Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Spring 2013 - Volume 16 Number 2
Capitalism: A Structural Genocide
Garry Leech
London: Zed Books, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Lest readers be scared off by the title, it’s probably best to start with some preliminary definitions.

Garry Leech’s book is built on foundations constructed by Johan Galtung over forty years ago. Galtung (1971, p. 81) observed that “two of the most glaring facts about this world [were] the tremendous inequality, within and between nations … [and] the resistance of this inequality to change.” His main concern was “how to explain, and how to counteract inequality as one of the major forms of structural violence” (Galtung, 1969). In addition to pursuing the empirical truth, as self-respecting intellectuals concerned with worldly affairs are compelled to do, he seems to have subscribed to the belief that education carries with it moral and political responsibilities. It involves the obligation of teachers and other public intellectuals to distinguish at least provisionally between good and evil and to promote the good.

Galtung’s particular interest was imperialism—the relations of dominance and submission between large collectivities, most often involving central imposing powers and peripheral colonies or client states captured within their spheres of external influence. Examples run from ancient Persia, Greece and Rome through the heady days of European world dominance and the rising and falling empires of Spain and Portugal, France and the United Kingdom and even the little Netherlands and Belgium, and on contemporary America. Of special concern were the mechanisms deployed to ensure the continuing discrepancy between rich and poor, the rulers and the ruled or, if you prefer, the oppressors and the oppressed.

In addition to the tactical use of brute force, ideological factors play an important part in efforts by oppressors to persuade the oppressed that their unequal status is actually equitable, that justice demands that authority, power and wealth be unequally distributed. This argument is frequently made on cultural, religious and racial grounds. The powerful try to persuade the powerless of their innate superiority and of the equity that flows from inequality—sometimes described as their “leadership” of a vast set of international relationships. Sometimes the dominant power adopts a patriarchal attitude in keeping with a self-serving belief that it is its mission to bring civilization and to the far-famed “lesser breeds without the law” and improvement to the lives of its subordinates. Sometimes, local elites are recruited as a comprador class. Indigenous entrepreneurs, politicians, military and law enforcement officials are then well compensated for keeping local populations under control. Sometimes, a colonial mentality is promulgated encouraging the native peoples to mimic the manners and morals of the occupying culture in the hope of being rewarded for suppressing their own way of life. In all cases, however, the aim is the same: to exploit indigenous resources and to take advantage of or to supplant (in the case of settler communities such as British North America and Australia) native labour through some combination of physical violence, inter-elite collusion and cultural suppression in what Lenin cheerfully labeled the highest stage of capitalism. All three entail a form of violence.

As Paul Farmer (2004, p. 307) explained in the Sidney W. Mintz Lecture for 2001: “Structural violence is violence exerted systematically; that is, indirectly by everyone who belongs to a certain social order. Hence, the discomfort these ideas provoke in a moral economy still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors.” Where structural violence occurs, it is ultimately pointless to identify and punish particular perpetrators. Everyone is to blame.

Within what are euphemistically called “asymmetrical power relations” (some have power and some don’t), structural violence may take physical or psychological forms. It may be expressed in bloody massacres or in the “cultural genocide” of robbing a people of their languages, religious traditions and other elements of their distinctive heritage. What distinguishes structural violence from incidental atrocities and singular acts of repression—whether perpetrated by ordinary individuals or by the authorities—is its ubiquity. Structural violence is embedded in the entire culture as well as in the specific practices of dominant institutions and, of course, the beliefs and behaviour of all the individuals involved. Although not everyone participates, everyone is aware of, and even in their silence, complicit in it. There are no innocent by-standers.

The adjective “structural” can be elaborated further. Structures require a discernible empirical pattern, a logical order, an existence apart from the subjective perceptions or motivations of the people involved in it. In the language of anthropologist Marvin Harris (1980, pp. 29-45), it requires an “etic” (broadly, externally and objectively observable) as well as an “emic” (narrowly, internally and subjectively experiential) dimension. It must not be merely idiosyncratic, but part of a commonality in which everyone participates in some fashion and to some degree.

Misogyny, for example, may refer to the attitudes and actions of individual persons (mainly males) toward other persons (always females). We can generally tell from expressed beliefs and behaviour whether a person is a misogynist (though it might be harder to prove the negative that he is not). Detailing such information and applying the label appropriately is, however, a matter of particularized concern only. It might be useful for a biographer (if the man is sufficiently famous), a potential dating-service hook-up (if a woman is sufficiently desperate) or a criminal profiler if the fellow shows up as a suspect in cases of serial sexual assault. As fascinating or as repelling as these instances might be, the word “structural” does not apply.

