Book review: The Hidden Structure of Violence reveals how global institutions have vested interests in conflict

The book aims to disturb with its depictions of exploitation by giant corporations, leading economies and governments – particularly through war and trade.

Since the Second World War ended in 1945, 250 wars have killed 50 million people. Nine out of every 10 casualties of modern wars are civilians. Less than one in every 10 wars today are fought between countries; more often they are “ethnic”, internal, or insurgent conflicts. Increasingly, wars are “asymmetric”, that is, governments taking up arms against blocks of their own citizens and state-of-the-art, regular armies or contract mercenaries engaging ragtag fighters.

But there is nothing natural or inescapable about the shape of today's poverty, hunger and war. Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, both affiliated with Saybrook University in California, in their helpful, deeply troubling book The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, argue such miseries are products of our institutions. Comprising a network of power – something "more deeply surrounded by taboos than was the topic of sex in Victorian days" – our institutions, whether the framework for world trade, the Pentagon, the labour market or the media, all have interconnected, vested interests in violence.

“Whenever unneeded suffering or death results from preventable human actions, violence has occurred,” Pilisuk and Rountree write. There is “direct” violence – the dropped bomb, the hijacking, the rape, the torture. There is “cultural” violence – where one culture justifies itself over others. As the title of their book suggests, the authors are most concerned with “structural” violence. Indicted here are not only those devoted to constant preparations for war – arms makers, politicians, lobbyists, think-tank experts and public relations firms. Above all, it is the “patterns of investment and exploitation” within the “global corporate economy” that produce the greatest suffering for the greatest number and unprecedented gains for a powerful few.

Take, for example, that giant corporations succeed in having governments of developing countries competing to provide the cheapest, most docile, most un-unionised and least regulated labour force (too often, the authors note, with regimented toilet breaks, rationed drinking water and seven-day, 100-hour workweeks). As described in The Hidden Structure, the multinational business model seems to require unprotected, captive, wage-slave workforces and ostensibly sovereign governments to keep them that way. One can't help but wonder whether multinationals would break even if it were otherwise.

The corporate quest for economies of scale in the agriculture business, to take another example, promotes consolidating farmland and usurping independent farmers. Global businesses, Pilisuk and Rountree argue, have become experts in benefiting from growth while inducing others – governments, taxpayers and workers – to take on the risks and costs of that growth.

Mainstream economic trade theory justifies such competition for “comparative advantage” among nations. However, the general acceptance of such theory “consigns” people and the places they live to an “intolerable status quo” determined by their relation to the global chain of production, Pilisuk and Rountree write. And this chain is not really something abstract: researchers at a Swiss university found that the owners of 147 companies controlled 40 per cent of the world’s 43,000 transnational corporations. All the resulting poverty, marginalisation and loss of control over livelihoods fuels dissent and crime (disenfranchised farmers, for example, often turn to cultivating for the drug trade). This unrest – violent, non-violent, potential – and the risk of scaring away investors serve as powerful incentives for authorities to use violence to maintain a favourable “business climate”. A government, likely having lost legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, may feel more inclined to accept offers of policing and military aid.

What good, then, are the rules and theory of international trade if they promote a form of work that more resembles punishment? Crisis, as they say, presents opportunity. “The United States is both the largest beneficiary of global inequality and the world’s premier specialist in weapons,” Pilisuk and Rountree write. From 1945 to 2008 the US made 390 military and intelligence interventions, leaving 20 million people dead. In 2011, the US made about 80 per cent of global arms sales (by dollar value). The US was the only country to oppose the UN General Assembly agreement to curb the spread of small arms. About half the US military budget is paid out to private companies, making the whole account a major prop in the corporate economy.

The Hidden Structure aims to disturb. Pilisuk and Rountree, both professional psychologists, counsel facing the unpleasant reality squarely, holding firm in our mind's eye the details of the individual lives destroyed in the violence that is too often sanitised by statistics. By seeing this reality, they write, we, too, are accountable. The authors do a particularly commendable job detailing what it means that hundreds of thousands of Americans were "injured" in Iraq. One figure is enough to suggest the depth of the problem: more US soldiers have committed suicide than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here is a sample of other facts the authors of The Hidden Structure would have us face: every year, more than a million children are trafficked from one country to another. Of the 250,000 child soldiers in the world, 40 per cent are girls; to ensure the children are permanently outcast, recruiters often force the children to "kill or maim" family members. There are more than 42 million refugees or otherwise "displaced" people in the world today; most remain uprooted in their own countries or otherwise barred from the developed world by a deliberate "strategy of containment". A blast from the past: in the 14 months of army rule following the 1982 coup d'état in Guatemala, there were 10,000 political murders or disappearances; US president Ronald Reagan described the junta's leader as "a man of great personal integrity ... totally dedicated to democracy". More than one in five American children live in a household where it is uncertain where the next meal will come from.

The Hidden Structure has its share of flaws. Careless errors, such as misspelling Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper's name and mis-awarding British playwright Harold Pinter the Nobel Peace Prize (rather than for Literature), are as annoying as they are trivial. Sentences are sometimes vague and drift towards jarring New Age rhetoric, distracting from the authors' laudable aim of hammering home concrete, painful facts. There is no bibliography and the index is substandard. Descriptions of certain corporations and organisations (for example, Bechtel, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Business Roundtable) can read more like believe-me-these-are-bad-guys pamphleteering. Ultimately, the book is too short. Together with the examples already mentioned, the book attempts to deal with, and draw connections between landmines, the "War on Drugs", the IMF and World Bank, fake news, biotechnology, intellectual property, water, nuclear weapons, climate change, political-action committees and many more. Regardless, The Hidden Structure is an important book. It makes clear that the networks of power, if they are to be resisted, can only be resisted with new networks, and that above all else, the global opposition should broaden, strengthen and consolidate.

Not least among the many other questions that reading Hidden Structure gives rise to, one senses there is an urgent need for a mainstream, realistic theory of cost. What passes for the idea of cost today – held in place by corporate media obfuscation – is nothing more than the product of enforced gullibility. Whether processed or fast food, smart or dumb phones, brand-name shoes or underwear, the merchandise many of us buy is affordable only because the cost of the brutal labour practices, pollution and the violent suppression of dissent it takes to produce such things is being paid by someone else.

As the problems are rooted in our institutions, solutions should be sought there, Pilisuk and Rountree argue. Reading The Hidden Structure, one can conclude that any new rules and networks need not necessarily seek to limit our "natural" violence. Rather, our institutions must be designed to preserve our right to see the world as it is. Then, as we will all be accountable, we will all have to act.

This book is available on Amazon.

Caleb Lauer is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Istanbul.

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