Deconstructing Power and Resistance: A Response to Rossdale

A third commentary in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Rachel Zhou. Rachel is a Phd candidate in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her doctoral research focuses on the making of female soldiers in the post-WWII era. Rather than taking the “existence” of female soldiers for granted, she examines “female soldiers” as historically constructed subjects which are constitutive of the politics of war. In particular, she looks at how “small” wars in the post-1945 era as transnational and imperial encounters render thinkable and possible the emergence of female soldiers and shape the subjectivities/experiences of (different) female soldiers. She takes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the fields of military/war history, poststructuralist feminist, critical race and postcolonial theories. She is the review article editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism is currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site, and the last reply and a rejoinder will follow in the next days; all posts will be collected for future perusal here.

Is resistance possible? How could resistance be carried out? Is resistance outside or external to power it resists? Is a radical escape from power possible? These questions are perennial but now further ignited by movements taking place during a global pandemic which accentuates and exposes systems of power. Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion offers answers but poses more questions.

This book is rooted in an intimate and careful interrogation of “the performances, negotiations, and debates which surround” anti-militarist direct action in UK, but transcends the ethnography with its major contributions to debates on the politics of resistance and the relations between power and resistance. Treating direct action practices as “a fruitful site through which to read the politics of both militarism and resistance” (p. 6), it successfully and provocatively unpacks how anti-militarist politics resist, subvert, are shaped by, and reproduce militarism. The intimacy between militarism and anti-militarism is critically reflected on through meticulous accounts of the “internal” politics of antimilitarist resistance, which are read in relation to, not apart from, what it is against. Sherry Ortner points out there is an “impulse to sanitize the internal politics” of resistance in studies of resistance so that “the ambivalent complexity” of resistance is usually rendered invisible, which contributes to an inadequate analysis (1995, pp. 176-180). Resisting Militarism does not repeat this pitfall and also moves beyond just taking the “internal” politics of anti-militarist practices seriously. Instead, it would challenge the very binary between “internal” and “external”. The “internal” politics identified by Ortner is “within all the local categories of friction and tension” (p. 177). But Rossdale reads these frictions and tensions among anti-militarists, including those surrounding how an anti-militarist group is organised, whether focusing on the spectacular, how to approach security, illegality, pacifism and nonviolence, and the gendered and racialised politics of the movement”, not as “internal” politics per se. In Resisting Militarism they are interrogated in relation to “external” politics not only because how “internal” politics matters to its engagements with militarism, but more importantly as attempts to determine the particular nature and micro-politics of militarism and the imperatives of resistance as well as the relationship between militarism and anti-militarism (pp. 6-7). With a particular understanding of power and the concept of prefiguration, the book provocatively disrupts the boundaries between means and ends and between resistance and power.

Thus, Resisting Militarism brilliantly demonstrates how militarism and anti-militarism are antagonistic and co-constitutive (or antagonism is always already co-constitutive) and that while power relations can be revealed by examining attempts to uproot them, spaces and practices of resistance are always already produced by and, “potentially, reproductive of precisely that which is resisted” (p. 139). This move is rare even among the works situating power and resistance in the same analytical framework and taking their intimate relationships seriously. Usually they only focus on how a certain form of resistance is produced by a form of power but not on how resistance is complicit and reproduces what it is against. Thus, they still tend to eschew a deconstructive approach to resistance taken by Resisting Militarism, as if being critical of resistance could give more ground and energy to power. Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons by Banu Bargu (2016) is another example which places power and resistance in one framework. Similarly, it also successfully demonstrates how resistance is shaped by power. However, its analysis might be criticised for overlooking how necroresistance could reproduce the logics of a “biosovereign assemblage” (Bargu, p. 53) that it is against. Rendering resistance innocent could simplify the operations of power as well as the complex relationships between power and resistance, and create spaces for imaginations of easy and straightforward resistance and thus a clean escape from power. Resisting Militarism is more cautious and actively seeks to be self-reflective. Not only (some) antimilitarist practices take a deconstructive approach to militarism. Resisting Militarism also seeks to deconstruct anti-militarism and calls for keeping antagonistic contestation in play as well as “a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). Remaining open to deconstruction and affirmative gestures in resistance could be the best hopes for resisting in a world where the subject, freedom and resistance are shaped and fundamentally entangled with power.

