Pissonu Alert

Other Alerts

dhs advisory
Terror Alert Level


Why (State) Terrorism Is Burgeoning

Both the power of the elite and the degree of social inequality have grown hugely in the last two to three decades. It strikes me that the growth in state terror is fundamentally linked to the continuing growth in the concentration of power in the hands of the power elite, and the increase in the social inequality and stratification — the ever widening gap between rich and poor, within countries and between them — which every social observer has noted as one of the main characteristics of the global scene since the rise of the New Right in the West in the 1970s. There appears to be a direct correlation between the increasing power and wealth of the elite, the steadily increasing gap between rich and poor, and the growth of state terror, perhaps the three most obvious global characteristics of the last quarter of the twentieth century. I suggest that state terror is a dependent variable in the equation of inequality, not the independent variable many elites, governments, and establishment "terrorism experts" claim it to be.

Social stratification is the central feature of the state and civilization, and Gerald Berreman, Morton Fried, John Bodley, and other like-minded anthropologists have emphasized it as the most dangerous feature of contemporary society. Berreman, who has dedicated his professional life to the study of systems of social inequality, has observed that social stratification "refers to the fact that some categories of people get more of the valued things in life and others get less; a few get most, and most get the rest. Some live well and long; some live poorly and briefly. There is a ranking, in other words, of access to goods, services and experiences — to what the social theorist Max Weber called 'life chances.' There are national elites and international elites; the national poor and international poor. There are rich nations and poor nations." Bodley has argued that social stratification is linked to all of our major contemporary human problems, and is the most fundamental characteristic of civilization "from which other critical problem-causing features are ultimately derived." Social stratification leads to such conflict-inducing factors as the market economy; ethnic, religious, and ideological discrimination; socioeconomic deprivation; political inequality and its correlates such as infringement of rights, injustice, and oppression; the absence of effective channels of peaceful or systemic resolution of grievances and conflicts; exploitation and alienation; and, apropos our topic, state terror to maintain and defend the order of stratification against challenges to elite rule and the social, economic, and political status quo.

These anthropologists have also stressed the link between social stratification and the state. Fried defines the state as "a collection of specialized institutions and agencies that maintain an order of stratification," and Berreman observes that "stratification and the state are one in origin, one in function — creation, protection and continuation of the powerful and privileged at the expense of the rest." Fried also notes that

It is the task of maintaining general social order that stands at the heart of the development of the state. And at the heart of the problem of maintaining general order is the need to defend the central order of stratification...Undoubtedly...one means of doing this is to indoctrinate all members of society with the belief that the social order is right or good or simply inevitable. But there has never been a state which survived on this basis alone. Every state known to history has had a physical apparatus for removing or otherwise dealing with those who failed to get the message.

Physical power alone is not sufficient to integrate a state. Integration must be based on legitimacy, not just force. The crisis of the state at the turn of the century is that as social inequality grows, the ideological bases of state legitimacy are breaking down. Increasing numbers of people — the masses — are politically alienated, and when popular legitimacy cannot be maintained by ideological means, elites rely on force — on terror — to protect and advance their interests. For the state and power elite, where consensus fails, coercion rules.

Berreman has argued that systems of social stratification are "everywhere characterised by conformity rather than consensus, by conflict rather than tranquility, by enforcement rather than by endorsement, by resentment rather than by contentment." and what he observed over twenty years ago seems to be ever truer today: "Naked power is being resorted to more unabashedly as the conflict becomes more evident...the incidence, the likelihood and the impact of overt conflict between individuals is increasing both within and between societies and nations...Present trends suggest a worldwide polarisation in access to power, privilege and resources — the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' increases with a diminishing willingness among the poor to continue to suffer deprivation, and among the wealthy to ameliorate it." All the major world problems are growing at an accelerated rate, and the gap between the few who have much and the many who have little, between rich and poor, between developed nations and developing ones, is growing ever wider. Karl Marx, who argued that this was the inevitable result of free-market capitalism, referred to this process as "progressive emiseration." It should be no surprise that in an era of increasing global emiseration, states and elites have resorted increasingly to terror to contain challenges to the politicoeconomic status quo. Like other social crises, state terror is a dependent variable in the equation of inequality.

     —Jeffrey A. Sluka, "Introduction: State Terror and Anthropology", p32-34, Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror

To some this is all self-evident. To others this is akin to positing heliocentrism to zealous geocentrists. I, for one, am grateful for such an unabashedly passionate, honest, clear yet scholarly articulation of anthropological common sense.

By the way, the book this was quoted from is Fascinating, Insightful, and Provocative. It is a terrific entry point into a painfully unknown academic field of original, important, brave (truly!), scholarly (but accessible), hardcore investigations into all aspects of state terror. Highly Highly Recommended!

And Kudos! to University of Pennyslvania Press for their consequential (and hopefully seminal) Ethnography of Political Violence series!