A few days ago, I submitted my tax documents to the various government agencies that require them. For me, as for many others I’m sure, this process was fraught and scary. It was fraught because I reject the legitimacy of taxation and most of the uses to which the various government agencies put my accumulated abstract labor (i.e. money). It was fraught also because many of my friends support taxation whole-heartedly, and more or less everyone submits to it as an unavoidable evil – much like searches at the airport. The process was scary because I realized I owed more than $1200. I only made a little more than $16,000 last year, working as a part-time instructor at a regional campus of the Indiana University system. I have no idea how I will come up with this money and I fear the networked bureaucracy that will likely attempt to extort a great deal more.

One of the interesting paradoxes of our present political climate is that many people on the left support taxation. Presently, front organizations of the Democratic Party are holding rallies across the US in support of the “Buffett Rule,” initially proposed by billionaire Warren Buffett and endorsed by President Obama as part of his re-election campaign. The rule would apply a 30% tax rate to anyone making over $1 million/year. It seems to me that many well-meaning people show up at these rallies believing that, in doing so, they are supporting public services and the workers who provide them. I find this situation puzzling and those who rally misguided.

To be clear, it is not surprising that reformists support taxation – whether of billionaires or ordinary folks. From their standpoint, taxation serves to rectify some of the excesses that are built into capitalism. For reformist supporters of taxation, the problem isn’t the system of capitalism itself but its abuse by greedy individuals who seek personal gain over the common good. It takes a little from everyone to insure that everyone has access to some fundamental public goods – the more you have the more it takes. I believe that these people are misguided in their thinking about the issue, but our disagreement runs deep. Plus, as I said, their views are not surprising.

What I do find surprising is that such measures receive the support of people who identify themselves as anti-capitalists. From Karl Marx to Emma Goldman, radical anti-capitalists have never believed that existing governmental organizations could be used in this fashion. Marx himself understood that existing “democracies” serve what he called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” What he meant by this is relatively simple: despite their frequent claims to allow everyone a voice and to treat all people equally, capitalist societies are truly controlled by the owner class. For example, paying no heed to public outrage and massive protests both Democrats and Republicans supported the massive bailout of banks and other financial institutions in 2008. Of course, this is only one egregious example. The truth is that nearly every government institution exists to serve the will of the owner class. This is hardly surprising if you consider that in 2008 nearly 2/3 of the US Senate were millionaires.

It seems to me that there are two principle arguments from the left in favor of taxation: (1) Taxation is a means of redistributing wealth and (2) policies focused on taxing the wealthy and redistributing their wealth serve the strategic aim of heightening class consciousness. Regarding the first, it’s simply false. Insofar as taxation amounts to a redistribution of wealth, it serves the same purpose now as it did in the days of lords and kings – to take the fruits from those who work and give them to those who own. Mitt Romney’s revelation recently that he paid less than 15% in taxes on income from capital gains should illustrate the point well enough. Federal and state governments subsidize his various enterprises well beyond this limited figure, while he reaps the surplus value produced by workers under his employ. This case is not limited; it’s the norm. Perhaps the most egregious expression of this dynamic is the US war machine. Ordinary people pay taxes so that contractors can win outlandish contracts to murder people all over the world – ultimately, of course, to subsidize various capitalist enterprises (the most obvious of which being weapons manufacture). The rightwing idea that the worker is put upon by moochers has an element of truth – except the moochers tend to live in mansions, play tennis, and wear suits.

