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Society and Violence - kurnitz

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Society and Violence

SOCIETY AND VIOLENCE

by Horst Kurnitzky

I.

Throughout the history of civilization, the domestication and control of violence have been decisive elements in the formation of society - this is valid for the violence emanating from nature as well as that emanating from the nature of human beings. The domestication of violence like its limited acceptance in rituals, and its sublimation in culture and civilization, were the point of departure for the coming together of human beings in society. The sacrificial feasts were the sensory expression of a system of gifts and countergifts, of economics. Transformed into acts of exchange, sacrifices constitute the basis of social reproduction, which is sustained by a fragile relationship to violence. The relations between the sexes, the relations within communities and among communities, within a society itself and in its relations to other societies--all are determined by their relationship to violence. The containment and domination of violence were an essential impulse in the formation of society; and inversely, violence comes forth again within society itself if the latter fails to balance out antagonistic interests. Violence is a social privilege, and the relation to violence is inscribed in the process of civilization. In the domestication of violence we recognize civilized society.

Violence determines the relationships among human beings; there too, where it doesn't appear as physical violence or where it is translated into culture as sublimated violence. The history of civilization can also be read as the history of the treatment of violence. Cults, religions, the state, and finally civil society, are all forms of the social management of violence. They make tangible the cohesive forces which unite human beings - love, sympathy, solidarity -, as well as those which tendetially break up society. Every attempt to neutralize this ambivalence to the advantage of one side necessarily leads to acts of violence.

II:

With the secularization of theological world-views during the Enlightenment, nature advanced to become the basis for the comprehension of the world. What before was a gift of God, was thereafter a gift of Nature. In the 19th century, economic as well as social theoretical constructs founded on Nature's Law.

Indeed, the stylization of society as a natural formation driven by competition, progressing along the road of evolution, denies human beings the right to take their destiny into their own hands within a society of self-aware individuals. In their struggle for survival they pursue only one law of nature. Self-reflection and the balancing of ambivalent interests are locked out, as is the conception of life-projects as well, because the struggle doubtlessly accepts survival strategies but no life-planning. The fight is geared to the extermination of the opponent. Society as an organic being, like the philosopher Herbert Spencer described it, becomes nature again. The struggle for survival is adopted as the natural law of society; it levels out the difference between nature and society, and breaks with the idea of a truly human society. Open competition and the lifting of

Society and Violence - kurnitz

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legal obstacles for the "fittest" is the success formula for a Darwinist creed of progress.

It can only be conjectured to what extent Darwin carried over and ascribed to nature the principles of economic competition prevalent in his days. His comments about society indicate that he wanted the fight for survival in nature extended to society. Open competition among all men corresponded to the ethos of an age in which economic development let all attempts at a civil society go under in the competitive struggle. The struggle to prevail in economic life by the elimination of the opponent influenced thought; it found expression in literature, philosophy and world-views, and constitutes to this day the concious and unconscious foundation social Darwinist concepts. Healthy is that, which makes strong. Whenenver vitalist or biologistic models are applied to society, civil society shall be put into question and the social contract revoked. Hiding behind this are group interests pursuing other goals: racist goals, nationalist goals, imperial goals and, above all, unrestrained expansion of economic power.

The underlying premise of neoliberalism, that human freedom lies foremost in the protection of property an its unrestrained utilization in association with the equally unhindered exchange of produced goods, is not new. In the U.S. Bill of Rights and in the human rights codex of the French Revolution each of those fundamental rights were already set down in writing, and are a part, to this day, of the inalienable goods of every constitutional state: the guaranteed protection by independent courts of freedom, equality and property. The declared aim of liberal economists was the abolition of any artificial restrictions to trade and industry, so that human beings could freely pursue unhindered their personal interests, that is, their non-civilized nature, where instinct is everything, and social-reflection and social responsibility are suppressed.

To call for total competition under the motto of "laissez-faire" transforms society into a battle-field of partial economic interests. That has wide reaching consequences. To the extent that human

beings and life-projects vanish from economic concepts, that economic theory and practice don't - or no longer - proceed from the real necessities of human beings, that, in other words, politics loses its primacy over economics, vanishes likewise any reflection about society, not to mention about concepts which conceive economics and society as a whole, and the constitution of society as the result of a general will. Social disintegration, misery, migrations, wars and the unrestrained outbreak of violence are the consequences; "unleash nature", goes the saying. The free competition of partial economic interests ultimately replace all social forms of coexistence by a rationality determined exclusively on economic grounds; or as Francis Fukuyama wrote,

"Economic rationality

...

will erode many traditional features of sovereignty as it unifies markets

and production" 1 . In other words: sovereign state forms and democratic societies will fall prey to the concentration of economic power.

