Long before COVID-19 swept the globe, insecurity was already everywhere. Countless people faced housing, health, and food insecurity. Environmental insecurity was rising as changing weather patterns put communities at risk of fires and flooding. Prior to the advent of “social distancing,” we hid behind doors, locks, gates, and border walls, afraid of public space and one another. Online, we fretted over information security, devising passwords to access passwords, fearful we might be hacked or exposed. We were insecure at our jobs, in our homes, in our relationships, and on social media. We felt insecure about our very selves.
Given the ubiquity of insecurity, it may seem surprising that, only a few centuries ago, the word didn’t even exist. A uniquely modern concept, insecurity first appeared in the seventeenth century. “Rather than being understood as an unalterable truth intrinsic to the human condition, ‘insecurity’ needs to be understood as the product of very specific historical circumstances,” the political theorist Mark Neocleous observes. Those particular historical circumstances were the rise of capitalism.
Consider the response to the coronavirus. In the United States, the devastation unleashed by this novel and dangerous pathogen has as much to do with economics as epidemiology. When whole sectors of the economy shut down to comply with orders to shelter in place, unemployment soared. Instead of paying workers to stay home to slow down the disease—a sensible, life-saving policy pursued in various ways by some wealthy countries, including Denmark—American officials handed trillions of dollars of public money to the world’s biggest corporations. For the CEOs of these companies, the outbreak is less a crisis than an opportunity. Not only will they receive a staggering no-strings-attached government handout, they’ll also get a more pliable and profitable workforce. Experts estimate that unemployment rates could hit 30 percent, higher than during the Great Depression. When this pandemic passes, millions of people will be even more insecure and exploitable than they were at the outset, and that will not be an accident.
Capitalism is an insecurity machine, though we rarely think of it as such. Alongside profits, commodities, and inequality, insecurity is a fundamental output of the system. Neither an incidental byproduct nor a secondary consequence of the concentration of wealth, it is one of capitalism’s essential and enabling creations. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society,” Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, back when the most advanced machines were weaving cloth and harnessing steam. “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” The beneficiaries of this arrangement dubbed it “creative destruction” before rebranding it as “disruption.”
Our economic apparatus, in other words, destabilizes by design: market forces capsize communities and disintegrate old ways of life. Too often, however, we emphasize dramatic shifts, underscoring “great transformations” and systemic crises over comparatively quotidian developments—a temptation we must resist as we face the dual calamity of a global pandemic and an economic downturn. Engineered in order to facilitate exploitation and undermine solidarity, the production of insecurity is a daily phenomenon, its operations so commonplace as to appear banal. It is both physical and psychological: people endure inadequate housing, wages, and healthcare while our culture encourages self-blame and shame for financial hardship, relentlessly exploiting our fears and vulnerabilities. (No advertisement will ever tell us we’re okay and that it is the world that needs changing.)
Of course, people have always lived precarious lives. Long before the industrial revolution, let alone the digital one, human existence was neither easy nor assured. (This partly explains why “security,” unlike “insecurity,” is an ancient concept and aspirational ideal: etymologically, security comes from the Latin securitas, meaning freedom from worry, sine cura, or without care.) In a similar fashion, commerce precedes capitalism; people have long engaged in the propensity to truck, barter, and trade. Capitalism emerges when the possibility of commerce becomes the necessity of competitive production. For that to happen—for market opportunities to become market imperatives—mass insecurity must be imposed and maintained.
Digital technologies provide new channels through which this process can unfold. Social media elevates paid advertising and sensational content, spreading misinformation and confusion, increasing epistemological insecurity. Data brokers create intimate profiles so that we might be better targeted—segmenting us into categories that include “rural and barely making it,” “probably bipolar,” and “gullible elderly”—while companies invest millions into “affect recognition” so they can figure out when we are most persuadable, increasing psychological insecurity. Opaque systems of information collection and predictive analytics facilitate new forms of discrimination and redlining, marking certain populations as criminal threats or directing them into subprime financial services, predatory mortgages, and exploitative rental markets, increasing housing insecurity. Employers monitor and control employees remotely, refusing to offer decent wages and benefits or provide consistent scheduling, increasing job insecurity.
Not everyone is made equally insecure by these tools, of course. That is precisely the point. The stability of ownership and investment for some necessarily depends on the destabilization and dispossession of others—and the struggle over housing and labor have always been the epicenters of this conflict. The spaces where we live and where we work are capitalism’s main battlegrounds, and the rise of networked digital technologies have given capital more powerful weapons with which to conquer them—weapons we can be assured will be put to use as we enter a phase of coronavirus-induced uncertainty and volatility.
