The sense that war makes

Christopher Cramer
4 October 2006

There are two common misconceptions about violence and war in developing countries: that they are irrational, and second, that their consequences are exclusively destructive.

The examples of such attitudes are legion. The United Nations Security Council in 1994 referred to the "mindless violence and carnage" in Rwanda, around the same time as then British prime minister John Major was recycling the myth that the wars in ex-Yugoslavia were the result of "ancient ethnic hatreds". A Canadian statement to the UN Security Council in July 2006 railed against the "senseless violence" in the middle east.

A related reflex is to attribute violence solely to demonic individuals. The range of the blameworthy in developing-country conflicts is, again, wide: from Jonas Savimbi to Muqtada al-Sadr, from Foday Sankoh to Joseph Kony.

Meanwhile, violence and war are also seen as exclusively negative in their consequences. This view stretches back to the 19th- and early 20th-century "liberal interpretation of war"; it was neatly captured in a World Bank report in June 2003 that argued "war is development in reverse".

This vision of violence is flawed. Violence and war are not mindless. And despite their awful destruction their consequences are not always wholly negative. To see them this way is ahistorical as well as inaccurate.

Christopher Cramer teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He is the author of Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries (C Hurst, 2006)

A conversion process

Historically, many wars - by no means all - have had complicated consequences, some of which have come to be seen eventually as positive, even progressive. The institutions of taxation in most European countries owe their origins to the exigencies of war finance, the development of the "sinews of war". Wars have given a boost to the efficiency of financial markets as well as to pressures for greater democracy and greater participation of women in political and economic life.

There are still arcane economic arguments about how much the American civil war cost, and even whether the economic burden still affects the economy; equally, there are arguments that this horrendous war made it possible to drag the American south onto a trajectory of capitalist development (though slowed down by the compromises of reconstruction). The technical innovations of the civil war included standard-sizing for mass production of clothes, the wider national use of legal tender paper bills (greenbacks), and Salmon P Chase's innovations in marketing bonds.

All wars need paying for, and create opportunities for some people to make a killing - commercially as well as literally. That process is often very close to what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation (and what Adam Smith had called "previous accumulation"), the unseemly phase of coercive capital accumulation which made possible a less directly coercive and more sustained momentum of capitalist development.

Policymakers and pundits nowadays rarely pause to ask whether faintly similar processes may be taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, or whether there might be ways of encouraging these processes to be more likely to facilitate capitalist development than to get stuck in a rut of accumulation tussles. Instead, the reflex is only to see the predatory and criminal in wartime economies (at the same time often drawing a veil over international complicity in Afghan, Congolese, Sudanese or Colombian war economies).

From the perspective of "previous accumulation", the wartime experiences of Afghanistan or Mozambique, for example, are far from "development in reverse". During the war in Mozambique that gained momentum in the post-independence years (1975-1992), a number of people managed to take advantage of wartime shortages, the paucity of competition, and contacts with military and political forces to forge a powerful economic grip in parts of the countryside, where they then could draw on the cheap and desperate labour of the large number of people cast into destitution by the war.

It takes no great leap of theory to see this as a process of "primitive accumulation" or, indeed, class formation. Many of the fortunes made and positions of influence established during the war have been the foundation for (highly unequal) post-war economic development and many of the beneficiaries of war have been beneficiaries of post-war privatisation policies.

Similarly in Afghanistan, some of those assigned into the glib category of "warlords" have developed powerful economic bases, in some cases showing an interest in peace when this underpins economic activity. And again, these warlord relations of what Karl Polanyi, referring to the enclosure movement in early modern England called the "grazier lords", and of US "robber barons", have come to provide opportunities for survival and labour to a large number of poor Afghans.

Rather than merely criminalising these processes, the intellectual and policy challenge is to design ways of encouraging their conversion into less violent, more progressive, and more sustained processes of wealth-accumulation and job-creation, which cannot be achieved without a viable state.

The ruinous and the formative

From another angle, virtually all societies have their origins in violent episodes. Liberal amnesia about the often-brutal foundations of democratic, capitalist modernity is from this perspective just one example of what René Girard (in Violence and the Sacred) suggested has been a more universal tendency to cover up this foundational violence. A line may thus link the enclosure movement in England, the viciousness of colonialism, the roots of the modern model nation-state in population movement (ethnic cleansing), the Korean war (1950-53), and contemporary violent conflicts around the world.

