Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Harry Targ

Establishing causal connections between “variables” and violence is a form of mystification. The reality of this world is that of grotesque inequalities in wealth, power, respect for humankind and the environment, a world awash in instrumentalities of death, and a global culture that celebrates it. Recent reports from the World Bank and the World Economic Forum (of all places) document the continuing and growing inequalities in wealth and income on a worldwide basis. Could it be a surprise that seemingly indiscriminate acts of violence occur all across the globe? Only a humane global movement for fundamental change can radically transform the world we live in but movements of protest can make constructive changes along the way (Harry Targ, Facebook, April 23, 2013).

Each violent tragedy in the United States brings an outpouring of wrenching and “expert” analyses of what was behind the acts that led to so much pain and suffering. Most of the soul-searching about tragedies from Arizona, to Colorado, to Connecticut, to Boston is about domestic events (the repeated killings of Iraqis, Afghan peoples, Pakistanis, Yemenis and others generate much less empathy). Explanations usually involve deranged “others,” usually poor “others,” “others” of color, and “others with fundamentalist religious beliefs.” Their crimes are described as perpetrated against victims who are the “normal” people. Make no mistake about it, violence against any individuals, communities, and nations must be opposed, even among those, who in the end are the root cause of it. But we need to be clear about the economic, social, political, cultural and military/police context in which violence occurs. And, in no small measure, violence itself is celebrated in the societies where it is most prevalent.

Peace researchers have written about “direct,” “cultural,” and “structural” violence for years. While each of these is seen as having its own characteristics and causes for the most part analysts regard the three as inextricably interconnected. Direct violence refers to physical assault, shooting, bombing, gassing, and torture. It is about killing people.  Cultural violence refers to dominant cultures whose apparatuses, such as the media and laws,  portray their own institutions and values as superior to others and rituals that seek to honor the violence engaged in by one’s own country or group while demeaning other countries or groups. What is most vicious about cultural violence is its effort to make the victimized groups hate themselves.

Structural violence occurs when economic, political, cultural and military institutions create relationships in which some human beings gain disproportionately from the labor, the talents, and the pain and suffering of others. Structural violence is institutionalized violence most often organized around class exploitation, racism, and patterns of gendered forms of domination and subordination.  The key concepts that shape efforts to understand the causes and effects of structural violence are class, race, and gender.

Ironically reports issued this year, between the Newtown and Boston massacres, by the World Bank and the World Economic Forum tell us much about the fundamentals of structural violence on a worldwide basis. These reports clearly describe why we do not live in a better world, why people do not treat each other with more respect, and why vast majorities of humanity and their natural habitats are in danger of extinction. And they imply that violence engendered by the rich and powerful and responses from the poor and powerless are embedded in the system of structural violence.

The World Bank Report

The World Bank issued a press release on April 17, 2013 summarizing “The State of the Poor: Where are the Poor and Where are the Poorest?” It reported that the number of the world’s citizens living on less than $1.25 a day has declined markedly between 1981 and 2010 from half the world’s population to 21 percent. But still, they say, 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty (below $1.25 per day). Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than one-third of those who live in such poverty worldwide. A World Bank spokesperson noted that “We have made strides in cutting down poverty, but with nearly one-fifth of the world population still below the poverty line, not enough.” (This particular World Bank report does not include data on those living just above the poverty line. For example, another twenty percent live on $2 per day).

Oxfam Reports on the World Economic Forum’s “Global Risk Report”

In an Oxfam Media Briefing (January 18, 2013), the authors site a recent World Economic Forum warning that rising global inequality constitutes one of the top “global risks of 2013.” Oxfam points out that lifting masses of people out of absolute poverty has been the goal of economic elites over the last decade but “inequality and the extreme wealth that contributes to it were seen as either not relevant, or a prerequisite for the growth that would also help the poorest, as the wealth created trickled down to the benefit of everyone.” 

The Oxfam Media Briefing suggests reasons why the WEF might correctly regard growing global inequality as a “risk.” They highlight the following:

Extreme wealth and inequality are reaching levels never before seen in history and are getting worse. Inequality is growing in the industrial developed countries such as the United States and Great Britain, rapidly developing economies such as China and South Africa, and many of the poorest countries in the world. The incomes of the top 1 percent have increased by 60 percent over the last twenty years. The top 100 billionaires added $240 billion to their wealth in 2012. “The IMF has said that inequality is dangerous and divisive and could lead to civil unrest.”

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Politically Corrosive. Oxfam makes the obvious but important point that growing inequality in wealth and income relate to growing inequality in political power. They quote economist Joseph Stiglitz who contends that financial deregulation in the largest capitalist countries led to greater economic inequality and further consolidation of political power by financial elites.

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Socially Divisive. For Oxfam, the consolidation of wealth and power reduce the life chances and even human sustainability of the vast majority of populations. People work harder for less and suffer more. “If rich elites use their money to buy services, whether it is private schooling or private healthcare, they have less interest in public services or paying taxes to support them.” And, as Oxfam reminds us, inequality is linked to growing alienation, mental disorders, crime, anomic violence, and shear desperation.

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Environmentally Destructive. Oxfam reiterates the fact that rising inequality increases demands by the rich for access to and consumption of scarce resources that the earth can no longer provide. “Those in the 1 percent have been estimated to use as much as 10,000 times more carbon than the average US citizen.” 

So if you grow up in urban American or rural Africa, the Middle East or almost anywhere else and you are young, intelligent, and experience the world through the globalization of a racist, sexist, violent media, does your view of the world look bright? No job, no respect, hungry, alienated and imbued with the cultural values about violence and racism that are used to define you, you may act in the same ways the rich and powerful act against you and your people. 

The conversation that should come out of Newtown, Boston, and West, Texas or Baghdad,  Kabul, and Gaza or almost anyplace else is how to change the structural violence that gave rise to direct and cultural violence. This discussion should lead to the mobilization of progressives to create a just society, one in which people will not want to kill each other.