What about the argument based on strategy, though? Does it not heighten class consciousness to demand that the wealthy pay their fair share to support public goods? First, it’s questionable from the outset whether allying with reformist elites could ever serve radical ends. Rather, reformist elites consistently co-opt energy from radical political movements to achieve narrow political gains – which from any rational standpoint are themselves policy failures. We refer to them as “opportunists” for a reason. Here, one can take the healthcare debate as an example. The groundswell of support for universal healthcare – itself a half-measure – was co-opted to achieve a massive give-away to insurance companies. Democrats congratulate themselves on another fine victory. Meanwhile, there are no significant strategic gains for radical movements. Worse yet, and here’s the real issue, the working class is betrayed (again!) by those who believe they know better. They were supposed to get health insurance, but instead they got fines. Finally, many working class people already oppose taxation in the abstract and very few people find it an enjoyable experience. In short, precisely a campaign against taxation would be an easy strategic target for left challenges to the State and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Now, some will argue that I have overlooked all the important public goods paid for by taxes and all the services they provide to the poor and working class. In the first place, we should dispel the mystification produced by money. Those services are provided by the workers who build bridges, teach classes, and staff libraries – not pieces of paper. The real issue is how we can work together cooperatively to meet all of our needs. And I’m almost certain that extorting labor from some workers to provide the necessities for other workers is exploitative, inefficient, and alienating. Indeed, that’s actually how the whole system works. At the end of the day, we should be honest with ourselves: in capitalist society profit triumphs over all. Any institution or organization that does not serve profit will be dismantled. This means that while fire hydrants and bridges may appear to be “public” they also serve the private interests of the owner class. Public education, to take but one example, produces an obedient, standardized workforce literate enough to meet the demands of (post-) industrial capitalism. Certainly, I’m in favor of cooperative labor in support of the needs of all – the poor and working class first and foremost – but that’s exactly why I oppose taxation: there’s no cooperation there at all.

David Graeber has spent the last decade challenging the line drawn between scholar and activist. While many academics fancy themselves “radicals,” the anthropologist professor has been an active participant in anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups and organizing. Graeber has used his skill-set as an anthropologist to compile ethnographic data—far away from the classroom and campus, to be sure—regarding the contemporary anarchist movement in North America; the results were published in 2009 as Direct Action: An Ethnography. David Graeber is the author of several books, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and, most recently, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber currently teaches social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Below, Graeber discusses his latest book, the concept of debt in detail, and how his involvement in the anarchist movement sparked his interest in the history of debt.

Alex Bradshaw: Your latest book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, explores the origins of debt. What were some of the implications for communities and individuals when debt became a significant factor in people’s lives?

David Graeber: Well, one reason I wrote this book is that debt has come to pervade every aspect of our lives. International relations are all about debt, modern nation-states run on deficit financing, and consumer debt drives the economy—yet no one has, to my knowledge, ever written a history of the phenomenon. Even though people have written histories of almost anything else you can possibly imagine.

What I discovered was that in some ways, all this is nothing new. It’s probably fair to say that most human beings have been debtors at least at some point in their lives. Similarly, most uprisings, revolts, insurrections, mass political mobilizations in human history have been about debt—for instance, Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic largely emerged as a way of settling debt crises of one sort or another. Usually, in the end, enduring political regimes have had to come up with some solution to the debt trap, to avoid having the bulk of their population become effectively (or literally) slaves or peons to their creditors.

There’re two sorts of solutions, usually. One, typical of ages of credit money—where money itself is assumed to be a social creation, so many IOUs or promises—is to impose some kind of direct controls. For instance, ancient Mesopotamian kings would often just declare a clean slate, all debts would be wiped out and people would start over again. Or you could ban the taking of interest, as both Christianity and Islam did in the Middle Ages. The other solution, typical of periods of actual, physical money, such Classical Antiquity or the last five hundred years or so, is more the imperial solution: insist that debts are sacred and not to be tampered with, and throw money at the problem, create standing armies and pay them, figure out ways to distribute cash directly to your subjects—or at least social welfare programs—so they don’t end up up to the ears and lose their freedom. This of course only works in the imperial centers (cities like Athens and Rome which literally gave wealth away to their citizens), elsewhere, you usually tend to have massive debt enslavement.

