
On the other hand, critical terrorism studies seeks to address the root cause of the problems, with the intent of putting extremism to rest. This can be done by putting more effort and resources into addressing social justice causes that keep those privy to terrorism away from the fringes of society. It is not surprising that there is no vested interest on part of the constituents of orthodox terrorism studies in putting an end to the reified threat. If anything, putting an end to the looming threat puts terrorism studies and the security economy out of business.
Walker’s monograph also demonstrates that the proponents of the violent discourse of radicalisation (the proponents of orthodox terrorism studies) parallel those of neoliberalism. This can be seen insofar as these experts often lack any historical or theoretical grounding in their work akin to the “economists that were ill-equipped to deal with the 2008 financial crisis.” One such example includes the now-defunct Quilliam Foundation, which referred to itself on their website as the “world’s first counter extremism organisation.”
Critique of Security
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that a state of emergency connotes limited use of executive power in extenuating circumstances i.e., exceptional times call for exceptional measures. Neocleous is far more critical. To him, this validates the image that a state of emergency is the mere suspension of the law, deluding us into believing that instantiations of lawlessness in times of emergency are mere legal loopholes – in other words, bad faith engagement with the law. Such logic necessitates that the only remedy is the reinstatement of the law. Neocleous disagrees. He is of the view that this thinking feeds into commonly held notions that abuses of the law by the state are due to a “a few bad apples” – that is to say that the “guardians of the law” at the top of the food chain are not to blame, but the subordinates who fall out of line. This only reinforces the logic of lawfulness.
Neocleous further notes that “emergency is a work of legal representation and classification” and “that ‘exceptional’ moments of power are always filled to the brim with legal expertise, procedure and analysis.” States like to operate with the veneer of legality, seeking to avoid seeming as though emergency powers are not excesses of executive power. What underpins the logic of emergency is the logic of necessity. This further strengthens the point made earlier that resilience discourse, in the form of emergency, has no limits – states are to do what is needed to achieve their goals by any means necessary. As such, it should come as no surprise that programs such as Prevent, through open-ended legal language, have little to no limitations on their power. Anything can be justified through the state’s own internal legal logic. Law is less what the state says it is, and more what it does and seeks to achieve. Who is to limit the state, but the state itself? How else can a program like Prevent police and censure people’s thoughts?
Given the aforementioned reasons, Neocleous sees the juxtaposing of normality against emergency (as a mere deviation), as unhelpful. To him, this only feeds into “conventional liberal wisdom that posits normalcy and emergency as two discrete and separable phenomena.” Normalcy puts up the facade of the separation of powers, while emergency signifies unchecked executive powers that can only operate during the suspension of the law. Simply put, emergency powers fall within the self-preserving logic of the law and the state security apparatus. Consequently, Neocleous asserts that the sham needs to be shown for what it is – emergency powers are not mere aberrations, but instead are “part and parcel of the political administration of contemporary capitalist states.” The Prevent program is the practical manifestation of the security logic of the modern capitalist state.
To further anchor his critique, Neocleous provides a genealogy of the term emergency. Emergency stems from ‘emerge.’ He cites the Oxford English Dictionary, which “suggests that ‘emerge’ connotes ‘the rising of a submerged body out of the water’ and ‘the process of coming forth, issuing from concealment, obscurity, or confinement.’” This genealogy demonstrates that “in ‘emergency’ lies the idea of ‘emergent’: what is emerging, coming out of concealment or issuing from confinement by certain events.” Simply put, emergency is a more apt descriptor than exception or aberration because the latter denote being taken out, whereas the former denote rising, but from within.
Emergency powers are not a divergence, but an intrinsic feature of the law. Thus, Prevent should not be seen as exceptional – it is a necessary outcome of how the security apparatus of the state functions. The security apparatus of the state was bound to result in programs like Prevent – events such as 9/11 merely expedited it. Resilience discourse is one of many tools in the security apparatus’ arsenal.
Conceptual critiques of Prevent
Joshua Skoczylas and Sam Andrews note that it is “an oddity that a policy supposedly enacted to prevent ‘extremism’, especially in the context of a centrist, liberal-democratic state, should be so consistently accused of violating the very principles it seeks to protect.” Why is it odd, however? One cannot expect Prevent to solve the problem that it was designed to uphold. Instead of fostering trust and dialogue amongst the citizenry, Prevent depoliticises socio-economic issues through the silencing of dissenting views that would otherwise draw the attention of the security apparatus, ultimately fulfilling the state’s goal of maintaining a neoliberal status quo.
