LIBERAL PACIFICATION AND THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF VIOLENCE

By Ilan Zvi Baron (Durham University), Jonathan Havercroft (University of Southampton), Isaac Kamola (Trinity College), Jonneke Koomen (Willamette College), Alex Prichard (University of Exeter), and Justin Murphy (an Independent Scholar).

Note: The authors have just published a related article in the International Studies Quarterly. The link to the article is here: https://academic.oup.com/isq/advance-article/doi/10.1093/isq/sqy060/5363835?searchresult=1. The blog post below highlights the key messages in the paper.

Violence is on the increase. Contrary to liberal IR theorists, we argue the spread of liberal institutions does not decrease violence but increases and transforms it. In our article, Liberal Pacification and the Phenomenology of Violence, we propose a new theoretical framework that reveals the liberal peace is in fact liberal pacification.


Many liberal scholars contend violence has decreased in recent decades. These arguments range from the vast IR literature on the liberal and democratic peace to Steven Pinker’s influential book, Better Angles of our Nature (see also Pinker’s Enlightenment Now). Yet these optimistic pronouncements appear at odds with the violent turmoil of our time, marked by refugee crises, ecological devastation, financial collapse, nuclear proliferation, drone warfare, widespread government repression, police violence, mass incarceration, a grotesque concentration of wealth on a planetary scale, the rise of the far right, and much more.

Why are liberal scholars’ conclusions so at odds with the growing sense that violence is endemic thought society? We argue this disjuncture stems from the ways that scholars conceptualize violence.

International relations scholars make many claims about violence. Yet we rarely define it. To address this silence, we offer a typology of three distinct kinds of violence: direct, indirect, and pacification. We argue that the field has only developed the tools to examine direct violence (when a person or agent inflicts harm on another) and indirect violence (manifested through the structures of society). We propose a third understanding of violence: pacification. Using a phenomenological methodology, and drawing on anarchist and post-colonial thought, we show that the violence of pacification is diffuse, inconspicuous, intersubjective, and structured into the fabric of society.

Both direct and indirect accounts of violence are limited, we argue. To understand why, consider the following thought experiment. A man enters a home with a gun, points the gun at the family, and begins to make requests of the family. The family, intimidated by the implied threat of the gun, complies. Is this interaction violent? Most people would probably agree that it is; the implied threat of force terrorizes the family. Understandings of direct and indirect violence focus on measured effects of violence. Any physical violence committed by the gunman would be understood direct violence. Any causal, lasting yet largely unseen effects (e.g. a heart attack induced later by the stress of attack) might be considered indirect violence.

Yet neither direct nor indirect conceptions of violence adequately capture the violence of this scene. The family being attacked might be a white South African family who live within a gated complex. The barbed wire crowning the compound walls, the bars on all the doors and windows, and the private security guard posted out front are everyday examples of how this family lives in constant fear of exactly such a gunman. The assailant might come from a family that suffered under apartheid’s racialized social order and might not have benefited from the society’s democratization and liberalization. If the gunman scales these walls and inflicts wounds — physical or otherwise — then one would clearly say that violence occurred. But what if the barbed wire, barred windows, and private security guard successfully kept the gunman at bay? While the family goes about its daily routine, is the world any less violent? The presence of walls and barbed wire might mean that instances of observable violence decrease, but the society remains — in its very lived, material and psychic forms — structured by violence. Acts of violence do not only inflict physical and psychological harm, they also restructure the social and political world. Violence constitutes the worldhood.

Let’s take a different example. Rapid and historically unprecedented increases in economic inequality since 1970 have coincided with the pacification of militant political opposition to such inequality. The dynamics of rioting, guerrilla warfare and assassinations throughout the first half of the twentieth century exposed increasing discontent with perceived systemic injustice, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. These forms of violent political resistance have been suppressed in liberal society over the past fifty years. A restructuring of social relations has led to a displacement and co-optation of violent protests against the perceived injustices of the world order. The overall discontent has not gone away, but opportunities to challenge oppression through “any means necessary” are increasingly foreclosed upon.

We offer a third conception of violence to make sense of this. The hallmark of this third type of violence—pacification—is that the structures of domination ensure that resistance in the form of direct violence against this order is less frequent. Intersubjective relationships in global politics are restructured by implicit and explicit threats, global surveillance, imbalances in military power, displays of military might, occupations, blockades, nuclear deterrence, terrorism and counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, sanctions, trade disputes, and embargoes, to name a few examples. When IR scholars focus solely on discrete acts of physical harm and quantifiable events, such as body counts, they do not capture the restructuring consequences of these acts.

The liberal restructuring of social and political worlds may lead to fewer acts of direct violence if the restructuring deters agents from engaging in direct violence. Liberal restructuring might also lead to less quantifiable physical harm, direct or indirect. However, the absence of visible forms of (direct and indirect) violence may actually be an effect of an intensification of a third form of violence, namely pacification.

We show that most IR scholars only account for direct and indirect violence and equate the decline in that kind of violence with peace. We demonstrate that the spread of liberal institutions does not necessarily decrease violence but transforms it. Our phenomenological analysis captures empirical trends in human domination and suffering that liberal peace theories cannot account for. We reveal how a decline in direct violence may actually coincide with the transformation of violence in ways that are concealed, monopolized and structured into the liberal order. The paper therefore calls for new methods of data collection and analysis that make it possible to better understand the process of pacification.

 

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