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Violent Capital: The Broken Promise of Liberal Democracy

Helen Talbot

Walking in, watching the flames shoot upward, the first thing I thought was that I was back in the Third World. My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened every day (Dexter Filkins 44).

In his account of Ground Zero in the hours following the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001, Dexter Filkins documents his initial reaction to the news as a shock that subsided, as he walked around Lower Manhattan, into a feeling of disjunction between his socio-political expectations and his territorial location. In his lack of panic, there is an implicit sense that he relates to the destruction as though it were normal, what he calls a “darker perspective,” which he imagines he must share with others who have lived experience of crisis. This familiarized relationship with disaster stands in contrast to the reactions of those who lack such first-hand experience, reactions which, he suggests, are likely to be out of proportion to the scale and human cost of the attack. Indeed, compared with the numbers quoted by Filkins – “Fifteen thousand dead [in Orissa] ... Seventeen thousand died in the earthquake in Turkey. In Afghanistan, in the earthquake there four thousand … I’d seen [mass murder] too: the forty thousand dead in Kabul” (44) – 9/11, with a final death toll of less than three thousand, would appear to be a relatively small-scale disaster. What the ‘darker perspective’ offers, then, is a sense of proportion regarding the significance of crisis at a human, rather than a political, level. The exceptionalism attached to 9/11 reveals a pervasive naturalization of inequality, which accounts for the often spectacular reactions to tragedy in developed countries: these things simply don’t happen to them. Such a disparity in reaction, which, in the aftermath of 9/11, were repeated throughout the First World, can be better understood if we forget for a moment the human cost and look instead at the symbolic implications of the attack within the wider context of expectations of stability under a hierarchical global structure, as these condition representations of violence.

It is a common and collective illusion among privileged individuals, who consider themselves to be citizens of the First World, that they are living in a post-political society, inasmuch as they assume they are guaranteed, through democracy, protection from the most dangerous of political and economic extremes, ensuring a level of social stability which promises increased wealth, freedom and security to all citizens. This is not to say that people are generally unaware of inequalities between their affluent lifestyle and the widespread poverty of the Third World, but that they are able to rationalise such disparities in a way that naturalizes them, and absolves them of personal responsibility for the privilege which they enjoy at others’ expense. One widely used rationalization of inequality is the practice of arbitrarily segregating the world into two tiers:




The latter binary is particularly interesting, since it appears to be more fluid than the spatial and geographical divisions of the first two, in that it offers the possibility of a process of improvement within the system. While the United Nations Statistics Division notes that there is “no established convention for the designation of “developed” and “developing” countries or areas in the United Nations system,” they list only North America, [most of] Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand as developed regions ( Such terminology encourages the perception of a hierarchy of world power, through a linear presentation of socio-political stability, which presents certain countries as less ‘mature’ than others, but does little to express the historical and political connections between the stability and wealth of some regions and the chaotic poverty of others. After all, since the division does not allow for a ‘regressing’ nation, political or economic instability can always be chalked up to a process by which functional kinks are ironed out as a country evolves towards the liberating stability and prosperity of its maturity. In such situations, from the perspective of developed societies, humanitarian crises can be explained as the terrible but inevitable byproducts of the maturation of the developing nation. Even more problematic is the portrayal of developed countries under this logic, which implies a finite point in the development process, which does not equate to stagnancy, but allows for more progress from a position of social stability. In effect, it creates the illusion of a society that has overcome the problem of excessive violence: a society without disaster. Since there is much cultural variation across the developed nations, a shared modus operandi of liberal democratic government interacting with an ‘apolitical’ world economy could be understood to be a prerequisite of stability and thus becomes the hegemonic model of socio-political maturity. Any responsibility towards resolving inequality that a person in the developed world feels tends to emanate from a post-political perspective – but insofar as intervention is based within the hegemonic liberal-democratic worldview, it fails to address the political structures that normalize poverty, instead taking the form of charitable donation or incentives to growth from a perceived position of benevolent affluence.

The disproportionate reaction to 9/11 can in part be attributed to its symbolic potential to undermine the authority of the First World by calling into question the extent to which liberal democratic systems are able to banish crisis, and by shocking expectations of security that lie at the heart of this post-political perspective. This reaction also begs the question: Why would somebody want to attack the US? Were the attacks aggressive or defensive? As Slavoj Žižek points out:

The ABC of Marxist notions… is the thesis that ‘peaceful’ social life is itself an expression of the (temporary) victory of one class – the ruling one. … In this strict sense, the use of force by the oppressed against the ruling class and its state is always ultimately ‘defensive’ (88-89).

By this reasoning, that stability is taken for granted in the US, the perceived ‘impossibility’ of 9/11 is in itself a provocation for the use of violent action against this sense of national security, since such expectations must be dependent on America’s ability to dominate the exchange of violence. The endemic effect of this dominance is documented by Wallace Shawn, who admits “that although I have nothing but contempt for imperial adventures, [and] I’ve marched in the streets to demonstrate for peace,” he nevertheless derives “some sense of superiority from being a citizen of a country that can act brutally with impunity and can’t be stopped.” (24) This highlights a central hypocrisy in the political reasoning of the privileged ‘left,’ which is that they hold ‘peace’ as a global ideal while deriving comfort from the power of their nation’s authority to impose ‘peace.’ Even as they hope to extend the reach of stability, they will do so only where it does not compromise their own privilege. The same post-political psychology of charitable giving, which characterises relationships between developed and developing societies on an individual level, can then be used to normalize state authority in the First World, even in its violent manifestations, and present it, not as a cause, but as a solution to inequality.

