New Internationalist

Silent Violence

Issue 136

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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] The brutality of inequality

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Silent violence
Violence is not just the province of the soldier or the terrorist.
It is built into the structure of a society that leaves people starving
or poor. Rip Bulkeley tells us why we are all responsible.

The rich white man, with his over-consumption of meat and his lack of generosity for poor people, behaves like a veritable cannibal - an indirect cannibal. By consuming meat, which wastes the grain that could have saved them, last year we ate the children of the Sahel, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. And we continue to eat them this year with undiminished appetite.

RENE DUMONT, 1974

PEOPLE in my part of the world, the rich part, are fond of a game called ‘It’s Not Me’. Anyone can play. You get a few people together, pay a little concerned attention to some aspect of the mass deprivation and oppression which disfigure our world society, and then, all together or one at a time, you make your moves: ‘It’s Not Me - it’s the bosses, it’s militarism, it’s the structure, it’s the unions, it’s the crisis of capitalism, so it obviously can’t be me. And if you expect me to feel guilty, you’re just descending to a really childish intellectual level, that’s what.’

But bluster as we may, the truth in Dumont’s words just keeps on making itself felt. He puts a much needed boot info clever talk about ‘the system’ and pale abstractions like ‘inequality’. He reminds us that the way some of us live and many of us fail to live on this planet nowadays is not natural, necessary, legitimate nor peaceful.

Understandably, but not forgiveably, some people actively want to keep things as they are, because no matter how badly the world economy functions it does still benefit them. They would like to restrict the use of words like ‘violence’ and ‘terrorism’ only to actions which try to disrupt or overthrow oppression, rather than those which maintain it. By looking carefully only at their own immediate circumstances, in which they seldom have to break any rules or heads, they can manage to pretend their lives are peaceful and innocent. They allow the superficial complexity of the world economy, the distances across which commodities are moved and the many stages through which they are processed, to prevent them seeing the child’s face on the joint of beef in their supermarket freezer.

But the reasons to condemn the crushing exploitation of the weak and the poor in all countries as violence, plain and simple, are overwhelming. First, since it has never been accepted by its victims except under duress, it needs the actual use of force against those who step out of line to sustain it. These outrages can be legal and official, such as the prosecution and penalisation of crimes against property and other privileges of the ‘haves’, or imprisonment for debt, or state-run wars against whole sectors of ‘their’ populations. They can be private and ‘spontaneous’, like the slaughter of indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin by thugs hired by land-hungry businessmen. Or there is the communal riot, or pogrom, in which some relatively more privileged group sets about the destruction of a weaker one, be it the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the Chinese in Vietnam.

Second, the violent exercise of force is not its commonest or most efficient form. The function of such outbreaks is to mount a constant threat to the victims of systematic oppression. This is to prevent them even trying to resist the crushing burdens of such normal’ and ‘peaceful’ institutions as interest, profit, taxation, wage differentials, monopolies, commercial secrecy, and anti-union laws. It is, in short, ‘terrorism’ - Without it, things could not go on as they do for another week.

Next, the effects of oppression are just the same as those of ‘normal’ violence. The total dead in all wars since 1945 in which at least 1,000 were killed is roughly 16 million. Even if we double that to allow for all victims of ‘fatal quarrels’ of any size, it would still be less than the 33 million who die before reaching their first birthday in just three years.

Nearly half of us human beings (2 billion) have no reliable source of safe water. 15 million of us, of working age, die each year from avoidable disease and starvation. 450 million of us are hungry; 250 million of our children have had no education. But the richest 20 per cent have 45 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent and in government spending they are over 80 times better off for education and 200 times for health, besides what they buy ‘privately’ for themselves.

There is no need, in this magazine, to prolong these obscene statistics. The moral question which they shout out is very simple. Is there any real difference between active germ warfare using diseases prepared and stored in laboratories and germ warfare by omission and neglect which does not just threaten but already actually slaughters millions of us every year. Any real difference, between the swift and noisy violence of Armalite, napalm and Kalashnikov and the creeping, impersonal, ‘scorched earth’ butchery of crop dumping and the international banking system?

