The new war on the poor

The green movement’s commitment to non-violence is often taken for granted but it is, in many ways, an extraordinarily challenging principle. I often wonder about the extent to which we ought to apply the idea of non-violence in our lives and in our politics – but don’t. Of course, it is possible to interpret the term narrowly and consider that it applies only to acts such as the waging of warfare or physical violence against people or property or the natural world. Nevertheless, even this narrow definition could be considered contentious – should we all be vegans on this basis?

Leaving that particular point aside for a rainy day, I think most greens would actually acknowledge a wider interpretation of the non-violence principle that includes ‘invisible’ violence at the personal level, for example, psychological or emotional abuse. But what about the notion of ‘structural violence’?

Structural violence, the theme of Paul Farmer’s book, Pathologies of power, is the systematic economic and social deprivation currently inflicted on a global scale on billions of our fellow humans. It encompasses offences against human dignity such as extreme and relative poverty, and social inequalities ranging from racism to gender inequality; it leads to the world’s poor dying from starvation and easily curable diseases. Through Paul Farmer’s analysis we also see that the economic and social structures of our time, the governments and banks, the global markets and global institutions, are the agents of this violence. These forces, which inflict the terrorism of money on the poor of the world, are the forces of structural violence.

Paul Farmer writes as a physician with more than 20 years’ experience working in the poverty of central Haiti, with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, among people suffering from multi-drug resistant TB in Russia’s prisons and the slums of Lima, and with homeless AIDS sufferers on the streets of Boston. In his book he details the daily effects of extreme poverty on the health of his patients and makes it clear that the entirely avoidable premature deaths he witnesses are caused by structural violence.

In order to counter this pervasive inequality, Farmer argues that we must extend our understanding of human rights to include collective social and economic rights as well as the civil and political freedoms of the individual. And, since the right to vote which exists on paper in many parts of the world has not protected the poor from readily treatable pathogens and premature death, civil rights cannot be defended intellectually if they are not accompanied by access to basic health care and adequate nutrition for every single human being.

Many of our glib leaders like to talk at length about freedom. This is what represents basic freedom: the freedom to survive.

Paul Farmer leaves me in no doubt that the green movement’s commitment to non-violence properly extends to eradicating all manifestations of structural violence across the globe. However, while it is easy to be outraged about events in Haiti, Rwanda, Siberia or Iraq, what about structural violence here in Aotearoa New Zealand? Let us ponder the following facts: Maori men have a life expectancy of 69 years while non-Maori men have a life expectancy of 77 years; Maori women have a life expectancy of 73 years while non-Maori women have a life expectancy of 82 years. Such evil inequality in health is truly the pathology of power. This is where the struggle against structural violence begins.

Pathologies of power: Health, human rights and the new war on the poor, by Paul Farmer. University of California Press (2005).

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