Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Mentality of Mass Murder - Part Five: Towards Armageddon for the Human Species, or the Golden Age?

This is the final part of a five-part review of The Killing Compartments; The Mentality of Mass Murder (Yale University Press, 2015), a new book by Abram De Swaan, Professor Emeritus of Social Science, University of Amsterdam. (Page numbers referenced are for the e-version of the book). Due to its length, the review is broken up into five parts. I hope you read it all.

Abstract: The book under review offers a profound analysis of the phenomenon of Mass Extermination. There are four types: The Conqueror’s Frenzy, Rule by Terror, the Loser’s Triumph and the Megapogrom. De Swaan provides rich and vivid case studies from past and current history. The author refutes the fundamental fallacy of situationism, which suggests that we are all potential mass murderers. He does this with a four-level analysis, the levels of macro-sociology, meso-sociology, micro-sociology and psycho-sociology. Human societies go through both the civilizing process AND the de-civilizing process - regression towards barbarism. I conclude with some speculation about the future of our species and its potential for survival as well as for self-destruction.

1. Introduction 
2. Taxonomies, Terminology, classifications 
3. How is Mass Annihilation Accomplished? 
4. Are we All Potential Mass Murderers? 
5. Conclusion: Towards Armageddon for the Human Species, or the Golden Age? 

5. Conclusion: Towards Armageddon for the Human Species, or the Golden Age?
I now return to the question posed in the introduction:

As noted in the beginning of this essay, De Swaan, relying on Elias, is deeply concerned about the “civilizing process,” as well as its potential opposite, the “dys-civilizing” or “un-civilizing” process (65). These two opposite possibilities are discussed repeatedly throughout the book.

Madeleine Kando, the co-administrator of this blog, while equally impressed by De Swaan’s book, faults De Swaan for not speculating about a solution. She opines that in the end, individual differences may be the key. “Some of us are good at “compartmentalizing” and some of us aren’t. Some of us have a large “circle of inclusion,” some of us see everyone else as “the other.” Personally, I hope that as we progress as a society, we could find it in our heart to enlarge our circle...” De Swaan’s book is of course a scholarly treatise, but for our blog, this is a nice “personalization” of the issue.

One soupcon of progress is the fact that in modern times mass murder, while still occurring with alarming frequency, at least produces revulsion (83) and embarrassment (256). With the rise of nation states life has become more secure for millions of individuals - as long as nations do not go to war against each other, in which case they are far more effective at violence than their predecessors. A recurring theme in this books is that “states are the greatest killers of human beings in the modern world.” (85). In other words, some forms of violence have declined, while other ones have increased. De Swaan and Steven Pinker are simply talking about different things. The perils of modernity in this respect have already been discussed. As we saw, they include the “bureaucratization of barbarism” (123) and other features noted by Zygmunt Bauman. In sum, de-civilization or un-civilization are as much of a possibility as the opposite (123, 125).

I have always felt that the 19th century was a good century, certainly better than the 20th - MY century. It was an era of optimism, of belief in not only evolution, but upward evolution for mankind. It was the century of Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Pavlov, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Comte, Spencer and innumerable other intellectual giants. It was a period of rapid scientific, technological and economic progress. The industrial revolution got into full gear. Democratization and the advancement of women grew. It produced some of history’s greatest art, classical music, painting and literature.

As to violence, the world was largely at peace for an entire century - from 1815 to 1914. The largest conflict of the 19th century was the American Civil War , a picnic compared to 20th century wars.

Admittedly, this is a Eurocentric view. The people of Africa might not agree. There was the slave trade and European colonialism. Nor might Asia and the rest of the Third World agree, as they were colonized by Europe. Nevertheless, the 19th century looks relatively attractive compared to the 20th, at least for the Western world. Now comes the 21st century. Our means of destruction have continued to improve and to spread. The nuclear club keeps expanding and we are creating the conditions for global ecological collapse. Also, Capitalism is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Humanity’s means to achieve species suicide have “improved.”

In a highly entertaining book titled Hyperspace, the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku speculates about mankind’s future prospects. Following the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, he describes three types of civilizations that may develop in the universe (277): Type I, type II and type III. The first type is one which controls the resources of an entire planet. A Type II civilization controls an entire solar system. Type III controls an entire galaxy.

We, Terrans, are currently a Type Zero. The trick is to cross the perilous passage from Type Zero to Type One. Kaku discusses the major dangers facing us, including nuclear annihilation and ecological collapse (287-292). Man has been around for a couple of million years. The cockroach has survived for three hundred million years. Our species enjoys no privileged position. It is not clear whether it will self-destruct or not. This is the fundamental question raised by the record of violence described so superbly by De Swaan.

© Tom Kando 2015

  leave comment here