To be a “structure” in sociology, anthropology or related disciplines necessitates persistent, collective attitudes and actions. Detecting a structure of misogyny, therefore, entails observable behaviour over time, connected to other social patterns of thought and action, and generally operating to perform some important social function. So, there may be both individual and structural misogyny in certain societies, but structural misogyny must be an integral part of the larger social system and most likely linked to religion, marriage and kinship practices, laws of inheritance and the like. In his book, Leech addresses just such a systemic between capitalism and genocide. It is well to attend to both terms.

Capitalism is a familiar word. I suspect, however, that even in Western democracies where capitalist economic arrangements are most familiar, advanced and dominant, most citizens would be hard-pressed to put together a coherent definition, description, explanation and justification of capitalism. Suffice here to say that it is an economic system in which the principal form of ownership dictates that the means of production and distribution of goods and services are held mostly in private hands—whether individual and corporate.

Genocide is also a familiar word. It is generally understood to be the intentional destruction, usually by violent means, of a group of people by some organized adversary, most often a government or at least well-organized paramilitary forces. Of course, there are variants including the previously mentioned phenomenon of “cultural genocide,” which entail the extinguishment of a culture and its people, typically by means of forced assimilation. Still, the basic idea is clear enough: genocide is the attempt to significantly devastate or eradicate an entire people.

Here, then, is the tricky bit. Garry Leech has taken it upon himself to establish both an empirical and a logical connection between capitalism and genocide. In his view, genocides are not distortions, excesses or aberrations of otherwise benign relationships. They are not merely possible under capitalism; rather, they occur regularly and of necessity. Capitalism, in his opinion, is responsible for contemporary genocide, and contemporary genocide is the logical outcome of capitalism.

This, I understand, is hard to take. Most of us are either enthusiastic or reluctant supporters of capitalism—but supporters nonetheless. In fact, most of us are actual, though inadvertent and largely unconscious, mini-capitalists. For instance, anyone who makes even modest investments in mutual funds or has an employment-based pension is partly dependent on and complicit in capitalism. Many of us have a share in all sorts of enterprises which most of us, I suspect, would be unable to name. Albeit small-scale owners and investors, we may have put our money in “investment products” or own dividend-paying whole-life insurance policies. Even those of us with personal accounts in savings banks receive our puny rates of interest on the backs of people who have borrowed money from that bank to purchase a home or an automobile or to put their kids through college. We are, therefore, in extricably implicated.

Of course, there are also those who are a bit more Wall Street-wise and Securities & Exchange Commission-savvy. They may “play the markets” as others buy occasional lottery tickets, bet on professional sports teams or “play the ponies.” They may fancy themselves to be bold entrepreneurs. They may trade in “futures” and “hedge-funds.” They may sincerely think that capitalism is the most efficient and dynamic mode of production ever created by our species. Karl Marx would agree.

They might also believe that capitalism is the most equitable system, for it purports to reward hard work and to punish sloth. They might believe as well that, under capitalism, rational laws of supply and demand govern the price of commodities (including human labour), consumables and personal services, and that people make rational choices about how to earn and how to spend their money. So, they conclude, capitalism not only works, but it is also fair—sometimes harsh, but ultimately fair. Karl Marx would demur.

With these elementary notions in mind, let me try to set out Garry Leech’s argument in terms anyone can understand—even me. Leech starts out conventionally enough. He takes his interpretation of genocide directly from the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The United Nations was in the business of defining and supporting human rights from the outset. Its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) set out a substantial inventory of putative rights which has only expanded in scope and grown in number from the initial commitment to assorted “negative” freedoms—protection against unwarranted interference from the state and protection of civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association, conscience and so on—to a catalogue of “positive” freedoms such as guarantees of clean water, adequate nutrition, education and the like. This human rights template is articulated wholly within the traditions of liberal democracy. The prohibition on genocide, however, is surely at the top of any list. Apart from the willful extermination of our entire species, it is hard to imagine a more fundamental human right.

Leech then moves on to a standard definition of capitalism, including the arguments for the legitimacy of private property and paeans to the free market from recent capitalist apologists including Frederick von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises. From them we learn that “capitalism is not simply mass production, but mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses” (Mises, 1991, p. 15). From this perspective, despite its association with popular culture slogans such as “greed is good,” capitalism seems almost philanthropic. In addition, a case is presented that the theory of capitalism retains its original commitment to the sovereignty of the market and pays homage to the guidance of the ever-present “invisible hand” of market forces that remains dominant and ultimately both efficient and fair.

