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Radical Philosophy 178 (March/April 2013)
Resisting resilience
Mark Neocleous
I’m 24, in a horrible relationship, feeling stuck and alone. I met my boyfriend three years ago
while I was struggling to nd work after graduating. He was not only charismatic, ambitious
and gorgeous, but supportive, too. I became infatuated. By the time I found out about his
angry rages and subtle bullying, I had moved in with him and into a job in his town. I’m sad
and anxious all the time, but I have no idea how to leave. I can’t afford the landlord’s fees for
cancelling our at lease. If I go back to my mum’s, I’ll lose my job. What would I do during
my six-week notice period? All my friends live far away, in London. I’m so ashamed that I’ve
got myself here … I catch myself wishing I was a teenager again, safe with my family, still
with potential. If I could only learn resilience, I feel like maybe the practicalities wouldn’t be
so daunting.
Dominated by an overpowering and angry bully of a man and pushed this way
and that by the competing demands of capital and community, this young
woman has internalized a very contemporary solution to her problem: she must
learn resilience. The problem was sent to Mariella Frostrup for her ‘Dear Mariella’
advice column in the Observer, and published on 29 July 2012. Frostrup offers little
on the question of how to learn resilience, yet here are some of the ‘Resilience Tips’
published in a very different sort of publication the very next month:
Physical – Add superfoods to your grocery list such as broccoli, eggs, beets, blueberries,
Emotional – Grab the challenge, not the way out of the challenge…
Family – Parents [should] model healthy family behavior such as having dinner together and
engaging everyone in afrming, healthy conversation…
Social – Know your personal strengths and which traits strengthen the character of those
around you…
Spiritual – Take a break from your busy schedule to meditate on what is really important to
This set of advice is from the very rst edition of CFS2 Quarterly. The main purpose
of the publication is as an information-provider for those who operate CSF2, which
stands for ‘Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, a programme designed to push
the tness of US army personnel, their families and friends, and, in a roundabout
way, the citizenry. The tness programme itself had been running a long time, but its
original strap line, ‘Strong Minds, Strong Bodies’, was changed in 2012 to ‘Building
Resilience, Enhancing Performance’, and in the same year the programme as a whole
underwent substantial restructuring around the idea of resilience. As a consequence,
CSF2 offers a Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program (CFS2–PREP),
run by Master Resilience Trainers and consisting of various aspects such as
Universal Resilience Training and Institutional Resilience Training. More advanced
Comprehensive Resilience Models include Building Resilience for the Male Spouse,
Building Your Teen’s Resilience, and Dynamics of Socially Resilient Teams. Its website
even offers a Global Assessment Tool for individuals to assess their resilience.1
When the only thing a sad, lonely and oppressed young woman thinks might help
her turns out to be the very same thing being taught by the world’s largest military
power, something interesting is going on, something that takes us from mundane tips
about how to live well to the world of national security, emergency planning and capital
Imagining everything that could go wrong
‘Resilience’ has in the last decade become one of the key political categories of our
time. It falls easily from the mouths of politicians, a variety of state departments are
funding research into it, urban planners are now obliged to take it into consideration,
and academics are falling over themselves to conduct research on it. Stemming from the
idea of a system and originating in ecological thought, the term connotes the capacity
of a system to return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back
after a crisis or trauma. Thus, for example, a 2008 OECD document on state-building,
styled ‘from fragility to resilience’, denes the latter as ‘the ability to cope with
changes in capacity, effectiveness or legitimacy. These changes can be driven by shocks
… or through long-term erosions (or increases) in capacity, effectiveness or legitimacy.’2
As well as offering a succinct denition, this OECD document also reveals what is
at stake and why the concept has become so appealing: rather than speak of fragility
and its (negative) associations, we should be speaking of resilience and its (positive)
The rst thing to note is the impact this is having on the concept of security. The
