Friday, September 24, 2010

Democracy and Violence

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

The United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe seem hell-bent on implementing cruel, destructive economic policies—cruel and destructive to all but the well positioned, well connected, and well to do—in the face of economic catastrophe. This is a reflection not only of interests controlling politics but of true belief, a bizarre faith in self regulating free markets resistant to any evidence of their abject failure.
 These responses repeat mistakes made in the 1930s and, more recently, the failed examples of Ireland and Greece. In the case of the United States, rather than design large-scale public works projects and meaningful aid to state and local governments, each of which would help stimulate growth and address America’s crumbling, often pathetic, infrastructure, a fear bordering on hysteria about deficits has generated a call for massive spending cuts despite the predictable, self-defeating character of such cuts. Make no mistake, given the current context, with effective un- and underemployment perhaps as high as twenty percent, the response to the 21st century’s first depression constitutes nothing less than a violent, long-term assault on the integrity of people’s lives. The assault may have originated in the private sector, but it now amounts to official state-sponsored violence.
Barack Obama once again signaled his support for such violence in his September 10 news conference. Responding to a question about the legacies of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King regarding anti-poverty efforts, Obama could do nothing but spout neo-liberal platitudes about the “virtuous” effects of “growing the economy.” As if channeling the ghost of Ronald Reagan, scourge of imagined welfare queens, and Bill Clinton, successful champion of “the end of welfare as we know it” and Reagan’s rightful heir, Obama effectively scorned efforts by the state to assist people in time of desperate need. Growing the economy, the mantra of neo-liberal indifference, is in Obama's words "more important than any program we could set up”.
Rather than articulating a political vision of state action as an expression of democratic agency, Obama professes faith in a market economy that necessarily produces the many and varied casualties he refuses to help. Thus, rather than understand the history of late twentieth century “welfare reform” as part of a wildly successful Republican-driven campaign to redistribute wealth and income upwards, Obama proceeds on the assumption that individuals are to be held responsible for their economic circumstances. It seems that even Richard Nixon (whose Family Assistance Plan proposed a guaranteed national income, however inadequate) better understood the structural deficiencies and failures of a market economy, which cannot by definition produce the achievements miraculously attributed to it. Hence the permanent need for direct state action. There is one exception to this neo-liberal logic, of course: the defense sector. Here demand artificially created by the state keeps hundreds of thousands employed in make-work jobs beyond challenge. This fact gives the structural violence of the economy a particularly nasty twist.
Despite widespread violence and suffering, including record jumps in poverty levels, those responsible for the economic crises, on the other hand, continue to conduct business as they see fit. Annual Wall Street bonuses remain as obscene and unjustifiable as ever for “work” that contributes nothing to the actual betterment of society. Regulatory countermeasures constitute little more than nuisances to be circumvented by creative financiers and money-managers skilled at finessing the law in whatever new form it might take. The American people seem not to understand what is happening. Poised to punish Democrats in midterm elections (rightly so, given their paltry response to crisis) but too ignorant or angry to recognize the GOP as the party of brutal, unrelenting, and successful class warfare and a discredited faith, nothing on the horizon promises economic relief, let alone restoration or rebirth. Tens of millions of Americans will suffer for years, even decades to come. And this is just one country.
When the G-20 met in Toronto earlier this year, the collective response to economic disaster was pitiful. Calls for austerity predominated. If anything, security arrangements for the conference symbolized the values and priorities in play. Up to 20,000 police and military personnel were deployed to guarantee…well, to guarantee what exactly? There were some demonstrations and protests, but the armed state vastly outnumbered unarmed citizens. The ratio signaled not so much fear of as contempt for citizens. Should the demand for justice, to say nothing of a display of anger, find public expression, the great democracies of the world were prepared and determined, as usual, to regulate, contain, marginalize, and, if necessary, crush it. Violence can be done to you, but don’t think of retaliating. You can have your job, career, health, family, college education, home, and retirement account taken, but don’t you dare take to the streets to do anything more than signal your concern. Wall Street financiers at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere have perpetrated far more violence against American citizens (to focus narrowly here) than criminals with guns on America’s streets, but only one class is deemed and treated as a violent offender.
Democracies reject violence as a matter of principle and design institutions to channel conflict and prevent society from feeding on itself. Machiavelli, in The Discourses, provides a vivid account of institutions working to keep the people from having to take to the streets and resort to deadly violence against those responsible for gross public misconduct in order to secure a modicum of justice. Yet what are the people to do when the institutions that supposedly represent them not only fail to do so, repeatedly, but have also been captured by the corrupt, venal amalgam of forces responsible for injuring them in the first place? And what are they to do when official state policy is to protect and enforce the rights of powerful economic interests and to intimidate, threaten, coerce, and imprison any who might meaningfully challenge the regime of property?
In the United States, the situation is exacerbated by an activist Supreme Court pursuing a blatant conservative political agenda that grants corporate entities unlimited first amendment rights to consolidate and further their interests and render democracy a sham. Again, what are citizens to do when a democracy folds selected practices of violence into its way of life while simultaneously decrying its exercise in unofficial forms? What will make hegemonic political and economic players and institutions take them seriously? Nothing that happens at the much-vaunted ballot box, for which corporate and financial interests and their army of lobbyists have nothing but scorn; electoral results can always be co-opted, subverted, and effectively overturned. Those citizens (always reduced to mere thugs) who destroy (the always already sacred) property and are subsequently demonized as if they pose an existential threat to society may be the only citizens who understand the nature of the enemy and the war being waged against the people. The violence being committed daily against tens of millions is structural; the response must be, too.


  1. brilliant analysis with passionate-ethical fervor... good work.