Looked at in these terms, we can see that, as we begin to move back to a system of virtual credit money, that solution is breaking down as well. As a result, everyone, even in countries like the US, are being reduced to effective debt slaves. The greatest social evil of antiquity was precisely this: people would fall so deeply in debt that they would end up selling their children into slavery, even, finally, themselves. But you know, if Plato or Aristotle were somehow magically transported to modern America, would he really see matter here as all that different? Sure, we no longer sell ourselves to employers, we rent ourselves. But for anyone from the ancient world, such a distinction would be at best a legalism. They’d probably consider most Americans to be debt slaves, and would they really be so wrong to do so?

AB: When we discuss debt, we also have to discuss the concept of money. What is the conventional narrative about why money came to exist, and did your studies of debt contradict this narrative? On this note, what is the essential connection between money and debt?

DG: If you pick up an economic textbook, it’ll tell you that once upon a time (it literally deserves such an introduction, it’s a fairy tale) there was no money, so people engaged in barter: “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow”, that sort of thing. If the guy doesn’t want chickens, you’re out of luck—so you have to go invent money. Gradually, this gives birth to more sophisticated financial forms like paper money, complex credit operations, securitized derivatives… The problem is that, as anthropologists have known for years, it just isn’t true. No one has ever found an economy based on barter (and believe me, they’ve been looking.) Actually it’s not just wrong, it’s backwards: credit systems come first, coinage is invented at least two thousand years later, and barter…well, when it does occur, it’s usually because people are used to using money, but somehow the money supply disappears, as it did, say, in Russia with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But if credit systems are the original form of money, that gives great support to those economists—and among economists, they are decidedly the minority—who argue that money really is debt; or, better perhaps, a system of accounting that allows us to keep track of credits and debts. That realization has profound implications.

AB: The discourse regarding financial markets only tolerates so much dissent; the most common dogma states that financial markets are merely a “natural” human occurrence. Does a critical history of debt undermine the view that financial markets proper have a benign, benevolent tradition? Further, could you explain your claim that markets are founded on a “logic of violence?”

DG: I find it somewhat amusing that a lot of conventional thinkers, when they hear me talk about ancient clean slates, Jubilees and whatnot, respond “but that couldn’t really be true! It would have a terrible effect on economic activity.” Well, perhaps, but what they don’t take into account is that “economic activity” of that sort, the sort which was based on cash or precisely quantified, legally enforced loans (rather than relations based on honor and trust between people with genuine moral relations with one another)—well, for most of human history, that was largely a side-effect of military operations. Coinage is invented to pay soldiers, and markets that used them tended to crop up alongside military camps. Similarly the modern banking system arises to help fund European wars. Central banks, in turn, institutionalized that system, since the debts they manage are basically government war debt, and always have been—at least back to 1694, when King William II offered some London merchants who’d made a loan of £1.2 million to fight a war in France the right to call themselves “The Bank of England” and loan that money he owed them to others in the form of banknotes, thus bringing our current currency system into existence. Modern money is still basically government war debt.

AB: As this interview is being conducted, the hot topic in electoral politics news in the United States is the stand-off regarding raising the “debt ceiling”—that is, the maximum debt the U.S. can accrue. My question is twofold: (1.) do nation-states really have tangible debt limits, and (2.) what would happen if the U.S. were to pay off its debt tomorrow—that is, is it desirable to do so?

DG: The US is the only country that has such a legal limit, but it’s all a moralistic charade. As I say, the system we have, based on Central Banks—in our case, the Federal Reserve— requires the US to be in debt because that’s where money comes from. The only President who ever seriously tried to retire the debt was Andrew Jackson, and to do it, he also got rid of the US central bank of the time—but the results led a disastrous speculative bubble on the part of local banks that had to provide credit money themselves, and no President since has repeated the experiment.

AB: You’ve never shied away from discussing your involvement with anarchist politics, or broadly what is called the alter-globalization movement. Did your involvement in anarchist and anti-capitalist projects spark your interest in exploring a history of the concept of debt? If so, why?