Where only the principle of competition counts, that is, where the fight of all against all rages, democracy and the constitutional state disintegrate. For Friedrich Hayek, the father of neoliberalism, democracy was never an issue. The U.S. economist Lester Thurow has been even more explicit: "Should it not be possible in a democracy to impose the neoliberal economic form, there will be another form of government" 2 . In the social jungle, "might is right" is law. With the surrender of the "contrat social" vanishes the difference between legitimacy and illegitimacy, and the institutions which regulate social coexistence fall prey to the arbitrariness of economic power. Thus, all violence is justified, as well as all sense of law annulled.

III:

Everywhere we encounter attributes of violence which appear to have propagated themselves with seeming naturalness in everyday life - manifest in the forms of interaction among individuals as well as in their ways of self-representation. Where each reciprocal commitment dissolves in the struggle for survival, the want of solidarity is compensated by subordination and uniformity. Although serious, the issues are no more than symptoms of something which has not yet at all penetrated social awareness to a new worldwide phenomenon, although the many ethnic, religious or territorially motivated local wars in the last decades should be considered clear indications of a fundamental transformation of societies worldwide. They are still but isolated news items: the genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Ruanda or in the Congo, the opium war in Afghanistan and the cocaine war in Colombia. Likewise, the recurrent flare-ups of riots and lootings like in Los Angeles, or the gang-wars among youths in the metroplises of the Third and First Worlds reveal - at least statistically - that violence in society is in general on the rise, and

Society and Violence - kurnitz

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that the victims are always more numerous and younger.

The growing aggressiveness and propensity to violence appears to be one phenomenon which escapes every attempt to contain it by means of a democratically legitimated state authority. Hold-ups, thefts, plunderings due to social misery, and the permanently sinking threshold of inhibition to commit abuses, as well as xenophobically motivated attacks appear as completely rational violent acts, compared to the vandalism and hate which can break out spontaneously and strike at anyone --turning outwardly as well as inwardly. The escalation of violence is alarming because it reveals the internal decomposition of social cohesiveness in the face of which society and its institutions are powerless.

Mark Rosenberg 3 , Californian researcher on violence, points out that most deaths of people under age 45, and 38 percent of all deaths are the result of acts of violence. The statistics prove that the number of victims of violence proportionate to the total of deaths is going up. Particularly young Afroamericans and Latinos from decaying neighborhoods in the big cities are among the victims. There, violence is endemic; homicide and second degree murder have been for long part of everyday life and culture, leading as a post-traumatic syndrome, to increased alertness, defense readiness and hostility. Violence is not only targeted at strangers but also at friends and kin; perpetrators and victims know each other, belong to the same family, gang or clique. By aiming the aggression against themselves, the subject and object of aggression fall together. Violence emanates in the society and the individuals, and it directets itself back against them again, thus following a tendency to social self-destruction. Psycoanalysis has shown us that every violent act of an individual, that every aggression is always in part self-aggression. The desire of annihilate the other ist simultanously the desire to annihilate the other in oneself; to suppress the individual as a subject. The self-mutilating street gang warriors - tatoo, wounds, shaven scalps - have thus, in their own understanding, the right to mutilate any one else too.

In "Prospects of Civil War" 4 , Hans Magnus Enzensberger pointed out a couple of years ago the propagating readiness for violence. Armed mobs and gangs dominate the scene in the city and in the countryside. Free market social Darwinism has swept away all social cohesiveness. The consequences are manifestations of dissolution; an atomization of society. Until a few decades ago, society presumed that its members were bound to a welfare state by a "contrat social". Today, society casts out more and more people. At the the root lies a change in direction, described by Niklas Luhmann 5 as the shift from a society of inclusion to a society of exclusion. But also the individuals and groups remaining within society isolate themselves from each other, and their lack of perspective discharges itself in violence readiness. If in the past people tried to break out of the slums and settlements of the marginalized, today they react also against a further series of exclusion mechanisms, visible as well as invisible, which have appeared. It is not, as might seem, the representation of violence on television which provokes violence in society. It is television itself; its lack of context, its ever faster changing images and fragments. It is the subcutane aggressiveness of the medium itself which evokes reactions of violence. The communicationlessness of the media tallies with the communicationlessness in the city, which in turn falls apart in remnants, barrios, villages, vecindades, neighbourhoods, which barricade themselves against their neighbours.

IV.

