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Monopoly on Knowledge: The Era of Epistemic Security

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Postcards From Barsoom

Monopoly on Knowledge:

The Era of Epistemic Security

by Dr. Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz

As the subtitle implies, this essay was submitted by a friend of the blog, Dr. Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz, so all credit should go to her. Aside from the choice of art, for which you can blame me. Mostly. Actually that was only true in an early draft – once I started using Polish surrealism, Monika decided to educate me on the subject, and uh, wow. Anyhow, her essay is too spicy for the bland palates of academic journal editors, but Monika knows as well as I do that you, my dear readers, have a more robust constitution, so she asked me if I’d be willing to publish it here. I think you’ll find it both insightful and interesting. – JC

If there is one universally known quote from Thomas Hobbes, it would be his assertion that without security “there is no place for industry… no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.Indeed, in the West, we tend to understand security as freedom from harm and/or threat of it, and a prerequisite to a thriving and prosperous society. Furthermore, in accordance with Leviathan’s logic, security is commonly understood as something warranted by the state, which in essence becomes the primary security provider.

It is no wonder then that at least since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, security debates have been dominated by the idea of national security, and often focused on militarised interpretations that traditionally saw security both as (the highest) end and as (the ultimate) means. Broadly speaking, security denoted how well any particular state or allied group of states was doing in the struggle for power, or how stable the balance of power overall appeared to be. Simultaneously, national security became well-entrenched as a political tool of immense convenience for a large variety of factional interests, and a justification for actions and policies. This situation persisted roughly until the end of Cold War, when two interesting developments happened: widening and riskification.

The traditional approach to security restricted it to one dimension, i.e. the military context, and was quite ‘vertical’ in the sense that it spanned from the human up through the state into the international level, as exemplified by the canonical book by Kenneth Waltz (1959) Man, the State and War. The new approach was born out of dissatisfaction with the intense narrowing of security in the post-Cold War world. In 1991, mimicking Waltz, Barry Buzan wrote People, States, and Fear and eventually the “wide” versus “narrow” debate paved the way for the group of scholars referred to as the Copenhagen School to formulate a more ‘horizontal’ approach to security. In addition to the military, they identified four other sectors of security, including political, economic, environmental and – last but not least – societal.

Tomasz Sętowski

Simultaneously, in 1992 a prominent German academic, Ulrich Beck, caused quite an uproar with his seminal work entitled Risk Society. For Beck, risk, which is intrinsic to modernity, would contribute towards the formation of a global risk society. Its inherent characteristic is that the hazards of risk do not remain restricted to one country only. In the age of globalisation, these risks affect all countries and all social classes, and are very dynamic. They have global, not merely personal consequences. Furthermore, people (but also states) are constantly required to respond and adjust to these changes. While Beck is a sociologist, his thesis had significant implications for security studies: a risk society means that it is not only the actual security threat that needs to be dealt with, but increasingly, any potential chance that a high-risk event might transpire, regardless of how remote such a chance is. Think about the scale and scope of measures aimed at countering the potential terrorist threat, for instance the huge concrete barriers installed even in places with no prior history of terrorism. It shows how progressively not only the actually existing peril, but the mere risk of potential danger can be seen as a driver for policymaking.

This might seem like an unimportant nuance, but consider one thing: traditionally, a security-related situation implies the presence of an existential threat. On this basis, the state representative declares an emergency condition, thus claiming the right to use whatever means are necessary to block, minimise, or eliminate the danger. Emergency measures, on the other hand, denote a suspension of the normal rules of the game (laws), and allow actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure, thus removing the existing system of checks, balances, and limitations imposed on the powers that be. However, what do the concepts of existential threat and emergency measures mean in the wider agenda? As if it is not enough that each sector has a whole set of distinct and diverse threats, they do not even have to be actual to become a basis for security action; a mere risk of them suffices after all. Widening and riskification, when taken together, amount to what

calls the sacralisation of security.