The brilliant book thus has made significant contributions to debates on the politics of resistance. My review should stop here. Also, to offer any critique is difficult because of its constant self-reflections. However, no critique could be exactly against what this book calls for — “antagonistic contestation and a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). The critiques may not be antagonistic since they follow the approach Resisting Militarism takes but seeks to make some implications more explicit, ask what could be further elaborated on and whether it reproduces what it critiques, and thus they are immanent critiques.

Although I understand that Resisting Militarism’s focus is not on macro politics but “the micropolitics of subverting and reproducing militarism” (p. 8), it might be helpful to elaborate on the approach to power, subject, freedom and resistance, to further explain how “we are intimately and ineradicably bound up with militarism”. Otherwise, the relationships between militarism and antimilitarism could be exceptionalised and their profound entanglements might sometimes get lost in the micropolitics. Readers might be left with questions like: is it just militarism operating in intimate ways? Or if we are more cautious and self-reflective, can we be less complicit? Thus, it would be useful to more situate militarism and antimilitarism in a broader context of power and resistance. Our entanglements are not accidental or as a consequence of carefulness or bad conscience. Instead, it is because of not despite and within not outside power relations that the subjectivity, agency and resistance exist—they are constituted within and through power relations, which is “a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (Butler 1992, p. 9). Resistance cannot exist without or outside power and vice versa. The intimacy between them is similar to that between security and insecurity—as the constitutive outside to each other which “can only be thought—when it can—in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders” (p. 8). This could further account for implication and reproduction not as a result of carelessness but constitutive of the subject, agency, freedom and resistance. As Wendy Brown suggests with examples of workers longing for a world without work and teenagers for one without parents, resistance can hardly avoid presupposing and being shaped by what it is against (Brown, 1995, p. 7). Even antimilitarist practices relying less on the extant power regime (for example, the police’s reasonable use of force) and potentially generating “alternative forms of being and relating which might not so easily reproduce militarism” (Rossdale p. 141) still presuppose and are shaped by militarism. Moreover, resistance may not be read as power’s product and thus secondary if they are the constitutive outside to each other. Without possibilities of resistance, power relations cannot exist. If antimilitarists desire militarism (or from the perspectives of psychoanalytic-feminist or-postcolonial critics, to resist, contest and conquer could be driven by desire for the other), militarism also desires, relies on and responds to antimilitarism for its own existence. This is implied in the book but sometimes militarism reads like something static, abstract and over there to be resisted and reproduced (despite more dynamics indicated by reproduction). It might be useful to more explicitly place the relationship between militarism and antimilitarism on a more mutual and fundamental basis and to conceptualise/situate militarism in a more historical, dynamic and interactive context.

The rest of the review will continue the inquiry of how militarism is conceptualised in Resisting Militarism and treats it as performativity. While drawing on post-structuralist understanding of power and resistance, Resisting Militarism goes beyond it. Foucault does not offer a theory of power but instead investigates “where and how, between whom, between what points, according to what processes, and with what effects, power is applied” (1978, pp.1-2). However, this might risk assuming that power is over there as something that is while its historicity and contingency revealed by genealogy does not challenge this status. Similarly, Butler recognises that “there is no power, construed as a subject, that acts, but only” “a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (1993, p. 225). If “to ‘refer’ naively or directly to such an extra-discursive object will always require the prior delimitation of the extra-discursive” (p. 11), power cannot be “referred” to. If a post-foundational theoretical ethos is carried through, this approach to power is also one of the discursive constructions and there is also no power beyond discourse. Resisting Militarism carries this ethos through: militarism is a series of processes which have “no firm unity other than our capacity to conceptualise them as tending towards particular forms of (violent) practices” (p. 4).

The book is explicit that militarism is conceptualised as a complex of “a (localised) network encompassing“ different institutions as well as a set of value systems, rationalities, social practices and subjectivities which tend towards the production and legitimisation of political violence. It also recognises the implications of this conceptualisation for resistance and critical engagements with resistance. This conceptualisation of militarism echoes critical approaches to war and the military which take war or martiality as beyond military institutions and operations but deeply embedded in and shaping social relations. War front and home front/society, violence and politics as well as different parties involved in a war could be seen as co-constitutive. Moreover, the particular approach of situating anti-militarism and militarism in the same analytical framework parallels critical war scholars’ call to study war as “a reciprocal set of relations which draws in the parties to a conflict and reworks them in combined ways” (Barkawi, 2011, p. 713), which is animated by the conceptualisation of war as social relation.

