Economy of Force: A Reply

In which Patricia Owens responds to our four commentaries (on patriarchy, colonial counterinsurgency, biopolitics and social theory) on her Economy of Force.

I’m extremely grateful to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport for their serious engagements with Economy of ForceAs noted in the original post, the book is a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with what I think are significant implications for social, political and international thought. It is based on a study of late-colonial British military campaigns in Malaya and Kenya; the US war on Vietnam; and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq against the background of the high colonial wars in the American Philippines and nineteenth-century French campaigns in Tonkin, Morocco and Algeria. Probably the emblematic case for the book is Britain’s colonial state terror against Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army and civilians in the 1950s, a campaign that was closer to annihilation than ‘rehabilitation’. Although the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Malaya is held up by generations of counterinsurgents as the model for emulation, the assault on Kikuyu civilians shows the real face of Britain’s late-colonial wars. It also points to some profound truths about the so-called ‘population-centric’ character of more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though offering new readings of some better-known counterinsurgency cases, Jairus Grove suggests that this choice perpetuates an erasure of America’s ‘Indian Wars’.


Researching Economy of Force, I certainly became aware of the general significance of these wars, including through Andrew J. Birtle’s and Laleh Khalili’s histories of counterinsurgency. However, Grove draws attention to something more relevant to Economy of Force than appreciated before: “one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues”, he writes, “was created by and administered by the War Department”. Decades before the distinctly ‘social’ engineering during the Philippines campaign (1899-1902), the Bureau of Indian Affairs was administering indigenous populations on the mainland. In focusing on overseas imperial wars, Economy of Force surely neglects settler colonialism, its genocides, and how “warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the US context from the outset”. While the book was not centrally focussed on US state making, I’m grateful to Grove for insisting that settler colonialism is necessarily a form of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the Philippines campaign was examined not as the founding moment of American counterinsurgency, but because it was explicitly conceived by contemporaries as a form of overseas housekeeping; to problematize progressive social policy; and to challenge the effort to separate good (domestic) social engineering at home from bad social engineering (overseas). I would hesitate to wholly assimilate the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) into earlier Indian Wars, though its ‘social reforms’ shaped indigenous administration. But these are quibbles. Grove is right that I have neglected something of significance in the ‘historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan’. I hope to be able to rectify this in future work.

Pablo K’s most challenging questions relate to the book’s potential unification of feminism and international political theory and how to theorise household governance in general while remaining attentive to its historically specific forms. I agree that “an account of the state system must at the same time be an account of gender power in a deep sense”. Put differently, there is no theory of international relations without a theory of households, those historically variable units of rule in which populations are domesticated. Economy of Force draws extensively on feminist and gender studies because household rule is always gendered. But the book does not go far enough for Pablo K; it fails to articulate a grand ‘theory of patriarchy’. This is right, of course. The history of households is not completely identical with the history of gendered and sexual relations. But perhaps there is the beginning of something along these lines, however muted.[1]

Conventionally, patriarchy refers to the gendered subjectivity of rulers, by men and through a male line. But if there is no archetypal form of patriarchy as such, or patriarchy in the singular, then we need to ask questions about the organizational forms of patriarchal governance at different levels, including the largest of scales. Over what and through what do patriarchs govern? What are the different forms of this governance? In other words, we need to ask questions about households. One of the many advantages of returning to the rich genealogy of households-as-governance is that the (always gendered) identity of individual rulers matters less than the forms of (always gendered) power that are enacted through the administration of life processes. There are no individual patriarchs without households; but the history of modern capitalist ‘society’ suggests that there can be (patriarchal) households without individual patriarchs, at least at the level of ‘society’. As Sheldon Wolin (1960: 311) observed, many liberal thinkers seemed willing to surrender to power as long as it “was impersonal and was directed… indifferently… The entity which satisfied these longings was society… Society was no single individual: it was none of us, yet it was all of us”. This is one of the defining features of social, more depersonalized and bureaucratic, household governance, again “a kind of no-man rule. But this nobody… does not cease to rule for having lost its personality” (Arendt, 1958: 40), or, we might add, a conventional understanding of ‘male’ gender. One of the defining features of distinctly ‘social’ work, often undertaken by women, was the bureaucratic rather than personal trusteeship of problem populations.

