Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sustainable nonviolence

Johan Galtung introduced the concept of structural violence, which is that the daily lives of oppressed people may not look like they are being shot or bombed, but if they are poor and others are rich, the very institutions of society are committing a daily violent suppression of those poor people. In the taxonomy of violence, then, we have physical violence and structural violence.

We also parse out direct violence into physical violence and psychological or emotional violence.

How helpful are these distinctions?

For the most part, all other types of violence still rest on physical violence, and it must be committed often enough to make the threat credible. This is the secret of the abuser who 'only' commits emotional violence with rare physical violence and it is the secret of structural violence as well, with police and other front line forces of violence present enough to deter most people from seeking justice as quickly as they might otherwise.

Historically, this structural violence has been associated with racial, ethnic, religious, and gender oppression, all of which is backed by the threat of physical violence. Legally, what is the distinction? Committing an act of violence with the objective of self-aggrandizement or simply to be cruel is a crime. Threatening to commit violence while demanding someone else's property is called armed robbery. Stealing someone else's property while they aren't looking is burglary and not nearly as serious. What we see in our US current form of capitalism is far closer to a bizarre synthesis of mob 'protection' and robber baron economics. It is structural violence in new and odd permutations.

First, the bailouts

Second, the evermore extreme income disparities.

The rightwing has claimed for years that the only reason that any social safety net exists is to pay off the ruffian elements who would otherwise spread their anarchy. They have accused liberals of trying to shut up lazy ne'er do wells with welfare. Now, of course, they are the ones who are fighting to get corporations more unearned benefits, bailouts and what Dr. Gary Askerooth wrote about years ago as an 'upside-down welfare state" that might be also characterized as "lemon socialism." The overpaid failures--in control of the banking system, the home loan lenders, the hedge funders, the leveraged buyout kings and so forth--say, "Give us massive aid or we will drag you down with us." This is like the mob telling the bartender to hand over a weekly payment or they won't be responsible for any damage that might occur--actually, they would be directly responsible for such damage, but that is the unspoken part. That is illegal for the mob but legal for Goldman Sachs and the rest of the predatory corporadoes who use the US taxpayer like the mob uses the bar owners. Pay up or get hurt.

Income disparity in our political democracy has been drifting farther from economic democracy each year. We now are worse than the former 'banana republics' such as Nicaragua, Guyana, etc. Our richest one percent controls at least one-fourth of all US wealth (24 percent almost four years ago and it's on a downhill slide for most of us). The elites have used highly subsidized demagoguery to help the Tea Party's astroturf constituency prevail in seeking an extension of obscene tax credits for the richest of the rich, the top one-tenth of one percent. The Tea Party ignorance has them supporting those who are most engaged in structural violence against the average member of the Tea Party and their allies in the Republican Party. At least some groups--e.g., African Americans, Native Americans--have a collectively firm grasp on that picture. Impoverished whites seem impatient with critical thinking and learning the facts and have as a result picked up their cherished guns and taken direct aim at their own collective foot.

The understanding of structural violence is key, and the promotion of alternative institutions based on the emergence of structural nonviolence is the answer. Developing a culture of peace, nonviolence, economic democracy and a robust social safety net is the kind of multipronged approach that might respond to our most disturbing trends downward.

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