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Romanticising Resistance? Deuchars, Deleuze and the Possibility of Living Differently

Ben Thirkell-White

This chapter is part of Robert Deuchars’ broader project of correcting a fixation with state power within the international relations discipline. He draws our attention to more subtle forms of global power that have a pervasive influence over international politics right down to the level of the formation of individual subjectivities. 74
This particular chapter draws on Deleuze and Guatarri’s conception of the “war machine”. It argues that we are currently dominated by the state, both as physical disciplinary power and as mode of thought (rational, categorising, rule-based, ordered, statistical). The idea of the “war machine” (again both as assemblage and as way of thinking) offers the potential for creative and assertive ways to escape the imprisoning structures of capitalist modernity. In the process, Deuchars refers to James Scott’s work on indigenous struggles against the state in Southeast Asia to provide some concrete empirical support for Deleuze’s arguments.
In this brief response, I begin by drawing out what I find compellingly provocative about the Deleuzean project Deuchars is engaged in, through an alternative exegesis of the meaning of the war machine. I then go on to draw on some of Scott’s writing to suggest that Deuchars doesn’t fully escape the charge of “romantic anarchism”. However, his writing is provocative in uncovering the difficulties we all have in escaping the biases of modernity.

The War Machine Revisited
Deleuze and Guattari’s writing is plainly not analytical philosophy. It doesn’t proceed through proposition and logical argument. In a sense it is closer to art. It is designed to display a different point of view to the reader through example, through highlighting aspects of our experience that are often ignored or suppressed. Deleuze and Guattari try to beckon us into alternative thought spaces, rather than obliterate our existing views through careful, rationalistic argument.
In keeping with this strategy, the war machine is never defined. It emerges onto the page and we learn about it as more of its attributes and historical appearances are revealed to us in the text. At first sight, the war machine appears to be the binary opposite of the state in something like the following schema:


War Machine




Undefined space

Creation of fixed categories

Subversion of fixed categories


Creatively applied techniques

Political programmes

Spontaneous and creative resistance

However, while the state does attempt to stand for grid-like, law-governed order it always fails to live up to its ambitions for itself. It can never fully control the war machine. Meanwhile, the war machine is ideally something fluid and anarchic that comes from outside the state and subverts its laws, but it is always possible for the war machine to take over the state and produce pure terror. Both, though, are ways of thinking as much as they are concrete political institutions or assemblages. The state stands for something like modern natural science and rationalism as well as for governments and bureaucracies. Likewise, the war machine may be an actual band of warriors or a spontaneous, creative and productive form of thought and action. What we have are different poles or assemblages of related concepts or even associations, rather than law-like relationships and clearly articulated categories. There aren’t rigid boundaries or separations anywhere. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari’s writing itself is a demonstration of the kind of slippery nomad thought that escapes settled, clearly-defined classifications.