How can we theorise the household while remaining attentive to its historically specific forms? The difficulty is less that of distinguishing between co-related and interdependent households than too much can be swept into the household concept. In this regard, it is useful to think of household governance not as everything, but as virtually everywhere. Consider war. Following Clausewitz, war is fighting; it is about reciprocal killing and being killed. The medium of compulsion is physical force and the essential relation between people in military hierarchies is command-obedience. The essential purpose of war is not the administration of life processes. However, in war lives need administering. This is irreducible: the human experience of biological necessity and stubborn, contingent, but never wholly successful attempts to domesticate people through the administration and control of life necessities. Thus ancient military writers used the language of oikonomia to refer to “the proper arrangement and management of supply and military affairs … for a general in charge of the army” (Leshem, 2013: 37-38). In counterinsurgency, the establishment of detention and concentration camps and the selective delivery and withholding of humanitarian supplies are examples of household governance, that is governance through the administration of life processes in particular spatial arrangements. In other words, the performative practice of war is not reducible to household governance. Yet war is always situated within a wider organisation of life processes, which shapes the character of other hierarchical relations. Household governance is not everything, but is virtually everywhere.

Malayan Emergency Village

The concept of household is strictly limited in Economy of Force to relations of governance based on the control and administration of life processes, real bodies that need food, water and shelter, in a particular though not necessarily fixed spatial arrangement. Far from ‘a static, classificatory concept’, as Andrew Davenport suggests, the fragility and vulnerability of bodies in the face of life necessities makes household governance possible and, I argue, places the concept of household on par with other fundamental categories in the human sciences, such war, violence, politics, law, imperialism, the international, gender, race, and sexuality. The diversity of household forms examined in Economy of Force is rich, including the detention, concentration camps, and new villages of late-colonial war and mid-twentieth century counterinsurgency, the encirclement of existing villages, towns and cities in Iraq, and efforts to constitute entire nation-states as spaces of domestication. Populations were administered in the name of their own welfare and protection, with specific activities largely arranged in accordance with assumed biological attributes; that is, through social categories and techniques; they became of the counterinsurgency household, subjected to the more or less openly despotic personal or bureaucratic rule of officials, whether colonial or native officers, newly created community leaders or tribal patriarchs, social workers from the metropole, UN personnel, private contractors and other NGOs.

The elementary significance of household governance was well understood before the rise of liberal contract societies and social theory. Hence, contra Pablo K, it is only really necessary for Economy of Force to redefine certain things and relations between people as constituting households in the wake of sociolatry, the worship of things ‘socio’, which deeply afflicts international theory. For me, once we abandon the founding myth of liberalism and social theory – that modern ‘society’, by definition, is non-household space – the real question becomes how to historicize and theorize different household forms. If the rise of capitalist society did not destroy large-scale households-as-government, then why not retrieve this rich history and lexicon to theorize the modern social realm itself as the distinctly modern, capitalist form of household?

Uncovering the household genealogy of modern society and its household ontology does not tell us everything we need to know about various and specific household forms and, as Davenport rightly suggests, more conceptual work needs to be done. In lieu of identifying and naming the full diversity of household forms, Economy of Force could only distinguish between them to the extent that they elucidated what is particular and distinctive about the households of modern society to, in turn, illuminate late-colonial and counterinsurgency wars. Whether or not the specific analysis in Economy of Force does full justice to this history – which, of course, it cannot – does not in itself undermine thinking of households-as-government. Genealogies of the household are simply too influential to ignore. Pablo K suggests we could instead conceive of households as ‘a kind of polity’. Perhaps. But there are significant costs to assimilating politics to the household. Once again, politics becomes essentially government. Virtually the entire tradition of political thought thinks this way, assimilating politics to the categories of household rule, to ruling and being ruled. Davenport claims it is ‘quixotic’ to declare that the vast majority of the political theory is not, for this reason, properly political. But in lieu of defending a theory of politics as essentially despotic or spelling out an alternative account of politics-as-non-domestication, Davenport cannot dispute the substance of the claim, except to observe that it is unorthodox.

