Resisting the Attractions of Anti-Militarism

After an overlong hiatus, we return to our mission with a symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019). The introductory chapter of Resisting Militarism is available to read here, and the whole book is soon to be released in paperback, discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site. For the first post in our series we are joined again by Anna Stavrianakis, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK, where she researches and teaches on the international arms trade, (in)security and militarism. Anna is the author of Taking Aim at the Arms Trade. NGOs, Global Civil Society and the World Military Order (Zed, 2010) and co-editor (with Jan Selby) of Militarism and International Relations. Political Economy, Security Theory (Routledge, 2012)She is an editor at Security Dialogue, where she co-edited (with Maria Stern) the special issue on “Militarism and Security: Dialogue, Possibilities and Limits” (2018). Anna is currently working on a variety of projects associated with the arms trade and the war in Yemen, one recent result being ‘Controlling Weapons Circulation in a Postcolonial Militarised World’ in Review of International Studies. Further posts will follow this week; all will be collected for future perusal here.


As a fellow traveller in the world of anti-militarist activism, it was both a pleasure and an education to engross myself in Chris Rossdale’s new book, Resisting Militarism. I happened to see Chris on a sunny summer’s day in Brighton in June 2019, shortly after the Court of Appeal issued its judgment that the UK government had acted unlawfully in continuing to licence weapons exports to Saudi Arabia given its conduct in the war in Yemen. I wanted to raise a toast to the tenacious persistence of Campaign Against Arms Trade and to celebrate their legal victory. But even with my caveat that the hard work of translating a legal decision into meaningful political change remained, Chris was reluctant to savour the moment and curious as to how I could be in celebratory mood, given what we both know about the UK government’s commitment to arms sales, in particular those to the Middle East. Resisting Militarism helps me better understand Chris’ sceptical curiosity and his relentless questioning of what constitutes success and what an anti-militarist politics entails.

Through the combination of detailed, fine-grained ethnographic description that can only emerge from years of being part of a movement, and high theory dispatched with a light touch, Resisting Militarism helps readers understand (anti)-militarism as both concept and practice. Chris is very much present in the analysis but unassumingly so. Centering gender, sexuality and race as the social relations that scholars and activists need to foreground in understanding, engaging with and challenging militarism, he outlines a prefigurative politics of engagement with power, authority and domination as the thread that weaves the intimate and the geopolitical together.

There are two core contributions that I find particularly compelling about Chris’ analysis. First is the way he breathes life into abstract definitions of militarism. Mobilising the definition that Jan Selby and I gave in our 2012 edited volume Militarism and International Relations, of militarism as “the social and international relations of the preparation for, and conduct of, organised political violence”, Chris gives purchase to it for the study of contemporary British anti-militarism by filling it with a focus on gender, sexuality and race as the core social relations that variously bolster and challenge, and always permeate, militarism and anti-militarism. In short, “militarism is not a thing that can be smashed, but a series of social relations that must be disassembled by relating otherwise” (p. 38). Crucially, this means there is no ‘outside’ of militarism: there is no separating everyday life from the preparation for organized violence. No-one is exempt from it – not even the anti-militarist movement. Chris is interested in “the depths of our imbrication within militarised relations of power” (p38) – and once we acknowledge that, the question of how we agitate for an anti-militarist present and future looks rather different from what many accounts of militarism and anti-militarism offer.

In particular, I found compelling Chris’ insistence that accounts of militarism need to do a better job of “contend[ing] with the racialised character of political violence” (p. 201). Traditionally, accounts of militarism – in particular relating to liberal democracies, when they consider militarism relevant at all – have been silent about the violence of social relations within the state. Chris brings together the “international” and “social” relations dimensions of the definition of militarism with a focus on the “violent governance of racialised subjects” (p. 200) at sites and in practices such as policing, counter-terrorism and borders – sites that have not traditionally been subject to analysis under the rubric of militarism, primarily because of the methodological nationalism and focus on the institution of the military that has permeated the field of study. This insight is significant for the anti-militarist movement as well as for scholarly analysis: Chris takes note of the whiteness of the movement as a whole and its historic reluctance to consider questions of policing, for example, as relevant. This has been starting to change in recent years, with anti-arms trade groups learning from and making common cause with migrant solidarity groups and campaigns against police violence.  