DG: Oh, absolutely. After all, the alter-globalization movement grew out of a broad global reaction to the Washington consensus, which was never any sort of consensus, but rather, a vision of the world forcibly imposed on the global South through the third world debt crisis. I was involved in “drop the debt” campaigns of various sorts since at least 2000. What got me interested in some of the philosophical issues I ended up exploring in the book was the peculiar moral power of the notion of debts. So many otherwise sympathetic people, even when told of the terrible, almost unimaginably inhuman suffering inflicted on people in the global South because of the depredations of the IMF, would still respond, “well, that’s terrible that so many children died slow and painful deaths, but still—surely one has to pay one’s debts! They borrowed the money! You couldn’t possibly be suggesting they not pay it…” How is it that the morality of debt can trump any other recognizable form of morality, and make things that no one would ever, possibly agree with in any other context seem suddenly acceptable?

AB: Anarchism, as I’ve always understood it, is a critique of “power-over” social relationships in which a group or an individual has power over another group or individual—non-hierarchical relations are of the utmost importance. Are financial markets necessarily hierarchical, leading to prosperity for the few, at the expense of the majority’s debt slavery? Also, as an anarchist, do you favor “self-managed” financial markets, or are you more interested in non-market possibilities, like gift economies that are based on needs and desires instead of quid pro quo exchange?

DG: Well, the first credit markets seem to have formed as a side-effect of bureaucratic administration, and the first cash-based markets formed as a side-effect of war. That’s not a very inspiring legacy for an anarchist! There have, certainly, been times and places when a kind of free market populism has emerged, where markets began operating independently of governments, at least to some degree—Medieval Islam is one famous example, and later, Ming China—but in such cases, they tended to operate in very different ways than the kind of markets we’re now familiar with, less about competition, much more about creating and maintaining relations of interpersonal trust, or for instance, profit-sharing operations instead of interest, etc etc. I suppose it’s possible in a free society something like that might be possible. But you wouldn’t be able to call something like that a “financial market” in anything like the sense we’re familiar with.

It’s not something I feel I or anyone else can predict one way or the other. What I do think absolutely cannot operate without the state, or some top-down coercive enforcement agency, are institutions like interest-bearing loans, which is of course the core of contemporary “finance”, or, most of all, wage-labor. History shows that you basically need a state to create a situation where people are willing to sign on basically as rent-a-slaves to other people.

AB: Finally, to pull this conversation back to current events, would you argue that many current resistance movements—and I’m thinking of movements opposing neoliberal policy in Europe, including austerity measures—are based largely upon issues centering around debt, or debt forgiveness? Would you say that most examples of insurrections, revolutions, or general resistance are reactions to draconian debt policies?

DG: The great Classicist Moses Finley suggested that there was basically one single revolutionary program in all of antiquity: “abolish the debts, and redistribute the land.” The interesting thing is this is still much more true than we imagine. Take the recent revolutions in the Middle East. One of the biggest factors in the Egyptian revolution, hardly talked about, is microcredit. Gamal Mubarak, who used to work for Bank of America, decided he wanted to move away from the old welfare state model to a microcredit development model; since no one had any collateral to repossess, the police then became the guys who showed up to break your legs. Hence the universal outrage over police brutality.

When the Saudis panicked that the revolution might reach their own country, what did they do? Well, aside from beef up the security forces—they declared a Mesopotamian-style debt forgiveness for everyone in the Kingdom. (They still have a king so they can still do things like that.) Then there’s the ongoing revolts in Greece and Spain, like the Egyptian revolution, in the name of “real democracy.” There is a reason, I think, these things are happening now. What we learned in 2008 is that everything they told us about markets was a lie. Markets don’t run themselves, and debts don’t always have to be paid. If we’re talking about the real big players, the rules are different, even 13 trillion in gambling debts (by some estimations) can be made to disappear. We can’t deny that money is at core a political phenomenon, not an economic one—or at the very least, that it has now become so. But if that’s the case, then if democracy is to mean anything, it has to mean that it’s not just the richest 1% of the population that gets to decide who had to keep the exact letter of their promises and whose promises can be scotched or renegotiated…but everyone.

