Gangs and wolves: violence and vulnerability in a global economy

Forces of globalization provide the link between the areas of extreme criminal violence in poorer countries and the random attacks carried out by fundamentalists in the west. On all sides, economic interconnectedness has brought wealth to some, criminal opportunities to others, and vulnerability to everyone.

Peadar Kirby
12 October 2011

“Twenty-first century violence does not the fit the twentieth century mould,” says the World Bank in its 2011 World Development Report which, significantly, is on the topic of conflict and security. “Modern violence comes in various forms and repeated cycles,” it states, emphasising its severe costs for citizens, communities and countries, not only in economic terms but also in terms of human suffering.

The first half of the twentieth century was marked by the catastrophic violence of major inter-state wars, making that century by far the most violent in world history. This form of civil violence continued, though at a somewhat lower level, through major civil conflicts in the post-war period. However, these peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have continued to decline since. The total annual deaths for these conflicts fell from 200,000 in 1988 to fewer than 50,000 in 2008. 

What we are experiencing in the twenty-first century, says the World Bank, are new forms of organised violence, including local violence involving militias or ethnic groups, gang violence, local resource-related violence, violence linked to trafficking (particularly drug trafficking) and new forms of terrorist violence mostly inspired by various forms of fundamentalism. These forms of violence are interlinked and repeated, says the Bank, but it could equally have added that they manifest themselves throughout the world. They are a phenomenon of this globalised age. 

The emergence of these new forms of violence at the very moment when we began to recognise the phenomenon of globalisation is more than coincidental. For globalisation has set in train changes to people’s economic, social, political and even psychological lives that, in the language of economics, create the push and pull factors and the opportunity structures that result in these new forms of violence.

A spotlight on vulnerability

Focusing on vulnerability provides a useful framework to analyse these many changes and their links to violence. As outlined in my book Vulnerability and Violence: The Impact of Globalisation (Pluto Press, 2006), vulnerability is a two-sided concept involving an increase in threats to livelihoods coupled with a weakening of coping mechanisms. 

Recent turmoil in financial markets and the increasing incidence of extreme weather events associated with climate change are good examples of increasing threats linked to globalisation (since it has liberalised the financial sector and intensified productive processes that result in increased greenhouse gas emissions). People can minimise these threats through avoiding high levels of indebtedness and constructing solid buildings in areas less prone to flooding or wind damage, but coping mechanisms have inevitably been eroded in this highly interconnected world. 

It is the threat to people’s livelihoods, both real and perceived, that provides the link to the new forms of violence identified by the World Bank and described in the articles in this special edition of openDemocracy. A recent statement by the new International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director, Christine Lagarde, offers a good example of how today’s globalised economy is resulting in increased threats to livelihoods. Speaking of social tensions “bubbling below the surface,” she identified a number of factors: “I see a number of interweaving strands here – entrenched high unemployment, especially among the younger generation; fiscal austerity that chips away at social protections; perceptions of unfairness in “Wall Street” being given priority over “Main Street”; and legacies of growth in many countries that predominantly benefited the top echelons of society.”

Though Lagarde was referring to the current situation in countries most affected by the financial crisis, the various factors mentioned all constitute structural features of our globalised world. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high in many countries over the past decade despite the promises of globalisation, social protections were systematically eroded long before the financial crisis hit, beneficial treatment of economic elites by our political systems has become a commonplace complaint, and globalisation has been widely perceived as benefiting the already prosperous at the expense of the poor. As Joseph Stiglitz put it writing in 2003 about the roaring nineties: “Even many of those who are better off feel more vulnerable.” 

It is this widespread perception of vulnerability that creates the push factors described earlier as people feel exposed and unprotected in a world that is seen to spread wealth and opportunity so unfairly and at such speed.

Criminal attractions

The pull factors created by globalisation are identified in a description by the World Bank of what happened in the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia, as “many turned to trafficking in drugs, people, human organs, and weapons, such that organized crime perpetrated the most widespread and destabilising violence.” This description could be applied to a range of countries in our globalised world, including large and relatively developed countries such as Mexico and Colombia. 

Elsewhere, a violent gang culture has taken hold through which young people find a sense of identity and belonging, as well as economic opportunities not offered by the mainstream economy or culture. For example, a recent report for the US Congress on gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras estimates that around 60,000 gang members in these three countries alone are involved in kidnapping, human trafficking and drug, auto and weapons smuggling. They are linked to very high homicide rates in each of the countries – 58 per 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras, 52 in El Salvador and 48 in Guatemala, which are among the highest in the world. 

These gangs have emerged due to another phenomenon related to globalisation, namely high levels of emigration to the US from the region, particularly during the civil wars of the 1980s. The rise of the gang culture is traced to the deportation back to their countries of origin of tens of thousands of young people who had got involved in criminal activities while in the US. The involvement of these gangs in transnational criminal networks, particularly drug trafficking, is also documented. 

Interestingly, this report makes the point that high levels of income inequality are often strong predictors of high violent crime rates, while organisations working with gang members assert that a combination of poverty, social exclusion, and a lack of educational and job opportunities for youth perpetuate the problem.