In the summer of 2019, the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a 718-unit apartment building in Brownsville, Brooklyn, got word that their landlord had plans to install a security system equipped with facial recognition. The devices would control entry to the twin high-rises and monitor all common areas.
The grounds were already covered in cameras. So who or what, exactly, would this new technology be making more secure, the tenants wondered. Contrary to the landlord’s insistence that the devices were a “cool upgrade” that would keep keys out of the hands of the “wrong people,” residents saw them as an unwelcome and unwanted intrusion—and one inextricably linked to a long and troubling history of racism, policing, and gentrification.
The mostly Black and female tenants were alarmed to learn of studies showing that facial recognition often perpetuates pre-existing bias, with software most accurately able to assess men with white skin. They also worried about the collection of sensitive biometric data. “I’m afraid of it being shared with third-party agencies. I’m afraid of it being shared with the police. I’m afraid of it being shared with anyone—advertising companies, just everyone. It’s just very sensitive information that I feel our landlord should not have,” a young woman named Tranae Moran told the Guardian. Another resident, who had called the complex home for fifty-one years, was more blunt: “We do not want to be tagged like animals. We are not animals. We should be able to freely come in and out of our development without you tracking every movement.”
One hundred thirty-four tenants filed a formal complaint. By banding together and partnering with lawyers, they thwarted the landlord’s plan and made national news. Their success, however, represents more than a victory for privacy rights or the growing backlash against a particularly problematic technology. (Thanks to the work of activists, the use of facial recognition software by government agencies has been banned in a handful of American cities.) On a deeper level, the tenants identified and resisted one of capitalism’s central dynamics: the fact that security for some is predicated on the insecurity of others.
While the landlord never said it directly, the protection of an investment, not the community, drove the adoption of the new camera system. Increased “security” was part of a bid to attract new, more affluent tenants, whose arrival would cause rents and property values to rise, threatening long-time residents with displacement. “He doesn’t want Spanish. He doesn’t want Black. He wants white people to come into the neighborhood,” one tenant put it.
What happened in Brownsville is a variation of an old story, albeit with a high-tech twist. Property investments always involve what geographer Brett Story calls “the coercive scaffolding of enclosure and securitization”—a scaffolding that harkens back to capitalism’s murky origins in the English countryside. During the long and varied period called the enclosure movement, beginning in the twelfth century, wealthy landlords uprooted the peasantry in order to privatize once communal fields and forests, denying them their customary rights to the commons. A contemporary version of this dynamic now plays out in America’s fast-gentrifying cities, where crime is redefined as a threat to the real estate industry’s bottom line. Homeless people are the initial target, cleared off the streets by ordinances that outlaw panhandling or simply sitting on the sidewalk. Casting the poor not as residents deserving of rights but as miscreants on the wrong side of the law justifies their exclusion.
Nowhere is this more apparent, Story argues, than modern-day Detroit, where a coalition of real estate investors, including the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, are pushing forward a “revitalization” effort. As was almost the case in Brownsville, electronic monitoring plays a key role. In Detroit’s downtown Chase Tower, a command center contains dozens of computer screens connected to approximately 1,000 different outdoor cameras surrounding Gilbert’s properties in seven states, which include over 300 in metro Detroit alone. “The camera program is a collaborative effort that includes most of the big downtown property owners, including General Motors, Ilitch Holdings, and Compuware,” Story writes, one that also coordinates closely with local law enforcement agencies. Dangling the prospect of economic growth, real estate moguls are able to redirect public power to private ends: the security guards that Gilbert employs can use force on civilians but are under no legal obligation to read detainees their Miranda rights.
In 1843, a young Marx described security—what he called “the concept of police”—as the “supreme concept” of bourgeois society. Fearful of those they have dispossessed, ruling elites have long utilized state violence to safeguard private assets, criminalizing both poverty and protest in the process. In 2016, Detroit’s public-private surveillance system was used to track Black Lives Matter protesters. That same year, business owners formed a consortium called Project Green Light, which enables them to stream their surveillance footage directly to city police facilities. "Now we don't have just one billionaire (doing it), we have 500 businesses who pitch in and do their own areas," Detroit’s mayor Mike Duggan boasted last spring. Six months later, grassroots opposition successfully blocked the police department from using real-time facial recognition on Green Light’s feeds, though the police continue to use the controversial technology in other ways.
