Why More Mass Killings in 2013, and What It Portends for This Year

In a recent post, I noted that 2013 had distinguished itself in a dismal way, by producing more new episodes of mass killing than any other year since the early 1990s. Now let’s talk about why.

Each of these mass killings surely involves some unique and specific local processes, and people who study in depth the societies where mass killings are occurring can say much better than I what those are. As someone who believes local politics is always embedded in a global system, however, I don’t think we can fully understand these situations by considering only those idiosyncratic features, either. Sometimes we see “clusters” where they aren’t, but evidence that we live in a global system leads me to think that isn’t what’s happening here.

To fully understand why a spate of mass killings is happening now, I think it helps to recognize that this cluster is occurring alongside—or, in some cases, in concert with—a spate of state collapses and during a period of unusually high social unrest. Systemic thinking leads me to believe that these processes are interrelated in explicable ways.

Just as there are boom and bust cycles within economies, there seem to be cycles of political (dis)order in the global political economy, too. Economic crunches help spur popular unrest. Economic crunches are often regional or global in nature, and unrest can inspire imitation. These reverberating challenges can shove open doors to institutional change, but they also tend to inspire harsh responses from incumbents intent on preserving the status quo ante. The ensuing clashes present exactly the conditions that are ripest for mass killing. Foreign governments react to these clashes in various ways, sometimes to try to quell the conflict and sometimes to back a favored side. These reactions often beget further reactions, however, and efforts to manufacture a resolution can end up catalyzing wider disorder instead.

In hindsight, I don’t think it’s an accident that the last phase of comparable disorder—the early 1990s—produced two iconic yet seemingly contradictory pieces of writing on political order: Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” A similar dynamic seems to be happening now. Periods of heightened disorder bring heightened uncertainty, with many possibilities both good and bad. All good things do not necessarily arrive together, and the disruptions that are producing some encouraging changes in political institutions at the national and global levels also open the door to horrifying violence.

Of course, in political terms, calendar years are an entirely arbitrary delineation of time. The mass killings I called out in that earlier post weren’t all new in 2013, and the processes generating them don’t reset with the arrival of a new year. In light of the intensification and spread of the now-regional war in Syria; escalating civil wars in Pakistan, Iraq, and AfghanistanChina’s increasingly precarious condition; and the persistence of economic malaise in Europe, among other things, I think there’s a good chance that we still haven’t reached the peak of the current phase of global disorder. And, on mass killing in particular, I suspect that the persistence of this phase will probably continue to produce new episodes at a faster rate than we saw in the previous 20 years.

That’s the bad news. The slightly better news is that, while we (humanity) still aren’t nearly as effective at preventing mass killings as we’d like to be, there are signs that we’re getting better at it. In a recent post on United to End Genocide’s blog, Daniel Sullivan noted “five successes in genocide prevention in 2013,” and I think his list is a good one. Political scientist Bear Braumoeller encourages us to think of the structure of the international system as distributions of features deemed important by the major actors in it. Refracting Sullivan’s post through that lens, we can see how changes in the global distribution of political regime types, of formal and informal interdependencies among states, of ideas about atrocities prevention, and of organizations devoted to advocating for that cause seem to be enabling changes in responses to these episodes that are helping to stop or slow some of them sooner, making them somewhat less deadly on the whole.

The Central African Republic is a telling example. Attacks and clashes there have probably killed thousands over the past year, and even with deeper foreign intervention, the fighting hasn’t yet stopped. Still, in light of the reports we were receiving from people on the scene in early December (see here and here, for example), it’s easy to imagine this situation having spiraled much further downward already, had French forces and additional international assistance not arrived when they did. A similar process may be occurring now in South Sudan. Both cases already involve terrible violence on a large scale, but we should also acknowledge that both could have become much worse—and very likely will, if the braking efforts underway are not sustained or even intensified.

Ethno-Nationalism on the Rise

France had a presidential election last weekend, and one of every five voters who went to the polls that day cast a ballot for conservative ethno-nationalist Marine Le Pen. In Greece, the rabidly anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party seems poised to win enough votes to enter parliament for the first time when elections are held on May 6. In Hungary, the Christian nationalist Jobbik movement won 17 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections in 2010 and wound up with 47 seats in the legislature. The list goes on.

Why are ethno-nationalist parties so popular in Europe these days?

In a book published two decades ago that is, unfortunately, quite relevant today, Stanford sociologist Susan Olzak wrote: “Factors that raise levels of competition among race and ethnic groups increase rates of ethnic collective action.” Building on the work of anthropologist Frederik Barth, she goes on to identify four processes as the major instruments of increases in ethnic competition: 1) migration and immigration, 2) economic contraction, 3) dispersion from previously segregated spaces, and 4) rising prosperity for previously disadvantaged groups.

Olzak used competition theory to explain patterns in racial and ethnic protest and violence in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, when waves of immigration intersected with dispersion from ethnic niches and economic contraction to spur local spikes in everything from strikes to lynchings.

Do those conditions sound familiar? If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends of Europe, they should. The rising vote shares for these ethno-nationalist parties are electoral markers of ethnic mobilization in response to competitive pressures intensified by the global financial crisis that began in 2008. According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, Greece’s economy contracted sharply each of the past three years and is expected to decline another 4.7 percent in 2012. France has fared somewhat better, but the 0.2-percent annual growth rate forecast for 2012 is still pretty dismal. Hungary has followed a trajectory similar to France’s, with a 6.8-percent contraction in 2009 and sputtering growth ever since. Of course, immigrant populations are hardly new to these countries, but immigration rates have risen in many parts of Europe in recent decades, and competition theory tells us that populations often respond to a shrinking economy by trying to kick out or close off other racial and ethnic groups.

The same dynamics arguably help explain the surge of the Tea Party movement, whose sympathizers evidently exhibit more racial prejudice than other American conservatives. Like much of Europe, the United States endured a bad recession in 2009, the same year Barack Obama arrived in the White House. It’s hard to imagine a brighter signal of the breakdown of ethnic and racial barriers in the United States than the inauguration of our first black president. Where many of us see a happy sign of social progress, competition theory teaches us to beware a rising risk of ethnic tensions and violence.

As for what is to be done about this alarming rise of exclusionary politics, I think Jack Goldstone got it right in a recent blog post on the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and its manifestations in Europe:

My hope is still that in 2013 or 2014 voters and politicians will give up their blind faith in austerity and other false idols of conservative faith, and start a hard search for policies that will give back growth.  In the 1930s, it took six or seven years for this to happen, and in parts of Europe facism took over first.  Perhaps the most alarming news in the last week is the huge increase in support for and influence of far left and far right parties France and the Netherlands.  Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany because a majority of people voted for him.  He became Chancellor because just enough people were frightened of a surge of the far left to support his far-right party, and just enough was about a third of the electorate (only about double what France’s far-right National Front Party garnered last week).  There are no signs yet we are headed there, but this is no time for complacency.  Politicians and economists need to get serious about growth policy, not austerity, or more trouble lies ahead.

NB: An initial version of this post included “…in Europe” in the title and said less about the Tea Party, but I revised it to emphasize the generality of this trend. I think we in the U.S. often get stuck in a parochial view of right-wing politics in Europe and fail to see the clear parallels to nativist and racist politics at home.

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