Medieval Security in the Modern State

Space and Polity, Vol. 14, No. 3, 251 – 269, December 2010

Medieval Security in the Modern State


[Paper first received, April 2009; in final form, April 2010]

Abstract. The size of the private security industry has increased substantially in recent decades. While previous research has focused on the industry’s growth trajectory, less emphasis has been placed on explaining the nature and diversity of private security services. This article investigates the possibility of studying private security with the feudal model. Feudalism is introduced as an ideal type and the paper explains why it is necessary for understanding the independent control of violent force—termed here as ‘private coercion’—in contemporary society. The feudal model provides a unique historical lens through which to re-examine previous studies on this subject. In many ways, private coercion is incongruent with the traditional vision of liberal, capitalist society. The feudal model reveals these inconsistencies as it identifies private coercion as a means of creating wealth that violates the state’s monopoly on violence, chal-lenges the public sphere of governance and redefines the boundaries between public and private space. This article suggests that any explanation of modern modes of securing life and property is incomplete without the feudal model.In the US, the task of protecting individuals, groups and assets is increasingly being performed by private firms. The safety and security of many Americans now depend in part on a range of private agents and organisations, from security guards, bodyguards, private investigators and home-security companies to com-mercial surveillance firms, massive in-house corporate security departments, private military companies and other private-sector defence agencies and contrac-tors (Wood and Shearing, 2007). These services not only secure life and property, but also facilitate the expansion of private wealth and power, while reshaping the relationship between public and private governance (Alsayyad and Roy, 2006) and redefining the public’s access to and control over geographical areas (Sack, 1983).

The “individualization of security”, as Rose (1999, p. 236) puts it, may be a con-temporary trend, but it has deep roots in human history. The independent control of violent force—what I refer to as “private coercion”—played an especially

Joshua Woods is in the Division of Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia University, PO Box 6326, 307 Knapp Hall, Morgantown, WV 26506, USA. E-mail: joshua.woods@ The author’s gratitude goes to the Editor Ronan Paddison and the anon-ymous reviewers for their excellent comments and guidance on an earlier draft of this manuscript. The author would also like to thank Vladimir Shlapentokh for his suggestions on this paper.

important role in the political and economic arenas of western-Europe in the Middle Ages. Drawing on the medieval context, I introduce the feudal model and explain why it is necessary for understanding the nature and consequences of private coercion in the 21st century. By analysing Weberian ‘ideal types’, I also show that private coercion is incongruent with many aspects of the traditional vision of liberal, capitalist society. While the liberal model explains much about law enforcement in the US, the picture of modern security remains incomplete without the feudal model.

Although the comparative historical approach is more often employed to eluci-date social transformations (Skocpol and Somers, 1980), it can also reveal continu-ous or recurrent social developments. Such an approach follows the tradition of Simmel’s ‘formal sociology’, a perspective that contests the idea that new histori-cal events change the essential nature of human interaction (Coser, 1977). Simmel argues that societies consist of universal patterns of interaction, which occur and re-occur throughout history and across different social and cultural settings. Two entirely different types of human behaviour can be understood with the same formal concept. For instance, in many ways, conflicts between two modern organ-isations are similar to conflicts between two medieval lords—or even, for that matter, between husbands and wives. More akin to the subject at hand, the need for personal protection and the willingness of people to pay for it lead to a universal form of interaction between providers and receivers of protection.

This approach deviates from the extant literature on private security and pro-vides a unique historical lens through which to re-examine it. Much of the pre-vious research analyses the privatisation of security as a relatively new trend, an emergent social phenomenon or a contemporary manifestation of neo-liberal ideology. Following this line of thinking, it may be reasonable to link the increased role of private coercion to the rise of corporate capitalism (Spitzer and Scull, 1977), the intensification of globalisation (Anderson, 1996), or to examine the mounting demand for security in relation to the increasing levels of crime, fear of crime or the post-9/11 response to terrorism (Karstedt and LaFree, 2006). A fruitful analysis might also investigate the connection between an expanding private security industry and modernity’s preoccupation with controlling risk and ameliorating hazards—what Giddens (1999) and Beck (1992) call ‘risk society’.

While these perspectives represent useful directions for research, I argue, however, that private coercion should not be seen primarily as a modern social phenomenon, nor as one found exclusively in the age of capitalist development.

The feudal model is not only intended to highlight relationships between past and present, but also to dispute the supposed novelty of these conditions and to undermine idealised conceptions of the modern state. Private coercion, in both its territorial and non-territorial forms (Sack, 1983), has played a pivotal role in determining social outcomes in a range of historical contexts, such as the deployment of mercenaries in 9th-century military conflicts, the bourgeoisie’s struggle for control over public space in the rapidly growing Victorian city (Paddison and Sharp, 2007), the mobilisation of private military companies in modern-day Iraq (Scahil, 2007) and the use of violence by bouncers in Manchester nightclubs (Hobbset al., 2003).

The objective here is to expose the previous explanations of private security to a wider range of historical cases, conceptualise them as universal social patterns and delimit their application to modern society. By showing that people in both the medieval and modern contexts (among others) have utilised coercion in 252 Joshua Woods similar ways, I attempt to identify what Bendix (1963, p. 535) calls “sociological universals”. This approach also follows the more recent work of Alsayyad and Roy (2006, p. 5), who refer to it as ‘transhistorical’, given its interest in “generating questions about ‘now’ from the perspective of ‘then’”.

