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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

Let’s Talk About the “Ugly Briton”: Shashi Tharoor on Winston Churchill

October is always a good time to catch up on one’s correspondence from July.  “FYI,” noted a friend though FB’s messaging system, linking to this:

The video’s title, “Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations,” sums it up.  The other videos from the same debate event are worth watching, too, but Tharoor’s is quite simply a must-see for anyone interested in the British Empire.  Indeed, you have probably seen it already.  With 3 million views, 6000+ comments plus what seem to be hundreds of reactions by all kinds of people in all kinds of media of communication, this one 15-minute video alone can legitimate Oxford Union Society claim’s that it aims “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.”

Why is it that Oxford Union struck social media gold with this debate but not with some others (“socialism does (not) work,” anyone)?  Even if it is safe to assume that “many” people would be familiar the reparations argument in general and even that “some” would be familiar with Britain’s reparations to the Maori, the fact is that “no one” had given a fig about the case for Indian reparations [1].  My scare quotes are meant to signal that these quantifications are relative.  It was a century ago that Dadabhai Naoroji, known to some as the Grand Old Man of India, argued that “immediate” self-government, a.k.a. swaraj, would constitute Britain’s “reparation”.  But this is precisely the point: reparations-talk becomes itself only when subjected to a sufficient degree of metropolization or mainstreaming [2].  White academics like Boris Bittker started paying attention to the legal argument for “black reparations” only in 1969, after James Forman famously stood up in a New York City church to argue that white churches owed a lot of money to a lot of people.

Continue reading

Ethical Encounters – Parsing the Pluriverse: empathy and deliberation in a post-MDG ethics of international development


Our fifth post in the forum is a guest post from Diego de Merich. Diego got his PhD from LSE and is now an LSE 100 Fellow and a research associate at the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University. His work focuses on human empathy and the ethics of care in service of alternative frameworks for International Development (post-Millennium Development Goals). For earlier posts in the forum do look for Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, focus has turned to a new framework which might replace them. Heavily influenced by the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA), the MDGs and the recently-proposed ‘Golden Thread’ frameworks posit a relatively monolithic, liberal understanding of what ‘development’ is meant to signify. As such, each new iteration of an international agreement on development seems destined to miss the potential for more creative and context-appropriate political action in response to the shortcomings of the approaches which preceded them. Using as a starting point Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development, I suggest that his notion of the pluriverse – which stands in opposition to the ‘universal and homolingual thrust of modernity’ – both challenges the post-2015 discourse and implies the need for different ethical practices upon which ‘development’ might instead be re-cast. Realisation of the pluriverse and notions of care, responsibility, democracy and pluralism would require that closer attention be paid to narrative voice and to the role that empathic processes should play in the deliberation surrounding development.

The ‘promise’ of empathy in pursuit of a post-MDG development practice can be understood by contrasting two approaches to deliberative democracy – one which would hold the HCA as its guiding ethical impulse and one which suggests that an ethics of care and responsibility in international development requires a better appreciation for the role that empathy and narrative play in understanding the development possibilities and realities of the constituent elements of Escobar’s pluriverse. Here, the focus of ethical enquiry is shifted from a more abstract notion of social justice to a recognition of shared/lived vulnerability, alternatively-imagined ways of being and thus, to an ‘international development’ which is differently understood and practiced.

Untitled Continue reading

Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror

A guest post from Melanie Richter-Montpetit, responding to the disclosure of the Senate Torture Report in December. Melanie is currently lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex, having recently gained her PhD from York University in Toronto. Her work on issues of subjectivity, belonging and political violence has also been published in Security Dialogue and the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

a land on which no slave can breathe.

– Frederick Douglass (1846)[i]

I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat.

– James Baldwin (1977)[ii]

I can’t breathe.

– Eric Garner (2014)

 America Waterboards

No, bin Laden was not found because of CIA torture.[iii] In fact, the US Senate’s official investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation program concludes that torture yielded not a single documented case of “actionable intelligence.” If anything, the Senate Torture Report[iv] – based on the review of more than six million pages of CIA material, including operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials, interview transcripts, contracts, and other records – shows that the administration of torture has led to blowbacks due to false intelligence and disrupted relationships with prisoners who cooperated. What went “wrong”? How is it possible that despite the enormous efforts and resources invested in the CIA-led global torture regime, including the careful guidance and support by psychologists[v] and medical doctors, that the post-9/11 detention and interrogation program failed to produce a single case of actionable data? Well, contrary to the commonsense understanding of torture as a form of information-gathering, confessions made under the influence of torture produce notoriously unreliable data, and the overwhelming majority of interrogation experts and studies oppose the collection of intelligence via the use of torture. This is because most people are willing to say anything to stop the pain or to avoid getting killed and/or are simply unable to remember accurate information owing to exhaustion and trauma.[vi]

So if torture is known not work, how come, then, that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. at the highest levels of government ran the risk of setting up a torture regime in violation of international and domestic law? Why alienate international support and exacerbate resentments against “America” with the public display of controversial incarceration practices, as in Guantánamo Bay, instead of simply relying on the existing system of secret renditions? Furthermore, in the words of a former head of interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, most of the tortured and indefinitely detained are “Mickey Mouse” prisoners,[vii] reportedly known not to be involved in or not to have any information on criminal or terrorist activity against the U.S. and its allies. Drawing on previously published work, I will explore this puzzle by addressing two key questions: What is the value of these carceral practices when they do not produce actionable intelligence? And, what are some of the affective and material economies involved in making these absurd and seemingly counterproductive carceral practices possible and desirable as technologies of security in the post-9/11 Counterterrorism efforts?

Against the exceptionalism[viii] of conceiving of these violences as “cruel and unusual,” “abuse” or “human rights violations”[ix] that indicate a return to “medieval” methods of punishment, the post-9/11 US torture regime speaks to the constitutive role of certain racial-sexual violences in the production of the US social formation. Contrary to understandings of 9/11 and the authorization of the torture regime as a watershed moment in U.S. history “destroying the soul of America,”[x] the carceral security or pacification practices documented in the Senate Torture Report and their underpinning racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering have played a fundamental role in the making of the US state and nation since the early days of settlement.[xi] The CIA Detention and Interrogation program[xii] targeting Muslimified subjects and populations was not only shaped by the gendered racial-sexual grammars of Orientalism, but – as has been less explored in IR[xiii]is informed also by grammars of anti-Blackness, the capture and enslavement of Africans and the concomitant production of the figure of the Black body as the site of enslaveability and openness to gratuitous violence.[xiv]

Continue reading