The expansion of Prevent: on the politics of legibility, opacity and decolonial critique

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It is argued here that the liberal state has authoritarian aspects that are irreducible to the authoritarian aspects of neoliberalism. The argument draws on James Scott’s work on modern state ruling through bureaucratic ‘legibility’, and the decolonial work of S. Sayyid on how a form of political Islam he calls ‘Islamism’ challenges the west’s construction of modernity as an intrinsically western project. The state’s need for legibility undermines democracy by seeking to shape political debate and political activity to fit its bureaucratic channels for engagement, and Islamophobia caused by the UK state’s reaction to Islamism, shapes how the UK state seeks control via legibility. Prevent expanded in 2011 from focusing on ‘violent extremism’ to ‘extremism’, with extremism defined in terms of normative commitments the state takes to be in tension with its conception of ‘British values’. The state defined the Muslim population as opaque, because they were taken to not be socially integrated. This was used to justify a repressive ubiquitous surveillance based on what is termed here a ‘legibility of symptoms’. This was presented, after 2015, as paternalistic ‘safeguarding’, when workers in public sector bureaucracies became legally obligated to carry out Prevent surveillance. Left-wing and environmental organisations engaged in extra-parliamentary protest are now as defined as potentially extremist. With the expansion of Prevent in 2011, the state created a ‘pre-crime’ space in civil society that is taken to justify repressive surveillance, presented as paternalistic safeguarding to save individuals ‘at risk’ of ‘radicalisation’ from going on to commit criminal acts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-59
Number of pages17
JournalNew Formations
Issue number100
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


  • bureaucracy
  • Islamism
  • legibility
  • opacity
  • pre-crime

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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