New logics of violence


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GLOBALIZATION is a source of debate almost everywhere. It is the name of a new industrial revolution (driven by powerful new information and communication technologies) which has barely begun. Because of its newness, it taxes our linguistic and political resources for understanding and managing it. In the United States and in the ten or so most wealthy countries of the world, globalization is certainly a positive buzzword for corporate elites and their political allies. But for migrants, people of colour and other marginals (the so-called ‘South’ in the ‘North’), it is a source of worry about inclusion, jobs and deeper marginalization. And the worry of the marginals, as always in human history, disturbs the elites. In the remaining countries of the world, the under- developed and the truly destitute ones, there is a double anxiety: fear of inclusion on draconian terms, and fear of exclusion, for that seems like exclusion from History itself.

Whether we are in the North or the South, globalization also challenges our strongest tool for managing newness, and that is the recourse to history. We can do our best to see globalization as just a new phase (and face) of capitalism, or imperialism, or neo-colonialism, or modernization or developmentalism. And there is some force to this hunt for the analogy that will let us tame the beast of globalization in the prison-house (or zoo) of language. But this historicizing move (for all of its technical legitimacy) is doomed to fail precisely in accounting for the part of globalization that is unsettling in its newness.

Recourse to the archives of prior world-systems, old empires and known forms of power and capital can indeed soothe us, but only up to a point. Beyond that point lurks the intuition of many poor people (and their supporters) that globalization poses some new challenges which cannot be addressed with the comforts of history, even those of the history of bad people and nasty world conquerors. This hazy intuition is at the heart of the uncertain coalitions and uneasy dialogues that surround globalization, even in the streets of Seattle, Prague, Washington, D.C. and many other less dramatized locations.

Where exactly does this newness lie and why do many critical intellectuals want to understand it better? In my opinion, there are three interrelated factors which make globalization difficult to understand in terms of earlier histories of state and market. The first is the role of finance capital (especially in its speculative forms) in the world economy today: it is faster, more multiplicative, more abstract and more invasive of national economies than ever in its previous history. And because of its loosened links to manufacture and other forms of productive wealth, it is a horse with no apparent structural rider.



The second reason has to do with the peculiar power of the information revolution in its electronic forms. Electronic information technologies are part and parcel of the new financial instruments, many of which have technical powers which are clearly ahead of the protocols for their regulation. Thus, whether or not the nation state is fading out, no one can argue that the idea of a ‘national economy’ (in the sense first articulated by the German geographer Friedrich List) is any more an easily sustainable project. Thus, by extension, national sovereignty is now an unsettled project for specific technical reasons of a new sort and scale. Third, the new, mysterious and almost magical forms of wealth generated by electronic finance markets appear directly responsible for the growing gaps between rich and poor, even in the richest countries in the world.

More importantly, the mysterious roamings of finance capital are matched by new kinds of migration, both elite and proletarian, which create unprecedented tensions between identities of origin, identities of residence and identities of aspiration for many migrants in the world labour market. Leaky financial frontiers, mobile identities and fast-moving technologies of communication and transaction, together produce a variety of debates, both within and across national boundaries, that hold new potential for violence, the main theme of this essay.

There are many ways that we can approach the problems of globalization and violence. One could take the United States and ask whether the growth in the prison industry (and what is sometimes called the ‘Carceral State’) is tied to the dynamics of regional economies which are being pushed out of other more humane forms of employment and wealth creation. One could consider Indonesia and ask why there is a deadly increase in intra-state violence in the name of indigenous populations against state-sponsored migrants. One could study Sri Lanka and ask whether there are real links between the incessant civil war there and the global diaspora of Tamils, with such results as, an example of cyber-secession.



One could worry about conventional secessionist movements from Chechnya and Kashmir to the Basque country and many parts of Africa, and ask whether their violence is strictly endogenous. One could look at Palestine and ask whether the intimate violence of internal colonialism is now so deeply tied to mass media and global intervention that it is doomed to permanent institutionalization. One could position oneself in Kosovo or Iraq and ask whether the violent humanitarianism of Nato airstrikes is the newest form of Biblical retribution by the armed gods of our times.