It must be noted that liberalism cannot be separated from its economic counterpart, capitalism. The two necessarily go hand in hand. The liberal state, like any other bureaucracy, has one primary goal – its self-preservation through the maintenance of its own power. Prevent serves that purpose. The Prevent “strategy should be seen as part of the mission to create neoliberal subjects, who internalise specific ideas about democracy, participation, the market and the individual while rejecting more radical ideas or critiques of the state.” Recalling Neocleous, resilience discourse in the form of Prevent seeks to annihilate alternative political imaginaries. Given what is known about Prevent, it should not come as any surprise that its primary targets are Muslims. Any Muslim political imaginary, be it localised or international, is deemed “extreme.”
The British government refers to extremism as vocal opposition to its fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Many are quick to point out that this understanding of extremism subsumes political activism. Fundamental values as per whose definition? Such a formulation of extremism is the necessary recipe to create the acquiescent neoliberal subject that the state desires – unquestioning, compliant, docile, etc. The metric by which extremism is measured is that of British Values. One may ask, what gets in the way of British Values? The government already has an answer: ideology.
In the British government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy, we learn that “terrorism is really a symptom; ideology is the root cause.” Ideology is often a lousy placeholder for that which is detested – rarely is it specified what about said ideology is problematic. Alongside Muslims, far-left and environmental “extremists” are targeted by Prevent. What ties these demographics together is their “belief in the profound immorality of global capitalism.” It should come as no surprise that Prevent’s primary goal in dealing with the political radicalism of such individuals is not their conversion to full-fledged capitalism, but instead the co-opting and disarming of alternative worldviews. This approach of fragmentation weakens any collective ideological resistance to a neoliberal order, pushing the soon-to-become neoliberal subjects to advocate for piecemeal change, instead of calling for an overhaul at the structural level.
Resilience discourse, in the form of Prevent, becomes the state’s vehicle for correcting the “market failures” in the individuals who have not acquiesced and become neoliberal subjects, either through assimilation of the compliant subject into a liberal and capitalist system or through the removal of the non-compliant subject. The latter correction (of removal) takes form in the penal sector, resulting in any of the following: harassment by law enforcement, imprisonment, deportation, or citizenship deprivation. In such a security model, “schools and state institutions are the vanguard of neoliberalism and Prevent.” It is resilience discourse that paves the way for the logic of emergency and security, creating the necessary conditions for programs like Prevent to operate unencumbered.
This study has demonstrated that Neocleous was correct in his reading of resilience discourse at the structural level. The article “Resilience in the National Security Discourse” accurately demonstrates that resilience “has turned into a powerful principle and a discursive tool in the fields of national and international security.” This can be seen in the security documentation of the United States, United Kingdom, and by extension in international bodies like North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union.
Walker’s The Emergence of Extremism clearly demonstrates that this phenomenon of extremism did not rise out of a vacuum. Neocleous’ Critique of Security has helped provide the philosophical backdrop in which the security state apparatus operates. Skoczylis and Andrew’s article demonstrated how Prevent maintains a neoliberal status quo through the depoliticisation of socio-economic issues. Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood’s “The People’s Review of Prevent” provided ample amounts of Prevent referrals to cite from. Their report has provided specific details on numerous Prevent referrals, with victims of all demographics, helping illustrate Prevent’s dangerous modus operandi. While the cited Prevent referrals are not instantiations of resistance to the state’s social engineering, if children or those with developmental disorders are subject to the physical and mental violence of the state, one can only imagine what others who are actively vocal against state-sponsored tyranny go through.
My article aimed to demonstrate what an instantiation of resilience looks like at the structural level, specifically in the world of security. It has been shown that many security programs necessitate the creation of a world that is in a permanent state of crisis or emergency. With the proliferation of resilience discourse, the logic of war and preparedness takes over. It is in these environments that programs like Prevent can emerge. Resilience is one of many tools used by the security world.
Prevent has been demonstrated to serve as a tool of the liberal state to target the non-compliant members of society – specifically, those that are resistant to the social engineering of the state. Prevent serves as a form of social engineering that seeks to create acquiescent neoliberal subjects. Prevent aids in the creation of the neoliberal subjectivity by actively silencing dissenting voices using the penal sector. What makes Prevent most damaging is the fact that it carries legal repercussions even though it operates in the pre-crime space i.e., where no crime has been committed. This may result in eventual imprisonment, deportation, or citizenship deprivation. In turn, Prevent serves as another arm of the penal sector.
