Neoliberalism and Radicalization

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January 20, 2018

There is a persistent insistence in much of counter-terrorism discourse and policy to acknowledge how “radicalization”—the catchall but ultimately meaningless term—can be prevented by cultivating meaningful connections within communities and providing social services to underserved and impoverished communities.

The provision of social services and the effective integration of marginalized and alienated individuals back into their communities, it is assumed, would reduce the appeal of terrorist groups and their message. A social safety net—understood in the traditional sense of welfare service provision but also as increased community integration and support—would catch those who fall through the cracks of culture shocks, marital discord, financial troubles, and religious doubts before they can succumb to extremist ideologies.

This set of assumptions regarding the lack of a social safety net and the likelihood of “radicalization” is deeply ingrained in counter-terrorism policy, most visibly in the Prevent strategy in the United Kingdom and the programs rolled out under the aegis of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) under the Obama administration in the United States. Despite the Trump administration’s decision to eliminate federal funding for these programs, tainted as they are by their association to the former President, local and state government agencies have stepped forward to fill the void.

These assumptions can be seen in the now ubiquitous programs being implemented in dozens of localities within the United States. In Boston, for example, the program cooked up by the Multi-Disciplinary Threat Assessment and Intervention Team Working Group initially sought to insinuate CVE into pre-existing strategies to prevent targeted violence (including gang, workplace, and school violence). The program would eventually be passed off to the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services which would seek to “develop and provide primary prevention strategies to foster resilience across broad populations, support meaningful connections to enable prosocial behavior[,] and foster greater engagement between local government and the community.”

These, then, are thought to be the key ingredients for preventing the radicalization of individuals: resilient communities, an enabling environment for prosocial behavior, and greater engagement between communities and local governments.

To take a few more examples: Denver Police Department’s plan to prevent violent extremist recruiting in the city entails social service provision, school mentoring, outreach events, and enhancing the understanding of the “violent extremist threat” through officer training. Minnesota’s “Building Community Resilience” initiative was designed to address the “root causes” of radicalization: disaffected youth, disconnect between youth and religious leaders, internal identity crisis, community isolation, and lack of opportunity. The state planned on addressing these root causes through provision of mental health services, funding for afterschool sports, employment education and training, and cultural integration activities.

Similarly, in the UK, social service providers, schools and universities, and the National Health Service (NHS) have been designated as the front line for counter-terrorism. Since the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in 2015, all public sector workers such as teachers and doctors in the country have a statutory duty to identify students and patients at risk of violent extremism and report them to Channel, the government’s deradicalization program. Those thought to be at risk of radicalization are provided with expedited access to education, healthcare, and other social services.

This logic is now ubiquitous in counter-terrorism programs in both the United States and the United Kingdom and begs an obvious question: if providing social services reduces the risk of radicalization then surely the austerity-driven social spending cuts must increase the risk of radicalization? Neoliberalism, then, is a fertile ground for the production of alienated, marginalized, and ultimately radicalization-prone individuals.

There is also a certain irony in seeing increased social spending at a time of austerity measures and neoliberal injunctions against the welfare state. In the UK, the NHS is currently facing what the British Red Cross calls “a humanitarian crisis” and has suffered a “spending squeeze” since 2010. Meanwhile in the US, President Trump’s budget is set to eliminate 66 federal programs worth some $26.7 billion, to say nothing of spending cuts at the local and state level.

These competing priorities of social service provision to prevent radicalization and the neoliberal imperative to reduce the size of the welfare state can be somewhat reconciled. Actually existing neoliberalism, as Damien Cahill argues in The End of Laisezz Faire: On the Durability of Embedded Neoliberalism, is not directly concerned with a reduction in social spending but rather in “private[z]ing the provision of welfare” and “devolving welfare provision to … for-profit welfare providers or not-for-profit charity groups.”

Still, much of the social spending under CVE and Prevent is funded by government agencies, contrary to the neoliberal dictum. Far from a step toward the creation of a state-sponsored welfare state, however, these programs in fact undermine universal welfare policies by treating the social and economic needs of communities on the basis of identity and national security. Muslims are considered deserving of economic resources and social services only insofar as their needs can be treated as threats to the national security.

They are cordoned off from the rest of society, undermining the potential for solidarity between Muslims and other communities on the basis of universal needs, and social services provision is weaponized to combat the danger of impoverished and marginalized Muslims falling prey to extremist ideologies.

This allows the state to continue conceiving of adequate healthcare, mental health services, and education not as rights but rather privileges to be provided when the state sees fit. The neoliberal retreat of the state from universal welfare policies can thus continue apace, despite recognizing that the neoliberal society is exceptionally prone to radicalization and extremism.

The weaponization of social service provision also creates incentives for underserved communities to exaggerate the threat of radicalization in the hope that it would secure financial support for otherwise under-funded programs. In the UK, doctors are already voicing concerns that counter-terrorism program create a “bizarre incentive” for them to “make inappropriate referrals to Prevent, so that their patients can gain access to the housing, psychiatry and social care which patients are otherwise denied because of government cuts.”

These “bizarre incentives” are in fact perfectly predictable and vastly preferable to the alternative of universal welfare services. The source of these incentives, CVE and Prevent, offer a unique insight into how the state manages the conflicting needs of curbing radicalization, undermining the welfare state, and curbing the potential for solidarity between various communities.

Indeed, as resistance to these initiatives has developed among Muslim communities, there remains an urgent need for broadening these efforts to reject identity-based, national security-driven social service provision and push for the inclusion of other communities through demands for a universal welfare state.

Only by rejecting government-led efforts to divide communities into the deserving and undeserving can resistance to CVE and Prevent be successful. Solidarity, therefore, must be the first requirement of any such success.