These examples identify another key aspect of today’s global order: the globalisation of crime. Colombian drugs cartels have been compared by Leslie Sklair to multinational companies due to their turnover, the number of people who depend on them for livelihoods, their influence over political leaders, their transnational reach and their employment of military tactics to protect their interests. The World Bank estimates that organised crime generates annual revenues of between $120 billion and $330 billion, and that the world’s shadow economy could constitute up to 10 per cent of global GDP. For well-educated young people with poor economic prospects, this offers an attractive prospect. 

The rise of random attacks 

Yet these economic arguments only take us so far in explaining the new forms of violence emerging in today’s world. For example, they cannot explain how a well-educated and relatively well-off young man in one of the world’s most stable and prosperous societies, Norway, was driven to plan and execute in a calculated way a plot to kill large numbers of young people last July. Andres Behring Breivik described himself as a conservative Christian, and was reported to believe that he needed to carry out these attacks to save Norway and western Europe from cultural Marxism and a Muslim takeover. 

While it is easy to dismiss such violence as the work of psychologically ill perpetrators, the increase in random attacks in the name of some vague political ideal in various parts of the developed world raise troubling questions. The justification given by Breivik and the way he employed violence is comparable to such violent acts as the bombing by Timothy McVeigh of a building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 167 people, the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground in the same year, and various violent attacks by al-Qaeda members and sympathisers. 

This “new terrorism”, as it is sometimes called, tends to be perpetrated by lone individuals or loosely organised cells in contrast to the well organised political groups which have traditionally been responsible for terrorist acts (such as the FARC or the IRA), plans attacks to kill large numbers of innocent people, and is motivated by fundamentalist worldviews, usually with religious content. Unlike the terrorism of the nineteenth or twentieth century, this new form is not designed as part of a strategy eventually to take political power or achieve political ideals, but is rather designed to terrorise populations in the name of some vague ideals of ethnic or religious purity. 

But has this anything to do with globalisation? The term ‘identity politics’ has been coined to capture the rather paradoxical new forms of particularistic identities that have emerged so assertively in a globalised world, and that form the basis for political actions. While obviously only a tiny minority are driven to commit acts of violence in the name of such identities, what warrants attention is that such identities seem to have so strong an appeal. After all, how do we explain the fact that a young Norwegian might be so concerned about cultural Marxism or a Muslim takeover that he carry out the acts he did in Norway last summer? 

Eroding the nation state

At the heart of identity politics lies the urge to defend against outside influences. It is not accidental that it emerges as globalisation erodes the strong national identities built up in the era of the nation state from the late seventeenth century to the late twentieth century. This gave people a secure sense of belonging within the emerging project of the nation state, based on a clear belief that each generation would enjoy a better standard of living as the national economy was developed. This project reached its peak in the immediate decades after World War II, as a pact between capital and labour under the aegis of the state laid the basis for real social and economic progress. 

In eroding the foundations of this national economy, globalisation has also undermined the identity that it helped develop. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the emergence of the ‘new right’ as a constitutive feature of the political systems of many of the most developed European countries. What is particularly noteworthy is that it is former social democratic voters who often constitute an important part of the support base of such parties. These are the skilled and semi-skilled workers who previously saw their interests being served by social democracy, but whose livelihoods are now more vulnerable in a globalised world and who are attracted by the defensive and anti-immigrant politics of the new right. 

A particularly troubling feature is the growth in violence against women, both within and outside the home. The United Nations reports that at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, while gender-based violence disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as does cancer. Violence against women is also now recognised as a widely used weapon of war, with mass rapes documented in Bosnia, Liberia, Peru, Uganda and Rwanda in recent times. The World Bank reports significant increases in gender-based violence following a major war.

But these dramatic examples fail to capture the more silent growth of a culture of random violence that seems to characterise many societies today. This can be illustrated in the case of my own country, Ireland. For example, in early 2009, the head of the Irish police, Commissioner Fachtna Murphy, lamented that Ireland is becoming a more violent society, with more people than ever willing to resort to fatal shootings or stabbings to settle drug-related or personal disputes. As he stated, “young people are prepared to be aggressive [and] … in recent times it’s been taken to a higher level, particularly with a number of stabbings taking place.” 

The Ireland in which this growth in random violence took place was experiencing its greatest ever economic boom with rising living standards and low unemployment, illustrating that it is not the failures of globalisation but also its successes that are fuelling these new forms of violence. These can be traced to the stresses and strains of today’s highly competitive world, but also to the growing penetration of societies throughout the world by criminal networks. Thus, while overall crime levels had been dropping in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom, there were significant increases in drug-related crimes (importation, possession and supply) and in the possession of firearms, which were being increasingly used in gangland killings.

The new forms of violence that seem to be a feature of our twenty-first century world may claim fewer lives than did the mass violence of civil conflict in the twentieth century. But what makes them particularly scary is their random and unpredictable occurrence. Thus violence has become both a source of vulnerability through generalising a sense of threat, but also a response to vulnerability as it appears to offer a route to access resources and earn a livelihood. As the precarious nature of the financial and economic system becomes more evident, and as the impacts of climate change and peak oil manifest themselves ever more clearly, a growing sense of vulnerability looks set to fuel further violence. 

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