In his 2018 book, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, Furedi argues that the meaning of safety, as a side effect of security, has expanded to the point that it guides virtually every dimension of life. It has become the dominant value of society. Through this, security has acquired a sacred status, and its moral authority is frequently used to justify the introduction of a variety of measures for regulating life. Think about Western citizens’ willingness to give up their freedoms and accept the implementation of lockdowns. Demonstrating virtually no opposition to the capricious imposition of these arbitrarily mandated rules, millions of people were willing to give up their way of life, abandon their work, and give away fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement and of assembly. Consider school and university lockdowns. In previous times, schools were never closed, not even during wartime. In my native Poland, despite the ongoing atrocities of brutal German occupation, a whole underground system of schooling existed during WW2, and people risked their lives to attend those illegal classes.

Greek school in the time of slavery, Nikolaos Gyzis, 1885

Not only is the situation radically different now, but also any criticism of security measures is frequently condemned as a threat to public security. Consequently, debate on “security matters” is regarded as a luxury that society cannot afford. What Ole Wæver called securitisation became the prevalent characteristic of public life. Everything is either dangerous or has the potential to be so. Since security has both a subjective and an all-encompassing quality, to the point of encouraging a survivalist mode of behaviour, staying safe and surviving appears to have become the pivotal issue around which everything else revolves.

Survivalism means that no goals are projected into the future. It also requires a set of wider structural settings that enable a situation where we become obsessed with a particular form of security such that we have lost sight of all other dimensions of life. Last but not least, survivalism deprives important moral values of their meaning. This is important because security is always connected to the way society fears. Fear is both mediated and regulated through moral norms. At the moment, there is a fundamental difference and a discrepancy between what we practice as our principal value, i.e. safety and security, and our professed moral values, such as freedom, justice, or courage.

As if the world was not obsessed enough with all the real and potential material threats to security across the many sectors of human life, the “narrative turn” in the social sciences, and with it the advent of ‘ontological security’, brought the normative threats to the fore. Ontological Security Theory (OST) was proposed as a framework for understanding societal behaviour in the sphere of security perception, threat identification and community-building. Anthony Giddens defined ontological security as a “sense of continuity and order in events.” To be ontologically secure, explained Giddens, is to have “answers to fundamental existential questions.” The concept of ontological security gained recognition because it explains how the motives for certain behaviours can be found in the need to maintain or recreate positive identities anchored in consistent, auto-reflexive narratives about the self and the communities we identify with, such as the nation.

Jacek Yerka

In the opening paragraph of his 2008 Essay on the Polish Soul, Ryszard Legutko writes:

Poland, which I have known and lived in since birth, is a Poland of broken continuity. It was created from scratch, built consciously in opposition to everything it had been for centuries. Its modernity did not emerge gradually in the process of complex multi-dimensional historical changes that would transform social structures, customs, institutions, and human minds. The very essence of modern Poland is new as if it was created from a new embryo, unknown to previous generations and in previous centuries.

For Legutko, the point of rupture is the outbreak of the Second World War, while the lack of continuity was further perpetuated during the half-century of enforced Communist rule. Not only did it affect national self-identity, but also the consciously rejected past annihilated the collective memories necessary for ontological security maintenance. He explains further:

For seventy years, Poles have been almost exclusively an object, and only to a negligible extent, a subject of history. For seventy years, they have been referring not to what they are but what they are to become, accepting without reflection that achieving this future goal cannot succeed without shedding the burden of the past.

Zdzislaw Beksinski, 1978

This example from Poland is not unique. When Mona Sahlin, leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party from 2007 to 2011, announced that indigenous Swedes must be integrated into the new multicultural Sweden, because the old Sweden will not return, she went straight for the jugular of ontological security.

Ontological security is all about our sense of self, both as individuals and as members of a larger group. When this sense of self is unclear or unstable, it can create a feeling of insecurity. This type of insecurity is not about the kind of physical danger stipulated by the traditional definition of an existential threat; instead, it is about feeling unsure of who we are and where we belong. Threats arising from feeling that our identities may not survive are not material; they are normative. Thanks to ontological security all the heated debates on what it means to be French or British (in fact, insert your preferred Western European nationality here) or why “promoting our European way of life” is one of the European Commission’s strategic priorities suddenly start making sense. Both history and culture become security policies.

