Thursday, June 26, 2008

How neoliberalism kills

Since I've discussed before the lethality of neoliberalism, perhaps this would be a good time to at least provide an rough guide of how its kills. To do so we should revisit some concepts that I've introduced before: interpersonal, organizational, structural, and intrapersonal violence.

Interpersonal violence is perhaps the form that we are most aware of, since involves identifiable individuals who injure their victims. Certainly, any imposition of neoliberal economics will require a certain amount of interpersonal violence insofar as someone has to do the dirty work of torture or "disappearing" dissidents, the displaced, the indigenous. That of course is the terrorism that is not called by its proper name since it is done in the service of the corporate and ruling elites. Also included is the violence between members of oppressed groups, often divided based on artificial classifications, who perceive one another as "threats" (e.g., border vigilantes who perceive displaced migrant people as "taking away their jobs").

Organizational violence involves explicit decisions made by individuals as part of their formal roles in organizations, such as the military, police, CIA, or a corporate bureaucracy. Although the decision-makers involved in organizational violence might have no direct interpersonal role in the harm caused to their victims, and in fact may even be abhorred by the actual process of violent actions such as torture and murder (e.g., Arendt, 1963), they are nonetheless committing a form of violence.

Structural violence refers to physical harm (including death) suffered by a particular group of people who do not have access to the same services and benefits as the rest of society. Those who are displaced would be considered victims of structural violence - in this case due to the collapse of their baseline socio-economic situation as a result of the whatever changes have been imposed upon them in the form of invasions or "free trade" agreements. Structural violence is often the most deadly and insidious forms of violence. To take a few words from the book, Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985):
Structural violence is a feature of social structures. This form of violence is inherent in the established modes of social relations, distribution of goods and services, and legal practices of dispensing justice. Structural violence involves more than the violation of fairness and justice. [p. 136]

Structural violence is the most lethal form of violence because it is the least discernible; it causes premature deaths in the largest number of persons; and it presents itself as the natural order of things. A situation of oppression rests primarily on structural violence which in turn fosters institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal violence. Structural violence pervades the prevailing values, the environment, social relations, and individual psyches. The most visible indicators of structural violence are differential rates of mortality, morbidity, and incarceration among groups in the same society. In particular, a situation of oppression increases the infant mortality rate and lowers the life expectancy for the oppressed. [p. 155]
The displaced are systematically deprived of the basics for survival, resulting in poverty, malnutrition, premature death. That's what structural violence is. The physical harm suffered in this case usually falls underneath the mass-media radar because it is less salient, less spectacular than deaths due to IEDs or aerial bombing raids, less shockingly noticeable than the mass killings by death squads. The structural violence in this case (as is true of various colonial genocides of the past) will also fall underneath the radar because it is built into the very fabric of the oppressors' worldview. Starvation and malnutrition for example are simply written off as "those savages cannot take care of themselves." The more liberal of the oppressors might even acknowledge such phenomena as partially their responsibility, but cheerfully contend that in the end "it was worth it" as Madeleine Albright said of the half million Iraqi children under five who had died as a result of economic sanctions during the 1990s. The deaths caused from the stress of being displaced, and without access to fundamental human needs for survival are no less real, even if they don't make their way to the front page of New Pravda.

Intrapersonal violence should also bear mention. Here we'd include self-destructive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. Usually such behaviors are merely written off as "moral weakness" or as the result of some sort of "mental illness" which couldn't possibly have anything to do with the extreme stress that comes with being displaced or being threatened with displacement. And yet such hyperindividualistic explanations would fail to account for the massive increase in suicides among displaced subsistence farmers in India during the present decade or among factory unemployed factory workers during the Yeltsin regime in Russia in the 1990s.

The economic theory hatched at the University of Chicago, the theory which as Don Durito would say "is not in crisis, it is the crisis," has now a four-decade record of perpetrating all of these forms of violence. It is crucial that we refuse to decouple the interpersonal and intrapersonal violence from the organizational and structural violence. While the latter are perpetrated in the board rooms of Wall Street, World Bank, IMF, etc., the latter - in the form of interpersonal violence to enforce the suffering caused by the former, and in the form of intrapersonal violence caused by hopelessness - are necessary if the former are to continue unabated. That is the lesson we need to take with us as we try to make sense of the world after the end of the End of History.

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