A newer kind of violence
Human beings, like most other species, can be violent when faced with a threat that could hurt or even kill. The instinct of self-defence is common to all animals. However, human beings are the only species that kill one another not only in self-defence but also for gain or advantage. There is a long human history of war and strife on a macro scale, as well as more intense violence by an individual through murder, torture or rape.
- Published 17.08.18
Human beings, like most other species, can be violent when faced with a threat that could hurt or even kill. The instinct of self-defence is common to all animals. However, human beings are the only species that kill one another not only in self-defence but also for gain or advantage. There is a long human history of war and strife on a macro scale, as well as more intense violence by an individual through murder, torture or rape. As human beings have experienced a long phase of cooperative social living and collective thinking, forms of arbitrary violence have come down through better awareness of moral behaviour, and through the enforcement of laws and restrictions imposed by society. One would have expected that this trend would make violence disappear from everyday life barring some extreme episodes of pathological anger. That is unfortunately not so. Violence sponsored by the State has remained in various forms, including organized wars, as has individual violence perpetrated for gain or revenge.
Violence has been germane to social change and development. Major changes and revolutionary restructuring of society and economy have always produced winners and losers. Consider the arrival of modern industrial society. The decline of the feudal order in Western Europe and the growth of industrial townships came at enormous human costs. Then the spread of capitalism had its own form of violence in establishing colonial domination over large tracts of the world. Lives were lost, families were broken up, whole tribes were annihilated and the wrath of the imperial State in the event of anything standing in the way of economic gains was phenomenally severe.
Violence is not always about physically injuring and killing. Violence can be systemic when the rules of the game in society allow deprivation, insults, dispossession and exclusion from benefits. Ethicists make a distinction between 'killing' and 'letting die'. The means are not exactly the same, yet the ultimate consequence is death. More often than not, the latter can be painful and prolonged. Economic development has obvious winners and many who lose out in violent upheavals. However, the modern State has made the phenomenon of 'letting die' acceptable as a sort of inevitable collateral damage. The State tries to portray the deprived and vulnerable, those who are exposed to all sorts of risks and uncertainties, as objects of our sympathy and concern. The modern State usually takes (terribly inadequate) measures to alleviate their suffering. There are fancy names for these programmes like development projects and plans. These ultimately serve to legitimize the built-in violence within the economic system. The discerning citizen often feels relieved when the poverty measures go down, even if by just a wee bit, that too often as a result of statistical manipulation.
Actually no development can take place without a degree of coercion because some resources would be needed and some livelihoods destroyed. Take the famous example of large dams the world over. When large factories and townships are built, hordes of poor people are displaced and dispossessed. This happens more frequently than we are told by the media. Mechanization and technological disruptions also hurt people and take away their jobs and skills. International trade is another channel through which people get ousted from a stable life and employment. As land and livelihoods are lost for many, new jobs are created for a few. The newly dispossessed survive on a subsistence living somehow, or through some largesse dished out by the State that is inadequate and serve to restrict social and physical mobility. People become bonded labourers of government support. Local corruption and fiscal austerity at the micro and the macro level respectively can take away the assurance of keeping body and soul together any day. Usually, the people hurt by developmental violence are universally the same - the already poor, who become poorer, and women and children. When major disruptions take place through development the menfolk often migrate to some new opportunity. These trends were observable even during the best days of post-war economic development - from 1950 to around 1975.
Then global capitalism changed dramatically and entered an era which some sociologists describe as a 'liquid' phase of modernity. The older solid emblems of development - the State, the military and large industries are no longer capable of controlling the territoriality of their jurisdiction. Financial capital has become astonishingly mobile and employment has become transient in fast-changing labour markets. The world economy has become global but governance and politics remain local or national. The nation state has much less control over what happens in its economy - fiscal policies are determined by risk rating agencies and monetary policy by foreign institutional investors. Entire industries moved around the world and even some Western economies faced a dose of de-industrialization and painful financial crisis. The model of development can now no longer be considered to be Western, characterized by the material growth and consumption standards set in the mature market economies. In this world of volatile and unpredictable changes, people have become more and more isolated with old orders breaking down and new ones not emerging. The only thing of permanent value is the continuous celebration of material consumption - a surreal world of advertisements, of virtual reality and of images of the good life that only a very few can hope to attain. Everything else is impermanent - social bonds, individual relationships and community values.
It is in this complex world of ambiguity and uncertainty, where no one has an understanding of where the world is heading to, that people yearn for the past - a possibility of going back to some indefinite moment of history where presumably things were more 'solid' and predictable. Donald Trump talks about making the United States of America great again. Perhaps he wants to go back to the days when the mafia ruled the streets of the big cities, or Vladimir Putin wants to go back to the pre-Lenin days - perhaps to a world of Tsarist splendour. India wants to rediscover a Ram rajya where everything would be orderly and with the best of knowledge of science and technology. Israel wants to back 2,000 years to build the long awaited Third Temple that was supposed to have been delivered from heaven.
Two things are happening in the world of 'liquid' modernity. First of all, since change has become faster, more disruptive and unpredictable, the violence of displacement and dispossession, of sudden redundancy has become more severe than ever before. It is not only affecting the poor, it is increasingly affecting the rapidly shrinking middle class too. The second thing happening is that a new kind of nationalism is emerging. It calls for the creation of a shared identity that would take everybody 'back to the future'. In this quest for identity everyone is required to fall in line with the majoritarian image of the patriotic citizen. The shaping of new citizens is being done with a large dose of direct force and violence where the State, political society and even civil society organizations are participating explicitly. Coercion, physical violence, killings and the threat of taking away one's nationality are all becoming increasingly frequent. A person without a state faces the ultimate exclusion. Such a person becomes a zombie - a living dead who ceases to count. The number of 'useless' people are growing by the day as global wealth swells. In this contradiction between the global and the local something is bound to snap. What and when is hard to tell. One only hopes that it does not turn out to be more violent than anything the world has seen so far.
The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta