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.

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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.

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Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work

This is the first in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. Responses will follow from guest authors Elin Hellquist, Clara Portela and Katie Attwell over the next few days.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the international crisis is: be it an inter-state war (Russia-Ukraine), civil strife (Syria), gross violations of human rights (Israel), or violent non-state actors on the rampage (ISIS, al-Qaeda), the ‘answer’ from governments and civil society always seems to be the same: impose economic sanctions. In the mid-20th century, only five countries were targeted by sanctions; by 2000, the number had increased tenfold. Once an obscure, rarely used and widely dismissed form of statecraft, sanctions are now clearly central to the exercise of power in international relations – particularly when dominant powers are reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’.

My new book, Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, is the first comparative effort to explore how these sanctions ‘work’ in practice – on the ground, in target states. This post introduces the book and the forum that will follow.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

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Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

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Myths of Invention

The fifth commentary, and sixth post, on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Futurefrom DoT’s own Joe Hoover. A reply from Nick and Alex will follow.

Inventing the Future begins with a lament.

Where did the future go? For most of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology.

The authors resent that they have been denied a future with more promise than the present. They mourn the absence of the object of their desire, the impossibility of its fulfilment, the lives to be lived in these lost leftist utopias. This seems to be a widely felt disappointment, if we are to judge by how often the complaint has been made of late. Disappointment leads to diffuse anger, directed at the status quo on the “Left”, its lack of vision. At the root of this discontent is anger at the world itself, for all of the ways it impedes us, frustrates our hopes and gives no comfort to our dreams – it is a world in need of re-making. I do not want to suggest that because the book’s narrative is motivated by such feeling that it can be reduced to an outburst against the vagaries of existence, the work is too focused and the problem it addresses too serious for such crude criticism. Yet, this fundamental emotional resentment colours the project in an important way.

Orpheus plays his lament

The lament shapes the inquiry itself. We are wounded by the loss of our desire – a future flush with possibility – and we are angry at capitalism for stealing our future. Obviously the detail is more sophisticated than this curt summary, but a stark statement of the underlining logic reveals the essential narrative. The problem of contemporary Left politics is not the desire for a universal utopian future but rather that this future has been lost, which runs counter to important criticisms of progressive leftism (a point taken up by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman). Therefore, the authors’  task is to remind us why we desire the future, then to consider where to look for a new one and how to seek after it. Inventing the Future is a quest to find what was lost, so we can become whole in our desires. We may set out on such a quest with great optimism but we still carry a worrisome anger with us.

There are a great many barbarities in our world attributable, at least in part, to “capitalism” but it is not a villain stealing away with our ladylove (the difficulties of determining what capitalism is are taken up later). Our lost future is not the exceptional crime of some neoliberal conspiracy. Yes, I know the book does not say anything quite so crude. Nonetheless, the narrative structure is driven by a conflict that finds its resolution with the us (the protagonist) achieving wholeness in a future fulfilment of our desire. The authors make the caveat that contestation will not end in this postcapitalist future, but this future still holds out the promise that the conflicts of today will melt away. The world is always messy, unfinished, stubborn, cruel, confused, and, I posit, resistant to the kind of  breaks with past ways of being that are suggested here (Sophie Lewis and David Bell look at the temporalities involved in greater detail). If we lament that, we risk resentment against the world itself, against human existence and against flesh and blood people who move slowly and impede our dreams. Love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present – which is not to say we should have no love of the future, but rather that we ought to be wary of too much of it.
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Capitalism: A History of Violence

Alexander Anievas and TDOT resident Kerem Nişancıoğlu introduce their new book How The West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism.

‘For the last two decades, challenges to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism have been casually dismissed by a status quo swimming in hubris. From Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that ‘there is no alternative’ to Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’, the study and critique of capitalism has been relegated to margins of public discourse. More recently, Mark Hunter argued that any attack on capitalism is ‘an attack on human nature’, thereby reaffirming the now centuries-old conceit that capitalism is as ‘natural and organic’ as living and breathing.

However, as stock markets came crashing down in 2008, the force of history reasserted itself in a series of revolutions, square occupations, anti-austerity protests, strikes, riots, and anti-state movements taking place from London to Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Rojava, Santiago and beyond. Such movements have torn at the certainties of ‘capitalist realism’ and started sporadically – if inconsistently – challenging such long-held ‘common sense’ truisms and the power structures that bolster them.


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Ethical Encounters – Care in Counterinsurgency: Feminist Ethics and the Morality of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

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This guest post, by Jillian Terry, is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Jillian is in the final stages of completing her PhD in International Relations at the LSE, where her research explores the relationship between feminist ethics and post-9/11 war. Recently, Jillian has published her research in the International Feminist Journal of Politics and has contributed a chapter to the edited volume Gender and Private Security in Global Politics, edited by Maya Eichler (OUP, 2015). For earlier posts, see Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

In thinking of twenty-first century war, questions of ethics in the realm of counterinsurgency are embodied in a wide range of encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed tactics, strategies, and mechanisms in the name of COIN operations ranging from population control and detention to targeted killings and the implementation of the Human Terrain System, resulting in a set of complex realities about what it means to ‘do’ counterinsurgency in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, much of what we talk about when we think through questions of ethics and counterinsurgency remains tied to its manifestation in formal, legal mechanisms – namely the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) – and their insistence on counterinsurgency as a practice of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Like much mainstream work on the ethics of war in IR, this has resulted in ethical conversations around counterinsurgency operations that are theorized with respect to just war doctrine, applying principles of jus in bello and jus ad bellum to determine the moral status of counterinsurgency as a means of warfighting. Here, I see a vital disconnect between existing analyses of COIN and how it is actually experienced and felt by insurgents and civilian populations – experiences and encounters that are irreducible to the strict criteria of the just war framework. To bridge this disconnect, I suggest a reorienting of our ethical lens away from just war thinking and towards a feminist ethics premised on care, empathy, and relationality. Such a perspective is more attuned to considering the practical realm of counterinsurgency rather than remaining mired in abstract debates about the semantics and theory of COIN operations. Given that the practical realm is one in which the truly relational nature of counterinsurgency becomes apparent, it is logical to look towards feminist ethics for an alternative viewpoint that prioritizes the lived experiences of individuals over legalistic interpretations of counterinsurgency as it appears on paper. A feminist ethics rooted in understandings of care and relationality will allow us to move beyond the formal articulation of COIN as is found in FM 3-24 and instead think about the encounters of those affected by counterinsurgency operations in a genuine and meaningful way.

U.S. Army PFC Danny Comley during patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 2010.

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