Or one could contemplate sub-Saharan Africa, as my colleague Achille Mbembe has suggested, and ask what it means for a state of war to be a permanent, daily state of things for many people in that subcontinent, and not just an interruption, an exception, or a disorder. Or one could identify with the perspective of terrified minorities in many national spaces such as Israel, Timor or Sierra Leone, often living in detention camps parading as neighbourhoods or refugee camps, and ask about the violence of displacement and relocation.



Cutting across all these locations and forms of violence, is the crosscutting presence of some major global factors. The growing and organized violence against women, famously in the Taliban regime, is also clearly evident in many other societies who seek to cast the first stone, such as the United States, where domestic violence statistics reach new and horrifying heights every month. The mobilization of youth armies, notably in Africa, but also in many other sites of intra-state warfare is producing war veterans who have hardly seen adulthood, much less peace. Child labour by itself is sufficiently troubling as a globalized form of violence against children, but the labour of fighting in civilian militias and military gangs is a particularly deadly form of induction into violence at an early age.

And then there are the more insidious forms of violence experienced by large numbers of the world’s poor as they undergo displacements by huge dam projects or by projects of slum clearance. Here they experience the effects of the global politics of security states as victims of economic embargoes, police violence, ethnic mobilization and job losses in the name of such politics as the politics of the environment. The recent shutdown of small scale industries in Delhi is a vivid example of the collusion of high minded environmental discourses, corrupt city politics and the desperate scramble for jobs and livelihood. This is part of the reason that the poor sometimes subject themselves to the intimate violence of selling their body parts in global organ markets, selling their whole bodies to domestic labour in unsafe countries, and offering their daughters and children into sex work and other permanently scarring occupations.



Let us pull back for a moment and consider some objections to this line of thought. One line of criticism would be: What does this catalogue have to do with globalization as such? Is it not just one more chapter in the story of power, greed, corruption and exclusion that we can find as far back in human history as we please? I would argue otherwise. Many of the examples I have cited above are tied in specific ways to transformations in the world economy since 1970, to specific battles over indigenism and national sovereignty produced by the battle between competing universalisms such as freedom, market, democracy, and rights, which simply did not operate in the same way in earlier periods.

Above all, the many examples I have given fit with the major empirical fact of macro-violence in the last two decades, which is the relative and marked growth in intra-state versus inter-state violence. Thus the maps of state and the maps of warfare no longer fit an older realist geography. And when we add to this the global circulation of arms, drugs, mercenaries, mafiosi and other paraphernalia of violence, it is difficult to keep local instances local in their significance.

Of all these contexts for violence, ranging from the most intimate (such as rape, bodily mutilation and dismemberment) to the most abstract (such as forced migration and legal minoritization), the most difficult one is the worldwide assault against minorities of all kinds. In this matter, every state (like every family) is unhappy in its own way. But why are we seeing a virtually worldwide genocidal impulse towards minorities, whether they are numerical, cultural or political minorities, and whether they are minorities through lack of the proper ethnicity, or the lack of proper documentation, or by being visible embodiments of some history of mutual violence or abuse? This global pattern requires something of a global answer and that is what I attempt in the remainder of this essay.

The existing answers do not take us very far. Is this a ‘clash of civilizations’? Not likely, since many of these forms of violence are intra-civilizational. Is it a failure of states to fulfil the Weberian norm of monopolizing violence? Partly, but this failure itself requires further explanation, along with the concomitant worldwide growth in ‘private’ armies, security zones, consultants and bodyguards. Is it a general worldwide numbing of our humanitarian impulses (as someone like Michael Ignatieff may suggest) due to the effect of too many mass media images of far away wars and ethnocides?



Perhaps, but the growth in grassroots coalitions for change, equity and health on a worldwide basis suggests that the human faculty for long distance empathy has not yet been depleted. Is it the concomitant growth in a huge global arms traffic which links small arms and Kalashnikovs to the official state-to-state trade in rockets, tanks and radar systems in a huge and shady range of deals (recently captured in India by and earlier in the Bofors scandal)? Yes, but this tells us only about necessary conditions for global violence and not about sufficient ones.

Or are we in the midst of a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms of minoritization and ethnicization, but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the winners of globalization, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers? Is this a vast form of what we may call econocide, a worldwide tendency (no more perfect in its workings than the market) to arrange the disappearance of the losers in the great drama of globalization? A scary scenario, but fortunately lacking in plausible evidence, partly because the world’s biggest criminals and tyrants have learned the languages of democracy, dignity and rights.