While critical scholarship calls attention to the social context(s), war and the military are still centred. However, embedded in more intimate and diffuse and productive relations of power, authority and domination” (p. 4) as well as more local processes, in Resisting Militarism, war also seems paradoxically missing to some extent or at least once again rendered distant. I question this not because studying militarism and resistance necessarily entails studying war, and am aware that exceptionalising the violence of war is performative and obscures the always already violent nature of liberal politics or possibly any politics.[1] But invisibilising or distancing war can also be performative, and the political work this does needs to be exposed. Activism against the arms trade, enabled and motivated by a particular understanding of militarism which is local and networked and to which the “military–industrial complex” is central, is the empirical focus of Resisting Militarism. While the book recognises that this is “an ontologisation which renders militarism accessible (and vulnerable)” to direct action (p. 45) and also outlines how it tends to “conceal violence directed against marginal (racialised) subjects” (p. 63), it does not discuss what it does to war. While it is valid to argue that “a strong, state-supported arms industry has been fundamental to British militarism” (p. 47), with arms trade in the spotlight, UK or more in general liberal democracies’ more “direct” and “active” involvements in wars tend to be rendered invisible. In other words, the hypervisibility of the arms trade and anti-arms trade risks reducing the roles liberal democracies play in sustaining and motivating militarism globally to the arms trade. To invoke more “direct” and “active” involvements is not meant to establish a hierarchy or scale of violence or to exceptionalise the more “direct” and “active”, or to suggest that anti-arms trade activism is not important. Instead, my point is that anti-arms trade activism as the focus requires more critical engagement—otherwise, other manifestations of militarism which are already absent from the Western public’s view will be further obscured. Because of not despite the exposure and hypervisibility of arms trade, liberal democracies could be constructed as merely complicit in wars and thus at best as a lesser evil and liberal militarism again as “non-excessive”, while discourses of war in particular and violence, disorder and chaos in general as the Other’s problems are reinforced and naturalised. However, these problems of the Other can hardly be adequately understood without considering liberal democracies’ involvements in (which go far beyond of arms trade) or even initiation of war. In a broader and more historical context, the constant production of wars or political violence in general should be situated in the histories of colonialism and neo-colonialism.

There could be other sites where militarism is reproduced. This conceptualisation of militarism as networked and local is enabled and enabling by identifying an easy target that is actors and institutions involved in arms trade. Among these institutions, companies are easier targets than governmental departments and military bases and referred to by anti-militarists as small cogs in the war machine (p. 50). The book sharply points out that highly confrontational political practices could too readily draw a line and thus obscure that resistance is “always already constituted by and, potentially, reproductive of precisely that which is resisted” (p. 139). However, his critique does not target at identifying small cogs in the war machine. Is it possible that that identifying the small cogs for effective resistance risks privileging strategy and reinforcing particular narratives of power and agency which are integral to militarism? Confrontation as a concept tending to draw a clear line is problematic. My point is not that antimilitarists should choose less easy targets but to call for more critical reflections on identifying small cogs in the war machine while not overlooking its importance in resistance and the disruptive and subversive potentials in resistance enabled by it. Moreover, targeting small cogs might risk abstraction which also plays a role in reproducing militarism. While the importance of these cogs is situated in relation to the war machine, they are not placed in a larger political-economic context is which the war machine is embedded and itself shaping. This de-contextualisation may lead to the absence of critical engagements with the representations of security guards of these “cogs” by antimilitarists including the author. An explicit contrast is established between police officers taking “their obligations to use reasonable force seriously” (pp. 97-98) and security guards less likely ”to have an active sense of their duties with respect to reasonable force” and thus posing more threats to activists. The police’s reasonable force and even care are critically engaged with, but the security guards’ “unreasonable” force by security guards and threats are not, which potentially legitimises and reinforces discourses of reasonable and unreasonable forces sustaining liberal militarism. Moreover, the agencies of security guards as violent intermediaries of the war machine might be essentialised and abstracted. Along with this, there is a tendency of victimising anti-militarist activists. The point is not that activists are not threatened by security guards. But similar to how vulnerability is interrogated in Chapter 6 (pp. 149-150), I would suggest the exposure of activists and their vulnerability especially to the violence of security guards be critically approached. If we take into consideration discourses of unreasonable force as racialised and racialising and occupational segregation by race and ethnicity in UK, essentialising and de-contextualising the agencies of security guards and victimising the activists could be more problematic by ignoring “differences of power and privilege” (Hirsch, 2016, as cited on p. 150) shaped by race, ethnicity and class.