Second, and core to the intellectual and political project of the book, is the emphasis that “we understand more about militarism and resistance when we study them together” (p. 3). This is both central to the analytical moves Chris makes – militarism is not reducible to institutions, nor is it monolithic – and a fruitful way of grappling with the reverberations of “how political violence is made possible” (p. 3). It pushes us to “com[e] to terms with the ways in which the very fabric of our selves cannot be thought outside of militarism” (p60) and to acknowledge the centrality of encounters with patriarchy, heterosexism and racism in that engagement with militarism and anti-militarism. Rather than pointing to a particular institution or practice as being “militaristic in some ontological sense”, Chris suggests we “call attention to the micropolitics of militarism and the subversive role of prefiguration” (p. 210). Prefiguration is central to Chris’ account of resistance to militarism, as it “allows us to recognise the ways militarism operates and is contested as a series of social relations” (p. 37). Prefigurative politics “begins from the understanding that we as subjects are implicated in the social relations of what we are opposing” (p. 70). This is what makes Chris’ a distinctive voice in the movement: by making visible “the entanglement of militarism, gender, and sexuality” (pp. 70-71) in the micropolitics of resistance to militarism, Chris shows us how anti-militarist politics can itself contribute to the reproduction of militarised social relations.

Off the back of these productive insights, Resisting Militarism reinvigorates two sets of questions for me. First, is it fruitful or even possible to think beyond militarism, analytically and politically? The default setting of much of the literature on militarism is an implicit or explicit anti-militarism. But what does it mean to produce scholarship and participate in activism that is anti-militarist – especially if Chris’ work helps us understand the depths of our implication with the production of organised violence? If militarism is not reducible to institutions, nor an ontological state we are either in (or not), but is rather a configuration of social relations that must be dismantled and rearranged, then is it possible to arrange our social relations such that we no longer prioritise preparation for political violence? This is where Chris’ insistence on a prefigurative politics comes in: it centres the challenge of “actively subverting power relations or creating something new” in “the process of becoming otherwise” (pp. 207-208). As he writes, “Militarism is not a stable politics from which we can extract ourselves, and so anti-militarism is not a journey to the outside. Instead, it might be thought as a particular politics which seeks to reveal, disrupt and subvert the social processes through which violence is made possible” (pp. 269-270).

I find this a productive insight, one that resonates well with the recent literature on martial politics – most notably, Alison Howell’s argument that there is no peaceful liberal order into which military institutions or values encroach (Howell, 2018) – to remind us to be alert to the violence already enmeshed in everyday liberal social relations and in institutions not normally associated with militarism. Like Chris, I am sympathetic to the critiques made of the concept of militarisation when it is deployed in ways that suggest a pre-militarised pacific ideal, which obscures the everyday imbrication of war in social life and in particular the racialised violence of liberal politics. But militarism as a concept does allow us to understand the character, intensity and shifts in the relation between war and society – and constantly asks us to confront the question of how we might become otherwise and how we might minimise the violence of war preparation. It is this impulse that I find helpful in Chris’ work to guide my thinking about not only how we can best analyse the social and international relations of the preparation for violence, but also how we can best organise politically to minimise violence – and in that sense, to work for a future beyond militarism. However, such organising must take seriously the value of a non-pacifist anti-militarism (Eastwood 2018) because of the way “the imperatives of nonviolence and pacifism can actually function to reproduce certain forms of violence” (Resisting Militarism, p. 195). An anti-militarist critique of violence does not see all forms of war and violence as equal, or as equally unjustifiable, but rather requires political and ethical judgments.

Chris’s emphasis on resistance and prefiguration takes me to a second set of questions, about the relationship between scholarship and practical action. As an ethnographic study of a movement that the author is an active part of, Resisting Militarism is simultaneously an intellectual and a political intervention in the debate about anti-militarism. I understand my own work to also be simultaneously political and intellectual, albeit not coming from an anarchist tradition. In the past few years my own research has focused on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and their role in the war in Yemen. I have tried to combine scholarly publication with media commentary, support for campaign groups and NGOs, and written and oral evidence to the parliamentary committees responsible for scrutinising UK arms export policy. I consider scholarship and activism to be related but distinct activities that require iterative processes of translation between the two. This involves engaging with the language, terminology and concepts that resonate in the policy and public spheres. The question Chris’ work leaves me with is: does such a strategy concede too much to a commonsense that derives from state and corporate agendas. In short, does it shore up more than it challenges?

