When I discovered the blogosphere less than a year ago it struck me how politically polarised it was. I could tell within seconds of reading, or in some cases looking at, a site whether it was going to be the type of blog whose writer believed that all the problems of the world could be blamed on atheisitic communists whose most notable contribution to the 20th Century was wholesale murder. Similarly there are no limit to the number of commentators to blogs at least who believe that the USA’s chief contribution to the world is an economic system, often described as neo-liberalism, which needs the starvation of millions in the third-world to work properly.
Murder is probably the worst thing you can do to another person and if the impression in people’s minds is that a group of people they oppose politically, whether left or right, are responsible for mass-murder then that would explain why arguments on blogs can often get heated. No-one wants to live under a political system where a knock on the door at two in the morning means death, instant or otherwise. Nor do people want to live in a system where their prosperity depends on the starvation of countless others.
Are these polarised positions fair though ? Is collective-medicine or redistributive taxation neccessarily only a few steps away from the setting-up up of gulags ? Is capitalism a killer economic system ? The more-extreme idealogues of the blogosphere would have us believe so but the answer is no on both counts.
The history of wholesale murder shows us that it is not the exclusive property of left or right. The Roman Empire, to use only one example from the ancient world, was neither left nor right in the modern sense but it was a very effective killing machine. Who knows how many died at its hands ? We don’t have figures but we know that the answer would rival Stalin. Similarly the early Christian Church in Europe did not trouble itself with arguments which divide left from right today but it did approve of the wholesale slaughter of European tribes which were slow to, or refused, to convert to what it’s followers called the path of peace. Have a read of the scholarly works on the conversion of the Franks and compare and contrast with Pol Pot. It certainly surprised me how much deliberate killing of pagans went on in early-Christian Europe.
Organised mass-murder then, whether by states or other poweful bodies predates the modern political terminology which places most of us on a left-right scale.
The right point to Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot for justification that there is something about the left which predisposes those who favour collective solutions to political problems to wholesale slaughter. The 20th Century has certainly seen a lot of political killings, most of it carried out by those who identified themselves as left-wing. But the sort of lazy thinking which equates socialism with murder does not take into account the fact that the 20th Century was the century in which being left-wing was to be on the side which was seen as the wave of the future, the winning side. Is it any surprise that ruthless people would nail their colours to the mast of the what they considered was the winning side ? It is a mistake to point to the supposedly left-wing Pol Pot or Stalin and conclude that no further thought is neccessary as to why mass-murder took place in the countries they ruled.
Similarly there have been plenty of examples of 20th Century mass-murder which have been carried out by those who can not be described as left wing. Hitler Germany, Imperial Japan, Apartheid South Africa, Latin America up till the 90’s. The actual list is longer than these examples allow.
History does not teach us that egalitarianism can only be carried out at the end of a bayonet. Scandinavia is one of the more egalitarian places in the world but the inhabitants of Sweden, Norway et al have been less active in slaughtering themselves and their neighbours than most European countries.
What of the charges of the anti-globalisation left ? Doesn’t capitalism condemn people to die by it’s very nature. An alien visitor to our planet would see enormous and glaring inequalities in the world. Obesity as a major medical problem in much of the West and periodic starvation and systemic hunger in much of the third world. I can see why people get worked-up about the state of the world. It is obscene.
Blaming it all on capitalism though is tilting at windmills. The countries which are feeding themselves and exporting VCR’s and cars to us live in the same economic world as those countries where the people generally don’t have enough to eat. Kenya and Korea started from the same economic base only a few decades ago. The answer to why some countries do well and some countries don’t isn’t answered by smashing up McDonalds or shouting outside G8 meetings. Empty sloganising is useless at feeding the world.
If the answer to why mass-murder happens isn’t a particular political ideology or economic system why does the history of the world contain so many examples of mass-murder ? I don’t have a definitive catch-all answer which I can take comfort in and I strongly suspect there are no easy answers which shows us that “our” side is on the side of the angels and that “their” side consists of sub-human beasts.
If I was forced to attempt to answer why large-scale political killings occurred I’d have to throw the following ingredients into the melting pot:
ethnic hatreds, over-powerful states, ignorance and fear, weak or non-existant democracy, perverted idealism, groupthink, economic greed, and a weak or non existant legal system.
The list is neither exclusive nor is it finished – anyone can add to it. It is just what I could think of in twenty-seconds or so. The answer to how people or states convince themselves to commit murder or genocide is complex. Our aim should be aimed at minimising it when it looks like occurring though and the first step toward doing so is to abandon the way of thinking which allow us to believe that it won’t happen under “our” watch or that “we” were forced into it by “their” behaviour.
Those who argue that maximum economic freedom means less liklihood of state-sponsored death are correct in one way but need to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about the inhumanity of the slave-trade. Those who think that all violence is a legacy of imperialism or capitalism and will vanish in the future need to get their history books out.