This is why societies aim to establish and preserve a shared collective identity through institutionalized historical narratives and self-images, from the Iliad and the Odyssey to “Our ancestors, the Gauls” to America’s Founding Fathers. These narratives shape routine interactions with others on the societal level and create space for the state’s influence on the political one. The relevance of a managed historical memory to security is quite straightforward. Already in his prophetic 1984 George Orwell showed that he who shapes memories of the past holds real power over both present and future. Indeed, memory has become one of the most feasible means of exercising political power in a modern world. Marek Cichocki argues that control over memories enables proper control over public opinion, not only within one community but also in the international stage. Consequently, from a security perspective, what people collectively remember and how they remember it holds great significance. At the same time, historical narratives penetrate discussions in policy areas, not merely in commemorative or symbolical politics, but actively shaping political processes. As such, historical narratives serve as fundamental building blocks for discursively constructed political reality and ontologically anchored security.

Consider the implications of the shift from the actual material to the possible ideational threat. The classic Weberian definition of the state says that it has a monopoly on violence. This means that the people within a state grant the government the exclusive right to use violence in exchange for protection of their lives and property. Ontological security extends this idea to include a monopoly on controlling the narrative of history and culture. This evolution aligns with the broader expansion of state functions seen in modern states. It signifies a constant quest to expand the state’s control into new areas, with security being the primary currency in achieving this.

On the transformative journey from the warfare to the welfare state, the system of managerial technocracy morphed into what

and

identified as a social-imperial state, where the state’s relationship with its territory is likened to colonization. This form of inward imperialism accepts territorial boundaries but not social ones, according to Dale and Warby.

Wojciech Siudmak

To understand this shift, we can turn to

’s concept of the epistemic institutions: media – both the legacy print and broadcast media, and increasingly online and social media – museums, and entertainment. These industries play a significant role in shaping our beliefs and opinions, often relying on emotional reinforcement. The result can be described as “epistemic tyranny,” where emotionally validated knowledge dominates the discourse. Here is where ontology starts giving way to epistemology in the world of security.

To comprehend this “epistemic turn” more clearly, let us consider the educational system with two interconnected causal variables at play: oligarchisation and homogenisation. Against the backdrop of a strong choir of the professional cry-wolfers bemoaning “democratic backsliding” and other sins against the rules-based order, oligarchisation is a dominant trend. Worldwide. Societally. In the political world. Business. Entertainment. Culture. And so on. For instance, 40 years ago, there were 14,469 commercial banks in the United States. By the end of last year, that number was down to 4,135, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

A similar trend can be observed in the mediascape. The process of media ownership concentration, also known as media consolidation or convergence, refers to a situation where a progressively smaller number of individuals or entities exert control over expanding portions of the mass media. Recent studies (for details see Vargas, 2012: 206-208) illustrate a growing trend in consolidation, with numerous media sectors already highly concentrated, dominated by a minimal number of entities. This amalgamation of power is further exemplified by conglomerates, and their impact on media content and structure. Helen Johnson notes that in the United States, there were 50 prominent media corporations in 1983, a number that has now been reduced to five. These conglomerates possess approximately 90 percent of the US media landscape, encompassing newspapers, magazines, book publishers, film studios, and radio and television stations.

As another example, consider education. There were 3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US as of the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Now think about demographics and consider whether in the ongoing depopulocalypse, we will need that many.

Combine this trend with the acute crisis of meritocracy brought about by the Critical Theory adherents and the Follow the Science cult activated during the recent pandemic, and evidenced in the plummeting trust in the institutions of higher education1. COVID-19 lockdowns elevated remote teaching to the epitome of modern education. Given the exorbitant and ever-growing tuition fees, more and more people will wonder if it is worth indebting yourself for life for taking an online program in gender studies. Moreover, why take this program at your local college if you can get the same from leading institutions in the country for the same price? This is the reason why I see the future of US education as an oligopoly of ca. 50 educational outlets providing a homogeneous set of standardized degrees via online programs. There will possibly be divergences between America and Europe, but I do not think they will be substantial enough to alter the direction of the ongoing transformation.