Territorial and Non-territorial Coercion

Before moving to a comparison of the medieval and modern security configur-ations, the concept of coercion deserves a further explanation. Drawing on the tra-ditional sociological view of ‘power’, coercion can be defined as the use of

physical force, violence or the threat of violence to control the actions of other

people, events, social interactions or resources (Weber, 1947). My decision to use

the term ‘private coercion’, as opposed to ‘private security’, is meant, first of all,

to problematise the legitimacy often afforded to the concept of security. The

private security industry is commonly understood in normative terms as an

instrument of defence or protection of citizens and legitimately held assets and

property. The use of violence from a defensive posture or for the sake of prevent-ing illegal behaviour and protecting privately owned spaces, such as a car, a house

or a business, is indeed one of the intended functions of what I call private coer-cion. The framework offered here, however, also suggests that private actors and

organisations utilise violence or the threat of violence to control directly the

actions of others in an effort to expand their wealth and power. Coercion for the

sake of profit, as opposed to protection, lacks the same level of social legitimacy.

The term coercion is also better at capturing the meanings of both ‘territorial’ and

‘non-territorial’ strategies of controlling or influencing the actions of others (Sack,

1986, 1981). Drawing on Sack’s conceptual tools, the various types of coercion can

be understood as strategic efforts by private individuals or entities to control

people, events and resources by delimiting and enforcing the boundaries of a geo-graphical area (‘territoriality’), or by compelling particular types of action through

coercive means that do not require the domination of space (‘non-territoriality’).

As an illustration of the distinction between these two forms of coercion, con-sider the intentions of a doorman at a nightclub. The doorman may have a

mandate to prevent the use of illicit drugs within a given establishment. Before

allowing anyone to enter the club, he could search each of his clients and bar

entry to those in possession of drugs. In such a case, the doorman achieves his

aim of curbing the use of drugs in the nightclub without convincing his clients

that doing so is impermissible or illegitimate. This is an example of territoriality,

according to Sack (1983, p. 56), because it is an attempt to affect behaviour by

asserting control over an area. It can also be considered coercion insofar as the

doorman’s authority is based partly on his ability to use force or impending vio-lence to turn away undesirable customers.

Now consider an alternative situation in which the doorman wishes to promote

the use of a certain type of drug by some but not all clients on the condition that it

is purchased from authorised individuals at a designated price. In this case, the

bouncer is trying non-territorially to influence the purchase, sale and use of

drugs by making specific demands and perhaps backing these directives with

the threat of violence. Non-territorial coercion tends to be more difficult to com-municate because it requires an “enumeration and classification” of the expected

behaviours, whereas territoriality avoids such a need because “it requires only one

kind of marker or sign—the boundary” (Sack, 1983, p. 58).

Medieval Security in the Modern State 253

As discussed in the next sections, both types of coercion have played important

roles in the modern and medieval security contexts. Collection agencies, gated

communities, private military companies and many other private organisations

influence people, change the nature of interactions, affect relationships and deter-mine key social outcomes by asserting control over territories as well as through

non-territorial forms of coercion. These activities are incongruent with the tra-ditional liberal model and other idealised concepts of the modern state. The

feudal model provides new possibilities for explaining the nature of private coer-cion and its implications for the public sphere of governance, the state’s monopoly

on violence and territorial sovereignty, and contemporary definitions of public

and private space.

Medieval Security

After the collapse of the Frankish kingdom in the 9th century, political power

fragmented in western Europe, conflicts ensued and security became a universal

concern. A number of powerful, autonomous agents emerged and often clashed as

they attempted to seize land and wealth from each other and the crumbling

empire (Duby, 1977; James, 1982; Jones, 1999; Elias, 1982). As noted by Elias

Even if Charlemagne managed to unite a huge empire during his life-time, his successors lacked the means to keep it together. For many cen-turies, centripetal forces were too weak to sustain a stable central power

over a large territory for any considerable period (Elias, 1998, p. 24).

A process of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of space ensued as minia-ture sovereignties emerged and attempted to establish new boundaries across the

failed empire (Anderson, 1996, p. 141).

Transport routes on both land and sea were treacherous. Travellers were

vulnerable to a range of serious dangers, from lone criminals and rogue sheriffs

to large bands of raiders. Economic activities diminished significantly in the early

Middle Ages. Faced with external threats and invasions, much of the population

in cities retreated to the countryside. The fear of crime and pillaging was felt

strongly by all, although most severely by the peasants. As Bloch has suggested

The incursions, whether of Arabs, Hungarians, or Scandinavians, were

certainly not wholly responsible for the shadow that lay so heavy on

men’s minds, but they were without doubt largely responsible (Bloch,

1989, p. 41).

The early Middle Ages were a time of military insecurity and the need for rever-sing this vulnerability and reestablishing territoriality became a driving force of

social development and the basis of feudal institutions and exchange processes.

Commendation—the voluntary submission of small landowners to the feudal

lord in exchange for protection—was a key institution in medieval society. The

receivers of security regularly paid for it in the form of goods, labour and military

service. Attempting to live outside the feudal security system was dangerous. As

suggested by Vinogradoff (1957), the bare existence of most peasants depended on

their ability to find support from a lord.

Castles and fortified towns were vital aspects of medieval security technology.

In addition to their obvious military function, castles provided a number of other

services to power-holders. They served as the residences of royalty, military head-254 Joshua Woods

quarters and centres of political administration, law enforcement, prisons and

treasuries (Colvin, 1982; Heiser, 2000). They also stood as symbols of authority

and social status for those who inhabited them. These architectural strongholds

were, above all else, instruments of social control, often located along key trade

routes, which allowed the lords to defend their lives and property, oversee and

maintain their territory, fulfill their obligations to higher lords and expand their

spheres of influence through violent means (Stokstad, 2005).