Fourth, as with ‘real’ violence, the unjust carnage of inequality uses random features of some of us to identify them as objects for hatred, oppression and, inevitably, fear. Such harmless aspects of babies as the colour of their skin, hair or eyes, their sexual gender or the shape of heads or noses are still widely used for this cruel selection. It’ such physical labels are not clear enough, then basic and involuntary social labels, like accent, family, language, nationality, or religious grouping are employed instead.

The truth is that after 500 years of promising, capitalism has never yet delivered the general opulence’ proclaimed by its most famous prophet, Adam Smith (NI 133 and 134). Instead, it has always depended on the same old slavery from which it sprang and on the violence that all slavery requires.

The old type of direct chattel slavery is now rare, because life-long ownership of slaves tends to involve the exploiters in various inefficient ‘costs’. It has been replaced with a variety of ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ arrangements for the superexploitation of terrorised labour during people’s most productive years only. Usually these involve some form of seasonal or long-term migration between places of profiteering employment and subsistence ‘dumping grounds’, where ‘labour’ is left to meet the costs of its own reproduction and where used-up people can be thrown back to rot.

Such systems include, for example, the bonded labour of landless rural poor in India, contracted migrants in South African mines, and the young peasant girls sweated for a dollar a day and locked in at night in Bangkok textile factories. Then there are their sisters throughout the ‘free trade zones’ of Asia and America, paid less than half the adult male wage for a sixty-hour week and often dismissed in their early twenties to avoid the ‘problems’ their maturity could cause their exploiters. To which we should add the ‘black economy’ everywhere, above all when it uses ‘illegal’ labour as in the western United States. Nor should we forget the vast systems of forced labour, either in conscript armies or in penal systems. By these means giant projects have been and continue to be built, especially in the so-called ‘socialist’ regions where capitalism has become largely a collective, state-run set-up.

Small wonder if the ‘haves’ who may be reading, as well as writing, these pages often feel the burden of passive and ‘private’ remorse and guilt. The invisible pain and blood of millions upon millions of people seems to have been mixed like a sacrificial mortar into the fabric of our everyday lives, and we have no more chance of washing it out than Lady Macbeth. But there is no moral use in this self-indulgence. Most of the people to whom restitution is owed have already died, many of them long ago. And it is impossible for any individual in one of the privileged parts of the world to live without violence to others. (If you doubt this, try to spend a week following the First Rule of Structural Nonviolence: do not buy or use any goods unless all labour down the hidden ‘wages chain’ inside them was paid at the local average for your own part of the world. That cuts out the bus and the bicycle, let alone the car, the phone, the post, the papers and television. Now work out what it does to your food.)

Of course, it is not only the victims who are damaged by oppression. The cannibal ‘haves’ devour not just other people but also their own humanity and happiness. But there are ways in which even they can join the struggle to end the global violence.

First, they - or to put it more personally, vie can face the truth about our world society, refusing the false comforts of parochialism, the frictions of nationality and the prejudices of hatred and mistrust. We can insist on seeing the world economy as the real people’s lives and deaths that make it up, instead of through the myths of monetary measurements. We can resist the degradation and impoverishment of our own lives by building our personal human knowledge of and respect for the poor in all countries, beginning with our own. We can recognise that people sometimes have to choose between alternative situations or courses of action, each of which is violent to some degree.

Next, we can try to be part of the solution instead of the problem by joining in the struggles of the poor against exploitation and oppression. These struggles can be found everywhere, and not just ‘far away’. We can demand an immediate end to local production and export of the hardware and ‘skills’ for oppression. We can refuse to work for or buy from the most flagrant private or state organisations which supervise or profit from the super-exploitation of weaker members of our world society.

Above all, we can reach out to and join with others, on a local and where possible a global scale, teaching and learning, changing and being changed as we do so. We can accept the personal costs and moral dilemmas of political commitment. and stop hoping for any private pathway out of the maze of violence in which every person on earth has been trapped for so long. We can realise that there is no simple or swift solution, no matter how urgently one is needed. But we can also help each other to reject those greedy and powerful voices trying to persuade us that the task is impossible and should not be attempted or that cosmetic tinkering on the lines of the cowardly Brandt Report, is all we can hope for.

We can face up to the hardest fact of all, the fact that we are not powerless against these evils, and there is plenty that each of us can and should be doing about them, now.

Rip Bulkeley is a fledging peace researcher, formerly at Bradford University’s School
of Peace Studies, who is now working on current U S. strategy at Kings College, London.


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