In recent years the world has enjoyed historically low rates of violence. By 2000, both homicides and deaths in war had plummeted from their 20th century highs, continuing a trend toward a less violent world that Steven Pinker argues began in the Middle Ages. And yet, this trajectory may be changing. Civil war deaths have risen more than 25 per cent in the last five years, and whilst homicides remain down globally, they are creeping up in many places, including cities in the United States and Venezuela, for example.
We now stand at the edge of a precipice that represents a choice for humanity. Either we work together to create a world in which violence is rare, or we continue regardless into one where it suddenly, and severely, rises. To move in the right direction, we must have a deeper understanding of what is causing most of today’s violence, and what can be done to fight it.
Theories of violence
Two major theories tend to get trotted out to explain violence. The first posits that violence is the result of a weak state unable to keep order. The international community’s solution has been to strengthen the state. Internationally, this has resulted in security sector assistance and development programmes. Domestically it has led to harder and more punitive security policies.
The second major theory claims that violence is the result of choices by individuals marginalised by a failed system. Proponents call for socio-economic reforms such as job creation for vulnerable communities, and undertake efforts to help rehabilitate individuals, fighting gangs through after-school activities, or reducing terrorist recruitment.
My forthcoming book (Knopf, 2018) looks at positive deviants in the world of violence – countries that had faced violence from a multitude of groups but then became far safer. In researching the cases I found that both theories are right – and both are wrong. The problem is not weak governments, but complicit governments that have been deliberately weakened. And the solution does require changing societies, but that can’t happen without also changing leaders - bringing in not only new people, but a new structure of power. Finally, language such as ‘state capture’ and ‘political settlements’ has made violence seem like something that happens elsewhere, in particularly pathological places. But violence in Baltimore – with one of the highest homicide rates in the world – shares a similar pattern with Bogotá twenty years ago. Indeed, while wars grab headlines, it is estimated that between 370,000 and 425,000 people are killed by homicide each year – a number that includes (in some countries), terrorist violence and violence between armed groups, gangs and drug cartels. Further, because these numbers obscure violence committed by governments against unarmed citizens such as police shootings, figures are in reality higher still.
Violence around the world is becoming more concentrated. An increasing number of countries are largely secure, but in a small number, violence has become endemic. According to the Small Arms Survey, just 18 countries, with only four per cent of the world’s population, account for nearly one-quarter of all violent deaths. Some of these countries, such as Syria, are at war, and some, like Libya, are basically without a government. The largest number, however, are democracies.
What is striking is that these democratic countries exhibit a set of similar characteristics. They are highly partisan, factionalised societies whose economic and political elites have exorbitant privilege compared to the rest of the citizenry. To maintain that privilege and impunity, they often rely on campaign contributions from criminal groups, hire muscle to help win elections, and tend to politicise the security sector so that these favoured violent groups are not jailed. Security sectors are simultaneously deprofessionalised, with budgets and promotions dependent on political favour and patronage rather than merit. These weaknesses render them unable to fight crime or insurgency effectively – but the weakness is deliberate and will not be solved by an influx of outside funds and expertise.
Security agencies respond by becoming inefficient and repressive, particularly towards more marginalised groups. As citizens stop trusting the government to protect them, they may turn to vigilante groups and criminals for protection, or look to insurgents to change the structure of power. Meanwhile, those benefitting from the status quo may begin to employ private security firms or rely on para-state forces and extrajudicial killings to eliminate ‘undesirables’. The citizenry begins to divide into those who demand ‘justice and rights’ versus those focused on ‘law and order’, mindsets which often map on to existing political factions and class, religious or ethnic cleavages.
I call this violence ‘Privilege Violence’ because it stems not from a state that is weak, overwhelmed and unable to fight violence – but from a power structure that allows or even enables violence against some citizens as the price for maintaining extreme privilege.
Decivilisation, dehumanisation and decay
Privilege violence is not just a problem of the state. It facilitates a process whereby society itself begins to normalise, accept and excuse violence. The process is known as decivilisation – and it can happen anywhere.
Take America. Randolph Roth, the author of American Homicide, spent decades researching violence in America. The strongest correlation he found was startling: when more people said they, “trust the government to do what is right most of the time”, homicides fell; but when more Americans felt that, “quite a few people running the government are crooked”, they rose. Homicide wasn’t primarily about guns or economic dislocation. Instead, killings that seem completely removed from politics rise when people stop trusting their government and each other.