Although some aspects of medieval security can be seen as public, especially as

governments became more established in the late Middle Ages, protection and

military power were, for the most part, a private good, which was provided not

only by the king, but also by a number of independent actors. Mercenary

groups—some well organised, others loosely coupled—pursued financial or

material gain territorially by protecting and expanding their control over geo-graphical areas, as well as through non-territorial coercion, such as extortion,

threats and intimidation. The systematic use of coercion was shaped not by the

public interest or a common social goal, but by the private designs of a small

number of powerful and largely independent lords.

The mercenary trade was indeed a popular medieval occupation, at times

serving as a significant source of wealth and land for people of varying socioeco-nomic backgrounds. The younger sons of nobles, finding themselves disinherited

from their father’s wealth, often became soldiers of fortune. As independent

agents, mercenaries served in both defensive and offensive capacities. They oper-ated in many cases to fortify the armies of great lords and kings. Among other

notable undertakings, mercenaries played an important role in the Crusades, as

well as in the Norman conquest under William the Conqueror, who seized the

throne of England in the 11th century (Latzko, 1997). In the late Middle Ages, mer-cenary groups became better organised, forming what became known as the ‘great

companies’, which made war for their own benefit, unless hired and paid by a

king, pope or city republic (Fowler, 2001).

Well-developed tax systems did not exist in the early Middle Ages. For this

reason, entrepreneurs were able to purchase, sometimes through auctions, the

right from kings to collect taxes in their local areas. After paying a flat fee to the

king, tax collectors used a variety of coercive means to maximise their investments

in the form of tax revenues (Kiser and Kane, 2001; Murphy, 2003; Jones, 1999).

The use or threat of violence, whether posed in defence of life and property or

for pursuing wealth and conquest, was the basis of every leader’s authority. As

Bloch put it

Of all the problems besetting the governing classes in those days, the

most urgent by far was not that of administering the country or a

private estate in times of peace, but that of procuring the means to

wage war (Bloch, 1989, p. 151).

By participating in the military marketplace, the lords competed for land, strength-ened their autonomy, established localised economies and eventually aligned their

military forces and formed fledgling political systems and public institutions.

As suggested in the next sections, the various roles of medieval agents of private

coercion can also be found, if to a lesser degree, in contemporary American

society. Today, private coercion is vital to a range of political and economic

spheres, such as transport, housing, entertainment, urban development,

commerce, international relations, military conquest and, more generally, to the

Medieval Security in the Modern State 255

on-going contest among private organisations, groups and individuals to secure

scarce resources and assert control over geographical space. The medieval link

between private coercion and the public’s fear of crime and social disorder also

remains relevant to contemporary society.

Medieval Authority and the Modern State

According to the feudal model, the provision of security and military force is a

purely private affair. By treating it as such, however, I do not wish to encourage

a dichotomous conceptualisation of security as either ‘public’ or ‘private’.

Rather, the feudal model represents one side of a continuum. With respect to

the provision of security and the use of force, the feudal model is opposed to

the liberal model, which presumes that the state holds a monopoly on violence

and operates, with the public’s consent, as the sole legitimate provider of security.

Using these points of comparison, certain aspects of society may be described as

being closer to, or associated more so with, one ideal type than another.

European societies of the Middle Ages were closer to the feudal model than the

liberal or authoritarian models. As mentioned, the relative weakness of medieval

kings allowed some lords to maintain their autonomy and wield a great deal of

influence on social developments in general and particularly within designated

geographical areas. Ultimately, their authority was determined less by the law

or the possession of landper sethan by their ability to use, or threaten to use, phys-ical coercion and violence in the monitoring, protection and enlargement of their

territories, landholdings and wealth. The strength of these external forces made

them indispensable to the king, while at once bestowing them with meaningful

levels of independence and non-accountability.

While medieval societies may best be understood with the feudal model, no

society perfectly replicates any one model and almost all societies exhibit

some elements of multiple models. To glimpse the whole, then, we need a

hybrid or ‘segmented approach’ to social analysis (Shlapentokh and Woods,

2011; Shlapentokh with Woods, 2007). For instance, even some aspects of security

in the late Middle Ages can be better understood with the liberal model than the

feudal one. Magna Carta 1215, which was forced on King John of England by his

disgruntled barons, outlawed the use of foreign mercenaries. The document stated

that the king would

remove from the kingdom all foreign-born soldiers, cross-bow men, ser-vants, and mercenaries who have come with horses and arms for the

injury of the realm (Lee, 1900, p. 169; see Drew, 2004).

This was, in essence, a call for limiting the use of private security contractors—a

typical aspect of the liberal model, which is further discussed later (Percy, 2007).

The Liberal Model

The goal of this paper is to use both the feudal and liberal lenses to analyse the

modes of security in contemporary American society. As mentioned, the objective

is not to classify the entire security apparatus as either feudal or liberal. Rather, it is

to sort out which aspects of this complex system fall closer to the feudal model

than the liberal one. To pursue this task, however, I should further define the

‘liberal model’.

256 Joshua Woods

As it relates to security, my treatment is based on Weber’s (1965) definition of the

modern state and his well-known assertion that it possesses a monopoly on the

exercise of legitimate violence. This notion has been developed by a number of

more recent scholars (Evans, Reuschemeyer and Skocpol, 1985; Tilly, 1992) and

rests firmly on the ideas of classical liberal thinkers, such as Hobbes and Locke.