Coding the Invisible Hand
Ever since Thomas Hobbes portrayed civilized man trading obedience for protection to escape a perilous “state of nature,” security has been central to the liberal political tradition. Government, Adam Smith proclaimed, exists “for the security of property.” Similarly, John Locke insisted that the reason men put “themselves under Government is the Preservation of their Property.” Yet in Locke’s view, not all property deserved to be preserved: he defended the British seizure of Indigenous territory in the Americas. The question, then as now, is who and what is being secured—and at whose expense.
Today, market logic so suffuses the concept of security that the term literally means property, like the security deposit you make before signing a lease or the “securities” owned by the affluent. It was these ironically-named securities that brought down the global economy in 2008. Traders, using algorithms that coded Black borrowers and homeowners as particularly exploitable, gambled with securitized mortgages boasting inflated ratings. At the same time, the multibillion-dollar “lead generation” industry, which uses digital tools to compile and sell lists of prospective online customers, enabled lenders to identify potential subprime borrowers. This process, experts say, “played a critical, but largely invisible, role” in the mortgage crisis. In the end, nine million families saw their homes foreclosed on, wiping out half the collective wealth of Black families nationwide, further devastating deindustrialized cities like Detroit. With a few strokes of a keyboard, modern bankers caused dispossession on a scale that put the landowners of the original enclosure movement to shame.
The havoc wrought by the mortgage crisis in turn opened space for new algorithmically enabled land grabs. Invitation Homes, a private equity-backed firm, broke new ground by adopting machine learning systems to assess rental acquisitions, buying up huge swaths of property foreclosed during the subprime crisis on the wager that Americans would be willing to rent suburban houses they could no longer afford to own. Today, one-fourth of single-family rentals belong to institutional investors, which have developed streamlined, smartphone-driven systems to manage them. Digital technology mediates all interactions between tenants and the company, from viewings to lease signings to repairs, inaugurating what scholar Desiree Fields calls the age of the “automated landlord.” (In March 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tasked William Mulrow, a senior director at the private equity giant Blackstone Group, with spearheading the state’s coronavirus economic recovery; Blackstone held a major stake in Invitation Homes until November 2019, when it sold its last shares for a total of around $7 billion.)
As Fields has documented, the digital dimensions of this high-tech landgrab go much deeper than a shiny interface. An assemblage of platforms and data analytics drive what the National Rental Home Council, a trade association, describes as “property management at scale.” First, Invitation Home’s proprietary underwriting algorithm determines what properties the company should purchase by considering factors including “neighborhood desirability, proximity to employment centers, transportation corridors, community amenities, construction type, and required ongoing capital needs.” Then networked technology allows investors to oversee large portfolios of far-flung units, with information quickly conveyed to capital markets so that additional money can be raised to expand the enterprise, while regular people who want to purchase a place to live are forced to compete with distant cash-rich investors working at digital speed. Hedge funds are happy to let buildings sit empty, waiting for them to appreciate, while locals pay the price.
Meanwhile, old biases persist and compound even when the platform is cutting-edge. Invitation Homes, for example, targets people of color who lack other housing options while charging them sky-high rates to meet Wall Street’s outsized expectations. In other instances, opaque systems make discrimination difficult to prove. Automated decision-making enshrines socioeconomic disparities in an invisible, technical process, locking certain populations out or including them on predatory terms. One recent study from UC Berkeley found that, among online mortgage applicants, Black and Latinx borrowers paid over five basis points more in interest than white borrowers with similar financial backgrounds.
Racism is encoded in bad datasets and reinforced by the biases of disproportionately white, male, and privileged engineers—a process scholar Ruha Benjamin calls the “New Jim Code.” Recently, the Trump Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed new rules that would effectively permit automated discrimination in the housing market, allowing algorithms to exclude and segregate on a landlord or mortgage lender’s behalf, effectively exempting digital technology from civil rights regulations. “It’s going to drive people toward these algorithmic tools, and I think we’ll end up in a marketplace where everyone is taking advantage of this loophole,” Paul Goodman, a housing justice advocate, told Dissent. The powerful may soon be allowed to have computers mark certain populations as “risky” in order to dispossess them, and to do so without risking a lawsuit.
All Watched Over by Machines at the Workplace
New technologies aren’t just augmenting capitalism’s insecurity-generating tendencies in the spaces that we call home. They are also intensifying those tendencies in the other domain that defines most of our lives: the workplace.
