All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

The fourth piece in our forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. One more to follow before Patricia’s rejoinder this weekend.

Economy of Force provides an insightful and provocative re-reading of Anglo-American imperialism and counterinsurgency. Unlike conventional accounts, which for the most part remain trapped within the hermeneutic limits of political theory, Owens undertakes a historical sociology of ‘the social’ itself, tracing out its attendant mechanisms of political rule over time. Central to her account is the notion of ‘the household’, which, she suggests, functions as a dominant form of administration and rule within both modern and contemporary imperialisms. ‘Despotism’, ‘governance’, ‘ruler-ship’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘administration’, ‘life processes’, ‘violence’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘pacification’, ‘domestication’, ‘domesticity’ – this language of household rule is crucial in order to better understand the politics that underpin different forms of imperial practice. For this, we must also understand that it is the oikos, and not politics, that stands at the heart of imperial and counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, for Owens, such campaigns are best grasped as “armed social work”.

One clear target of this argument is mainstream IR, which all too often works with an ahistorical conception of society. Owens firmly rejects this approach by identifying: (1) the origins of ‘the social’ in a concept of household rule; (2) the transformation of household rule over time; and (3) the historically-specific influence that different forms of household rule exert over political practices in the present. In so doing she also rejects the folk wisdom that household rule and management has been eliminated or pushed to the margins of politics through various processes of modernisation. Rather, she argues, household rule is sozialpolitik rendered as politics, and that IR scholars would do well to engage with the changing logics of household rule if they want any purchase on the political world.

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Owens grounds this bold claim in the close relation between the social and an ancient modality of household rule: oikonomia. This is an important move and I, for one, am convinced that an engagement with household management can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the entwinement of the social and the international. Such a lens resonates with Hannah Arendt’s insight that, in modernity, “we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (The Human Condition, p.28). And for Arendt too, ‘the social’ is infused with the logic of household management, turning modern ‘society’ into a mode of government based on specific and historically situated relations of reproduction. In fact, I would argue that Arendt’s proto-biopolitical argument has much to offer to Owens’ project.

Not unlike Arendt, Owens also harks backs to Aristotle, who provides one of the first accounts of oikonomia as a mode of social rule. Again, the Aristotelian account of household rule and management provides a promising resource that is perhaps not used by Owens to the fullest possible extent. In particular, Aristotle’s Politics provides a lens through which to view not only the management of life processes as such, but also the role of monetary exchange in supporting or subverting this. One of the latent contributions in Owens’ book thus lies in the way that she opens the door onto further re-readings of those securitization practices made visible in Anglo-American counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is much to be said in response to such a rich text and the ways in which Economy of Force might pave the way for a closer inspection of the modalities with which violent practices are facilitated and reproduced through logics of technology, accumulation and exchange. However, I will limit my comments to two key points. The first engages with the complementarities between Owens’ own analysis and the broader field of a biopolitical approach to modern and contemporary violence, despite her dismissal of biopolitics as a useful lens for analyses of counterinsurgency. I illustrate this through a discussion of the role that language plays in armed social work discourse. The second point is that Aristotle’s notion of chrematistics, which he places in tension with oikonomia, may provide an important and complementary insight into the logos of violent social reproduction today.

Biopolitics of the household

While I do find Owens’ historical account of the social-as-household to be illuminating, I am less convinced by the scepticism she expresses toward biopolitical theories of political violence and counter-insurgency. Owens admits, there is now a rich literature in this vein (p. 33), and it may be worth taking more time to consider how and where biopolitics intersects with her own account of the modern social. From my perspective, it is evident that modern forms of social rule are precisely biopolitical forms of social rule. If not, then at the very least, significant aspects of social rule are codified in biopolitical terms. The prevalence of biomedical practices in politics today is a clear testament to this, as Nikolas Rose and others have shown. It strikes me that biopolitical thinking can be usefully mobilized alongside an historical account of society, rather than be dismissed as fundamentally flawed.

In this, I must first rescue Foucault. Offering a predominantly Agambian reading of biopolitics, Owens criticizes biopolitics more broadly for resting “on a false premise”, which she traces back to Foucault’s writings on “the discovery of the population” (p. 34-35). Foucault and his followers got this wrong, she claims, by missing the fact that the modern social realm is indeed the modern capitalist form of household rule and management. Though I can’t speak for all of Foucault’s followers, I would suggest that Foucault himself provides a far more nuanced account of population management than Owens is willing to give him credit for; and one that resonates strikingly with her own account of the management, or domestication, of populations in many places.


