Critiquing the Social: Comments on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force

The last commentary in our forum on Economy of Force, from Andrew Davenport. Andrew is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, where he works on International Theory, with particular emphasis on debates in Critical Theory, materialism and idealism, and modern social theory. He is the author most recently of ‘Marxism in IR: Condemned to a Realist Fate?’ in the European Journal of International Relations. Patricia’s rejoinder to the four commentaries (from Pablo, Jairus, Elke and Andrew) will follow tomorrow.


In the concluding section of Chapter Two of this book, Patricia Owens quotes Robert Nisbet to the effect that the essential concepts and perspectives of the sociological tradition “‘place it much closer to … philosophical conservatism’, than we might otherwise think.” A basic theme of the book is that it ought to be more clearly understood that prominent categories in the work of Durkheim, Weber and Marx – community, authority, alienation and status – are in fact just “conservative moral categories … but in scientific garb”.[1] The conservative character of sociology’s origins is in fact no secret. At much the same time as Nisbet was writing, Theodor Adorno also noted it: near the beginning of his introductory lectures on sociology, he emphasised that any assumption of an intrinsic connection between sociology and radical politics (that sociology = socialism) would be seriously mistaken: “if the concept of sociology is understood as it came into being, with the historical meaning it has, it can be said that the opposite is actually the case.” Sociology’s interest, from the start, was always the maintenance and preservation of the existing order, not its critique and change. What does the character of these origins mean for social theory? How should it affect or condition our understanding of social thinking and its basic concepts: precisely, ‘society’ and ‘the social’? Owens’ answer is unequivocal: it should lead to profound suspicion, if not outright rejection. Social thinking, from the start, contained a poison and its natural affinity to conservative thought, attitudes and practices is simply indicative of this noxious nature. Especially damaging in its consequences for IR theory, so the argument runs, has therefore been the unthinking naturalisation of ‘social’ terminology virtually across the spectrum, from statist Political Realism to Foucauldian biopolitics – as if society and the social were neutral terms that do not themselves colour or prejudice the discourse.

The language of ‘society’ is indeed widespread, and often perhaps unreflectively used, in IR, and so its critique is surely an important theoretical project. Not the least of the book’s merits is that it poses uncomfortable questions to critical theory about how far it is possible to adopt social thinking for purposes of critique. Owens directs some pointed remarks at Marxists, Foucauldians and other critical theorists for, in effect, supping with the devil, and in the chapters on counter-insurgency she marshals enough evidence of a ‘homology’ between social theory and imperial practices of counter-insurgency to give even the most committed sociologist pause. Further, in demonstrating that the emergence of distinctly social thinking was coeval with the development of capitalist society, there is at least the implication that those who would pursue critique of capital ought not to accept social categories at face value. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are difficulties with the critique of the social elaborated in the book, both in how the argument is structured and with the categories employed, difficulties that lead to some of the work of critique remaining undone. As a result, the account of the social developed here, challenging and thought-provoking as it is, breaking new ground, nevertheless does not go as far as it might.

The most important passages for understanding the logic of the book’s argument come right at the end, in the ‘Conclusion’. Although it has been gestured towards elsewhere, here for the only time at any length is the ground of the critique of the social revealed. This ground is politics – or, more precisely, a particular idea of politics. For Owens, rulership, sovereign power, hierarchy and despotism are characteristics not of politics but of households (of which the social is a modern sub-category) and it is a central tenet of the book, explicitly spelt out here at last, that households are the opposite of politics. Where households and the social connote domination, politics means “the actions of plural equals freely debating and acting on their common affairs in a manner that [is] essentially non-violent and unpredictable.” Politics is thus the activity of resisting domestication, the household and the social; it is insurgency where the social is counter-insurgency. Conceiving of politics in this way has some arresting consequences:

If political action and household rule are fundamentally distinct forms of activity, capturing essentially different sorts of relations between people … then much so-called political theory, which imagines politics in terms of rulers and ruled, should not be viewed as properly political at all. … To be sure, much of the language associated with household rule (despotism, governance, rulership) is already the established lexicon of political theory, but again this should not be considered the proper language of politics.

It is difficult to know what to make of these claims. Instinctively, one is sympathetic to an attempt to think a politics freed from relations of domination. However, is there not something at least quixotic about a way of doing so that results in much of the canon of political theory being summarily declared ‘not properly political’? It is surely reasonable to wonder about the plausibility of dismissing a great deal of the history of political theory on the grounds that it has been guilty throughout of a crass category error. It is, I think, a pity that these pages, so crucial to the argument of the book, appear only at the end instead of being introduced near the start, where they really belong given their importance, and that the idea of politics put forward in them is so briefly set out, being no more than asserted rather than conceptually developed and argued for in a sustained fashion. Be that as it may, it is this dichotomy that governs the book: social = household = domination; politics = non-domestic = equality and freedom. The two sides of this binary are kept strictly apart, a separation that leaves its mark on the structure and method of the argument.

