In many cases, the state legitimizes violence,” said the lawyer, professor and researcher on socio-environmental conflicts, Patricia Urteaga Crovetto, as we sat in her university office in Lima, Peru. “People make claims, they knock on doors, organize investigations, run petitions, file complaints, appeal, litigate. They use all the instruments the law offers. When all this does not work, sometimes, violence is their last straw. I do not justify violence, but when the issues at stake deal with peoples’ lives, being ignored by the state is also violent.”
Urteaga’s words crystalized increasingly popular debates over where responsibility lies for violence in contexts marked by the colonial exploitation of land and people, where military force is casually deployed to suppress popular discontent. Whose violence is newsworthy and punished, that of protesters engaging in property destruction, or that of the state denying care to lifeforms and allowing corporations to pollute the environment? What does violence even mean for different people across different contexts?
Humanity faces structural and mutually intensifying crises — ecological, economic, social, cultural, political and even spiritual, especially in societies increasingly overtaken by consumerism. At the same time, the general public’s fascination with violence, combined with the media’s intent to capitalize on it, have diluted collective understandings of the phenomenon, leading to its glorification and normalization, narrow conceptualizations and overall moral and intellectual confusion.
Perhaps more than ever, we desperately need to rethink what violence is — particularly in a colonial context — how unreflexive rhetoric about violence can exacerbate conflict and how we can confront violence productively. To truly understand the meanings of violence, we must critically analyze the role of discourse in legitimizing violent relations and structures. In other words, we have to understand colonialism not only as a material, military, political and economic project, but also as an intellectual one.
CONCEPTUAL CONTESTATION AND THE MEANINGS OF VIOLENCE
Few concepts are as challenging as violence, which fascinates so much and sells so well. A great part of the problem with attempts to “fix” or address violence is that observers overwhelmingly take the concept for granted. They depart from biased and constricted definitions, study violence from a privileged distance, neglect their positionalities, mystify violence and ignore its contexts.
As a young activist beginning to research environmental violence for what would eventually become my new book, Resisting Extractivism, I noticed that most existing analyses into relevant themes seemed obsessed with stories about subaltern people burning things down in protest, but rarely paid attention to what things may be quietly burning those people. In so doing, the colonial modes of thinking and knowledge production that have shaped centuries of studies misunderstand the violence they claim intent to solve, and worse, they exacerbate it in many ways.
Among other issues, dominant studies of violence rely on the magic of sophisticated models, graphs and statistics. Quantitative methods add layers of veracity, scientific authority and credibility to analyses and are useful in limited ways, but they also cloak blind spots, assumptions and cultural biases, thereby conditioning worldviews and limiting understandings. By masking these biases, instead of reflecting on them openly, writers become more likely to produce criminalizing perspectives of “the other,” reifying their own privileged positions in colonial hierarchies.
The people whose voices dominate conversations about conflict and violence — most of whom are white, male, located in the North and paid handsomely to write about others from a safe distance — also tend to decontextualize people’s actions as if they existed in a vacuum, stripping their agency of political consciousness and reducing it to criminality. This framing justifies repression from state and corporate actors. It lends legitimacy to state-sanctioned violence by reinforcing the status quo and foreclosing the possibility of participatory deliberation necessary for meaningful conflict resolution.
These perspectives are the result of colonial forms of relationships, where those with the privilege to write “the story” talk about people, but hardly speak with them, as Dr. Zoe Todd has articulated. For similar reasons, they also ignore the reality that violence is far from a uniform or fixed concept. Its meanings are powerful and contested, not universally shared. The concept itself is a site of conflict.
Turning from questions like “what causes violence?” to “how do people think and talk about violence?” allows us to problematize, rather than take for granted, the hegemonic definitions and meanings of the concept, which in turn leads to a much richer understanding. Violence is a politically charged and fluid concept. Its meanings are always under intense contestation, and they are profoundly contingent upon social, cultural, historical and political contexts.
VIOLENCE AS AN EVERYDAY EXPERIENCE
For women living in areas where femicide is common, Black people living under the constant fear of white supremacist violence by the state or state-sanctioned vigilantes, small-scale producers whose survival is encroached upon by parasitic monopolies and self-sustenance farmers living on lands coveted by powerful extractive corporations, especially in the Global South, everyday life is anything but “nonviolent.” Any serious unpacking of the meanings and forms of violence must recognize it as the fundamental organizing principle of “modern” societies — that is, places and people living under the influence of the socio-economic and ideological structures of European and US imperialism.
Violence — to borrow from Susan Ferguson’s discussion of pain — is “a relationship between people and their bodies.” As such, it is “an intersubjective phenomenon, a social activity mediated by discursive practices, and other meaning-making devices available.” Violence is a means of making a body, including the body politic. It is a way to organize our material lives — indeed, colonial and globalized relationships of production and exploitation require different types of violence and insecurity. Manufactured scarcity and the threat of incarceration ensure compliance. Dissent is preempted by socialization, ideology and economic necessity before it requires physical punishment.
The relations created in this process of subjugation and extraction have required intellectuals benefiting from colonialism to provide ideological, theological and legal justifications for deep inequity and brutality. This has given birth to empty rhetoric about soul-saving, a so-called civilizing mission, or the “white man’s burden” — and more recently, it manifests in rhetoric about modernization, development, democracy, corporate social responsibility and even human rights.
