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SOCIOECONOMIC INEQUALITY AND SOCIETAL VIOLENCE IN A POPULIST ERA


S O C I O E C O N O MIC INEQUA L IT Y A ND SOC IETA L VIOLE N CE I N A PO PU LI ST ER A

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Researcher and Author: Steven Zhou Hassam Munir Editors: Hassam Munir Reyhana Patel Advisors: Khalid Roy © Islamic Relief Canada October 2018


TABLE OF CON T EN TS

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION CHAPTER 1: INEQUALITY AND VIOLENT CRIME A GLOBAL REALITY INSECURE AND UNEQUAL IN LATIN AMERICA STATUS, RESENTMENT, AND YOUTH

CHAPTER 2: INEQUALITY AND IDEOLOGICAL EXTREMISM RELATIVE DEPRIVATION AN ENVIRONMENT OF ANGER PROTECTING PRIVILEGES

CHAPTER 3: INEQUALITY AND POLITICAL UPHEAVAL COMPLEXITIES OF INEQUALITY CASE STUDY: INDIA CORRUPT AND UNEQUAL NO EASY ANSWERS

CONCLUSION


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INTRODUCTION

Global inequality—the highly uneven distribution of wealth across and within societies— is one of the most long-standing and pressing issues in the world. It is well-known, for instance, that extreme inequality makes it more difficult for governments to reduce poverty, increase economic growth, provide adequate public health, and achieve better gender equality. One of the relatively unexplored consequences of inequality is its contribution to societal violence. This report explores this relationship in detail and argues that socioeconomic inequality has been and continues to be a major driver of violence in society. Societal violence is divided into three sub-categories in the following chapters: 1) violent crime, 2) ideological extremism, and 3) large-scale political instability. In each case, a convincing body of evidence suggests that severe inequality plays a substantial role in exacerbating the causes and levels of violence. In other words, in today’s world of increasing political hostility and inflamed rhetoric— particularly against minority groups and marginalized peoples—widespread violence is bound to remain a serious risk in the absence of efforts to mitigate structural inequality across the board. It is crucial to recognize that this isn’t just a “third world” problem; it also afflicts developed liberal democracies across the world, including the West. Its consequences are apparent throughout North America and parts of Europe. In each society, extreme inequality exacerbates people’s awareness of status. While money and income are central to this, power, access, and social standing also play a role. This makes inequality as a social phenomenon difficult to define in exact terms. More


I N TRODUCTI O N

often than not, different forms of inequality interact and layer upon each other. Together, they create a complicated environment of seemingly fixed hierarchies that may help facilitate violent behaviour. For example, in India (discussed more extensively in Chapter 3), one of the world’s most unequal and hierarchical societies, material disparity usually exists in tandem with other factors such as gender- and caste-based inequalities to form a complicated web of human interaction and, on occasion, confrontation. This web of interconnected inequalities, which has become increasingly globalized in recent decades, has long produced circumstances where people living in such societies are more keenly aware of their deprivation. The importance and awareness of status exists alongside a lack of social mobility and accountability. This combination has the potential to push people who perceive themselves to be unfairly disadvantaged toward more violent methods of altering what they see as a flawed status quo. In recent years, the ever-expanding gap between the über-rich and the poor has been accompanied by a rise in political changes and movements across the world that target “the establishment” as corrupt, stagnant, and imminently replaceable. The leaders of such movements exploit the sense of relative deprivation felt by those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that their lives have been severely limited by structural inequities and corruptions that exist solely to keep them down. Increasing levels of extreme social and economic inequality lie at the heart of this dynamic, and have the potential to make things worse by extending today’s volatile political climate further into the realm of violence. This dynamic has been at work in the form of increasing hate crimes in places like Canada and the US (as discussed in Chapter 2). If left unchecked, acts of violence can sometimes connect to form larger movements that threaten the foundation of social and communal order (as discussed in Chapter 3). Minority groups like the Muslim communities in the West and elsewhere, along with other immigrant communities, are often the easiest targets for political demagogues to blame for society’s deeper ills. The actual issues of structural inequality are left largely unaddressed as these marginalized groups are framed as societal scapegoats, and thus often become the targets of different forms of societal violence. It has also become convenient in the post-9/11 era to pin the sole source of ideological violence and extremism on backward religions and cultures. A deeper look into the real dynamics of this violence reveals a much more complex puzzle that is made up of many pieces, including extreme inequality and the sense of personal deprivation it generates. Effective responses to violence will have to be preceded by a deeper understanding of how factors like socioeconomic disparities intersect with human behaviour, which forms the objective of this report. Failure by the international community to address inequality will help sustain today’s worsening levels of societal violence.

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CHAPTER 1 INEQUALITY AND VIOLENT CRIME


CHAPTER 1 IN EQUA LITY A N D VIOLEN T CRI M E

International organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, along with a wide spectrum of academics and NGOs, broadly agree that socioeconomic inequality is a significant driver of violent crime, particularly when it comes to homicide. Perhaps the most prevalent and common category of such societal violence is violent crime. This includes offenses like homicide or violent robbery, which may include violence or the threat of violence. The relationship between such crimes and socioeconomic trends has long been a topic of research and debate in both scholarly circles and in the world of international development. Though no definite formula to calculate the causal relationship between inequality and violent crime has been arrived at, a growing body of research indicates that factors related to inequality contribute to societal circumstances that enable violent, criminal behaviour. A chronically unequal society tends to emphasize status. Its inherently unjust nature erodes public trust in official institutions and sociopolitical norms. Individuals and especially youth who are afflicted (or perceive themselves to be afflicted) by such injustices are generally understood to be more susceptible to sympathizing with or seeking out alternative ways of gaining respect and status. Resentment that results from feeling despised and underprivileged can often make them vulnerable to the rhetoric or recruitment of violent groups such as street gangs. In other words, though an array of divergent factors interact with each other leading up to an act of homicide or violent robbery, inequality seems to play a systemic role in fostering an environment within which that process takes place.