From Hobbes’s perspective, the state receives its monopoly on violence out of

necessity, given the mutual need of citizens to maintain conditions of peace.

Without a sole proprietor of coercive means, embodied by the state and the rule

of law, life would be, as Hobbes famously noted, “nasty, brutish and short”…

“a war of every man against every man”. Locke also recognised the necessity of

the state’s monopoly on violence, but placed limits on its power and described

its relationship with citizens as a social contract involving mutual obligations.

The spirit of Locke’s writing stresses the need for normative judgements of state

actions and the use of ‘reason’ to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate

functions of institutions.

From Locke’s perspective, the state exists not simply for the physical safety of

citizens, but because people need security and order to build civil society. As

Bislev wrote in his treatment of Locke

Society is an association of citizens, and the maintenance of security is a

necessary function for that association, something without which it

cannot exist and thrive (Bislev, 2004, p. 283).

In this way, the state’s monopoly on violence supports the common good and rep-resents a building-block of democratic society. The legitimacy of the state’s use of

violence is ultimately based on its accountability to the public at large, as opposed

to non-state organisations that answer to private interests.

Although Weber was clearly influenced by his predecessor, his thinking side-steps Locke’s normative arguments about what the state should or should not

do and treats the monopoly on violence as part of his idealised conceptualisation

of the state. The control over violence is one aspect, according to Weber (1965),

which distinguishes modern states from earlier forms of social organisation,

such as the unstable European kingdoms of the 9th century in which the security

function was fragmented and often used more for the sake of personal gain than

for the common good.

Again, this is not to say that Weber’s concept of the stateshouldbe put into prac-tice or that all people necessarily accept the state’s monopoly on violence. Rather,

it is merely an observation on Weber’s part, which serves as the basis of his ideal

type. Such concepts are thought to be valuable to social scientists who wish to elu-cidate and compare societies based on the extent to which they reflect one ideal

type or another. Societies, in this case, can be differentiated in part by whether

(or to what extent) the use of violence is controlled by private interests (the

feudal model), or the legitimate instruments of the state (the liberal model). I

embrace the Weberian approach, because my aim is to understand the current

security trends in American society, not pass judgements on them.

Private Military Companies and International Security

The independent control of coercive or violent force, what I refer to as ‘private

coercion’, was an important political tool and aspect of power in medieval

Europe. Let us now turn to a discussion of the similar roles of private coercion

Medieval Security in the Modern State 257

in contemporary society. The examples discussed here, which include private

military companies, various types of security guards, gated communities and

private debt collectors, are intended to illustrate the diversity of private coercion

in contemporary America and do not represent a comprehensive list.

At the start of the 21st century, the aspect of private coercion that captured the

most attention from scholars, politicians and journalists was the outsourcing to

private contractors of many functions that have been traditionally carried out

by the US military. Private military companies (PMCs) not only provide meals

to troops and dispose of their garbage, but also work in areas of recruitment

and interrogation. PMCs also fulfill guarding capacities that put them in highly

dangerous situations, which require a great amount of training and accountability.

Utilising territorial and non-territorial forms of coercion, private contractors of

this sort work all around the world for government and non-government organ-isations, offering military consultation, training troops, heading up anti-kidnap-ping and counter-terrorism operations, patrolling the boundaries of valuable

territories and protecting vital assets, such as oil fields, ocean-going ships and

mining concerns.

Private military companies emerged prominently in the public eye during the

Iraq War in the mid 2000s. Thousands of heavily armed soldiers worked in Iraq

for private contractors, which received immunity from Iraqi courts and faced

little serious oversight from officials in the US (Miller, 2005; Tyson, 2005). Hired

guns were involved in hundreds of violent encounters, but no one, including

media organisations, military experts and the American government, has

clearly calculated and defined the number of unwarranted killings of the Iraqi

population. In spite of public outrage against the actions of mercenary groups,

PMCs such as Blackwater World-wide were still operating in Iraq by the end of

the 2000s (USA Today, 2007; Johnston and Broder, 2007; Risen, 2008).

The aggressive operations of private military companies have been discussed in

great detail by scholars (Scahill, 2007; Singer, 2003). Viewing these firms through

the feudal lens, however, sheds new light on an old subject. The feudal model

places the emphasis not only on the power, fierceness and unaccountability of

today’s soldiers of fortune, but the relative weakness of the state and the deep

interdependencies between the state and PMCs. For a variety of reasons, the US

government simply could not function in Iraq without PMCs. As reported in

theNew York Times, Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management,

bluntly confirmed that

We cannot operate without private security firms in Iraq. If the contrac-tors were removed, we would have to leave Iraq (Risen, 2008).

Just as mercenaries stabilised the royal armies of the Middle Ages, in the early 21st

century they represented an essential component of the military campaign in Iraq

and other actions related to the ‘war on terrorism’. While the liberal model tells us

much about the official use of military force in foreign lands—after all, a majority

of Americans and legislators initially supported the wars in Afghanistan and

Iraq—it does not elucidate the social significance of the 30 000 hired guns in

Iraq who plug the holes of a tattered and understaffed official military force

(New York Times, 2008).

The liberal model also fails to anticipate the potential competition between

PMCs and state-sponsored military services as they assemble their respective

forces. A number of military experts, senior commanders and Pentagon officials

258 Joshua Woods

have raised serious concerns about the lavish salaries and benefits offered by

PMCs, suggesting that the US military’s most talented and highly trained soldiers

are increasingly being recruited into the ranks of the private military (Schmitt and

Shanker, 2004). The role of PMCs in international affairs is likely to expand as they

continue to commandeer the nation’s best and brightest military minds. Even the

neo-liberal ideology, which favours the privatisation of key government functions,

does not anticipate a feudal-like security configuration in which the state

competes and conflicts with powerful private entities as it attempts to carry out

basic national security functions.