The other night a friend regaled me with stories of working at a Brooklyn café. The place has a vintage and vaguely Parisian aesthetic—decidedly retro and low-tech. There are, of course, regulars, including a medievalist who likes to chat. A few months ago, on a slow day, another barista on duty was exchanging pleasantries with the medievalist when her phone rang: the owner was watching the security camera live-feed from his laptop, and told her to stop being so nice. When I asked my friend how many cameras are installed in the small space, she could identify at least eight, and said there might be more. The charming café is, in fact, a panopticon—the boss can tune in at any time from anywhere, and see from nearly every angle. The workers are always on edge, even when all they want to do is show a bit of kindness to a local eccentric.
As the scholar George Rigakos reminds us in his book Security/Capital, employers have been deploying cameras toward similar ends for decades. In the early 1990s, Rigakos worked at a bakery where the staff regularly took home broken and unsaleable loaves. Management had always looked the other way. But weeks before the business was scheduled to be closed, the owners installed security cameras to catch workers in the act. Lifelong employees were summarily fired, losing their retirement benefits. “The security cameras must have saved the company thousands upon thousands in severance and pension dollars,” Rigakos recounts.
Today, employees no longer need to labor in the same physical space to be surveilled, nor is a human being required to do the surveilling. Instead, isolated and geographically dispersed, workers can be tracked and controlled remotely, whether they are driving for UPS or making deliveries for DoorDash or transcribing material for Rev. By harnessing digital technology, companies are able to offload more risk onto individuals, whom they categorize as independent contractors to bypass minimum wage laws and other protections. A dwindling number of people are entitled to severance or pension dollars in the first place.
Work, we are often told, is becoming insecure. In reality, insecurity precedes work, or at least its waged variety. While some claim that insecurity is the inevitable consequence of innovation—the result of the fact that, as labor productivity rises, you need fewer workers to produce the same output—the fact is that people had to be made insecure, literally severed from their land and livelihoods, for capitalist working conditions to be foisted upon them.
Before the wage-earner could emerge as our society’s paradigmatic subject, the persona that we must all embody to survive, the condition of what historian Michael Denning calls “wagelessness” had to be imposed via the process of enclosure, after which peasants could no longer provide for themselves. “Capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living,” Denning writes. Contrary to the myth of liberal laissez-faire, employment relations are anything but natural, spontaneous, or freely chosen.
It wasn’t until during the New Deal era that employment became secure, at least for a subset of white men. During the Great Depression, an unlikely assortment of social reformers, radical workers, and “welfare populists” pushed to redefine “security” as a social good guaranteed by the government. "For a long time now people have been saying that perhaps the greatest evil of capitalist industrialism is not its unequal distribution of wealth but the insecurity it brings to the majority of the population,” The New Republic opined in 1935. If capitalism was the problem, the Roosevelt Administration’s solution was a robust welfare state. “Security” became FDR’s rallying cry.
In response, business went on the offense, embracing the concept of security in order to redefine it. As historian Jennifer Klein demonstrates in her 2003 book For All These Rights, corporate elites devised a “firm-centered definition” of security “in order to cultivate workers’ loyalty to the company and check the further growth of the welfare state” A full-time job became more than just a paycheck—it was a lifeline to unemployment benefits, retirement funds, and medical care. Inadequate public programs left a gap that employers stepped in to fill; security was offered on an occupational as opposed to universal basis.
The advent of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s marked the end of this arrangement. Corporate leaders launched a concerted counterattack, breaking unions, reneging on pensions, freezing wages, dodging taxes, and outsourcing jobs. Determined to erode what remains of the New Deal compact, companies today strategically deploy digital technology to shirk their end of the historic bargain. The development of AI-enabled labor-management systems undermine worker rights and safety through a combination of surveillance and predictive analytics, impacting everything from hiring to firing. Bots scan resumes and assess vocal intonation during job interviews, dictating who gets their foot in the door.
On the job, algorithms are harsh taskmasters, ranking and rating workers and automatically setting performance targets. Pickers in Amazon warehouses and shoppers for Instacart scramble to meet the demands of their digital overlords, enduring mental stress, chronic injuries, and even death. Unpredictable algorithmic wage cuts undermine economic stability, but only come after a worker has been lured to a platform with promises of a living wage and “flexible” hours. Meanwhile, workers are kept in the dark, unable to understand or contest the decisions that set the terms of their lives and livelihoods.
