Two contemporary threats have climbed up Western governments’ priority list: terrorism and drug trafficking. The development of policies to tackle these issues has changed in the last decades, increasingly turning to more coercive strategies. Yet the consequences have not been as expected. Drug trafficking is still a major concern for many governments, with the current punitive approach resulting in increasing violence and corruption while failing to improve the public health issue of drug consumption. Terrorism has also created a new set of rules that have led to mixed results, including an over-militarized response and growing human rights abuses. Some of these policies can be explained under the framework of neoliberal governmentality and its diverse practices.

This paper argues that a new set of policies and practices have been adopted from neoliberal governmentality to tackle drug trafficking and terrorism, but with adverse consequences. The first section discusses the concept of governmentality and its application with neoliberalism. The second section examines the concept of security under the neoliberal governmentality framework, using the examples of terrorism and drug trafficking. The third section analyzes the application of neoliberal governmentality in the case of the United Kingdom and its counterterrorism policies, while the final section analyses the application of neoliberal governmentality in the case of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’.

Governmentality and Neoliberalism

The issue of governing the state has been addressed from various frameworks. The most common refers to the art of governing the state as a whole, its territory. This state-centric approach, linked to politics, was espoused by Machiavelli, who wrote that the main aim of power by the ruler is the protection of his kingdom and all within it from outside forces, as well as the protection of his power over the kingdom (Foucault, 2007). Two other types of government include self-government, linked to morality, and the art of governing a family, linked to the economy (La Mothe Le Vayer in Foucault, 2007). According to Foucault, the art of government is the combination of the management of both the economy and the state, that is, the inclusion of the economy into political practice (Foucault, 2007). Since the foundation of the economy is in the governing of a family, its application to governmentality is on the population as a whole.

Also key to the idea of governmentality is its difference with the state-centric approach in terms of its target, its main form of knowledge, and its main technical means (Foucault, 1991). The art of government, according to governmentality, is focused on the government of people, as a target, in relation to all those things that are within a territory. In terms of the knowledge that is needed to govern that target, Foucault says political economy is the science that studies the relations between population, territory, and wealth. Finally, the technical means are the so-called apparatuses of security, or the mechanisms used for social control over the population, including technologies of security like biometrics. Governmentality can thus be seen as the use of the economy for managing a population, using a number of technologies, processes and institutions.

The focus on neoliberalism in modern societies by Foucault as a form of governmentality tries to extend the idea of ideology into political practice (Peters, 2007: 166). Neoliberal governmentality is a political rationality and a technique of power that calls for increasing self-governance and self-regulation, where government is limited to the point that the population, not only the economy, is managed by market forces (Lemke, 2001), a so-called ‘market governance’ as Larner (2000) points out. Aradau and Van Munster (2007: 95) also talk of “‘reflexivity’ in the sense of social awareness of risks as a constant characteristic of governmental processes. This is linked to the idea of self-governance instead of state governance, where technologies, processes, and techniques are developed to support this new kind of governmentality (Binkley, 2009; Sparke, 2006; Leander and Van Munster, 2006; Larner, 2000). More than an ideology about the liberalization of the economy from state control, neoliberal governmentality is organized around the idea that state de-regulation can be applied to other spheres of society. Security is one area, as will be analyzed next.

Security and neoliberal governmentality

The concept of security under governmentality identifies three different frameworks (Foucault, 2007). The first one is the legal mechanism, which consists of a legal system that distinguishes between the prohibited and the permitted, establishing punishments according to prohibited actions. Secondly, the disciplinary mechanism deals with the same prohibition-punishment process but adding a process of correction based on penitentiary techniques like rehabilitation. The third mechanism refers to the apparatus (dispositive) of security, or the management of probable events and the cost of these, and establishing whether these are permitted or prohibited, while assessing how these can be managed in an acceptable way. This last one has been emerging in the US and Europe as the main mechanism of security, but also functioning besides the legal and disciplinary mechanisms of security.

