Capitalism: A Structural Genocide

Capitalism: A Structural Genocide

by Garry Leech


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In the wake of the global financial crisis, and ongoing savage government cuts across the world, Garry Leech addresses a pressing and necessary topic: the nature of contemporary capitalism, and how it inherently generates inequality and structural violence.

Drawing on a number of fascinating case studies from across the world - including the forced displacement of farmers in Mexico, farmer suicides in India, and deaths from preventable and treatable diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the unsustainable exploitation of the planet's natural resources - Leech provocatively argues that global capitalism constitutes a form of genocide against the poor, particularly in the global South.

Essential and eye-opening the book questions the legitimacy of a system that inevitably results in such large-scale human suffering, while going beyond mere critique to offer a more egalitarian, democratic and sustainable global alternative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780322001
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 05/08/2012
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Garry Leech is the author of numerous books, including The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011); The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond (CBU Press, 2009); Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World (Dis)Order (Zed Books, 2006). He is also director of the Centre for International Studies and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University, Canada.

Read an Excerpt


A Structural Genocide

By Garry Leech

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Garry Leech
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-202-5



Any fool can build an economic system where rich people buy expensive products.

Johan Galtung

Each year millions of people throughout the world die of hunger, perish in childbirth and succumb to AIDS and other preventable and treatable diseases. Are these tragedies acts of God, perpetrated for some reason beyond the comprehension of human beings? Are they simply the result of the whims of nature? Or, as previously mentioned, are they unfortunate tragedies of the inevitable march of progress? We in the global North are repeatedly bombarded with solicitations from organizations such as CARE, Oxfam and World Vision for donations to aid the seemingly never-ending plight of hungry, sick and homeless people in the global South. We are told that they are less fortunate than we; and therefore that we have an obligation to help. But we are rarely told the cause of their suffering, beyond the 'random' acts of nature such as drought or hurricanes that devastate these people's lives. The implication is that such massive human suffering is tragic, but that there is no specific guilty party. And if someone is to blame, then it is usually the victims themselves. After all, isn't their suffering largely a result of their failure to achieve the same level of 'development' as that enjoyed by most people in the global North? If only we could help them to develop, to modernize, then surely much of this human suffering could be averted. But is this true? Or is the tragic suffering endured by people in the global South directly linked to our relatively comfortable material existence in the global North? More importantly, are this mass misery and death caused by acts of violence resulting from human actions? But how could this be when there is no evidence of any direct physical aggression being perpetrated against the victims? According to Johan Galtung, many of these people are indeed victims of violence; and that violence is structural.

Galtung argues that violence is 'the avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or, to put it in more general terms, the impairment of human life, which lowers the actual degree to which someone is able to meet their needs below that which would otherwise be possible'. Thus, he expands the definition of violence beyond acts of direct physical violence to include also human suffering caused by social structures that disproportionately benefit some people while diminishing the ability of others to meet their fundamental needs. As such, argues David Roberts, 'Violence ... could be committed directly and deliberately, but could also be conducted indirectly and largely unintentionally, by structures populated by humans.' Similarly, anthropologist Paul Farmer suggests, 'Structural violence is violence exerted systematically — that is, indirectly — by everyone who belongs to a certain social order ... In short, the concept of structural violence is intended to inform the study of the social machinery of oppression'.

According to Galtung, social injustice lies at the heart of structural violence because it manifests itself in inequality — in the distribution of both wealth and power. As such, notes Galtung, structural violence is marked by

the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. ... Thus, if a person died of tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition.

In other words, in contemporary times, deaths from tuberculosis are not a consequence of insufficient medical knowledge, but rather they result from a lack of access to that medical knowledge due to social structures. Therefore, as anthropologist Paul Farmer explains, 'Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.'

Structural violence manifests itself in many ways, but its common theme is the deprivation of people's basic needs as a result of the existing social structures. Those basic needs include food, health care and other resources essential for achieving a healthy existence and the fullest human development possible. Such inequality is rooted in the oppression of one group by another. And, as Paulo Freire argues, those structures that result in oppression constitute structural violence:

Any situation in which 'A' objectively exploits 'B' and hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual's ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence hasalready begun.

