Ultimate Choice

Malcolm Bull

  • The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing by Michael Mann
    Cambridge, 580 pp, £17.99, January 2005, ISBN 0 521 53854 8
  • Genocide in the Age of the Nation State. Vol. I: The Meaning of Genocide by Mark Levene
    Tauris, 266 pp, £24.50, August 2005, ISBN 1 85043 752 1
  • Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Vol. II: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide by Mark Levene
    Tauris, 463 pp, £29.50, August 2005, ISBN 1 84511 057 9

Waking to find myself a touch genocidal, I would, I imagine, be uncertain how to proceed. An unprovoked attack on my target group with whatever weapon came to hand might take out a few of them, but also bring my venture to a premature end. Reflecting that few are lucky enough to be in a position to do the job themselves, I could either confine myself to advocacy, or else embark on the difficult and protracted business of getting into a position in which I could expect others to obey my orders.

The problematic nature of this project suggests that genocide, if defined (as it is in the UN Convention) as actions undertaken with intent to destroy a specified ethnic, national or religious group ‘as such’, is not a solitary crime. If someone is sitting in their bedroom planning the annihilation of half the population, it is probably better described as fantasy than intent. On the other hand, soldiers who take no prisoners when clearing the survivors out of a bombarded village may have no sense that they are engaged in anything other than a messy military operation, and be quite indifferent to the identity of those they kill. Connecting the genocidal fantasy with the murderous reality is tricky. Genocide is a big-picture, ‘vision thing’; acts of genocide are generally routine police and military actions involving small numbers of people in particular locations. The fantasists will probably have killed no one, and (pace Daniel Goldhagen) none of the killers may share in the fantasy at all.

It is for this reason that prosecuting individuals for genocide has proved extremely difficult. Even if the fantasists and the executioners are part of the same organisation, it does not necessarily follow that the former gave instructions to the latter. Organisational goals are often ill-defined, and sometimes imperfectly understood by everyone. So genocide, like corporate negligence or fraud, is difficult to prove, and the people most likely to be prosecuted are the senior to middle managers who may have neither envisioned nor executed the genocide, but somehow got stuck with the task of translating a vaguely defined project into the practical steps necessary to make it possible. Nevertheless, outside Rwanda, no conviction has yet been upheld for anything more than ‘aiding and abetting’ or ‘complicity’ in genocide.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the definition of genocide has been endlessly debated. Feeling that nothing like the Holocaust should ever be allowed to happen again, the UN Convention on Genocide tried to define exactly what it was that had happened. The omission of political, occupational and other social groups from the terms of the UN Convention, which thereby excluded the mass killings of Stalin and Pol Pot, has been criticised by many. Michael Mann chooses to call such massacres ‘classicide’ or ‘politicide’, and reserves ‘genocide’ for the destruction of ethnic or religious groups. Mark Levene, on the other hand, includes all of these within his definition of genocide as ‘the state-organised total or partial extermination of perceived or actual communal groups’.

However, the Convention also inadvertently included within its definition many other things that none of the signatories regretted very much, like the colonial depopulation of Australia and the Americas. Mann prefers the term ‘ethnocide’ for the unintended annihilation of racial groups, but for both victims and perpetrators the consequences are much the same. Without the benefit of such ethnocides many readers of the LRB would not be living where they are now. Few think of themselves as being in favour of genocide, and many would like to see Israelis dismantle their settlements on the West Bank, but no one is going to demolish their own house and give the land back to the indigenous people. Zionists remember this, and so did Hitler.

The associations are perhaps more uncomfortable than they need to be. Genocide may be more difficult than it looks, but that does not mean that it is wrong. There are good arguments for it, the strongest of which come from just-war theory. If you accept that wars fought as a last resort by legitimate authority with the sole intention of responding to unprovoked aggression with proportionate force are justifiable, then there are circumstances in which you may find yourself supporting genocide. If your adversary is unshakeably committed to a total war involving every member of the population in a struggle that brooks no surrender (and in the modern period most states have been committed, at least rhetorically, to just such an undertaking), then it follows that the war must continue until all the enemy are either dead or incapacitated. If they insist on fighting, you have to keep on killing them, and if they all keep on fighting, you will end up having to kill the lot.

