In 2019 we read A Savage Order: How the World's Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, a book that changed our view on violence and conflict and was hugely influential not just for us, but most of those working on civil wars worldwide.

In her book, Dr Kleinfeld shows that the state weakness theory does not account for most state violence against its citizens. The main question in the book is how certain democracies, which are middle-income countries, currently not in a conflict situation, present high levels of internal violence. Some of the countries the book focuses on are Kenya, South Africa, Brasil, Nigeria, and other middle-income democracies. The book argues that leadership groups in these countries do not have an interest in changing a system from which they profit. She argues that elites often use their power to suppress minorities, giving rise to civil wars in the first place. She describes not just how powerful countries can spiral into violence, but also offers solutions as to how to break the cycle of violence. As we witness how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting higher and middle-income countries and following the recent riots in the US, we ask Rachel to make sense of our world.

1. Could you outline this notion of Privilege Violence for us?

Privilege Violence is a pattern of governing that particularly hits democracies that are highly unequal and quite polarized, and which features different phases. As privileged elites would like to maintain their status, they tend to try to twist the system in order to stay where they are.

The first identifiable moment that will lead to violence further down the line consists of government elites buying off the business community by providing them with the opportunity to use corruption or violence to maintain its power. The government itself chooses to politicize security institutions in order to enable maintaining an above-the-law status. Political elites use corruption to have the money to win an election or simply for themselves. If we use the example of police forces, collusion with politics leads to having a progressively less professional and less clearly hierarchical police force. One side effect of this is that by being less hierarchical they become more brutal: when lower-level police or law enforcement officials collude with politicians or businesspeople hierarchies break down, as their superiors lack the power to punish them for corruption or brutality. And as hierarchies break down, law enforcement starts to moonlight for themselves. Sometimes that takes the form of personal justice, sometimes that becomes extortion of violent groups and cartels. Security officials soon realise they can just get into business with cartels and armed groups. What begins as a kind of “self-enforcing justice” turns into a gang that actively works with criminal groups.

In parallel, “honest law enforcement” becomes a very dangerous place to be. Brutal, violent, and illegal actions hidden behind badges silence “good officers”, who must either accept the system or leave, in order to not face repercussions. This process has happened in many countries, such as for example in the US in the 70s.

2. Who is at the receiving end of this violence?

As order breaks down, brutality tends to centre within the most marginalized communities. Middle classes, by which I mean a country’s mainstream voters (both in terms of social class, ethnicity and other fault lines) have some power left in this process: if state brutality hits them, they demand change. But more marginalized communities don’t know who to turn to, they have far less voice. They face high levels of crime, as law enforcement is not there to protect them, but to over-police them.

The subsequent stage of privilege violence is exemplified by vigilante and self-protection groups. Targeted communities, marginalized groups are the first to resort to this kind of solution, which then spreads to other sections of the population. That allows organized criminal groups to “offer” their services. The offer can be made in a friendly or threatening way, but communities do not have much of a choice, as they need some form of security. The gang is at least some form of order and is often better than no certainty at all. This is when a country like Brasil (or rather, some parts of it) start to look like a conflict or post-conflict area.

3. Marielle Debos, in her influential 2016 work on Chad explains how a lack of war does not mean a lack of violence for civilians and often for those at the receiving end what matters most is not the number of troops or weapons in circulation, but rather the “mode of government”.

Exactly, and the very final step in Privilege Violence - which at this point we can just call violence - is high levels of interpersonal crime as impunity has gotten so high. There is a reason why impunity is so widespread in these systems: if you know you can get away with murder, then you are not afraid of accountability. Also, if you see a lot of murder and brutality, particularly when you are young, it starts to affect your brain and stress levels. Post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant in these societies as well as high levels of domestic violence, payday murder, and homicides due to excessive alcohol consumption. In mid-March 2020 South Africa limited alcohol sales after 6 pm and restricted establishments selling alcohol: this led to a dramatic decrease in crime rate and domestic violence.

People who look at these violent countries or violent communities can mistake this for a non-political problem, especially because a lot of the violence appears to be not political, but interpersonal. A more accurate analysis however shows how governance models and a breakdown of social order have everything to do with even this interpersonal violence.

4. Looking at the U.S. in particular, what should be done to reverse the trend?

The U.S. is a hard case because it has gone through this spiral so many times. What is indicative of the privilege violence system is that once you fall into it, it is very easy to fall into it again. We are at varied stages in the cycle: for instance, we are at very low levels of overall violence compared to, say, Brasil or Colombia – but our police are quite brutal, they are pretty far down the cycle compared to European police for example. But I believe there is a way to arrest it. How to do that? I would say it starts with altering the incentive for politicians to engage in privilege violence by changing the rules of the game at the top. In the US that means moving toward a ranked-choice slowdown system - giving the primary system less power. At the same time, focusing on various community resilience models to deal with violence and polarization. Polarization, together with low trust in the government is a vital precondition for Privilege Violence.