Security, according to Foucault, is about managing a population in an economically rational way, considering the probability of possible events and the costs of controlling them, while focusing not on eliminating the threats but containing them to a certain degree that is considered optimal (Foucault, 2007: 6). This view links the issue of security to that of risk. When talking about security spaces, he mentions the idea of managing certain unknowns in a particular setting (Foucault 2007). Coaffee also discusses the concepts of risk and security, but focusing on new methods of managing risks against terrorism in cities, namely the application of resilience (2006). Nowadays, governments are focusing on tackling what they believe are major threats to their security, without accounting for the consequences of some of those actions. A recent study about the terrorist threat in the US argues that expenditures in terrorism have been too high considering the low risk of their occurrence, calling for more effective measures to be taken based on risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches (Mueller and Stewart, 2011). Government policies on counterterrorism under a risk society perspective (Beck, 2006, in Mythen and Walklate, 2008) are turning to speculation of future events rather than probabilistic measures, which has enabled the construction of an atmosphere of social tolerance towards the types of neoliberal practices being deployed.

The issue of risk management as one of mitigating threats to acceptable levels has also been a subject of debate when dealing with illicit drugs. Since the punitive approach for countering drug trafficking was implemented in the 1970s, this criminal justice model has focused on punishing users and waging a so-called ‘war on drugs’. This approach emphasizing deterrence and incapacitation (Garland, 2001, in Corva, 2008) had a logic that underpinned the neoliberal idea of governmentality, in which these responses would lead “…individuals to distinguish morally ‘right’ behavior from ‘wrong’ and self-govern accordingly” (Corva, 2008: 179). Yet this points to greater state power in the sense that deterrence and incapacitation are enforced by states and its criminal justice systems, and are therefore ‘illiberal’ and more neoconservative than neoliberal (Corva, 2008: 178). The previous regime on illicit drug control, the so-called ‘welfarist’ state logic that focused on reintegration rather than punishment, follows a risk management approach in the sense that it has a pragmatic view in which drug policy is not a seen as a zero-sum struggle between good and evil.

Another key element of governmentality in security is the use of discourse as an institutional tool of power. “Security discourses are socially constructed by dominant institutions such as government, the police and the media” (Mythen and Walklate, 2008: 227), with the purpose of creating ‘truths’ about society from phenomena that seem threatening without being comprehensively understood. With terrorism, post-9/11 discourse has been geared towards creating a climate of fear around terrorist threats, mainly for political gains. This issue came up after the Obama administration raised the terror alert on October 2010, allegedly for electoral purposes to show that his strategy for a troop surge in Afghanistan was necessary (Tisdall and Norton-Taylor, 2010). The discourse of the ‘war on terrorism’ is the clearest example of the use of threats to enforce measures of control over citizens. The risks from this particular threat, while being low, are faced in a way that allows the state to impose certain technologies of control, like self-surveillance and other counter-terrorism measures (Mythen and Walklate, 2008). These efforts point to an effort by the state to use discourse as a means to govern through the manipulation of fear.

This politics of fear also applies to illicit drugs. Drugs have been demonized using a discourse of control in order to distinguish between illicit drugs and other legal commodities. Governments therefore work hard to keep these kinds of threats high on the public agenda using a discourse of fear, “generating ‘truths’ about society that are interiorized by individuals” (Foucault in Mythen and Walklate, 2008: 229), which in turn create popular consent. Public opinion on issues like drug legalization or decriminalization still tilts towards conserving the status quo, even when little scientific evidence is available on the effects of some drugs. Yet recent events, like Mexico’s bloody drug war and the debate on legalizing medicinal marijuana in some American states, have started to shift the level of public support towards alternative, less punitive approaches. Political discourse has had a role in this popular consent regarding continuing drug criminalization, but other policies have had an impact as well.

