Eat or be eaten: courting disaster

Two very different ways of viewing the world result in radically different ways of approaching conflict. When we come from the viewpoint of ‘eat or be eaten’, the whole of life is a contest for control; when we ground ourselves in the notion of interdependence we work to a very different agenda.

Diana Francis
18 March 2010

I want to broaden my analysis to what I see as two very different orientations to life, explored in my new book From Pacification to Peacebuilding, which have the most profound and far-reaching consequences: for human affairs in general and war and peace in particular. One is based on the ‘eat or be eaten’ principle, the other on interdependence. The first can be related to realpolitik and the militarist culture  that Bruce Kent describes; the second to conflict transformation.

The values that follow from the interdependence perspective are those of care and respect for the identity and needs of all. In the ‘eat or be eaten’, ‘us or them’ approach, the primary value is the success of oneself or one’s own group.  From these different values flow different models of power. On one side, power is a competitive matter, the capacity to get the better of others by whatever means are deemed to be necessary. Means and ends are separate things. Purpose justifies action.

On the interdependence side, power is a cooperative affair and is used for the common good. It would liberate men as well as women, and transform the relationship between them, if this approach to power were seen rather as humane, constructive and life-affirming. In this model, power comes largely from within people and is to be used to achieve certain goals, rather than to get the better of others. Means and ends, actions and outcomes are inseparable, both morally and practically, one thing being consequent on another.          

This is at the heart of the argument against ‘just war’ theory.  Not only are the pretexts for war most often spurious and the real reasons unjust: wars are in themselves monstrous outcomes, which in turn lead to further violence, not peace. As Mary Kaldor rightly points out in her article Reconceptualising war, the aim of war is not always victory. In civil war particularly, it may be the continuation or extension of a sphere of control and an opportunity for enrichment, its motivation greed rather than grievance. Yet the goal is still hegemonic, aimed at the advancement of the actors’ own interests, with violent coercion as the means of achieving those ends. 

From the point of view of eat or be eaten, conflict - whether or not it takes the form of violence - must be waged and won. From the perspective of interdependence, conflict itself is inevitable, but it can and should be dealt with constructively and cooperatively. When cooperation is not yet possible, nonviolent means should be employed to resist domination and address the power imbalances that get in the way of cooperative processes. The goal should be not victory or the maintenance of control, but consensual relationships and the good of all concerned.  

While war is the archetypical expression of the eat or be eaten approach, that same approach often borrows the clothes of peacebuilding. ‘Conflict resolution’ may be favoured where ‘their’ conflicts are concerned, or where, as Aman ki Asha puts it, ‘the stars are aligned’ and the interests of governments coincide with those of the people who long for peace.  There may even be financial support from outside governments for the peaceful resolution of conflict, when they have economic and political interests in a region that require the maintenance of stability. However, those same goverments may themselves choose war elsewhere, in pursuit of their own goals. 

Yet more serious than the instrumentalising of conflict resolution, is the cooption of peacebuilding to a pacification agenda – where ‘pacification’ means reducing to submission and hence ‘peace’ or quiescence. Such an approach to peacemaking begins, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a war of aggression or ‘hard power’, with ‘peacebuilding’ (‘soft power’) to follow. In these circumstances both hard and soft power have the common goal of producing a state of stability, in which the hegemony of the invaders is assured. Such an approach compromises the integrity of peacebuilding efforts and making them suspect in the eyes of substantial segments of the population. It also ignores the possibility that, as illustrated in Vietnam and thus far in Afghanistan, local resistance will not be pacified. And it fails to recognise that violence, once ignited, is not easy to end. Iraq remains one of the most violent countries on earth.  

Destruction is quick, reconstruction slow and painstaking. Those who attempt to build peace after war must say to themselves every hour of the day, ‘ I wouldn’t have started from here’.  It is not only the economy and infrastructure that lie in ruins but the fabric of society and relationships. Furthermore, the kind of peacebuilding that follows a pacification agenda is top down and interventionist. Peace cannot be imposed from above or from outside, though it may benefit from positive leadership and external support. True peacebuilding needs to be grounded in the will and effort of local people.

At the global level, when it comes to the role of international institutions and regulation, the approach based on interdependence will be principled and democratic, not subject to considerations of self-interest or the power to over-ride or ignore due process. The eat or be eaten approach is conditional and instrumental, with the big powers often blocking, ignoring or subverting the wishes of the majority. Building peaceful and cooperative global relationships will require a transformation of attitudes and the radical reform of institutions, most importantly those of the UN. 

From the point of view of interdependence, peace is envisioned as a global society characterised by just relationships and mutual care; one in which the needs of all are met and all are able to participate, on the basis of equality and without fear. Such a society must have the culture, habits and institutions necessary for dealing with conflicts as they arise, constructively and without violence, and male-female relations must be those of respect and equality. And the planet on which we all depend must be respected and preserved, its resources used with care, sustainably.

The peace envisioned by those who approach life as a win-lose contest is a state of stability that favours their hegemony and prosperity, with any benefits to others falling as crumbs from the high table. Military power will remain the means to counter any threat to this state of affairs. The autonomy of the powerful is prized above the freedom and well being of the many. The planet is a resource to commodify and control of resources must be maintained.  

I have painted what may seem like caricatures of two approaches to life. They are not in reality pure forms and the world is not divided into two kinds of people (though the construction of gender pushes men and women to different sides). Systems, like people, are complex and often contradictory. For instance, democratic and legal institutions, in themselves a cooperative endeavour, often operate in an adversarial manner. This tends to be taken for granted by all concerned, yet it reinforces the culture of contest and often stands in the way of the public good, distorting reason and preventing coherence and continuity.  And although they may borrow the language of peacebuilding, societies that are relatively democratic and peaceful in their internal affairs may be the least democratic and peaceful in their external relations.

In the UK, international relations are conducted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose title incorporates the concepts of ‘us’ (the state and its people), ‘them’ (the foreigners) and of ‘some of them’: those nations chosen to join the British club (most of them colonised by Britain in the past). It might influence our thinking for the good – and signal some change – if we were to re-designate this ministry as the Ministry for International Relations.

Is this transformative ambition, of moving from one primary orientation to another, just fanciful? I think not. Most people are able to contain their more aggressive and domineering tendencies in their day to day life, if social norms require them to do so. All human beings carry the genes for empathy, cooperation and altruism. Interdependence is fundamental to human experience of reality. As our world continues to shrink and the threats on our horizon mount, it is increasingly urgent for us to recognise that this interdependence is a global matter. For the sake of humanity, we can and must act on this principle.  

This leaves us with the problem of getting from here to there. How do we manage the current bullies as we build cooperation?  It is nonviolent action that sits at the interface between cooperation and domination and provides the key to transition. It is therefore crucial to consider how nonviolent action can maximise its power and be transformative. That will be the next focus of this debate.


Read an interview with Diana Francis about her new book here












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