Economy of Force

We return from the holidays with gusto and a book symposium on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social (Cambridge, 2015). Patricia is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, co-editor of European Journal of International Relations, and a former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and of Oriel College, Oxford. Patricia’s first book was Between War and Politics: International Relations and the thought of Hannah Arendt (Oxford, 2007). Economy of Force is in the Cambridge University Press series ‘Studies in International Relations’ and is out in paperback next summer (the introduction is available in full here). The book will also be the subject of a forthcoming special section of Security Dialogue.

Economy of Force

Economy of Force seeks to rekindle interest in one of the oldest but neglected languages and techniques of government administration – household governance – that it uses to write a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with broad implications for social, political, and international thought. The book is a study of oikonomia in the use of force, from oikos, ancient Greek for household. But it also makes a larger claim, that household governance underlies the relatively recent rise of distinctly social forms of government and thought more broadly. Since the late eighteenth-century, modern, capitalist state and imperial administrators have drawn on and innovated different forms of household governance, scaling up and transforming the units of rule in which populations are domesticated. To really understand the significance of households-as-government we need to dispense with the relatively recent and bourgeois notion of households as houses, homes, or family-as-kin. Instead, households are best understood through the nature of the hierarchical relations between people in a particular spatial arrangement. Households are the persistent but historically variable spaces in which the life processes of members – real, vulnerable bodies needing food, water, shelter – are administered and the household itself is maintained.

There is a very long tradition of thinking of households-as-government in the history of political and economic thought and in anthropology, archeology and comparative studies of different household forms. There is also excellent and wide-ranging scholarship in literary and gender studies on practices and ideologies of domesticity (from domus, Latin for house). In drawing on and extending these and other literatures, Economy of Force suggests that there is a far deeper significance of households and forms of domesticity than captured in International Relations debates about the so-called ‘domestic analogy’. Household administration is highly portable and plays a remarkably significant role in imperial and international relations. These are grounds to make a stronger claim than one based on mere analogy. I argue that there is a domestic homology connecting different households, despite their historical and geographical variability, based on the genealogy of household governance in the history of social and political thought, but also the human experience of basic life necessities and the stubborn but contingent attempts to domesticate people through the administration and control of life needs.

Are You Domesticated

Let me illustrate through counterinsurgency, drawing on the book’s analysis of late-nineteenth-century French and American pacification campaigns, in which colonial occupation was often practiced and understood as a form of good housekeeping; late-colonial British ‘emergencies’ in Malaya (1948-1960) and Kenya (1952-1960); US counterinsurgency in Vietnam (1954-1975); and US-led multinational campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2015) and Iraq (2003-11). It has become cliché to talk of counterinsurgency as a form of ‘armed social work’ since French army officer David Galula stated that in such wars a soldier must ‘become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout’ (1964: 62). Forcibly removing and mass concentrating civilians; selectively delivering and withholding humanitarian supplies; empowering local collaborators to govern ‘their population’; detaining without trial, disappearances, and exemplary massacres; opening new markets and schools. Despite – and sometimes because of – such practices counterinsurgency is highly amenable to notions of ‘armed social work’. During the American occupation of the Philippines, they were called ‘policies of attraction’. They were the ‘policy of the smile’ during the French pacification of Morocco. In Malaya and Kenya, they were ‘hearts and minds’ and ‘rehabilitation’. They were ‘the Other war’, or the policy of “feed ‘em” and fuck ‘em, in Vietnam. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they were ‘armed social work’ and ‘population-centric’ COIN.

What kind of work is this ‘armed social work’? What is the nature of government offered under counterinsurgency rule? What government form exposes and selectively relieves humans of the exigencies of life? Across each of the cases examined and to varying degrees counterinsurgents sought to create units of rule in which local populations would be pacified through violence and control over life, through the management of gendered and racialized bodies in their extreme and irreducible vulnerability. That is, they sought to weaken the civilian base of armed resistance to military occupation by drawing on and innovating different forms of household governance.

Like all forms of household administration, counterinsurgency is despotic (from the Latin despot – master of the house). However, the spatial and administrative organization and agent of this despotism varies. It may be direct or indirect, for example in the use of local proxies as a form of ‘decentralized household despotism’ (adapted from Mamdani, 1996: 39). It may be personalised or bureaucratic administration, a kind of ‘no-man rule’ (Arendt, 1958: 40). On grounds of military necessity, counterinsurgents seek the obedience of local populations through the issuing of commands – leave your home, restrict your movement, provide intelligence, obey curfews, confess your oath, betray your comrades, renounce your politics – that must be obeyed or face imprisonment, torture, rape, and/or death. All this is done in accordance with assumed to be natural hierarchies based on gendered, racialized, ageist, and other civilizational attributes. People are forced to collaborate through the dictate of violent necessity, forced to appear like objects of social administration rather than political agents or subjects. The effort to negate the political subjectivity of the governed is defining of household rule. But, as suggested momentarily, this does not mean that household governance is defining of politics, or that successful resistance does not occur in and between households.