But what is non-domestication, or resistance to household governance? What if we conceived politics precisely in terms of non-domestication? Carl Schmitt wrote of ‘the political’ this way, but that won’t do. The constitutive feature of non-domestication, for Schmitt, was the domestication of others. Once again, this assimilates politics to sovereign power, a variant of household despotism, and still leaves us without a vocabulary with which to theorize politics as non-domestication. Of the major canonical political thinkers, only Hannah Arendt avoided the trap of assimilating politics to household rule and this was no accident; she was fully aware of political theory’s dependence on concepts drawn from household rule. Despite the abundant problems with aspects of her work, Arendt did most to offer a rich lexicon for political theory to replace the language of households.[2] But we do not need to follow Arendt completely. Thus, to insist on the distinction between household governance and politics does not mean that they must be ‘strictly kept apart’, as Davenport claims. Different ways of being with others can be deeply related and co-dependent. Household governance and politics as non-domestication are in just such a co-constitutive relation, with politics occurring inside and between households. We can make a similar point in relation to politics and war, here cleaving closer to Arendt. War is not the continuation of politics by other means. But exemplary forms of political action can occur in wartime. Davenport is frustrated that these claims are only set out in the conclusion. They are elaborated at greater length in a chapter of my first book. The main reason they appear at the end of Economy of Force is to invite readers to consider the historicity of the social realm and the significance of households in their own terms before attending to, and disputing, the implications for political theory. In fact, many of the claims regarding the historical rise of the social and household genealogies are not dependent on the political theory advanced in the conclusion.

The significance of these histories is obscured not only by liberalism and social theory, but also by dominant readings of Foucault on biopolitics. As noted in the opening post, criticism of Foucault in Economy of Force does not amount to a wholesale rejection of his work. The difference with Elke Schwarz centres on whether we can legitimately interpret Foucault’s lectures on governmentality as being about households all along. I find no textual evidence to justify such a reading. Schwarz is right that “it is only through the logic of household needs and necessities that the notion of population can emerge in the first place”. But this is not in Foucault. His displacement of the household in modern society may have been inadvertent, but Foucault is consistent in relegating household governance to the history of police science and mercantilism, along with the ‘family’ as the model of government.[3] The point is not to dispute the shift in government practices that Foucault was seeking to identify. Indeed, when Foucault suggests that the government of population led to the “birth of a new art, or at any rate of a range of absolutely new tactics and techniques” (1991: 100), the qualification is significant. The adoption of ‘new tactics and techniques’ transformed a very old art of government. Such a reading is not possible if we accept every move Foucault ever made or use his language and criteria for assessing everything and everyone.

Arendt Foucault

I obviously concur with Schwarz’s reaffirmation of the significance of Hannah Arendt’s thought. Yet just as there are problems with the belated discovery of households in Foucault there are intellectual costs in reducing Arendt’s writing on social housekeeping to a ‘protobiopolitical argument’. There is a great deal in common between Arendt, Foucault, and Economy of Force because these thinkers were major inspirations for the book. But there is no need to put words into anyone’s mouth. The issue is not just anachronism, the oxymoron of biopolitics, or that Arendt’s thought is reduced to a mere potentiality for some later (invariably male) thinker to fully realize. In far too quickly rolling together ostensibly comparable languages we become inattentive to Arendt’s specific lexicon and miss the real significance of her thought. Talk of ‘anti-political biopolitics’ risks becoming self-defeating and confusing, too readily conceding language, which is the principle resource we have to develop political and theoretical arguments.