Drug trafficking is one area where the implementation of so-called neoliberal practices can be observed. Corva (2008: 178) refers to the “penal state”, in which criminal justice policies supposedly emphasize neoliberal and risk-management approaches, but in reality use coercive penal practices, or so-called ‘practices of illiberal punitive criminalization’, in contrast to the previous logic where the criminal justice system was tasked with reintegrating offenders into society. Becket (1997, in Corva, 2008: 179) argues that “the logic of punitive deterrence is to make crime pay so people will avoid costly criminal behaviors”, which in turn leads to mass incarceration. With this logic came a new range of policies targeting the prison system, like new laws ranging from mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes and harsh sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs, to zero-tolerance policies and public order policing (Corva, 2008: 180). The failure of neoliberal practices serves as a lesson for improving methods of drug control, in which drug trafficking organizations, for example, are seen as products of the economic logic behind the illicit drug trade brought about by neoliberalism itself, and not as evildoers that must be fought without compromise, or in which drug users are not seen as criminals that must be separated from society.

Terrorist threats have also been addressed using neoliberal practices, the ‘war on terror’ illustrating this. A form of bio-political power identified by Agamben (in Schlosser, 2008: 1627) is the space of exception, a space outside a state’s sovereign territory and juridical order that nonetheless is under the power of the state, and where individuals “can be more or less excepted from the legal order”. The clearest example of this practice is the Guantanamo Bay military prison (Schlosser, 2008; Aradau and Van Munster, 2007), where detainees can be hold indefinitely and without the due process that is applied outside these spaces of exception. Security measures within states’ sovereign territory have also been applied in response to terrorist threats. Both the UK and the US have passed legislation that has affected citizens’ rights (Mythen and Walklate, 2008), paradoxically, enhancing the power of the state and its use of coercion, at the same time that other so-called neoliberal technologies of control are imposed. These policies have therefore been counterproductive when applied to countering terrorism.

Next are two cases exemplifying the implementation of neoliberal governmentality practices: the first in the UK as it tackles terrorism, followed by Mexico’s approach to counter drug trafficking.

The UK and its response to terrorism

The current terrorist threat that worries Britain has been addressed with a number of policies. Among these are practices of neoliberal governmentality put into effect in the wake of the latest terrorist threats. Increased surveillance and profiling on identified ‘suspicious’ communities has been a measure implemented after the 7 July attacks in London. Asian communities were specifically targeted, as “…the number of Asian people stopped and searched under anti-terrorism laws quadrupled in a single year, from 744 in 2001–02 to 2,989 in 2002–03” (Morris, 2004a, in Mythen and Walklate, 2006: 391). This type of selected targeting in the form of profiling tends to be arbitrary instead of intelligence-led and is based more on racial, religious, and ethnic guidelines, which can in turn lead to diminished trust in the police and security services. Linked to the idea of zero-risk in situations of imminent threat, policies such as ‘shoot-to-kill’ in the UK are created where individuals from selected immigrant communities are more at risk of being targeted (Aradau and Van Munster, 2007). These practices result in a hostile and a less than helpful environment to counter real terrorist threats in the UK and abroad.

Political discourse on this issue has also been intensified. In the UK, Prime Ministers since Tony Blair, who was in government during the 9/11 attacks and also during the London bombings, have emphasized the transnational character of the terrorist threat (Mythen and Walklate, 2006), likewise calling for citizens to be more vigilant, and therefore following the self-surveillance practice of neoliberal governmentality. Foucault saw discourse as one of the several parts that form a dispositif, or the rationalities and technologies of government that “…affect behaviors and ‘construct’ forms of…subjectivity in the population to be governed as part of [a] social problem identified” (Aradau and Van Munster, 2007: 97), in this case terrorism. These actions are thus used, as with Tony Blair’s speeches on the terrorist threat, to justify some counterterrorism measures. Yet criticisms on the inflation of the threat are commonplace, citing not only human rights abuses on targeted groups but also the creation of a climate of fear that is used for political motivations.

This goes hand in hand with the issue of risk. Terrorism, especially since the events of 9/11, has been thought of in terms of worst-case scenarios, not accounting for the low probability of those types of attacks. UK counterterrorism policies have been pursued under those assumptions, resulting in sometimes more adverse consequences, as with the miscalculations by both the UK and US on Iraq’s WMD capabilities (Mythen and Walklate, 2006). The risk-society framework, as discussed previously, delves into the role of risk in interpreting terrorist threats and deals with the notion of manufactured risks. Approaches like the application of ‘precautionary risk’ (Aradau and Van Munster, 2007: 103), where any risk is considered unacceptable no matter the consequences or probabilities of it happening, call for policies based on ‘infinite sanctioning’ like pre-emptive strikes, states of exception like Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, or indefinite detention. Discourse plays an important role in expanding this view into the public’s attention. But if applied correctly “…the identification and management of risk is a way of organizing reality, disciplining the future, taming chance and rationalizing individual conduct” (Werner, 2005 in Aradau and Van Munster, 2007). Until now, the ‘precautionary risk’ model prevails and has led to unfavorable results when dealing with the terrorist threat.