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Human Rights as a concept of universal freedoms and securities to which every homo sapiens is entitled, regardless of biological, economic, or political prerequisites, stands at odds with the core characteristics of the capitalist system. Perhaps the most exemplary illustration can be witnessed in the treatment of healthcare systems. The contrasts between the capitalist model as seen in the United States and the humanist model viewed through the diligently anti-capitalist Chiapas are stark; If Chiapas is a living, entangled, and inclusive representation of the possibilities for health, then the US system is its morbid, segregated, and discriminatory counterpart. The commodification of healthcare creates death, not the “right to life, liberty and security of person” proposed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Healthcare came to international attention in the West during the first Geneva Convention in 1864. Limited to wounded combatants, this treaty promised aid of the sick and wounded during warfare. After several subsequent agreements, it was not until 1949 that this grace was extended to civilians. Even after 85 years of health services being available to soldiers, prisoners, and healthcare workers, treatment of civilians was not all-inclusive. Article 4 of the fourth Convention demonstrates an explicit set of requirements defining which civilians should be protected. Instead of protecting people as defined solely by their existence, International Humanitarian Law determines aid by an individual’s affiliation to an institution or power, stating that only those in conflict situations who are citizens of countries (and their allied countries) that ratified the Convention will be honored. In short, one’s support of, or perhaps sheer luck in being associated with, those in power qualifies an individual to receive healthcare.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, made an effort to broaden the category of those qualified for receipt of rights to “everyone … without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status … political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” While the rhetoric of Article 2 seemed to shed the restrictive elements of the Geneva Conventions, this Declaration and its authors neglect to acknowledge the power relations to which it and the world at large are subject. The Declaration’s ideals were noble, but without sufficient thought aimed at attainment of rights in the reality of dominating, oppressive institutions, it falls short of offering any more life than its precursors. The notions put forth were ineffectual suggestions, serving it seems as an obsolete, utopian reminder of the naïve perspectives systemic exploitation requires to “keep calm and carry on.”

Until the UN identifies and formulates a stance against the powers that systemically cause death and illness (be it authoritarian or emancipatory), the Western world is largely left to bear those structures as a sort of life support, even if the cost is the barrier to health itself. The US system has more than a few examples to demonstrate. Government officials are granted free, “universal” healthcare, a reward for their compliance and support of the exclusive, synarchistic status quo. Employees are given insurance based on their relationship to the employer. Part time, new, underaged, or independent workers—candidates for exploitation and disposal—are denied benefits. Meanwhile, since a steady, semi-skilled labor force is needed to provide obedient workers and another market for domination, employees with more experience, skills, or prestige are rewarded with insurance packages, their compliance procured.

Those in power determine the beneficiaries and the terms under which they qualify. In the case of healthcare in a capitalist system, this is never more obvious than in terms of economy. Those with more wealth control the health insurance premiums, cost of medical equipment, and educational requirements and availability for physicians (Never mind the political decisions and public opinions crafted by those with the resources to empower themselves for quick and easy domination). Capitalism breeds inequality. This manufactured scarcity is essential for upholding the current hierarchy. Scarcity creates a need for competition—that would otherwise cease to be purposeful—as individuals in a capitalist system are faced with choices between survival or cooperation, the ruthless ambition needed to gain access to wealth or death. Those who lack wealth are severely disadvantaged in the US healthcare system, unable to afford oftentimes the most basic of treatments. Since markets do not actually expand infinitely and resources are in fact limited, as the rich get richer, so the poor become more and more desolate. As Primo Levi observed, “Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.” 1

Commodification of the healthcare system assists in expanding wealth for power elites and draining it from those under their domination. By limiting the number of physicians and medical facilities, healthcare corporations (the term “healthcare provider” in the US is often misleading, when used to describe the multi-billion dollar industry) create the limited supply needed to justify rising costs and discriminatory practices. The prices of medications and medical services cater to the budgets of the wealthy, while most working and middle class Americans can rarely afford them.