This is nicely illustrated in Schwarz’s turn to Aristotle’s writing on chrematistics, the endless expansion of moneymaking for its own sake, to raise important questions about capital accumulation and household governance. In The Politics, Aristotle argued that moneymaking ought to be subordinate to household management, embedded in and determined by the needs of free subjects. As noted in Economy of Force, this vision was attractive to Marx, who expanded on Aristotle’s distinction between the simple exchange of commodities in a needs-based economy and one directed towards the accumulation of surplus. The first volume of Capital endorses Aristotle’s view of the moral problems of unlimited moneymaking.Schwarz similarly asks whether there is a “tension between the very cyclicality of life processes… and the progressive, accumulative nature of capital”? Does chrematistics disfigure, even triumph over and even displace oikonomia more generally? Such questions make sense in Aristotle’s context of the actually existing oikos. Chrematistics can indeed destroy and transform specific forms of household, as capitalism famously destroyed feudal manors. But the ancient oikos is not the archetypal household, only one of its historically specific kinds. Thus it only makes sense to speak of chrematistics triumphing over specific household forms. Accumulation for its own sake depends on the hierarchical administration of life processes. People resist and need domesticating. Thus chrematistics itself cannot displace household governance. On the contrary, with the rise and expansion of capitalism, new distinctly social households were formed precisely to manage the exigencies of accumulation and its revolutionary effects. Similarly, neoliberal military occupation is still a form of ‘state-crafting’ and social regulation in a more authoritarian, openly despotic household.

Abu Ghraib Handcuffs

But does the account of capitalism in Economy of Force go far enough? Mostly persuaded by the central claims of the book, Andrew Davenport submits that it does not. It is not enough to denaturalise the social and reveal its place in the history of households and engage in “merely historical” analysis of capitalism (emphasis added). We must also assimilate the social into the abstraction of capital as such – “the nature of the class relation, commodification, and generalized exchange”. We need a concept of capital to explain, he writes, “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”. To make the point Davenport adopts a distinctive and peculiar rhetorical strategy, posing a series of questions that are addressed at length in the book but not always at the level of philosophical abstraction he prefers. Essentially this is the point: the relation between capitalism and the social must be restated – more abstractly, less historically – through the concept of capital as understood by Marx.

I am grateful to Davenport for pushing the critique of the social in this direction and posing questions that allow me to restate some of the basic claims of Economy of Force. These questions are not a real challenge to the concept of household, which obviously cannot – and was never intended to – supplant the concept of capital. Similarly, there is no unresolved tension concerning the real and objective status of the social realm and subsequent social policies. The social emerged in the eighteenth-century, as Davenport writes, “intrinsically connected to the world-historical transformation that was the development of liberal, capitalist, bourgeois society”. The social policy that emerged in the nineteenth-century was a conscious strategy of class de-politicization and Weltpolitick, best exemplified by Bismarck’s sozialpolitik, serving disciplinary and regulative functions in enforcing wage labour, gender and racial norms. But this does not make it unreal/subjective. Only by reversing the historical succession could there be any ambiguity. Davenport presents a contradiction primarily to resolve it, presumably in dialectical fashion, with the notion of ‘capital as such’.

Given its specific focus on governance forms, Economy of Force addresses the rise of capitalism primarily in terms of the vulnerabilities and revolutionary consequences of wage labour and capitalism’s inauguration of new meanings of – and distinctions between – ‘politics’ and ‘economy’, ‘public’ and ‘private’. It is through understanding these distinctions and transformations that we can best understand what is involved in the scaling up and transformation of household forms, as outlined in chapter three. Commodification is not discussed at length, but generalized exchange and class relations are central to the book’s account of how ‘all forms of human collective existence could be thought to be subsumable to social thought’. The earliest and most influential attempts to theorise the new sphere of ‘private’ exchange could become the most influential models of a more general form of sociable interaction, eventually culminating in social theory, because of the universalizing impulses of capitalism and empire; because capitalism seemed to be self-regulating, while also producing objects of government that were not reducible to older familial models. The form of human association that was so distinctive, and which generated a new discourse of commercial sociability and then civil society, was the appearance of self-instituted, deliberate and purposeful interactions between civilized European men. The appearance of non-despotism, of relations between individuals that appeared to be based on (social) contract rather than (household) status, lent bourgeois society its distinctively ‘social’ quality. Here we should recall the Latin origins of the term ‘society’ in ‘association’ and ‘fellowship’.