Corporate, media and academic discourses are biased towards representing and measuring violence as events. However, violent events are the results of social relations, which are constructed in our everyday lives. Building a ground-up theory of violence that centers the perspectives of people closest to extractivism in Peru, I learned that violence is in the water, in the air and in our bodies. In the form of lead intoxication, it can be found in our bloodstream, the plants in our garden and the animals in our coop. It is in the food we eat, and we can even taste it. Violence is implicit in the fact that these burdens are unevenly shared by people according to racist and patriarchal hierarchies. Everyday violence reveals itself in how we are seen and treated because of the normative construction of our subjectivities, which are enduringly colonial, unequal by design.
This bottom-up approach helps to unsettle and contest the dominant academic and journalistic discourses that seek to categorize, measure and manage violence. It also illustrates why efforts to quantify and “control” violence are doomed to reduce, reinforce and depoliticize different forms of damage (including pollution and oppression), instead of resolving it, as ostensibly intended.
When so many types of violence are experienced simultaneously by the same person, it is difficult to imagine violence as only an event like a protest where company property is damaged. To represent one instance as violent, without calling attention to any other forms experienced by the actors discussed, is to betray one’s bias. Consciously or not, it reifies privilege and oppression by tacitly legitimizing state and corporate violence against frontline communities — which become particularly brutal and more “socially acceptable” when intersecting with imperialist structures of gendering and racialization.
LEGITIMIZING VIOLENCE AND CRIMINALIZING RESISTANCE
Violence is not a neutral concept — it is a discourse of power. Concepts like crime, violence and terrorism are instruments designed to produce state power and sustain unequal relations. Interlocking systems of oppression mark what violence is legally or socially acceptable, who is most likely to benefit from it, and at whose expense. Organized violence, coupled with the selective application of violence as a label, are precisely how society constructs and maintains hierarchies such as settler colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy.
Framing people as violent serves to justify state-sanctioned violence against them. When these narratives are disseminated by people with profound societal privileges, especially over the people being framed, such accusations are also “violent” in their reaffirming of violent structures, hierarchies and inequalities. The task for activists and organizers is to pull these relationships apart by highlighting the power structures hidden within our discourses and legal systems. There is no politically neutral way to think of violence, because the construction of labels like violence is always embedded with other hierarchies and rhetoric meant to structure power and reproduce oppression.
Inordinate amounts of money and effort are spent yearly in framing nature as “resources,” corporations as responsible, development as uniformly beneficial, and those who resist oppression as merely “criminal,” “violent” or “terrorists.” Politicians make the intended consequences of such rhetoric blatantly obvious, but it is all the more necessary to interrogate the more subtle practices by which even “sympathetic” spectators, opinion leaders and “impartial” analysts participate in these problematic framing tendencies.
The dominant practices of journalists, academics and the public at large — including false equivalence in the name of objectivism — help the state and corporations enact different forms of violence, both legal and clandestine. Such discourses, which shape our relationships to each other and our surroundings, are legacies of colonialism, an ongoing process that has marked the meanings of “progress” in occupied Indigenous territories for more than five centuries.
RESISTING VIOLENCE AND ORGANIZING PEACE
Confronting intersecting issues requires correspondingly integrated actions. It is very telling, for example, how many privileged academics and journalists write about “ecocide” without a mention of whiteness, especially their own — even as they co-opt terms like “decolonization” and routinely steal the work of marginalized writers. Just as we need reparations for imperialism and its legacies of extraction and dependency, we must also learn to resist the epistemic aspects of violent structures, such as intellectual extractivism, and instead build consent-based and reciprocal relationships.
The fundamentals of the world economy consist of unimaginable levels of organized violence meant to extract resources from marginalized people and places. This system flows wealth from the poor to the world’s — disproportionately white — affluent classes. Therefore, it is necessary to reject colonial and supposedly “color blind” ideas of environmental “conservation” through greater militarization. Preventing the planet’s descent into uninhabitability instead requires a massive effort of resource redistribution. The rich and privileged owe climate reparations to impoverished and oppressed communities at every level, local to international.
Market mechanisms, such as growing popular demands for voluntary corporate responsibility, cannot be relied upon to meet the urgency and scale of our compounding crises. For one, capitalist incentives will prolong and exacerbate the problem, finding ways to profit from destruction instead of reversing course. Second, the slow pace of voluntary change is poised to render life on Earth scientifically impossible for large mammals, like humans, within this century.
Breaking through this violence is only possible by organizing collective action, pushing for legislative change but also enacting solutions without relying on the state. The burden of responsibility for this lies on the world’s privileged, who must acknowledge and eschew our complicity with white settler colonialism, take risks to dismantle inequity, and make way for new leadership by the most affected.
In the face of environmental collapse, deepening inequalities and capitalism in crisis, resisting violence effectively requires rethinking its meanings and challenging its hegemonic constructions. These insights are as relevant to understanding Latin American environmental conflicts and Palestinian liberation movements as they are to investigating histories of resistance to racist policing in the US and Europe, as powerful actors across these different scenarios mobilize similar discourses of violence to selectively highlight and conceal unequal power relations. Understanding and confronting these dynamics is crucial to meaningfully oppose violence, dismantle oppressive systems, organize democratic societies and avoid extinction.
The author would like to thank Mario Avalos, Rachel Anderson and Aaron Osowski for their thoughtful comments.
Teaser photo credit: Copper mine in Peru. By Ondando – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43912639