Home-ology; Being a Comment On Patriarchs and Patriarchy in Economy of Force

This is the second contribution to a forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. More to follow in the coming days.


Joshua Reynold's portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

What to say about Economy of Force, Patricia Owens’ wildly ambitious contribution to international political theory?[1] A book that threatens to overwhelm, whether with the vast literature it marshals or in its brazen assault on (almost all) social theory. A book that consistently degrades the “intellectual crutch” of sociality, offers an arresting agenda for historical and political analysis, and then delivers a revisionist account of late colonial and ‘post-colonial’ counterinsurgency of its own. Amidst the parade of detail and argument, a book in which you will also discover a nascent theory of patriarchy. Arguably more, Economy of Force presages nothing less than the groundwork for a unification of feminist and international political theory.

As we have already seen, Owens’ critique of ‘the social’ as a category of thought and practice involves reviving the alternative to it: oikonomia, economy in its original sense. More precisely, Economy of Force dispenses with the usual distinction between a time when the family household was the primary site of power (feudal, certainly pre-modern, personalist, and status-based) and the contemporary distribution of political, economy and civil power in something we call ‘society’ (properly modern, bureaucratic or networked, and contract-based). Instead of telling stories in which the household is overcome by society, we should, on this account, recognise that ‘the social’ is a historical transformation of the household form. The change in the form of household governance is real, but the stories told about the change are fictions. The current hegemonic story – social theory itself – has as its effect the obscuring of power as domestication. In other words, our conventional narrative of how the household disappeared provides ideological cover for the fact that the household is still very much with us.

Oikonomia, or household governance, is rule characterised by a father figure (paterfamilias) whose power is more or less that of a despot. Since despot means ‘master of the house’, you might expect International Relations scholars to have noticed, or to be alert to their own repeated tendency to name as ‘domestic’ whatever is not part of global politics proper. Instead, these threads must be uncovered, recovered, constructed and mapped anew.

In the Greek and then Roman form, which serves as the conceptual schema for Owens’ view of the household in general, the father-despot commands a variety of householders, and crucially not just those linked to him by kinship.[2] Thus the household is more than the family, perhaps need not require a family at all. The contemporary conflation of household and family is in error, an after-effect of the new forms of social regulation that arose with political liberalism (a first image problem of a novel kind). The rule of the despot tends towards (but never achieves) absolutism. It is the rule over relations between his householders within a particular spacial arrangement. The father-despot faces resistance from those he governs, and his government is therefore also a management, distributing largesse in return for submission, administering accounts and policing borders, without ever losing its hierarchical or exploitative character.

The household is an organisation of property and status. Once liberated from association with the family, it can be identified, writ large, in the grand territoriality of state and empire. Crucially, the power of this concept of household governance for Owens is premised on homology. The link between the Athenian household and the United States of America is not just one of metaphor or semblance.[3] Instead the household as a modality of government maintains “a correspondence of type and structure” at scale. The crucial features persist across levels of analysis. What is this type, and what the structure?

The answer is that social regulation and government is the distinctly modern and capitalist form of household rule. The modern social realm is a distinctive form of household, one of the historically variable units of rule in which the life processes of members are reproduced and the collective unit of the household is maintained.

The control over life is “usually” justified as benevolent, a necessary protection against worse alternatives. In spite of the critique of Marxism and its attitude towards the social, Owens is thus arguing in uneasy parallel with Karl Marx, as relayed by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

The modern family contains in germ not only slavery but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and state.

This is an uneasy parallel because Marxists are still trying to leave the household behind in the narrative of transitions of production, and because Engels relies overly on the gender relations within a heterosexual family, missing the webs of gender power in the household, even as he explains that familia originally referred to “the total number of slaves belonging to one man”.