It is not only in cases of total war, however, that the just war is potentially genocidal. The doctrine of double effect, which allows for civilian casualties incurred as a result of striking legitimate military targets, is also a potential route to genocide in the age of mass destruction. An aerial bombardment or a tactical nuclear strike may be directed at military targets, but nevertheless cause immense destruction, including, coincidentally, the annihilation of entire social groups that happen to get in the way. And then there is what Michael Walzer and John Rawls both call a ‘supreme emergency’, when direct attacks on civilian targets are required in circumstances of dire military necessity. Since, in the nuclear age, ‘supreme emergency has become a permanent condition,’ this means that it is legitimate to possess strategic nuclear weapons and threaten to use them against civilian populations, committing who knows how many forms of genocide in the process.

Perhaps these would not be genocides ‘as such’ in that the ethnic or religious identity of those killed would not be the primary determinant of their fate. Even so, what we have here are examples of what, fusing the terminology of Rawls and Mann, we might think of, if not as ‘reasonable liberal genocides’, then at least as ‘decent ethnocides’. And if your definition of a just war extends beyond self-defence to include armed intervention in outlaw states, as it does for Rawls, then opportunities for genocides of this type increase exponentially. It would, for example, be possible to put up a robust defence of the genocide of native peoples in the New World. Rawls argues that in the case of societies like that of the Aztecs, which are ‘driven by slavery and the threat of human sacrifice’, intervention might be necessary. Noting, with regret, that there is no way to influence ‘primitive, isolated societies, with no contact with liberal or decent societies’, he concludes that in such cases sanctions will not work. In which case invasion is the only answer. And if the natives resist to the death? Then there is no choice.

Oh well, invasion and extermination are some of the dangers people encounter when they cannot manage to develop a ‘well-ordered’ society. (It may be difficult to maintain a full range of liberal institutions if, like the Tasmanians, you have forgotten how to make a fire, but it is still inexcusable.) And so this was the fate not just of the Aztecs, but of the native populations of Australia and North America, whose rates of attrition after contact were 80 and 95 per cent respectively. As Mann points out, 12 years of Nazi rule in Europe resulted in the death of 70 per cent of the Jewish population; in the first 12 years of California’s statehood, the Native American population fell by 80 per cent. Anyone who imagines that a post-genocidal literature must be unreadable should try Little House on the Prairie, or perhaps Joan Didion’s Where I Was From.

The idea of outlaw peoples brings to the field of international relations a concept more familiar from domestic polity. Everyone appears to accept that it is necessary to eradicate certain social groups – not in the sense that all their members should be killed, but that their defining practices and common ways of life should cease. For example, states are committed to eradicating crime and the subcultures that sustain it, and ensuring that all serious criminals are, if not executed, at least safely locked away in prison. Is this then a genocide against criminals? Most would say not. But it is arguable. China is said to execute about 10,000 people a year, 100,000 in a decade – well up to what, in other circumstances, might be called genocidal levels of slaughter. And what exactly is the difference between the criminalisation of an occupation (being a drug-dealer, say, or a speculator or a ‘kulak’) and the criminalisation of a religious group? Religious careers have often been criminalised; some criminal careers are religious vocations.

Reasoned defences of most genocides can be constructed on the basis of a conjunction of the just war and social exclusion arguments, for if there is an identifiable social group engaged in total war against you, then it has to be neutralised. The Armenian genocide in 1915 was justified on these grounds, for the Armenians were expected to fight with the Russians in the event of an invasion of Anatolia. Stalin’s classicide was an attempt to deal with counter-revolutionary elements who might have sided with the Whites in the event of a renewed civil war or foreign invasion. A defence of the Holocaust might be constructed along the same lines: the attack on Bolshevism was a just war against an outlaw state ‘driven by slavery and the threat of human sacrifice’; it became a total war in which Jews would probably have taken the Soviet side; their pre-emptive internment was therefore a natural precaution, and their execution an unfortunate necessity at a time of ‘supreme emergency’ when the Red Army threatened the Fatherland. If you accept the just war and social exclusion arguments, then these genocides can only be criticised on the basis that they relied on shaky political analysis. They were, in effect, misjudgments, failures of statesmanship, perhaps.