Drawing on a rich historical excavation for his accounts of power, Foucault delineates clearly the transformation of government to forms of administration. In his account of biopower, the preservation and security of specific populations serves as the basis for a modern type of discipline for the regulation, organization and management of a body of multiples. As such, the population becomes an economic and political resource for the perpetuation of production and consumption, an asset, the life of which must be preserved, increased and extended. Control over the life processes of populations is thus exercised through the institution of measures, statistics, forecasts, categorisations and rankings. Governmental practices of population administration are, however, precisely informed by modes of governance that find their organizing principle in household administration. It is the docility-utility mechanisms emerging in the 18th and 19th century that have enabled a transformation – not an outright dismissal – of the logic of housekeeping. In other words, it is the technocratic mechanisms of understanding modern populations that enabled an up-scaling of economic logics previously associated with the family, the household, and the administration of “men and things”. Once made visible through calculations and statistics, the ‘population’ is nothing other than a large-scale version of the household, wherein the government manages events and eventualities that might impinge upon the household, “such as birth and deaths, and all the things that can be done, such as alliances with other families”, and so on (Governmentality, in The Foucault Effect p.94). In this way, the population-as-household becomes the “general form of management that is characteristic of government” (ibid.) The historical context is clear in Foucault. Crucially, though, this mode of governing populations hinges on the organising principle of household management, for it is through this that intrinsic life necessities are first identified as such, and then identified as in need of management through the administration of people and things. Thus, when Foucault muses that the family becomes subsumed, it is the actual family unit, as we know today, that is shifted from being the model of the economy (because it can no longer be) to an instrument through which biopower can work. Returning to Owens, the key point is that it is only through the logic of household needs and necessities that the notion of population can emerge in the first place.

The role of the sovereign provides further link between biopolitics and socio-politics. For Owens, it is through the logic of despotic household rule that populations are driven “into an existence governed purely by life necessity”, which in the contemporary context, sees counter-insurgents “place themselves in the position to administer, deliver and withhold the necessities of life” (p. 241). Similarly, Foucault places emphasis on the modern technologies through which a sovereign entity enacts the power to “make life or let die”. As he notes in Society Must Be Defended, it is no longer sovereignty that takes life and lets live; rather, it is a “power of regularization, and it, in contrast, consists in making live and letting die” (SMBD p. 247). The terminologies may be different, but in both cases what is at stake is the violent management of populations. Bio-politics again intersects with socio-politics. Rather than a shortcoming, I see an opportunity here to make Foucault an important ally by drawing on his extensive work on techniques and technologies of power and government.


There are a fair number of other points of contact or resonance between Owens’ approach and the biopolitical tradition more broadly. I lack the space to detail these in full here, but I would like to suggest that by dismissing Foucault (and his followers) for not having understood the relevance of the household and its centrality to the management of life-processes, Owens might be creating a blind spot where there need be none. In fact, I would argue that technologies of biopower can easily be understood as techniques through which to realise what Owens prefers to call oikonomia. Indeed, even if Foucault may not convince as a foundation for a biopolitical analysis of society and its violent practices, we can easily draw on Arendt, who provides both a more clearly historically situated conception of ‘the social’, and an account of the biopolitical mechanisms that reproduce its logics.[1] Without going into too great a detail, I would argue that Arendt clearly laid out how the emergence of modern society resulted from a scaling up of housekeeping processes. In her account, the realm of the social is again informed by the organizational techniques of household management, and as these displace earlier forms of despotic power, managing the productive and consumptive activities of life processes becomes the preoccupation of modern government and by extension international practices.

In Arendt we also find an additional, and important, argument about the pre-eminence of productive labour power for a society that is dictated by the biological necessities of life processes. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, such a society engenders the merging of the social with the political, wherein political action as such is transformed into the administration of life necessities. In this, the family is subsumed within an up-scaled housekeeping-as-politics, but the logic that underpins the political-economic relation remains. This process is facilitated and perpetuated through the advent of scientific and mathematized understandings of both life and living as subjects of administration. Again, the historical origins of the oikos as the logos for this administrative politics remain in a transformed form, and the mechanisms that enable and sustain this transformation are, I argue, biopolitical mechanisms of a distinctly capitalist modernity. In my previous work I have explored this trajectory in Arendt at length, so I will leave that discussion aside for now, perhaps for another time.

