Intervention – “Arendtian Geopolitics after the 2021 UK Defence Review”

Ivana Bevilacqua (King’s College London)

Leila Dawney (University of Exeter)

Jay Emery (University of Sheffield)

Daanish Mustafa (King’s College London)

Julian Shaw (King’s College London)

Matthew Tillotson (Queen Mary University of London)


In a recent open access article on “Arendtian geopolitics” (Tillotson and Mustafa 2021), two of us used Hannah Arendt’s (2009) political theory to argue that geopolitics represents a regime based substantially in “work”. Here work corresponds to the means, ends and physical artifices of statecraft, and those other tools – including tariffs, institutions and laws – used to realise particular geopolitical ends, such as sovereign visions of state security and development.

But work is a big problem for geopolitics because it can only enact the violence that Arendt understood as anti-political. The work of fabricating a durable backdrop for “human affairs” (Arendt 2009) is essential but must nonetheless destroy the matter and people it uses. Geopolitical elites can defer the ethical considerations attending this violence, but only by locating them beyond (geo)politics in regulatory processes or as matters for private reflection (Merat 2019). A recent – March 2021 – UK defence review is a case in point as an exercise in an elite’s geopolitical work, and with immediate implications for the UK’s geopolitical “artifice” (Tillotson and Mustafa 2021: 550): an increase in nuclear warhead stockpiles, new Dreadnought class submarines, and a 5.4% (real terms) increase in the defence budget to £3.1bn (see HM Government 2021). This Intervention considers aspects of the defence review, amongst elements of “the geopolitical” more broadly, to engage with Tillotson and Mustafa’s (2021) discussion of a more democratic, humane, and politicised form of “action” (Arendt 2009) as a basis for another geopolitics that does not only rely on the potentials of work or fabrication.

Aspects of Arendt’s political and intellectual trajectories are troubling. Participation in Arendt’s world is limited and, for instance, she associated gender issues with domestic and private spaces (Frazer 2009; Maslin 2013), a position at odds with feminist geopolitics (Pain 2014). Women are only one example of non-political “unequals” in Arendt (2009: 32) who also include Indigenous and stateless people and refugees (Last 2017: 79; Tillotson and Mustafa 2021: 554) as an exterior to the public, political life of elite men.

Yet Arendt’s political theory offers possibilities to rethink the geopolitical, as Anna Jurkevics (2017) has suggested. Taking cues from Tillotson and Mustafa (2021) we wish therefore to consider the geopolitical as an aspect of the everyday and as something other than (only) an elite’s work. In this sense an Arendtian geopolitics celebrates the possibilities of humans’ plurality and togetherness, although not straightforwardly. Because although action’s potential lies in how it may infuse (geo)politics with “power” in Arendt’s (1970) meaning this amounts to more than the simple repudiation of work as the basis for geopolitics. This is impossible: people must remain engaged with the worlds they live in, not least in their interactions with the durable things and material relations which secure these worlds for democratic life. Still, action’s promise is to predicate a geopolitics, more hopefully, on immaterial things: consent, the possibility of bringing something new to the world and a form of power which “protects politics, is exercised in concert and belongs to a group” (Tillotson and Mustafa 2021: 551; see also Arendt 1970). This is a geopolitics centring humans, focused not on the violence of the state and its geopolitical work but on the incessant critique of this work.

Therefore, thinking with Arendt (Tillotson and Mustafa 2021: 560) politicises geopolitics as we attune ourselves to the speech and deeds which bring something new to the world: the ideas and actions unthinkable from the perspectives of isolated “strength” (Arendt 1970: 44) endured/enjoyed by geopolitical elites. Action articulates a non-sovereign geopolitics as a critique of work’s material excesses, the defence review’s subs and warheads, and which also characterise 2021’s regular drip feed of big geopolitical stories besides the defence review.