Oligarchisation of education is of paramount importance as a vehicle of epistemic security. An oligopoly of a select few universities means homogenisation and uniformity. Inevitably, it implies a future where fewer institutions offer increasingly homogenous educational programs. Uniform curricula delivered by a handful of credentialed caste members will provide fragmentary applied knowledge – a form of technocracy-driven education prioritized for immediate labour market relevance. Such systems, founded on partial knowledge, can be wielded to construct social ideologies. This unwittingly2 serves as a means of indoctrination and manipulation, ultimately incapacitating societies and facilitating more controlled governance. In such an epistemic universe, “unity in diversity” takes on a hollow meaning, allowing room for superficial distinctions like pronouns and hair colour while stifling genuine diversity of thought.

The repercussions of this educational homogenization reach far and wide. A generation educated in this manner is susceptible to manipulation, lacking the ability to critically assess the mechanisms governing social, economic, and political life. Their education provides a shallow set of dogmas veiled in newspeak, blurring once-clear concepts and contexts. Such an educational paradigm serves only to limit individual autonomy and prepare young minds for uncritical obedience. It fosters the emergence of docile social groups, reducing the independence of the individual.

This phenomenon was explored at length by Anna Pawełczyńska, a Polish sociologist who experienced totalitarianism personally, first as a German concentration camp prisoner, and later subjected to decades of Kafkaesque Communism. In our reflections on the evolution of security, the pressing question we must confront is the true purpose of modern university education, beyond the mere utilitarian pursuit of getting a “degree.” As Pawełczyńska wrote in her book The Hydra Heads: On the Perversity of Modern Evil:

It must be said clearly: science cannot be treated as an arbitrator in all matters important to humans. Its possibilities are limited… science can [also] be effectively engaged in the service of violence.

Western universities are rapidly shifting towards becoming glorified vocational schools or, worse, factories churning out obedient apparatchiks, so what is their value for the state? Pawełczyńska again:

Newspeaks emerge on the verge of propaganda, blurring previously clear concepts and their contexts. Manipulation is used against a generation incapable of independently assessing the mechanisms of social life. Language begins to serve the purpose of manipulating meanings. The process of degradation of linguistic resources and the need to distinguish meanings is one of the most serious symptoms of the regression of contemporary culture.

The value of the modern university to the state is control, purchased with the customary coin of security. In the Information Age, the ever growing state reaches out to obtain a monopoly on knowledge. Consider how French MPs from all political streams, except the Rassemblement National, are preparing a bill banning “climate scepticism” in the entire “audiovisual and digital landscape,” i.e., in the media and on the Internet. This is only the latest example in the pageant of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Add to this the hate speech laws that only thinly hide their censorship aspirations, such as Ireland’s Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, an authoritarian response to civic discontent about migration policy, which culminated in the Dublin riots. And do not forget fact-checking, frequently delegated to people who believe that it is a fact that men can get pregnant.

The assumption we all make, and I argue we are wrong, is that the state aspires to offer the best education possible. That the state wants to have well-informed, critical, reflective citizens. It does not. Many argue that governments are interested in and uniquely capable of securing quality education, and that especially conservative governments can and should “do something about it”. This is a wrong premise. We should start with the fact that the modern state does not want to have well-educated citizens. Such citizens are troublemakers. They ask difficult questions. They have expectations. They have ideas. They may oppose policies such as Build Back Better or Net Zero or whatever the ideology du jour has to offer. Stupid citizens are easy to govern. Ignorant citizens are easy to manage. A cartel of universities that are not universities but factories producing a more or less3 competent labour force of compliant ants that acquired only carefully curated knowledge is not some sort of systemic malfunction, it is the state’s wet dream. And they will try to sell this dream to their populaces promising them “epistemic security,” something that we can call the freedom from doubt.

Traditionally, the concepts of “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” are closely associated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, particularly in the context of his famous 1941 State of the Union Address. The idea that everyone should have access to the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter, was combined with the absence of fear caused by aggression, conflict, or repression, both at the national and international levels. Consequently, “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” became fundamental components of the global human rights framework and the broader discourse on human security. But as these freedoms were attained in the liberal West, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the End of History, the security goalposts were moved along the path presented in this essay: from material to immaterial, from real to potential, from ontological to epistemic.

