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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All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

The fourth piece in our forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. One more to follow before Patricia’s rejoinder this weekend.

Economy of Force provides an insightful and provocative re-reading of Anglo-American imperialism and counterinsurgency. Unlike conventional accounts, which for the most part remain trapped within the hermeneutic limits of political theory, Owens undertakes a historical sociology of ‘the social’ itself, tracing out its attendant mechanisms of political rule over time. Central to her account is the notion of ‘the household’, which, she suggests, functions as a dominant form of administration and rule within both modern and contemporary imperialisms. ‘Despotism’, ‘governance’, ‘ruler-ship’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘administration’, ‘life processes’, ‘violence’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘pacification’, ‘domestication’, ‘domesticity’ – this language of household rule is crucial in order to better understand the politics that underpin different forms of imperial practice. For this, we must also understand that it is the oikos, and not politics, that stands at the heart of imperial and counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, for Owens, such campaigns are best grasped as “armed social work”.

One clear target of this argument is mainstream IR, which all too often works with an ahistorical conception of society. Owens firmly rejects this approach by identifying: (1) the origins of ‘the social’ in a concept of household rule; (2) the transformation of household rule over time; and (3) the historically-specific influence that different forms of household rule exert over political practices in the present. In so doing she also rejects the folk wisdom that household rule and management has been eliminated or pushed to the margins of politics through various processes of modernisation. Rather, she argues, household rule is sozialpolitik rendered as politics, and that IR scholars would do well to engage with the changing logics of household rule if they want any purchase on the political world.

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Owens grounds this bold claim in the close relation between the social and an ancient modality of household rule: oikonomia. This is an important move and I, for one, am convinced that an engagement with household management can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the entwinement of the social and the international. Such a lens resonates with Hannah Arendt’s insight that, in modernity, “we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (The Human Condition, p.28). And for Arendt too, ‘the social’ is infused with the logic of household management, turning modern ‘society’ into a mode of government based on specific and historically situated relations of reproduction. In fact, I would argue that Arendt’s proto-biopolitical argument has much to offer to Owens’ project.

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The Stories We Tell About Killing

The third piece in our forum on Economy of Force (following Patricia’s opening and Pablo’s piece on patriarchy), and the first contribution to The Disorder of Things from Jairus.

Narrative: The central mechanism, expressed in story form, through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed.

– Glossary, U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24

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.

HTT 12
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.

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Home-ology; Being a Comment On Patriarchs and Patriarchy in Economy of Force

This is the second contribution to a forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. More to follow in the coming days.

Joshua Reynold's portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

What to say about Economy of Force, Patricia Owens’ wildly ambitious contribution to international political theory?[1] A book that threatens to overwhelm, whether with the vast literature it marshals or in its brazen assault on (almost all) social theory. A book that consistently degrades the “intellectual crutch” of sociality, offers an arresting agenda for historical and political analysis, and then delivers a revisionist account of late colonial and ‘post-colonial’ counterinsurgency of its own. Amidst the parade of detail and argument, a book in which you will also discover a nascent theory of patriarchy. Arguably more, Economy of Force presages nothing less than the groundwork for a unification of feminist and international political theory.

As we have already seen, Owens’ critique of ‘the social’ as a category of thought and practice involves reviving the alternative to it: oikonomia, economy in its original sense. More precisely, Economy of Force dispenses with the usual distinction between a time when the family household was the primary site of power (feudal, certainly pre-modern, personalist, and status-based) and the contemporary distribution of political, economy and civil power in something we call ‘society’ (properly modern, bureaucratic or networked, and contract-based). Instead of telling stories in which the household is overcome by society, we should, on this account, recognise that ‘the social’ is a historical transformation of the household form. The change in the form of household governance is real, but the stories told about the change are fictions. The current hegemonic story – social theory itself – has as its effect the obscuring of power as domestication. In other words, our conventional narrative of how the household disappeared provides ideological cover for the fact that the household is still very much with us.

Oikonomia, or household governance, is rule characterised by a father figure (paterfamilias) whose power is more or less that of a despot. Since despot means ‘master of the house’, you might expect International Relations scholars to have noticed, or to be alert to their own repeated tendency to name as ‘domestic’ whatever is not part of global politics proper. Instead, these threads must be uncovered, recovered, constructed and mapped anew.

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Economy of Force

We return from the holidays with gusto and a book symposium on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social (Cambridge, 2015). Patricia is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, co-editor of European Journal of International Relations, and a former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and of Oriel College, Oxford. Patricia’s first book was Between War and Politics: International Relations and the thought of Hannah Arendt (Oxford, 2007). Economy of Force is in the Cambridge University Press series ‘Studies in International Relations’ and is out in paperback next summer (the introduction is available in full here). The book will also be the subject of a forthcoming special section of Security Dialogue.

Economy of Force

Economy of Force seeks to rekindle interest in one of the oldest but neglected languages and techniques of government administration – household governance – that it uses to write a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with broad implications for social, political, and international thought. The book is a study of oikonomia in the use of force, from oikos, ancient Greek for household. But it also makes a larger claim, that household governance underlies the relatively recent rise of distinctly social forms of government and thought more broadly. Since the late eighteenth-century, modern, capitalist state and imperial administrators have drawn on and innovated different forms of household governance, scaling up and transforming the units of rule in which populations are domesticated. To really understand the significance of households-as-government we need to dispense with the relatively recent and bourgeois notion of households as houses, homes, or family-as-kin. Instead, households are best understood through the nature of the hierarchical relations between people in a particular spatial arrangement. Households are the persistent but historically variable spaces in which the life processes of members – real, vulnerable bodies needing food, water, shelter – are administered and the household itself is maintained.

There is a very long tradition of thinking of households-as-government in the history of political and economic thought and in anthropology, archeology and comparative studies of different household forms. There is also excellent and wide-ranging scholarship in literary and gender studies on practices and ideologies of domesticity (from domus, Latin for house). In drawing on and extending these and other literatures, Economy of Force suggests that there is a far deeper significance of households and forms of domesticity than captured in International Relations debates about the so-called ‘domestic analogy’. Household administration is highly portable and plays a remarkably significant role in imperial and international relations. These are grounds to make a stronger claim than one based on mere analogy. I argue that there is a domestic homology connecting different households, despite their historical and geographical variability, based on the genealogy of household governance in the history of social and political thought, but also the human experience of basic life necessities and the stubborn but contingent attempts to domesticate people through the administration and control of life needs.

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