Even though structural violence affects millions of people around the world, it is not as visible a form of violence as direct physical violence. In fact, it often appears anonymous to the degree that people are not even aware that there is a perpetrator. Galtung addresses the insidious nature of structural violence:

There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. Resources are unevenly distributed ... Above all the power to decide over the distribution of resources is unevenly distributed.

Ultimately, if a social system creates and maintains inequality in both power and wealth that benefits certain social groups while preventing others from meeting their fundamental needs, even if unintentionally, then structural violence exists. And if such inequality is inherent in a social system, then so is structural violence.


Structural violence does not always result in death. But when structural violence results in death on a mass scale, does it constitute structural genocide? In order to answer this question we must first define structural genocide. Numerous instances of what has commonly been labelled as 'genocide' have been perpetrated from the earliest days of the capitalist era, beginning with the annihilation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in order to access the natural resources that were used to fuel Europe's Industrial Revolution. However, genocide was not legally defined until 1948 when the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) was approved by the UN General Assembly.

Article II of the CPPCG, which came into force in 1951, defines genocide as

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious, group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The definition of genocide according to the CPPCG recognizes national, ethnic, racial and religious groups as victims but not political groups. As such, mass deaths of people based on their political views and social class would not constitute an act of genocide according to the CPPCG. The absence of political groups is surprising given that the CPPCG was a response to the Holocaust in which the Nazis targeted not only racial and religious groups, but also political groups, particularly socialists and communists.

The first session of the UN General Assembly in 1946 had already adopted a resolution condemning genocide that included political groups among its definition of victims. And the following year, when the first draft of the Genocide Convention was formulated, it also included violence perpetrated against political groups and suggested that death on a massive scale that results from structural violence could be considered genocide. This draft included in its definition of genocide any act

Causing the death of members of a group or injuring their health or physical integrity by ... (b) subjection to conditions of life which, by lack of proper housing, clothing, food, hygiene and medical care, or excessive work or physical exertion are likely to result in the debilitation or death of the individuals; or ... (d) deprivation of all means of livelihood, by confiscation of property, looting, curtailment of work, denial of housing and of supplies otherwise available to the other inhabitants of the territory concerned.

In addition to noting that political groups had been targeted in the Holocaust, some delegates involved in drawing up the Convention also pointed out that, in the Cold War context, ideology had become a core issue in internal and international conflicts and that, as a result, some political groups were in as much, if not more, danger than other groups. Nevertheless, the term 'political groups' was removed from the text of the final draft of the Convention at the eleventh hour after much debate, due to pressure from national leaders concerned that their violent suppression of domestic political opposition might make them vulnerable to charges of genocide. The Soviet Union was first and foremost among this group due to Stalin's concern that his purges might be classified as an act of genocide. As international law scholar Beth van Schaack notes, the exclusion of political groups from the CPPCG 'resulted in a legal regime that insulates political leaders from being charged with the very crime that they may be most likely to commit: the extermination of politically threatening groups'.

Similarly, Ervin Staub argues in his book The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence,

Killing groups of people for political reasons has become the primary form of genocide (and mass killing) in our time. ... [There-fore] genocide means an attempt to exterminate a racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, or political group, either directly through murder or indirectly by creating conditions that lead to the group's destruction.

Staub refers to Cambodia under Pol Pot (1975–79) as an example of a politically motivated genocide, and to Argentina under its military junta (1976–83) as a politically motivated mass killing, with the difference between the two being the numbers of people killed — as many as 2 million in Cambodia and approximately 30,000 in Argentina. Not only does Staub include political groups in his definition, but his reference to any attempt to exterminate 'indirectly by creating conditions that lead to the group's destruction' clearly suggests that structural violence could constitute a means. Ultimately, Schaack argues,

Discarding political groups from the Genocide Convention created an internally inconsistent human rights regime, because other major international agreements include this category. The prohibition of crimes against humanity prohibits persecutions on 'political, racial or religious grounds.' Likewise, the provisions of the Refugee Convention protect individuals from persecution on account of 'race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.' These longstanding instruments reflect the guiding international legal prohibition on the extermination or persecution of individuals on the basis of their political affiliations or opinions. ... The loophole created by the [Genocide Convention] drafting committee's exclusion of political groups does not hold up in this context.

