Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

A Bolivian aymara woman praying

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Violencia del amo, violencia del esclavo (English)

Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

Jorge Majfud

For some reason, the phrase “violence begets violence” was popularized the world over at the same time that its implicit meaning was kept restricted to the violence of the oppressed.  That is to say, the master’s violence over the slave is invisible in a state of slavery, just as in a state of oppression the force that sustains it uses every(ideological) means in order not to lose this category of invisibility or – in case of exposure– of naturalness.

Within that invisible or natural frame, the Cuban slave Juan Manzano referred nostalgically to his first masters: “I had there the same Madam Joaquina who treated me like a child, she would dress me, groom me and take care that I not come in contact with the other little black boys at the same table like when with the Marquess Lady Justis I was given my plate at the feet of my Lady the Marquess.”  Then the bad times came, when the young Juan was punished by imprisonment, hunger and torture.  Once the punishment was finished, he ate “without measure” and for this sin he was punished again.  “Not a few times have I suffered by the hand of a black man vigorous whippings,” he recalled in his Autobiography of a Slave (1839), which proves the perfection of the oppression even in a primitive state of production and education.

This type of slavery was abolished in the written laws of almost all of Latin America in the early 19th century.  But slavery of the same kind was continued in practice until the 20th century.  The Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo warned that “the indians are free by law, but how can one deny it? They are slaves by abuse and custom.”  And then: “they give him the stick so he will remember and return for another beating.  And the indian returns, because that is his condition, that when he is whipped, trembling on the ground, he gets up thanking his tormenter: ‘Diu su lu pagui, amu.’ [God bless you, Master] Races oppressed and reviled for three hundred years need eight hundred more to return to themselves.”

For his part, the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, in Pueblo enfermo (A Sick People, 1909), recognized that the landed elite of his country refused to develop the freight train because the indians carried their harvests from one region to another for free and, as if that were not enough, the honesty of the indians made them incapable of stealing someone else’s oxen.  This example alone would be enough to demonstrate that the ideologies of the dominant classes insinuate themselves into the morality of the oppressed (the way the fact that an illiterate might handle complex grammatical rules demonstrates the existence of an unconscious knowledge). Another Arguedas, the Peruvian José María Arguedas, left us a living portrait of this culture of the indian-servant, the unsalaried freed slave, in Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers, 1958).

According to the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, the soldiers would take the indians by the hair and drag them off under threat of the saber to clean their barracks, or steal their sheep in order to maintain army troops as they passed through.  So that it be clear to us that oppression makes use of all possible institutions, in the same book we read a citation from the period which informed, with reference to one of those condemned by history, that “the ox and his seven year old son are impounded by the priest due to the rights of the burial of his wife.”  And further along: “Exasperated, dispirited, physically and morally spent, incapable of attempting the violent assertion of its rights, the indigenous race has given itself over to alcoholism in alarming fashion.  […] The indian is never seen laughing except when he is inebriated.  […] His soul is a repository of rancor accumulated from long ago, since the moment when, the flower of the race sealed up, against its will, in the depth of the mines, he rapidly withered, without provoking mercy in anyone. […] Today, ignorant, degraded, miserable, he is the object of general exploitation and general antipathy.”  Until one day he explodes “listening to his soul replete with hatreds, vents his passions and robs, kills, murders with atrocious brutality.”  And since violence cannot occur with impunity, “the soldiers go out well munitioned; they shoot down as many as they can; they rob, rape, spread fear and terror wherever they go.”  In this culture of oppression, the woman can be no better: “rough and awkward, she feels loved when beaten by the male; otherwise, for her a man has no value.”

A year later, in various articles appearing in daily newspapers of La Paz and collected in the book Creación de la pedagogía nacional (Creation of National Pedagogy), Franz Tamayo responds to some of Arguedas’ conclusions and confirms others:  “work, justice, glory, it is all lies, it is all lies in Bolivia; everyone lies, except the one who does not speak, the one who works and is silent: the indian.”  Then: “Even whites of a certain category spoke of a divine curse, and the priests of the small towns and villages spread rumors among their ignorant indian parishioners of God’s anger at the fallen race and his desire to make it disappear due to its lack of obedience, submissiveness and obsequiousness.” (1910)  Needless to say, instead of Bolivia we could write the name of any other Latin American country and we would not do violence to the truth of the statement.

The master is visualized as a pure and generous being when he concedes an unusual benefit to the slave, as if he possessed a divine power to administer the rights of another.  Perhaps we might accept a certain kindness of the oppressor if we were to consider a particular context.  The point is that we do not demand of the old feudal subjects that they think like us; we demand from ourselves that we not think like the old feudal subjects, as if there existed no historical experience in between.

From a humanistic point of view, the violence of the slave is always engendered by the violence of the master and not the other way around.  But when we impose the idea that the violence of the slave engenders more violence, we are equating what is not equal in order to maintain an order that, in fact and in its discourse, denies the very notion of human equality.

For this reason, just as during the mid-twentieth century reactionaries of all kinds associated, strategically, racial integration with communism in order to justify apartheid as a social system, today also they associate humanist principles with a specific left politics.  Conservatives cannot comprehend that part of their so frequently mentioned personal responsibility is to think globally and collectively.  Otherwise, personal responsibility is just selfishness, which is to say, moral irresponsibility.

If as recently as 1972 Rene Dubos coined the famous phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” reactionary thought has always practiced an inverse moral formula: “Think locally, act globally.”  In other words, think provincially about the interests of your own village, your own class, and act like an imperialist who is going to save civilization as if he were the armed hand of God.

If the masters insist so much on the benefits of competition, why do they demand so much cooperation from the slaves?  Because one needs something more than all the weapons in the world in order to force an entire people into submission: it is the demoralization of the oppressed, the ideology of the master, the fear of the slave and the collaboration of the rest of the people that functions as the fulcrum for the lever of oppression.  Otherwise, one could not comprehend how a few thousand Spanish adventurers conquered, dominated millions of Incans and Aztecs and destroyed centuries old sophisticated cultures.

In many moments of history, from the so-called independence of the American countries to the liberation of the slaves, frequently the only solution was the use of violence.  It remains to be determined whether this resource is always effective or, on occasion, only aggravates the initial problem.

I suspect that there exists historically a coefficient of critical progression that depends on the material possibilities of the moment – technical and economic – and on the mental, moral and cultural maturity of a people.  An ideal state for humanism, in accordance with its development since the 15th century, should be a perfectly anarchic social state.  Nevertheless, to pretend to eliminate the force and violence of the State without having achieved the requisite technical and moral development, would not make us advance toward that utopia but rather the opposite; we would be set back several centuries.  Both a revolutionary advance that aims to by-pass that parameter of critical progression and a conservative reaction lead us to the historical frustration of humanity as a whole. I am afraid that there are recent examples in Latin America where the oppressor even organized the violence of the oppressed in order to legitimate and conserve the oppressor’s privileges.  This refinement of the techniques of domination has a purpose.   At a point in history when the population counts, not only in systems of representative democracy but, even, in some dictatorships, the construction of public opinion is a key chess piece, the most important, in the strategy of the dominant elites.  Not by accident was the poorly-named universalization of the vote in the 19th century a way of maintaining the status quo: with scarce instruction, the population was easy to manipulate, especially easy when it believed that the caudillos were elected by them and not by a previously constructed discourse of the oligarchy, a discourse that included ideolexicons like, fatherland, honor, order and freedom.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

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