Why does a decline in trust and connection yield murder? The connection seems farfetched, but the theory has become one of the strongest explanations in global criminology.
The idea of decivilising was coined by Norbert Elias in the 1930s. As a Jewish man living in 1930s Germany, he couldn’t help but notice what was going on around him. He described a process that most violence scholars now accept heralds a slow-motion disaster.
First, people lower their inhibitions, saying and doing things that were previously considered beyond the pale. Language coarsens and is used to dehumanise the ‘other’; people become ‘animals’, police become ‘pigs’. As inhibitions lower, people who would not themselves use force are willing to excuse it in others. Society atomises and empathy declines. Gradually, the group willing to use violence for political or personal ends expands. Meanwhile, the polarised discourse makes policy solutions harder. Options to address grievances become ‘soft on crime’; efforts to improve deterrence are dismissed as ‘punitive’. Confirmation bias makes it impossible to change minds with facts alone, while the breakdown in fellow-feeling makes changing minds through empathy equally difficult.
What can be done?
Privilege Violence describes a problem endemic in Central America, Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan, and a number of other places, where violence is increasingly concentrated. So what can the international community do to fight it?
First, we need to recognise that the problem is not that the government is weak – but that the security sectors have been deliberately weakened in their ability to protect citizens (though they may be strong in their regime-protection capabilities). Pouring in aid and security assistance won’t help when the political power structure requires that the state stay weak by design. Instead, the government itself must decide that protecting all its citizens matters.
Foreigners cannot force that calculus. It must come from the population itself. Yet in most countries, violence doesn’t affect everyone equally. The poor and marginalised bear the brunt of violence, while the upper and middle classes can convince themselves that most violence is just ‘criminals killing criminals’. Getting the population to fight impunity requires organising the middle class to stand with the marginalised. But this is not straightforward. Movements to tear down governments without anything to put in their place can yield more violence, as has been the case in Egypt. Movements to simply express anger at the government can increase disorder that further factionalises the ‘law and order’ and ‘social justice’ sides of society.
Instead organisers must create political movements that reframe the fight against violence in nonpartisan language and focus the movement on selecting leaders who will protect all their citizens. But ‘reformist’ leaders can’t do all the work themselves. As newly elected governments begin to show results, society also needs to ‘recivilise’ itself. Building social bonds, empathy and a sense of shared citizenship across communities enables societies to self-police, lowering violence rates and letting law-enforcement institutions focus on rarer offenders rather than mass imprisonment.
This is not of course a simple process. But when it happens, it can bring down violence – as it did in the Republic of Georgia, which once faced violence similar to that of Libya today; in Sicily, where organised crime killed at levels on par with the Northern Irish insurgency; and in Colombia, Bihar, India, and even the United States.
Outsiders are sidekicks to this trajectory, not leading actors. But they can still play an important role. First, security sector aid should be channeled towards professionalisation, not equipment. Before a government is in place that wants to protect its citizens, all the uniforms, cars and surveillance assistance in the world won’t help these forces do their jobs. But helping them professionalise, and helping civilian leaders exercise effective oversight, can create internal demand within the security sector for depoliticised and less repressive forces that work on behalf of the whole community.
Next, programmes to educate citizens in general, and particularly to help civic and political leaders, can play an important role. Education is correlated with fighting violence because educated citizens can form a professional middle class with the ability, confidence and skills to organise. Leadership programmes should stop prioritising individual champions, but instead need to adopt a movement mentality, bringing together social, civic, political, media and security sector leaders from across a country to incubate ideas, build networks and create the types of broad-based social movements that can bring about change.
Countries and donors who want to address violence should also do all they can to reverse the trend of closing space for civil society; an open and free civil society is crucial for promoting progressive change.
Municipalities or smaller political units can sometimes be hotbeds for change. Where mayors or governors have some control over their security sectors, and are directly elected and accountable to their citizens, it can be easier to mobilise citizenry for change and for people to gauge responsiveness.
Finally, developed countries should act at home to ensure that their banking laws do not allow the laundering of money for violent groups and governments. The United States, in particular, needs internal reform to stop domestic criminal justice, firearm and drug laws from contributing to violence overseas. But these solutions must be cross-border, to ensure that flows of money and arms do not just migrate from one haven to another.
The fight against privilege violence is not easy. But it targets a major driver of violence across the world. Violence has fallen so immensely in modern times that, despite recent setbacks, and deeply worrying current events, there is real hope that this trend can be continued.