The same motivations that prevented the category of 'political groups' from being included in the CPPCG when it was approved by the General Assembly in 1948 have also blocked all subsequent attempts to revise the Convention to include it. Governments continue to remain wary of being accused of genocide for perpetrating politically or ideologically motivated acts of violence. In 1998, at the Rome Conference, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), Cuba was the only country to argue for an amendment to the Genocide Convention to include political and social groups — a proposal that was promptly quashed. However, the definition of 'crimes against humanity' was expanded at the conference to include crimes perpetrated during times of peace in addition to those committed in war.

While genocide has commonly been called the 'crime of crimes', the ICC has deemed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes to be of equal gravity.18The Rome Statute gives jurisdiction to the ICC over the 'most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole', which it defines as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression. Interestingly, and seemingly contradictorily, the Rome Statute includes 'genocide' not only as a separate crime, but also as a crime against humanity through the inclusion of the act of 'extermination' in its list of 'crimes against humanity'. The Rome Statute defines the act of extermination as 'the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population'. This definition of extermination is virtually identical to Article 2(c) of the Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as any act 'deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part'. However, unlike the definition of genocide, the definition of crimes against humanity includes the persecution of any identifiable group or collectivity on political grounds.

Both of these definitions contain wording that relates to two of the most crucial components in a definition of structural genocide: structural violence as a means and intentionality as a motivating factor. Neither of these definitions specifies that genocide must result from direct physical violence, and the words 'inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part' suggests that structural violence could be considered a means for perpetrating genocide. In fact, as Hannibal Travis has pointed out, 'It is becoming widely recognized by scholars that famines for which a state bears responsibility are justly classified as a form of genocide.' But those scholars, including Travis, who address the concept of structural genocide, tend to focus on the state as the culprit rather than holding the internal logic of a social system responsible. Nevertheless, the concept of structural genocide has gained significant legitimacy among scholars and experts on international law.

The definition of 'genocide' in the Genocide Convention and that of 'extermination' as a crime against humanity both clearly state that a genocidal act must be 'deliberate' or 'intentional'. But since we are defining structural genocide, the issue here is not so much the 'intent' of individuals, but rather the 'intent' of the structures of a social system. The 'intentional' outcomes of actions that adhere to a particular social system are directly determined by the logic of that system. Therefore, if adhering to the logic of a social system inevitably results in structural violence that causes death on a mass scale, then it is apparent that structural genocide is an intentional outcome of human behaviours that adhere to that logic. Furthermore, as historian Ben Kiernan argues in reference to deaths resulting from state policies in the Sudan,

If those perpetrators did not set out to commit genocide, it was a predictable result of their actions. ... When such policies, purpose fully pursued, knowingly bring genocidal results, their perpetrators may be legally judged to have possessed the 'intent' to destroy a group, at least 'in part', whatever their motive.

The legal norm that Kiernan is referring to, which is relevant to both intentionality and the definition of structural genocide, is the doctrine of wilful blindness. In May 2011, US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stated:

The doctrine of willful blindness is well established in criminal law ... and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances.

In other words, if actions adhering to the logic of a social system knowingly result in outcomes (i.e. structural genocide) other than those intended, those outcomes cannot simply be dismissed as unintentional due to the wilful blindness of those carrying out those actions.


Excerpted from Capitalism by Garry Leech. Copyright © 2012 Garry Leech. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. What is Structural Genocide?
2. The Logic of Capital
3. Structural Genocide: The Cases of Mexico and India
4. Structural Genocide: The Case of Sub-Saharan Africa
5. The Truly Inconvenient Truth
6. Legitimizing the Illegitimate
7. The Socialist Alternative

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