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Facing violence: thoughts from Geneva

To counter ISIS and address the other crucial crises that poison our days we need a regime change – at home.

Geneva Xmas rush hour. Geneva Xmas rush hour. Flickr/ Damian Zech. Some rights reserved.The other day I went to our local grocery store and met the Gipsy musician who often stands there with his clarinet under his arm and receives some change from the shoppers. We exchanged some words about the family and the weather and then he said:

- Look what they have done again! They killed innocent people! To do such a thing! You might not like us, but we never do such things.

- Who is they? I asked.

- They! And they keep coming!

- Who they? I insisted.

- 4000 entered into our country. We are in danger.

I felt I was getting irritated. He felt it too, said goodbye quickly and left.

After checking out at the counter, I went back to him.

-You remember last time we spoke about those Gypsies who stole something and when they were caught, the paper said ‘The Gypsies steal again’. And we agreed that this was ugly and unjust. This is the same thing. Those, who did this killing are criminals, but you cannot say that Muslims are criminals. The people who enter your country are running away from these criminals.

He looked surprised at first, but then he nodded in agreement. We parted in a far better mood.

This man comes from a small village near the Hungarian border in Southern Slovakia. It’s a very nice, but very poor region, with a large Gypsy population. He lost his job as soon as the systemic changes started in eastern Europe and as a poor unemployed Gypsy he is doubly excluded from society. He makes a living by driving with some friends to Switzerland several times a year; they play music and collect enough money to maintain their families for some months. He can’t afford medical treatment, so he lost most of his teeth and that makes it difficult to play the clarinet; but the people in the neighborhood know him and give him money anyway. It’s the most mixed neighborhood in Geneva; many of the people who provide his livelihood are Muslims. But he obviously doesn’t know this. He gets his information from the official sources that both in Hungary and Slovakia use a virulent anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric in order to cement further their nationalist authoritarian power. So, now he knows who he has to be afraid of.

Some days later Marine Le Pen’s Front National made a huge electoral gain at the municipal elections in France. French voters alerted to this prevented a major victory for the FN, but 6,8 million citizens of the Republic of “Liberty, equality and brotherhood” must think very much like our neighborhood musician.

We live in sinister times

One is afraid to look at the news to learn in which part of the world innocents have again been murdered in the name of a ‘just cause’. People die every day in the ongoing slaughter in Syria and Iraq or trying to cross to Europe. Life has become alarmingly cheap. And of course, some lives are cheaper than others; particularly the life of “others” – black, Muslim, Yazidi, Kurdish, women… poor lives... the life of those who die silently of hunger, lack of drinking water, lack of basic drugs, working with pesticides long forbidden to use in Europe… about whose deaths we don't even read in the newspapers. We have become numbed, facing the everyday routine cruelty of our world.

And the inadequacy of our political systems to deal with this cruelty adds to our numbness.

How many red lines did the Assad regime cross, how many hundreds of thousands of innocents were murdered in Syria until western powers decided to intervene – by way of air-strikes that don’t seem to achieve much apart from adding to the general devastation? There is now talk about new peace negotiations that would include Bashar al-Assad, a key culprit in unleashing the bloodshed and destruction of his country.

The current escalation of wars, terrorism and mass migration is to a large extent the result of bad wars followed by bad peaces in which the west plays a key role. The west’s ill-conceived military interventions, followed by poorly designed settlements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya carried the seeds of the next bloody outburst from the very beginning. This happened even in cases that were regarded as a success, like the former Yugoslavia. After a long delay that cost tens of thousands of lives, western powers stepped in and brokered a peace treaty that put on an equal footing victims and perpetrators, legalized ethnic cleansing and created entities that are unable to progress. This year’s mass wave of refugees heading towards the EU started with thousands of Kosovars who can’t make a decent living in their home country.

We need regime change – at home

There should of course, be military and police measures to neutralize ISIS and other armed terrorist groups and to prevent further murderous acts. Nevertheless, experience shows that military intervention can occasionally stop a war machine, but it will not bring lasting peace if it is not accompanied by a whole range of economic, political, social and cultural measures. Among others, policy interventions should address the burgeoning war economy that fuels armed violence in the whole region, re-examine dubious political alliances and contribute to the understanding of the social and political background of these movements, to make the so-needed distinctions between Islam and Muslims and the various Islamist and Jihadist currents.

