Sinisa malesevic had just posted in 2010 The Sociology of War and Violence when he succeeded The Better Angels of Our Nature, the essay in which Steven Pinker argues that we live the least violent moment in our history as a species. Pinker’s book became best seller, greatly influenced the debates on the subject and gave light (indirectly) to Malesevic’s answer, The rise of organized brutality, which has just been published by the publishing house of the University of Valencia.
Born in 1969 in Banja Luka, today the capital of the Bosnian Serbian entity and then part of Yugoslavia, Malesevic speaks with EL PAÍS by videoconference from Ireland, where he holds the chair of Sociology at University College Dublin. The thesis that he defends in his new work is just the opposite of Pinker’s: that the world has become progressively violent in the last 10,000 years as the States have been gaining strength. His ability to influence the population and connect with what he calls “microsolidarity”, the networks of affection with those who matter to us, has done the same. He also defends that the vision of prehistory or the Middle Ages as periods of brutality and obscurantism is part of a later ideological construction that insists on highlighting as exceptions phenomena such as the Holocaust, the two world wars or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He calls it the “propaganda of the Enlightenment.”
“Violence has not decreased throughout history, it has spread. If you zoom in on different forms of violence, such as wars, genocides, terrorism and revolutions, you see a continuous expansion of different forms of violence, at least until the Korean War (1950-53). Often times, the First and Second World War are presented as something exceptional, but they are not: they are the conclusion of something that had been progressively developing in the last 10,000 years ”, he argues. Since then the number of deaths has fallen, but Malesevic clarifies that it is “a very short period, historically speaking”, in which, in addition, “only a certain type of violence has been reduced, that of wars between States” .
Violence has not decreased throughout history, but has spread “
The researcher bases his theory on the progressive increase of three elements. The first is the power of the States. “Once the primal ones develop, about 12,000 years ago, they monopolize the capacity for violence and then go to war. More states, more wars. Bigger states, more destructive wars, ”he says.
The second is “ideological penetration”, that is, “the ability of states to control their population” in a way that was impossible in pre-modern times, because – he points out – there was neither the technology nor the media. mass nor current literacy rates.
Finally, microsolidarity: “We are emotional beings and we relate to those close to us: friends, family, lovers, peer groups, colleagues… States and other social organizations penetrate this microworld and that is why they often speak in that language of friendship, kinship, the mother country or how our brothers died for the country ”.
In The rise of organized brutality, Malesevic points out a paradox. We are horrified by the image of a person burning at the stake, associated with a brutal past, but a military drone kills more people today without generating the same emotions. The first form of murder, he explains, was more cruel, but also a sign of weakness, an attempt to launch a warning message against the inability to impose itself in other ways, while the second is a test of the current strength of the state.
Killing doesn’t come naturally, instinctively. You want to preserve your life, but not necessarily by killing others. “
“Institutions in the Middle Ages tried to project themselves as much more powerful than they were. During the Inquisition, not so many people were killed, but they wanted to present the Church as that all-powerful entity, so it was more of a pedagogical message. An ‘If you don’t, you’ll end up like this.’ When you control the population, you don’t need to kill it. And that is the modern society of the nation, much more powerful. There is a coercive state that is a sign of greater organizational capacity ”.
In the collective imagination, however, violence rhymes with the Middle Ages, because – the researcher emphasizes – of a “stereotypical vision” and ideological that “associates violence with this type of violence.” “Even the Renaissance tried to portray the Middle Ages as all brutality. Some of it was, but not everything is black and white. And Pinker, in his book, recreates that image. He doesn’t do any historical analysis of this period, he just takes it for granted, in just three pages for a huge period. And that is a form of propaganda, “says the researcher.” The Spanish Inquisition was the epitome of this period, but it was propaganda from the British Empire, which was Protestant, to delegitimize the Spanish Empire, which was Catholic. But then colonialism is precisely violence, and it had its peak in the 19th century ”.
The inheritance of the Enlightenment has generated in our days what Malesevic calls an “ontological dissonance”, which arises from the prevalence of human rights – with the recognition that all people have the same intrinsic value – and the use, however of organized violence against them. “The universal understanding that we all have the same moral value creates a very unusual situation whereby the only way you can delegitimize some people or groups is to dehumanize them, the only way you can say that the enemy deserves to be killed. . ‘Look at them, they are not human beings, they are animals and should be treated as such.’ Politicians often use that language during war and many people accept it. Many Americans followed that idea that the Japanese should be bombed because they are not human. “
The human being, Malesevic points out about one of the debates that have crossed the most from the academic world to the street, does not have a natural propensity to be violent or not to be violent. And, in this biological context, “organizations are crucial in making people violent.” “Unlike other animals,” he develops, “we do not have a particular propensity for violence. We do not have jaws, horns or poison … The human being as an individual is quite weak compared to other animals, so we need other human beings for protection and survival. And in that sense we have to negotiate our existence with others, so we cannot be inherently violent. Even the Army does not want soldiers who cannot control their violence, and in war it is often a few individuals who cause most of the deaths. Killing doesn’t come naturally, instinctively. You want to preserve your life, but not necessarily by killing others. Being violent you have to learn it, train it and socialize it. We can kill, but it is not easy for us to become people who kill. It takes social organization and ideology to justify what you do and feel comfortable that what you do is okay ”.