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A GLOBAL REALITY Threats of violent crime exist as a top public safety concern in both rich and poor countries. Not all countries with an increasing inequality gap suffer from a corresponding rate of increase in homicides. The United States, for example, is a very unequal country, but has seen its national homicide rates decrease in recent decades. However, international trends, as observed by both the scholarly and international communities, show that the most violent countries almost always tend to be the most unequal as well. Though inequality between countries has decreased in recent decades, disparities within nations have for the most part become much worse. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risk Report (2017) named “persistent inequality” as the most important factor affecting global stability and prosperity, according to its latest Global Risks Perception Survey.1 A 2002 study by the World Bank examined and analyzed over 20 years of its own data on homicide and robbery rates, beginning in the 1960s, for over two dozen countries spanning several continents and regions.2 It concluded that, overall, “an increase in income inequality has a significant and robust effect of raising crime rates”, particularly homicides and robberies. In 2011, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published in its “Global Study on Crime” that, “at global level countries with large income disparities […] have a homicide rate almost four times higher than more equal societies.”3 These are not particularly unprecedented findings. A 1993 study featured in the Criminal Justice Review journal (co-authored by social scientists Ching-Chi Hsieh and M. D. Pugh) analyzed over 30 separate data studies. Each study focused on violent crime and metrics for inequality. Hsieh and Pugh’s “meta-study” concluded that inequality is a form of “resource deprivation,” a systemic issue that is “an underlying cause” of violent crime, particularly homicide and assault.4 Two prominent British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have offered a broad theoretical framework to explain the vast correlations between inequality and anti-social effects like violence. In their widely influential book, The Spirit Level (2015), the authors point out that deeply unequal societies or spaces create an atmosphere where status and the attainment of status become much more acute obsessions.5 People, particularly those who perceive themselves to lack status, resources, or power, become highly aware of their disadvantaged position on the inequality spectrum, and over time they are more likely to employ a number of means to compensate for this. “How we are judged by others becomes more important under such circumstances,” says Wilkinson. “If you feel like you’re being denied, then chances are you’ll end up being pretty neurotic about it, and you’ll care more about whether others—particularly those at the top—respect you.”

[1] WEF (2017), ‘The Global Risks Report 2017 (12th edition)’ [http://www3. weforum.org/docs/GRR17_Report_web. pdf] [2] World Bank (2002), ‘Inequality and Violent Crime’ [https://siteresources. worldbank.org/DEC/Resources/ Crime%26Inequality.pdf] [3] UNODC (2011), ‘Global Study on Homicide’ [http://www.unodc.org/ documents/data-and-analysis/ statistics/Homicide/Globa_study_on_ homicide_2011_web.pdf] [4] Hsieh, Ching-Chiand Pugh, M.D. (1993), ‘Poverty, Inequality, and Violent Crime: A Meta-Analysis of Recent Aggregate Data Studies’, in Criminal Justice Review, vol. 18, no. 2, pp.182-202 [5] Pickett, Kate and Wilkinson, Richard (2011), The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury Press, NY)


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Wilkinson also notes that at the core of this dynamic is the basic, unchanging human tendency to use material possessions as criteria for determining a person’s value. There are different contexts to that tendency, be it class-based or within a colonial situation, but inequality sharpens the effects of social, material, and interpersonal judgement. It is when the inequality gap becomes seemingly impossible to close that those who live in its shadow begin to perceive official channels of change and meritocracy—“the establishment”—as a central aspect of that unfairness. This leads individuals to explore alternative and often violently unlawful ways of remedying their situation or status.

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INSECURE AND UNEQUAL IN LATIN AMERICA A growing body of research demonstrates the broad trends that result from global inequality. Violent crime is very much part of that picture, as globalization—the interconnecting of world commerce and communication to exert international influence— often helps to facilitate the spread of violence. The region where this tragic reality most starkly unfolds is Latin America. According to a 2014 ranking by the Mexico Citizens Council for Public Security, the region is home to 41 of the world’s 50 most violent cities (including 21 in Brazil alone).6 Though the violence in these countries and cities often spills over into the middle class, most of it is confined to the lower classes where people bear the brunt of inequality. Michael Marmot, a British academic who is also the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Chair of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health, emphasized this point in a recent interview with Islamic Relief Canada: “It’s usually young men within a lower subgroup killing each other,” he says, referring to the ongoing “Drug War” that plagues much of Latin America. “It’s not physical class warfare like some people think when the poor attack the wealthy.” Wilkinson elaborates on this dynamic by employing the theory of the “bicycle effect.” “It’s a process by which, in an unequal and hierarchical situation, one bows down to their superiors and kicks down on their inferiors or their peers,” he says. In multicultural societies in Europe or the US, these “inferiors” usually end up being marginalized populations like the poor or minority groups.

[6] Mexico Citizens Council for Public Security (2014), ‘For the fourth consecutive year, San Pedro Sula is the most violent city in the world’ [http:// www.seguridadjusticiaypaz.org.mx/ biblioteca/analisis-estadistico/send/5analisis-estadistico/199-the-50-mostviolent-cities-in-the-world-2014]


