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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 2-15

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Economic Aspects of Social and Environmental Violence

John B. Cobb Jr.
Claremont School of Theology


When we think of violence, what first comes to mind are violent acts by individuals or groups against other individuals. We think of rapes and murders, lynchings and muggings, beatings and armed robberies. We want the police to protect us from this violence. Unfortunately, we know that police are tempted, in turn, to employ their power in violent ways, chiefly against those guilty of crimes, but sometimes against the innocent. The cycle of violence on the part of individuals and groups goes on.

Bad as this violence is, it is worse when the state, instead of restricting it, supports and requires it. Political authorities have always exercised violence against their own people, especially those they suspected of being threats to their power. But in the twentieth century, state violence reached previously unheard of levels. For the sake of building a communist society, Stalin killed millions and imprisoned millions more. The Nazis undertook to purify Germany of Jews, gypsies, and other undesirables through extermination undertaken through bureaucratic processes.

We Americans do not think of ourselves as having employed state power in any such way. We know that national power was used violently to drive Native Americans off their land down through the nineteenth century. We know that southern states used their power to enforce segregation and protect whites who engaged in violent acts against blacks in order to maintain total white domination over them. But we now think of the national government much more as the protector of human rights. This is not entirely false.

We tend not to recognize, however, the amount of violence the national government is exercising in the wars against crime and drugs. In order to reduce individual violence as well as drug use, we have created a prison population of two million. One-fourth of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States, most of them jailed for nonviolent crimes. Although drug use is more or less equally spread among ethnic and economic groups, most of those imprisoned for this crime are poor and ethnic minorities. In the name of law and order, enormous violence is inflicted by the United States against the people of its ghettos. [End Page 3]

In this same century war also took on new dimensions. It has been waged against entire populations instead of armies. The aim at total destruction came to its fullest expression when twice the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

World War II has made all of us sadly aware of the horrors of state violence. It has turned us against nationalism. We are appalled as we see nationalism raise its ugly head again in the former Soviet Union and especially in the former Yugoslavia. When ethnic groups undertake to destroy each other, our moral condemnation is unambiguous. Personal, group, and state violence remains a problem, but at least the wrong involved in this is widely understood.

In all civilization there has been another kind of violence—economic. In much of history economic violence has been closely related to the forms noted above. The rich have been able to impose their will on the poor because they could employ persons to exercise violence for them and they could influence state action. We see this glaringly in the "goon squads" employed by the wealthy in some Latin American countries to intimidate and kill those who protest their actions. These goon squads often work closely with the military power of the state.

We know that in this country as well, wealth reduces the chance of conviction for crimes. It also buys influence in government. On the whole the United States government throughout history has supported the interests of those with money. Today the power of wealth in the political process is clearly evident. We recognize that this situation is corrupt, but we do not ordinarily think of it as a form of violence. This is because the violent consequences are indirect, and we are...