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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