The strategy of critique founded upon and developed from this dichotomy is twofold. First, it is to demonstrate that ‘the social’ is not a natural ground of all forms of human collectivity, one somehow ‘discovered’ in European modernity, but is instead something historically specific. The aim of this side of the argument is thus familiar in form: to denaturalise the social, removing its ontological appearance and revealing it as historically become. Secondly, the intention is to show that the social is intrinsically bound up with forms of domination; it is part of the history of the domestic and the household, and therefore necessarily non-political, in fact anti-political. Together, this is the burden of the two principal theoretical sections of the book, Chapters Two and Three. The former gives a historical account of the rise of the discourse of society, locating it within the emergence of liberalism in 18th-century Europe and associating it with the development of commercial, bourgeois societies and their rapidly growing empires; it also traces some of the evolution of social thinking through Marx, Political Realism and Durkheimian sociology, and its problematic embroilment with metaphors drawn from biology. The latter turns to the history of households, leading up to the Social Question of the late 19th century – the problem of how to manage and integrate new unruly populations at home and in the empire – and reads the development of sociology, a purported science of society, as a conservative response.

Each line of argument is in many respects persuasive. However, together, as the totality of a critical strategy, they leave a persistent and unresolved ambiguity concerning the status of the social. Put bluntly: is it real or unreal? Or, from another angle: is it objective or subjective? The response to the Social Question existed at the level of political power and challenges to authority. Its treatment in the book implies that the elaboration of the field of ‘the social’ through sociology was a conscious strategy of repression, a deliberate contrivance to achieve a particular effect, and that so much of the book is devoted to establishing the homology between social thought and strategies of counter-insurgency suggests that Owens’ inclination is to critique the social on these grounds: that it is a reactionary, and in a sense artificial, category intentionally developed in order to preserve and maintain domination.[2] The historical account of the rise of the broader discourse of ‘society’, however, implies something very different: that the social is, in some way, intrinsically connected to the world-historical transformation that was the development of liberal, capitalist, bourgeois society in Europe. There is simply no way that that process – eminently real and objective – can be plausibly described as a deliberate political strategy. Historical change on that scale is beyond any intention and so it has to be understood in a different, more objective, way.

This contradiction between the objective and the subjective is never resolved. Even if, personally, one might quibble with aspects of the treatment of Marx, there is much in these two chapters to be impressed by and broadly in sympathy with. However, in considering them questions keep arising. It can readily be granted that thinking in terms of ‘the social’ developed in 18th-century Europe; the bare historical fact is uncontroversial, no matter how it is interpreted. What exactly was it, though, about the form of human association in that place and at that time that gave rise to the categories of the social? What was it about the new liberal form that lent it its distinctively ‘social’ quality? Why was it that that quality almost irresistibly took on the appearance of something natural rather than revealing itself to be social and historical? Even if the social has been falsely naturalised, what is its basis in rem? Similarly, one can acknowledge the utility of social theory generally to authoritarian power in quashing domestic pressures and contriving imperial strategies of counter-insurgency, but a critique of the social as such would surely need to go beyond this. It would need to ask why such a political strategy was articulated in those terms rather than any others. Why could the categories typical of social theory be developed as the apparently evident and natural grounds for developing such strategies? How could it be that all forms of human collective existence could be thought to be subsumable to social thought, as just so many different species of the genus ‘society’? How could collective being become the distinct object – society – of a distinct science – sociology – in a way that had never been the case before? What is the form of human association that made that possible? Continually, and rightly, the argument leads up to these sorts of questions. But it does not explicitly pose, or answer, them.

Here, then, is what seems to me to be the primary theoretical deficit of the book: it is a critique of the social that in the end never really confronts the concept of the social. We have a historical account of the rise of ‘social talk’ and then the argument jumps to the Social Question and counter-insurgency. Both discussions have many impressive aspects. However, there is no mediation between them and what gets lost in the gap is an analysis of what the social is. Without that conceptual discussion the inner coherence of the critique becomes problematic and its range is restricted. By all means kick Parsons for his structural functionalism, but still it would need to be explained why such a thing was possible at all, why it only became possible under conditions of developed liberal capitalism, and why it could then appear necessary and compelling. What in the character of that form of society did Parsonian structural functionalism, and social theory generally, correspond to? The central question concerning the social that goes unaddressed here is thus also the most fundamental one: what is it about modern liberal society that gives it its distinctive and peculiar quality of ‘socialness’, which then appears to be neither distinctive nor peculiar but general and transhistorical? In the absence of a proper conceptual explanation of that, the critique cannot fully grasp its object and the historicisation lacks bite because it cannot explain why this phenomenon arose at this particular time; all it can do is note that it happened. The fragments of etymology scattered through the book are often interesting and suggestive, but they do not substitute for a sustained conceptual analysis.