If it is true, even in part, that the American government depends on private

coercion to uphold its interests abroad, it is not hard to imagine that the same

dependence is felt by multinational corporations. Decades before 9/11, overseas

firms faced what they saw as grave dangers from terrorism and other forms of

violence, crime and social unrest in foreign lands. Given the inability or unwilling-ness of local governments to protect them, they relied instead on mercenary forces.

The great sums they paid for such services were treated merely as the calculated

cost of tapping the given country’s vital resources. In the early 1980s, Nathan

(1981, p. 156) identified this trend as the start of a “new international feudalism”

and warned us that “a medieval situation may emerge in which the security func-tion of the state is usurped by private contractors”.

Given the intense social forces of globalisation, privatisation, increased concerns

about terrorism and the expanding capabilities of PMCs, Nathan’s warning

seems, today, all the more prescient. The rise of PMCs has fragmented the

state’s monopoly on legitimate violence and empowered the 21st century’s new

feudal actors. As Singer put it

The unrestricted access to military services ushered in by the rise of the

privatized military industry has clearly enhanced the role of nonstate

groups, which at one time had been at a significant disadvantage in a

system dominated by states (Singer, 2002, p. 212).

Global corporations and other non-state actors have access to “new options and

new paths to power not imagined until very recently” (Singer, 2002, p. 212). Inter-estingly enough, these new pathways represented the conventional avenues

through which medieval social actors gathered and maintained power in the

Middle Ages.

The Size of the Private Security Industry in the US

Compared with PMCs, the role of private coercion within the US rarely captures

as much attention from politicians, the public or the press. Even scholars have

been slow to explore fully this crucial element of American society. The major text-books of sociology, criminology and political science offer thorough discussions

on the public police and law enforcement, but rarely cover the private security

industry and the social meanings and consequences of its activities. Some scholars

have taken this argument one step further, suggesting that sociologists work from

a ‘kindly bias’ and therefore deny the importance of physical coercion and the

extent to which it props up social systems (Kleck, 1988; Goode, 1972).

Meanwhile, the size and scope of the private system of social control has

increased significantly over recent decades. Although precise and reliable histori-cal data about its growth are difficult to come by, Shearing and Stenning (1983,

Medieval Security in the Modern State 259

1981) have contributed much to our understanding of historical trends. In 1960,

the number of private security personnel was roughly equivalent to the number

of public police. Ten years later, public policing gained ground, even though

there was continued growth in the private security sector as well.

Shearing and Stenning (1983, 1981) identify the early 1970s as a turning-point in

the evolution of private security when the industry grew dramatically in size and

outpaced the public police. There was also an important shift in the organisational

structure of this type of security.

Between 1960 and 1975 the ratio of in-house to contract security dimin-ished from 6:1 to 1.5:1, indicating a major restructuring of the organiz-ation of private security” (Shearing and Stenning, 1983, p. 495).

In the next years, individual private security contractors would expand their oper-ations, consolidate their interests and reduce their dependence on any one client

or organisation, including government institutions.

The industry continued its rapid growth throughout the 1980s. As discussed by

Pastor (2003, p. 42), between 1981 and 1991, there was a 140 per cent increase in

spending on private security (from $21.7 billion to $52 billion) and a 117 per

cent increase in expenditures on public policing (from $13.8 billion to $30

billion). By the year 2000, spending on private security had increased by 100

per cent to $104 billion, while expenditures on public policing increased by only

47 per cent to $44 billion. Further evidence shows that the annual growth rate

for private security was roughly double the growth rate for public policing (Cun-ninghamet al., 1990). Put differently, at the dawn of the 21st century, 70 per cent of

the nation’s investment in crime prevention and law enforcement was spent on

private security. The latest available data from the Economic Census (2002)

confirm the recent increase in the size of the private security industry.


The Nature of Private Coercion

Aggregated economic data, while necessary for understanding the social signifi-cance of private security in the US, do not reveal the nature and diversity of the

services offered by this industry, nor fully elaborate its consequences for the

state and society as a whole. In the next sections, I consider the qualitative mean-ings of a range of services—from security guards, bouncers and bounty hunters to

private prisons and debt collection agencies—in the context of the liberal and

feudal models.

Security Guards

The private security industry is perhaps most commonly associated with guards.

In 2003, there were roughly 1 million guards working in the US, and the vast

majority of them (87 per cent) were employed by the private sector (Parfomak,

2004). The popular image of security guards tends to be rather benign and nonde-script: unarmed men and women in semi-official-looking uniforms, whose low-paying jobs demand little more than the presentation of security and the casual

monitoring of behaviour in a few isolated establishments such as shopping

malls and parking lots. In fact, security guards draw on a range of professional

experiences and training, and operate in almost all aspects of commercial infra-structure. The nation’s air, sea and rail terminals receive some protection and

260 Joshua Woods

surveillance from private organisations. In some cases, they have taken over the

most crucial functions of the state. Among the total number of guards employed

in 2003, roughly 5 per cent protected ‘critical infrastructure’ and assets (Parfomak,



In essence, then, private guards not only support that nation’s fighting

forces abroad, but also protect the homeland against foreign and domestic

enemies in the ‘war on terrorism’, a role that the liberal model leaves entirely

up to the state (Sauter and Carafano, 2005).