5. We agree with you on the steps in the spiral, but we would also like to understand why in some cases we get progressive polarization and in some others we get compromise.

You need a middle class to have polarization. You cannot have polarization unless you have a big community of people to polarize. If all you have is a strong elite and a population that is subdued, utterly dominated by that elite (a kind of peasantry historically), you do not have polarization because there is very little ideology; you may have clientelistic relationships or other forms of politics. Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria have a relevant middle class to have this kind of polarization whether it is tribal or class-based. Regions such as the Sahel fall more into Alex de Waal’s framework of political marketplace, which are similar to privilege violence orders in many ways, but are weaker states without middle classes, with much less order and much greater fluidity amongst the elites.

6. The question then becomes: how does the middle class, in particular, change things?

They must have a change of heart, which I agree sounds really fickle… It takes social leadership to convince the middle class not to double down on a law-and-order, zero tolerance mindset - which is the default behaviour. One example: After South Africa opened-up economically, many companies were moving there. The country had just started to reform its apartheid-era police and undo its privilege-violence system of governing. But then crime in the early 90s became extremely high; you could even buy pre-rape insurance, given how common it was to be subject to sexual abuse. The growing middle class then said: “we want to be safe, stop the crime”. The middle class and its politicians chose not to deal with the apartheid system and other forms of injustice, and a kind of textbook Privilege Violence pattern continued. They just wanted to be safe in their own bubbles, not to unravel the Privilege Violence system since or conduct a true reform of the security sector.

It takes real effort to convince the middle class that for them to be protected, the entire society needs to be protected. To live in a safe society, you need to care about these people who are different (be it class, race, gender etc.) from you. Change starts when the middle class accepts that the people they blame for their problems are also victimized. In sum, to change things, you need the middle class to vote differently, so that they can build a more inclusive system. And they need politicians to vote for, who want to change things, and groups to hold those politicians to account when they start to waver.

7. In a recent interview, Peter Hudis argued that the virus has heightened some of the contradictions of the capitalist system we live in. ‘We have evidence’ he says ‘of how the response to the pandemic is worsening the conditions of contingent workers’, making the example of Amazon, which has hired over 150,000 new workers since the pandemic began, but it is actively resisting unionization efforts. The class struggle is there and we wonder whether you see this trend continuing in the next few years (arguably increasing violence levels) or whether you see the pandemic as a brief, albeit shocking parenthesis that won’t have long-term implications for democracies in Europe and North America.

America seems to be potentially doing better than expected because the recovery seems to be so swift. The economy is growing at 6%, which is astonishing. We expected a K-shaped recovery, where the upper and middle class would be doing better and the lower classes much worse. But now it looks like America may be getting out of that if the Jobs Act passes, as the Biden administration is pumping money into social programs that particularly help the lower and lower-middle classes. If that works and lasts longer than two years, it could save America from the worst impacts of the pandemic. However, Europe is going so slow on the vaccination and I still struggle to understand how things are shaping up in countries such as South Africa or Kenya regarding the pandemic. When an economic downturn takes place, you tend to see more radical and extremist parties and increasing polarization, but I cannot tell what trends will be yet.

8. Would you have any recommendations for civil society and academia, also considering the closing of civic space?

For people who would like to see change in these Privilege Violence countries, mass movements are necessary. Funders need to get better at funding movements, but this is not a model donors are comfortable with. It requires smaller amounts of money for a larger number of more flexible organizations and groups. It requires spending more time getting organizations to work well together rather than picking winners. Funders should be trying to create an ecosystem rather than a “point of reference”. They must reach a society that requires people who do not necessarily get along to build bridges between one another. Financial resources are only one component of it, they should only serve to enable groups not to be competitive among themselves.

Another element is that mass movements must have indigenous support, and that means they should be able to self-finance to some extent. If self-financing is not possible, you end up not having a movement but an NGO. While there are a lot of important things NGOs can do about violence at a certain point in the trajectory (delivering expertise on the local level for police reform, effectively communicating change etc.), change requires people who can go from protests to politics. That requires a great deal of discipline in a movement and leaders that are trained. From a funders perspective, that means you are not just exercising leadership through money but through different means of thinking. In other words, as a funder, you work with the movements without pushing your interests.

Cover photo: still image from Tropa de Elite by José Padilha (2007). Together with its sequel (2010) these movies tell the story of how corrupt police officers backed by local politicians established militias as protection rackets in Rio de Janeiro slums, taking over from drug gangs weakened by 'elite squad' repression.