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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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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Knowing Like A Jinetera

The last commentary post in our forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love, following contributions from Megan herself, Rahul, Dunja Fehimovic and Nivi. Megan’s rejoinder will be up imminently.


Visit Cuba Poster

So near and yet so foreign! declares the advert. Intimate and exotic, Cuba as a repository for fantasy and self-discovery, the neighbour with the mixed-race charms, the imagined nation Cindy Weber once analysed so relentlessly as “the near colony and certain feminine complement” of the United States. Megan’s new, and first, book – From Cuba With Love – exposes the same kind of dynamic, although from a different standpoint.[1] Hers is a near-seamless blend of reportage and feminist IR, moving from autobiography to testimony to political theory, translating from events on the Malecón (the long waterside promenade in Havana dubbed “Cuba’s great sofa”) to the masculine histories of the Cuban state and back again. It is also – for those seduced by such things – a book beautiful to look at, and to hold (which is a way of saying that you should buy a hard copy). It is a book about evasion, repression and muddled motives, but is itself a model of generosity and clarity.

The central figure throughout is the ‘jinetera’, superficially close to the idea of a ‘prostitute’ but evidently much more ambiguous in definition and shifting in practice. As Megan explains, the term ‘jinetera’ and the general practice ‘jineterismo’ are plays on ‘jockeying’, meaning to manoeuvre for advantage and also to have sex, both connotations clearly playful, if also risky (see the previous posts in the forum for more discussion on the meaning and forms of jineterismo).[2] It is with a curiosity about jineterismo that Megan starts. But where we end up is inside an indispensable guide to the ‘sexual-affective economy’, a bold innovation in disciplinary writing, and a testament to the difference gender analysis makes in studying the global political.

From Cuba With Love does what a certain kind of post-structural feminist IR does best, dissecting the identities created by, and in, a concrete historical system. Not the narrow ‘identity politics’ critics abhor, but identity as the fullness of lived experience shot through with power, subjectivities which are at once deeply personal (love, hope, desire, sex) and interwoven with the most brute forms of political violence (the state, the prison camp, the rehabilitation centre, the police system, imperialism and resistance, exclusion and poverty). It is a study that is undeniably ‘global’ in its scope, even about inter-national relations in a rather precise sense, given how often the admixture of sex and money circles the desires of the (usually) western male for a ‘local’ rendezvous, and how implicated notions of race, nation, difference, rivalry, trade, progress, savagery, miscegenation, and geopolitical virility are in that. A kind of diplomacy, even. This is an encounter with ‘the Other’, and a negotiation of the foreign, in its most visceral possible form. Or, as one key informant more bluntly puts it:

It’s different if one goes to bed with a foreigner, or a mountain of foreigners…Do we have to carry such chauvinistic patriotism with us in our pussies too? Is it obligatory to make use of a mambí dick? Or are they trying to avoid alienating penetrations?

Yet From Cuba With Love is not just a great success on those terms. It is also in many ways the stand-out example of ‘narrative IR’, that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves). Continue reading

Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series 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. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

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Dr Schwarz, I Presume?

And so, after some delay due to storm, and just a month after The Disorder Of Things turned three, our own Elke was closely quizzed by Professors Patrick Hayden and Chris Brown. The cause? The defence of her doctoral thesis: The Biopolitical Condition: Rethinking the Ethics of Political Violence in Life-Politics. Arendt, Foucault, and drones. Now passed, certified, set free. Without corrections. Henceforth, Dr Schwarz.

Elke Foucault

Not actually Elke.

The Office Of Blood; Or, ‘The Act Of Killing’ (2012)

The images and scenes we discuss below are not those of a conventional film plot. Nevertheless, *spoiler warning*.


Act Of Killing Anwar Screen

It’s hard to know how to write about The Act Of Killing, the unsettling, surreal, humanising, nauseating portrait of an Indonesian death squad that is generating such interest. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and the mainly anonymous Indonesian crew (anonymous for fear of retribution) have conjured something quite extraordinary into the world. Laced with caustic insights into atrocity, empathy, memory, commodification, artifice, power, solidarity, fear, self-deception and play.

One million people were killed in Indonesia in the mid-60s following a military coup. The massacres which aimed at obliterating “communists” (along with ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) have been largely undocumented, with many of the perpetrators occupying prominent positions in the Indonesian government. Without wishing to give too much away or to channel and pre-empt the multiple, contradictory emotions that it is bound to elicit, the main conceit is a film within a film where the murderers re-enact their murders, all the while debating whether to recreate this method, or whether that victim would have cried out in that way, and sometimes whether they might just be showing us too much truth in their performances of the past. At one point there is the satisfied declaration that these scenes of re-articulated horror will be seen as far away as London! Part voyeurs, part students, we are thus implicated in their narratives, viscerally. Aghast, covering our eyes, retching when they retch, laughing guiltily at moments of shared humanity.

The Act Of Killing is a deliberate move from the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ to the ‘theatre of the oppressor’, a move that is challenging not simply because we – those ostensibly passive spectators – are made to face deeply uncomfortable ‘truths’ but also because it is above all a movie that painstakingly documents what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, called the ‘banality of evil’. Whilst there is nothing anodyne or sanitised about these gruesome renactments, they are almost flippantly juxtaposed with the mundane rituals, pedestrian encounters, and even moments of compassion and kindness that make these men all too human. The result is an audience suspended between empathy and disgust, between acceptance and incredulity, and between the absurd and the quotidian.

The Act Of Killing, for us at least, is a gut-twisting manifestation of sometimes nebulous socio-political insights. Insights such as Agamben’s ‘camp’ or Foucauldian ‘state racism’: concepts that suddenly unfold themselves before us on film, embedded as they are in a context otherwise deeply unfamiliar to us. But although seemingly focused, somewhat narrowly, on Medan, Indonesia the ambit of The Act is far greater: it offers a compelling commentary on the connate imbrication of capitalism, commodification, legality, sexual discrimination, racism, and their inescapably violent manifestations. It is less a document-ary about Indonesian history than a meditation on violence, memory and subjectivity themselves, a provocation made universal precisely because of its lingering gaze on these few aged torturers.

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