Escaping the frames of war

The world is now witnessing yet one further bout in a perennial tragedy. As so often before, organised violence is being used as an instrument of politics.

This is no less obscene for being so familiar. And the pathology is all the more distressing, for being so pervasive. A diversity of political perspectives are implicated. Ostensibly contrasting, the entangled forces are – for all the clamouring conflict – actually horribly converging. What prevails and grows are not the contending ideological categories, but the shared relations of violence.

nato summit

The tragedy is compounded, because all this occurs amid tantalising hopes of emerging progress towards a more emancipatory and sustainable world. These arise daily in all the many areas where the efforts of the STEPS Consortium and its wider networks are most resolutely focused. Each individual progressive move may be tiny, but the emergent collective flows can be transformative.

So, grounds for hope are threatened most, not by any particular fear, but by fear itself. If all that is so potentially positive in the world is to stand a chance, there is a responsibility to mount a direct and open challenge to the currently-unfolding regressive cycles of violence.

Framing and war

Learned from many earlier generations of international critical thought and action, there is a simple feature of the STEPS ‘pathways approach’ to the politics of social change, that may be relevant – in a small way – to helping address this. This concerns the crucial role played in these kinds of dynamics, by the ways in which knowledges, values – and therefore interests – are framed.

In war (as so widely elsewhere in politics), the categories that are emphasised, largely pre-ordain and entrench the kinds of social actions that are undertaken. Particular trajectories of change become increasingly locked in. Other less powerfully-reinforced possible futures get ever more excluded. So, the particularities may shift, but it is in the underlying framings, that the miserable grinders of violence and oppression mill their deepest turns.

One example of this potent force of framing can be found in the categories used for people themselves. In ways that are inexplicable and self-defeating in any view, ubiquitous patterns of name-calling slur an entire global religion. This obscures crucial distinctions within – rather than around – such stylised categories. It forgets the tragically-similar propensities to violence shared across the histories of all religions and doctrines – and also deeply implicated in the present crisis.

After all, no one tradition is alone in being prone to oppressive ideologies. None holds a monopoly on forms of extremism that are defined by opposition to whatever is consider to be ‘other’. No single political culture is unique in any tendency to perpetrate violence. So why brand these so exclusively, with the labels of a particular religion? As the toll of death and misery rises, the responsibilities are far more widely spread than this partisan language would concede.

What then, if the tensions were framed not in terms of some particular named religion or ideology –like ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ or ‘Capitalism’ or so-called ‘western democracy’ – but as a struggle against violent ideological extremism in general? This seems not only less parochially biased, but also more concrete than so much existing rhetoric. And it leaves the focal pathologies all the more clear. But it also casts an inconvenient light back on the activities of those who happen to be doing the framing.

To argue this, is not to ascend into nebulously naïve or idealistic pacifism. The point is very precise and concrete, involving highly pragmatic recognition that the deepest problems lie not in categories of ostensibly ‘other’ people or societies, but in the reciprocally-reinforcing relations of organised violence. Whoever ‘we’ are, our ‘freedom fighters’, look like your ‘terrorists’. Your ‘militaries’ look like our ‘oppressors’. No matter how inexpedient, this is a hard political fact.

Entrenched interests

The massive global cultural, institutional and technological infrastructures of war are not innocent in all this. They are, after all, among the largest and most entrenched interests on Earth. Provoking each other to constant escalation, they are more catalysts than resolutions of violence. But this need not be the way of the world. It is not necessary to claim – or accept the label – of unrealistically saintly ‘pacifism’, to challenge the gargantuan scale and orientation of these highly organised interests.

Indeed, to caricature opposition to premeditated institutionalised violence as idealistic pacifism – is itself a kind of extremism. Such labelling of others is a key part of the framing machinery of war. And this is all the more ironic, in that it is war itself that is so often conceived – and attempted to be justified – in terms of clashing ideologies. What could be more naively (and perversely) idealistic than the idea that the solution to violence is war? What could be more in tension with history?

Instead, it is a shared feature of humanity, that violence not only drives fear, but is driven by it. And which kinds of extremism are more common, than intolerance for other ways of thinking and being? What is more shockingly pervasive, than the murderously ideological fallacy that organised violence can be justified merely by the force (or threat) of ideas? It is in these terms that what might better be framed as violent ideological extremism can be recognised and challenged equally on all sides.

To undertsand the scope for this, we can consider many further everyday framings that make war not a regrettable inevitability of the human condition, but an actively-engineered sickness. Since it is a consequence of social action, this engineering is – at least partly and aspirationally – avoidable.

To help see this, many illustrations can be found (for sake of example), in recent UK Parliamentary debates about current British bombing of people in Syria. Again and again, imperatives to project organised premeditated violence (this time military) are invoked in terms of idealised self-identity.