The duties of private security personnel are as varied as the interests of those

who employ them. In the context of corporations, retailers in particular, security

professionals work within a private system of justice which monitors, investigates

and prosecutes both those who work for the given firm, as well as all those who

come into contact with it (Daviset al., 1991; Shearing and Stenning, 1981). Challen-ging the liberal model, the lords of private justice receive less public scrutiny and

greater legal authority to impinge the privacy rights of individuals and search and

detain suspects than the public system of justice (Bishop, 1988). Corporations have

a long history of utilising various types of private coercion, from surveillance and

spying to bloody violence, in order to control employees (Knudsenet al., 2003;

Kasper, 2005) and repress labour unions (Nace, 2003).

To save costs, security contractors sometimes hire poorly educated guards, who

are paid less than half the average salary of the public police and receive far less

training (Parfomak, 2004). Moreover, the state has been unable or unwilling to

oversee and regulate the lords of private security and make its powers known

to them. There are no federal training requirements for most guards; regulations

involving the background checks of guards vary across states (16 states have no

such regulations) and enforcement is often lax (Parfomak, 2004).

Bouncers, Bounty Hunters and Spies

Private coercion is controlled by a number of other groups and agents whose func-tions do not fit the conventional job characteristics of the ‘security guard’. As one

example, the lords of the night-time economy rely heavily on ‘bouncers’ to patrol

and limit access to their facilities. Bouncers are omnipresent in bars, clubs and res-taurants in big cities. Working in a “largely unregulated zone of venture capital-ism”, they regularly use physical coercion and violence, more or less unfettered

by public oversight, to deal with problematic customers and subjugate the

alcohol- and drug-fueled night-time economy (Hobbset al., 2003, p. 28; Lister

et al., 2000, 2001; DeMichele and Tewksbury, 2004; Monaghan, 2002).

Club owners and their bouncers may establish social order where it is lacking,

but they serve this function in the name of private aims, not public ones. The same

was true in the Middle Ages. When the great landlords of 9th century France used

their knights to establish security in the provinces, they acted not in the public

interest, but according to a specific set of private objectives. In both cases, the

liberal model fails to explain the complicated array of incomplete forms of auth-ority that overlap and conflict within a process that subjugates urban spaces

and controls the night-time economy through both territorial and non-territorial


Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters represent another agent of private coercion

whose role is often neglected by scholars. They fulfill a key function in the Amer-ican criminal justice system. For a substantial non-refundable fee, they post bail

for criminal defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot afford to make

Medieval Security in the Modern State 261

bail. The bond company has complete discretion over who receives assistance,

which can be seen as a sort of privatisation of imprisonment or a direct encroach-ment on public governance through private territorial coercion. Furthermore, if a

client does not appear in court, the bondsman or ‘bounty hunter’ has extensive

power to search for and apprehend the defendant (non-territorial coercion).

They may

break into homes of defendants without a warrant, temporarily imprison

them and move them across state lines without entering into the extradi-tion process (Liptak, 2008).

Unlike the public police, bounty hunters do not require a special form of training

or accreditation and the ambiguity of their work allows them to ignore some

federal and state laws that protect the rights of citizens. The feudal label may be

especially apt given the fact that posting bail for others in exchange for money

is treated as a crime in most Western countries (Liptak, 2008).

Specialised private security agencies perform numerous other forms of non-ter-ritorial coercion, including tasks involving financial and accounting irregularities,

forensic computer data discovery, counterfeiting and product reputation protec-tion, employee integrity, executive protection, event security, supply-chain moni-toring, eco-terrorism, competitive intelligence gathering and corporate espionage

(Winkler, 1997). Corporate spying is an activity that clearly defies free market prin-ciples and cannot be explained by the liberal model of society (Penenberg and

Barry, 2000a). According to recent reports, it is also widespread: “Almost every

Fortune 500 company these days has a ‘competitive intelligence’ (or C.I.) unit or

farms out its spy activities” (Penenberg and Barry, 2000b). This form of private

coercion urges us, once again, to look beyond the liberal model and adopt the

feudal model as a supplementary tool of analysis.

Gated Communities

One of the most apparent analogues to medieval society is the contemporary

gated community. Residential areas that restrict public access are common in

most major metropolitan areas. In 2001, according to the US Census Bureau’s

American Housing Survey, roughly 7 per cent of occupied housing units were

located in gated communities; the percentage did not change much in the 2003

and 2005 waves of the survey.


Not unlike the desperate search for protection in

the Middle Ages, entire communities have enclosed themselves within gates or

walls (Blackely and Snyder, 1997).

In some cases, overlapping forms of public and private authority provide secur-ity within particular areas. For instance, the 80-block Georgetown community in

Washington DC, which encompasses roughly 6000 residences, is patrolled by

several private guards in cars and on foot. The community group that co-ordinates

the added protection openly suggests that public policing efforts are inadequate.

Facing what they perceive as “serious and wide-spread community concerns

about public safety”, their solution, like that of medieval cities, has been to take

responsibility for their own security.


The initiative behind most walled communities, however, tends to be entrepre-neurial in nature, as opposed to communal efforts to reinforce group solidarity

and build community (Harvey, 1989). The gating of America involves a reterritor-ialisation of space and a direct challenge to public governance for the sake of

262 Joshua Woods

securing lucrative returns for a relatively small group of e´lite investors. Ulti-mately, these profits rely not on public law enforcement or even grassroots

efforts to build civil society, but rather on the technology and brute force of

private security and infrastructure. As in the Middle Ages, the contemporary

lords of real estate and urban development have come to depend in part on inde-pendent sources of territorial and non-territorial coercion.