Elsewhere, Economy of Force is more indebted to colonial political theory, which both recognised the historical weight of the household and sought to invent the household anew for its strategies of control. Sir Henry Sumner Maine, codifier of Indian colonial law, Professor at Cambridge and Oxford, is perhaps the book’s pre-eminent figure. The view of the ‘traditional’ household that Maine pioneered in the administration of India would go on to inform all later counter-insurgency. Inventing the colonial household (with its village elders, gender segregation and public/private divide) was itself a form of mediated and indirect despotic rule. Imperial power created one level of household governance (‘customary’, local, status-based), subordinated to another (‘civilised’, imperial, contract-based). In revising the history of counterinsurgency in light of household governance, Owens is thus able to reveal their commonality, ultimately casting “…the US war in Vietnam [as] the most extreme attempt at oikonomikos in the history of overseas empire”.

The ideological gloss given to indirect rule by British imperial power/knowledge in turn posited a theory of patriarchal rule. For Maine it was the first fathers who were kings, which is not just to say that power has always been patriarchal, but that the household is the primary unit of all power. Economy of Force moves us to concur, whilst leaving aside Maine’s vision (“both an explanation and a remedy for native violence”). Examining both the real history of household governance and the ideological constructions of the household demands a new form of navigation. Feminist political theory and feminist IR have thankfully left some maps, long arguing against the analytical separation of public power and private household. Since for feminists the issue has usually been contemporary gender order, it is true that their version of the household to be critiqued is largely familial, but there has also always been a wider system at stake.

Firestone Dialectic of Sex Diagram

Shulamith Firestone’s diagram of household governance, from The Dialectic of Sex.

In lieu of a treatise, then, some feminist affinities, and some dissonant parallels. Here, for example, is Gayle Rubin in her famous articulation of the sex/gender system, on kinship and political economy:

To an anthropologist, a kinship system is not a list of biological relatives. It is a system of categories and statuses which often contradict actual genetic relationships… In pre-state societies, kinship is the idiom of social interaction, organising economic, political, and ceremonial, as well as sexual, activity. One’s duties, responsibilities, and privileges vis-a-vis others are defined in terms of mutual kinship or lack thereof. The exchange of goods and services, production and distribution, hostility and solidarity, ritual and ceremony, all take place within the organisational structure of kinship.

And Patricia Hill Collins on intersectionality:

The multiple meanings attached to the concept of “home” – home as family household, home as neighbourhood, home as native country – speak to its significance within family as a privileged exemplar of intersectionality. In the United States, the traditional family ideal’s ideas about place, space, and territory suggest that families, racial groups, and nation-states require their own unique places or “homes”. Because “homes” provide spaces of privacy and security for families, races, and nation-states, they serve as sanctuaries for group members.

And V. Spike Peterson on queer histories:

[W]hereas patriarchal customs do not begin with the state, they assume specific and entrenched forms as, for example, the increased significance of (inheritable) claims to property and membership prompts regulation of women’s sexuality, and emerging divisions of labor foster particular constructions of masculinity and femininity. To see “what changes,” it helps to consider what the state’s centralizing dynamics apparently displaced. The multifaceted, crosscutting and nuanced social relations typical of existing communities – often lineage networks – afforded women (and men) various claims to respect, authority and resources. Successful states reconfigured these social arrangements, both to weaken lineage authority and resource claims, and to promote new allegiances. Key here is how this involved a shift from kinship (fictive and otherwise) as a principle of societal organization to kinship as co-residence; in effect constituting a smaller and more independent household – the “family” – centered on husband–wife–offspring relations. The shift emphasized women’s sexual/reproductive role (at the expense of other previously valued dimensions of their identities and activities) and marked “the subordination of local kin group [lineage] reproduction to the reproduction of the emerging class-based society”.

