Subjects and (Dis)obedience

The last commentary in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Elena Loizidou. Elena is Reader in Law and Political Theory at the School of Law, Birkbeck College. Her research interests range from anarchism and political theory to theories of gender and sexuality, law and culture. Her recent publications include Disobedience: Concept and Practice (edited, 2013), Judith Butler: Ethics, Law, Politics (2007), ‘What is Law?’’ in The Anarchist Imagination: Anarchism Encounters the Humanities and the Social Sciences (2019), ‘Law, Love and Anarchism’ (2018), and ‘Dreams and The Political Subject’, in Vulnerability in Resistance (2016). A rejoinder will follow shortly; all posts will be collected for future perusal here.

Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion is a beautifully written book and one of those very rare academic books where the concrete (ethnographic) and the theoretical critique each other and reveal the complexity of socio-political phenomena such as anti-militarist actions. The contributions to knowledge that this book offers is immense: (a) it provides us with an ethnography of anti-militarist groups in Britain including, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Stop the Arms Fair (STAF); Smash EDO; Plowshares (or Ploughshares) and Space Hijackers emanating either from Rossdale participating or study over the last 12 years; (b) it widens our understandings of concepts such as (but not only) militarism (through linkage of war, conflict, state violence “to more intimate relations of power, authority domination” (p. 4), anti-militarism (through questioning the prefigurative claims of the groups he has studied) and disobedience (by drawing our attention to its attachment to obedience); and (c) it expands the methodological teachings of ethnographical studies by relating them to theoretical claims. Indeed Rossdale should be congratulated for his ability to navigate effortlessly between the concrete and the theoretical and challenge our perceived notions of concepts and politics.  His method of study will guide and should guide ethnographic studies in the future.

Anyone that studies social movements, whether it is the anti-militarist, anti-capitalist or anarchist movements (as I do), tends to present such movement in radical and pure ways. More specifically we tend to present such movements them as being diametrically opposite to what the social/political order that it is contesting. Resisting Militarism presents us with a delicate and nuanced reading of the anti-militarist movement. In doing so it exposes that there is a much more intimate relationship between the anti-militarist movement and militarism, or as Rossdale puts it anti-militarist actions and militarism are ‘mutually constitutive’ of each other (p. 12).  I will go a step further and suggest that as the book reveals they are not only  ‘mutually constitutive’ but rather they depend upon each other in the way in which Judith Butler interpreted Hegel’s ‘masterand servant dialectic’ in Subjects of Desire (1999); the existence of both parties (master (militarism) and servant (anti-militarism) ) somewhat paradoxically– as the former produces and sustains war, domination, authority and the latter contests them – depends on the non-destruction of each other.  If the servant for example annihilates the master their existence – as it is inextricably link to the master’s recognition, will cease to be. Rossdale very carefully tracks down how our protesting, direct actions, blockades, and other activist actions at times resemble the very master that we may want to undo, and how prefigurative politics (politics associated with anti-militarist movements) at times fall short of their very aspirations, namely not reproducing the violence associated with militarism.  Rossdale for example, shows how gender hierarchies may permeate such groups and how such a hierarchy works against the anti-hierarchical structures and aspirations of anti-militarist groups. Nevertheless, the intention of the book is not to suggest that anti-military resistance should be abandoned. On the contrary, by demonstrating the distance between word (e.g. anti-hierarchy aspiration in the structure and organisation of resistance) and the practice Rossdale, is asking us to cultivate a more mindful ‘ethic of resistance’. It is possible as he suggests that if we become more reflective of our actions that we stop from reproducing militarism – racism, sexism, homophobia and authority, the very things that anti-militarist actions desire to challenge and change. Put differently the book teaches how we are all implicated in the production of violence despite our desires or best intentions and how we can attend to this problematic.

The book addresses this paradoxical relationship between militarism and anti-militarist resistance through a series of very important contexts: feminism, the politics of security, peace camps, die ins and humour, internal movement dynamics, disobedience, and critique of the antiarms trade movement. Each of these contexts represents a chapter in the book and each chapter represents exquisitely what I stipulated in the very opening sentence of my contribution, namely Rossdale’s ability to place the theoretical and the concrete next to each other so as to open different ways of learning, reading, writing and acting in the world. I will not attend to all the chapters of the book here. I will instead focus only on Chapter 8 – the chapter on  ‘Dis/Obedience’ – so as to exemplify how Rossdale brings to our awareness how militarism and anti-militarism are mutually constitutive of each other.

Before I move to this I would like to say and as you may have guessed by now, Resisting Militarism is a pessimistic book.  It does not anticipate that we can ever get rid of militarism. This is how Rossdale puts it: “If militarism is a way of thinking about how violence is produced and organised within a particular social context, then it is perhaps unhelpful to think about a world beyond militarism” (p. 269). And you may have guessed why. If militarism and anti-militarism are ‘mutually constitutive’ of each other we will never be able to think of world without militarism. The most we can have is a type of politics that disrupts militarism and reveals its violence. Whilst  I am sympathetic to the caution that the book brings to us – there will never be a world without violence so we should always be alert to its manifestations – I am equally worried that if we preclude from our horizon the possibility of imagining a world where militarism is absent we may equally succumbing to the securitisation of thinking and unwittingly reproducing one of the rationalities that bolster militarism. I will return to this in the form of a question to Rossdale at the end of my contribution.

