Liberal Democracy: A Check on Genocidal Tendencies, but Not an Answer to Them

2 comments posted by readers, 1 each in response to my 2 recent conceptual entries on genocide, have asked questions.  The first asked whether I have overlooked Nazi plans for mass killing and expulsion of Poles and Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians so as to settle the arable lands between Germany and the Urals with Germans who would rule over a Slavic serf population as a case of genocide.  Later today I’ll elaborate and justify my definition of genocide for my own theoretical purposes; the latter question, which I will deal with first because my answer is more-informal and general, I will include in near-entirety below:


“This is a somewhat flippant comment, which is really an invitation to say more. First, I am on-board in general, and specific think that you are on to something in invoking the nazis as a problematic trope in the contemporary imaginary. I find it fascinating that my students frequently defend something relatively evil by saying “it is not like they [or we] are nazis”. But if your point is that it is all too easy to consent to genocide, I wonder if that needs to connect to a critique of liberalism or democracy, the west-or some other broader habitus or governmental (in the broad, even Foucaultian sense) apparatus , or if you are saying that the human condition is inherently precarious when it comes to group dynamics, genocide, etc etc…” (Comment submitted by reader aks.)


This isn’t a flippant comment, because the close of my previous entry implicitly promises more.  An elaboration on the ways individual consent to genocide is achieved will be a while coming because it’s very, very ambitious, but I’ll be putting a lot of my time on this blog into various sides of this subject.  (Don’t worry, it won’t be the only subject I discuss by any means; this blog isn’t about to become “The Genocide-Spotting Ironist.”)

When I said “We should be concerned what genocide is because it’s remarkably easy to consent to it,” I wasn’t expressly trying to offer a critique of political Liberalism or democracy.  It isn’t off-point to mention that radical critics of the Western political tradition clearly had more blood on their hands since the start of the 20th century.  Having said that, I want to repeat the point I made in my previous entry: Otherwise good democrats have in some periods had blood on their hands as well–blood well in excess of what circumstances required.  That democracies will wage some wars or repress certain radicals may be inevitable as for any society; but consider just the American experience, where the first and usually most-advanced modern democracy committed the mass relocation of American Indians, the interment of Japanese Americans, the dropping of an atomic and then a nuclear bomb to secure the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan at the end of World War II, and US participation in several Cold War large-scale massacres of suspected Communists in unstable countries abroad.  (The largest of these anti-Communist politicides and wartime massacres, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in episodes spanning as little as several months, were in the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, and will in time be discussed here.)  I haven’t even mentioned slavery because this allows me to make a strong claim: The long, protracted genocidal expulsion campaign against American Indians and the interment of Japanese Americans are genocidal or pre-genocidal acts carried out against people officially recognized as Americans.

These dark episodes demonstrate that the Western tradition of political Liberalism does not guarantee even the most-fundamental human right–that of life–to non-combatants who happen to be (informally) considered outside the political franchise.  What makes the radical alternative regimes of the left and right worse is their seeming *preference* for violating the basic rights of people outside of their political franchise, and their well-documented inclination to take the lives even of those it recognizes as citizens.

The approach I intend to take when I elaborate on this would be–again in consideration of this blog’s name–that of a qualified Foucaultian.  I say a “qualified Foucaultian” because while I accept the seriousness of a critical assessment of the expressly-economic arrangement of all facets of modern social life; the clear and permanent demarcation of political territory; the counting and classifying, identity-building and disciplining of its population; I nonetheless think (as Michael Mann does when discussing the thesis of The Dark Side of Democracy) that there is a great deal at stake in the proper functioning of this system.  While I believe it would be a great moral cause to try to better-systematize theory of some of the pathologies and moral hazards of countries developing into modern democratic states, as Mann and fellow theorist of genocide Mark Levene do, the passage of time has clearly vindicated modern democracies where properly-conceived and established.

So, what marks the exceptional cases?  Mann’s book has a simple but often-overlooked answer, in his critical distinction of genocidal elites, core constituencies, and paramilitary agents.  Sometimes democracies have constituencies for indiscriminate violence against civilians, and an institutional structure in which the usual checks on executive, military or local governments episodically fail to function.  It should be clear by now that a democracy can consolidate in a given country without infusing all of its elites, let-alone all of its masses, with a consistent and penetrating regard for the human rights of those it considers alien or other.  Liberal democracy does make it harder for those elites, constituents and agents, as Mann would put it, to connect to each other in a way that allows them to transcend or circumvent the checks and rule of law in the system; however, the institutions of liberal democracy do not make it impossible for these groups of malefactors to work together if they are not recognized as such and opposed by others working through the system.  Democracy dilutes extremism in the general population and either blocks or dilutes it in the political class; however, any political system can only moderate extremism by probability.


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