Since the core values of democracy are widely accepted as equality and freedom – namely, freedom to participate equally in political matters – powers working under a democratic banner are able to use their political model as a value in itself, in order to justify their authority, which can never be oppressive, as it derives power from the people and thus always operates in opposition to illegitimate forms of control. The installation of democracy can therefore be considered adequate justification, when all other arguments fail, for military intervention by a developed country in the politics of a developing one. In an address to the Iraqi people, on the eve of the American invasion, George W. Bush is reported to have said:

If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you … We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free … The day of your liberation is near (Weinberger 19-20).

The use of such rhetoric evokes the supposed maturity of America as a developed nation in comparison to Iraq, and can be used to excuse action which would otherwise be considered to be contrary to the core values of democracy. By claiming freedom from oppression and peace as primary objectives, imperialism is transformed into liberation and American interests into a collective drive for global development. This resort to democratic militarism seems to be presented not only as a right on the part of the US, but also as a duty; if the American government declares war it is because it “must,” as though benevolent intervention in totalitarian regimes and human rights abuses is an imperative of democracy that is upheld by the liberated world at all times. The disparity between humanistic intentions and authoritarian violence, for which the former acts as an excuse, does not necessarily entail a lack of sincerity in the desire to liberate Iraq, but such an understanding of the invasion hegemonizes Iraqi and American interests and definitions of freedom: hence Bush’s simplistic division of Iraqis into either “lawless” agents of oppression or soon-to-be-free citizens. This logic portrays Iraqis as either friends or enemies of democracy and therefore, in the case of the latter, as responsible for the instability of post-invasion Iraq. There is some support for this argument in the emergence of numerous insurgent groups, Ba’athist or otherwise, who at times have actively sought to create an atmosphere of fear around support of American influence, this cannot be seen only as a violent manifestation of an extreme and misguided political perspective, but is also indicative of a wider disillusionment within the Iraqi population as to the efficacy of democracy and the legitimacy of American intervention. In attempting to distinguish between citizen and militant – thereby determining a group of people against who it is acceptable to use military force – the effect of force in creating and exacerbating the situation is largely ignored, portraying citizens’ legitimate criticisms as anti-American sentiment and counter-intuitive to their own freedom since it will prolong the need for undemocratic measures, which are both necessary to, and excused by, their democratic intent.

The problems of representation and dominance when securing a democracy through military presence, and the oversimplification of Bush’s assertion that a military campaign could be directed only against corrupt and oppressive individuals, can both be seen in the materialization of American power in Abu Hishma, as Filkins finds it eight months after the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s government. Following increased resistance in the area, which culminated in the death of Staff Sergeant Dale Panchot, and faced with the impossible task of distinguishing insurgent from inhabitant, Colonel Nathan Sassaman began a series of raids in an attempt to root out this invisible army: forcefully interrogating suspects, calling in air strikes on suspected insurgent households, bulldozing properties and burning crops that provided cover to gunmen. The town was surrounded by razor wire, checkpoints established and ID cards issued along with a curfew running from 5 pm to 8 am that made impossible attendance of both morning and evening prayer as well as preventing the purchase of fuel, which often required a full day of queuing to achieve (157-9). To the inhabitants of Abu Hishma, as the town began increasingly to resemble a prison or camp, the line between liberation and oppression must have seemed very fine indeed. One man, Faiz Musla, is reported as saying, “Where is the Iraqi freedom? We are just like the people in the Gaza strip.”(156) When asked if these drastic measures might discourage local support, Sassaman replied:

'With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.’… ‘The good people we can bring around… but the bad guys – they have to be convinced that there is a price to pay for opposing us’ (160).

The psychology of this ‘silver and lead’ programme of incentives mixed with violence is a perfect example of the negation of responsibility from the perspective of the democratic ‘liberator’, who uses the manipulation of Iraqi identity in order to justify such measures as being either deserved as punishment, or necessary to establish stability. Though the exertion of control through “fear and violence” bears direct similarities to the tactics employed by insurgent groups, it seems to be hoped that through these means ‘bad Iraqis’ will be discouraged from retaliation where as ‘good Iraqis’ will understand that the American intention is ultimately benevolent and will tolerate, or even welcome, such measures as a necessity. Even more problematic than the segregation of people into two moral camps, is a justification for militaristic suppression of dissidence taken from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, which Filkins reports as being popular amongst certain echelons of the military. Captain Brown, an officer serving under Sassaman argues: “You’ve got to understand the Arab mind … The only thing they understand is force – force, pride and saving face.” (161) This generalisation of diverse cultural and racial groups as having a singular shared psychology is reminiscent of the use of pseudoscientific Darwinian arguments of racial superiority in British imperialism, and blames the rejection of democratic liberation, not on the intrusive and contradictory nature of the American military presence, not even on fear of violent repercussions from a disapproving insurgency, but on the difficulty the ‘Arab mind’ has in understanding the humanistic values which are trying to be introduced and which come naturally to superior mind of the Westerner. However, the failed attempt to naturalize Americanized liberal democratic values in Abu Hishma highlights wider structural hypocrisies in the functioning of developed nations which call into question their authority as models of equality and prosperity, not only in the Iraq War, but across all social relations. It must be questioned whether the environment of resistance in Iraq might be caused not by the political and cultural immaturity of its people, but by discrepancies between the depoliticized hegemonic ideal of liberal democracy and the manifestation of freedom under existing democratic structures.

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