Paper: Urbanization of Drone Warfare

Ian Shaw has an interesting new piece out on the urbanization of drone warfare, available here.

While drones are now routinely used as military technologies in the so-called peripheral spaces of the planet – Pakistan’s tribal areas, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the occupied Palestinian territories – the urbanized, capital-intensive metropolises of the Global North are increasingly becoming targets of drone surveillance.


The first decade of the war on terror saw US military and CIA drones concentrated to the mountainous and remote geographies of Pakistan (Shaw and Akhter, 2012), and later Yemen and Somalia. In recent years, however, drones in and beyond the USA have been trialed by police forces as part of a revanchist military urbanism (Graham, 2010). Gre- gory (2011), for example, discusses the existence of the everywhere war, and writes that “war has become the pervasive matrix within which social life is constituted.” Yet perhaps we need to reverse this formulation, such that it is social life that is – and always has been – the pervasive matrix in which war is constituted. The political and geopolitical crises endemic to the surplus population collapse both “war power” and “police power” in contrapuntal geographies, such that Neocleous’ (2014:162) notion of the everywhere police is a productive analytic for diagnosing our contemporary condition. Under this understanding, social problems are always-already militarized, and domestic space is always-already a battlespace. For example, the long history of aerial policing and pacification of “restive” populations (Satia, 2014) is inseparable from colonial and capital expansion.

Yet the contemporary management of surplus populations may yet prove a decisive break from the past. This paper will argue that drones, and micro-drones in particular, are generative of newer, more pervasive spaces of social control. The dronification of state violence not only embodies the ongoing robotization of state security but also materializes the logic of a permanent urban manhunt. Moreover, as the sheer volume of surplus humanity increases, the state is turning towards automated and algorithmic systems to manage them (Amoore, 2009). This, in turn, removes human administrators from the loop. In other words, a quantitative rise in surplus populations is facilitating a qualitative change in the biopolitical systems deployed by the state to manage them (Shaw and Akhter, 2014). The passage from a (Keynesian) welfare state to a (neoliberal) security state (Hallsworth and Lea, 2011) has created more capital-intensive forms of warfare and policing. This includes an armada of security apparatuses, from biometrics and CCTV to “pre-emptive” or “predictive” policing in forces such as the Los Angeles Police Department or the Metropolitan Police in the UK. And we can now can add the drone to this form of everywhere policing, which materializes a newset of technics for an older social war between capital accumulation and labor.

While Shaw points to rich questions about the transformation of policing in urban spaces through drone-tech, the conceptualization of the stark binary between the “remote” over there that is Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq (all sites of drone bombing), and the urban over here – as the site of the ‘decisive break from the past’ – is troubling. It recalls to mind Alexander Weheliye’s critique of Agamben and Foucault:

Overall, a thick historical relation defines the rise of modern concentration camps in colonial contexts and their subsequent reconstitution as industrialized killing machines in Europe during the Third Reich. Agamben briefly mentions the colonial prehistory of concentration camps, however, only to argue that the camps’ true telic significance becomes apparent when they are annexed into the legal state of exception during the Third Reich (Habeas Viscus 2014: 36).


Yet despite locating the naissance of modern racism in “colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide” (Society, 257), for Foucault, in a reversal of colonial modernity’s teleology that locates the temporal origin of all things in the west, racism only attains relevance once it penetrates the borders of fortress Europe. Even though the originating leap of racism can be found in the colonized “rest,” only its biopolitical rearticulation in the west imbues it with the magical aura of conceptual value. Because Foucault does not describe this ailleurs or even mention it again in the text, it materializes as a primitive topography, operating as a constitutive outside for his theory of biopolitics throughout these lectures. In logic, primitive terms or notions, also referred to as axioms or postulates, name instantly understandable terms that are used without elucidating their signification. The meanings of all other concepts in a logical system are determined by these primitive terms and by previously established expressions. Over the course of his argument about the genesis of biopolitics in the lectures, Foucault will continue to distinguish European state racism and biopolitics from those primeval forms of racism that linger in the aforementioned philosophical, geographical, and political quicksands of an unspecified elsewhere; at least, this is what we are asked to infer as a consequence of Foucault’s taciturnity about the reach and afterlife of those other modalities of racialization (pp. 57-58).

This attempt to, in some sense, get out ahead of the curve and sweepingly suggest that the current practices of drone warfare are merely a prehistory to the decisive moment when it will come to the heart of the West, to its intimate, peopled urban spaces, rehearses the move that Weheliye critiques. It may also be more productive to think of drone warfare as a relational practice (to borrow again from Weheliye) in which the urban space that may come to be drone-policed is intimately connected to colonial drone warfare — and therefore so must be resistance to it.

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