Hearts and Minds

Oikonomia – household administration – is not only a military practice. It is well known that the ancient oikos is the origin of the modern language of ‘economics’. But more importantly and revealingly, household practices and accompanying discourses are the basis of almost all writing on government in the West, of virtually every pre- and non-liberal theory of management and domination, and have given content to perceived hierarchies between civilisations. We could even say that traditions of political or social thought, including very recent ones, that privilege rulership or sovereignty still think in household terms. This was well understood before the rise of liberalism and modern social theories. But the founding myth of liberalism was that the rise and expansion of commercial ‘societies’ destroyed large-scale household rule, at least where ‘contract societies’ were established; notwithstanding the ever-present need to revert to forms of liberal despotism when non-compliant subjects require domestication. Nonetheless, through the eighteenth-century, ‘society’ would largely replace ‘household’ as the central object of intervention and thought in the core of the major European empires. The science of society replaced the art of household administration. In contrast, Economy of Force offers a re-narration of this discourse of modern ‘society’, showing the continuing significance and often-colonial genealogies of households through close readings of several traditions of social and political thought. These include early modern theories of natural law, various forms of liberalism, political realism, Marxism, and in the works of thinkers as diverse as Henry Sumner Maine, Lester Frank Ward, Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, and Foucault. The book historicizes distinctly social modes of thought, suggesting their deep reliance on oikonomia, in contrast to largely ahistorical evocations of social concepts across the spectrum of international theory.[1]

Economy of Force also attempts more than a genealogy of texts. It develops an historical argument about the rise of modern capitalist imperial states as initiating a scaling up and transformation of – rather than negation of – large-scale forms of household rule. As Hannah Arendt (1958) intuited but did not demonstrate, with the rise and expansion of capitalist markets and imperial state bureaucracies, the household activity of managing life processes acquired its own public domain, the modern social realm. Relations of dependency previously rooted in – and understood to be rooted in – ancient and feudal households became a matter of public state regulation and administration. This new social realm was an intermediary between the newly constituted and distinguished activities of capitalist ‘economics’ and state/imperial government. Household governance took on new forms and ideological rationalisations in the core of the capitalist empires. ‘Civil society’, distinguished from the state, would be comprised of two different forms of privacy: capitalist exchange and the intimate ‘domestic’ sphere of the family, the ‘household’ now divested of an explicit ‘economic’ function aside from reproduction and consumption; the welfare of ‘society as a whole’ was purportedly maximized by political economy; personalist authority was slowly replaced by bureaucratic administration, yet despotic government was retained in executive/prerogative power.

Crucially, through the nineteenth-century, the social realm underwent a major structural transformation, with state and non-state ‘social policy’ interventions specifically targeted at populations in revolt, especially women, workers, and colonial natives. There was a huge proliferation of activities and theories to which ‘social’ and ‘socio’ were appended. These social interventions and constructs – social insurance, social welfare, social economy, ‘traditional society’ – were responses to the famous Social Question of this period: how to manage the welfare of newly organized and radicalized workers, women and natives such that capitalism and imperialism were not overthrown. Alongside violent repression, administering the life processes and risks of certain populations in revolt was the other primary method for addressing their demands. A whole series of new social identities were established alongside the new agencies and forms of expertise to manage ‘social problems’, including those of so-called ‘international society’. Colonial populations and eventually new post-colonial nations would become objects of social scientific expertise and engineering.

This is why counterinsurgency is such a powerful subject for exploring distinctly social forms of governance and therefore, more fundamentally, changing forms of household. Galula called pacification the ‘conduct of sociological warfare’. I argue that this is because the historical context for the initial development of distinctly social intervention and thought was precisely the problem of responding to populations in revolt. Of course, the forms and functions of social regulation have varied across historical periods, ideological framings, locations and imperial contexts. In the counterinsurgency cases examined, the dynamics shifted most in relation to the level of organised resistance; the resources available to the counterinsurgency state; the perceived racial ‘Otherness’ of the target population and other racialised and gendered practices; and the degree of external support provided to insurgents. Unsurprisingly, the experiences of war forced counterinsurgents to reconsider and revise forms of household governance. This was far more important than the influence of any social or sociological theories on the military campaigns. The counterinsurgencies examined were always accompanied by such accounts, from 1950s theories of psychopathology, ethno-psychiatry, and community development to 1960s theories of development psychology and modernization and more recent ‘socio-cultural’ explanations for why Muslims take up arms. However, although useful for propaganda and the rationalization of often-total social revolutions, they never had an independent effect on the outcome of the wars. Military exigency was always the primary determinant of conduct, even in Vietnam where some of its leading managers pioneered theories of social modernization.

Life - To Keep A Village Free

The currently dominant theories of counterinsurgency – political realism, liberal solidarism, and biopolitics – are unable to fully capture the character of ‘armed social work’. Indeed, they are best situated within the historical context of the rise of modern sociocratic household governance. Weberian political realism is explicit about the role of social policy as a kind of realpolitik applied to internal populations; it is itself a historically specific paradigm of social regulation. Such paradigms, of which most international theories are fragments, embody different answers to the Social Question, about the nature and character of ‘the social’, and possibilities for its often-violent transformation (Steinmetz, 1993: 41). This is also true of liberal solidarism, which emerged in response to violent upheavals in the Third French Republic, and was part of concerted efforts to legitimate state intervention into problem populations in the name of ‘social solidarity’. However, liberal solidarists have done a great deal to obscure how counterinsurgencies are actually fought and how, if at all, they are won. In each of the cases examined, any victory was achieved not through ‘winning hearts and minds’, but through mass displacement and concentration, and the forced acquiesce of the survivors to the despotic rule of the army with territorial control.

