“What we would expect…” – terrorism and poverty

From a PDF shared with me last night via Twitter – a 2006 paper, “Rooted in Poverty?” by political scientist James A Piazza:

terrorism rates

Though Piazza acknowledges “complexity” in this matter – as would any reasonable person attempting to answer the question with which he begins – he does maintain as a point of argument an absurd reading or set of readings of the table above.

Consider the position of the U.S. on the list, clearly as a result of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred near the end of the study period. Piazza’s argument or claim about unexpected results implies, in short, that the US is too wealthy for 9/11 to have any relationship to poverty (or to economic deprivation or grievance). This form of reasoning would be close to arguing that bank-robbing must be unrelated to economic motivation, since most banks hold lots of money and are often located in nice buildings. Likewise, murder has no apparent origin in lethal enmity since it turns out that many or most murder victims do not possess any. The inclusion of “Israel/Palestine” on the list embodies a similar absurdity: The wealth of Israelis disqualifies deprivation as a motivating factor among Palestinians! A little bit of thought will reveal similar problems with the inclusion of several other countries in the table.

When we discuss modern terrorism, we are usually setting aside so-called “state terror,” and tend to focus on two types of terrorists who can broadly be defined as “revolutionary terrorists.” In the case of revolutionary leftwing terrorists, that they claim the cause of “the wretched of the Earth” is definitional. That they themselves will not tend to be “wretched” ought to go without saying. In discussion with the individual who supplied me with the Piazza link, I was also asked simply to accept that “religious terrorism” is “divorced” from social and economic deprivation – as though Osama Bin Laden operated from the same separation of church and state or private and public that characterizes the liberal order he wanted to destroy, and as though the present-day misery and weakness of the future subjects of the glorious restored Caliphate had nothing to do with his “religious” motivation. Islamism or radical Islamism is in many senses a direct successor to revolutionary leftism as cause pursued on behalf of, but not typically by “the wretched” or the most wretched or, to make the point clearly since it seems to be necessary to underline the obvious in these discussions, the perceived relatively deprived or oppressed.

To pursue the assumption that the terrorist will or ought to be the main victim of grievance is to suggest that the attacks on New York and the Pentagon could not have had anything to do with Operation Enduring Freedom, since the vast majority of American soldiers and operatives were not in New York or at the Pentagon: Very few (as in none) of them died on 9/11, deaths on 9/11 were not a significant motivating factor. The reasoning embedded in that chart and the initial interpretation or declared expectation really is that absurd. To avoid the obvious appearance of absurdity, Piazza relies on terminological slippage already evident in the sentence directly below the table, mis-characterizing and in effect straw-manning the alternative hypothesis in that vague “related”-ness of “terrorism rates” and “poverty and inequality.”

The more sensible view, and the one with which I began the Twitter discussion I referred to, is that the factors that enable or inspire an individual to adopt as his or her own a terrorist’s cause – the grievance and the objective – are not, and generally cannot be, the same factors that create the cause itself. The grievance must always be felt to some extent vicariously. Dead children do no terrorism; exhausted and malnourished wage slaves do not organize grand acts of political violence on behalf or supposedly on behalf of exhausted and malnourished wage slaves; the unemployed and impoverished cannot afford airfare. One might even entertain the (Kojevian-Hegelian) world-revolutionary thought that if everyone was in a position to perform international terrorism – mobile, with luxury to inform themselves on and reflect upon the state of the world, well-connected, well enough-financed, etc. – there would be no “need” for terrorism.

Or, without entering into some neo-Aristotelian typology of causes, we can simply observe that what causes me, personally, to sit down and write this blog post, now, today, or makes me the kind of person who would write it, may have nothing directly to do with the subject and purpose of the blog post. The “root causes” of this blog post are twofold: obscure personal purposes and a type of jaw-droppingly inane scholarly argument. Without jaw-droppingly inane scholarly argumentation, I would have to find some other way to serve those obscure personal purposes.

As absurd as insisting that individual terrorists must personally embody the grievances which they seek or claim to address would be the notion that poverty under some rough common-sense definition is always and exclusively at the “root” of terrorism or always explains all terrorism, though in  absolute terms the idea that every positive act, even every thought, responds to a dissatisfaction of some type, which can always be considered a type of “perceived relative deprivation” – or poverty in some sense – is consistently arguable.


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By CK MacLeod

Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution. 

8 comments

  1. Interesting argument about the division between the grievances and the ones responding to them. Would you say that applies beyond violent measures too? That’d appear to have difficult implications for virtually any viewpoint claiming to be born from struggle if so…

    The world of well enough spread connection, abundance, and leisure to render using it for harm pointless is an appealing thought. If only we could pursue it.

    1. If I understand you correctly, then, yes, without question. One of the reasons I find this argument on the poverty-terrorism link so annoying is that the reasoning is so common both in bad social science and in cheap ad hominem polemics, while the general rule, that being able to act or speak in relation to a major grievance implies some degree of insulation from it, is inescapable. It was analyzed to death and life-after-death in relation to revolutionary Marxism, though, on the other side, the accommodation to the fact that the vanguard and especially the leadership could not generally consist of proletarians, did reflect or re-produce real problems for leftism and left anarchism, both practically and theoretically.

      1. Quite so for most leftist movement in general, though I would say that any left anarchism speaking of a “vanguard” or “leadership” at all has missed the green & lost its ball in the water.

        1. that may be a problem for anarchism, since anarchism is propagated – taught, exemplified, argued, etc. – by individuals who of necessity set themselves apart, and who form a vanguard whether they wish to do so or not, and who always to some extent come to their denial of privilege via privilege: Prince Kropotkin would be the canonical example.

        2. Or the only real or consistent anarchists would be unknown to us or even to themselves, defying at every moment their own prior false pretensions or privilege of the past over the present.

    1. They usually have to add a hyphen, and become anarcho-syndicalists or anarcho-capitalists or anarcho-communists or something, giving a get-out-of-anarcho-jail-free card to the particular mode of state or state-like organization or government that doesn’t fit their definition of state (or arkhe).

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