Violent Frontiers and Super-Violent Frontiers
Frontiers are fundamental to the expansion and preservation of capitalism. Our high levels of GDP per capita require the consumption of massive amounts of raw materials. Oil, gas, wood, and metals get used up at a colossal rate. Feeding a growing population requires an ever-increasing amount of agricultural land. The historical geographer Jason Moore has described the pathological effects of the endless search for new land to put to economic use. As I argue in the essay on this website “Jason Moore on Ecological Degradation” the environmental consequences of this expansion are devastating.
The consequence of the ever-increasing industrial use of land and resources has been the continual expansion by Global North people and their allies into wilder lands that are the homes of indigenous people. Although various outcomes of such encounters are possible, the usual result is displacement of the indigenous people, violent resistance on the part of people being displaced and greater violence to crush the resistance. Capitalist development becomes interwoven with overt warfare.
The political dynamics of militarized development leads to even more generalized violence that expands beyond mere struggles between invaders and locals. The locals typically live in small relatively autonomous social groupings of villages. These clusters typically compete among themselves for opportunities to trade with the invaders; trade with the colonizers carries with it not only the possibility of access to substantial wealth, but access to Western arms that can further the political ambitions of pre-existing authority figures. Invasion increases the frequency and lethality of battles among the local populations.
The invaders are often divided among themselves as well. Different groups of invaders fight among themselves for the control of resource-bearing territory.
The distance of the frontier from political centers of established states creates “stateless zones” where members of invading populations are relatively free from the police back home. Frontiers thus attract businessmen who see promising opportunities in smuggling, citizens in trouble with the law who need to get away from courts and the police, and fighters who just love melees and raiding. Frontiers are tremendous for the kind of people who would be football hooligans in another setting.
Invaders fight locals; locals fight locals; and invaders fight other invaders. Frontiers become “Wild Wests”. Violence is everywhere. Bloodshed is the new normal.
The process I described above is a generic model for what happens on frontiers. However, some frontiers are more violent than others. Frontier violence usually incorporates all three types of conflict: Invader vs Local, Local vs Local and Invader vs Invader. Strangely, the worst cases involve pure Invader vs Local violence with the other two types of conflict being neutralized in some way.
What is going on is the Logic of the Bully. The strong use more violence against the weak when the weak are incapable of defending themselves. Violent men restrain themselves, or use strategy and tactics in their military dealings, when there is a risk that victims are likely to fight back, inflicting casualties. When attacking someone else could be legitimately dangerous, bullies choose their battles carefully and engage in violence on a more considered basis.
On a frontier, having weak disorganized locals encourages violence against those locals. The locals are in no position to mount a military campaign to defend themselves.
Having monopolies of power within their territory encourages violence against locals. The invaders are not fighting other competing invaders. Invaders do not have to make alliances with locals to help in their struggles with other invaders. They do not have to hold force back to cover for attacks from rival invaders. The locals can now be attacked with abandon.
A second consideration is whether the frontier is governed by the Logic of the Collector or the Logic of the Settler. Frontiers with collectors are bloodier than frontiers with settlers.
The American West (and most North American frontiers) have been generally characterized by settler frontiers. Farmers and ranchers are moving in to live on the frontier permanently. They want land to create homes and permanent economic enterprises. Settlement logic has three consequences:
a. Settlers seize a lot of land. Obtaining land is why they are on the frontier.
b. Once they have their land, they are partially removed from the business of coercion. Yes, if they are attacked, they will defend themselves. They can also choose to join offensive forays. But generally, they have farms to take care of, animals to feed and work to do on their acreage. If the front line of combat moves on, the settlers tend to stay behind.
c. Settlers are likely to marry and have families. Bringing in women somewhat reduces levels of gratuitous violence. A lot of male violence comes from men being in a locker room hyper-macho environment surrounded by other men. Marrying women gives men domestic and family responsibilities.. The women are concerned about the safety of their children, their own safety and the safety of their husbands. Risk taking becomes discouraged – and with that, gunfighting. The Logic of the Settler produces gender dynamics that, over the long term, lead to the taming of otherwise violent frontiers.
What is the alternative to the Logic of the Settler? The Logic of Collecting involves the short-term exploitation of economic resources. The invaders are simply gathering resources that they intend to sell elsewhere. What kind of economic activities are associated with Collecting?
a. Slaving. Humans are simply hunting other humans. The slavers may live in trading towns that are distinct from the regions where they forage for victims. Alternatively, the slavers may intend to return to their home countries after enough money is made.
b. Rustling. In early Texas history, the primary animals that were stolen were horses. In later periods, thieves would rustle cattle. Once again, the foraging grounds are distinct from where the rustlers actually, live.
c. Forest product extraction. Many forms of activity fit into this category: fur trading in Canada, rare bird trading in Thailand, elephant hunting for ivory in the Congo, rubber tapping in many jungles including the Amazon. Nearly every forest in the world has been subjected to lumbering.
A common property of all of these activities is that the invader has little motivation to remain in the territory after he gets what he wants. The extraction of resources is very short term. Although sustainable extraction does exist, most extraction is done on a get-rich-quick system that rapidly exhausts the eco-system involved. Most hunting, tapping or harvesting regimes are the equivalent of clear-cutting a forest. The extractors take everything in their path. Nothing is left. Even if the collectors were non-violent, which they are not, the original residents are ruined because their agriculture is wrecked and the local resources they use are stripped bare.
Why do collecting areas become violent?
a. The invaders are fully aware that they are destroying everything as they go about their business. Collecting creates a culture of destruction and death and a disregard for human life.
b. The invaders do not intend to remain in the area. They have no interest in generating goodwill among the locals. They have no ongoing cordial relationships. The locals are tools to be used or obstacles to be removed, nothing more.
c. The invading force does not fragment into individual members breaking off to start their own farms. Raiding parties stay together. As such, they develop esprit de corps, combat discipline and more importantly, continued strength in numbers.
d. The presence of stable coherent combat formations poses its own independent stimulus to violence.
The invaders have tight social networks which insure conformity. Once violating norms of human decency commences, there is enormous peer pressure to not only maintain but increase levels of atrocity.
The invaders are isolated from traditional sources of moral regulation such as police or churches.
The invaders are isolated from women (not counting the rape victims at their disposal). Locker room behavior rules.
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So, what do you get if you combine the Logic of the Bully and the Logic of Collection? You get the worst-case scenario for violence against indigenous people. Frontiers will be hyper-violent when
1. The indigenous groups are small and politically disorganized. They will be incapable of mounting resistance to atrocities.
2. The invaders have a monopoly of force. They do not have to fear attacks from rival invading forces.
3. The invaders are collectors rather than settlers.
4. The process of extraction of resources is ecologically destructive.
5. The invading force is primarily all-male.
What data exists to support this?
See Part II.