National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2002), published as a major
statement of US strategy following 9/11, mentions ‘resiliencejust once. In contrast, ve
years later the National Strategy for Homeland Security (2007) is almost obsessed with
the idea of resilience. The document outlines the need for ‘structural and operational
resilience of … critical infrastructure and key resources, but resilience is also planned
for ‘the system as a whole’ and even for ‘the American spirit’, with the overall aim to
‘disrupt the enemy’s plans and diminish the impact of future disasters through measures
that enhance the resilience of our economy and critical infrastructure before an incident
The UK’s National Security Strategy, published a year later, notes that ‘since 2001,
the Government has mounted a sustained effort to improve the resilience of the United
Kingdom.’ The document goes on to talk about the resilience of the armed forces, of
police and of the British people, of ‘human and social resilience’ and of ‘community
resilience’. Yet, more than anything, the document is focused on preparing for future
attacks: ‘We will work with owners or operators to protect critical sites and essential
services; with business to improve resilience.’ It outlines a ‘programme of work to
improve resilience’ at national, regional and local level, and across ‘government, the
emergency services, the private sector, and the third sector’.4 Such claims have created
the rationale for state institutions and personnel to be reorganized and retrained: from
the resilience training offered to armed forces (the USA is not alone with CSF2, as
other states have similar programmes), to the creation of units such as ‘UK Resilience’
based in the Cabinet Ofce, right down to the fact that sniffer dogs now receive resil-
ience training.5
What both the USA and the UK strategy documents reveal is the extent to which
resilience is subsuming and surpassing the logic of security. The demand of security
and for security is somehow no longer enough. Thus whenever one hears the call
‘security’, one now also nds the demand of ‘resilience’. For example, much was made
of the security measures enacted for the London Olympics of 2012, but the relevant
body of the London Organizing Committee had not a ‘Security’ section but a ‘Security
and Resilience’ section, working with a ‘London Resilience Team’ whose task it was
to ‘deliver Olympic Resilience in London. It is as though the state is fast becoming
exhausted by its own logic of security and wants a newer concept, something better and
bolder: enter ‘resilience’.
As well as being newer, better and bolder, resilience is also more imaginative.
For resilience both engages and encourages a culture of preparedness. The state now
assumes that one of its key tasks is to imagine the worst-case scenario, the coming
catastrophe, the crisis-to-come, the looming attack, the emergency that could happen,
might happen and probably will happen, all in order to be better prepared. In the
US and UK security strategies just cited, a future attack of some (unstated) sort is
assumed to be going to happen, and even if a terror attack is prevented a disaster of
some other sort is assumed bound to happen at some time. In this way the logic of
security in the form of preparation for a terrorist attack folds into a much broader
logic of security in the form of preparation for an unknown disaster. Resilience is
nothing if not an apprehension of the future, but a future imagined as disaster and
then, more importantly, recovery from the disaster. In this task resilience plays heavily
on its origins in systems thinking, explicitly linking security with urban planning,
civil contingency measures, public health, nancial institutions, corporate risk and the
environment in a way that had previously been incredibly hard for the state to do.
Thus a Department for International Development publication on Dening Disaster
Resilience (2011) nds that disaster resilience stretches across the whole social and
political fabric, while a UN document on disaster management suggests that to be
fully achieved a policy of resilience requires ‘a consideration of almost every physi-
cal phenomenon on the planet’. 6 The presupposition of permanent threat demands
a constant re-imagining of the myriad ways in which the threat might be realized.
Resilience thereby comes to be a fundamental mechanism for policing the imagination.
‘Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies’, notes the ofcial 9/11
Commission Report in 2004, which then goes on to suggest that what the state needs
is a means of connecting state bureaucracy with the political imagination.7Resilience’
is the concept that facilitates that connection: nothing less than the attempted coloniza-
tion of the political imagination by the state.