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In the context of the drug trade throughout Latin America, an illicit economy provides an avenue where those in the lower strata of society can earn respect and money outside of official channels. That they may have to exercise violent and illegal force on each other (or, sometimes, on those in power) becomes just a part of the game. A World Bank study done in 2014 focused on the troubling rates of violent crime in Mexico, where the federal government declared a “war on drugs” against narco-traffickers in 2006. The study crucially focuses on city-by-city statistics, which provide a much more accurate portrayal of how socioeconomic inequality relates to violent crime on the ground.7 The study’s “key finding is that, in fact, municipalities with lower inequality saw lower rates of crime”. Though overall national data shows improvements in Mexico’s economic growth and inequality in broad terms, such improvements are not consistent across the country. This makes pronouncements by governments of their overall socioeconomic improvements often misleading. The World Bank study shows that a closer breakdown of smaller geographic areas within Mexico provides a much more accurate depiction of how less socioeconomic inequality is related to less violent crime. It also concludes that, ultimately, “had inequality not declined as it did for most Mexican municipalities during the 2000s, the rise in homicide rates in the country would have been even worse”. Despite making up less than 10% of the world’s overall population, Latin America, according to the United Nations, accounts for around 28% of the world’s murders. For a total of just 18 countries, around one million murders took place over the period of 20002010 (a rate of approximately 100,000 per year). It is the only region in the world where homicide and murder rates have increased during that period. Marmot, who has conducted field work across several regions across the globe, singles out Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for “a physical inequality that you can actually see in the city.” He notes how the socioeconomic gradient of the city actually corresponds to how the different areas of the city are structured. The prevalence of drugs and violence is connected to this overall structure. “Venezuela is another good example of this,” Marmot says, “as it has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and is also one of the leading societies in terms of socioeconomic inequality.” A whopping one in every three Latin Americans reported being a victim of a violent crime in 2012. Citing a recent UNDP Human Development Report for Latin America, Oxfam International’s 2014 “Even It Up” report observed that the region is “the most unequal” in the world.8 That Latin America is also where violent crime is particularly prevalent fits the framework and consensus by most experts regarding the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and violent crime.

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[7] World Bank (2014), ‘Income Inequality and Violent Crime: Evidence from Mexico’s Drug War’ [http:// documents.worldbank.org/curated/ en/236161468299090847/pdf/ WPS6935.pdf] [8] OXFAM (2014), ‘Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality’ [https://www. oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/ file_attachments/cr-even-it-up-extremeinequality-291014-en.pdf]


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STATUS, RESENTMENT, AND YOUTH The complex interplay of the many factors that lead up to a crime being committed makes it tough to come up with a single, all-encompassing explanation for why people commit crime. Yet the growing body of work on social and economic inequality has repeatedly shown how an intractable gap between the ultra-rich and the poor weakens public trust between classes and segments of society. It also weakens the citizenry investment in official institutions, such as the central government. In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett note that, above all, “inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status.” In other words, socioeconomic status—the need to be respected, valued, and liked—becomes even more important in circumstances of great disparity. In such a tense situation, the effects of humiliation become more pronounced. The authors thus conclude that “the evolutionary importance of shame and humiliation” is a possible factor in how socioeconomic inequality can be a driver of violent crime. According to psychologist Frank Elgar of McGill University, who co-authored a major 2011 study on inequality and homicide across 33 countries for the European Journal of Public Health, it is children and youth who are most affected by social inequality and its negative psychosocial effects.9

[9] Aitken, N. and Elgar, F.J. (2011), ‘Income inequality, trust and homicide in 33 countries’, European Journal of Public Health, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 241-246


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“Another pathway to violence that’s often underemphasized seems to be the violence and bullying that we often see in schools, which I suspect also includes school shootings,” Elgar says in an interview with Islamic Relief Canada. “What we’ve found is that kids who grow up in settings where the circumstances are more unequal, it affects their social behaviours and their moral development—their sense of what’s fair or unfair.” So if a child grows up in a situation where he or she is consistently humiliated in a structure of social inequality, the child is less likely to have any respect or investment in the way society is officially organized. Established norms of pursuing change simply appear to uphold the unequal structure and meritocracy becomes less believable or compelling. In extreme cases, children who grow up and live through such circumstances are likely to become vulnerable to criminal pathways of gaining respect, be it bullying at school or joining a gang. Sometimes, it also means being susceptible to rhetoric linked to violent extremism and ideology—a topic that will be explored in the following chapter. Psychiatrist James Gillian, who Wilkinson and Pickett cited in their work, notes that acts of violence can almost always be traced back to some variation of the need to replace “the feelings of shame and humiliation” with that of “pride.” Violence (usually associated with crime) can often be an intense and monetarily satisfying way of achieving this. An environment where a sense of inferiority is instilled in an underserved or underprivileged class or group contains more triggers for violent crime to take place. Such environments of disparity are identified by much more than indicators like annual income. Inequality is about more than just money. According to a 2011 report on “Structureof Peace” from the Institute of Economics and Peace, socioeconomic inequality relates to a host of other factors, such as “whether people have access to basic needs like healthcare, transportation, education or access to just legal processes.” 10 These are basic, fundamental aspects of what a functional life looks like in an industrialized society. Those who successfully and consistently fulfil these needs are then freed up to pursue higher levels of meaning through other activities. Those with better and often exclusive access to essential services are increasingly separated from those who fall outside of their social bracket, particularly if such services are overly privatized. This can then lead to a gradual divestment from the rights, responsibilities, and overall norms that bind disparate socioeconomic groups and classes into a cohesive society. Those who are wealthy see less reason to share in a society that asks them to contribute to social welfare generally (and thereby decrease their wealth, etc.), while those left behind see no reason to live up to norms that seem to discriminate against them. This social separation is what accompanies economic separation or disparity, leading to the kind of polarization that can turn violent.

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[10] Institute for Economics and Peace (2011), ‘Structures of Peace: Identifying what leads to peaceful societies’ [http:// lawsdocbox.com/Politics/67649352The-institute-for-economics-peacequantifying-peace-and-its-benefits.html]


