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.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Harry Targ

A whole generation of activists has “grown up” conversant with the central place of empire in human history. Children of the Cold War and the “Sixties” generation  realized that the United States was the latest of a multiplicity of imperial powers which sought to dominate and control human beings, physical space, natural resources, and human labor power. We learned from the Marxist tradition, radical historians, scholar/activists with historical roots in Africa, and revolutionaries from the Philippines and Vietnam to Southern Africa, to Latin America. But we often concluded that imperialism was hegemonic; that is it was all powerful, beyond challenge.

A “theory of imperialism” for the 21st century should include four interconnected variables that explain empire building and as well as responses to it. First, as an original motivation for empire, economic interests are primary. The most recent imperial power, the United States needed to secure customers for its products, outlets for manufacturing investment opportunities, an open door for financial speculation, and vital natural resources such as oil.

Second, the pursuit of military control parallels and supports the pursuit of economic domination. The United States, beginning in the 1890s, built a two-ocean navy to become a Pacific power, as well as institutionalizing its control of the Western Hemisphere. It crushed revolutionary ferment in the Philippines during the Spanish, Cuban, American War  and began a program of  military intervention in Central American and the Caribbean. The “Asian pivot” of the 21st century and continued opposition to the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions reflect the one hundred year extension of the convergence of economics and militarism in U.S. foreign policy.

Third, as imperial nations flex their muscles on the world stage they need to rationalize exploitation and military brutality to convince others and their own citizens of the humanistic goals they wish to achieve. In short, ideology matters. In the U.S. case “manifest destiny” and the “city on the hill,” that is the dogma that the United States has a special mission as a beacon of hope for the world, have been embedded in the dominant national narrative of the country for 150 years.

However, what has often been missing from the leftwing theoretical calculus is an understanding of resistance. Latin American and African dependency theorists and “bottom-up” historians have argued for a long time that resistance must be part of the understanding of any theory of imperialism. In fact, the imperial system is directly related to the level of resistance the imperial power encounters. 

Resistance generates more attempts at economic hegemony, political subversion, the application of military power, and patterns of “humanitarian interventionism” and diplomatic techniques, called “soft power,” to defuse it. But as recent events suggest resistance of various kinds is spreading throughout global society.  

The impetus for adding resistance to any understanding of imperialism has many sources including Howard Zinn’s seminal history of popular movements in the United States, “The People’s History of the United States.” Zinn argued convincingly that in each period of American history ruling classes were challenged, shaped, weakened, and in a few cases defeated because of movements of indigenous people, workers, women, people of color, middle class progressives and others who stood up to challenge the status quo.

More recently, Vijay Prashad, author of “The Darker Nations,” compiled a narrative of post-World War II international relations that privileged the resistance from the Global South. World history was as much shaped by anti-colonial movements, the construction of the non-aligned movement, conferences and programs supporting liberation struggles and women’s rights, as it was by big power contestation. The Prashad book was subtitled “A People’s History of the Third World.”

The 21st century has witnessed a variety of forms of resistance to global hegemony and the perpetuation of neo-liberal globalization all across the face of the globe. First, various forms of systemic resistance have emerged. These often emphasize the reconfiguration of nation-states and their relationships that have long been ignored. The two largest economies in the world, China and India, have experienced economic growth rates well in excess of the industrial capitalist countries. China has developed a global export and investment program in Latin America and Africa that exceeds that of the United States and Europe.

In addition, the rising economic powers have begun a process of global institution building to rework the international economic institutions and rules of decision-making on the world stage. On March 26-27, 2013, the BRICS met in Durban, South Africa. While critical of BRICS shortcomings Patrick Bond, Senior Professor of Development Studies and Director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, in a collection of readings on the subject introduces BRICS with an emphasis on its potential:

In Durban, five heads of state meet to assure the rest of Africa that their countries’ corporations are better investors in infrastructure, mining, oil and agriculture than the traditional European and US multinationals. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA summit also includes 16 heads of state from Africa, including notorious tyrants. A new ‘BRICS bank’ will probably be launched. There will be more talk about monetary alternatives to the US dollar.

On the Latin American continent, most residents of the region are mourning the death of Hugo Chavez, the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. Under Chavez’s leadership, inspiration, and support from oil revenues, Venezuela launched the latest round of state resistance to the colossus of the north, the United States. 

Along with the world’s third largest trade bloc MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and associate memberships including  Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru), Latin Americans have participated in the construction of financial institutions and economic assistance programs to challenge the traditional hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. 

The Bolivarian Revolution also has stimulated political change based on various degrees of grassroots democratization, the construction of workers’ cooperatives, and a shift from neo-liberal economic policy to economic populism. With a growing web of participants, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and, of course, Cuba, the tragic loss of Chavez will not mean the end to the Bolivarian Revolution. It might lead to its deepening.

But the story of 21st century resistance is not just about countries, alliances, new economic institutions that mimic the old. Grassroots social movements have been spreading like wild fire all across the face of the globe. The story can begin in many places and at various times: the new social movements of the 1980s; the Zapatistas of the 1990s; the anti-globalization/anti-IMF campaigns going back to the 1960s and continuing off and on until the new century; or repeated mass mobilizations against a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.

Since 2011, the world has been inspired by Arab Spring, workers’ mobilizations all across the industrial heartland of the United States, student strikes in Quebec, the state of California, and in Santiago, Chile. Beginning in 2001 mass organizations from around the world began to assemble in Porto Alegre, Brazil billing their meeting of some 10,000 strong, the World Social Forum. They did not wish to create a common political program. They wished to launch a global social movement where ideas are shared, issues and demands from the base of societies could be raised, and in general the neo-liberal global agenda reinforced at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland could be challenged. 

The World Social Forum has been meeting annually ever since in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Most recently, the last week in March, 2013, 50,000 people from 5,000 organizations in 127 countries from five continents met in Tunis, the site of the protest that sparked Arab Spring two years ago. Planners wanted to bring mass movements from the Middle East and North Africa into the collective narrative of this global mobilization.

Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, reported that a Tunisian student, when asked whether the Social Forum movement should continue, answered in the affirmative. The student paid homage to the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who committed suicide and launched Arab Spring. He declared that “for all those who have died struggling for justice, we must continue to learn from each other how to build a world that does not respond to the greed of dictators, bankers or corporations, but to the needs of simple people like Mohamed Bouazizi.”