An important question in revolutionary theory and practice is the question of violence. Indeed, one of the advancements of Maoism over social-democratic politics is the recognition that political power is always power guaranteed by means of the gun and not just cultural hegemony. From the social-democratic tradition we can see two main ways of resolving conflict: violent resolution and pacific resolution. Maoists hold this dichotomy is nonsensical and propose instead the distinction between behavioral and systemic violence, understanding the usage of behavioral violence as a response to systemic violence and the social structures that cause it as a correct usage of violence, with which a class can replace another. In a maxim, “It is right to rebel against reactionaries”.

Epistemological premises

Often times, when the theory of systemic violence is mentioned, the retort spouted by reactionaries amounts to the following: “How is me exchanging something making people drop dead in Africa?”. It shouldn’t be surprising people would think this; this is “common sense”. But what is common sense?

Common sense is the shared ability to understand things and judge them according to social norms which categorize things as socially acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, this distinction isn’t objective nor neutral, but is a useful ideological tool of the ruling classes, which are able to make their rule seem natural by means of inculcating their political power into the ideology of people, i.e. the way they imagine their relationship to society. For the European peasant in the 11th century, it was common sense that feudal lords would have a monopoly on land granted by the emperor and blessed by the Pope, the vicar of God on Earth. Today, it is common sense that the capitalist would have control over the means of production, “because they worked hard”, “legality shouldn’t be breached”, “selfishness is virtue”… in short, because a certain abstract justification is inculcated in the masses’ very way of thinking about the world by ideological apparatuses.

One of the components of common sense today, a category of thought utilized by people when they think, is the concept of common sense causality. Common sense causality is a central pillar of people’s thought system, both in everyday life and in academic life; it is a spontaneous way of seeing things, A leads to B, B leads to C, and so forth. It seems simple, so why are we calling it an ideological component of capitalism? Simply put, the concept of causality we have inherited from philosophy is nothing objective or set in stone. The two main modes of causality presented by capitalist ideology are expressive and transitive causality. We’ll discuss both and explain why their limitations make them useless when employed to explain social phenomena like violence. As a premise to our discussion of both, we must say that both these views of causality are the products of an abstract understanding of the subject; in the case of transitive causality, it is the Creator or some other sort of essence that originates causality (idealism), where for expressive causality is it the free and rational human trying to realize reason in history (humanism). Both conceptualizations are the product of the Enlightenment.

Transitive causality

Transitive causality, the main form of causality in popular ideology, comes from the Cartesian (Descartes’) tradition and reduces the whole to the sum of its parts. According to this understanding, causality is like a billiard game. When applied to the category of violence, transitive causality can only account for direct or behavioral violence, that is, violence initiated consciously by a person or a group of people against another person or group of people (e.g. someone robbing a bank, someone hitting someone else, etc.). Empiricist and vulgar deviations within Marxism can broadly be categorized as being tainted by this view of causality and by a link to Cartesian thought. Transitive causality is limited because it can only provide us with a history and description of elements (person X did action Y which harmed person Z), and doesn’t account for the relations existing between these elements (person X exists in a specific type of society, has a specific relation to person Z, action Y was prompted by previous actions and relations, and so on).

This concept of causality gives rise to the dictionary definition of violence: “Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”

The problem with this view of violence is apparent: behavioral violence is just the most apparent form of a larger social phenomenon, that of systemic violence, the way in which social structures harm individuals and groups by putting them through social arrangements which lead to positions of discomfort and harm. Social structures are violent because they cause injury, and they are systemic because they are embedded in the organization of society. With the dictionary understanding of violence we wouldn’t be able to understand how in a world of abundance tens of thousands starve every day, why this happens in specific geographical areas, and who is to blame.