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CHAPTER 2 INEQUALITY AND IDEOLOGICAL EXTREMISM


CHAPTER 2 IN EQUA LITY A N D IDEOLOGIC A L EXTRE M I S M

Locating the root causes of ideological and violent extremism is arguably one of the most enduring obsessions in the 21st century. This has been particularly true in recent years, when “Islamic extremism” has often dominated headlines across the world. Currently, the global rise in right-wing populism has also rekindled a parallel interest in violent radicalism from far-right groups in North America and Europe. The exact degree to which socioeconomic inequality is a cause of violent, ideologicallydriven behaviour is a subject of ongoing debate. The idea that those on the lower end of an unequal society are more susceptible to violent ideologies is offset by the fact that terrorists of all stripes are not limited to any particular socioeconomic demographic. But, as we have seen, inequality is often about more than just economics. Often, emotions and perception play an even more prominent role, while economic factors assume a smaller part of the story. Violent extremism—or when radical behavior starts making use of indiscriminate violence—has no single profile, socially or economically. There is no direct, one-sizefits-all pathway from “normative behaviour” to extremist violence. In other words, the exact underlying causes of extremism vary and are not always known. The relationship of extremism to socioeconomic inequality is a process that is usually linked to different incentives and grievances, depending on the circumstances at hand. Broadly speaking, the process starts with a person’s expectations and the choices available to fulfil them. If the individual perceives his or her progress or status as unequal relative to someone else, the result can be a frustration that may eventually lead to increased susceptibility to sympathy for violent, ideological narratives, or even beyond that, to carrying out the tactics associated with such ideologies. Socioeconomic conditions are important elements (among numerous factors) that relate to how a person perceives the way he or she has fulfilled expectations in relation to others. Such perception often lies at the crux of how someone can begin the road to embracing extremist violence.

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RELATIVE DEPRIVATION A majority of scholars and researchers don’t see a one-to-one causal relationship between economic inequality and ideological extremist behaviour. However, because socioeconomic inequality relates crucially to political and social expectations that are rooted primarily in a person’s perception, forms of inequality can certainly drive an individual toward extremism.

[11] Gurr, T.R. (1970), Why Men Rebel (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ)

In his classic 1970 work Why Men Rebel, political scientist Ted Robert Gurr sums up this kind of perception with his “relative deprivation” theory.11 He defines such deprivation as individuals’ perception of the discrepancy between their expectations (what they think they are entitled to) and capabilities (what they think they can actually get). This, according to Gurr, applies to all people regardless of their economic bracket. Individuals do not have to be in absolute poverty to feel deprived in relation to others. Nor do they necessarily have to be on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Some certainly are, but many are not. How a person is doing socially and financially matters, but it matters less in this case than the person’s own perceptions of how their status measures up relative to others. Radicalization into violent extremism often seems to be linked less with the absolute 77socioeconomic status of individuals than it is with how these conditions are viewed in relation to the status of others. If individuals perceive the discrepancy between what they expect socially, politically, or economically and what they are actually capable of attaining as unfairly fixed, then this perception can result in a strain that makes them more susceptible to being exploited by problematic ideologies that promise clean, black-and-white solutions. This logic is applicable to both Islamic terrorism and far-right violence and cannot be reduced to singular economic metrics like income inequality. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/ features/2017/09/killed-hate-victimsamerica-violence-170924153101480.html


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Canadian researcher Amarnath Amarasingam has spent the past several years communicating online with individuals who travelled (mostly from Western countries) to the Middle East to join extremist entities like the Daesh commonly known as ISIS). He notes that a prevailing narrative that many of these individuals, who self-identify as Muslim, refer to when explaining their decision boils down to the gap they experience, in their respective nations, between their actual condition and the respect or status that they feel they deserve—from which they are held back by discrimination, racism, and Islamophobia. “So they feel like this whole story of meritocracy that has been sold to us from day one is a sham,” Amarasingam says. “Rather, regardless of how well educated we become, regardless of how much money we make, we will remain the other.” The ability to close this distance, which seems unfairly fixed, is one manifestation of how socioeconomic inequality leads one to becoming more susceptible to extremist narratives. Not being able to affect the circumstances or factors that create gaps between expectations and actual capabilities engenders the kind of grievance or frustration that makes violence or scapegoating an increasingly attractive option. “Some youth we researched in Quebec started to feel like what ISIS was telling them —that they will never feel at home in the West, that as Muslims they will forever be an object of suspicion, that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to them—had some truth to it,” Amarasingam says. Perceptions of relative deprivation can either be accurate, illusion-based, or a mixture of both. Real socioeconomic or political grievances can indeed be exploited to make extremism a more seductive option. But so can conspiratorial and unsubstantiated worldviews that pinpoint one group of people as the source of one’s woes. This kind of conspiratorial perception of inequality is rife in far-right or neo-Nazi circles, where immigrants are represented as job-stealers and thieves, or where the Jewish community is often portrayed as an all-powerful and self-serving entity. This is a common theme throughout the right-wing populist resurgence taking place in North America and Europe, some of which preach racial purity and even violence. Mark Potok, a former director at the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has been tracking this troubling trend for decades and told Islamic Relief Canada: “I don’t think the idea of inequality is nearly just about money,” Potok says in an interview. “A lot of the time it’s about race, about how a certain portion of white people feel like their country, their identity, and their opportunities are being taken away from people who don’t look like them.” Whatever socioeconomic hardships is being experienced—be it the overall side-effects of modern globalization or the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession—become evidence that a dispossessed white majority is being forced to cede political and social ground to lazy immigrants or minorities who demand special treatment. This racially-driven narrative commonly found among white supremacists represents a socioeconomic perception rooted more in ideology than reality.

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Related to this are experiences of deep trauma. Those who undergo traumatic experiences such as military invasion or other forms of state violence develop grievances that are based on the reality of actual experiences. This may include loss of family or livelihood, as demonstrated by large-scale conflicts such as the 2003 Iraq War or the current situation in Syria.