All this to say, the household administration of life processes looks to have become the modern capitalist form of social rule. This is something that, in my reading, unites the work of Arendt, Foucault, and Owens.

Household pathologies

Putting Foucault and Arendt to one side, what also struck me about Economy of Force was the biomedical language with which the discourse of ‘armed social work’ is infused. It is, in essence, a language that already reflects a biopolitical logic, and if the excavation of useful language is what is at stake in rethinking the social in IR, then this should be taken into account. At various points, Owens acknowledges that the modern social is permeated with biological thinking, and that this is integral to the administration and domestication of populations. This is a fascinating point, and I would have liked her to unpack this socio-biological complex a little further. She notes, for example, references to society as a “healthy body”, and for which “remedies” can be prescribed when certain dysfunctions emerge (p. 241). She also notes how “doctors” are called upon to address underdeveloped nations, and how such doctors are involved in processes of “diagnosis” and “cure” (ibid.). These socio-biological metaphors for political communities suggest that the language of the social is also in part a biopolitical language. Such metaphors matter.

Spanish Flu virus. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Spanish Flu virus. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Using metaphors to convey the transformation of a community is performative. Metaphors are never neutral in their cognitive effects. Beyond serving as a rhetorical means of expression, they constitute a figure of thought that depicts (rather than represents) objects and relations in particular ways. Such depictions, in turn, have the capacity to shape a reality in which two dissimilar concepts can be established as similar. In this way, specific metaphors – such as the biological or medical ones listed above – have a power to disclose and circulate the logos of particular socio-political forms.

As I argue elsewhere, in the context of counter-insurgency, biological and medical metaphors matter because they harbour a latent potential to transform violence into necessity. I will draw one last time on Arendt here, as in in her essay On Violence she addresses the question of metaphor head on:

The organic metaphors with which our entire present discussion … is permeated – the notion of a ‘sick society,’ of which riots are symptoms, as fever is a symptom of a disease – can only promote violence in the end. Thus debate between those who propose violent means to restore ‘law and order’ and those who propose nonviolent reforms begins to sound ominously like a discussion between two physicians who debate the relative advantages of surgical as opposed to medical treatment of their patient. The sicker the patient is supposed to be the more likely that the surgeon will have the last word. (p. 74)

Arendt’s biopolitical account of surgery-as-violence is echoed in the literature on contemporary counter-terrorism practices. Colleen Bell and Derek Gregory, for example, have both noted how accounts of military intervention as a form of theraupeutic treatment for ‘sick’ societies serve to render violent incursions as something necessary, and by extension, good. Biologically grounded metaphors thus provide a violent biopolitical mandate for cure and survival. There are numerous examples one could draw on here, but the mandate is most starkly exemplified in a 2010 article by battlefield officers Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell and Capt. Mark Hagerott published in Foreign Policy. In the report, entitled ‘Curing Afghanistan’, the two officers draw a painfully labored analogy between Afghanistan as a country in crisis and a weakened person under attack from an aggressive infection. As they play this analogy through to the bitter end, it becomes clear that violence is to be defended as a necessary means through which to manage the life processes of this particular body politic. The parallels between biological and social malady represent a specific biopolitical power relationship, in which those that are to be governed must submit themselves to the relevant techno-scientific authority, in much the same way as a patient must place their fate in the hands of a health professional. It is in this context that Arendt’s warning should now be read. As medicalized military narratives proliferate, it only becomes more likely that the surgeon will indeed have the final word.

But I digress. Economy of Force situates the practices of counter-insurgency efforts today within a clearer historical context of household rule and management. Again, this is a tremendously valuable contribution to IR scholarship on the topic but I would like to stress that biopolitics may well codify these modern forms of household rule in important ways, and would therefore suggest that the two approaches should be read with and not against one another. Specifically, if we wish to understand the mechanisms and technologies that produce and reproduce certain social orders and the violence upon which they are based, then the biopolitical tradition should be recognised as a friend rather than a foe.