Even the goals of the healthcare system, once commodified, directly oppose the goals of the sick. The ill individual seeks health and wellbeing, while the commodified health system ultimately craves profit. The two are so alienated that it is not out of the question to propose that the more sick there are, the more wealth there is to be derived from those who seek health—to a degree that commodification of healthcare is detrimental to health itself, if not all universal human rights. Many might say that there is ample availability of healthcare in its commodified state primarily via emergency room visits. However, given the exorbitant price of such a visit, for the average American to pay for this visit often entails the denial of other human rights, for example, food and shelter. By alienating the patient from the healthcare system and creating scarcity of available resources, commodification of treatment straitjackets the ill to multiple inadequate options.

The Mayan communities in Chiapas are well aware of the discrepancies between rights and commodities, life and exploitation. As Farmer notes, a common observation among Chiapans is the idea that “Chiapas is rich; Its people are poor”. 2 Having witnessed the manufacturing of scarcity and redistribution of wealth throughout local history, the people have begun to stand against the commodification of rights by creating an entangled, inclusive, and cooperative model of treatment. “Prosperity of the few cannot be based on the poverty of the many,” states EZLN spokesman, Marcos.2

While Chiapas does not receive much aid from the Mexican government, donations have provided some access to medical training and equipment. Rather than sewing the seeds of scarcity by limiting knowledge to the few, local “health promoters” share information and work with formally-trained physicians to reach those in need. Similarly, health promoters define themselves as “multiethnic,” demonstrating their inclusion of others.2 Likewise, the women’s movement in Chiapas has focused on healthcare for women, but acknowledges that the movement includes the community as a whole, emphasizing that women’s health is inseparable from the wellbeing of their children, fathers, spouses, and the entire society.3 In the incorporation of and cooperation with their communities at large, Chiapans have developed a rich healthcare system wherein the goals of the system coincide with those of the society it serves. This differs significantly from the US model, where profits take priority over wellness.

Bryan Turner writes that “rights are merely ideological notions if they are not supported by real social and economic resources.” 4 The commodification of rights limits these resources by privileging those in power and disadvantaging the poor. This creation of inequality promotes illness, not health, and alienates the ill from actual healthcare solutions by seeking first wealth and the power it accompanies. Conversely, a model that embraces health as a systemic goal without seeking profit, such as that of Chiapas, Mexico, reconciles the sick and their right to healthcare.

  1. Levi, Primo

    1986 The Drowned and the Saved. Summit Books. []

  2. Farmer, Paul

    2005 Pathologies of Power. Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. University of California Press. [] [] []

  3. Villarreal, Gina

    2007 “Health Care Organized from Below: The Zapatista Experience.” Nacro News Bulletin. 11 January 2007. []

  4. Turner, Bryan

    2006 Vulnerability and Human Rights. The Pennsylvania State University Press. []

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The past century has been coined by scholars as “the century of genocide.” An estimated 50–60 million people have been killed in conflicts that can be classified as genocides. Many have observed that the development of the nation-state and the industrialization of killing has led to increased violence. However, few have examined the violent roots and effects of the processes that claim to prevent domination and promote peace. The United Nations, neglecting to address and act to resolve its own place in modern, rationalized violence, demonstrates its ignorance of power relations through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.1 By authoritatively defining and ranking violence, the UN Convention, itself a product of 20th century bureaucratization, perpetuates and permits violence and reinforces the state-sovereignty that frequently effectuates crimes of genocide.

The term ‘genocide’ was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 in reference to the Holocaust. Likewise, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was largely a reaction to crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. The Third Reich’s offenses, such as the use of gas chambers in/and concentration camps, seemed the epitome of mass, industrialized violence. This type of brutality which sought efficiency and primarily identified its victims in ethnic terms was the standard example of genocide which the UN strove to oppose. When the Convention was written in 1948, World War II and the Holocaust were positioned in the forefront of the consciousness of world leaders, and the effects of this travesty still linger in the description and definition of genocide as proposed by the Convention.