[12] "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication," US Department of Defense, Sept 2004 , pg. 14-17

For example, the US Department of Defense published a landmark study in 2004 into the impact and effects of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq on “terrorism and Islamic radicalism.” The purpose was to better understand how threats to US national security develop and what underlying conditions help create extremist attitudes that lead to Muslim terrorism against the US.12

[14] UNDP (2016), ‘Framing Development Solutions for the Prevention of Violent Extremism: Dushanbe 2016’ [http://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/ dam/rbec/docs/Background%20 Papers%20on%20Violent%20 Extremism%20and%20Its%20 Prevention.pdf]

Crucially, the report concluded that Muslims in these countries reacted badly to the invasions and subsequent US policies. Far from simply “hating” US “freedoms” or values, frustration at the conditions generated by war can potentially push people who endure such conditions into seeking other, more violent ways of remedying their life circumstances.13 Following the framework of “relative deprivation,” expectations of respect and safety eventually give way in such situations to traumatic realizations that their ability to actually realize these basic elements of a decent life have been severely limited by external factors way beyond their control. Such grievances are often capable of being exploited by violent ideologues and extremists. Thus, it is the personal perception of how aspects of inequality manifest in one’s own life that often lie at the heart of what makes one susceptible to developing an attraction to extremism. According to a June 2016 report produced by experts on extremism who met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, these aspects of inequality are often social: “The sense of inequity, discrimination, exclusion, deprivation and real or perceived marginalization deriving from economic inequality, particularly where these factors are compounded by ethnic, sectarian, religious or other divisions, which feed into the separation of individuals from society and into the terrain of violent extremism.”14 Socioeconomic inequality therefore plays a partial role in developing a state of affairs or circumstances where the dynamics of relative deprivation are played out. It is not in and of itself a definite factor that causes certain people to embrace radical ideologies or to act on such ideas and rhetoric. Rather, it must be assessed in relation to how such inequality is perceived by the individuals in question, particularly in relation to others. Those who feel left behind by parties or powers that are responsible for controlling the levers of social, political, and economic conditions are most likely to interpret the idea of an equal playing field for all as nothing but a myth. This is particularly true if they see others who they perceive to be of similar or lower status achieving the same goals that they themselves expected to achieve, but never did.

[13] Ibid., pg. 40-41


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AN ENVIRONMENT OF ANGER There is no single socioeconomic profile for someone who supports, sympathizes with, or carries out violent extremism, but there is evidence to suggest that the effects of inequality can include, or result in accepting, or induce supportive attitudes towards ideological violence. A major recent study done by the World Bank notes that, in the developing world, there is “evidence that the average radicalized individual” is “relatively poor, young, unemployed or out of the workforce, uneducated, and not as religious as others, but more willing to sacrifice own life for his or her beliefs.”15 In other words, the average person who shows sympathies toward radical and extremist elements in these developing areas of the world tends to come from the underprivileged end of highly unequal societies. This is essentially consistent the conclusion that Derek Silva, a sociologist of extremism at the University of Western Ontario’s King’s College, has arrived at. “A significant amount of research actually suggests at least an association between higher levels of income inequality and terrorism,” he says. “Scholars argue that frustration over certain forms of social inequality—not just income, but also access to healthcare or education, political recognition and participation—might manifest itself in support or sympathy for political violence as an unconventional way to voice dissent over these issues.” Whether or not these individuals are likely to take the next steps to materially support or carry out acts of targeted violence against civilians is separate issue. Nonetheless, inequality does tend to result in the kind of social divide or fracturing that breeds mistrust and resentment between large segments of the population. A 2011 study published in the Journal of International Political Theory focusing on the negative systemic effects of economic disparity points out that even though terrorists come from all sections of society and are not always poor or underprivileged (e.g. many of the 9/11 attackers were educated and came from relatively affluent backgrounds), “terrorist sympathizers may be from disadvantaged backgrounds.”16 Regardless of whether actual, organized terrorists arise from such backgrounds, socioeconomic inequality seems to contribute to an atmosphere where a fraying social fabric can help develop backing for ideologically violent groups and tactics. This is a trend that, in turn, contributes to threats against the safety and security of a civil society. That a growing gap of socioeconomic inequality almost always adds to a more volatile and unstable social commons is well established, though such negative forms of volatility aren’t exclusive to those who suffer systemic barriers and real deprivation. Those at the top of the socioeconomic “food chain” are also likely to secede or divest from the wider society in an attempt to preserve their privileges. They have more of a stake in keeping things the way they are.

[15] World Bank (2016), Who Supports Violent Extremism in Developing Countries?: Analysis of Attitudes Based on Value Surveys’ [http:// documents.worldbank.org/curated/ en/227321468196730079/pdf/ WPS7691.pdf] [16] Ayse, Kaya and Keba, Andrej (2017), ‘Why Global Inequality Matters: Derivative Global Egalitarianism’, Journal of International Political Theory, vol. 7, no. 2, pp.140-164


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This can be done in several ways, including by way of organized and even electoral politics. Oxfam’s 2014 Even It Up report notes that a “major driver” of the recent explosion in socioeconomic inequality is the “excessive influence” that the upper classes exercise “over politics, policy, institutions and the public debate, which elites are able to employ to ensure outcomes that reflect their narrow interests rather than the interests of society at large.”17 If the mechanisms of power and change are generally monopolized by select groups that look out primarily for themselves, then inequality becomes a systemic and generational problem. This helps to give ammunition to extremists who harp on the systemic state of social unfairness and on an agenda set by “the West” or “the powerful” that will never, as demonstrated by Amarasingam’s Islamophobia example, seek to include the commoner, be it a minority or a white person.

Indeed, such narratives of deprivation have been central to the continuous resurgence of far-right or alt-right ideologies in the West. Such narratives also force conceptions of inequality to distinguish between real experiences of social and material deprivation and more ideologically-driven arguments. “The resurgence of far-right movements or violence is an indication that we should expand our ideas about socioeconomic inequality more broadly,” Silva says. “If you look at social disparity in terms of access to culture or access to social capital—a whole host of things that bring society together—then inequality becomes manifest in forms of social exclusion.” And as Potok notes, narrative can often be manipulated to include non-factual, racially-driven arguments meant to exclude minorities or to scapegoat them as the cause of a range of societal difficulties.