So it may pay to give more emphasis to the unintentionally constructive in violent conflicts rather than exclusively to their destruction, to try to understand and even help contribute to the formative rather than the purely ruinous.

A poor capacity to reflect with a historical sensibility on contemporary conflicts makes it easier to explain away recent and ongoing catastrophes as anarchic, as functions of backwardness, as criminal. But it cannot help anybody to avoid seeing the many ways in which wars make sense.

They rarely make sense in a straightforward way - there is usually no single cause, as is clear from the many weaknesses of efforts to claim that civil wars, for example, are caused only by "greed" or exclusively by "ethnicity" or "grievance". War is difficult to pin down. Contemporary civil wars (if such a label is ever really appropriate), wars between countries, and other forms of large-scale violence are characterised by processes that rarely fit neatly into abstract models. They often involve and are made by multiple levels - from political manoeuvring at national and international levels to extremely local resentments and agendas (women vs men, young boys vs male gerontocracy, neighbourly envy over point-blank inequalities, even family rifts).

Beyond the "liberal peace thesis"

Often the sense that war makes is at least partly because development and what it represents is profoundly conflictual and traumatic, not the smooth process with universal benefits that it is seen to be. Brazil is a clear illustration.

It would be difficult to say that Brazil had not developed - its rate of economic growth over the whole of the 20th century was one of the fastest. But its development has always been characterised by fierce struggle and manifold violence. Current levels of violence in the favelas of many Brazilian cities and in parts of the countryside are extremely high. Favela violence has been spilling over, recently, into the asfalto, the formal urban areas, and Brazilians regularly use the language of war or civil war to describe the scale of the phenomenon.

Far from being senseless, violence in Brazil in many ways dramatises the shape and tensions of Brazilian society and its scale may be nudging the country towards a kind of hora de verdade (hour of truth) that clarifies the crisis.

In an interview with O Globo in July 2006, the imprisoned boss of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command / PCC) gang in São Paulo, Marcola, described his "soldiers" as "strange anomalies of the crooked development of this country. There are no longer proletarians, miserable or exploited. There's a third thing growing out there, cultivated in mud, schooled in illiteracy, qualified in prisons, like an alien monster hidden in the cracks in the city." When combined with technology, modern arms, the internet, this all creates, argued Marcola, "shit with chips, with megabytes. My commanders are a mutation of the species; they're a fungus grown on a huge filthy mistake."

For Marcola, the situation has gone beyond any possible solution. But the more general policy response to violence and war in developing countries, advocated in the richer countries, is to apply the "liberal peace thesis", influenced by both the misconceptions outlined above. According to the liberal peace thesis violence and war are caused by the perverse influence of narrow elites and vested interests. Political and economic liberalisation will release the naturally peaceable nature of human society.

This is a tradition with profound and honourable roots - for example, in the writing of Richard Cobden or Tom Paine. Translated into modern terms, it suggests that a strong dose of orthodox development policy (good governance, democratisation, privatisation and economic deregulation) will cure the problem of violent conflict.

But arguably we can get at a richer understanding now of violence and of the links between violence and development. And we ought to know enough too to see the absurdity of believing that laissez-faire economic policies have ever been the bedrock of successful economic development and "catching up" with those countries that industrialised earlier.

Thus, the naivety with which most so-called civil wars are perceived leads to an ahistorical and simplistic vision of "reconstruction". It is ahistorical in its poor understanding of violence and development. It is ahistorical in its ignorance of earlier episodes of reconstruction (after the American civil war, after the two world wars, for example). And it is usually ahistorical in its failure to consider the context of "state-building" challenges (as the current vogue has it) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, or East Timor.

All these shortcomings of the standard liberal view of violence, war, development, and reconstruction came together in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA's) early plans for reconstruction in Iraq. For as Kurtz was not an absurd aberration but in many ways the epitome and logical extension of extractive colonialism (in the Belgian Congo of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) or of "civilised" war (in the Vietnam of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now), so the CPA's fantasy of liberalisation in Iraq was the epitome of a broader approach to contemporary post-conflict reconstruction. Only beyond its illusions lies hope of progress.

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