However, the UN failed to acknowledge and address its own position historically and structurally within power relations in the context of modernization, bureaucracy, and the rationalized national and economic systems in which it exists. Both literally and implicitly, the Convention defines the irrational (violence) in rational terms in order to rank and analyze brutality. This appraisal of violence into predetermined, unchanging terms creates an inadvertent hierarchy of offenses, with genocide as the most heinous. Such ‘top-down’ authority of classification inevitably leads to the acceptance of seemingly lesser crimes. When combined with unabashed support of state sovereignty, this manner of rationalizing violence allows those in power to manipulate perceptions of domination in their favor.

Articles 6 and 7 of the Convention reveal the manner in which punishment of genocide is left to the wills of individual countries. According to these statements, it is the state’s responsibility to try the perpetrators of genocide and to extradite those in question “according to their [the contracting states’] laws” (Article 7).1 Using this logic, the state, often the culprit or sponsor of violent crimes, becomes both judge and suspect. For example, the Guatemalan government, while committing crimes of genocide against its Mayan citizens, presented its military brutality in terms of Cold War politics in order to craft a dominant narrative that excluded genocide as a motive for wide-spread violent action. Despite this staging of motives in international public opinion, internal Guatemalan documents revealed an attitude that specifically targeted Mayan communities and estimates of those killed show an overwhelming percentage were of Mayan descent.2 Though in 1999 the UN eventually declared that the crimes in Guatemala were, in fact, crimes of genocide, this was nearly two decades after the violence had begun. Clearly, the power given to nation-states in determining fault in even the most apparent cases of genocide as defined by the UN only postpones resolution and acknowledgement of brutality.

The explicit contents of the Convention demonstrate hierarchy of classification of violence by excluding most forms, specifying that only domination targeted toward “a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” be categorized as genocide (Article II).1 Ranking types of violence by calling out genocide above the other forms legitimates ‘lesser’ offenses. For example, that the violence in Guatemala was dismissed initially as another facet of the Cold War and therefore in some way a more acceptable form of subjective violence is obscene if one is truly seeking to eradicate human rights violations and advocate peace. How is ‘war’ less offensive than ‘war crimes’? Or ‘war crimes’ any more acceptable than ‘crimes against humanity’? Why do all pale in comparison to the violence of genocide? While definitions of violence may be useful for studying and analyzing types of force, they are utterly inadequate for judging crimes. Law itself is a product of the state; The state is a symbol and vessel of legitimated power and authority; Power and authority, the parents of domination and oppression.

Without acknowledging these power relations, definitions of violence utilized in law, including the UN Convention, permit certain types of violence, as long as the rhetoric matches more prevalent, legitimate forms. Conflict in Iraq, usually perpetrated and promoted by the US, is labelled ‘war,’ and it’s non-military actors called ‘contractors.’ Conversely, violence in Darfur is decried by critics as ‘genocide,’ and by the UN as ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘war crimes.’ Instead of using ‘contractors,’ those  independent criminals are dubbed ‘mercenaries.’ 3 The UN Convention has set a standard by which violence can be excused or opposed as relevant to the rhetoric power elites use to manipulate public opinion.

The example of Iraq and Darfur illustrates the detrimental effects of the simplification of conflict as shown through the Convention. Here, Iraq is largely tolerated or unaddressed by the American public due to the acknowledgement of complexity both historically, politically, and culturally. Darfur, however, is reduced to a static, purely ethnic conflict, with little consideration given to the sociocultural or political context in which it is situated. In this narrow understanding, all ‘Arabs’ are criminal and all ‘Africans’ are victims.3 This reduction of complexity has lead to less visible forms of violence, moving from the subjective to the objective. In the simplification of perpetrators in Darfur, the obvious consequence is racism against people of Arabic decent, a sacrifice made to legitimize intervention and supposed punishment for the charge of genocide, which is seen as a significantly greater evil.