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[17] OXFAM (2014), ‘Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality’


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PROTECTING PRIVILEGES A recent joint study by Harvard University, Victoria Wellington University (New Zealand), and the University of Oslo shows that, across dozens of countries, those at the upper end of the socioeconomic ladder are often willing to resort to harsh, combative, or even violent rhetoric to maintain their advantages.18 The study surveyed the opinion of 4,600 white citizens across 30 US states. Results showed that, among some of the more socioeconomically unequal states like Indiana or Florida, more participants displayed racist, sexist, or even violent attitudes toward minority or marginalized communities in order to justify their own “hegemony.” In other words, as social and economic inequality increases within countries across the world, those at the top of the ladder become more and more cognizant of the need to hold on to what they have. This can include resorting to racist or prejudiced depictions of those who they perceive to be undeserving or inferior, but who are also presumed to be actively trying to deprive them of their hard-earned resources or status.

[18] Fischerd, R., Kunsta, J.R., Sidaniuse, J., and Thomsen, L. (2017), ‘Preferences for group dominance track and mediate the effects of macro-level social inequality and violence across societies’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, no. 21, pp. 5407-5412 [19] SPLC (2018), ‘The Year in Hate: Trump buoyed white supremacists in 2017, sparking backlash among black nationalist groups’ [https:// www.splcenter.org/news/2018/02/21/ year-hate-trump-buoyed-whitesupremacists-2017-sparking-backlashamong-black-nationalist]

This pattern is consistent with the rise of race-based populism in the US and other countries throughout the Western world, where far-right factions have been reawakened by warnings of immigrant hoards working to bankrupt Western nations by asking for undeserved handouts. This process, as the narrative goes, will ultimately end in minorities displacing hard-working “common folk”. For instance, chants by the openly racist “altright” march in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer included slogans like “You will not replace us!” This is a typical example of how real grievances mix with extreme ideology to produce or galvanize support for a potentially violent worldview. Threats by right-wing and white supremacist groups, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and other hate crime monitors, have risen in recent years and are well-known to law enforcement and intelligence officials throughout the West today.19 The specific and granular circumstances leading to cases of violent expression may differ widely from one case to another. Those on the far right radicalize under a different set of life circumstances than, say, the foot soldiers of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) or other groups that misappropriate the Islamic tradition. Photo source: warontherocks. com/2015/02/how-many-fighters-doesthe-islamic-state-really-have/


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Yet both sets of violent perpetrators perceive their grievances through similar frameworks of relative deprivation. Both feel deprived in relation to their rightful positions as supremacist groups — and both see this deprivation as a result of an outside usurper or oppressor (rather than through any fault of their own). Generally speaking, both factions perceive, rightly or wrongly, being victims of enemies who are robbing them of the status, rights, or resources to which they are entitled. Muslim extremism may draw on narratives that emphasize the evils of “the West” and its anti-Muslim agenda; far-right extremists are often driven by conspiracies that frame an international collusion of Jews or an onslaught of entitled immigrants who demand undeserved privileges and handouts. Both groups, rightly or wrongly, perceive themselves as being on the wrong side of an unequal situation. Systemic inequality can thus contribute to an environment where resentment and frustration of all kinds build toward sympathy for ideologically-driven, violent behaviour. This has in some ways been the central story of the post-9/11 era, but is particularly relevant today as the world continues to experience a resurgence of extreme populist sentiment. It is easy in this case to blame religion or ideology as the sole reason for extremist behaviour, but it is often the perceived sources of social inequality that allow for a string victimhood narrative to develop. www.onthisday.com/photos/9-11-attackon-world-trade-towers


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CHAPTER 3 INEQUALITY AND POLITICAL UPHEAVAL


CHAPTER 3 IN EQUA LITY A N D POLITIC A L UPHEAVAL

One chapter in recent history that encompasses nearly all forms of political and civil unrest is the Arab Spring, a series of revolts that shook the Middle East and North Africa region for several years after 2010. The state of inequality within the region leading up to these upheavals serves as a valuable example of how wider societal instability might be triggered or driven. Though difficult to generalize, it is safe to say that the path to unrest is usually a sustained accumulation of individual grievances that result, in part, from unequal circumstances. Such grievances, or perceptions of victimhood, interact with each other and, over time, have the potential to evolve into larger conflagrations. The Arab Spring is just one case in point. Mass protests in Tunisia led to the unexpected resignation and exile of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011. Soon, similar uprisings started to unfold across the Middle East and North Africa: in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, to name just a few countries. Tunisia has been the only Arab Spring country so far to successfully transition from mass uprising and overthrow to a relatively peaceful (if fragile) constitutional democracy. For every other uprising, peaceful demonstrations eventually gave way to a return to the status quo, civil war, or even failed states. How different kinds of social, political, and economic inequality may have influenced the Arab Spring upheavals remains a topic of continuous debate. Since the aftermath of the unrest involves so many forms of political instability—civil war, popular revolution, government breakdown, etc.—it amounts to a series of useful case studies regarding the overall relationship between socioeconomic inequality and large-scale political instability, including violence. More often than not, despite inconsistent record-keeping, observers and analysts have apprehended the Middle East to be one of the world’s most unequal regions.20 As this report has already sketched out, such inequality goes beyond income or possession of material resources per se. Particularly in relation to large scale unrest, it’s often more important to take into account unequal access to power—or the ability to affect societal change by deciding whose voice and interests actually matter. A study conducted by the World Bank’s MENA Economic Monitor in 2015 notes the lack of transparency regarding financial breakdowns in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to those occupying the upper economic classes. Many of the largest firms throughout the area are either owned by the state or by prominent families who have amassed great amounts of private wealth.21 Such wealth comes with significant privilege, power, and access. Such regimes and families, as the study notes, often control who gets to participate in major business ventures or opportunities that produce wealth in the region. Their lack of transparency is thus a function of maintaining a kind of socioeconomic monopoly. “In short,” the report notes, “ordinary people cannot share in the prosperity generated by the most successful firms in the Arab countries.” This is an obvious aspect of material inequality that has affected the region for generations. This kind of intractable inequality, combined with other factors that prevent upward and meritocratic mobility, produces the kind of tension and “relative deprivation” that pushes some individuals to explore or sympathize with alternative solutions that promise drastic change and immediate results through political instability or insurrection.