Exemplary for the spheres in which violence propagates more and more are the megacities in the developing countries, like Mexico City. In the past still a part of the Third World on the threshold of the First, the Mexican capital has become today (now that the entire country is integrated - as an experimental field - in the "Northamerican Free Trade Zone" and globalization dissolves all historical and social differences) the place where new forms of violence develop. They originate in old social structures - brotherhoods, secret societies, mafia - or resort back to them. The society disintegrates while gangs, mafias and cartels become increasingly stronger.

According to official figures 6 , 1996 was the most violent year in Mexico City's history: a quarter of a million registered criminal assaults; 75 percent of the robberies directed against banks, supermarkets, businesses, houses, flats, loaded lorries, taxis and automobiles; kidnappings of politicians and businessmen(a new industry), eight kidnappings of children per month(traffic with organs), three murders daily. The tendency is rising, so that in the future every inhabitant can count on being assaulted at least once.

Society and Violence - kurnitz

https://sites.google.com/site/kurnitz/society-and-violence

Parallel to the radical privatization of state owned enterprises and state property, a free organization of gangs has developed, which last year led to the arrest of over 600 gangs in the city. They perpetrated hold-ups, break-ins, robberies of supermarkets and banks, and car thefts - organized in collaboration with the police and insurance companies. Including contract killings, they execute nearly everything that falls in the trade. Facing them there is a similarly large number of private security services, which often recruit former members of the police, who in turn often build gangs themselves. They are hired by the citizenry to keep watch over businesses, houses and housing complexes. Five locks in the door, a heavy garden gate, the neighbourhood sealed off by road barriers, guard houses, and identity paper controls of passers-by and automobiles. Thus the city transforms itself into an accumulation of fortresses, which have already taken possession of over 20 percent of the city surface.

The streets and housing developments, whose dwellers rightly call themselves colonos again, like the Spaniards who 400 years ago occupied the country, are fortress-like dormitory developments, sealed off by guard houses and roadblocks. They don't have any public facilities at their disposal, such as assembly rooms and restaurants, and are under surveillance by private police, who control all in-coming and out-going motor vehicles. In reality, these colonos are voluntary prisoners, whose social communication oscillates between office, shopping centre or mall, and the television screens at home. "On an international scale", wrote Enzensberger, "everywhere, the fortification of the boundary wall of demarcation - like the Roman limes - is being worked on, which shall protect from the barbarians. But also within the metropolis, archipelagos of security take shape, which are defended. In the great American, African and Asian cities, there are long since bunkers of the blissful, surrounded by high, barbed wire reinforced walls. Sometimes it is entire quarters, which can only be entered with special identification cards. Barriers, electronic cameras and watchdogs control access. Sentinels in watch-towers armed with machine guns secure the surroundings" 7 .

Already in 1972, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas had designed, along with some colleagues, the postmodern city of the future 8 . High fortress walls, which delimit state borders rather than city limits, protect the walled-in security zone. The city is equipped with all logistic installations, because, anyhow, the prisoners don't abandon their fortress anymore, unless to visit similarly walled-in friends, travelling in convoys of armoured vehicles through hostile territory. Mexico City is not too far away from that. It is long a fact that its streets cannot be trod upon in the day or at night without fear, independently of the fact that these were practically never planned or built for pedestrians. The social jungle of gangs, families, mafias and cartels contributes now to wash away the deceptive veneer of big city life. What emerges is the opposite of a humane society: naked violence. Television spots against violence and advertisements for armoured cars along the speedways illustrate how far the violence readiness of society has gone. There have already been some cases of lynch law in the countryside. The bloody battle of particular power groups who spare no sacrifice is the characteristic feature of the rule of violence. But it is not that the neoliberal opinion makers released a formula to which the world dances. Neoliberalism too, like violence, is a symptom of a society in crisis.

1) Fukuyama, Francis: The End of History and the last Man, The Free Press, New York, 1992. 2) Thurow, Lester C.: "Wir testen das System", Der Spiegel, 40/1996. 3) Gerteis, Margaret: "Violence, public health, and the Media", based on the conference: "Mass Communication and Social Agenda Setting", The Anneberg Washington Program, Washington, D.C., 1993. 4) Enzensberger, Hans Magnus: Aussichten auf den Bürgerkrieg, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M.,

1993.

5) Luhmann, Niklas: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Bd.2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M., 1997. 6) La Jornada, México, D.F., 31 de diciembre de 1996. 7) Enzensberger, op. cit. 8) Rem Kolhaas & Elia Zenghelis with Mandelon Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis: Exodo "The Voluntary Prisoners", fotomontage, 1972, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Society and Violence - kurnitz https://sites.google.com/site/kurnitz/society-and-violence Parallel to the radical privatization of state owned enterprises and

Society and Violence - kurnitz

https://sites.google.com/site/kurnitz/society-and-violence

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