Mexico’s ‘drug war’

The ‘war on drugs’ went global after the United States sought to export its counternarcotics model and institutionalize it worldwide. Its focus was on blaming outside forces for the alleged drug threat, mainly centering on supply-side strategies and the use of law-enforcement, including an increasingly militarized response outside the US (Woodiwiss and Bewley-Taylor, 2005). Mexico, like many countries in the Western hemisphere, followed this new approach for a number of reasons: its unique geographic location next to the US, sharing a three thousand long border; its position as a transit country between the hemisphere’s largest drug supplying countries and the largest consumer country; its increasingly important role as a drug producer; and its dependent economic relationship with the US. Embracing this strategy meant that Mexico had little choice but to adopt the types of policies being pushed by the US, based on the punitive logic previously discussed.

The criminal justice system was shaped to respond to this new threat, which would be rationalized by a political discourse now engrained in Mexico. In the issue of drugs, discourses of control play an important role, sensationalized by official rhetoric exploiting dichotomous notions of good and bad, such as evil mafias and dangerous substances (Gootenberg, 2009: 31). One former Minister of Foreign Relations in Mexico emphasized that the administration of President Felipe Calderon reasoned his decision to launch a full-fledged military attack on drug trafficking organizations by claiming that domestic drug use was on the rise and thus posed a danger to Mexican society, despite this being untrue (Castañeda and Aguilar, 2006). This was nonetheless used to justify the further militarization of the drug war, leading to other policies like toughening border control to avoid cross-border trafficking and the spillover of violence. This, paradoxically, resulted in growing pressure in other areas like immigration, where the US and Mexico have often disagreed.

With the difficulty of objectively separating illicit drugs from other legal substances like alcohol or tobacco, states turn to a type of overzealous rhetoric based on moral standards that is contradictory, but is nonetheless used to justify certain types of policies that would not be otherwise accepted by society. Discourse of control surrounding drugs also created images of the typical drug-related criminal, targeting a number of communities that were vulnerable to this phenomenon based on their race and ethnicity (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993, in Gootenberg, 2008). Hence, the shaping of criminal law was a product of these types of discourses, leading to the creation of a new kind of criminal profiling.


Some of the policies implemented to tackle terrorism and drug trafficking have been counterproductive to some extent. Political discourses justifying these and other policies, in both issues, have been oversimplifying and often contradictory. Over-extending the size of the threat is also commonplace, especially when dealing with uncertainty. This has been the case particularly with the terrorist threat, which has tackled using a host of policies characterized by neoliberal ideals of governmentality. The consequences of these actions have been criticized by many, citing the abuse of citizens’ rights as the main issue, not only because that itself is a problem but because it undermines the effort of countering terrorism efficiently. With the experience of these failed policies since 9/11, further research could be useful in assessing whether there has been a significant change in the use neoliberal practices in counterterrorism.

Anti-drug efforts by states have focused less on drugs as a public health issue than on coercive methods against its citizens. Mexico’s handling of its drugs problem is an example of the unfavorable results of using punitive approaches, with an increased militarized strategy that has resulted in rampant violence, corruption, and further institutional weakness. The ‘penal state’ and its coercive approach have prevailed and seem to be nowhere near to be replaced by a more coherent strategy tackling the drug trafficking. A drug policy focused on treating drugs as a public health issue instead of a law enforcement problem is far from being implemented. Only recently has the current Mexican President touched on the debate of changing the strategy to tackle drug trafficking to a less coercive approach, but stressed the need to do it on an international basis and led by the main Western countries that have led the current struggle characterized by practices of so-called neoliberal governmentality.

* Originally written in 2011


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