All of this points back to the limitations of the categories deployed to articulate the critique, centrally the ‘household’. Following the governing dichotomy, the social is assimilated to the domestic and as a result, for this to be possible, the perhaps unlikely category of the household is expanded to seemingly transhistorical status. A household, in this context, is not what it might be assumed to be: it is not limited to familial or kinship relations, nor should it be necessarily be taken as spatially fixed or bounded. Instead, its defining features are two: that it is concerned with the production and reproduction of life and that it is characterised by relations of despotism or domination. Frequently in the course of the book it is stated that the social is ‘a scaled up and transformed household’, the specifically capitalist form of household governance. Again, however, numerous questions arise both about this claim and the concept itself, its historical quality and its relation to the social. How and why was the household scaled up to become the social? What exactly, at a conceptual level, is involved in this scaling up and transformation? What gave rise to this new form of household governance? What, again conceptually, is its connection to capitalism? Why have forms of household changed through time? Why has that dynamic of change, whatever it is, produced the social in the modern world? Again, these sorts of questions are not answered, or addressed, and to my mind it is not evident that the category of the household is capable of addressing them. As it is developed here, it acts as a static, classificatory concept, ironically enough in the manner of formal sociology: particular features that different phenomena have in common are picked out and abstracted (here, life processes and domination) and then a general cover concept is constructed under which those phenomena are subsumed. However, such a concept cannot reach into and capture the life and substance of the object itself. The failing of the household as a category in this context is that it cannot say very much of a qualitative nature about the socialness of the social. All it can do is classify the social as an instance of household governance; but that remains external to the object, telling us little about the distinctiveness of the social, what it is.

In any case, surely there is already a concept with a long pedigree that brings together in a dynamic way both the process of the reproduction of life and domination? That is: class. Similarly, what Owens most objects to in the social is that it turns people into manipulable things: in politics, as she understands it, they are properly subjects and thus free, in the social they are mere objects and thus unfree.[3] Again, there already exists a venerable concept that captures this phenomenon: reification. That neither of these long-established concepts is substantively engaged with explains the limits of the critique here: there is no discussion of the concept of the social because there is no discussion of the concept of capital. Owens is absolutely right to associate the rise of the social realm with the development of capitalist society – “the crucial point is that the language of sociability and commerce were [sic] inextricably linked”. But this remains throughout a merely historical observation; it does not become a theoretical one. Thus, tellingly, she tends to refer, in the manner of historical sociology, to ‘the rise of commercial empires’ and not to capital as such. However, and perhaps not surprisingly given that it was capitalist society that produced ‘social’ thinking, it is the concept of capital – through the nature of the class relation, commodification and generalised exchange – that is needed to explain both the ‘social’ character of modern society and why the category appears to be applicable transhistorically, in the same way that, through the analysis of commodity exchange and the peculiarity of the equivalent form, it can explain what reification is and why it arises. The concept of the household can do none of these things, as Owens’ account demonstrates.

Dealing with capital at a conceptual rather than a historical level would have complicated the discussion in other dimensions. It would have made it possible to transcend the unmediated dualism between the objective and the subjective, capital being a phenomenon that is simultaneously historical (not ontological) and objective (not merely subjective), at the same time real and unreal. It also would have affected the discussion of the social in modernity. For it is a very striking feature of the book that it gives little recognition to the fact that the same form of society in which the social realm arose also innovated new forms of political being that were profoundly experienced as new forms of liberty, indeed that the social itself is not a wholly negative phenomenon – even reification contained a moment of freedom.[4] Just as the argument misses a conceptual engagement with capital, so it skirts giving a theoretical account of the relation between the social and the political, between democracy, as the typical form liberal politics, and the social realm.[5] Such considerations would have brought with them the idea, unsettling to the argumentative structure of the book, that the development of freedom and the development of domination cannot be neatly separated from each other but are entwined. As it is, these absences can be traced back to the founding dichotomy between a rather abstract and idealised idea of politics, on the one hand, and the household, on the other, without sufficient mediation between them.

These sorts of issues are, of course, far from straightforward to develop, and it is testimony both to the vigour of her approach and to the extent of the challenge it poses to IR theory that they form the conceptual terrain opened by the argument of Owens’ book. Thoroughgoing critique of ‘the social’ in IR is a necessary and compelling project and it will be fascinating to see how it continues to develop from the distinctive reading established here.


[1] I put aside the question of whether Marx’s understanding of alienation is as readily assimilable to the conservative treatment of the concept as this passage appears to suggest.

[2] Representative in this regard is the claim that the rise of social thought was ‘part of a project of de-politicisation, a multilayered attack on political philosophy and, more importantly, political action’ (ibid., p.19).

[3] “To hold territory (as women are ‘coveted’), humans are imagined as terrain, as material objects belonging to earth and to nature; that is, defined primarily through their relation to life and the needs of life” (p.274).

[4] Similarly, the household is pictured solely as a site of despotism and domination. Without denying the power relations involved, one might wonder whether it was not also and at the same time a place in which there grew affection, trust, friendship, even love.

[5] It could be argued that Owens’ idea of politics – “the actions of plural equals freely debating and acting on their common affairs” (p.282) – could itself only be the product of capital and is thus intrinsically connected to the social: solely in a society in which “the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion” could such a normative conception of politics arise (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1 (London: Penguin, 1990), p.152).

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