Since epistemic security can only be achieved via a monopoly on knowledge, the epistemic institutions, with universities in the vanguard, will have to assault two modern dogmas: the notion of progress and the concept of relativism. Our current paradigm places great emphasis on progress, denoting the continual advancement beyond existing theoretical foundations to unearth novel forms of knowledge. This development of cumulative knowledge within a self-correcting framework hinges on the perpetual juxtaposition of dominant perspectives with alternative viewpoints. It is through this dialectical process that knowledge evolves, existing theories are scrutinized, expanded upon, or supplanted, and new paradigms capable of elucidating hitherto uncharted facts are forged. The transition into new paradigms necessitates the proposition of theories that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, often deemed false within the established paradigm’s assumptions. In essence, genuine progress, especially in matters of great import, thrives on the corrective influence of a pluralistic and multifaceted array of sometimes contradictory perspectives. In contemporary parlance, this rich tapestry of diverse perspectives is often labelled as “disinformation,” especially if they happen to challenge the scientific consensus (as was the case during the recent pandemic, suffice to mention the shoddy peer review practices of legacy journals, and the influence of politics in the editorial practices of those journals).

Disruptive and radical paradigm shifts, the driving force behind progress, necessitate a divergence from established consensus. Achieving qualitative progress, entailing radical shifts that unlock new realms of facts and foundations for theory and practice, hinges on the proposition of theories and factual assertions that challenge prevailing viewpoints and worldviews. These are positions that would be deemed false when viewed through the lens of established paradigms, not in the epistemic sense but in the context of the conventional wisdom favoured by the “fact-checkers.” In this pursuit, even incremental progress requires the participation of “wrong-thinking” outsiders who dare to question the implicit assumptions woven into dominant perspectives, narratives, and modes of interpretation. The act of challenging these conventions has historically been integral to the advancement of knowledge. Increasingly, this is not possible under the new monopoly-on-knowledge epistemic security paradigm, which is hostile to conventionally understood progress.

The pursuit of epistemic security demands a structured framework that provides us with definitive, authoritative responses, leaving no room for diversity or the existence of relative truths. As

articulated, the obvious consequence of embracing an epistemic security model is that: “If there is Official Disinformation there must necessarily exist Official Truths, and agencies charged with producing, promoting, and policing them.” This monopoly on knowledge perpetuates established paradigms in lieu of genuine exploration, research, and discovery.

What we call “cancel culture” and “deplatforming” are merely means to this end. Centralised and digitalised epistemic industries offer effective tools for an enforced consensus throughout every sphere of human activity. In the age of centralized and digitized epistemic industries, a conspiracy of government, large corporations, universities, and the media, powerful tools facilitate the imposition of consensus across all facets of human endeavour. From Google to Wikipedia to ChatGPT, these tools often replicate prevailing viewpoints in every conceivable field and on all matters. The monopoly on knowledge acts as an amplifier for the most influential perspectives, theories, and narratives. Consequently, it permits a select set of ideologies, knowledge traditions, or theoretical frameworks to potentially achieve a form of comprehensive dominance over the production of knowledge. Compounding this epistemic totalitarianism is the automated suppression of politically incorrect ideas and curtailment of “undesirable” content, which operates alongside extensive surveillance and social credit analogues. Collectively, these developments transport us into a dystopian terrain so surreal that no conspiracy theory (another distinct threat in the era of epistemic security) could adequately capture its reality.

Dr. Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz finds bios to be pompous things listing credentials and placements, but if you absolutely must know, she describes herself as a homo viator, currently based in the Norwegian Arctic where she researches societal security & political violence. You can find her on Xitter @bartoszewicz_mg.

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As for your host, as always, in between writing on Substack you can find me xitpoasting on Xitter @martianwyrdlord, and I’m also pretty active and moderately spicier at Telegrams From Barsoom.

Main Image by Jarosław Jasnikowski

This post was originally published on from Randy Rowe and can viewed here: https://newagora.ca/monopoly-on-knowledge-the-era-of-epistemic-security/

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