Gates and other infrastructural barriers are especially prevalent in the flagship

spaces of urban centres (Paddison and Sharp, 2007). They are used by commercial

interests to ensure security and impede ‘undesirable’ people. As reported in a

New York Timesarticle about the homeless population in Los Angeles

Skid Row’s street people have been watching their territory shrink for

years, as downtown developers open the long-neglected area to gentrifi-cation (Moore, 2007).

Just as medieval lords erected castles along busy trade routes, the lords of LA

bookstores, financial buildings, cafe´s, bars and restaurants build fences and

other architectural structures to bolster their ‘miniature monarchies’, stabilise

property values and push out the city’s undesirables.

This bifurcation of space, which intentionally separates the upper class from the

underclass, exists in subtler forms and in a variety of social and geographical con-texts, from private shopping centres, amusement parks and college campuses, to

massive residential estates and high-density apartment and condominium build-ings (Shearing and Stenning, 1983; Reiner, 1992). The rise of gated communities

and other forms of privatised space comes with real consequences in terms of

public access to streets, parks, playgrounds, rivers, lakes and oceans. These

restricted private spaces, as well as the privatised security mechanisms within

them, contradict idealised notions of the state and can be better understood

with the feudal model (Alsayyad and Roy, 2006).

At the same time, the growing level of fortification and increased security has

not spread to all areas of the urban and suburban landscape. It would be a

mistake to overextend the medieval metaphor and suggest that the US has

become a land of walled cities, castles, barricades and defensive infrastructural

outcroppings (Paddison and Sharp, 2007). Rather, as previously noted, a segmen-ted approach would suggest that multiple models, including the liberal one, are

needed for a complete understanding of the complex array of territories and

modes of governance that exist and have existed, if to varying degrees, in both

modern and pre-modern times.

Private Prisons

Another important element of private coercion can be seen in the relatively new

trend of privatising prison systems. While the characteristics of punishment

vary considerably between the medieval and modern contexts, the private

control of facilities of incarceration can be found in both periods (Geltner, 2006).

In contemporary America, the private detention business expanded in the 1980s

as the neo-liberal ideology grew in prominence and privatisation became a

popular remedy to ‘inefficient government’. In the next decades, given a

number of high-profile examples of mismanagement, corruption, abuse and

other failures, including riots and escapes from private prisons, the industry

received mixed reviews from policy-makers, the public and the press (Talbot,

Medieval Security in the Modern State 263

2008; Butterfield, 2004; Ellin, 2001). In spite of some setbacks, however, the priva-tisation of prisons represents a growing trend in the US.

In theoretical terms, private prisons stray from the liberal model in a number of

respects. While public and private prisons may perform similar functions, the

underlying motives that shape daily operations differ between the two. Like

any other industry, private prisons are driven by profit margins, as opposed to

the public will, which is the benchmark of the liberal model. Profit, in turn,

depends on the number of inmates. Given the fact that “most private prisons

operate on a per diem rate for each bed filled, there is a financial incentive not

only to detain more inmates but also to detain them for a longer period of time”

(Cheung, 2004, p. 4; The Economist, 2007). Whereas the liberal model suggests

that only the state is vested with the right and obligation forcibly to incarcerate

people, prison companies are co-opting this public good for private gain.

The companies involved in transforming the public system of social control

usually try to avoid confrontations with opposing parties but are always interested

in normalising or legitimising their values and actions. One example of this effort

consists of financial investments in political campaigns. The use of big money in

politics, another feudal element of contemporary society (Shlapentokh and

Woods, 2011), has propelled the growth of the private prison industry. During

the 1998 election cycle, private prison companies made 1187 contributions to 636

candidates totalling more than $862 822, a sum that exceeds the contributions of

other major groups, such as the National Rifle Association, and does not include

the far greater amount of funding used to pay for the services of lobbying firms

and other associations (Bender, 2000).

Deviating further from the liberal model, private prisons receive less public

oversight than the state system. For instance, disagreements have arisen in

regard to whether private prisons are exempt from open records laws.



summary, the on-going privatisation of prisons encourages a number of feudal

tendencies, including public – private collusions, the purchase of political influ-ence, the use of personal relations, limits on public oversight, increased control

of violence and coercion in private hands, a reterritorialisation of prison space

and a decisive shift in the relationship between public and private governance.

Debt Collectors

While the systematic collection of debt by private firms is not feudal by definition,

collection efforts that utilise coercion, manipulation, threats and other unscrupu-lous practices do fit this category. According to reports by the Federal Trade Com-mission, which regulates the debt collection industry, complaints about such feudal

activities have been on the rise since the 1990s. The agency reported that it received

66 627 consumer complaints against third-party debt collectors in 2005 and 69 204

complaints in 2006, which is nearly six times the number in 1999.


No other indus-try in the country generated as many complaints (Sewell, 2006).

A new market has grown up around the prospect of collecting extremely old

debts. According to industry researchers, debt buyers purchased roughly $110

billion of such debt in 2006, whereas almost none of this type of debt was pur-chased only 10 years ago (Weston, 2006). Given the inadequacies of record

keeping and the incentive to collect on debts even when they are not owed, the

new interest in old debts is likely to result in more cases of feudal harassment

and non-territorial coercion.


