Inequality causes violence. An interview with Anna Cornelia Beyer

Created on Friday, 24 January 2014 12:11 Published Date

Parent Category: Global Security & Human Security - Category: Global Security

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Anna Cornelia Beyer, University of Hull, is the author of "Inequality and Violence: A Reappraisal or Man, the State and War," (Ashgate: Forthcoming).[1]


What is your evidence?

For the book, I have reviewed numerous studies on inequality with various foci. I looked at how inequality is connected to violence at the individual level, for example. Braithwaite published a prominent study argueing that inequality is connected to crime, including violent crime here. Also, of course, Wilkinson and Picketts prominent publication The Spirit Level is of importance here as it shows that inequality is connected to violence in societies, more unequal countries have more cases of murders and deaths from violence, for example. Secondly, I looked at the evidence for other forms of violence at the state level. Here we have to think in particular about revolutions, civil wars and terrorism. All of these three forms of violence have been connected in the literature to inequality in their causation. The connection between inequality and revolutions is the most established one, the arguments for inequality causing revolutions goes back to Tocqueville and Marx. And empirical research has found support for the claim that inequality precedes revolutions. For civil wars, prominently Kofi Annan, the former General Secretary of the United Nations, has pointed out a connection. Here it seems, that inequality between groups, in particular ethnic groups, seems to be an important factor. This has also been confirmed by an independent study conducted by a researcher from Norway. For terrorism, the connection between inequality and terrorism is disputed, but again some studies point towards the argument that it is connected to this form of violence also. For example, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have been analysed in a prominent book by Tore Bjorgo and evidence was found that longstanding inequalities contributed to their struggle. Similar arguments have been made for cases in Turkey and India. Finally, I looked at the international level. Interestingly, the argument that inequality causes violence or prevents it seems not solved here. Some claim, more inequality is better and when we live under a very unequal system, such as today under US hegemony, we have more protection. Others, such as Kenneth Waltz, claim that more equality is better for peace. The evidence points towards the conclusion that the most stable system is bipolarity, when we have two superpowers such as in the Cold War. However, this constellation has probably not been too common in the analysed periods, so the data might be misleading. Another interesting fact is that multipolarity, which is often relatively equal, is not showing a high frequency of war, but the worst wars. The two world wars have been started in a system of multipolarity, when we have many more or less equal powers. Now, the highest frequency of war, so the literature, even if not the worst wars, are to be found when we have a very unequal system, such as hegemony. In fact, the more unequal the system, the more wars, so the analysts.

What kinds of violence are we talking about?

In the study, as I mentioned, I looked at all sorts of material violence. From violent crime, to civil wars, terrorism, and wars amongst states. There is a discussion in the literature that we need to consider many more forms of violence. Structural violence is a prominent term. It refers to the condition that one actor is regularly exploited by another. I did not look at this form of violence, even if it relates to my argument, as it naturally involves inequality and it is argued that structural violence contributes to material violence. So this does not contradict my findings, but confirms it. I have looked at this issue in another publication, where I argue that structural violence against the Middle East, exploitation, interventions, discrimination, are a cause for terrorist groups to attack us. And Osama bin Laden, for example, had stated in his declaration of war, that the reason why he attacks us is because we attacked his fellowmen and continue to attack them. This is material violence, but is relates also to structural violence, as economically we can make an argument that at least some of the Middle Eastern countries are under the economic dominance of the US, and this contributes to their backwardness, which was lamented for a long time. Osama bin Laden actually referred also to economic reasons in his declaration of war.

Does this apply just to poor countries where people are struggling to find life’s basic necessities or are rich countries with a big disparity in income violent as well?

The connection between inequality and violence holds for all countries, rich and poor. And in fact, Wilkinson and Pickett showed that criminal violence, such as murders, are sometimes more frequent in richer countries with more inequality, than in poorer countries with less inequality. Of course, the rich and poor countries generally speaking have different problems. The poor countries are more affected by terrorism and civil wars, the richer countries are more often those that intervene in those conflicts. However, they are also connected. For example, terrorism, while stemming often from the poor countries, is mostly directed at richer countries and particularly the West, especially if we talk about international forms of terrorism. In fact, we could argue that terrorism is directed against international inequality, as I made the argument about structural violence before. And indeed it has also been found, as I argue in one chapter of the book, the foreign aid is helpful against terrorism. The countries that give foreign aid are less the target of terrorism. However, foreign aid must not be used for repressive measures in the receiving countries.

How does this apply to the situation in Greece where there was an economic crisis and there has been a lot of violence on the streets?

Political violence, such as in Greece, can probably connected to inequality. I go back here to Tocqueville and Marx, who talked about revolutions. Tocqueville said, an unequal situation has to improve before revolutions occur. Marx contradicted this and argued a situation of inequality has to worsen before revolutions break out. Now, their dispute was solved by Davies. He argued that both processes apply. First, there has to be an improvement in the situation. This makes people hope for future improvements and raises their expectations. Now, if the growth process is reversed, this disappoints these expectations and this is the most dangerous situation for revolutionary violence to occur. One could argue, that in Greece with the access to the European Union high hopes were encouraged of unended growth. These hopes were drastically disappointed with the recent financial crisis. And this made for the violence in the streets that we observed in Greece in the last years.

Don’t societies need to be somewhat unequal for people to have an incentive to work hard and get on and if they do that it benefits the country as a whole because the country will be more industrious and prosperous?

The book is not an absolute argument against any inequalities. It makes the point that more inequality might contribute to more violence, in societies and more globally. And interestingly, I am looking more into psychological research at the moment, we might not only be more peaceful if we have more equality, we might also be happier. Happiness research indicates that inequality makes people increasingly unhappy and even contributes a lot to an increase in mental illness. More equal countries are generally happier, so the research. And if we look at the Nordic countries, which have a reputation of holding up high levels of equality, their economies do not suffer from this.

[1] This interview has been previously published with the International Affairs Forum.