But this is not enough. Europe’s most efficient counter-offensive would be to represent a just and equitable social model that puts the human in its centre, respects nature and does not need to dominate others in order to flourish. Like in the times of the Cold War, when both East and West wanted to prove their superiority by strengthening the most attractive elements of their system, the west today should show the world that it is in fact embracing civil freedoms, democracy and justice, that it reveres equality, education and culture. That it is united in solidarity and shared values, not in fear and the exclusion of the ‘other’. Europe’s most efficient counter-offensive would be to put the human at its centre, respect nature, and abjure dominating others in order to flourish.

Unfortunately today’s Europe, with its current power structures and goals is unable to do this job convincingly. Since the collapse of communism, rid of external or internal mechanisms to control and regulate it, capitalism has gone through yet another mutation and turned into a purely predatory system, driven by the need of unrestricted accumulation and full control of natural and social resources.

The links between gains of productivity, technological development and social progress have been severed; productive investments have become subordinated to the imperative of hoarding profits. The last remnants of social, environmental and security protections that would limit the power of dominant corporations are being dismantled systematically. The years of dogmatic austerity that brought a rapid erosion of the systems of social protection and cohesion and undermined basic democratic achievements – without resolving the economy’s problems - have exacerbated this destructive process. (And, as a byproduct, helped to swell the numbers of Madame Le Pen’s voters, via the pauperization of large segments of society, among them many of immigrant background, and the destabilization of those who are above the poverty line, but their work and existence has become precarious.)

In a system built on general commodification, where economic activity is not centered on needs and physical limits, but on the unlimited accumulation of profits, where nature’s wonders can be patented and marketed, where human beings are treated as any other commodity that can be sold, used, abused and disposed at will; violence is inherent. Destruction is needed to gain new domains to exploit. Sometimes war is not even necessary; business as usual does the job.

In Mexico three decades of unbridled capitalism, a US-backed ‘war on drugs’, a free trade agreement – very similar to those that the world’s dominant corporations want currently impose on the EU–, and the murky co-existence of a corrupt, inefficient political elite and organized crime turned the country into a killing field and a dependent economy. Despite some flattering figures of GDP growth, poverty and inequality have sky-rocketed and the victims of armed violence outnumber those registered in Afghanistan and Iraq. A large section of the young generation has no other option than to engage in one of the criminal gangs, participate in trafficking or emigrate to the US to join the millions of unemployed, marginal or working poor.

It’s worth pondering that in the middle of two killing fields; in Royava in Syria and Chiapas in Mexico there are heroic experiments that aim to implement principles of a very different social system: direct democracy, rotating public functions, equality, diversity, education and respect of nature. Ponder too the fact that only after two devastating world wars that showed the profoundly destructive nature of capitalism were the then rulers of the world ready to sit down and create supranational institutions, like the League of Nations and later the UN, formulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundaments of an international human rights system, and a number of institutions and regulations that aimed to represent the common good, to prevent new crises and violence and encourage (at least) a more equitable and democratic form of capitalism that was ready to share the fruits of progress.

Before our continent turns again into a killing field, the current political decision-makers and we, its citizens, should push for changing the basic parameters of our current system.

Hommage

Christmas and New Year, a period of coming together, stock-taking and a big festival of consumerism is approaching. The shop windows are full of products for sale. I wish every cutely displayed shop-window had a photo and some lines about a person killed in terrorist attacks during the bloody year of 2015. The Paris victims, the civilians whose entire villages were raised in the North Nigerian Baga , the tourists killed in Tunis’ magnificent Bardo museum, the young people of Suruç, who got ready to plant trees in ruined Kobane, the students woken up to be killed at the Garissa University College in Kenya, the worshippers killed praying in their mosques in Saana, the passengers on a bus going to work and school in Karachi, the people gathering to march for peace in Ankara, the Russian holiday makers flying back home from Egypt, the passersby on a busy street of Beirut in a peaceful afternoon … They are part of our life.  As S’aadi, one of the giants of Islamic poetry put it:

“Human beings are limbs of the same body,

For in creation, they are of one essence.

If time brings one of these members pain,

Other members will not remain in peace.”

About the author

Yudit Kiss is a Hungarian economist and author, based in Geneva. Her research focuses on the post-Cold War economic transformations of Central Europe; her latest book is Arms Industry Transformation and Integration: The Choices of East Central Europe (OUP, 2014). Her articles of wider interest on politics, social change and culture have been published, among others, by the Guardian, Lettre International, El Nacional, Nexos, Gazeta Wyborcza & Eurozine. See here.


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