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George Rigakos: Nightclub. Bouncers, Risk, and the Spectacle of Consumption

Bouncers: Regulating Al Capone's Grandchildren? A Marxist entering Canada's nightlife economy.   Interview with George S. Rigakos, author of ›Nightclub. Bouncers, Risk, and the Spectacle of Consumption‹ (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

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George Rigakos (Credit: Ashley Fraser/Ottawa Citizen)

Bouncers: Regulating Al Capone's Grandchildren?

A Marxist entering Canada's nightlife economy

Interview with George S. Rigakos, author of
›Nightclub. Bouncers, Risk, and the Spectacle of Consumption‹
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

Al Capone's grandchildren work in places and under conditions that might be seen as manifestations of de-industrialization under urban neoliberalism, even though the ›business‹ dates back to the 19th century. It is also about three interrelated developments shaped by processes of urban neoliberalization: First, there is a shift in economic development from what might be called industrial to the post-industrial orientation – leading to a night-time economy with plenty of profit opportunities for urban elites and their proxies. Second, there is a significant re-scaling from urban government to urban governance, involving a move away from state-run and local service provision, towards the ›city as an entrepreneur‹ solely focused upon the facilitation of economic growth. Thirdly, this goes with different kinds of commercial and (neo)communitarian forms of policing: be it (more the less) institutionalized as with rent-a-cops, be it more informal as with the police' activities such as ›grey policing‹ and ›moonlightning‹, or, in significant numbers, with the business of bouncers.
Several scholars aim to analyze these developments in words such as ›pluralization of policing‹, ›multilateralization of policing‹, or talk about a new ›culture of control‹ in which ›hybrid‹, ›nodal‹, ›para‹, ›private‹, ›third-party‹, and ›nonprofit‹ policing occurs. In a ›mixed economy of policing‹ where, among others, the British MET feels urged to claim the existence of a ›extended policing family‹, the result is a nasty mix reminiscent of pre-Fordist times when liminality and transgression were largely controlled by non-governmental conflicting and competing interests. Bouncers, part of the periphery of the neoliberal service economy (the ›gatekeepers‹ of Guy Debord's ›Society of the Spectacle‹), have become a valued mechanism. Like the police who have been described as the mere gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, bouncers deliver ›client-oriented‹ punishment and pain to maintain the pragmatic boundaries established by commercial imperatives in the pursuit of profit.

We talked to our colleague George Rigakos about some implications.

CrowdControl: Starting with some kind of number crunching, in Germany about 170.000 people are working as rent-a-cops, among them about 15.000 gumshoes, and in addition an unknown number of bouncers. What are the numbers for Canada?


George Rigakos:  As of 2004, the official numbers from Statistics Canada are 321 private security guards and investigators per 100,000 Canadians versus 209 per 100,000 for the public police.  The ratio is probably closer to over 2:1 in favour of private policing.  The provinces regulate the industry but only contract services are licensed.  As for bouncers, no one really knows what percentage of them are counted as part of the security numbers.  Things will be changing shortly as the provinces begin regulating the ‘in house’ sector including bouncers.

CrowdControl: What was your impetus for studying the policing of nightlife economy by bouncers? And, more particularly, studying as a Marxist scholar?

George Rigakos:  Well, I think a Marxist orientation necessitates empirically mapping the commodification process in its historical and social context.  I have been interested in parapolicing and other non-state policing provision for some time.  By parapolicing I mean aggressive contract private security firms that are, in practice, private law enforcement agencies.  But I am also interested in what we call “paid duty” policing in Canada which is the state renting out public police officers to private clients.  Such clients are multiple, including Business Improvement Areas (or Districts) and nightclubs, both of which have been sites for my current research projects.  The nighttime economy, within which the nightclub is a central institution, is part of this late capitalist compulsion to commodify security provision.  Bouncers are an integral part of a general tendency to colonize all aspects of human interaction with a commodity logic.  Being a scholar, not just a Marxist one, also means using theoretical concepts that elucidate your subject of analysis.  In this way, my analysis is also indebted to Baudrillard and Foucault on consumption and surveillance.

CrowdControl: One of the most famous bouncers in history might have been Al Capone who, while later becoming famous in Chicago, worked in a Brooklyn dive, the Harvard Inn, as a bouncer and bartender until 1919. While working there, he received his infamous facial scars and the resulting nickname ›Scarface‹. What kinds of guys are running the bouncer business in 21st century Canada?

George Rigakos: There are still a few Capone-like characters out there but many more are looking not toward law breaking but rather law enforcement.  I was surprised at how many bouncers are training to become correctional workers or police officers.  I think the corporatization of nightclubs has had a risk effect on bouncing in that training and procedures have been set up to minimize corporate liability.  So, yes, you do have underground clubs that host nefarious clients and are staffed by nefarious bouncers but you have many more massive entertainment complexes opening up that sometimes employ up to two-dozen bouncers working in four or five connected, thematized nightclub settings.  A true spectacle of security, risk and consumption.

CrowdControl: You claim that »the urban night is being redefined by club culture, violence and the bouncers who police it«. What kind of redefinition is it that you have identified?