These are not hypothetical arguments. Orhan Pamuk was until recently awaiting trial for affirming the existence of an Armenian genocide, while the president of Iran has cast doubt on the Holocaust, and floated the idea of relocating the state of Israel in Central Europe. Mann and Levene both see genocide as a modern practice coextensive with the rise of the West, and imply that the Middle East has been relatively insulated from this historical pattern. But as war and democracy march hand in hand into the region, that may change. On Mann’s analysis, the chances of some sort of genocide must be quite high. According to him, murderous ethnic cleansing takes place where the demos is equated with the ethnos. Young democracies are particularly at risk, especially those where ethnicity trumps class as the primary means of social classification. The danger zone is reached when two groups claim the same territory, and they reach the brink either when the weaker group fights rather than submits (perhaps believing it has outside support) or when the stronger thinks it can act with impunity. Genocides do not occur in stable, peaceful environments, but at moments of crisis when the state is in danger. So societies only go over the brink when the perpetrators of the genocide are radicalised by war.

Elements of this scenario will sound disturbingly familiar. The new Iraq would appear to offer a promising setting for future genocides, the Sunnis or the Kurds being the potential targets of Iraq’s Shia majority – an outcome, according to Mann’s theory, less likely during the occupation than it might be thereafter. The Israel-Palestine conflict (which Mann inexplicably discusses in terms of class) conforms to his model still more closely. As a democratic settler state with an ethnically based conception of citizenship, Israel is a prime example of the type of polity within which a genocide might be expected to take place. Had either of the Iraq wars spread that far, the consequences for the Palestinians might have been even worse than they were. Conversely, were the Israelis ever to discover their trust in the United States to be unfounded, things could go the other way; though in the latter case, it is unlikely that the Palestinians would have to resort to genocide.

For genocide to take place, the victims have to be a more or less credible source of threat, and yet be relatively helpless. Even then, as Mann persuasively demonstrates, genocide is rarely the initial objective, but the last in a series of expedients prompted by the frustration or failure of earlier plans that have escalated from repression, to forced emigration or deportation, to mass killing. There is a strong link between the last two, for, as the unfolding disaster in Darfur reminds us, genocide is a testimony to people’s acute vulnerability when deprived of the ability to shelter and support themselves. Because settlers usually have somewhere to go, they rarely end up being driven into the sea, and can usually be induced to leave long before this becomes a possibility; the white population of Zimbabwe has fallen by 70 per cent since the end of minority rule, without having experienced anything more than sporadic intimidation.

Were what has long been hailed as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to become the site of genocide, it would offer strong confirmation of Mann’s thesis. In opposition to democratic peace theory, which makes much of the idea that democracies do not go to war with one another, Mann argues that democracies, unless they are securely established liberal democracies, are actually more likely to become genocidal than authoritarian states:

Modern ethnic cleansing is the dark side of democracy when ethno-nationalist movements claim the state for their own ethnos, which they initially intend to constitute as a democracy, but then they seek to exclude and cleanse others. There was also a dark side to socialist versions of democracy. The people was equated with the proletariat, and after the revolution cleansing of classes and other enemies might begin.

The ‘most direct’ evidence for this hypothesis comes from European settler states which, Mann argues, were more genocidal if democratic; from Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, where authoritarian rule repressed and democracy inflamed ethnic tensions; and from India, where martial law had a similarly dampening effect on inter-ethnic hostility.

Mann’s work brings a new and impressive sociological rigour to the study of genocide, but despite its provocative title, his book does not establish the link between democracy and ethnic cleansing. The fate of Native Americans under the republic may have been worse than it was in the colonial period, but it did not differ all that much from that of Aboriginal Australians (who were still notionally under colonial rule), or that of the Guanches (the indigenous inhabitants of the Canaries), the Caribs or the Arawaks – all victims of Castilian or Spanish colonial expansion. And then there is, as Mann acknowledges, the rather obvious point that none of the terrible genocides of the 20th century occurred in democratic societies.