Chapter 8, ‘Dis/Obedience’ critically evaluates how disobedience gets mobilised by anti-militarist groups. Additionally it offers an insight into the theoretical limits of the concept of disobedience. Anybody that writes theoretically on disobedience tends to focus on the anti-authoritarian, anti-law and anti-obedience aspect of such a practice. If militarism and the military industrial complex that it bolsters valorises authority, legality and obedience then the concept/practice of disobedience is presented as disrupting obedience. Such accounts of disobedience Rossdale aptly suggests are abstract, partial and have the tendency of making singular disobedient subjects into heroes – concealing the collective aspect of disobedient acts. Consequently disobedient acts are understood as being spontaneous. Rossdale exposes the myth of these theoretical presentations by explaining how anti-militarist groups teach how to be disobedient (a collective pedagogy) and present themselves as collectivities. Shortly put, theoretical accounts that are wrapped up in the desire to show how disobedience ruptures the order of things tend to remain silent of the collective aspect of disobedience as well as of the fact that disobedience is a learned practice. Rossdale therefore presents to the theoretical discussion on disobedience disobedience as being political, a pedagogy and being constituted by a collective subject. But, and this is the important lesson that we gain from Rossdale, disobedience is also attached to the concept and practice of obedience. This becomes apparent as he writes about when anti-militarist activists are willing to be arrested.  Willingness to be arrested demonstrates for Rossdale a subtle attachment to obedience. He presents us with two ways in which this willingness to be arrested subjugates anti-militarist groups to obedience. In the first category reside movements such as the The Plowshares movement. Arrest and trial is central to this group’s political strategy – it seen as a form of direct action. Rossdale experienced willingness for arrest during a DSEI action that he participated in in 2013. The three activists that were willing to be arrested they did so as to enable the rest of the activists to shut down Lockheed Martin’s (global security and aerospace and advanced technology company) Regent Street office. The two examples of disobedience and arrests (The Plowshares/DSEI) as Rossdale suggests bring to the fore two distinct relations to obedience. In the first example activists comply to law and legal sanctions as an “integral part of the action” (p. 220) and in the second is “conceptualised as a risk worth taking and/or a price worth paying” (p. 220). In both examples there is as he correctly points a submission to the juridical order and its logic, as well as to the state. We may want to argue that if activists adhere to the idea of prefigurative politics where means and ends must coincide it becomes consequential that submission to the juridical order the state and accountability must be a must. In doing so nevertheless as Rossdale suggests we also run the risk of submitting our imagination and horizon of possibilities to the altar of the law and the state. Indeed activists may argue as Rossdale suggests that submission to the law is subversive –legal injustices are exposed-or that the court room will becomes the stage from propagating to the public the political manifesto of these groups, as the anarchist Emma Goldman argued in the 20th century. But these arguments as Rossdale shows don’t de-tangle disobedience from obedience.

Resisting Militarism is not though just pessimistic of disobedience. Disobedience can be radical, it suggests, as long as it brackets out rationalism and viewing itself in strategic terms (stopping the military industrial complex), and instead sees itself as a practice that produces disobedient forms of subjectivity. Indeed as Rossdale suggests we need more disobedient subjectivities that undo the very hierarchies that order our everyday worlds (pp. 234-235). It may require us to think of disobedient subjects not as militants but as playful subjects, that as Fichett-Maddock (2013) suggests disrupt the order of things.

I personally find helpful on this the work of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. In his book Unforbidden Pleasures (2015, p. 25) Phillips argues that disobedience opens the way to forbidden pleasure and in turn to a different world/s. It enables us to:

forget, or unlearn certain words and phrases; to forget a vocabulary- words like ‘seriousness’, duty, ‘explanation’, ‘fact’ and ‘limitation’, and phrases like living for others’, and making oneself useful’ (The sure way of knowing nothing about life Wilde wrote, is to make oneself useful’)-and to use words like ‘beauty’, ‘disobedience’, ‘development’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘perfection’, and phrases like the ‘beauty of life’ and ‘the joy of living’ instead.

The possibility of disobedience lays to my mind precisely at this juncture. It may provide us with a pathway that does not simply disrupt order or makes visible the violence of militarism but moreover brings us closer to the possibility of a world without militarism. Rossdale suggests that it is not helpful to think of a world ‘beyond militarism’. Nevertheless to paraphrase Phillips by not thinking or not entertaining the forbidden pleasure of a world without militarism we may also risk the possibility of creating a world without militarism.  Whilst militarism and anti-militarism may be mutually constitutive of each other I wonder what worlds would pacificism, pleasure and calmness may bring to the problematic of Resisting Militarism.

Can we imagine of a world where anti-militarism is not constituted by militarism? If disobedience finds itself situated in the order of play or forbidden pleasures can it generate subjectivities that they are no longer mutually constituted by militarism? And if we can entertain such possibility can we begin to see pathways towards a world with lesser violence or even peace? Resisting Militarism paves the way to thinking of our actions differently, it is an erudite meditation on what is and to a great extent what it can be if we dare to de-tangle ourselves from the unforbidden, if we just free ourselves from caution.


Butler, J (1999) Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflection in Twentieth-Century France, New York: Routledge.

Fichett-Maddock, L. (2013) ‘The case of naughty in relation to law’ in Loizidou, E. Disobedience; Concept and Practice, London: Routledge.

Hegel, G.F. (2004) Phenomenology of Spirit, Miller A V (trans), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, A. (2015) Unforbidden Pleasures, London: Penguin.


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  1. Pingback: Seeding Territory | The Disorder Of Things

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