Focusing on behavioral violence is an ideological practice, as it neglects or ignores the presence of systemic violence perpetrated by the normal functioning of the capitalist economy, its politics, its ideologies, and so on; since the capitalist ruling class and its system wield the hidden weapon of systemic violence to discipline the population (you’ll starve if you don’t work for a capitalist, you’ll be homeless if you don’t pay rent, etc.), obscuring systemic violence will necessarily portray those who wield behavioral violence as being in the wrong, as being the initiators of violence, when in fact theirs is most often a response to the powerlessness the system inflicts on the people.

The distributive and productive pattern of society depends on institutions that are human creations, whether conscious or unconscious, such as capitalist property relations, the state’s policies, etc. These institutions are not static and can be changed by political decisions; leaving things as they are and refusing engaging in political action is equivalent to the decision to accept the existing pattern of resource distribution and the productive relations that give rise to it. In other words, paraphrasing Zizek, often times doing nothing is the most violent thing one can do.

Expressive causality

Expressive causality is the product of the tradition of thought initiated by Leibniz, which proclaims the part of a whole as nothing more than a phenomenal expression of this whole. This concept is the direct opposite of transitive causality in that it claims that the phenomena of a system may be reduced to a supposed internal principle of the system, its essence. For instance, the economistic deviation within Marxism, which argues for a reflection of economic matters in the superstructure, is built on this conception of causality, according to which complex phenomena are reduced to one single essence. This type of causality, when applied to the concept of violence, yields another justification for the continued perpetration of systemic violence by attributing behavioral violence to some innate essence of human existence or other essentialisms. We’ve heard many times that people are just violent and this is human nature, despite the historical materialist evidence against this claim.

The essence to which behavioral violence is ascribed can always be criticized with the tools of the scientific method. Human nature can’t be considered the originator of behavioral or systemic violence, as historically there have been forms of social organization that limited both. In a two part series on war and “human nature”, Joshua Alexander, writer and editor of and of Weekly Bolshevik demonstrated humans aren’t naturally aggressive, but learnedly aggressive, and concludes:

“If we are not “naturally aggressive”, but learnedly aggressive in some cases, and even psychopaths cannot start an illustrious career of abuse without having first been abused, how are we to judge all this? Well let us study what we have observed so far—Warfare, and more importantly substantial inter-group violence of any kind, has only arisen since the agricultural revolution after-which surplus and ruling-classes came into existence. Having observed that the conditions of the rise of property, as surplus can only become given the organs of civilization which develop to manage it, how can we not come to the conclusion that our organization of society engenders violence? That the conflict which has arisen due to property is not conditioning mankind, through an aggressive media, national discourse, home environment etc.? That that environment itself is not self-perpetuating, engendering more alienation and frustration in society? Would it then not be prudent, having deduced the above, that removal of the pressures which cause the excesses of our conditioned, violent culture be expunged—namely property?”

Structural causality

This conception of causality, cornerstone of Marxism, holds that relations between elements of the whole aren’t exterior to the whole nor are they the expression of some internal essence. The whole is here considered as the reciprocal effectivities of its elements at the same time as these elements are determined by the whole, that is, their interrelationship with other elements of the whole. Unpacking the jargon, the whole is the relations between the elements of the whole, elements which are themselves determined by these relations. The cause of effects is the whole, the whole is the sum of effects and their interrelations. The structure of the whole exists specifically through its effects, it is nothing outside its effects. Structural causality leads us to the understanding of causality as a relation, not as a thing. Effect B is the effect of cause A only where A is situated in a larger structure, which forces us to understand causes as elements of a larger whole and not as isolated elements (as in transitive causality) or as expressions of some abstract essence (as in expressive causality).

With this in mind, we can talk about systemic violence.

Systemic violence

Systemic violence is the harm caused against individuals or groups of people through social structures. Systemic violence and behavioral violence aren’t juxtaposed, the latter is dependent on the former; we can’t properly conceive of behavioral violence without understanding its systemic causes. We may think of the US Army in the Iraq War for an example. It’s obvious who’s pulling the trigger against the Iraqi population are American soldiers, but we don’t blame just the individual soldier, we also blame the structure of the military itself, a product of the need for repressive organs in class society.