Programs like Prevent demonstrate that the logic of emergency and security know no restraints. These programs serve their intended goal, not of eradicating extremism or deradicalising individuals, but of maintaining power for the liberal capitalist state through the accumulation of data and unjust penalisation. Neocleous is correct in stating that resilience, in this case in the form of Prevent, projects a neoliberal ethic. This can be seen in how it not only maintains power but stifles any political imaginaries that stand in the way of its telos of capital accumulation.
The tyrannical features intrinsic to Prevent are not to be understood as extra-legal aberrations. Instead, they are to be seen as part and parcel of the modus operandi of the legal system in a capitalist order. The use of the emergency powers by the sovereign (the state) can never be illegal. The sovereign’s will is the law. Once emergency powers are understood in such a framework, Prevent can be understood as another form of policing by the state. In over-exceptionalising Prevent, one feeds into the myth of the impartiality of the law.
These features are part and parcel of how the liberal capitalist state functions.
 Medico International, “Resisting Resilience (Mark Neocleous),” YouTube Video, 21:35, June 10, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_75mm_N7Vs.
 International, “Resisting,” at 0:43-1:15.
 Mark Neocleous, “Resisting Resilience,” Radical Philosophy, March/April 2013, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/resisting-resilience.
 Katarina Svitkova, “Resilience in the National Security Discourse,” Obrana a strategie 17, no. 1 (2017): 21, https://www.obranaastrategie.cz/en/archive/volume-2017/1-2017/articles/resilience-in-the-national-security-discourse.html
 Svitkova, “Resilience in the National,” 28.
 Neocleous, “Resisting Resilience.”
 Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 39.
 Svitkova, “Resilience in the National,” 32.
 Prevent is the British equivalent of what is termed Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US and elsewhere.
 “About Prevent,” Prevent Watch, accessed May 1, 2022, https://www.preventwatch.org/about/.
 International, “Resisting,” at 1:15-10:00.
 Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood, “The People’s Review of Prevent,” The People’s Review of Prevent, Prevent Watch, February 2022, https://peoplesreviewofprevent.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/mainreportlatest.pdf, 112.
 Aitlhadj and Holmwood, “The People’s Review,” 77.
 Ibid, 47-48.
 These false alarms resulted in no action being taken by the state against those who were referred. In other words, there was no actual threat. “PREVENT Mythbusters,” Cage, accessed May 1, 2022, https://www.cage.ngo/prevent-mythbusters.
 Rob Faure Walker, The Emergence of ‘Extremism’: Exposing the Violent Discourse and Language of ‘Radicalization’ (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), 156.
 Walker, The Emergence of ‘Extremism,’ 156.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 152.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 138.
 Neocleous, Critique of Security, 40.
 Walker, The Emergence of Extremism, 152-153.
 Ibid., 152.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 153-154.
 Neocleous, Critique of Security, 69.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 72.
 Joshua Skoczylas and Sam Andrews, “A Conceptual Critique of Prevent: Can Prevent Be Saved? No, But….,” Critical Social Policy 40, no. 3 (August 2020): 351. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018319840145.
 Skoczylis and Andrews, “A Conceptual Critique,” 351.
 Ibid., 352.
 Ibid., 353.
 Ibid., 354.
 Skoczylis and Andrews, “A Conceptual Critique,” 361.
 Ibid, 361-362.
 Ibid, 362.
 Svitkova, “Resilience in the National,” 21.
“About Prevent.” Prevent Watch. Accessed May 1, 2022. https://www.preventwatch.org/about/.
“PREVENT Mythbusters.” Cage. Accessed May 1, 2022. https://www.cage.ngo/prevent-mythbusters.
Aitlhadj, Layla, and John Holmwood. “The People’s Review of Prevent.” The People’s Review of Prevent. Prevent Watch. February 2022. https://peoplesreviewofprevent.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/mainreportlatest.pdf
International, Medico. “Resisting Resilience (Mark Neocleous).” YouTube Video, 21:35. June 10, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_75mm_N7Vs.
Neocleous, Mark. “Resisting Resilience.” Radical Philosophy. March/April 2013. https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/resisting-resilience.
Neocleous, Mark. Critique of Security. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Skoczylis, Joshua, and Sam Andrews. “A Conceptual Critique of Prevent: Can Prevent Be Saved? No, But….” Critical Social Policy 40, no. 3 (August 2020): 350–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018319840145.
Svitkova, Katarina. “Resilience in the National Security Discourse.” Obrana a strategie 17, no. 1 (2017): 21-40. https://www.obranaastrategie.cz/en/archive/volume-2017/1-2017/articles/resilience-in-the-national-security-discourse.html
Walker, Rob Faure. The Emergence of ‘Extremism’: Exposing the Violent Discourse and Language of ‘Radicalization.’ New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.
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