Arma Virumque Cano: Capital, Poverty and Violence

I. R. Gibson | Exclusively written for | November 2010

Issues:Global militarisation, Marginalisation


This article addresses how systems of capital that underpin the present world structure perpetuate both global insecurity and endemic poverty. By upholding the practice of global arms sales, violence is endorsed by state and non-state actors continuing this inequity. Alternatives to the dominant security paradigm nevertheless exist.


Poverty is violence, an enjoined condition sustained by capital and yet paradoxically ignored by it. Capital is possessed and dispensed by the various capitalist constructs that currently function and while the 2008 global recession revealed many variables within these constructs as extremely suspect, they nevertheless remain, guaranteeing continued wealth for elite powers. The poor in turn exist insecure, in need and in want. As little action is offered against these inequitable systems, state or global – governments seem more intent on short-tem economic ‘Band-aids’ the focus being save OUR souls – the poor linger, trapped in violence, deprived of voice and rights.


Essayists such as Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge have highlighted the factors that constitute much of the global systemic inequity of capital, although one remains particularly pervasive, that of the global sale of armaments. The possession and deployment of arms by governments, militia groups and organized crime perpetuate inequality, poverty and violence; with a gun there is no reason or inquiry, the means displays the message. Arms and the man, in reference to the title of this piece, defend their capital interests and so uphold suffering. A sobering statistic emerges from the Commission of Human Security: The United Nation’s Security Council, responsible ‘for the maintenance of international peace and security’ ( has (with the exclusion of China) four permanent members – France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States – who together sell 78% of global exports of conventional weapons  (Figures taken from Commission of Human Security Final Report, 2003:134).  Germany, although not a permanent member of the Security Council, is another major contributor and is responsible for another 5% of conventional weapon sales. It is estimated that about two-thirds of these exports go to developing countries (ibid.). The question as I have suggested in previous articles following the peace education theorist Betty Reardon is what kind of ‘security’ are the permanent members of this council purporting to deal in and who is this security really for?  


In peace theory, conflict is inevitable but when handled constructively conflict is a force for positive change. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. practiced methods of non-violence and constructive activism, which resulted in effective change and the people of the Philippines, adopted similar successful methods in their overthrow of the Marcus dictatorship. Violence however, the default of state security, seldom achieves anything other than more violence, what counts here is control and fear. The semantically loaded term terrorism has become the early 21st century’s global mantra for continued armament-as-security spending. Capital thus spent and accrued denies resources for social justice programs such as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Regarding terrorism the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes that young people in deprived areas become potential targets for extremism [1], Jean Paul Sartre also comments that it is not their violence but ours (the ‘haves’) that oppresses and to the poor it is “the last refuge of their humanity” [2]. Bauman and Sartre’s writings are separated by forty-five years but they detail the same systematic insecurities that sustain poverty and violence, a lack of resources such as education and a systemic disregard for humanity by capital forces.


Democratic governments, wary of their standing in the next election rarely activate radical policies to address inequity. After all why would they? Democratic regimes are in most cases so closely linked to elites and private business in order to ensure their own re-election that status-quo policies tend to dominate over radical changes by default; what’s theirs is theirs, why share? If this sounds simplistic it is meant to be. The economist Ha-Joon Chang reiterates the point that free market policies are not there to make poor countries richer. He further identifies the complex financial instruments that brought down economies in 2008[3]. Ha-Joon Chang recommends banning these financial instruments as products dangerous to society, which is fine, but other systems continue, namely the socialization that validates greed and competition for resources and rewards players with gleaming cars and kitchens. And in case this appears solely as the advertising campaign for western capitalism I believe that Kim Jung-il has a pretty nice place and a sweet ride; tending to support the adage of William Pitt, the Elder that unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it no matter the flavour of the ideology.  


So are there alternatives to the violence of poverty so sustained by the inequities and violence of capital? Realists and pragmatists would say no, this is how it is – social Darwinism. It’s unlikely that Darwin would approve of that term but appropriating other’s resources and ideas for one’s own needs tends to be a realist trait and realist colonizers powered by arms have rarely suffered the indignities of colonization, although it must be said that Japan fared rather well after the Second World War, at least up to 1990. Realism merely (merely?) reiterates tired falsehoods however, we return to the question of inequitable systemic violence and who is interested in acting against it.  The answer can be surprising. On a flight to Japan A US soldier who had served two terms of duty in Iraq told me in conversation that many US soldiers felt angered by the US government’s misappropriation of capital in Iraq and with a certain amount of pride recounted how he and others of the US military had worked in deprived areas of the South to build hospitals and relief housing. Soldiers of course simply bear the brunt of policy. They are placed in exceptional circumstances by the judgments of other humans – predominantly guided by capital interests – and those soldiers not morally driven (and yes even soldiers share this trait, my father being one of them) can contravene all manner of international laws and human rights.  The philosopher William James posits in The Moral Equivalent of War[4] that the “fatalistic view of war-function… is nonsense” and instead argues for a channeling of the military for solely “constructive interests” – the relief work mentioned above. James echoes H.G. Wells who also saw the military purpose as one of “service and cooperation and of infinitely more honorable emulations.” The question of addressing the enduring links between capital, poverty and violence remains a systemic one.


If like the soldier above many more hold the capacity for humanism then this capacity needs to be imparted into positive action. The aforementioned peace educator Betty Reardon writes, “citizens both female and male are taking it upon themselves of monitoring governments own compliance with laws and fulfillment of policies as an active demonstration of the responsibility of democratic citizenship.” These actions remind governments of their obligations, “urging them to make needed changes before it becomes necessary to embark on measures of organized dissent and/or undertake non-violent resistance”[5]. Rights-driven frameworks are a mainstay of peace education and human rights organizations. They present substance to challenge both state and non-state actors who seek to utilize violence through arms as a means to control and prevail. Existing systems of capital uphold the two deeply iniquitous problems of poverty and violence ensuring their continuance. Social responsibility lies with each of us and it is our duty as responsible citizens therefore to redress these iniquities guided by powerful means such as peace education, to exist without greed and to live as one as wise as Gandhi suggested, in a world separated from the burden of violence and unequal capital in a world we want to see.


[1] Bauman, Z.  Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

[2] Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. Middlesex: Penguin, 1961.

[3] Ha-Joon Chang. 23 things they don't tell you about capitalism London, Allen Lane, 2010

[4] James, W. The moral equivalent of war.\New York: American Association for International Conciliation, 1910

[5] Reardon, B. Education for a culture of peace in a gender perspective. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2001.



Author: I. R. Gibson (Associate Professor Interfaculty Institute for International Studies, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan) Email: [email protected] 

Image source: jamesfischer




A very interesting read. Hope there is more to come.
L. Jackson.

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