Similarly, this shift from subjective to less visible violence can be seen in the example of the Rwandan genocide. Though research has revealed that the lines between victim and victor were not so clearly divided by ethnic determinations, the simplification of the conflict to meet the definition of genocide has led to continued less apparent forms of violence. In Rwanda, a narrow acknowledgement of who is classified as ‘survivor’ has lead to systemic violence in the form of denial of economic aid to those who do not meet this classification.4

Caught in a web of modern, bureaucratized, rational power relations, the UN Convention perpetuates subjective violence by legitimating and excusing offenses that do not fit the predetermined classification of genocide and creates new, less visible forms of domination, both objective and systemic. Thus, revision of the wording of the Convention alone will not prove useful. Rather, an honest evaluation of the UN’s position within power structures is essential to any lasting, useful assistance to those facing all kinds of violence, including, though not limited to, crimes of genocide.

  1. United Nations

    1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. [] [] []

  2. Sanford, Victoria

    2003 Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Palgrave MacMillion. []

  3. Mamdani, Mahmood

    2007 “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency.” London Review of Books 29(5):1-9. [] []

  4. Burnet, Jennie

    2009 “Whose Genocide? Whose Truth? Representations of Victim and Perpetrator in Rwanda.” Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation. ed. Hinton, Alexander and Kevin L. O’Neill. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press: 80-110. []

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Hey All!

As this is the New Year – indeed two weeks into it! – I’d like to introduce you all to my own “Resolutions to Make Revolutions.”  There are projects I’m hopefully going to pursue over the course of the upcoming year.  If any of you are interested in working with me on some of this, well that’d be awesome…

1) Building New Community Spaces

In the short term, this means reading groups, meet-ups, and lots of inclusive radical discussion.  In the long term, of course, I mean “spaces” more literally.  That is, I would definitely like to work with you wonderful radicals to establish real radical spaces for community education and organizing.  I don’t necessarily mean Infoshops.  Whatever you call them, I mean inclusive and inviting spaces that provide radical educational programming, reading, and community and workplace organizing space.  Emphasis on the INCLUSIVE.

2) A New KY Social Forum

There was a KY Social Forum in 2008, I think.  As our points of unity made clear this summer, we all believe that our nation is increasingly turning toward a reactionary, fascist ideology and form of governance.  Recent events seem to corroborate this analysis.  Obviously, it’s still necessary to organize against this trend.  To me, this means that we 1) need to confront the fascist threat directly at their rallies, marches, etc. and 2) need to organize a more unified left in KY and across the country.  As I see it, a KY Social Forum would be a good start in organizing a more unified left and spreading our radical critique(s).

3) May Day Organizing

Another significant step toward developing a more unified and powerful (!) left in our immediate vicinity, in my opinion, is to reinvigorate the tradition of May Day marches.  Recently, these marches have become devoted to issues of immigration and citizenship.  I think this an important development and one we should celebrate.  But I think it’s also important to emphasize the history of the marches in labor organizing and the Haymarket lynchings.  I was approached by someone working on organizing a May Day march in Louisville for this year not too long ago.  If anyone knows how to get involved, I’d appreciate the information.

4) Barnstorming

The idea is to develop a 2 hour panel on “Financial Crisis, Austerity, and Education” — Joan will recognize it… ;)  The panel will visit communities and colleges across the state, speaking with students and community members about how to organize around education.  My part being, obviously (?), to recount my own experiences in Berkeley and the occupations and to present my analysis of these events and how they apply to colleges and communities in KY.  If you’re interested to help out in any way, I’d love it!!

5) Louisville Copwatch

Probably speaks for itself.  Probably doesn’t apply to most of you.

Supposedly, I’ll also be doing “academic work” in this time… :) If you know anyone in Louisville, who’d be interested in such things, please put me in contact.

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