Last Friday, the complicated term #economicviolence began trending on Twitter in the U.S. after Andy Smith, Suey Park, and Prison Culture initiated a tweet chat. People shared personal experiences, and the statistics that represent those stories in aggregate.
Of course, before long, tweets along the lines of “get a job,” and “get a dictionary” began to appear. Accordingly, as my job is to deal with the issues and ideas of economic violence, I want to discuss a few definitions. (And that’s not to say others aren’t already articulating these ideas well. I just hope to add to the chorus.)
Violence is a notoriously difficult thing to define. It seems straightforward at first – we can all immediately picture a fight, a war, murder, or rape.
And yet there is a lot of harm and pain in the world that is seemingly difficult to classify. For example, too many of us are familiar with the way language can be violent, even in the absence of physical contact between two people. Whether property damage is violence is a classic question, especially among activists.
There is also a great deal of clearly preventable injury and death that does not appear to come directly from an individual – the death of a child from hunger or from a disease easily cured in a richer part of the world; the illness suffered by a homeless person in a city full of vacant and foreclosed homes.
Or there is clear violence, but from an amorphous source, such as war waged by The United States. (Who, exactly, is The United States?)
And for all forms of harm – either directly inflicted or of a source more difficult to identify – there are the cultural norms that make us comfortable with its use. We may believe capital punishment or a “just” war are necessary evils, but they are violent nonetheless.
These different kinds of harm are known as direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence.
Direct violence refers to observable incidences of self-directed, interpersonal, or collective violence, including physical, verbal, or psychological acts and acts that inhibit or insult our basic needs and/or physical persons.
Structural violence refers to the systemic ways in which a given social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
And cultural violence is the ways in which aspects of our culture – art, media, political and economic narratives – legitimize the use of direct and structural violence.
Economic violence can be, and is, all three.
On paper, we’ve changed the rules (in the U.S.) so that neither direct nor structural economic violence should remain. Women and Americans of color – responsible for the vast majority of the unpaid and underpaid labor that made the wealth of white men possible over the course of several centuries – are now legally allowed to participate in the economic rule making (via voting) and cannot be officially barred from the spaces of power and privilege (university classes, board rooms, golf courses, etc.). But as groups, we still work from a structural disadvantage.
Personally, my family’s story looks like the American dream. You could attribute the lack of harm, illness, and injury in my life to my hard work and that of my parents and grandparents. But my race, citizenship, and class privilege have meant I’ve had help: I’ve gotten a loan when I needed it, been given the benefit of the doubt in a court room, been able to take unpaid internships, and have had access to professional networks that I did not build. It is a fact that not all Americans can say the same, and that they do experience harm and hardship in their lives because our culture and social structure do not make these benefits available to all.
In the post-financial crisis economy, the difference between economic privilege and not is homelessness, hunger, imprisonment, illness, and increased exposure to direct violence. Economic privilege affords safety: safe working conditions, safe neighborhoods, cab rides late at night, somewhere to go for help, and the assumption of legitimacy when we need to call on police.
Violence is a complicated element of humanity, and the injury or harm one person experiences may not look like direct violence at the individual level. But when we step back, for a broad view of the structure and the culture, and we see that the same harm is repeatedly inflicted upon individuals from the same groups, it becomes clear that violence is in fact taking place. In part, we find it to be violence because our culture and social structure are our own creation. We make the rules, and we can make them differently.
Predictably, it didn’t take long for the #economicviolence hashtag to fill with anger (and misconceptions) about communism and socialism. I’m partially motivated to present this larger framework around economic violence because I think that responding to a concern about harm inflicted upon people by the current economic system with hyperbole about alternative economic structures really misses the point.
Shortly before Howard Zinn passed away, I was fortunate enough to hear him speak. He shared that, in his experience, when the average person is asked if everyone should have access to health care and education, they say yes. When asked if the poor should be provided with homes or if corporations should be given the opportunity to build high rises and earn more profits, people say that the poor should be given homes. He gave several examples and concluded by noting that we may call these things socialism, but by and large, when asked about the realities without the vocabulary, this economy that provides for all is the one we want to live in.
I am not aware of anyone in the United States advocating for a USSR-style centrally planned economy – that the government should tell us how many shoes and light bulbs and toilets will be produced and when and where and by whom. Where the market works, we’re happy to work it. But the economy is our own creation, and if we seek to create it in a nonviolent way that reduces harms and supports the health and happiness of our neighbors, that isn’t something to argue about. That’s something to build together.