The form of human association that made possible ‘society’ and ‘sociology’ was capitalism, but not only capitalism. This story of the historical rise of the social, the intermediary between capitalism and imperial states, cannot be reduced to capital ‘as such’, though we also cannot do without a theoretical statement on the nature of capitalism. Nor can the concept of capital validate trans-historical applications of the social concept beyond the basic insight of the secular relational constitution of the human world. The abstraction is also of little use when theorizing governance forms that have a history independent to that of capitalism, such as households (for a similar point in relation to capitalism and patriarchy see Corrigan and Sayer, 1985: 135). And, of course, ‘capital as such’ has its limits when seeking to understand real (‘merely historical’) capitalisms and real (‘merely historical’) forms of hierarchically administering life processes. Feminists and others have long demonstrated that capital and class alone are inadequate for capturing the process of the reproduction of life and domination. Accumulation depends on various forms of patriarchy, racism, and empire, the venerable concepts of class and reification notwithstanding. If we seek to make sense of the logic of governance under capitalist imperial states, then the concept of household remains indispensible. Put differently, we need Marx and Arendt to understand the social realm as a distinctly modern, imperial and universalising form of household.

In these short remarks, I have not been able to respond to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport in as much detail as I would like. But I hope to have addressed some of their most insightful and provocative readings of Economy of Force. I thank them all again for the depth of their engagement with the material. Each has undoubtedly offered grounds for both comfort and caution as the wider project is carried forward.

[1] This does not, as Pablo K suggests, register some ‘distastefulness of drawing too direct a parallel with feminism’. These words hardly register distaste:

feminists were more vocal in describing suburban homes as places of suffocation and confinement. By the early 1960s, Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique described the tangible experiences of many middle-class women. The ideal domestic life was actually a prison, or worse. Life for many in the suburban home was ‘progressive dehumanization’, like living in ‘a comfortable concentration camp’ (Friedan, 1963: 307; also see Heller, 1995). As Friedan was writing one of the most important American books of the post-war period, the soon to be defunct Times of Vietnam announced that 1962 was ‘Year of the Strategic Hamlet’, America’s counterinsurgency version of the comfortable concentration camp. Nineteen sixty-three was a bad year for good housekeeping. In November, the Times of Vietnam was shut down following the violent collapse of the House of Ngo, the despotic but non-communist national household of President Ngo Dinh Diem (p. 209-10).

[2] Unfortunately, Arendt had not “clearly laid out how the emergence of modern society resulted from a scaling up of housekeeping processes”, as Schwarz suggests. She did not support her contradictory and often confusing claims about the social realm with precise historical and conceptual work. Arendt always claimed to be writing for herself. Too bad if her readers didn’t get what she was saying. She did not set out to found a school of ‘Arendtians’. But for many decades, this made it too easy to write off Arendt’s analyses of the social, for much of what she did say was worse than contradictory and confusing. It was misogynistic, Orientalist, elitist, and unnecessarily antagonistic toward Marx. Yet to leave it there is to miss what Arendt got right, certain things that nobody else but Arendt had fathomed. It would also forego insights that Arendt too was unable to imagine.

[3] Foucault consistently allied the household with police science and mercantilism. As Graham Burchell, one of this most perceptive readers notes, “the specific and autonomous development of governmental reason was blocked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the extent that the mercantilist elaboration of raison d’etat remained trapped within the unquestioned juridical framework of sovereignty on the one hand, and the family-household model of oeconomy on the other” (125).


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