Deconstructing Power and Resistance: A Response to Rossdale

A third commentary in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Rachel Zhou. Rachel is a Phd candidate in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her doctoral research focuses on the making of female soldiers in the post-WWII era. Rather than taking the “existence” of female soldiers for granted, she examines “female soldiers” as historically constructed subjects which are constitutive of the politics of war. In particular, she looks at how “small” wars in the post-1945 era as transnational and imperial encounters render thinkable and possible the emergence of female soldiers and shape the subjectivities/experiences of (different) female soldiers. She takes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the fields of military/war history, poststructuralist feminist, critical race and postcolonial theories. She is the review article editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism is currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site, and the last reply and a rejoinder will follow in the next days; all posts will be collected for future perusal here.


Is resistance possible? How could resistance be carried out? Is resistance outside or external to power it resists? Is a radical escape from power possible? These questions are perennial but now further ignited by movements taking place during a global pandemic which accentuates and exposes systems of power. Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion offers answers but poses more questions.

This book is rooted in an intimate and careful interrogation of “the performances, negotiations, and debates which surround” anti-militarist direct action in UK, but transcends the ethnography with its major contributions to debates on the politics of resistance and the relations between power and resistance. Treating direct action practices as “a fruitful site through which to read the politics of both militarism and resistance” (p. 6), it successfully and provocatively unpacks how anti-militarist politics resist, subvert, are shaped by, and reproduce militarism. The intimacy between militarism and anti-militarism is critically reflected on through meticulous accounts of the “internal” politics of antimilitarist resistance, which are read in relation to, not apart from, what it is against. Sherry Ortner points out there is an “impulse to sanitize the internal politics” of resistance in studies of resistance so that “the ambivalent complexity” of resistance is usually rendered invisible, which contributes to an inadequate analysis (1995, pp. 176-180). Resisting Militarism does not repeat this pitfall and also moves beyond just taking the “internal” politics of anti-militarist practices seriously. Instead, it would challenge the very binary between “internal” and “external”. The “internal” politics identified by Ortner is “within all the local categories of friction and tension” (p. 177). But Rossdale reads these frictions and tensions among anti-militarists, including those surrounding how an anti-militarist group is organised, whether focusing on the spectacular, how to approach security, illegality, pacifism and nonviolence, and the gendered and racialised politics of the movement”, not as “internal” politics per se. In Resisting Militarism they are interrogated in relation to “external” politics not only because how “internal” politics matters to its engagements with militarism, but more importantly as attempts to determine the particular nature and micro-politics of militarism and the imperatives of resistance as well as the relationship between militarism and anti-militarism (pp. 6-7). With a particular understanding of power and the concept of prefiguration, the book provocatively disrupts the boundaries between means and ends and between resistance and power.

Thus, Resisting Militarism brilliantly demonstrates how militarism and anti-militarism are antagonistic and co-constitutive (or antagonism is always already co-constitutive) and that while power relations can be revealed by examining attempts to uproot them, spaces and practices of resistance are always already produced by and, “potentially, reproductive of precisely that which is resisted” (p. 139). This move is rare even among the works situating power and resistance in the same analytical framework and taking their intimate relationships seriously. Usually they only focus on how a certain form of resistance is produced by a form of power but not on how resistance is complicit and reproduces what it is against. Thus, they still tend to eschew a deconstructive approach to resistance taken by Resisting Militarism, as if being critical of resistance could give more ground and energy to power. Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons by Banu Bargu (2016) is another example which places power and resistance in one framework. Similarly, it also successfully demonstrates how resistance is shaped by power. However, its analysis might be criticised for overlooking how necroresistance could reproduce the logics of a “biosovereign assemblage” (Bargu, p. 53) that it is against. Rendering resistance innocent could simplify the operations of power as well as the complex relationships between power and resistance, and create spaces for imaginations of easy and straightforward resistance and thus a clean escape from power. Resisting Militarism is more cautious and actively seeks to be self-reflective. Not only (some) antimilitarist practices take a deconstructive approach to militarism. Resisting Militarism also seeks to deconstruct anti-militarism and calls for keeping antagonistic contestation in play as well as “a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). Remaining open to deconstruction and affirmative gestures in resistance could be the best hopes for resisting in a world where the subject, freedom and resistance are shaped and fundamentally entangled with power.

The brilliant book thus has made significant contributions to debates on the politics of resistance. My review should stop here. Also, to offer any critique is difficult because of its constant self-reflections. However, no critique could be exactly against what this book calls for — “antagonistic contestation and a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). The critiques may not be antagonistic since they follow the approach Resisting Militarism takes but seeks to make some implications more explicit, ask what could be further elaborated on and whether it reproduces what it critiques, and thus they are immanent critiques.

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