A tempting logic lies behind Mann’s theory. Because democracy is the rule of the people, it is easily conflated with the rule of the majority ethnic group, which then seeks to remove minorities in order to make the state safe for democracy. But it’s hard to see what incentive a majority (as opposed to a minority) has for homogenising a democracy, for democracy is the one form of government that ensures the rule of the majority in the first place. Perhaps the problem is not democracy itself but rather the related concept of citizenship. Democracy is an inclusive concept, while citizenship is traditionally an exclusive one. But a democracy has to have more clearly defined boundaries than a monarchy or aristocracy because in a democracy the boundaries of citizenship are also those of sovereignty. Empires may be limitless, claiming lost territories and unknown numbers of unidentifiable subjects, but democracies have to be more careful. Genocides, it may be noted, are frequently, but not invariably, attacks on second-class or non-citizens. The Jews were deprived of German citizenship by the Nuremberg laws of 1935; Native Americans gained US citizenship only in 1924; Stalin thinned the ranks of the lishentsy (disenfranchised); the genocide in Kampuchea drew on the notional distinction between ‘base people’ and the suspect ‘new people’.

Mann admits that ‘if the two meanings of “the people” become fused . . . the privileges of citizens may involve discrimination against ethnic out-groups,’ but Levene comes closer to acknowledging the centrality of citizenship. In answer to the question of what it is about the modern world that has made genocide more prevalent, Mann would point to organic democracy, whereas Levene would say the nation-state. In his account, genocide involves a state commitment to the extrusion of a real or imagined social group; an occasion in which this is unhindered; a crisis in which the state believes itself in danger, and in which prolonged killing is led by state operatives. So for Levene, the origins of modern genocide are to be found in the French Revolution, and in the equation of citizenship with participation in the general will. This allowed opponents to be classified as enemies of the people, and cleared the way for war to be waged against French citizens as though they were a foreign enemy. Levene therefore follows the controversial French historian Reynald Secher in seeing repression in the Vendée as the archetypal modern genocide.

Prior to the American and French Revolutions, citizenship was usually conceived in terms of duties rather than rights; after the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, citizenship became an attempt to co-ordinate rights and duties. Initially, it was a matter of giving rights to those who already had duties. But the emphasis quickly changed. By 1795, the Declaration of the Rights of Man had become the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, with new clauses specifying that citizens ‘should both know and fulfil their duties’, and that those who openly defied the law would be ‘in a state of war with society’.

The equation of citizenship with the exchange of rights and duties received its classic statement in the much-repeated formula of the First International: ‘No rights without duties, no duties without rights.’ The implications of this were spelled out in the Soviet constitution of 1918. Work was the duty of all citizens: ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’ The conjunction was echoed in the Nazi programme of 1920. The ninth point was that ‘All citizens must possess equal rights and duties’; the tenth: ‘The first duty of every citizen must be to work.’ Arbeit macht frei.

Where there are no rights without duties, and no duties without rights, it is axiomatic that those who do not perform duties relinquish their rights. Jews, the handicapped, and others who supposedly did no productive work, were the victims of this particular equation in Nazi Germany. But they were only the last in a series of victims of the attempt to co-ordinate rights and duties. From 1918 to 1936, the Soviet constitution disenfranchised employers, speculators, clergy and others not engaged in ‘productive and socially useful labour’. Even colonial genocides were justified by the supposed failure of native peoples to exercise the duties incumbent on the holders of property rights. The underlying fear was always the one Rousseau first articulated: that someone ‘might seek to enjoy the rights of a citizen without doing the duties of a subject’.

Paradoxically, therefore, human rights universalism becomes part of the problem. By investing everyone with rights that they may not previously have known they had, it places duties on them which they may be unwilling or unable to perform. For people in this situation the result can be either oppression – to enable them to perform their duties and so secure their rights – or else abandonment to a state of rightlessness in which duties are no longer required of them. In the latter case, as Hannah Arendt put it, ‘their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed, but that nobody wants to oppress them.’