While Resisting Militarism is concerned with the micro politics of militarism as well as of resistance, it does not pay sufficient attention to how militarism operates on the ground as concrete social roles and relations, especially of the side which is resisted by anti-militarists. This could partly be attributed to militarism partly conceptualised as a set of more or less sweeping and static ideas about “the nature of power and subjectivity” (p.56) which are just over there and to be resisted and reproduced by antimilitarism. Though the processes of the reproduction of these ideas are reflected upon in detail, it could be difficult to analyse how militarism is sustained, reproduced and reshaped on the ground of what it is resisted—how these ideas, subjectivities and rationalities are shaped in concrete social contexts constituted by power relations? Or how is the workforce produced for the UK’s defence industry and liberal militarism in general, which in turn sustain social hierarchies or power relations? I understand the focus of Resisting Militarism is on the politics of resistance, but how the Other is constituted and treated and whether it is reflected on can be integral to the politics of resistance. While it might be too much to ask for what critical war scholars would propose, that is to look at the different ways in which the encounters between militarism and resistance are “constructed and experienced on both sides” (Barkawi, 2011, p. 713), being critical of the constituting the Other, how those complicit in militarism (just like “us”) are treated and the implications for resistance is possible, though I understand the potential difficulties in remaining empathic towards the Other who is willing to resort to violence. But instead of straightforwardly condemning unreasonable force, we might have to question how violence is being produced and sustained, similar to what Rossdale suggests regarding “racialised and resistant Others as always already violent” (p. 190). This could be another way to mobilise the politics of vulnerability.

In addition to and related with obscuring micro-processes involved in the making of militarism, another pitfall of conceptualising militarism as constituted through a set of wider ideas is that militarism becomes everything potentially tending towards to political violence and so might lose its analytical power. As mentioned earlier, exceptionalising war is performative and so is invisibilising it. It could be useful to elaborate on the relationships between militarism, war and other organised (not necessarily explicitly organised) violence. Related to the critique of the absence of microprocesses, it is not enough to expose a set of ideas and subjectivities which tend towards violence or war in particular. Analyses of more concrete practices and processes are useful to more effectively critique and resist militarism. Also, a more historical, contingent and dynamic picture of militarism can hardly be offered. As Katharine Millar argues, militarism “becomes an overarching meta-narrative” with “little to say about the specific and contingent politics of a given time or place” (forthcoming, pp. 5-6). As mentioned before, militarism or liberal militarism is not conceptualised in changing politics-economic contexts, though the book points out that “the nature and ideological specificity of militarism is shaped by the particular political-economic context” (p. 57). How has militarism been shifting and adapting “in response to new forms of technology, new objects of violence, and new practices of resistance” and also shaping resistance? While it recognises that resistance is shaped by and implicated in power relations, the changing role of direct action within British anti-militarism is not examined in relation to the shifting militarism. Instead, Resisting Militarism more situates the history of direct action in “internal” politics. Liberal militarism is touched upon. But is liberal militarism a new manifestation and how has it been shaped in encounters with antimilitarism and shaping antimilitarism in a broader social context?

Despite what is “targeted” by these immanent critiques animated by Resisting Militarism, the book offers an impressive combination of empirically grounded ethnography with political theory and an essential contribution to conceptualising the possibilities and the limitations of resistance on the terrain of militarism in particular and power relations in general. It could open up more spaces for resistance with, not despite, its deconstructive approach to resistance.


Bargu, B. (2016) Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.

Brown, W. (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton University Press.

Barkawi, T. (2011) ‘From War to Security: Security Studies, the Wider Agenda and the Fate of the Study of War’. Millennium, Vol. 39 (3), pp.701-716.

Foucault, M. (2007) Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978. Arnold Davidson, Michel Senellart, Fran.ois Ewald, and Alessandro Fontana (eds.), Graham Burchell (trans.). New York: Palgrave.

Millar, K. (forthcoming) Violent Obligation: Supporting the Troops and the Making of Political Community.

Ortner, S. (1995) ‘Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal’. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 37 (1), pp.173-193

[1] For example, antimilitarist practices can be exclusionary and violent.

One thought on “Deconstructing Power and Resistance: A Response to Rossdale

  1. Pingback: Seeding Territory | The Disorder Of Things

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