George Rigakos:  I should start by saying that I have grown quite suspicious of cultural radicalism while researching this book but that’s not exactly what you’re asking.  This cultural redefinition is actually nothing more than the material effect of nightclub proliferation and nightclubs’ qualitative re-organization.  This is a two-fold process.  First, nightclubs, and more generally a vibrant nighttime culture, are being intentionally cultivated by urban planners across the globe as essential aspects for creating a so-called “international city”, or a “24-hour city,” as playgrounds for an aspiring jet-set bou.rgeoisie.  We have seen this taking place in post-industrial cityscapes from Manchester to Philadelphia.  Nightclub licenses are being handed out by the bushel and cities have even used tax abatements as incentives.  Of course, it is a deliberate process.  City planners want to bolster the “tourist gaze,” to advertise their city’s “entertainment district.”  It’s perhaps the most obvious or crass example of the deliberate transition (or default) to a service sector economy with all of its associated social costs.  Second, the nightclubs themselves are much larger.  We are talking here about massive entertainment complexes, oftentimes multi-level nightclub settings that necessitate a high concentration of security labourers (among others).  I think that in the same way as Marx described how industrial workers develop a class consciousness based on their aggregation by capital into even more and more centralized production, so are both service staff and patrons scooped up into these large post-industrial pleasure factories.  They are all increasingly scrutinized by voyeurism and surveillance with increasing intensity; what I call a “synoptic frenzy.”  Nightclubs produce alienation and lonely crowds.  They amplify divisions based on race, class and gender.  In this social context, I say that violence is not only predictable but natural.

CrowdControl: Ok, we buy that. If you think about – all of us being scientists in one way or another – comparative research, what do we know about differences and similarities? What kind of research would be needed?

George Rigakos: It’s interesting.  I found differences not only between Canadian cities but between nightclubs in the same city.  So, on a comparative basis there is probably even more to consider on an international basis.  At the same time, however, I have read works on nightclub culture from both the Unites States and Britain and I think the differences, at the aggregate level, are quite minor.  My Marxian approach (I call “risk markets”) which utilizes the conceptual ties of security, risk and consumption seems applicable to those contexts.  There is much to research but perhaps one area that needs more work and that has largely been neglected is queer nightclub culture.  How do gay and lesbian nightclubs compare?  That’s one area where my book has no answer.  How are masculinities and femininities redefined and what does this do for the analysis of violence?

CrowdControl: Ontario is heading for regulating this part of nightlife economy. Until now, only guards who work for security firms and independent private investigators needed licenses. The new law also requires businesses that employ bouncers and other in-house security personnel to register with the province. What's your opinion on this?

George Rigakos: I think it’s generally a positive step in that bouncers will have to undergo a criminal background check and get some minimum training but as in most matters of legislation much will come down to enforcement.  I think it’s clear that two developments are forthcoming.  First, nightclub proprietors will attempt to mitigate costs and liability and will be more likely to contract out their security and/or rely even more heavily on security technology to offset labour costs.  This development, as it happens, is a predictable general law of commodification that plays itself out in multiple work sites under late capitalism.   Second, you will have a starker distinction between legitimate and illegitimate operations because certain nightclub proprietors (especially smaller operations with links to organized crime) will seek to circumvent the law by re-labelling their bouncers as greeters or some other service staff designation.  It will then come down to how much the state can stomach becoming embroiled in the ongoing surveillance of the nighttime economy.

CrowdControl: Being a Marxist, how would you describe the, somewhat, paradox that it is the proletarian working class brought into action to control and police the urban elite's ›urban economy of the spectacle‹, or vice versa, the ›spectacle of the urban economy‹? In addition: You call them an »international proletarian security force«. What might be (more the less) likely consequences, though?

George Rigakos: I know that this may sound rather romantic but I do believe that something quite significant and positive can happen if bouncers get organized.  I for one would very much like to look to either side and see them marching next to me at the next political protest.  There are trends indicating that this may one day happen:  Bouncers are working in larger venues in greater numbers and they are increasingly working for contract providers undermining their identification with a nightclub instead of their direct employer.  As they are increasingly becoming part of contract security companies this means the possibility of standardized wages and collective bargaining agreements.  But even more than this, bouncers see the worst excesses of capitalism.  They are often the violent targets of aggression fuelled by binge drinking and their vetting of populations based on race, class and gender.  They are in more need of dental plans, long-term health benefits, wellness plans, and even basic equipment like bullet-proof vests and stab armour than other security employees and even the public police.  That being said, up to now, we know that they have simply been muscle for VIPs and scandalous nightclub proprietors.  They reinforce crass distinctions on a nightly basis.  This may continue but there is an increasing structural incentive toward solidarity.  In some cases this solidarity may literally be a matter of life and death.

George is associate professor of Law, Criminology, and Political Economy at Carleton University (Canada), author of ›The New Parapolice: Risk Markets and Commodified Social Control‹ (2002) and one of the authors in our recent book: undefinedVolker Eick, Jens Sambale, Eric Töpfer: ›Kontrollierte Urbanität. Zur Neoliberalisierung städtischer Sicherheitspolitik‹ (2007).