These are stories which, further, underline the geopolitical’s reach into everyday and domestic life (Brickell 2012; Pain 2014). The UK’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” corresponds, for instance, as much to post-Brexit commercial anxieties as to any strategic reorientation (see Roy-Chaudhury 2021). But for each manufacturing job at Rolls-Royce in Derby or at BAE Systems in Barrow that the work of the AUKUS submarine deal sustains (see Lodge 2021), we are reminded that the “tilt” only extends the extraterritorial, imperialistic logics which have, for example, deprived Chagossians of their own durable place in the world – a home – since the 1960s (see Pilger 2019). And if a “tilt” towards the Pacific is a tilt against China it is also one away from Afghanistan, a space into which Chinese power may now spread against the “West” and India. Geopolitics, in the Arendtian meaning developed here, does not end with sovereign decisions and elite narratives on power and space. Instead, this geopolitics is about the publics which coalesce as alternative forms of geopolitical agency organised around the possibility of realising justice, politically, through action. In the rest of the intervention we will work through only some of the geopolitical possibilities supported by Arendtian ideas: armed forces recruitment in the UK, the guilt which may follow from forms of geopolitical work, a particular paradox of sovereign violence and its relationships to settler colonial infrastructures, and the public objects around which the affinities and alliances of non-sovereign geopolitics might crystallise through action and the reclamation of work.


Tillotson and Mustafa (2021) fail to include two significant Arendtian concepts in their article: “earth alienation” and “world alienation”. The “implements” of geopolitical work are emblematic of earth alienation and, in Arendt’s (2009: 251) gendered language, “[put] a decisive distance between man and earth, … alienating ‘man’ from his immediate earthly surroundings”. A drone strike, for instance, may be controlled at a distance of 3,000 miles by an operator in Lincolnshire but the long distance technological ability to project power and perpetrate violence is manifested most starkly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. Alliances with “frenemies” like military and pseudo-military regimes in Pakistan allow drone warfare to visit unannounced destruction upon wedding parties, funerals or even unremarkable households which might be suspected of hosting undesirable guests. After all, the Pakistani military condoned and even facilitated drone attacks on its own population in the borderlands while publicly condemning them (Nawaz 2011). The long-range and supposedly dehumanised capabilities of drone warfare in fact reproduce relations of compliance and cooperation in the war on terror.

But beyond these relations, and earth alienation, any view exercised over a technologised geopolitical landscape of drones, robots and “inexhaustible lasers” (The Guardian 2020) may lose sight of the bodies identified as “forces”, “terrorists”, “revolutionaries”, “insurgents” and “boots on the ground”. And so it is Arendt’s (2009: 254-255) notion of “world alienation” – “the deprivation for certain groups of their place in the world and their naked exposure to the exigencies of life” – which shows how geopolitical elites continually sell idealised forms of geopolitical work to groups who are not only dispossessed by this work but who are also called upon to enact it. So, let’s consider “opportunities” offered to young people in the UK as an outgrowth of the politics of austerity.

World alienation relates to capitalism’s insidious tendency to disembed subjects from the world – not the material realm itself but what people do with it (Last 2017) – and is formative of Arendt’s (2009) “worldlessness”, as typified by economic marginalisation and political disenfranchisement. Facing this, people seek worldliness in the apparently meaningful work sanctioned by geopolitical elites and which involves frequent idealisations of belonging, teamwork and self-improvement, and the advocacy a military “ethos” (Basham 2016), as antidotes to alienation and isolation. The Royal Navy, for instance, runs a series of advertisements depicting the alienation of working-class young people who, as naval recruits, find the redemption of worldliness. The adverts unwittingly invoke Arendt’s (2009) language of work and fabrication. The recruits, born in supposedly hollowed-out places like Blyth and Carlisle in northern England are ultimately the products “Made in the Royal Navy” (see Altogether more knowingly, the advertisements are sure to obscure the geopolitical violence associated with recruitment into the armed forces, whether resulting in combat wounds or, later, PTSD, homelessness and addiction (see Carter 2021).