Systemic violence puts individuals through social arrangements in positions of discomfort. They cause injury and hence are are violent; they are embedded in the structure of society and a product of its normal functioning and hence systemic. Racial segregation, only in part caused by behavioral constraints and mostly a product of systemic causes accumulated throughout the settler-colonial history of the United States, claims 176,000 lives a year, tens of times more than the deaths caused by firearm-related homicide.

The suffering of people, unable to be conveyed in toto by statistics, is the product of historically driven forces which converge to constrain people’s agencies and harm their bodies and psyche, a social and systemic matrix of violence. Many of the life choices people take are structured by the realities of racism, sexism, political violence, poverty, and so on.

The forms systemic violence takes are many, such as segregation, income inequalities, employment inequalities, education differentials, housing differentials, lack of transportation, food access, physical activity, neighborhood conditions, crime, health care and so on. In this systemic causality model, it is the elements of the system that converge and reinforce the inequity of social groups and individuals. For instance, discrimination on the basis of race or gender, operating through institutionalized power, perpetuates historically formed social inequalities (such as household conditions, workplace conditions, employment opportunities, etc.), which translates into harm against individuals and causes unhealthy behavior, as well as the behavioral violence on which capitalist ideology focuses.

Morality of the slave owner, morality of the slave

“By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master?” – Walter Rodney

The shared morality of capitalist ideology argues that any attack on private property is immoral. Is this so? When we identify the monopoly on means of production as the primary condition for the level of systemic violence we witness today, we may say that violence utilized by the capitalist state against those who oppose capitalism, and the violence used by the latter to secure a livelihood under an exclusionary system, can’t be compared.

Revolutionary violence is an inescapable law of history, characteristic of every change in the social organization of human societies, and is always violence prompted by the systemic violence imposed on potentially revolutionary forces by the system which exploits them. It is here that Marxism’s praise for the liberating violence of the oppressed arises. Unlike the theories of just vs. unjust violence pushed by the bourgeoisie, which presuppose a pre-existing moral community and a social contract to restore by means of a “just war”, Marxism poses the question in a radically different way, understanding contradictions as being inherent in the society of imperialism and inferring the need for a transformation of the relations existing between people, not a restoration of a lost morality.

In short, Marxism differentiates between the correct and incorrect use of violence, respectively the use of violence to resolve antagonistic contradictions between the people and the enemy, and the use of violence to resolve non-antagonistic contradictions among the people.

Who’s the aggressor?

Imperialism. Imperialism kills and dominates through its use of systemic as well as behavioral violence. The monopolization of means of subsistence and production by a very small minority, a prerequisite for monopoly capitalism and its class structure, gives rise to a massive system of contradictions. The system of accumulation wouldn’t be sustained without the structural inequality imposed on women, who perform two-thirds of the world’s working hours while being paid only 10% of the world’s income. In the same way, the predominance of monopoly capital in First World nations wouldn’t be sustained without their asymmetric relationship of economic, political and ideological dominance over Third World countries, from which most of the OECD’s profits can be tracked back to. Without domestic colonialism, the US’ white population wouldn’t have a position of economic dominance over oppressed nations within American borders.

We can only understand individual issues by relating them back to the structure which generates them. We can’t fix poverty by means of charity, as both poverty and charity are products of inequalities at the point of production. We can’t abolish patriarchy without abolishing imperialism, since imperialism is dependent on patriarchy for its survival. We can’t abolish the inequalities between nations and the distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations without putting an end to imperialism, as imperialism couldn’t exist without the domination of the Third World by the First World. And finally, we can’t hope to abolish imperialism by appealing to the morality of the imperialists.

— Klaas V.

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  1. […] writes Ali Tamlit, from a state determined to defend the corporations that are inflicting the systemic violence of climate change on us all. The peaceful fight for a better world must go on. Environment news […]


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