Privatising Justice: The Security Industry,War and Crime Control

By Wendy Fitzgibbon and John Lea
Published by Pluto, April 2020, paperback RRP £22.99
Review By Tim Barton

A cartoon potted history might suggest that the nation state evolved directly from ‘the mafia that won’. Feudal society could be cast as a quilt of protection rackets, where taxes fund gangs to ‘protect the peasants’, and funds impregnable hideouts for the syndicates, all on pain of punishment for not paying the taxes and tithes arbitrarily set by the local big boss barons. War between protection racket families led to amalgamating fiefdoms, ultimately into the borders we now recognise as ‘legitimate’ states. 

Not for nothing do the authors quote from A. Blok’s 1974 book The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960: A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs – “If one mafia network managed to extend its control over all of Sicily, all concerned would begin to describe its actions as ‘public’ rather than ‘private’. The national government would have to come to terms with it, outsiders and insiders alike would begin to treat its chiefs with legitimate authority. It would be a government, it would resemble a state.”


Modern ‘free market’ ideology introduces a new palimpsest of privatised and unaccountable mafia-like corporations, acting both across and within contemporary states. Naturally, these are tangled with our own elites, in the City and the aristocracy, and with other powerful states (primarily, so far, the USA). Having welfare assessments contracted out to American corporations, such as Atos and Maximus, has been a harrowing and painful experience especially for disabled ‘clients’. And for decades now the prison and security services have been increasingly privatised or quasi-privatised, as have the police.

The army, too, increasingly relies on outsourced contracts, something we used to call mercenary. Companies like G4S have become inextricably woven into the UK’s security and carceral systems, running for profit, on the cheap, and with little ethical care for notions such as ‘justice’. Many of our top politicians have ties into this system, having been, or becoming later, directors, CEOs and shareholders in such companies. Public accountability of these corrupted and corrupting new mafiosa is increasingly difficult, though lobbyists and grafters have always had far greater access to ‘our’ representatives than the electorate does.

This book seeks to warn us of the many and immanent dangers of ‘the outsourcing of the coercive aspects of state power to private corporations’. It seems increasingly obvious that a deregulated post-Brexit right-wing UK will adopt more and more of the behaviours of our American ‘cousins’. Areas of economic growth will be few and far between, and so successful globalised security networks, from the arms industry to a prison-industrial complex will grow in power and influence.


To reach the ‘competitive’ economy the Tory Brexiteers seek, with more ‘inward investment’, deregulation on a large scale (this month’s announcement of the lifting of swathes of restrictions on planning and construction is just the latest assault on community input and defence). Lower wages, less training, less welfare, less sick and holiday pay, private health insurance… these are just a few areas we can obviously expect to be attacked in. Ironically, patriotic working class pro-Leave voters are those most clearly about to lose out big time over the elite’s ‘success’ in bringing control ‘back’ – not to the state, certainly not the people, but to the rich elites. Nothing in that should surprise anyone who was listening at all over the last forty years.

Public accountability of these corrupted and corrupting new mafiosa is increasingly difficult

The American model of prison-industrial complex needs bodies fed to it, hence the very high per capita incarceration rate there. Naturally, this targets those least able to organise and resist, and so hits the poor and disenfranchised. In America that covers a spectrum that includes immigrant Latinos and ‘white trash’, and, disproportionately, young black men. In prison you work, but are not paid (you are, as the Daily Mail have it, ‘paying your way’ for your board and lodging), and your handiwork is marketed at very competitive prices outside the prison system. Voila! Free labour, big profits.

In fact, one could say, slave labour, which also undermines the external markets, sending legitimate businesses to the wall, but y’know, that’s all fair under free market unfettered capitalism, at least according to the extremist model peddled by Reagan and Thatcher, and all our country’s leaders since (including, under Labour, Kinnock). This economic ideology comes from the Austrian / Chicago Schools under Von Mises and Hayek, with a side order of Ayn Rand’s crazed hyper-individualist ‘libertarianism’, and is one of the most toxic viral ideologies on the planet at this moment.


Well, that American model is here too, and, soon, ‘with bells on’. A dystopian future, out of Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley, with maybe a side order of 1930s Germany? Hell yes. The authors of Privatising Justice seek to put the case that we must reverse the increasing privatisation of the state and of the neoliberalism pushing us ever faster into the abyss. This is an urgent project, one made much harder by the increasing likelihood that Johnson’s much vaunted ‘deal’ with the EU will be, as many of us predicted, more or less on ‘no deal’ WTO terms.

Those ‘getting their country back’ are those whose forefathers evicted ours from the common land under the Acts of Inclosure, not us. Handing coercive security over to private corporations aids their forcing a very bad deal onto us for their own gain, as many of those corporations are and will be ‘globalist’ American (and, perhaps, Chinese). In the longer run the rich and powerful UK elite risks handing control of security to foreign actors, but hey, I’m sure they’ll get a nice fat brown envelope and can afford to emigrate to a nice safe bunker while Britain burns.

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