264 Joshua Woods


Private coercion is, essentially, a strategy for influencing the behaviours of others

by either asserting control over designated spaces (territoriality) or through the

direct or indirect use of violence or threats of violence to compel particular

actions (non-territoriality). While it should not be seen as a new political form,

private coercion is playing an increasing role in almost all areas of the economy

and society, from education, entertainment and urban development to globalisa-tion and international conflicts. Moving beyond the typical duties involved with

guarding properties and assets, private agents and organisations provide a

range of services, from bolstering military campaigns overseas and spying on cor-porate competitors to protecting large geographical spaces and chasing bail

jumpers across the country.

Private coercion challenges the public sphere of governance and the state’s

monopoly on the exercise of legitimate violence, which is, according to Weber

and several contemporary scholars, one of the defining characteristics of the

modern state (Ruggie, 1993). The liberal model cannot fully explain the nature

and consequences of private coercion, which signals a need for new models for

bringing light to what has become a substantial segment of American society.

Comparisons with the medieval context are especially apt when considering

cases in which the private use of force increases the wealth of a few major

actors in society, while restricting access to public space, diminishing the rights

of individuals, weakening public governance and inhibiting the central author-ity’s ability to protect its citizens.

To the extent that private coercion can be seen as an increasing trend, it is associ-ated with the broader ‘transformative’ or ‘emergent’ processes that Anderson

(1996, p. 134) and other scholars (Bull, 1977; Ruggie, 1993) have described as the

“unbundling of territorial sovereignty” and the rise of “postmodern” and “new

medieval” forms of configuring political space. Although these perspectives

offer a unique and worthwhile line of theorising, the ‘segmented approach’

focuses not on how one political form or social system may be replacing

another, but rather on how multiple organising forces co-exist (Shlapentokh and

Woods, 2011; Shlapentokh with Woods, 2007). As previously discussed, the

feudal model is merely one of several models that are necessary for rendering a

meaningful picture of almost any given society. This approach discourages the

overextension of medieval analogies and promotes the search for multiperspecti-val institutional and organisational forms. A new and potentially fruitful agenda

for future research on private security would apply the segmented approach to in-depth analyses of individual aspects of private coercion in the US, as well as to

other countries and international relations.

Private coercion has played a significant role in many societies across time and

space. As Alsayyad and Roy put it

The seemingly oxymoronic phrasing of ‘medieval modernity’ indicates

how the medieval lurks at the heart of the modern, how the feudal

exists within capitalism (Alsayyad and Roy, 2006, p. 16).

To borrow Bendix’s (1963) term, private coercion should be seen as a ‘sociological

universal’—one that shapes and is shaped by both the individual need for safety

and the socially constructed motivation for increased wealth (Coleman, 1987).

Medieval Security in the Modern State 265

I suggest, in closing, that the medieval kingdom may be useful not only as a

descriptive analytical model, but also as a metaphor for thinking about the

nature and consequences of private coercion. As linguists have suggested, meta-phors influence the way people structure their thoughts and perceptions in every-day life (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Maasen and Weingart, 2000). The same logic

holds in the process of social scientific inquiry and in the conceptualisation of

social problems (Manis, 1974). The feudal metaphor may contribute to the literature

by directing more attention to the social problems surrounding private coercion,

encouraging an alternative set of ideas about these services, problematising ideal

notions of the modern state and generating theoretical inquiry on new and

useful questions pertaining to the use or threat of violence in the US and elsewhere.


A similar version of this article will be published as a chapter in a book

by Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods,Feudal America: Elements of the

Middle Ages in Contemporary Society(Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).


1 Using comparable data from 1997 and 2002, the number of establishments in the area of investigation

and security services (guards, armoured car services, investigation services, security system instal-lers and locksmiths) increased from 21 494 to 22 957 and the number of paid employees increased

from 682 891 to 761 291 (Economic Census, 2002; accessed on-line in May 2008 at: www.census.

gov/econ/census02/). These numbers only include establishments with payrolls. The absolute

numbers would be greater if small, single-person businesses were included.

2 As defined by Congress and formalised in the USA Patriot Act, critical infrastructure refers to

“systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the US that the incapacity or destruction

of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security,

national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters”. See ‘Uniting and Strengthen-ing America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism’ (USA

PATRIOT ACT), Public Law 107-56, 26 October 2001 (retrieved on-line in August 2008 at: http://


3 The data from the American Housing Survey for the United States (2001, 2003, 2005) were retrieved

on-line in August 2008 at:

4 For further details about the private security efforts in the Georgetown community, see the Public

Safety Program of the Citizens Association of Georgetown at: (retrieved

in June 2008).

5 As one example, Correction Corporation of America attempted in 2008 to withhold information

regarding legal settlements with prisoners, judgements and complaints against the company.

Although CCA lost its case, attorneys for the company vowed to appeal the ruling (Associated

Press, 2008).

6 According to the Federal Trade Commission, the number-one consumer complaint against the indus-try is that “a collector is attempting to collect either a debt the consumer does not owe at all or a debt

larger than what the consumer actually owes”. Other complaints include repeated calls and continu-ous harassment, threats of dire consequences if the debt is not paid and calls to the consumer’s place

of employment (Federal Trade CommissionAnnual Report 2007; accessed on-line in December 2008

at:; see Gross, 2005).

7 Another possible boon for collectors may come with the renewed intent of governments to privatise

the gathering of state and federal taxes. In 2006, as part of a plan by the Bush Administration, the IRS.

turned over information on 12 500 taxpayers to three collection agencies (Johnston, 2006; see

Krugman, 2007). The measure was part of the administration’s broader plan to privatise tax collection.

266 Joshua Woods


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