‘Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide’ reviewed by Guy Lancaster

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster

About the reviewer

Dr. Guy Lancaster is author or editor of several books on racial violence, most recently the …


The quest to understand how and why human beings commit acts of genocide, popularly held to be the “crime of crimes,” has led to a profusion of publications from multiple disciplines, generally collected under the rubric of genocide studies. In this field, the connection between capitalism and massive atrocity has been the subject of growing inquiry among scholars. In his contribution to New Directions in Genocide Research (2011), Adam Jones argues that global poverty and regimes of privatization constitute forms of structural violence that could well rise to the level of genocide. A slightly more polemical—though no less well-informed—contribution is journalist Garry Leech’s Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (2012), which argues that the logic of capitalism produces conditions of inequality destroying the life and health of untold millions each year, that capitalism is an inherently violent system, incapable of reform. Those two are examples of “big picture” perspectives on the subject, interrogating global systems. However, sociologist Sabby Sagall pursues a different tack than Jones or Leech by examining, in Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide, how the capitalist system affects individual and collective human nature in such a way as to make people more willing to commit atrocities.

The first half of Sagall’s book constitutes an exploration of human nature, wherein he seeks answers for such questions as why people kill. Sagall follows in the footsteps of Mark Levene and others who consider genocide as intricately tied up with the project of modernity, concomitant with the end of feudalism and the formation of recognizable nation-states. Drawing heavily from the Marxist tradition, Sagall states that “it is the need and capacity to engage in labor—an essentially collective endeavour—that defines our most essential nature as social beings” (31). Capitalist society, however, distorts this inherently social nature by requiring “human beings to be competitive and individualistic,” with the commodification of labor power resulting “in the abstraction from our real human needs, drives and capacities” (91, 93). The author surveys a wealth of psychological literature—Sigmund Freud, Eric Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and more—to establish how such pathologies as the impetus towards genocidal thinking and activities can become established as characteristic of specific social classes. Sagall locates class struggle in Freud’s tripartite division of the human psyche, with the super-ego representing “the state censor, keeping the working class, represented by the id, in its place, whereas the ruling class ‘inhabits’ the ego, formal rationality, society’s official consciousness or ideology” (90). The drives and needs of both individual and underclass are repressed, and human relationships begin to take the character of commodities through the downgrading of desires that lack any exchange-value. Therefore, the question of how people can commit atrocities against other people must be reconceived, for under the capitalist system, the personhood of certain others is diminished—they become mere things whose extermination is easy to imagine and enact. As Sagall notes, “it is when human beings are oppressed by social and psychological conditions that make them feel powerless, alienated from any sense of their own value or effectiveness, that they are driven to seek that ultimate badge of supreme power over other human beings—killing them, reducing them to objects” (101).

After laying his sociological groundwork, Sagall applies it to four specific case studies of genocide—Native Americans, Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the Nazi Holocaust, and Rwanda—with special attention to an analysis of the social class character of the perpetrator groups. For example, much of the colonial settlement of North America resulted from “the deepening crisis of European rural society that preceded industrialization. Peasants who for centuries had enjoyed relative security in stable societies dominated by feudal lords suddenly found themselves threatened with loss of livelihood” with the collapse of feudalism and the rise of an urban industrial population needing more food to sustain itself (135). With Puritan settlement there emerged, for perhaps the first time, a true authoritarian personality, which entailed psychic features constituting “the basis for the new capitalist economy,” such as the sublimation of natural drives “into prayer and hard work” (147). Possessing such a social character, settlers were predisposed to see Native Americans as both standing in the way of their economic success and representing the very antithesis of proper, hardworking godliness, which fact served to justify exterminating them.

The three other case studies in Sagall’s book follow more the trajectory of extremist collectives as analyzed by Manus I. Midlarsky in Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (2011). According to Midlarsky, the emergence of extremism is often marked by an “ephemeral gain”—that is, a group or society that existed in a state of subordination manages to secure some social or political gain, thus stoking fears of a return to that previous period of subordination. This, combined with “mortality salience,” or the growing awareness of death, perhaps due to a state of war, facilitates the rise of extremism. Though Midlarsky did not spell this out, reading his work alongside Sagall’s allows one to recognize that it is the middle class that is most often marked by the ephemeral gain, the fear of returning to its lower state, which is perhaps why the middle class underwrites the Armenian, Nazi, and Rwandan genocides, as noted by Sagall. In Ottoman Turkey, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 constituted something of a bourgeois revolution, but conservative rage at the slow breakup of the empire, the dominance of foreign powers in the economy, and entrance into World War I (especially military setbacks on the Russian front) ended up being directed toward the Armenians. In what is, by necessity, his longest chapter, Sagall draws a connection between Nazi propaganda and “the bitterness and anger of the dispossessed middle classes, their sense of exclusion and inferiority,” which “came to be expressed in terms of extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism” (188). The Nazis originally put forward an ideology that blamed both the ruling and working classes for the suffering of those in the middle, but criticisms against capital made a distinction between native, German capital and their Jewish competitors; too, the Nazis dropped their anti-elite disposition after the powers of Big Business maneuvered to have Adolf Hitler appointed chancellor in 1933 in order to stave off a renewed labor movement.