Poor, but resilient
Type ‘resilience’ into the website of the International Monetary Fund and the search
reveals that almost 2,000 IMF documents contain some reference to the term;
‘resilient’ generates another 1,730 hits. ‘Resilience’ or ‘resilient’ appear in the title
of fty-three documents, all published in the last four years. Separating these into
two broad types gives one group of texts in which resilience and disaster go hand
in hand – Sendai: A Tale of Natural Disaster, Resilience and Recovery (2010), for
example – and another far larger group, in which resilience is something that needs
nurturing or building: Enhancing Resilience to Shocks and Fostering Inclusive Growth
(2012), Latin America Needs to Build Resilience and Flexibility (2012), Building Up
Resilience in Low-Income Countries (2012), and so on. Running throughout the texts
is one core assumption: that the global nancial system needs to become resilient,
that national and regional economies need to build resilience, and that ‘sustained
adjustment’ is a means of developing this resilience. Relatedly, the World Economic
Forum now speaks about ‘systemic nancial resilience’. The World Bank also has a
‘Social Resilience and Climate Change’ Group, which has published a series of pieces
on ‘social resilienceas a means of ghting poverty and overcoming the weaknesses of
fragile states, and, in conjunction with the UN, the World Bank has come up with the
novel idea that resilience is now the means for ‘growing the wealth of the poor’.8 The
beauty of the idea that resilience is what the worlds poor need is that it turns out to
be something that the worlds poor already possess; all they require is a little training
in how to realize it. Hence the motif of building, nurturing and developing that runs
through so much of the IMF literature.
Resilience has been recognized by these organizations as a means of further pursu-
ing an explicitly neoliberal agenda and has become one main way of managing the
‘disaster’ that is the global nancial crisis. Not only is resilience increasingly coming to
replace security in political discourse, then, but it is doing so by simultaneously becom-
ing one of the key ideological tropes underpinning accumulation. And just as resilience
is now the means for helping the poor become wealthy, so corporations are now in on
the act, with ‘organizational resilience’ trumpeted and defended by the ‘International
Consortium for Organizational Resilience’ (which runs a range of courses offering ‘cer-
ticationin various aspects of resilience). Likewise, state ofcials very quickly resort
to the theme as a mechanism for undermining anti-austerity actions.9
This consolidation of ‘resilience’ during the current crisis
reunites state and capital by foregrounding a politics of
anticipation. It also straddles the subjective as well as
the objective: systemic, organizational and political
resilience is connected to personal resilience. Hence
the theme of resilience as a personal attribute now
dominates self-help books: The Resilience Factor:
7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and
Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (2003); The Power of
Resilience: Achieving Balance, Condence, and
Personal Strength in Your Life (2004); Resilience:
Bounce Back from Whatever Life Throws at You
(2010); Find Your Power: A Toolkit for Resilience
and Positive Change (2010); Building Resilience
in Children and Teens (2011); Resilience: Teach
Yourself How to Survive and Thrive in Any Situation
(2012); Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest
Challenges (2012). This list could go on and on, and the longer it
went on the more obvious would be the fact that all the books have
been published in the last decade. It is here that one nds the relationship between
the economic development of neoliberal subjectivity and the political development of
resilient citizenship. Resilience comes to form the basis of subjectively dealing with
the uncertainty and instability of contemporary capitalism as well as the insecurity of
the national security state. This is one reason human resources departments of large
organizations such as universities are so interested in it. Good subjects will ‘survive
and thrive in any situation, they will ‘achieve balance’ across the several insecure and
part-time jobs they have, ‘overcome life’s hurdles’ such as facing retirement without a
pension to speak of, and just ‘bounce back’ from whatever life throws, whether it be
cuts to benets, wage freezes or global economic meltdown. Neoliberal citizenship is
nothing if not a training in resilience as the new technology of the self: a training to
withstand whatever crisis capital undergoes and whatever political measures the state
carries out to save it.