None of these investigations are in total accord with Owens. Rubin is overly focused on sexuality and the anthropology thereof; Collins too concerned with the American example and its specific racial parameters; Peterson too indebted to the idea of a break between traditional societies and modern state-making. On the finer points of detail, and on the historical-political meaning of the household, there will be divergence aplenty. And in any case, Economy of Force already pays reference to a range of similar arguments, including such major statements as Anne McClintock’s rich and at times frustrating account of the imperial family (and the imperial heurstic of the family). And yet the substantive commonality between feminist political theory and a new analytical of household governance, the very unity that Economy of Force makes possible, is muted.[4]

Gender is understandably present as one dimension of household rule – insofar as a household has a patriarch – but is far from the most prominent. Owens does not seek a theory of patriarchy as such, yet also cannot quite proceed without one. If households are the fundamental unit of rule, and if the household despot is prototypically male, indeed historically male (matriarchy does not feature in Economy of Force), and if we accept that modern polities are scaled households, which continue to inscribe gendered labour across their domains, then an account of the state system must at the same time be an account of gender power in a deep sense. There is no theory of international politics without a theory of patriarchy. Not because all conceivable human border interactions have a gendered dimension, but because the political affinity between states and households goes all the way back, and all the way down. How, then, to reckon with the curious abeyance of patriarchy even in the midst of patriarchal governors?[5]

(What, moreover, is the implication and prognosis for the sexed bodies that hold power? It is unclear from Owens’ discussion of gender whether household governance requires patriarchs as such. Given its origins, the transformations in its form, and the depth of its dynamics, might women lead states en masse without troubling their gendered character (either theirs or the states’)? ‘Patriarchy’ would then become an important historical and etymological feature of the system, but not one that dictated which bodies actually govern, and which were to be governed. Or does the erosion of male privilege promise a new modality of the household? Should we say, just as the phallus is not reducible to the penis, that the patriarchal rule is not reducible to patriarchs?)

The conceptual difficulty is not only in uniting a theory of government with a theory of gender. It is also in maintaining the sweep of historical perspective without diminishing the precision on which the overthrow of ‘the social’ depends. Recall that the homology of household governance is the fulcrum for making the analysis of household governance into a successor science of ‘social’ relations. Yet, as Owens also makes clear, “[h]ousehold forms are historically and geographically variable”. So what kind of study of the household, what oikonomology or home-ology, is adequate to this homology and to its variety?

Even in the narrower manifestation of liberal counter-insurgency, household governance takes an array of forms, “may be indirect and decentralised (such as the use of local despots or client states), as well as direct and centralised (such as strengthening the patriarchal house or in establishing larger concentration and detention camps)”. So when the British engaged in ethnic cleansing, forced removal and ‘relocation’ in Kenya, they were demolishing one household pattern (Kikuyu homesteads, densely populated and apt for the ‘bush telegraph’) to institute another (‘villages’ based on clearly-defined family homes). If different household forms are also understood as co-related and interdependent, as Owens says they should be, then does household governance not begin to appear as everything, and therefore stripped of the precision of homological correspondence?

The problem is countered in Economy of Force by surveying four broad modes of historical householding: ancient, feudal, early modern, and modern. The household as unit of rule thus includes versions that are absolutist, pervasively violent, gender segregated and slave-owning, where the household is arranged in support of the polis (the Greek model); diffuse, conglomerated, monarchical-religious peasant economies, where the household is relatively autonomous (medieval Europe); commercial, industrialising, proto-liberal, contractual in principle and imperial in practice, where the household is subordinated to an emerging national political community (18th century England); fully capitalist, wage laboured, divided clearly into public and private, where the household was nationalised as a single ‘society’ whilst the ‘home’ came to mean a restricted family patriarchy (bourgeois modernity). For each mode of domesticity there is also a variable relation between metropole and colony, a differing articulation of inside/outside.

What truly unites these cases? To say that all feature rule as the governance of life processes within a spatial order seems, under history’s weight, somewhat inadequate. Why not consider households in all their variety, as well as other units of rule, as sub-sets of spatially-ordered life process governance? As what might be called ‘polities’ in general terms? Families would then be a kind of polity, and the household (perhaps containing a family) a primary example of it, one that resonates in important ways with states, fiefdoms, colonies, etc., each then a differing polity form that nevertheless exists in nested relation and evolution with house and home. It might even be agreed that colonial power depends on a certain vision of the household, without it following that it is the homology of the household form that lies, obscured, behind international power politics. The productivity, economy, culture and militarisation of the household could then imply a co-constitution of notions of “house” and, if not necessarily “society”, then some other term like “kingdom”.

