A Genealogy of Violence
// Dexter Fergie

Economic crises are violent things. So when the economy trembled in 2008, violence naturally followed. One form it took, as was said in my last column, was the destruction of an unfathomable amount of private property: American retirement assets were reduced by nearly a quarter during the first year and a half of the crisis, while three million homes were foreclosed in 2009 alone. This is the economy exerting violence on the material value of its own goods.

But when the economy extends its long arms into the hard-earned savings everyday workers, forcing them to skip retirement and keep on working, this is violence on their very life. When a family is made homeless after transferring the deed of their house to the bank, this is also a violent event. But the violence did not end in the immediate shuffling of wealth after 2008. No, this violence merely migrated from the economic sphere and continues to haunt us today.

Following the expropriations of material goods, people do react – and often violently. When Italian soldiers returned from WWI, they came home to an economy in death throes. Real wages of the industrial working class had fallen 65 per cent of their pre-war level, while the lira was at a quarter of its pre-war level. Combine this with a population angered over sacrificing so much for so little in the war, and political disorder ensued. The streets of Italy were rampant with political violence, culminating in the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and his fascist cult of violence. The Third Reich also partially owes their success to economic failures, as one can trace the rise of Hitler right to the economic crisis of 1928. For both of these countries, the people reacted to their economic predicaments by lending support to regimes rooted in violence.

But today, something else is happening. As these expropriations and the overall economic instability left – is continuing to leave – an indelible mark on the world, this violence has been internalized by those most affected.

Earlier this year, the Lancet explored the violent consequences of 2008 in Europe. In an article entitled “Effects of the 2008 Recession on Health”, the British peer-reviewed medical journal demonstrated a connection between the economic crisis and elevated suicide rates.

Before 2007, each of the countries surveyed saw steady declines in suicide rates. After the economic crisis, however, this trend was “reversed at once.” Suicide rates increased by an average of seven per cent in countries that were members of the EU before 2004.

Going further, the Lancet demonstrated a link between the severity of the crisis and the suicide rate. The two European countries most affected by the economic crisis, Ireland and Greece, also saw the highest increases in the suicide rate, at 13 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively. These are the casualties of the economic crisis.

Of course, the connection between economic shocks and elevated rates of suicide is not novel, as previous crises drove many to commit suicide. In 1928 for example, suicide rates in the United States swelled from 12 per 100,000 American citizens a year earlier, to 18 after the stock market crashed. But this relationship between the economy and suicides must be emphasized, for public health itself is deteriorating.

Another form of violence that has tragically increased since 2008 is domestic violence. With the family as the economic unit, it comes as no surprise that economic problems are carried into the home. The excess of pressures from either not finding work, taking a pay cut, or from working overtime to counter the reduced pay, shatters the stability that once existed for the working family. As the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) said, “difficult times do not cause domestic violence, but they do exacerbate it.”

And here's the catch: as economic pressures drive up domestic violence, those same troubled economic pressures also reduce the funds to assist these victims. Not too long ago, NNEDV conducted a regional survey, discovering that while 82 per cent of their affiliated shelters and agencies were experiencing higher demand for their services, another 78 per cent said they were continuing operations with less revenue than previous years. The battered victim now faces the double task of facing more abuse while receiving less help and protection.

The increase in the rate of suicide and domestic violence are just two of the many forms of violence that the crisis of 2008 has taken. First appearing as violent economic shocks, 2008 and its aftermath subjected the world to expropriations, terminations, and declines in quality of life. This was only the beginning, as these violent actions laid the foundations for more violence. As we enter into what is being called a “jobless recovery”, we must tread into the future with care.

In 2008, the late writer José Saramago wrote a clever opinion piece suggesting that those responsible for the global economic crisis – the bank managers, speculators, and others – should be arrested and tried at the Hague for their crimes against humanity. As the casualties of the economic crisis continue to grow, in the form of suicide and domestic violence, Saramago’s case should be pursued. After all, what were the effects of the global economic crisis, if not inhumane acts as “a widespread or systematic attack directed against [the] civilian population” (a partial definition by the ICC)?

Even if those responsible were sentenced, we are still left with the economic system that compelled them to seek profits in the first place. So long as the system stays, crises will remain a permanent feature of our world.

// Dexter Fergie, Columnist
// Illustration by Lydia Fu

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