Nonetheless, the association and connection between the historically existing state and modern thought, with its fixation on order, sharply defined categories and law-like generalisations, is extremely important. Deleuze and Guattari are at their most provocative and interesting when they discuss the varieties of nomad thought as a way of highlighting the pervasive dominance of state thinking through counter-posing alternative and equally valid but incompatible forms of thought. These alternatives are best experienced through engagement with their text. To give a brief flavour, though, Nomadology: The War Machine makes a comparison between architect-planned buildings, where as much as possible is ordered and specified before building begins, and the arches of Gothic cathedrals, whose shape emerges as masons shape stones in accordance with tradition and with the quality of stone they encounter. Both are logics that produce buildings, but one is fluid, emergent, quasi-spontaneous and creative while the other is “scientific”, structured and ordered.
Deleuze and Guattari argue that we are fixated with the architect-style scientific techniques and frequently disregard the very possibility of nomad thought. Yet can we conclusively say that modern architecture surpasses that of gothic cathedrals? Through this fixation with modern thought the state comes to govern us in under-acknowledged and arbitrary ways that reduce the potential for human spontaneity, freedom and creativity. Not only does the state govern us through law, policing and the courts; the pervasiveness of state thinking also obscures or excludes the lessons we might learn from curves, surfaces, points, eruptions and difference as opposed to lines, grids, and logical laws and similarities.
Nomad thought may be as much part of what is needed for emancipation as material “lines of flight” or “activation of resistance”. Certainly reading Deleuze and Guattari’s categorisations of the two forms of thought can unsettle, as they are intended to do. Do we really leap into modern (state) ways of thinking because they are inherently superior? Or do we arbitrarily exclude other ways of thinking because we have gradually become comfortable with the state we’re in through accumulated structures of knowledge and power that systematically privilege bureaucratically oriented laws, border and homogenisation in the interest of global social control?
Making Nomadology Concrete: Scott and Peasant Resistance in Southeast Asia
Deuchars uses some of James Scott’s writing to illustrate his claim that the state is something learned and imposed, rather than the product of a natural (and therefore presumably desirable) developmental telos from simple society to complex “state”. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed,75 which Deuchars draws on, might be presented as part of a trilogy of works that are Deleuzian in spirit, if not in epistemology or language.
In Seeing Like a State,76 Scott points to the ways in which bureaucracy, statistics gathering, planning and evaluation techniques are part of what is required for effective “stateness”. He goes on to argue that, whilst these techniques satisfy the internal imperatives of state bureaucracies, their inability to map onto the messy realities of the actual social world frequently mean that development projects springing from the state’s vision are subject to unintended consequences, subversion and failure. A fixation with modern thought is powerful when one looks at state identified regularities but may look more fragile when one looks at the state’s interaction with the more nomadic practices of the developmental periphery.
In a third book, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance,77 Scott identifies some of the kinds of unpredictable and uncontrollable ways by which those at the margins of the state subvert and undermine unwanted programmes of state and elite-orchestrated social and economic “modernisation” (in this case, the arrival of green revolution agriculture in northern Malaysia). Scott uncovers the ways in which the state fails to achieve the kinds of total transformation that it attempts. Scott documents dogged resistance on the part of poor peasants to both new material practices and new ideologies. He shows calculated surface conformity, subverted by uncoordinated acts of resistance, such as petty theft and animal killing. Likewise, the poor never fully accept the rationalisations they are offered by the rich – transformation is seen as inevitable but not legitimate.
However, Scott’s work also emphasises the extent to which nomad’s form of existence and space for lines of flight are continually shaped by elites, something Deuchars also acknowledges. In the end it is clear that Scott’s peasants are fighting a losing battle, or at least that they will be confined to the margins. Reading Deleuze in conjunction with Scott it is difficult to cling to Deuchars’ sense of the proud, subversive, creative independence of nomadism. Is it possible, then, that while the state will never be fully immune from the war machine, the war machine will be confined to ever smaller and less frequent flashes of independence against a background of growing conformity and (self) discipline?

Concluding Questions
The cynical might argue that the modern ways of the state are not just an arbitrary choice but are also more intrinsically powerful – better at shaping, controlling, organising and harnessing human activity towards particular collective ends. For me, the most important part of Deuchars’ argument is the insistence that such “objective” assessments are themselves loaded judgements of the state, based on the state’s modernist criteria. We are programmed to seek and find order, predictability and organisation. We have far better (or perhaps more highly valued) analytical tools for thinking and dealing with the world in the language and vision of the state and so we systematically underestimate and undervalue deviations from our all-pervasive norms. Deuchars’ campaign is to press us to compensate for these deeply seated biases by a more active search for positive, active lines of flight or forms of resistance, to look for alternative possibilities, to seek creative outlets, to see the world differently. Only when we have exhausted that search will we be justified in ruling out such possibilities. The state has taught us to give up before we try. I still need a little convincing that there is as much scope for this kind of thing as Deuchars suggests, but I am at least a little less sure of my ground than I was before I engaged with his work.

Response to Robert Deuchars:
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