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[20] African Development Bank Group (2013), ‘Inequality, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)’ [https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/ uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/ Working%20Paper%20195%20-%20 Inequality%20Economic%20Growth%20 and%20Poverty%20in%20the%20 Middle%20East%20and%20North%20 Africa%20(MENA).pdf] [21] World Bank (2015), ‘Inequality, Uprisings, and Conflict in the Arab World’ [http://documents.worldbank. org/curated/en/303441467992017147/ pdf/99989-REVISED-Box393220B-OUO9-MEM-Fall-2015-FINAL-Oct-13-2015. pdf]


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COMPLEXITIES OF INEQUALITY The World Bank study crucially notes that relatively confined and narrow measurements of income or prosperity inequality do not reflect the “many factors important to subjective well-being such as quality of life, expectations about the future and changes not yet reflected or not measured well with objective data.” That income alone cannot be the defining factor when it comes to the relationship between inequality and societal violence is a constant theme not just for the MENA region, but elsewhere as well. According to researcher Logan Cochrane, who has worked extensively throughout the Middle East and Africa, many unequal countries are much more divided along power than income. “In Ethiopia,” where Cochrane has spent a lot of time, “the ruling class is dominated by a specific ethnic group, which is only about 6% of the population but controls the majority of the country’s economy.” Such ethnic inequality often “layers upon” other examples of social unevenness such as access to services, decision-making, or resources. No single factor, be it ethnicity or income, tends to dominate the situation. It’s important therefore to distinguish between how people perceive their own affluence (or lack thereof) versus how prosperous they actually are in a material sense. Depending on what factors affect the power balance within a society, people are likely to perceive their own situation differently in relation to the bigger picture. UNESCO’s World Social Science Report (2016) also notes that the evidence available doesn’t point to a clean, causal relationship between political conflict and inequality. Other factors are always at play. The study concludes that, in general, inequality plays a serious role in driving political conflict when the uneven distribution of wealth corresponds to different identity-groups, such as ethnicity or religious sect.22 In other words, different kinds of social and economic inequalities interact with each in complicated ways to produce different results. Data cited by the World Bank 2015 report shows that just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010, the common perception of “subjective wellbeing was low and plummeting.” In other words, people in these countries did not see their actual living situation as meeting, or even coming close to, their expectations and ideals. This expectation gap is a broad manifestation of “relative deprivation” that could easily have contributed to large segments of frustrated populations embracing more volatile avenues for change as an alternative to what they perceive as useless official norms.

[22] UNESCO (2016), ‘World Social Science Report: Challenging Inequalities: Pathways to a Just World’ [http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ images/0024/002458/245825e.pdf]


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CASE STUDY: INDIA Populist movements or groups that present themselves as effective and legitimate alternatives to a discredited establishment thrive on such narratives of deprivation. The Arab Spring isn’t the only case where populist alternatives have caused large-scale change. Along with the Middle East, India, considered the world’s largest democracy and one of its most diverse nations, has seen the rise of populism in recent years. “India is one of the most unequal societies in the world,” says Jayati Ghosh, a prominent development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. “It’s unmatched in how complicated it is in terms of different forms of inequalities, such as caste and gender.” She notes that just among the poor in India, there are multiple forms of deprivation, such as asset inequality and patterns of work. Women, for instance, often work for starvation wages or simply are not paid. Large numbers of people are thus disproportionately poor and angry, as is the case with most situations where socioeconomic inequality has become seemingly intractable. This energy is often expressed in violent ways. “And so people take out their frustration and anger on weaker, less influential groups like minorities, lower casts, or women,” Ghosh says. She points out that populist leaders in India have come to understand how to tap into this frustration by promising jobs and better income while scapegoating minority groups. “This happens in multiple places in India, such as the province of Gujarat, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) kept their majority in an election last year by resorting to the same populist rhetoric.” This kind of politics does not help social cohesion. Sectarianism is exploited for electoral advantages and can fuel communal violence, as has been happening in India for some time. The BJP, a right-leaning Hindu party, is currently in government at the federal level in India. Along the same lines, Ghosh notes, the head of the province of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, is a right-wing Hindu nationalist who openly incites violence against Muslims and encourages vigilante groups that often carry out such acts. These forms of openly inflammatory politics and rhetoric exploit the general frustration among Indians who have long struggled with different forms of unequal access and deprivation.

Photo source: scroll.in/article/841699/not-in-my-name-wh its-important-for-progressive-hindus-to-condemn-risinghatred-in-india


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CORRUPT AND UNEQUAL Another major element that often seems to accompany social inequality is corruption, a seemingly perennial problem in the Arab world. Transparency International (TI) published in a 2016 survey that one in three people living in Arab Spring countries reported that they had to pay a bribe just to access basic services like healthcare, education, or even water. 23

[23] Transparency International (2016), ‘People and Corruption: Middle East and North Africa Survey 2016’ [https:// www.transparency.org/whatwedo/ publication/people_and_corruption_ mena_survey_2016]

Unsurprisingly, this culture of graft seemed to affect the way people perceive the legitimacy and viability of the regimes that they live under. TI’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index showed that Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Yemen, and Syria scored the lowest when people in those countries were asked about corruption in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Arab Spring.24 Those scores have not improved much in recent years.25

[24] Transparency International (2012), ‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2012’ [https://www.transparency.org/cpi2012/ results]

The level of corruption (both real and perceived), along with everyday difficulties that corruption brings to individual citizens, combine to exacerbate feelings of hopelessness when it comes to closing the gap between one’s expectations and day-to-day reality. This again creates situations of “relative deprivation” that seem to have been abundantly present in many of the Arab Spring countries’ populations leading up to 2011 and beyond. World-renown French economist Thomas Piketty, an expert on the analysis of socioeconomic inequality, published a recent study in which he and his co-authors conclude that the Middle East may be the most unequal region on earth.26 The metrics used include household surveys, national accounts, income tax data and wealth data in the region for the period between 1990-2016. It is as about as close a measurement and analysis as one can get by scrutinizing the data available for the region.