For years, wannabe prophets predicted that robots were “coming for our jobs.” That particular forecast, it turns out, has not come to pass. Instead, more and more people effectively have robots for bosses. Aggregating power in the hands of owners, managers, and developers, these digital systems secure profits by disregarding human beings’ need for predictable incomes, schedules, and benefits—for security, in other words. When your supervisor is an algorithm, expect no remorse.
Shut Down the Machine
The powerful have never wanted the masses to be secure, and the current crop of Silicon Valley overlords are hardly innovative in this respect. In the Middle Ages, Christian thinkers denounced security as a sin and an insult to God. “Perverse security,” they called it. Today, tech billionaires are busy devising new sophisticated tools to spread insecurity so that they might become tomorrow’s trillionaires.
Positioned to profit from mass precarity, they know that “disruption” is not a regrettable pitstop on the road to broadly shared prosperity, but a never-ending process that facilitates exploitation. Companies like Uber and Lyft benefit from the fact that millions of people can’t make ends meet with one job; from the fact that rising housing costs mean a growing number of drivers have no choice but to live in their cars (many rent their vehicles from Uber, essentially turning them into app-controlled sharecroppers); and from the fact that most drivers are ashamed of their predicament, which makes them less likely to stand up for themselves. It’s not a coincidence that homelessness tends to spike wherever the tech industry flourishes. The Bay Area’s tent cities are symbolic of a digital economy that thrives on new forms of enclosure and dispossession.
Looking at capitalism through the lens of insecurity, as opposed to focusing solely on inequality, reminds us that people need more than higher pay; we need peace of mind and an ability to plan ahead. Strong regulations and robust public services are essential in this regard. Newly popular proposals, including national rent control and a homes guarantee that makes affordable housing a universal right, would have a socially transformative effect. In terms of labor rights, AB5, a California law that would classify drivers as employees and not independent contractors, is an encouraging development. Clarifying the employment relationship would help stabilize people’s incomes and lives—which is why Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart have committed $110 million to overturn it.
But even if AB5 became federal law, and “independent contractors” were finally recognized as what they are—workers—that wouldn’t be enough. The time has come to decouple security and employment, while also rethinking what security means in an age of ecological crisis and technological possibility. Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak has offered a distressing preview of the sort of upheaval climate change has in store. Overnight, millions of jobs evaporated and countless families were cut off from their medical coverage when they needed it most, laying bare the shortcomings of the New Deal settlement for all to see.
In contrast to the New Deal’s individualistic and firm-centered conception of security, we need to devise a truly socialized security system, one predicated on universality and sustainability and geared toward redistributing not just wealth but risk. The frame of a Green New Deal moves us in this direction by centering collective solutions such as public housing, Medicare For All, and a federal job guarantee. (The multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package passed by Congress in the wake of the pandemic proves we have the money to pay for such policies, if only we can muster the political will.)
Digital technology can and must be redirected to assist the cause—smart machines could help pair patients with physicians and improve their treatment, for instance, not target desperate customers with discriminatory insurance rates. But digital technology must also recede when appropriate. Leftists these days often say we need to decommodify, democratize, and decarbonize various realms of social life; we need to de-digitize many of them as well.
While some technologies—think of the internet service providers we depend on for connectivity and the social media platforms we use to communicate, which have become even more essential to survival as people seek to physically isolate themselves—should be socialized and managed as public utilities, there are other technologies that shouldn’t exist, and plenty of data that shouldn’t be collected. As tech critic Ben Tarnoff has argued, technology employed primarily for social control or to enforce austerity must be abolished, not democratized or socialized. The Atlantic Towers tenants were right—invasive facial recognition systems have no place in our communities—and they proved that popular mobilization can push back on harmful technology. Many more mobilizations will be needed to dismantle insecurity-generating algorithms in all of their forms, from biometric tracking in the workplace to behavioral targeting by advertisers.
Human beings will, of course, never be totally secure. The Stoic philosophers who first pondered the concept understood security as a psychological state, a kind of mental serenity that vulnerable, mortal, meaning-seeking creatures rarely feel. Two thousand years later, we live in a world where, though security on an existential level continues to elude us, economic security, or the fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs, is feasible. And yet we inhabit a paradox: a new digital arsenal is being developed to ensure we remain insecure despite the abundance in our midst. Denied the basic resources we need to live, we are forced to seek security through market means—investing in our brands, paying our insurance premiums, and praying that our retirement funds appreciate—while lining the pockets of those most responsible for making us insecure in the first place. Building a more secure world for everyone will be a challenge. But it’s a risk we can’t afford not to take.