Similarly, the British Army has run a recruitment campaign using the tagline “This is Belonging” – its advertising agency suggesting increasing recruitment was “a positive sign that more young people are seeing the Army as somewhere they want to, and believe they can, belong” (see World alienation’s existing conditions certainly seem a prerequisite for these recruitment campaigns’ effectiveness. They are grounded in local histories of economic change and deindustrialisation which precipitate senses of alienation (Emery 2020) as well as post-2010 cuts to education and training budgets. Restorative iconographies of togetherness suffuse these adverts, facsimiles of Arendt’s (2009) meaningful life of action, togetherness and plurality, and remedies to world alienation. But they also illustrate a fundamental contradiction within UK military recruitment: routes out of lifeworlds ordered by class inequalities are secured by work that reproduces the selfsame depredations. The worldliness afforded to the recruit is nebulous; the expression of membership in the nation-state afforded by a military life comes at the mental, physical and social costs noted above. Arendt (2009) noted the triumph of the labourer in the modern age – in terms of its preponderance or proliferation rather than ultimate victory – and so we would propose that to be “Made in the Royal Navy” is to swap membership in one unsatisfactory apolitical realm for another constituted by the activity that supposedly elevates recruits’ membership in the nation-state through a new-found productivity and discipline.


An ethically complex contradiction appears to be at work. If the armed forces offer a means to realise a post-industrial worldliness then, as the forces shrink, fewer and fewer will be able to attain it. This is fine, desirable even, to an extremely limited extent: a young person looking for work in the north-east of England has been better off enlisting in the Navy than looking for the opportunities to build its ships for at least 15 years, though likely far longer, since Swan Hunter sold its shipyards and demolished its fixed capital to focus on ship design.

And maybe it’s better to have no military personnel at all. The 2021 defence review set out plans to reduce the size of the British Army to 72,500 (the actual figure in January 2021 was 76,350; MoD 2021). The geopolitical future of “defence” will be earth-alienated through an increased focus on “R&D’”and manufacturing. Arendt (2017: 163) herself discussed imperialism’s reproduction of industrial production and economic transactions beyond the national scale, but here we can turn to consider connections between geopolitics and capital accumulation in terms of the tools of geopolitics and those who use and make them.

The UK arms industry is a nostalgic vestige of an industrial world: relative stability, decent wages, ostensible purpose. In 2019 its exports amounted to £11bn, even after sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia that might be used in Yemen were stopped (Sabbagh 2020). The industry’s work predicates capital accumulation upon prospects for geopolitical violence and involves a significant element of routine coercion as the geopolitical extends its reach into the spaces of livelihoods and homes.

The band NOFX once suggested as much in “The Irrationality of Rationality”:

Dan, the company man, felt loyalty to the corp

After 16 years of service, and a family to support

He actually started to believe the weaponry and chemicals were for national defense

Cause Danny had a mortgage and a boss to answer to

The guilty don’t feel guilty, they learn not to.

“Dan” points towards ethics deferred, absent political subjectivity and justifications of violence distinct from legitimate violence (Arendt 1970). It is worth remembering that, for Arendt (1970: 56), if not necessarily punk rock, violence is never political (see also Arendt 2009). Moreover, what distinguishes legitimacy from justification is its basis in power as meant by Arendt (1970: 38). In this sense legitimacy springs up when people act “in concert” (Arendt 1970: 52) to advance politics through their togetherness, action and plurality – crucial categories within Arendt’s (2009) political theory which do not depend upon power’s orthodox geopolitical association with violence.

Needless to say, “Dan” is not powerful: his compliance and loyalty are functions of his isolation. Like Eichmann (Arendt 2006), his response is to assume the status of a cog in a machine. Work requires this of all of us. And so, whether we choose to defer the ethical questions associated with destructions of people, matter and place through geopolitical work in solitude or amongst the comforts of an apparently non-political, domestic sphere, we assume a semi-cognisant worldlessness to outstrip the guilt.

A Sovereign Paradox

As noted above, Arendt (1970: 65) argues that although prominent thinkers (Fanon, Sartre, Sorel) defend “violence for violence’s sake”, violence is only permissible through an instrumental justification. It must be mediated by a further political goal (Arendt 1970, 2006, 2009). Because this legitimate political goal should be disclosed by speech, violence is mute. Arendt (2006) admits that political origins are necessarily violent but that this violence is legitimate when it opens the possibility of something new. Beginnings hold the source of power.