So what is it about minorities that seems to attract new forms and scales of violence in many different parts of the world? The first step to an answer is that both ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’ are the products of a distinctly modern world of statistics, censuses, population maps and other tools of state, created mostly since the 17th century. ‘Minorities’ and ‘majorities’ emerge explicitly in the process of developing ideas of number, representation and electoral franchise in places affected by the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, including satellite spaces in the colonial world.

So, minorities are a recent social and demographic category and today they activate new worries about rights (human and otherwise), citizenship, belonging and autocthony, and about entitlements from the state (or its phantom remnants). And they invite new ways of examining the obligations of states as well as the boundaries of political humanity, falling as they do in the uneasy grey area between citizens proper and humanity in general. It is no surprise that insufficient humans (as for example the physically disabled, the aged and the sick) are often the first targets of marginalization or cleansing. That Nazi Germany sought to eliminate all of these categories (iconized by the figure of the Jew) is useful to contemplate.



But minorities do not come preformed. They are produced in the specific circumstances of every nation and every nationalism. They are often the carriers of the unwanted memories of the acts of violence that produced existing states, of forced conscription or of violent extrusion as new states were formed. And, in addition, as weak claimants on state entitlements or drains on the resources of highly contested national resources, they are also reminders of the failures of various state projects (socialist, developmentalist and capitalist). They are marks of failure and coercion. They are embarrassments to any state-sponsored image of national purity and state fairness. They are thus scapegoats in the classical sense.

But what is the special status of such scapegoats in the era of globalization? After all, strangers, sick people, nomads, religious dissidents and similar ‘minor’ social groups have always been targets of prejudice and xenophobia. Here I suggest a single and simple hypothesis. Given the systemic compromise of national economic sovereignty that is built into the logic of globalization, and given the increasing strain this puts on states to behave as trustees of the interests of a territorially defined and confined ‘people’, minorities are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality (real or imagined) in a world of a few mega states, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties. Minorities, in a word, are metaphors of the betrayal of the classical national project. And it is this betrayal – actually rooted in the failure of the nation state to preserve its promise to be the guarantor of national sovereignty – that underwrites the worldwide impulse to extrude or to eliminate minorities. It also explains why state military forces are often involved in intra-state ethnocide.

Of course, every case of internal violence against minorities also has its own realist sociology of rising expectations, cruel markets, corrupt state agencies, arrogant interventions from the outside, and deep histories of internal hate and suspicion waiting to be mobilized. But these only account for the characters. We need to look elsewhere for the plot. And the plot – worldwide in its force – is a product of the justified fear that the real world-game has escaped the net of state sovereignty and inter-state diplomacy.



And yet, why are minorities targets of this worldwide pattern? Here we may return to the classic anthropological argument by Mary Douglas, that ‘dirt is matter out of place’ and that all moral and social taxonomies find abhorrent the items that blur their boundaries. Minorities of the sort that I have described – the infirm, the religiously deviant, the disabled, the mobile, the illegal, and the unwelcome in the space of the nation state – blur the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, here and there, in and out, healthy and unhealthy, loyal and disloyal, needed but unwelcome. This last binary is the key to the puzzle.

In one way or the other, we need the ‘minor’ groups in our national spaces – if nothing else to clean our latrines and fight our wars. But they are surely also unwelcome because of their anomalous identities and attachments. And in this double quality they embody the core problem of globalization for many nation states: it is both necessary (or at least unavoidable) and it is unwelcome. It is both us (we can own it, control it and use it, in the optimistic vision) and not us (we can avoid it, reject it, live without it, deny it, eliminate it, in the pessimistic vision). Thus, from this point of view, the globalization of violence against minorities enacts a deep anxiety about the national project and its own ambiguous relationship to globalization. And globalization, being a force without a face, cannot be the object of ethnocide. But minorities can.



Put more generally, and this is an argument that I have more fully elaborated elsewhere, minorities are the flashpoint for a series of uncertainties that mediate between everyday life and its fast shifting global backdrop. They create uncertainties about the national self and national citizenship because of their mixed status. Their legally ambiguous status puts pressures on constitutions and legal orders. Their movements threaten the policing of borders. Their financial transactions blur the lines between national economies and between legal and criminal transactions. Their languages exacerbate worries about national cultural coherence. Their lifestyles are easy ways to displace widespread tensions in society, especially in urban society. Their politics tends to be multi-focal, so they are always sources of anxiety to security states.