[25] Transparency International (2017), ‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2017’ [https://www.transparency.org/news/ feature/corruption_perceptions_ index_2017] [26] World Wealth and Income Database (2017), ‘Measuring Inequality in the Middle East 1990-2016: The World’s Most Unequal Region?’ [http://wid.world/ document/alvaredoassouadpikettymiddleeast-widworldwp201715/]

Combined with the TI indices on corruption, it’s safe to say that the Middle East—easily one of the most corrupt regions of the world where people’s subjective perceptions of their own wellbeing has plummeted for years—is also one of the most unequal. These extreme realities exist side-by-side and are correlated with each other. www.ild.org.pe/our-work/propertyparadigm/the-arab-spring-strategy


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NO EASY ANSWERS It is indeed tempting to draw a simple and straight line connecting this depressing contemporary reality of corruption and inequality with the Arab Spring’s upheavals and subsequent chaos. Nonetheless, though a general relationship can be discerned, research by veteran researchers like Logan Cochrane still shows that the specific, dayto-day realities on the ground are usually much less predictable. “All the Arab countries in North Africa—Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria—had uprisings in 2011 and they all went in different directions,” Cochrane notes. He recalls how people point to the the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi who, after being bullied by a government official, sparked the Arab Spring with his suicidal act. “But two other vendors had also lit themselves on fire six months before,” Cochrane observes, “and none of those sparked a revolution.” In other words, the inequality had been in Tunisia for a long time and a number of different factors, driven in part by socioeconomic disparities, led to the popular revolution in 2011. “But in Morocco next door, the government was maintained and made some very moderate changes to their policies,” Cochrane says. “The mass mobilization of people was co-opted into the government system. Libya, on the other hand, falls into chaos. Algeria is somewhere in between those. All these places have very similar governance structures and share a lot of the same problems, but extremely different outcomes.” Inequality is therefore a common forerunner that, when other factors align, can help drive instability and insurrection. A few years after the Tunisian uprising, the region became engulfed in escalated forms of extremism as the infamous Daesh organization (also known as ISIS) seized control of large and contiguous territories in Syria and Iraq. Iraq was not among the Arab Spring countries, but had suffered serious political disunity and instability in the decade following the 2003 US-led invasion. And though Daesh has lost much of the territory it once controlled, the region is still wracked with uncertainty and violence. Socioeconomic inequality cannot be presented or nailed down as the driving force or factor that led to this string of unstable situations across the Middle East and North Africa region. There is no one-size-fits-all theory that locates a single factor or process as being solely responsible for the region’s instability. Rather, given the coexistence of extremely high levels of corruption with unmistakable socioeconomic inequality, it is safer to point out that the latter has certainly played a role in establishing the circumstances that has helped pave the road to uprisings across the region.

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CONCLUSION

An in-depth look into the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and different forms of societal violence reveals no easy answers. Increasing rates of inequality in both the developed and developing world has, in recent years, been accompanied by worsening political polarization and extremism. That there is a positive correlation between both phenomena seems to be the consensus arrived at by most international monitoring groups, humanitarian organizations, and scholars. But inequality is not just limited to the distribution of money or resources. Virtually all cases of violent behaviour unfold within an environment where different forms of inequality—be it material, gender-based, racial or otherwise—interact with one another in different ways. Nonetheless, measurable forms of inequality such as income can still provide a useful snapshot of how unequal a region or society is. Incredibly unequal regions like Latin America or the Middle East tend to be more violent or perpetually unstable.


CON CLU S I O N

Those who live in societies that are afflicted by such inequality usually experience an increased emphasis on the gradations of socioeconomic status. Self-awareness of status becomes exacerbated. Unequal societies that do not offer upward social mobility based on merit have a higher chance of fostering more frustrated populations. Those who find themselves on the “short end” of the inequality equation often compensate by kicking down at their “inferiors.” This is where much scapegoating of marginalized or minority communities occurs. Such sentiment can be exploited by populist forces that divert anger and frustration toward certain ethnic or religious groups while promising an alternative utopia. This can result in the fraying of the social fabric, often violently. Inequality and the increased awareness of status disparity also creates a situation or environment where victimhood narratives develop to explain the sources of deprivation. Some of these narratives, regardless of their veracity, have come to be connected to ideologies that offer remedies in the form of bigoted violence. This is the same with both Muslim and far-right extremism. The ideologies exist in tandem with situations of perceived disparity and injustice to produce violent behaviour. A similar process exists for violent crime that is not ideologically motivated. Homicide, for instance, is particularly rampant in much of the world’s most unequal areas. But this is not class warfare where the poor rob and kill the rich; most of this violence is perpetrated among those at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole. Illicit markets like drug trafficking (very much akin to ideologies like racial superiority, for example) offer an alternative to a stagnant status quo where the individual is doomed to expect nothing more than an unfair situation. Violent crime or extremism provides a path to what feels like meaning, opportunity, and change. Dealing with such inequality requires more than just cosmetic solutions meant to control or mitigate the levels of violence that exists in any one place. It has become convenient to focus on Islamic extremism, for example, by addressing the supposedly built-in justification for violence in Islamic scripture. This narrow-minded approach ignores an overwhelming body of literature that shows obvious correlations between real social and material deprivation, which constitutes the foundation of victimhood narratives, and ideologically-motivated violence. Regardless of how truthful such narratives are, all look to exploit perceptions of inequality and disparity that result from deprivation. Populist movements or groups look to galvanize feelings of deprivation into larger blocs that can develop into bases of support. This kind of populism has dominated the public sphere in recent years from the United States to Europe to India to the Philippines. This makes the reality of socioeconomic disparity and inequality an ever more urgent issue. It is connected to the increasing levels of polarization that afflicts even the most liberal and open societies. Finding ways to address the problem at a systemic and foundational level will go a long way in mitigating multiple forms of societal violence that continue to affect hundreds of millions of people each day.

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Socioeconomic Inequality and Societal Violence in a Populist Era  

Socioeconomic Inequality and Societal Violence in a Populist Era