Given that declarations of the rights of man seem to end up equating rights either with the rights of the dutiful citizen, or else with the non-existent rights of those deprived of citizenship, the philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently offered an alternative formulation in which ‘the Rights of Man are the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not.’ He takes the example of Olympe de Gouges, whose Declaration of the Rights of Woman argued that if women were entitled to go to the scaffold (a right that women had even in the absence of civil rights), they must also be entitled to go to the assembly (a right they lacked notwithstanding their notional inclusion in earlier declarations of the rights of man). On this account, the political relevance of the French revolutionary discourse of rights emerged at precisely the point it appeared to break down: in the creation of subjects simultaneously included in and excluded from the political sphere.

Pushing the thesis a little further, Rancière, in his essay ‘The Thinking of Dissensus’ (2003), presents democracy as the rule of those ‘who have no qualification for exercising power’, and have ‘no specificity in common’:

The ethnos is the people identified with the living body of those who have the same origin, are born on the same soil, or worship the same god. It is the people as a given body opposed to other such bodies. The demos is the people conceived as a supplement to the parts of the community – what I call the count of the uncounted . . . The life of the demos is the ongoing process of its differentiation from the ethnos.

Here, it might appear, is an account of a democracy that does not need to define its own boundaries (for it is always outside them) and forever refuses the genocidal equation of demos with a particular ethnos, social class or political group.

However, arguing that ‘the Rights of Man are the rights of those who have not the rights they have’ amounts to little more than saying that the rights of man are the legitimate claims of those who have duties, such as a liability to legal penalties. And what about those who have the rights that they have (in the sense that they already have full civil rights) and do not have the rights that they have not (in the sense that they do not have any duties)? What is the fate, in Rancière’s democracy, of those who are qualified to rule?

Rancière’s account of democracy as ‘the power of those who have no qualification for exercising power’ aligns it with what the primatologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’, in which those least able to dominate individually do so collectively. In Hierarchy in the Forest (1999), his study of the origins of egalitarianism among bands of hunter-gatherers, Boehm found that in order to establish egalitarianism the first humans had to reverse the hierarchical social organisation of their ancestors (which persisted in great ape societies). Egalitarianism did not arise spontaneously but had to be rigorously enforced by sanctions, expulsions and executions of potential upstarts and free-riders. So, unlike Jared Diamond, who has suggested that human genocides are continuous with the murderous inter-group skirmishes of chimpanzees, Boehm sees a radical discontinuity between the hierarchical social organisation of the chimpanzees and the egalitarianism of human hunter-gatherers. It was the human ‘egalitarian revolution’ that created the possibility of both altruism and genocide.

If feeling genocidal is a symptom of what Boehm terms ‘human egalitarian syndrome’, is our abhorrence of genocide then the effect of a growing revulsion towards egalitarianism? Most modern victims have been perceived to be in possession of some form of capital to which they had no right. Many have indeed been socially or economically more advantaged than their persecutors – the educated and people in middlemen occupations being particularly at risk. But indigenous peoples, as the illegitimate occupiers of immense tracts of land, also fall within this category. And citizenship itself, as a form of legal and social capital, can provoke the same genocidal impulse if held by those who appear not to merit it. In almost every case, genocide is the attempt to eliminate free-riders, the pests and parasites of society.

In contrast, having duties without rights appears to be the best defence against genocide. One sentence rarely found in the annals of human history is: ‘And then they killed all their servants.’ The Spartans used to carry out an annual raid against the Helots, just to remind them who was in charge. But despite having the right to do so, slave owners rarely slaughtered their slaves. Even the most bloodthirsty reactionaries do not call for the annihilation of the working class. And illegal immigrants are not rounded up and deported en masse, because they are usually hard at work doing something beneath the dignity of a citizen.

Slavery or genocide may be the ultimate political choice, but it is not the most inviting one. A simultaneous refusal of both is possible, though perhaps more difficult than we like to imagine. As the former Situationist Raoul Vaneigem observes in his critique of ‘Declarations of the Rights of Man’, such a refusal will almost certainly mean relinquishing the contractarian practice of bartering rights for duties, and with it the dictatorship of exchange value itself.