Wednesday, November 06, 2019

On Systemic Corruption

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, among others, has drawn a useful distinction between subjective violence, which takes place between individuals, and systemic violence, which is perpetuated by institutions. Žižek is a Marxist, and part of his justification for introducing this distinction is to justify revolutionary violence as a means of opposing the systemic violence of oppressive systems. This may or may not work, since revolutionary violence is often itself systemic, borne of an ideology that dictates radical change of one sort of another, while the end result of revolutionary change along Marxist lines is often a totalitarian state which raises systemic violence to a whole new level. No matter; I think the distinction is still useful.

It is useful because it makes it possible to draw a certain axis—between free action and compelled action—that runs through not just violence but every type of vileness and perfidy. Subjective violence is an instance of the former: you punch a person you don’t like as an expression of your personal opinion. Systemic violence, on the other hand, is where, for instance, depersonalized knuckle-dragging drones have no choice but to imprison parents for their children’s truancy—nothing personal, the rules are the rules. This axis runs through many aspects of individual and group behavior. Lying, for instance, can be done privately (to spare someone’s feelings or to teach a fool a lesson) or publicly (such as excluding close to 100 million long-term unemployed Americans when calculating the official unemployment rate).

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