The provocation of Economy of Force is that it instead places the household at the very centre of political ontology, and makes other discourses of politics masquerades.[6] Are there varieties of hierarchical control which are not that of the house? Much seems to turn on the precise content of ‘domesticated’. It is always possible to re-describe all kinds of processes and arguments in terms of metaphors of home or domesticity. The question is whether ‘the social’ really does reduce to something like the household as historical ontology, and what was kept of ‘the home’ in the transformation into ‘the social’. Because Owens forwards both a critique of the social and an analytic of the household, conventional terminology has to be dispensed with. But this also allows for critics to claim that all sorts of things are simply being redefined as if they were households. To take figures of politics usually thought of as beyond the household, positing them as “really” part of the household; and then conclude that a genealogy of the household is the best language for a genealogy of government. For those who will take Economy of Force as home-ology foundation text (myself included), the intellectual provocation is to trace and detail the correspondence of type and structure in multiple inter-national and global households, the present’s history of fatherlands, wagering that something new will be revealed, as much in the error of the hypothesis as its confirmation.

Weakening the criteria of homology reveals a hinterland of further applications. Such as the claim that state legitimacy depends on a certain metaphor of the family and the home, as does imperial hierarchy (McClintock); that state and imperial power emerged through the collaboration and personal-patrimonial power of allied families (as compellingly argued for the Dutch imperial case by Julia Adams); that the familial household (with the father as despot) is the primary and enduring unit of human exploitation, but not the primary one; that concrete practices of counterinsurgency are best understood, as in Owens biting reformulation, as battles for “hearths and minds”. All this is merit enough, yet less than the maximal possible claim: that modern institutions of state are not much more than the institutions of the household at scale. To follow Economy of Force‘s injunction, to think historically and conceptually in household terms, is thus to remake not just our understanding of counterinsurgency, or even of gender power, but of the international itself.


[1] Although I know Patricia well, this post follows scholarly conventions of naming.

[2] Although historically-located rather than abstract, this is a very particular lineage, one that seems to imply a unified history of power that starts in a familiar place. Post-colonial and post-structuralist readings would likely disrupt this particular etymological strategy, without consequently disproving the central point about the role of household power.

[3] Owens in general focuses on the association between the terminology of the home and the social in counterinsurgency, and does not over-labour the association of the home and the state as such. That this affinity exists potently in the mind of state leaders may not seem surprising, but is occasionally put by them with a revealing bluntness. To take a favourite example, Lyndon B. Johnson interviewed on the Vietnam War in 1969:

The [Communists] want what we’ve got, and they’re going to try to get it. If we get out, it will be tragic for this country. If we let them take Asia, they’re going to try to take us…I want to be friendly with the Soviets and with the Chinese. But if you let a bully come in and chase you out of your front yard, tomorrow he’ll be on your porch, and the next day he’ll rape your wife in your own bed.

[4] At points the distastefulness of drawing too direct a parallel with feminism. In 1963 Betty Friedan had described middle-class suburbia as “like living in a comfortable concentration camp”, at about the same time as the strategic hamlet programme was trying to achieve something that could be described in the same terms in Vietnam (just as John Nagl had lavished British counterinsurgency in Malaya with praise for gifting the population “more than concentration camps”, thanks to the medical centres and boy scout troops.

[5] It is not my intention to demand a worked-out theory of patriarchy. Economy of Force already does much to indicate the spaces in which such a synthesis could take occur. The challenge is less to the book as it exists than to the shift in our (“our”) disciplinary thinking that it sets in motion.

[6] Political ontology for lack of a better term, to mean the nature of political entities, although as Andrew Davenport points out, Owens’ sense of politics proper is almost diametrically opposed, following as it does in the wake of Arendt.

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