New Internationalist

Maoists, militias and mafias

Governments often speak of ‘poverty’ or ‘deprivation’ as among the root causes of terrorism. There is much rhetoric about addressing basic issues, which, it is believed, create fertile terrain for fundamentalists and extremists.

There is a problem for governments in their promises to address poverty and exclusion in their countries, for global market-distributed rewards which make some people billionaires also deprive many more of basic sustenance.

The intervention of governments to ‘lift people out of poverty’ is seriously compromised by the project of globalization; yet they cannot admit their impotence, since what are governments, if not the embodiment of power; sanctified in democracies by the will of the people?

If governments cannot implement that will, they acknowledge their own powerlessness or redundancy. This may be one reason why a shadowy entity called the ‘international community’ has been mobilized, in order to realise the ‘millennium goals’ of poverty reduction. Multilateral efforts diffuse any blame that might otherwise taint governments which undertake this mission locally – that is, within the borders over which they maintain an ostensibly sovereign control.

A pattern of convergence arises in places where outlawed or fundamentalist groups have gained significant popular support. This unites such disparate – and, in theory at least, warring – groups such as Islamic militants, Maoists, drug gangs and other ‘non-state actors’. This suggests such movements are indeed responding at the local level to the failure of governments to respond to impoverishment and unbelonging.

One of the most striking aspects of this has been the tendency for banned groups to set up at least rudimentary healthcare, education and protection, which the State either cannot or will not do.

Hamas was voted to power by the Palestinians because they were perceived as the most likely deliverer of basic services, welfare and protection which a corrupt, Fatah-led Palestinian Authority had been incapable of supplying.

The relative calm of Basra in southern Iraq, compared to the lawless situation in Baghdad and the Sunni areas since the invasion and occupation, is a result of Shia militias creating a measure of security, discipline and social order.

Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has not, as the Israelis claim, placed its weaponry among the civilian population, but lives among them, operating an extensive and dynamic welfare programme for Lebanon’s Shias, who comprise 40 per cent of the population.

The growth of madrasas in Bangladesh has been made easier as a result of the failure of State education services to reach the poor.

Substitute or compensatory structures will always evolve wherever people feel themselves victims of injustice or discrimination: the fact that these take on different forms should not blind us to their common origin.

In Nepal Maoists promised social transformation to the impoverished and neglected countryside; their success, which has involved recourse to arms, has gained them growing power and parity with existing political parties and a role in curbing the power of the monarchy. They are now regarded as lawful negotiating partners in discussions on the future direction and control of Nepal.

Maoists in certain parts of India have sought to follow a similar path. In the early 1980s, Maoists made their appearance in the beautiful but socially desolate area of Dantewada in Chhatisgarh, where the great majority of villages had no basic medical services, and only a handful had government ration-shops, while education existed for most children only on paper.

The slogan of the Maoists 25 years ago was Jal, Jangal Jameen Hamara Hai (Water, Forests and Land Belong to Us), and they organized against corrupt officials, moneylenders and middlemen. They gave the people basic education and medical support. It is no mystery why these areas should have come under their control: people believe in them.

Similarly unwelcome phenomena arise in the very different environment of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sâo Paulo in Brazil. The drug gangs, whose bloody battles are duly chronicled by the global media, actually provide a vigilante justice in places where the police are corrupt and the writ of the state does not run. In some slums the representatives of drug gangs decide who may and may not enter the favela. Religious and educational services have to be approved by the drug-lords, who also offer sports facilities, cheap entertainment, transport and even food to the destitute. They are regarded as ‘benefactors’ by many slumdwellers, who are prepared to tolerate continuous conflict between police and those who have established their fiefdoms, a kind of narco-feudalism which rivals the power of the state.

It seems that all over the world, where governments have retreated from any role in the establishment of social justice – part of the dominant ideology of the Washington consensus – others have rushed into the vacuum. Whether these players are called terrorists, criminal gangs, anti-social elements, insurgents or political extremists scarcely matters. They are merely a symptom of the crisis in global governance; it is only to be expected that the form the resistance takes will vary, according to the circumstances, the nature of the oppression and the form of the destitution, and also upon which groups can command the faith of the people.

The outcast and the humiliated of the world do not always obligingly follow known prescriptions in their revolt against oppression, much to the discomfiture of both mainstream political parties and orthodox Leftists.

They may espouse all kinds of ideologies – from millennial cults, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, ‘Naxalism’, or apocalyptic sects that arise in the heart of Western democracies – as occurred with the self-immolation of adherents of the Solar Temple in Europe, the Waco Siege of the Branch Dravidian in 1993, or the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978; in Africa, Mike Davis, in his Planet of Slums, chronicles the rise of Pentecostal sects and the proliferation of prophets and preachers, and a recurrent belief in sorcery and witchcraft, including the ‘child-witches’ of Kinshasa.

The one thing these movements have in common is that they are responses of despair to the impotence – willed or involuntary – of governments, which do not simply fail to diminish inequality, but actually make a virtue of this, since they are committed to ‘pushing back the frontiers of the state’. This is supposed to give free rein to entrepreneurs, wealth-creators and other makers of fortunes, who, the fable runs, are the most likely alleviators of poverty.

If ever there was a time for greater concerted international intervention in the mitigation of an apparently unstoppable worsening of poverty and injustice, it is now; laissez-faire, as we ought to have learned from the early industrial era in Britain, produces outcomes that are contrary both to civilized values and social peace.

It seems extraordinary that we should wait for instruction in these matters from the drug-lords of Rio, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Maoist fundamentalists; and even more astonishing that an all-powerful ‘international community’ appears paralysed, incapable of a half-adequate response to the disorder its own ideology has engendered.

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