Book Review: A Savage Order, by Rachel Kleinfeld

January 16, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Rachel Kleinfeld is speaking in London tomorrow (Thursday 17th January) from 17.30-19.00. Book here

In A Savage Order, Rachel Kleinfeld casts an unflinching eye on the many ways in which human beings physically hurt each other at a societal level. Not just war, but the much more ubiquitous everyday violence that springs from political and social breakdown, or organized crime. More positively, she seeks to understand and draw lessons from those countries/regions that have turned things around, moving from high to at least moderate levels of violence – including contemporary cases like Georgia, Colombia, Sicily and Bihar, along with some extraordinarily violent chapters of US history. She compares these with similar places that stayed bloody:

‘I delved into why Naples remained Mafia-ridden while Sicily’s mob was cowed. I contrasted Colombia with Mexico to understand why the latter remained rent by bloodshed while the former was able to end the world’s longest-running war. In the United States, the ‘Wild West’ became safe a few decades after the Civil War. Why did the South become more violent as war receded, and why is it still the most violent part of the US today?’

The resulting book is a brilliant combination of academic rigour, fascinating case studies and fine writing. She summarizes her conclusions in five ‘guiding ideas’:

  1. Violence as a Governing Strategy: Democracies become engulfed by violence in two situations. One when states are too weak to enforce order. The other when politicians abdicate the monopoly of force and collude with violent groups to maintain power.’ She calls this state of complicity ‘privilege violence’ and concludes that it often spirals out of elite control and triggers a blood-soaked genie that is very hard to put back in the bottle. ‘Violence that began with the state saturates society.’ In Sicily, a Mafioso explained ‘Bandits, police and mafia are one and the same, like Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’
  2. Societies Decivilize and Recivilize: When people lose trust in their governments and fellow citizens, violence becomes normalized and impunity grows.
  3. The Middle Class is the Fulcrum of Change: the middle class rouses only when its sense of invulnerability breaks, but at that point they can break good or break bad – pushing politicians to end violence, or demanding greater repression to bring an illusory ‘peace of the graveyard’. It takes the right kind of leadership to make sure they choose the former path.
  4. Governments need Dirty Deals, Centralization and Surveillance. You can’t reverse decivilization by playing nice. ‘Pragmatic leaders must make peace treaties and offer amnesties to the worst violent groups to buy the bureaucracy time to repair’. But the kind of hyper-energetic bully who can drive through reforms in a fractured system all too easily becomes an authoritarian nightmare (like Georgia’s Saakashvili). ‘The leaders who pull their countries out of violence often become reformers and transgressors, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’
  5. States and Societies Recivilize together. Social movements play a vital role in preventing reformers turning into tyrants, making sure the initial crackdown is followed by a return to civilization. Great quote from Abraham Lincoln: ‘with public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it, nothing can succeed.’

This all has serious implications for policy at national and international level. For a start, she sees the key to ending violence as a combination of ‘morally murky’ Dirty Deals and mobilizing the Middle Class – neither of those are to be found in the international development script, eg the Sustainable Development Goals. She is very direct on this: ‘Activists can remain untainted by compromise, or they can win.’

She is an unabashed fan of reformist leaders – the chapter on Politicians is a particularly good reformer’s handbook:

‘Effective politicians need vision, a commitment to reform and strong management skills. But they also need the moral flexibility to undertake Dirty Deals to fight violence. And they must rely on their personal energy and direct accountability to rebuild a government that earns the citizens’ trust.’

The way such reformers succeed is by blowing up the status quo, not tweaking it:

‘In countries that have a predatory elite, the incremental model doesn’t work. It takes massive change on many fronts simultaneously to disarm entrenched interests long enough for reformers to gain a foothold.’

The reformer’s repertoire needs to include quick wins (to build morale and momentum) and a keen grasp of the political importance of symbolism – building the gondolas to connect Medellin’s shanty towns with the city centre; arresting a few of the big fish to show that things really have changed.

As for outsiders, she sees a limited but important role in 3 areas: help the middle class awaken and organize, eg through education; support the ‘Dirty Deals’ but make sure they transform into legitimate governments (some very astute advice on designing such deals to make sure they end up somewhere good); and put the North’s own house in order on areas like illicit capital flows, aid and trade.

Here’s her conclusion:

‘There is nothing inevitable about a country caught in Privilege Violence finding its way to relative security. It’s a stumbling, staggering journey, not an elevator ride. Many countries have yet to take the first steps. Courageous leaders and equally brave followers have to decide that they are willing to put themselves in danger to seek better lives for themselves and their countrymen. Pragmatic movements must team up with flawed, self-interested politicians. Savvy politicians must craft deals with terrible, violent individuals, bargains that are necessary and yet leave blood on their hands. Where governments grow repressive, a new round of citizen protests is needed to right the ship.’

Powerful arguments, riveting case studies, rigorous scholarship, great writing – a brilliant combination.