Hegemonic Understandings of Genocide and Ontologies of Mass Violence

The third post in our series on Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation comes courtesy of Alexander D. Barder, Associate Professor of International Relations at Florida International University. His current research explores the relationships between nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics, race and violence. He is the author of Empire Within: International Hierarchy and its Imperial Laboratories of Governance (Routledge, 2015) and (with François Debrix) Beyond Biopolitics: Theory, Horror and Violence in World Politics (Routledge, 2012).


There’s a curious moment in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. In Chapter Six, Waltz argues that the recurrence of violence does not, in and of itself, distinguish international from domestic politics. “The most destructive wars of the hundred years following the defeat of Napoleon took place,” Waltz writes, “not among states but within them.” As he continues, “Estimates of deaths in China’s Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1851 and lasted 13 years, range as high as 20 million. In the American Civil War some 600,000 people lost their lives. In more recent history, forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges eliminated five million Russians, and Hitler exterminated six million Jews.”[1] To be sure, Waltz glosses over the fact that these examples actually reflect a combination of domestic and international factors. To simply situate them within the domestic realm is highly dubious historically.

What is interesting in Waltz’s gesture, however, is not only how a conceptualization of what the study of international relations is supposed to be essentially brackets the question of (genocidal) violence. What is also noteworthy is an amalgamation of violent events without necessarily discerning a specific genocidal event versus others. Benjamin Meiches’s text The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide takes this head on by problematizing not only how we should understand genocide as a crucial subject of international relations but also in terms of the very conceptualization of genocide as a discrete and self-evident event. In a very compelling but deeply sobering book, Meiches forces us to reflect much more carefully about the very conceptual scaffolds that genocide studies has erected since Raphael Lemkin’s coinage of the term. Part One is a convincing refutation of what Meiches calls the “hegemonic understanding of genocide” (12). Meiches shows how this hegemonic understanding of genocide, which developed through a mixture of academic studies and policy/political initiatives takes for granted objective metrics to discern a genocidal event, reifies the attributes of what is a (victimized) group, takes for granted a notion of juridical intent and normalizes what genocidal violence is supposed to look like. This hegemonic understanding of genocide is problematic, for Meiches, because it “depoliticizes” and “normalizes” mass violence within a constricted epistemology: only certain kinds of violence then merit the categorization of genocide which provokes a hierarchy of claims and counterclaims about its usage. Indeed, in contesting the hegemonic understanding of violence and its conceptual edifice, Meiches shows how its depoliticization actually reflected a political development and commitment to bracket certain forms of violence versus others, expand state powers to militarily address mass atrocities and to create legal and political institutions which serve and continue to serve the interests of great powers.

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‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’

Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for. 

In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.

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The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

Recent commentary on the Eurozone crisis has started to pick up the grammar of colonial rule. The centre for Research on Finance and Money at SOAS, for example, has published an influential report wherein northern Europe (Germany especially) is framed as the core and southern Europe (especially Greece) as the periphery. Meanwhile, Ulrich Beck, European cosmopolitan par excellence, wonders whether the European Union will become “a European Empire with a German stamp”. Beck notes that Merkel’s sense of power “conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries.” At stake, agree many prominent European intellectuals in the pages of The Guardian, Eurozine and Der Spiegel, is no less than the promise of freedom and democracy immanent to the European project itself. All variously agree that, against the imperial sclerosis spread by capitalist and bureaucratic functionaries at the highest levels of governance, what is needed is a rejuvenation of meaningful democracy at a grass-roots level.

Faced with a dismantling of democracy Jürgen Habermas mounts a plea to save the old “biotope of Europe”. The constitutive components of this threatened ecosystem are freedom and democratisation, and its genesis lies in the Second World War and the fight against fascism and “internal” barbarism. The president of the European Central Bank has himself proclaimed that Europe now faces its “most difficult situation since the Second World War”. Alternatively, for many social democratic and leftist commentators, the danger of the situation lies in the loss of the “internal” struggle of labour and capital that defined the Cold War landscape. In the new context of EU institutional “empire” and its neoliberal tentacles, the defeat of labour quickens the erosion of social democracy, thus deciding the fate of the European project.

Europe, then, is perceived to be “colonizing” itself and in the process destroying freedoms and democratic structures that had been hard fought for by the general populace against political oppression and economic exploitation. But this angst-ridden imaginary of European crisis has very little to say about the substantive historical and global dimensions of European colonialism. Does cosmopolitan and social democratic angst cover these legacies and contemporary effects? In fact, in most recent treatises on the crisis the struggle for decolonization is given no integral status, even though these particular struggles were inseparable to and spanned the formative time period of the European project – the Second World War (and the Cold War). Some do mention current issues of migration and xenophobia. Nevertheless the implication, in general, is that colonial legacies are derivative of, or additional to, the core struggle for democracy and freedom in Europe. Fascism, Cold War, class struggle: yes; colonization, imperialism, decolonization and liberation struggle: not really.

Not all intellectuals suffer from this colonial amnesia. A number of scholars including Robert Young, Pal Ahluwalia, Paige Arthur and Alina Sajed have argued that in some key strands of post-War French thought, the issue of colonialism and decolonization was integral to discussions of European re-democratization and humanist concerns. This engagement reached a peak in the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s before falling into abeyance. And this was precisely the same time, we should note, as the Treaty of Rome, which bound European countries together in a tighter economic union simultaneoulsy sought to re-bind (post-)colonial African polities, peoples and resources into this union.

More generally, there has accumulated a significant amount of scholarship that reveals the colonial influences that shaped and were woven into quintessentially “European” intellectual/political movements such as Enlightenment and modernity. Continue reading