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Reforming Our Understanding of Violence

February 17, 2010 No Comment

By Toufic Machnouk

Structural violence is the effect of a systemic imbalance in society that prefers the interests of some over others. Its dynamics are less visible than that of direct violence, where the causes are generally easier to identify. The use of direct violence is mostly a state affair manifested in armed conflict. The participation of the general population is predominantly one of inaction. Structural violence, however, tends to involve the participation of the general population which is both a cause for concern and optimism.

When the effects of structural and direct violence are compared, the contrast is striking. The deadliest conflict in  history is WWII with a total death toll of approximately 50 million people which annualises to an average of 8.3 million people. This was in 1945. In 2009, around 10 million children under the age of 5 perish from the effects of extreme poverty, in a century where so-called human development is at a record. That is equivalent to 1.5 times the total population of London every year. Of course the two forms of violence are interdependent. War itself results in adverse structural effects. The effects of WWII lasted for many years after the conflict ended and, though the comparison is not perfect, it serves to illustrate the sheer magnitude of structural violence. Furthermore, structural violence tends to perpetuate conflict which further deepens social destruction.

Structural violence kills people slowly by depriving them of their basic needs. The most elementary of needs is access to the basic resources required for sustenance, such as food, water, basic shelter and sanitation. However, access to resources is tremendously disproportionate. According to the UN World Wealth Distribution Report 2005, 2% of the world’s population owns, and therefore controls and utilises the benefits of, half of the world’s wealth leaving the lower 50% of the world, around 3.3 billion people, with shared access to only 1% of all wealth.

Despite ‘development aid’, the magnitude of structural violence has dramatically worsened. In 1820 the ratio of rich to poor was 1 to 3, while in 1992 this was estimated at 1 to 72. This is where policy has not only failed to solve the problems but further exacerbated them. In fact, official aid and particularly that associated with international financial institutions, tends to have the opposite effect to development, as was seen in Argentina and Indonesia amongst other places.

This gross disparity is also a matter of consumption. The EU consumes at the bio capacity of 2.1 planet earths, meaning that to sustain the world population at the EU consumption average would require the resources of more than 2 planet earths. The UK rate alone is 3.6 and the US’s is almost 5.

The scale of this violence is a cause for great concern, particularly as policy is used to maintain this disorder. As George Kennan wrote for the US Secretary of State in Public Policy Study 23: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity“.

However, unlike most direct violence which is overwhelmingly a matter of state policy, the economic participation in structural violence is overwhelmingly a consumer choice, which will in turn manifest itself in policy. This is particularly the case in developed economies like the US and Britain. People can substantially reduce or completely withdraw their participation from this systemic imbalance by becoming informed consumers with particular attention to understanding their needs.

While this will involve lifestyle choices that we are perhaps not accustomed to take, the momentum to create demand for a new economic approach is already well into motion, creating new opportunities for meaningful change in the coming decade.  Of course there is a long way to go, but this is a clear example of how participation can have dramatic effects- either highly detrimental or highly productive. This scale of positive change is not beyond us, but is one that will take recognition that social transformation begins with the individual – with me.

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