This in turn explains two notable developments during the same period. The rst is
the growth of political ‘happiness agendas’ and ofcial ‘happiness indices’. Resilience
is central not only to the self-help industry, but also to the wider ‘happiness studies’
now being peddled by politicians and academic disciplines such as psychology and
eco nomics.10 The Journal of Happiness Studies was launched in 2000, and of the sixty-
eight articles published since its launch that mention resilience, fty have been pub-
lished in the last ve years. ‘Resilience is very, very important’ says Richard Layard,
a leading gure of the new ‘Action for Happiness’ movement and now a British Lord
for his work in the eld. What might improve a nation’s happiness score? For Layard,
it is ‘a programme in schools to build resilience among children’.11 Happiness is to
become part of our resilience training; resilience is to be learnt as part of our happiness
The second is that major groups such as the American Psychological Association
(APA) have been central to the ‘happy resilient citizen’ agenda. The APA launched a
major ‘Road to Resilience’ campaign in 2002 explicitly in order to link the attacks on
11 September 2001 with ‘the hardships that dene all of our lives, anytime that people
are struggling with an event in their communities’. After 9/11, ‘people were interested in
learning more about themselves – and in particular, how to become more resilient’, said
the APA Director of Public Relations. The APA launched a ‘multi-media approach’ to
help people learn resilience, with a free toolkit including ‘10 ways to build resilience,
a documentary video Aftermath: The Road to Resilience with three ‘overarching mes-
sages’ (‘resilience can be learned’; ‘resilience is a journey, not an event or single turning
point’; ‘there is no prescribed timeline for the road to resilience’), special phases of
the campaign including ‘Resilience for Kids and Teens’, and resilience workshops for
journalists. The APA website now registers some 1,500 references for either ‘resilience’
or ‘resilient, more or less all of which have appeared in the last decade.
Resilience connects the emotional management of personal problems with the
wider security agenda and the logic of accumulation during a period of crisis. It is so
widespread, so dominant, so demanding, that it would be surprising if one of the larger
publishing houses had not yet launched a journal devoted entirely to the subject.
A new fetish
The publisher Taylor & Francis, owner of the Routledge brand and a major player
among the security-mongers of the world, recently announced a new journal to
be launched in 2013: Resilience. As part of its launch, the journal is organizing a
themed section of the European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group
on International Relations conference, later this year. There will be ten panels, each
lasting 105 minutes and consisting of four or ve papers. That will amount to between
forty and fty papers, with discussion lasting over seventeen hours. There must be a
lot to talk about. But if the journal’s homepage is right, there really is a lot to talk
about, because according to the homepage resilience encompasses ‘not merely … how
we respond to a world of rapid change, complexity and unexpected events’, but also ‘a
shifting relationship between our understanding of human agency, its potential and ef-
cacy, and our aspirations for improving, securing and developing the world we inhabit’.
Beyond that the scope is, frankly, enormous, expanding the journal’s remit to: ‘preven-
tion, empowerment and capacity-building’; the ‘policies and processes of resilience’; the
‘discourses of adaptation and vulnerability, their genealogy and construction in relation
to the natural and human sciences; the arenas ‘where communities and policy practices
are constituted at a wide range of levels from the local and regional to the national
and global’; and ‘the subjectivities articulated’. Which is to say: the journal’s remit
is just about everything. It is a corporate-cum-academic dream of realizing the UN’s
policy that resilience involves a consideration of almost every physical phenomenon
on the planet: nothing less than a journal of all and everything that capital and the
state might want and need. As such, it might have been better coming out of Craneld
University, which has a long pedigree of providing advice to modern princes and which
has recently added resilience training to its list of services, via degrees in the subject,
taught in its Centre for International Security and Resilience (the rst of many such
enterprises, you can be sure).
Sensing this, and no doubt trying to hold on to some notion of ‘critical’ academic
work, the journal’s editors have issued a call for papers for a special issue on
‘Resistance or Resilience’. But aside from raising the obvious question – why not start
a journal called Resistance and devote just one special issue to resilience? – the call
seems to miss the central point: resilience is by denition against resistance. Resilience
wants acquiescence, not resistance. Not a passive acquiescence, for sure, in fact quite
the opposite. But it does demand that we use our actions to accommodate ourselves to
capital and the state, and the secure future of both, rather than to resist them.
Against such an option, then, this Commentary is intended as a pre-emptive strike,
and thereby in a roundabout way a strike against the whole resilience agenda: against
the demand that we work on how to improve the resilience of state and capital, and
against the colonization of the political imagination. Against resilience.
2. OECD, Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations: From Fragility to Resil-
ience, OECD, Paris, 2008, p. 17.
3. US National Security Council, National Strategy for Homeland Security, Washington DC, October
2007, pp. i, 25, 27, 28, 29, 31, 42, 47.
