mass atrocity futures

Futurism is, at best, a speculative affair. If it’s difficult to say “goodbye to all that,” in the perennial words of Robert Graves, it’s even harder to tell what follows its departure. For those who seek a better world–if not a kingdom of freedom, then perhaps a few villages–this future often seems elusive. Our nascent peace, so trumpeted as a consequence of our modern humanity’s “better angels,” is surely reversible. Illusions of control over our collective politics fade into weakness, creating systemic vacuums that shape uncertain cycles of violence. These cycles are hardly inevitable, and are often disrupted, but history’s moral arc is long, indeed.

But imagining our future is a necessary task, one which can explain our tragic past and, optimistically, improve a dismal present. In a recent post, Sean Langberg imagines the future of mass atrocity and, consequently, of mass atrocity prevention. As Jay Ulfelder observes on Twitter, “prevention requires foresight,” so that those who seek a better future might anticipate its probable roadblocks. Sean’s basic question–“What can we expect from future mass atrocities?”–is an important one, and a fundamental dilemma for a still-emerging human rights agenda.

It’s important to define what this question is, and what it isn’t. It isn’t an exercise in prediction, though predictive analysis is futurism’s closest corollary. When we predict something, we assess the probability that a specific event will occur: if “x” conditions, then “y” outcomes. Political scientists have devised robust tools of quantitative analysis to predict future events: coups, electoral victories, political instability, and, most relevantly, mass killing. Prediction assumes a basic theory of causality, by which certain factors become more influential than others. Sean’s futurism is different, but complementary. In describing the future of mass atrocity as a concept, we describe a mass atrocity as a complex system where the basic ecology of violence is in constant flux. A mass atrocity’s dynamism resists neat causal models, as global phenomena affect trends in local violence throughout time. A mass atrocity is not dynamic because all politics is complex, though it is, but because the social experience of mass human death iterates itself. It totally transforms how people interact with each other and with the organizations they form, again and again and again.

The dynamism of mass violence suggests that, to speculate about the future of mass violence, we must look to the evolution of the global system. By global system, I refer to a plural, simultaneous series of political relationships: local to international, national to regional, and so on. To isolate a specific level of analysis–the United Nations over the nation-state, the grassroots peacebuilding organization over the multinational peacekeeping force–is to restrict international politics to unhelpful ideological priors, which are scarcely relevant to the human experience of mass violence. How people associate to resist violence, how they subsist during total war–these questions, and not whether the resulting organizations are “local” or “regional,” shape the contours of a mass atrocity.

In a global system, which trends might inform the future of mass violence? Let’s start with the past. The historiography of mass atrocity is increasingly fractured, its divine truths impermanent. If historians of the Holocaust once cast its bureaucracy as technologically sophisticated, recent historians have pointed out the sheer intimacy of affiliated mass killing. Jan Gross’ Neighbors, and the Polish public’s ensuing firestorm, revealed that Jedwabne’s violence of July, 1941, looked much like the violence of 1492. The Rwandan genocide, of 1994, is much the same. News reports, the history of Rwanda’s present, displayed the mass atrocity as that barbarism of a lesser humanity. In fact, as later histories indicate, Rwandan hardliners established a robust bureaucracy of paramilitary violence–the Zero Network–that probably rivaled Nazi Germany’s in its sophistication, if not its technology. A mass atrocity’s timestamp reveals less as modernity’s illusions wither.

If a mass atrocity’s perch on history’s long arc tells us little, we might turn instead to the politics that comprise the ecology of mass violence. Elsewhere, I’ve divided these components into two: organization (how a conflict-affected society engages violence) and environment (how those outside the society engage). I attended a conference on mass atrocity prevention earlier this week, and several conference comments may explain the future of a mass atrocity’s organization. Multiple conference participants, from both the United Stated and elsewhere, portrayed the escalating “crackdown on civil society” as a barrier to their work in conflict-affected communities. Sudan’s ongoing repression, fueled by the central government’s austerity policies, is an inglorious example. Sudan’s worst mass violence occurs on its periphery, in Darfur and in the country’s border states, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Civil society groups–in Khartoum and in Sudan’s provincial urban centers–often link peripheral communities to broader transit routes, a commercial and humanitarian lifeline. As Sudan’s simultaneous mass atrocities ebb at social cohesion, these fading lifelines make a future of collective resilience much more difficult to achieve.

Peacebuilding consensus sees the formal bodies of international governance–the United Nations, its regional corollaries, and disparate mechanisms of international criminal justice–as the future arbiters of mass atrocity prevention. If the bodies exist, this logic proceeds, they must be essential. There is some merit to these arguments, but these bodies’ baseline trends–such as the micro-politics of the UN Security Council’s permanent members–don’t change as much as the arguments assume. Per Samuel Moyn’s history of the United Nations, for example, these bodies were set up to preserve the status quo–positive outcomes occur in spite of the formal order, rather than because of it. In that vein, informal trends will likely drive future variations in a mass atrocity’s external environment. Nils Gilman’s “deviant globalization“–the growth of illicit economies in globalization’s shadow–may yet be important. If a repressed civil society provides a waning lifeline to resilient conflict communities, these informal networks fuel an atrocity’s perpetrators. These current phenomena are not historically unique–high-level Nazi officials gained a financial foothold in illicit Swiss banks–but likely occur on a broader scale than before.

These are two among many systemic phenomena that might shape the future of mass atrocity. What’m I missing?

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