However, in opposing the “positive and creative” violence (Fanon 1963: 93) of the colonised, and by allowing for the destructive violence of the oppressed, Arendt deploys a liberal articulation of power that conceives of the nation-state as the sovereign entity solely entitled to wage violence. She also reproduces an Aristotelian exclusion of the speechless “other” (the colonised; the “native”; the undocumented; the traveller) from the political sphere of the human “Man” (sic) (Arendt 2009: 229-230), i.e. coloniser, settler citizen and resident. On these premises a paradox of sovereignty is founded: those who kill in uniform are rewarded with medals; those who do so in civvies are punished. We can consider this in terms of the work and material excess of a sovereign geopolitics in contexts beyond the UK’s defence review.

This paradox is particularly evident in Israel/Palestine, where the lines of warfare are so blurred that the spheres of everyday life have increasingly been turned into a battlefield, the compression of the geopolitical into the everyday seeming at its most profound. This means that the power asymmetries between the two sides should certainly be assessed according to economic, military, and political capabilities, but that the violence of settler colonialism also holds an infrastructural dimension consonant with the material excesses of sovereignty Arendt recognised (Tillotson and Mustafa 2021: 551). So, by focusing on the work of infrastructure creation we might recognise again how the everyday, in all of its mundane and “private” dimensions, is structured by geopolitical work and violence.

Notably, over the past two decades, the Israeli state’s securitisation of “critical infrastructure” has led to the increasing criminalisation of indigenous resistance. The material relations Arendt mistrusted (Last 2017; Tillotson and Mustafa 2021) are critical within articulations of geopolitical violence against indigenous bodies: border, energy, water, policing and transport systems express sovereignty’s violence through precisely the (same) durable forms which secure settler bodies. From demonstrations challenging Israeli police violence in the area around Road 65 in Umm al Fahem to forms of civil disobedience such as the illegal connection to facilities like water and electricity in unrecognised villages, Palestinian counter-sovereignty has faced state repression from a position of “illegitimacy”. It still seems paradoxical that those who in the short-term stand in opposition to long-term processes of colonialism have been accused, and condemned, as “violent”, while slower and systemic forms of violence are of marginal interest and portrayed as natural or rational (Nixon 2011).

Public Objects (and Another Geopolitics)

What are the possibilities of Arendtian geopolitics? One answer lies in how it might shift the framing of the geopolitical away from states’ violent work, towards the production of durable worlds at local, international and global scales. Tillotson and Mustafa’s (2021) reading of Arendt’s concept of work is as a utopian activity, unashamedly modern and progress-oriented, and characterised by its evisceration of public questions of ethics (as illustrated through the economised work of the DSEI arms fair). By looking for a brake on this work in action, Tillotson and Mustafa do not ignore the necessity of work, and besides supporting state and corporate violence, work is also essential for the collective generation of democratic and just worlds as an aspect of another geopolitics.

This corresponds to more than merely interrupting the silent violence of work through the insertion of ethical performance. What is understood as geopolitical work can be expanded as something which enables and is underpinned by action. The task is to claim work and action together; to build durable worlds that push back against the borders, edifices and camps that, in modernist and totalitarian logics, subsume and occlude political action. This expansion of geopolitical work is essential in a world where multiple crises challenge the modernist logics at the heart of military industrial machines, where a global pandemic has laid bare the fragility of social and reproductive infrastructures – though also the intensity of underlying capacities for mutual aid and care – and where protectionist and nationalist policies generate new and diffuse vulnerabilities.

Work, in Arendt’s (2009) writing, corresponds to the human fabrication of durable artifices. They give shape, durability and structure to collective life and place materiality centrally within her understanding of world making, despite the human still bearing an exceptional power (Bennett 2010: 34). So, objects in common provide the basis for a collective democratic life (Honig 2017). As Arendt (2009: 52) notes:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men [sic] at the same time. The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other.

Concomitantly, the removal of public objects and of collectively fabricated worlds, like the infrastructures considered earlier, leads to the loss of what enables people to relate to each other as publics. Although mutual aid organisations may have supported and embodied horizontal forms of action in a pandemic, an important response to elite failings has been a retreat into private domains to take care of objects inside our homes rather than in public. A sense of who we are as a collective is lost. So, for Arendt it is the human creation of durable and stable structures (worlds) that enable, legitimise and give authority to democratic life. This durability is essential, for public objects must “transcend the life-span of mortal men” (Arendt 2009: 55)this is the condition of the public realm: the condition of the world. A sense of a world in common relies on our understanding that it will persist beyond our own lives and this is productive action generated not only by elites, but also by citizens, activists and publics.

