Narrative: The central mechanism, expressed in story form, through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed.
Patricia Owens Economy of Force is, to date, the most important book that has been written on counter-insurgency. To put it another way, Economy of Force is the first book written with the sobriety of distance from the necessary but often polemical responses to Human Terrain and the high-profile ‘anthropologists’ of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The shortcoming of these earlier responses was the tendency to treat contemporary efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as somehow new. Lost in the flurry of shock over academic involvement in warfare was the understanding that social theory has, in some sense, always been at war. It is this last point that Owens’ book really excels at theorizing. Unlike other explorations of counter-insurgency that emphasize the ‘weaponization’ of social theory and anthropology, Owens locates counter-insurgency as an outgrowth of liberalism and its governance of the social, specifically the domestic. This difference is vitally important. In the work of Roberto Gonzalez and others, we are left with a sense that anthropology and social work could be demilitarized. However, the genealogy of ‘home economics’ given to us by Owens’ suggests that the very concept of the social is rife with the desire for order, which is often established by violent means.
This places the first part of Owens book alongside Michel Foucault’s three biopolitics lectures, in particular Security, Territory and Population, as well as Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. In their own way these works attempt to reconstruct the philosophical and political history of liberalism as beginning with the violence of racial and economic ordering, rather than seeing liberalism as having fallen from grace as a result of the temptation and corrosive effects of empire. Owens, Foucault, and Losurdo all find liberalism’s logic of governance to be in the form of what Foucault famously called ‘war by other means.’ What distinguishes Owens’ work from Foucault and Losurdo is that she follows this line of logic through to the particular formation of a liberal way of war called counter-insurgency. Owens’ foregrounding of counter-insurgency is a much needed corrective to Foucault’s conclusion in Security, Territory, and Population, where he argues that external relations in the state system of Europe were characterized by balance of power politics. Entirely absent in Foucault’s development of the concept of race war in Society Must be Defended and Security, Territory, and Population is the particularities of European imperial and then colonial enterprise. This becomes even more apparent in the final lectures The Birth of Biopolitics, in which the brilliant and prescient account of the rise of neoliberalism in the U.S. leaves out entirely the anti-black racism that animated the war on the welfare state. Owens’ more internationally situated account does not ameliorate all of these shortcomings, but does put us on the road to doing so. In fact, her genealogy of the domestic is not about refining our understanding of the social in social theory, but about showing how essential and under-theorized the domestic is in the field of International Relations, which relies essentially on the difference between the foreign and domestic.