To return to the anecdote with which I opened this piece: I was indeed delighted that Campaign Against Arms Trade had won their case at the Court of Appeal. A judicial ruling that the UK government was acting unlawfully felt good. It felt like a vindication: that the Yemeni and international campaigners had finally got recognition through the arcana of the law of what they knew to be true, and now this was another peg off which to hang political action. But as Chris writes, it is “potentially precisely in those situations where direct action feels good, effective, tangible, that we might need to think most critically about the kinds of politics we may inadvertently be reproducing” (p. 43). Three months after the June 2019 ruling, the government admitted “inadvertently” issuing new licences to the Saudi-led coalition despite being barred from doing so. And in July 2020 Secretary of State Liz Truss announced that potential breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition amounted only to “isolated incidents” and that the government would resume arms export licensing to the coalition. Nobody was expecting the government to concede to the Court of Appeal without a fight, but I was still shocked by the extent of the manipulation of commonsense understandings of what might constitute a pattern of violations. If the 2019 legal victory felt good, the 2020 government announcement felt terrible – gut-wrenchingly disappointing and enraging.   

So perhaps Chris is right, and in celebrating the 2019 victory I was re-centering an institution like the judiciary, “positioning them as arbiters [which] risks depoliticising their role within militarism” (p. 224) and under-estimating the capacity of the state to simply work around it and attempt to claim the mantle of legitimacy in doing so. One of the limits of the judicial review case is that it “serves to reproduce the legal/illegal distinction, and to present arms sales to Saudi Arabia as an unusual excess” (p. 251). That is, the arms trade as a whole remains legitimised by depoliticising narratives around jobs, national security and counterterrorism, even when particular transfers or destinations are contested. However, Saudi Arabia now accounts for around half of all UK arms exports, and this  growing significance means that criticism of transfers to Saudi Arabia can easily become criticism of UK arms export policy tout court, potentially opening space for more substantive debate over the drivers of UK policy. Nonetheless, most of this criticism comes in the guise of the “repressive regimes” thesis (pp. 242-248) that designates threats to liberal values and order as originating overseas in illiberal and authoritarian regimes, disconnected from British foreign, security and economic practices, which closes down space for a properly politicised and globalised account of the production of violence. In this scenario, does a public position of holding up the law as a common-sense standard that will resonate with a wider public, and demanding accountability for those that break it, reproduce the fiction that law can provide justice against power? It feels like that now, but in a world in which law continues to have structuring effects, I think it remains important to pursue justice through legal means whilst continuing to try and contest the public interpretations and justifications of UK practice.   

And I don’t know that legal routes undermine a more transformative politics (not that Chris puts it this strongly in his book). Challenging the government on its own terms through the law was a gamble for Campaign Against Arms Trade, and it was never certain whether or how it would pay off. The gamble remains ongoing as CAAT launches a second judicial review, against the government’s policy position that violations only constitute “isolated incidents”. But the legal case – itself just one tactic in a varied activist repertoire for the activist group – has raised the stakes. It has generated significant reputational damage for the UK government and for arms companies such as BAE Systems, both domestically, with Saudi Arabia and with many EU states; and it has required the deployment of material and symbolic resources to manage the challenge diplomatically, politically and legally. Insiders are starting to speak out now that the issue is being publicly contested: first, the former defence attaché to Riyadh; more recently, the FCO lawyer who led the government’s defence in the first judicial review. And yet arms transfers continue and the Saudi-led coalition continues to pummel Yemen. And Yemeni voices are heard no louder in British debate than they were previously; the scant media coverage there has been has tended to be in humanitarian rather than solidarity mode, when it is not primarily framed in counterterrorism terms. What is the best measure of success in an instance like this? And what are the ramifications for other formal legal routes of activism, such as the call from Yemeni activists, in collaboration with European NGOs, on the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate the legal responsibility of corporate actors involved in supplying weapons?

In preferring a politics of the act over a politics of demand, Chris emphasises the importance of “shift[ing] the terms of intelligibility” (p. 258) – a proposition with which I concur. The challenge I grapple with is how to do this whilst engaging on terms that take at least some people with you. To which I imagine Chris would ask, which people? Who do you want to take with you? Who is an agent of security? And this is probably where we differ most in our strategic engagements. His centering of prefigurative politics, his account of anti-militarists as “agents of … security” (p. 108) remind us that we cannot simply petition the state for a non-militarised form of security – and that we must work hard not to reproduce statist and corporate terms of security. I suppose I don’t see the demand for accountability as necessarily reproducing dominant discourses; but I do accept that it is not an anarchist prefigurative mode of activism. Chris describes the way anti-militarist subjects are “fold[ed] … into particular rationalities and silences” (p. 238) that can reproduce as well as unsettle dominant discourses. As political agents of various stripes continue to engage, challenge and try to generate change, we are also necessarily folded into discourses and practices that trouble any easy definition of success or failure. We remain desperately in need of nuanced, politically attuned analyses of the preparation for war and resistance to it, and Resisting Militarism is a wonderful contribution to that task.

One thought on “Resisting the Attractions of Anti-Militarism

  1. Pingback: Seeding Territory | The Disorder Of Things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s