Sagall plays up the authoritarian character of Germany, ascribing its uniqueness to the fact that the nation never experienced its own successful bourgeois revolution, unlike France, which rather elides the fact that there were both fascist movements and virulent anti-Semitism throughout Europe; indeed, many nations occupied by Germany during the war embraced anti-Jewish legislation and carried out eliminationist campaigns of violence, sometimes to such a level that shocked the Germans themselves, as observed by the likes of Aristotle Kallis in Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe (2009). Sagall might have done better to emphasize the state of the middle class throughout Europe, and the rise of fascist parties feeding off this larger resentment, rather than focusing upon Germany alone, especially as the relative ethnic makeup of various European nations provided Hitler with his expansionist motivations—to protect Germans elsewhere. However, he does a much better job revealing how the porousness of ethnicity and nationhood play into genocidal resentment with his final chapter, covering the Rwandan Genocide. Here, Sagall highlights how independence from Belgium failed to relieve Hutu fears about ostensible Tutsi domination of Rwandan society, and how, with the likelihood of a successful invasion by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, “the middle class feared for the loss of their socio-economic and political power—the enormous gains of the 1959 revolution which had ushered in the 30-year period of Hutu power” (239).

Sagall doth perhaps protest too much in trying to distinguish rational from irrational violence and ascribing genocide to modernity, in contrast to pre-modern, “rational” massacres that were “undertaken for the sake of land, slaves or booty” rather than simple extermination of a group (36). However, Christopher Powell, in Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide (2011), makes a case for applying the genocide label to earlier events, such as the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusade. According to Powell, this crusade foreshadows “modern” genocides in the emergence of a surveillance state in the form of the Inquisition, an important development because heresy was often in the eye of the beholder, an identity that had to be teased out through investigation, not something that physically differentiated man from other. In this respect, heresy played out like the not-so-obvious Hutu/Tutsi division in Rwanda, or even, to some extent, like Jewishness in the Third Reich, given that Jews were among the most assimilated people in Germany. In addition, one could argue that the medieval Church psychologically foreshadowed the capitalist system, with its insistence upon the lack of viable alternatives to its rule, its focus upon individual salvation above communal welfare, and its employment of the doctrine of sin to alienate people from a sense of their own worth. Sagall’s rational/irrational split also ignores, rather ironically, the various levels of society. Yes, it may have been irrational for Nazi leaders to devote so much time and effort to exterminating Jews late in the war, but it was not irrational for people lower down the ladder—people who perhaps needed the chance to prove their loyalty or wanted to loot the lives of the doomed—to carry out these orders. In analyzing Rwanda, Sagall does acknowledge that “the main agents of the genocide were ordinary peasants” but explains this away as a result of indoctrination (240); acknowledging that genocide could have been both rational and irrational, depending upon class, would have solved this problem, illustrating how the desire for upward mobility can produce atrocity.

Too, it is a touchstone of belief on the Right that communism has proven much more murderous than the “free-market” system, and such events as the Holodomor (the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1932-3) and the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are held by many to be genocidal and the natural result of applying collectivist principles. Sagall could have included ostensible communist genocides in order to illustrate the same dynamics at work in them. As he notes, “In contrast to bourgeois thought, which regards thought or self-consciousness as an individual capacity, we are shaped by our community, so that even rebels define themselves in relation to the socially dominant set of ideas” (43). To what extent, then, was Josef Stalin, with his insistence upon rapid industrialization and constant production, actually playing the capitalist game, trying to beat the free-marketeers at their own system? To what extent did the long experience with capitalist colonization actually lay the groundwork for the atrocities that resulted in the name of communist, anti-colonialist revolt in Southeast Asia and other places? These would have been intriguing questions to pursue.

Despite these criticisms, though, Final Solutions helps to square the circle of traditional academic studies of violent extremism with the fact that many of history’s atrocities have been perpetrated by collectives not classically identified as extremist—such as the United States during its westward expansion. Sagall reaches farther than many in this field, ambitiously working to uncover the shared psychological states that have resulted in a variety of genocidal events throughout time. By synthesizing the Marxist tradition with psychoanalysis, Sagall aims to make visible what Slavoj Žižek called “objective violence,” or the invisible, background violence inherent to the present capitalist system—the violence committed against people before they ever pick up gun or machete in order to regain their personhood at the expense of another’s. With this book in hand, we can ask the question: “If genocide is the crime of crimes, then what of the system that so naturally produces it?”

2 April 2014

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