When they are wealthy, they raise the spectre of globalization, working as its pariah mediators. And when poor, they are convenient symbols of the failure of many forms of development and welfare. Above all, since almost all ideas of nation and peoplehood rely on some notion of ethnic purity or singularity and the suppression of the memories of plurality, ethnic minorities blur the boundaries of national peoplehood. This uncertainty, exacerbated by the inability of many states to secure national economic sovereignty in the era of globalization, can translate into a lack of tolerance of any sort of collective stranger.



What is more, it is difficult to know who might emerge as the target minority, the ill-fated stranger. In some cases it seems obvious, in others less so. And that is because minorities are not born but made, historically speaking. In short, it is through specific choices and strategies, often of state elites or political leaders, that particular groups, who have stayed invisible, are rendered visible as ‘minorities’ against whom campaigns of calumny can be unleashed, leading to explosions of ethnocide.

So, rather than saying that minorities produce violence, we could better say that violence, especially at the national level, requires minorities. And this production of minorities requires unearthing some histories and burying others. This process is what accounts for the complex ways in which global issues and clashes gradually ‘implode’ into nations and localities, often in the form of paroxysmal violence in the name of some majority.

One classic case is the process by which the Sikhs in India were gradually turned into a problematic minority. This was not the outcome of any simple form of census politics. It was based on a long 20th century of regional and national politics, and was finally produced in the violence of 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Operation Bluestar, and the carnage of the riots in Delhi and elsewhere. It could be argued that it was in fact the massive unleashing of state and popular violence against Sikhs in 1984 that produced the Sikhs as a cultural and political minority, whose own small terrorist component acquired a general sacrality after these events. So, within a century (and some would say within a decade) a category that was considered a militant auxiliary of the Hindu world turned into its most dangerous internal enemy, at least for a decade or more after 1984.

One last reflection on the links between globalization and violence against minorities. This connection forces one to perform the hardest of analytic exercises, which is to show how forces of great speed, scale and scope (i.e. the forces of globalization), which are also in many ways very abstract, can be connected to bodily violence of the most intimate sort, performed in the familiarity of everyday relations, the comfort of neighbourhood and the bonds of intimacy. How can friend kill friend, neighbour kill neighbour, even kinsman kill kinsman? These new forms of intimate violence seem especially puzzling in an era of fast technologies, abstract financial instruments, remote forms of power, and large scale flows of techniques and ideologies.



One way to unravel the horror of the worldwide growth in intimate bodily violence in the context of increased abstraction and circulation of images and technologies is to consider that their relationship is indeed not paradoxical at all. For the body, especially the minoritized body, can simultaneously be the mirror and the instrument of those abstractions we fear most. And minorities and their bodies are after all the products of high degrees of abstraction in counting, classifying and surveying populations. So the body of the historically produced minority combines the seductions of the familiar and the reductions of the abstract in social life. It therefore allows fears of the global to be embodied and, when specific situations becomes overcharged with anxiety, for that body to be annihilated.

To be sure, we need to understand a great many specific events and processes in order to get from the vertiginous spin of the global to the intimate heat of local violence. But here is the possibility to consider: that part of the effort to slow down the whirl of the global and its seeming largeness of reach is by holding it still, and making it small in the body of the violated minor. Such violence, in this perspective, is not about old hatreds and primordial fears. It is an effort to exorcise the new, the emergent and the uncertain, one name for which is globalization.



There are other stories, less depressing and more utopian, than the one I have told here. They are stories of political organization, mobilization and criticism now appearing in many locations and across many national boundaries. These social movements contain the seeds of many visions of counter-globalization. India is especially rich in such visions. But they will need to take on many opponents and negative scripts. One such script – which cannot be consigned to the sphere of the primordial and the deranged – is the recent and worldwide intensification of intimate group violence. The road to exploring the democratic potential of globalization must pass through, and comprehend, its special forms of violence.



Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1996.

Arjun Appadurai, ‘Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization’, Public Culture 10(2), (Winter 1998), pp. 225-247.

Achille Mbembe, ‘At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa’, Public Culture 12(1), (Winter 2000), pp. 259-284.

Saskia Sassen, Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money. New York: The New Press, 1998.