Violence without end

But on to my final point, which concerns the role of monetary accumulation rather than simple exchange in the reproduction of society and its violent practices. In considering household rule as a basis for imperial practices and the model for modern capitalist societies, we cannot help but encounter a strange tension between the very cyclicality of life processes on the one hand, and the progressive, accumulative nature of capital on the other. The means-ends logic that underpins the concept of oikonomia, which implies a perpetual management of life cycles, seems to stand in stark contrast to the endless logic that underpins processes of capital accumulation, and for this reason, I wonder whether we may need to go back to Aristotle in order to understand the reproduction of capitalist societies. In particular, If there is value – which Owens clearly shows us there is – in returning to Aristotelian categories and using them to make sense of modern and contemporary history, then what of Aristotle’s other key economic concept – that of chrematistics?

In Aristotle, chrematistics refers not simply to the doings of money-dealers but also to the endlessly procreative powers of money that such activities disclose – i.e. money’s ability to make more of itself, in a circle of potentially endless expansion. For Aristotle, this logic stood in tension with the functioning of the oikos, and the source of this tension was to be found precisely in a distinction between means-to-ends and ends-without-end. Where the limits of oikonomia reside in the meeting of ends designed to sustain life and its necessities, chrematistics serves as an end in itself, and is thus limitless. Or as Daley and Cobb Jr. put it: “for oikonomia, there is no such a thing as enough. For chrematistics, more is always better” (p. 139). It is in this limitless and allegedly productive capacity that the management of populations and their social ‘functionality’ as perpetual consumers is itself produced.


So how might this relate to economies of force? The beginnings of an answer may be found in Aristotle’s own fears about chrematistics, which he saw as a threat to the natural reproduction of economy and society. Chrematistics figures as such a threat because it instantiates an altogether different kind mode of fertility – the ability to make money from money – which, if left untended, may well disfigure the reproductive work of oikonomia. This concern is registered during the early capitalist era in various artistic representations of money’s unnatural ability to multiply itself (for more on this, see Joseph Vogl’s excellent book The Specter of Capital). Similar arguments were also expressed in economic and political commentary of the time, and reappeared alongside various transformations in money and credit (ibid.). In the present context, however, making money appears more than ever as a mode of governing the social and economic reproduction of life politics. Yet, we must recognise that considerable proportions of market activity do not, in fact, contribute to economic welfare. It appears, in other words, that chrematistics has triumphed over oikonomia – if not in a global sense, then at least in some local ones. The upshot of all this is that a global narrative of oikonomia as social rule runs the risk of overlooking important transformations in the power and scope of chrematistics, which may overlap and in some cases displace oikonomia.

This line of argument is particularly significant if we take to heart the idea that the mode of acquisition to provide stock for household management produces, according to Aristotelian thought, specific and different ways of life. What this effectively means is that economies of force must not only be reproduced, but may also be transformed by the rise of money and finance. We may well therefore be dealing with a rather different economy of force today.

Take, for example, the consistently increasing value of the top-100 arms producers, or the relentlessly high volume of arms sales, which are bounded only by relatively lean regulatory rules. Is this something that we can trace back to the logic of oikonomia? If we want to interrogate the reproduction of force today, might we not need to take the imbrication of money-production and violence into account? In the cycle of production and consumption, who, we might ask, are the perpetual producers and who is produced as consumers in the waging of contemporary war? What are their relations to one another? And to what end? Is it not possible that the ontology of the social question and its reproduction today is as much rooted in the limitless excesses of chrematistics as it is in a persistent logic of household rule? While war is held to be a costly activity by most realist and liberal scholars of IR, it is clear that it is also a tremendously lucrative enterprise. And it is here that I will end for the time being: with the doubly speculative notion of a financial economy of force.

[1] To anticipate an objection here, I am aware that in the Arendtian context the term ‘biopolitics’ may well seem like an oxymoron. This is true if we consider politics to be politics proper in the Arendtian sense. But I would argue that it is biology and politics that we must understand as being in contradiction to one another. This means that we can, following Arendt, read ‘biopolitics’ as an anti-political form of politics. This is not too dissimilar to Owens’ own assessment in her concluding chapter, where she states that household ‘politics’ and politics proper might well “reflect profoundly … different kinds of relationships between people. (p. 282). In other words, I maintain that biopolitics is always anti-political and that therefore we must re-think what we consider to be ‘the political’ contra a notion of politics as the administration of life processes.


2 thoughts on “All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

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