4. Cabinet Ofce, The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdepend-
ent World, HMSO, London, 2008, pp. 8, 9, 26, 41, 42, 43, 45, 55.
5. For more on sniffer dogs, see Mark Neocleous, ‘The Smell of Power: A Contribution to the Critique
of Sniffer Dogs’, Radical Philosophy 167, May/June 2011, pp. 9–14.
6. Department for International Development, Dening Disaster Resilience: A DfID Approach Paper,
DfID, London, 2011; United Nations, Living with Risk: A Global Review of Disaster Reduction
Initiatives, vol. 1, UN, New York and Geneva, 2004, p. 37, emphasis added.
7. The 9/11 Commission Report: The Full Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist At-
tacks Upon the United States, W.W. Norton, New York, 2004, p. 344.
8. World Economic Forum, Systemic Financial Resilience, Network of Global Agenda Councils Re-
port, 2011–12, Geneva; United Nations Development Programme, World Resources 2008: Roots of
Resilience – Growing the Wealth of the Poor, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 2008.
9. In April 2012 in the midst of a potential strike by fuel tanker drivers British health secretary Andrew
Lansley commented that the nation had to be prepared in order to better come through this and any
other strike: ‘we have got to build resilience in the system and that’s what we’re doing’; Dan Milmo
and Juliette Jowit, ‘Build Up Resilience against Tanker Strike, Lansley Urges’, Guardian, 2 April
2012, p. 5.
10. Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, 2nd edn, Penguin, London, 2011, p. 251;
Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on
Well-Being, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2010, pp. 114, 149; Matthieu Ricard, Happi-
ness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (2003), trans. Jesse Browner, Little, Brown,
New York, 2007, pp. 69, 73, 115; Jessica Pryce-Jones, Happiness at Work: Maximizing your Psycho-
logical Capital for Success, John Wiley, Chichester, 2010, pp. 8, 74–8, 111.
11. Cited in Daniel Boffey, ‘Labour Scorns Cameron “Happiness” Agenda’, Observer, 29 January 2012,
p. 23.
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... The first conclusion relates to the assumption of linearity and causality regarding the nature of resilience phenomena. The analysis of resilience processes of social systems in terms of the shock that is at their origin overestimates their impacts and influence on institutional change (Neocleous, 2013). Resilience processes are triggered by the shock, but they are not linearly determined by its effects. ...
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The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdependent World
Cabinet Office, The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdependent World, HMSO, London, 2008, pp. 8, 9, 26, 41, 42, 43, 45, 55.
The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
  • Richard Layard
  • Happiness
Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, 2nd edn, Penguin, London, 2011, p. 251; Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2010, pp. 114, 149; Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill (2003), trans. Jesse Browner, Little, Brown, New York, 2007, pp. 69, 73, 115; Jessica Pryce-Jones, Happiness at Work: Maximizing your Psychological Capital for Success, John Wiley, Chichester, 2010, pp. 8, 74-8, 111.
United Nations Development Programme, World Resources 2008: Roots of Resilience -Growing the Wealth of the Poor
World Economic Forum, Systemic Financial Resilience, Network of Global Agenda Councils Report, 2011-12, Geneva; United Nations Development Programme, World Resources 2008: Roots of Resilience -Growing the Wealth of the Poor, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 2008.
Labour Scorns Cameron "Happiness
  • Daniel Cited In
  • Boffey
Cited in Daniel Boffey, 'Labour Scorns Cameron "Happiness" Agenda', Observer, 29 January 2012, p. 23. Now you can read on your iPad…
Build Up Resilience against Tanker Strike, Lansley Urges', Guardian
  • Dan Milmo
  • Juliette Jowit
Dan Milmo and Juliette Jowit, 'Build Up Resilience against Tanker Strike, Lansley Urges', Guardian, 2 April 2012, p. 5.
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
  • Derek Bok
Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2010, pp. 114, 149; Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill (2003), trans. Jesse Browner, Little, Brown, New York, 2007, pp. 69, 73, 115; Jessica Pryce-Jones, Happiness at Work: Maximizing your Psychological Capital for Success, John Wiley, Chichester, 2010, pp. 8, 74-8, 111.