Violence and the System
Written for Irish Socialist Worker, 01.09.11
Ask any establishment politician about violence and they will condemn it ‘absolutely’, ‘unequivocally’ and so on. The same is true of the editors and leader writers of all our main newspapers. Not only do they condemn violence, they condemn the perpetrators of violence and in even more ‘unequivocal’ terms. They are ‘animals’, ‘thugs’,’ criminals’, ‘monsters’ and ‘pure evil’.
The violence and the perpetrators of violence thus condemned can be a wide variety of people -rioters, looters, ‘terrorists’ (either Republican dissidents or ‘Muslim’), demonstrators, striking or picketing workers, or student protestors – but they all have one thing in common, they are people taking action in some way or other against the existing authorities, the existing power structure, the existing system
What the politicians and editors never condemn is violence by the authorities, the power structure, and the system. Indeed they never even acknowledge its existence because it is always called something else: ‘maintaining law and order’, ‘peace keeping’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, ‘robust policing’, even ‘liberation’ or ‘defence’.
Thus the rioters in London were obviously extremely violent, the police who killed Mark Duggan may, just possibly, have been over zealous, but they were certainly not ‘violent’. Gaddafi was violent but not the bombing of Libya by Nato. Hamas should ‘renounce violence’ but Israel must ‘retain the right of self-defence’. Muslims have a tendency to terrorism but Americans have ‘the right to bear arms’.
However, the moment we move beyond these loaded categories and stereotypes and ask who actually is responsible for the bulk of violence (i.e. use of destructive force) in the world the answer is as clear as day- it is the world’s governments and states, beginning with the government of the United States.
On 11th September 2001 (9/11) The attack of 9/11 killed just under 3000. The US government responded with its ‘war on Terror’ which has so far claimed over 250,000 lives, including 6000 US troops, 100-150,000 Iraqi civilians, 26,000 Iraqi insurgents, about 60,000 Afghans) insurgents, and 20,000 in North West Pakistan. Morover the Irish government has been complicit in this by allowing two million Us troops to use Shannon.
If we broaden the time frame the disparity becomes even more striking: the death toll in the Vietnam War came to 58,000 US troops, and 1.2 million Vietnamese; add deaths in Laos and Cambodia and the total reaches between 2-4 million; the Korean War killed about 2.5 million.
Of course many other countries have conducted and are conducting deadly wars – Russia in Afghanistan ,Georgia and Chechenia, France in Algeria, , the Chinese in Tibet, the Civil War in the Congo and so on. But the US certainly stands out in the post Second World War period in terms of range of wars engaged in its troops have seen action in 29 different countries since 1990 alone) as it does in military expenditure: annual US military spending in 2010 - $696 billion, out of global spending of $1600 billion; expenditure on the ‘War on Terror’ so far – at least $1.24 trillion (Brown University estimates $4 trillion).
However, all this pales in comparison with the ‘great wars’ of the 20th century fought between the major imperial powers for the control of the world. The First World War claimed between 10 and 16 million lives, the Second over 60 million which included the 11 million murdered in the Holocaust; the 20 million or more killed on the Russian front; the bombing, by the Allies of Dresden (at least 25,000 dead), Hamburg (42,000), and Tokyo (100,000) and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima (90 – 160,000) and Nagasaki (60-80,000).
Other statistics, though on a much smaller scale, nevertheless point to a reality never highlighted by politicians or the media. For example, in the UK since 1998 67 people have died in terrorist attacks (56 in the bombs of 7/7/ 2005); in the same period 333 have died in police custody without the conviction of single police officer. In the US there have been only twenty terrorist incidents since 9/11, six of which were perpetrated by Islamists (killing 27).The US police killed 406 people in 2009. The Rio de Janeiro police kill about 1,000 a year, mostly in the form of street executions.
Then there is the violence of the lives lost in industrial accidents, such as the 11,000 (3000 immediately, 8000 later) who died at Bhopal, or the thousands at Chernobyl, or the innumerable deaths on construction sites, mining accidents and the like, where safety is so often sacrificed to profit.
And there is the violence of putting people in prison. As the great socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, said:
'If one “free citizen” is taken by another against his will and confined in close and uncomfortable quarters for a while, everyone realises immediately that an act of violence has been committed. However, as soon as the process takes place in accordance with the the penal code, the whole affair immediately becomes peaceable and legal.'
Again it is the US which takes the lead in this ‘peaceable and legal’ violence. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice 2,292,133 were in U.S. prisons at year-end 2009 — about 1% of adults in the U.S. population. Next came China with approximately 1.5 million from a much larger population.
But BY FAR the worst and most damage to people’s lives is done not by direct violence but by the poverty, starvation, exploitation and economic deprivation on which capitalism rests. According to the United Nations, one billion people suffer from acute poverty and malnutrition. That means they die young from easily treatable and preventable diseases and their children die in infancy and childhood in massive numbers.
In the famine in Somalia 11 million people are in need of urgent food assistance and over 600,000 children under 5 are suffering acute malnourishment, i.e. likely to die imminently. And this is only one famine out of an estimated 57 famines in the world since 1900, which include the Russian famine of 1921 (5 million dead), the Bengal famine of 1943 (4 million dead) and the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5 (1 million dead).
What needs to be stressed is that this extreme suffering is occurring in a world where there is more than enough food to go round, where people starve not because there is no food but because they cannot afford to buy it. In other words it is caused by the huge inequality which capitalism generates; inequality which both generates direct violence and can only be maintained by violence or the threat of it.
But wouldn’t getting rid of capitalism, its overthrow by revolution, just involve further violence? Unfortunately it is unlikely that the ultra-rich will give up without a fight. But the stronger and more united the mass of working people are in the revolution the less actual violence will be needed.
As was seen in Egypt earlier this year, no police force can contain a genuinely risen people. Also the rank and file of the army in any society are from the working class and can be won over to the side of the people.
History proves that mass revolutions involve relatively little violence compared to that perpetrated by counter revolutions. The uprising of 18 March that established the Paris Commune, the first workers’ revolution, killed two people (both generals). The suppression of the Commune killed 25,000 on the streets of Paris in one week. The Russian Revolution of February1917 which overthrew the Tsar suffered losses of about 1,700. The October Revolution in Petrograd was almost bloodless. The Civil War which followed, launched by Tsarist generals, claimed about 3 million. The mass murders by Hitler, Stalin and Franco were all, in different forms, counter revolutionary violence to suppress the working class.
The denunciations of violence by our rulers and the defenders of capitalism are thus deeply hypocritical. Only the working class action to abolish capitalism internationally can really free us from the cycle of poverty, war and violence endlessly generated by a system that always sacrifices people for profit.