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The Tradition of Violence in the United States: A Multidisciplinary Survey (November 2014): Structural Theories

By Scott Gac

Structural Theories

Structural approaches to under-standing violence locate its origins within political, social, racial, and economic formulations.  In particular, the inequalities within society are often believed to be the foundation of American violence.  Thinkers such as James Gilligan, who wrote the influential Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, are quick to note that inequality promotes violent response.  In a broad history of world violence, A History of Violence, Robert Muchembled recently provided a historical backdrop to such claims when he stated that disparities in the distribution of the “social cake” are the most influential factor for human violence.

Of course, as an economic and social system, capitalism is constructed on the manipulation of inequity.  In theory, the United States is caught within its own violent web.  Several recent works explore this conundrum.  Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World by Jeremiah Purdy highlights the interplay among the forces of modernity in the United States—freedom, commerce, democracy, and globalization—and violence.  Jodi Melamed in Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism posits that the civil rights era in the United States was deeply vested in race and racial violence to distract from the material conditions that delineated the post-World War II social order.  Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon highlights the global exchange of toxins from rich to poor nations that presents a disturbing cycle of environmental violence.  In Violence, cultural critic Slavoj Žižek points to the hidden mechanisms through which capitalism conceals the violence of the system.

Ever since American revolutionary Thomas Paine proclaimed that ancient and modern republics—political systems driven by the representative voice of their citizens—were largely free of violence, a grand debate over the peacefulness of the American republic has ensued.  Recently, political theorist John Keane set out in his Violence and Democracy to explain why mature democracies do not war with one anotherIn marked contrast, the seventeen contributions in The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, edited by David C. Rapoport and Leonard Weinberg, question those who believe that democracies are predisposed toward peace.  In a similar manner, in Views from the Dark Side of American History American historian and expatriate Michael Fellman asks scholars to peer through the glossy veneer of American life to acknowledge the oppression and repression that rely on and provoke violence.  To challenge the widely held belief that civil war violence is chaotic and unreasonable, Stathis N. Kalyvas in The Logic of Violence in Civil War looks at what happens when the political state collapses.

That violence is embedded in the federal U.S. state, a conclusion famously authored by legal scholar Robert Cover in Narrative, Violence, and the Law: The Essays of Robert Cover, harkens back to theorist Max Weber in the earlier part of the twentieth century.  While most structural explanations for U.S. violence are written in an elegiac tone, Benjamin Ginsberg strikes a more positive note.  In The Value of Violence, Ginsberg argues that in the creation of a small welfare and large prison society, Americans have selected violence over social and economic incentive.  In the end, though, his conclusion mirrors many structuralists—to rid the nation of violence demands a massive reorganization of American life.

Works Cited