Embarrassment and resignation

For instance, for those with a strong ideology of entitlement for their own country in the world, there is a sense of what some MP’s called “a national embarrassment” not to be at the centre of global attention. Fears are expressed on all sides that a failure to assert presumptive leadership by war, amounts to supposed “resignation from the world stage”. The prominence of such vanities in this debate, does not sit well with professed justifications for killing noncombatant bystanders.

Perhaps even more illuminating, are the kinds of comments fed out daily on the flagship BBC national UK radio news programme. Seemingly most preoccupied by retaining and asserting a place at the ‘top table’ of the five permanent seats on UN Security Council (P5), a former Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff says of the Syrian conflict, “Britain should be there, it’s a permanent P5 member [sic]“. Again, underlying motives for the waging of war, seem more about maintaining and asserting (self) perceptions of status, than about achieving any particular outcomes – let alone any that might be thought more widely positive.

Likewise, a leading figure in the governing party asked a day earlier on the same programme, “if we don’t fight … what is the point of the armed forces?” What could be more clear – or tragic – as confirmation of the commonsense insight that “for those who see only a hammer, every problem is a nail”? It is in such ways, that military preparations for war are self-fulfilling. War does not just happen, but is in all these ways (even if individually-unintendingly) proactively constructed.

When war is recognised to be about relations not categories, it can be seen to achieve nothing but perpetuation of the same cycle of violence. It is in these ways, that it is advocacy of war (even if only reluctant) that can itself be seen as the problem. Not only impractical, it is a potent form of violent ideological extremism in its own right. And it is for these reasons, that rejecting these framings of violence for what they are, is not naïvely aspirational idealism, but highly practical realism.

On all sides, then, these are the kinds of framing that entrench the pathways of violence. But this critical juncture in world affairs might yet become a moment of progressive hope, rather than oppressive fear. If the promise of human progress is to be realised in all its plural ways and diverse ends, then there must be a struggle against all the currently-contending violent extremist ideologies. Perhaps now is one moment, when this might be more clearly seen?

If so, many concrete actions would follow. But these would be about rules of laws not forces of violence. Necessary interventions would be in the form of peaceful policing, not war. Invoked authority would be in the form of international legitimacy, not national righteousness. Strategies and institutions would be oriented towards including, not excluding. Precious time and resources would be spent not in killing and destruction, but in supporting people and organisations and infrastructures.

Violence would not thereby be magically disappeared, but by interrupting the vicious cycle, the toll would be reduced and resolutions – haltingly – brought more close.

No panaceas

Of course, none of this is easy. But then, neither is war.

The practical struggle against organised violence cannot itself be about aspirations to controlling force – or even aggressively assertive arguments. Instead, the qualities and disciplines that are needed for these kinds of actions, come to the fore in different ways across all the world’s many cultures and traditions. The principles are not set in stone, to become yet another source of overbearing authority. They arise in the process.

So, agonising ambiguities will remain. But for any who can (really!) look and listen, each tradition can recognise in (and learn from) the other: myriad forms of human empathy; mutual care; collective solidarity; honest accountability; shared responsibility; the confidence and humility to acknowledge uncertainty – and sincere (if repeatedly flawed) commitments to peace.

There are no panaceas. Struggles against war are intense and unsure. But this reframing of the problem (from specific categories of people to violent ideological extremism in general), may itself offer a significant part of the solution. Only when the challenge is seen in this kind of lens – driven by shared hopes not fragmented fears – may pathways emerge towards a world that can (little by little) be emancipated from all forms of premeditated organised violence.

Image: NATO Summit: PM visits UK defence and security display (Number 10 / Flickr / cc-by-nc-nd 2.0)


  1. A problem with the present debate over war and armed intervention in Syria is that it rests on the dubious assumption that ideology is ever a cause of conflicted human relations, not its result. So to seek violently to destroy an “evil ideology” is (frankly) about as misguided as mounting a bombing campaign against witches or ghosts. The target does not exist. Irrespective of whether violence is ever the way to solve any problem of conflicted human relations using it for the reasons currently stated amounts to attacking epiphenomena and not causes. That is why it is a policy that can only rebound.

  2. Many thanks Paul, for taking the time to raise this crucial issue. The point about ideology in this blog, is exactly the role you emphasise: in justifying violence. This is distinct from whatever might be thought about what is actually driving violence.

    This why it seems important (as argued) to frame war in terms of ‘violent ideological extremism’ on all sides – rather than a partisan polarisation between some particular labelled ‘ideology’ on the one hand and the privileging of some supposedly legitimate righteousness on the other.

    All perpetration of war is, after all, ‘violent’. Where such violence is projected remotely, away from a situation of immediate physical threat, and justified as one ideology contesting with another, then military violence is also ‘ideological’ in this sense. And where an entire category of people are labelled as ‘other’, in attempting to make military violence acceptable even against unlucky bystanders, then all war also involves ‘extremism’ of an acute kind.

    It is in these ways that all violent parties in this conflict are equally indulging in different forms of violent ideological extremism – and the only enemy is organised violence itself.

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