A focus on collective world-making can bring a geopolitical gaze towards the ways new geopolitical alliances and affinities can be generated from below. Once again the geopolitical demonstrates its tendency to leach into everyday life: geopolitical worlds are made in public spaces with public objects like (in)formal war memorials; the empty plinth that housed Colston’s statue, toppled during the BLM protests in Bristol; the preservation of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima as a memorial site; Gezi Park and Tahrir Square; the physical remains of the Berlin Wall; the longevity of transnational citizenship movements such as Médecins sans frontières; the proliferation of community-run libraries that preserve the idea of the public good but reform it in a way that protects it from state erosion and permanent closure. These durable objects generate, unmake, and remake publics, demonstrating how work, as geopolitical world making, and action, as the interruption of established orders, can be thought about more broadly, less violently, and at many different scales. Precisely how these things endure, how their meaning shifts as political climates change, and how they are subject to publics’ renegotiations (such as the regularly renamed and remade “Independence Square” in Kyiv) is an important question for future geopolitics research.


So, what does Arendt bring to a survey of contemporary geopolitics? While we have focused on themes raised in the defence review, we have also pointed to the varied material artifices which make certain bodies (recruits, settlers) secure at the expense of others (the indigenous, the un-uniformed, etc). So an Arendtian geopolitics offers a space – a public space at that –from which to offer perspectives on the misuses of material involved in the work of bordering, infrastructure, defence and so on, to subject these artifices to ethical scrutiny, and to realise a properly political, collective, power as people come together to form new non-sovereign publics against the isolated strength of state elites.

Still, why Arendt? As Tillotson and Mustafa (2021) point out, feminist geopolitics – not to mention 50 years of feminist thought in the broader social sciences – have made Arendt’s distinction between public and private untenable. And why should contemporary geopolitics draw on social-phobic cold warrior and an all-too-humanist champion of artifice and anthropocentric worlding in a discipline where the human has been so thoroughly decentred and critiqued? Here again, we might reiterate Tillotson and Mustafa’s (2021: 560) suggestion to only think with Arendt: she offers geopolitics a way to unapologetically centre humans, crucial to the extent that material relations can bring people together rather than only blow them apart.

Arendt’s thought helps us understand how geopolitical work pervades lifeworlds, whether those of the naval recruit, the drone operator or weapons engineer. It barely needs saying that the same is true for the dehumanised victims of drone warfare, although in their cases “lifeworlds” obscure geopolitical work’s incessant fabrication of deathworlds. Uncovering the geopolitical’s reach in these ways is not a novel contribution. But Arendt helps us understand how geopolitical work proceeds precisely in a process of deferring ethical questions as we each privately justify our involvement in geopolitical violence. In this sense, NOFX’s “Dan” is hardly different to the university lecturer whose pension contributions have been invested in weapons manufacturing (see ShareAction 2020).

To close, we refer again to Afghanistan where, 20 years ago, the racialised and romanticised bodies of Pashtun “noble savages” were Talibanised and eliminated. In recent months they have reappeared on television screens as savage, misogynistic victors whose resurgence is thoroughly entangled with the “West’s” failed geopolitical work. For many Afghans the time has come to run from the worldlessness the Taliban’s resurgence promises; the forms of earth-alienated geopolitical work the “West” now appears to favour offered them no hope. The recent unveiling of yet more RAF drones, this time “Protectors”, is indicative (see The Lincolnite 2021). The UK’s geopolitical work, it seems, is now more clearly predicated than ever before on “defence’s” conflation with the remotely-enacted extra-judicial murder of foreign citizens. So, when we welcome Afghans to British shores we might remember that our support for and solidarity with them might also extend to the ongoing criticism of a geopolitical artifice (of drones, nukes and submarines) itself and the ends these durable things are intended to secure.


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