Writing much later in the twentieth-century, Michel Foucault, in contrast to political realism and liberal solidarism, does not offer – or seek to offer – a paradigm of social regulation. But he did misstate, inadvertently I think, the underlying historical and theoretical model of government that was supposedly (but not in fact) eradicated with the ‘discovery of population’. In his important work on governmentality, Foucault argued that the elimination of the ‘family’ as the model of government unblocked the ‘art of government’, leading to the rise of biopolitics. However, it was the household, not the family as such, that was the model of government in early modern Polizeistaats, mercantilism, droit administrative, and cameralism, as it was in the ancient oikos, Roman households, feudal manors, royal households, empires as ‘political households’, and all forms of despotism, ‘enlightened’ or otherwise. With the rise of ‘society’, rationalities organised around a household logic continue to be inscribed within strategies of population governance. This is not a wholesale critique of Foucault. Instead we might think of the missing link between sovereign, disciplinary, and biopolitical power in household terms.

Why has the rich history and theory of household governance largely been ignored not only by liberal thinkers, as we would expect, but by much critical theory as well? The answer must be the near pervasive sociomania, or sociolatry, afflicting the human sciences, and international theory as well. Virtually the entire field takes the concepts of ‘social’ and ‘society’ to be timeless and universally applicable, as if they had no history. Yet sociolatry is exactly what we need to overcome, not only to retrieve the importance of household governance, but also to rethink politics. The point is not that social theorists have never said anything of interest. Obviously not; and much of the historical analysis in Economy of Force relies on classical social theory traditions, including Marx on capitalism and Weber on feudal households and bureaucracy, as well as scholars best understood to be radically outside this tradition, such as Arendt and Foucault. Marx, of course, is the obvious and significant exception to the domesticating origins of classical social theory. He did most to explain the new forms of domination under capitalism and to inspire forms of resistance. But in embracing – dialectically – the sociomania of his day, Marx bequeathed to critical theory an inadequate vocabulary for understanding the household of modern society or to theorise politics as something other than government and violence. Moreover, the point is not that we should abandon all social terminology. The appropriateness of social language depends on the kind of claims being made. But international theory does need to move beyond the philosophy of social science narrative about the enlightenment ‘discovery of society’, that the rise of distinctly social theory was primarily a methodological advance. Instead we need to ask the more difficult historical and political questions related to the rise and proliferation of distinctly social discourses; what domesticating projects they helped to sustain; and what other intellectual resources their dominance has obscured.

Earlier it was suggested, contra Clausewitz, that counterinsurgency is the continuation of oikonomia – not politics – by other means. What, then, is politics? Most traditions of so-called ‘political’ thought are really discourses about household administration, about governance, control, and domestication. But there is no necessary reason why this should exhaust our understanding of politics. Indeed, there are strong grounds for viewing politics and household rule as based on fundamentally different, even opposite, kinds of relations between people. If we can resist assimilating politics into the household, then we might otherwise take seriously a notion of politics as non-domestication. Drawing explicitly on Hannah Arendt here, politics might then refer to the actions of plural equals freely debating and acting on their common affairs in a manner that was essentially non-violent and unpredictable, that is, not subject to the calculations of oikonomia. Politics would include the non-hierarchical administration of life processes, but politics as such would not be reducible to oikonomia. The question would be how to organise life processes in a properly political manner, that is, attentive to – rather than destructive of – human plurality and freedom. Rather than the principles and techniques of the household, resistance to domestication would be the object of political theory.

Mau Mau

Similarly, unless we accept that politics and war are simply two ends of a continuum of violence defining all human relations, war cannot be the continuation of politics by other means. War is the reciprocal activity of killing and maiming people, of seeking to compel others to submit to ones will through force and violence. But there is nothing but definitional fiat and complete adherence to Clausewitz that means war is the continuation of politics (as distinct from government). Of course, just as politics as non-domestication can occur inside and between households, exemplary forms of political action occur during wartime, right in the midst of fighting. Yet, seen this way, politics and war are fundamentally different ways of being with others and of making and remaking the human world.

Though the book now exists out there in the world, I still think of this project as a work in progress, subject to revision and – hopefully – improvement. I’m thus grateful to The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium on Economy of Force and look forward to reading and replying to the four commentaries.

[1] International political theorists have paid far more attention to John Stuart Mill’s defence of liberal despotism. But Sir Henry Sumner Maine, comparative jurist, historian, and colonial administrator, developed a distinctly social explanations and remedies for Indian revolt that are of equal – if not greater – significance for the actual conduct of imperialism, the canon of social theory, and later counterinsurgency rule.


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