In the capitalist market, of course, it is the power of those who own and control capital that takes precedence over the consumer needs and desires, but even here there is wiggle room, for the needs and desires are said to be “demanded” by consumers who vote with their dollars and pay extortionist prices because it is their needs and desires that are being met. The market premise, therefore, both assures the continuation of the fundamental inequity of ownership and control and justifies it in terms of allegedly free choice.

In the end, of course, it is easy to see how many so-called consumer needs and desires are manufactured through massive advertising campaigns for specific products and by the underlying propaganda for material consumption in general. Private purchases are celebrated, even though they eventually substitute for personality, character, social relations and a sense of meaning in a society in which people are alienated from nature, from their communities, their work, their intimate relations and finally from themselves. We are what we buy. (Fromm, 1955; Fromm, 1961, pp. 1-85).

From this critical perspective, Leech goes on to say that it is the structural dominance of capital over labour rather than mere differences in personal income and inheritance that defines the capitalist system. From its basic and escalating disparity, Leech argues that “structural violence” and sometimes “structural genocide” are the unavoidable outcomes of capitalism in its catastrophic, which is to say, its impending form.

To many citizens in liberal democracies, the logical necessity of genocide as a corollary of economic market mechanisms may seem like an untenable stretch. Leech nonetheless offers a number of persuasive case studies to prove his point. He reveals the North American Free Trade Agreement to be an instrument whereby American-based agribusiness has destroyed local Mexican agriculture and led to death and dispossession among thousands of the rural poor. He points to India where the government’s own figures show that over 200,000 Indian farmers have been driven to suicide by the effects of policies imposed by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Africa, too, investment from the “North” according to rules manufactured in the interest of advanced capitalist countries have deformed development, ruined indigenous farmers and prioritized edible crops for export while allowing citizens of those countries to fall below subsistence living and to starve. In all, Leech attributes as many as ten million deaths annually to the hegemony of capitalism..

Even so, Leech refrains from an unqualified condemnation of free markets themselves. In his view, they would not be the essential problem—if, that is, they were actually free. Instead, it is the concentration of capital in monstrous global corporations that provide the power to extend domination from the nation-state to imperial relations with peripheral domains. This domination is expressed in the policies of sovereign governments and the rules imposed by the international regulatory agencies that do their bidding. They combine to share responsibility for the misery of “the bottom billion” of the human population—that portion of humanity which exists (or tries to exist) on incomes of only a few hundred dollars a year—and for the devastation of the global ecology, most noticeably in the phenomenon of climate change, but also in the desertification of agricultural lands, the destruction of rainforests, the alteration of geological forms and the plain old industrial and chemical pollution that is contaminating earth, air and water.

If Leech’s diagnosis seems extreme, it is revealing to note that he is supported in principle by the writings of the original theorists of free market economies. Adam Smith, for example, castigated the avarice of those who formed corporations in order to distance themselves from their social responsibilities, famously countering Mises’ “demand-driven” assumptions by observing that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (1981, p. 19). The private interests of mega-corporations from old favourites such as Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Walmart, British Petroleum, Chevron. ConocoPhillips, Toyota and Apple to less familiar names (for most North Americans) like Vitol and Sinopec plainly control the buying habits of consumers and the conditions of employment of workers, often in underdeveloped countries.

Moreover, since Smith was writing at a time when the “market” more often meant the town square where people bought and sold their wares and not the colossal financial markets and stock exchanges that dominate the contemporary global economy, it should come as no surprise that he considered the mere existence of limited liability corporations to be anathema to the free market (and he was largely right). Contemporary capitalism has little, if any, relationship to the eighteenth-century experience in which the yeoman farmer, the local artisan and the small merchant exchanged goods and services. Smith, himself, berated investors whose investments were made outside their own communities where they had no sense of belonging and no tug of conscience to limit their desires.

Having made the connection between the relentless cupidity and the effective control that contemporary corporate institutions exert over the market, Leech takes the next step. Using a Gramscian analysis to demonstrate how the illegitimate practices of capitalist organizations are normalized and legitimized through the ideology of capitalism as a set of values and principles, he draws direct connections among capital accumulation and impoverishment on a grand scale.

Joel Kovel describes Leech’s narrative as having “the precision of a skilled prosecutor and the moral force of an Old Testament prophet.” That may be a tad excessive, but there is no doubt the Leech is a cogent writer and that he offers not only a compelling indictment, but also a forceful alternative. Besides, reference to the Old Testament is surely fitting since, to my knowledge, the first recorded instance of genocide occurs in the thirty-first chapter of Book of Numbers wherein it is written that the armies of Moses exterminated the Midianites, slaughtering the vast majority and taking only the young girls as sex slaves for the conquering soldiers. It takes only a few thousand years of technological improvement and the enormous productive capacities of industrial and postindustrial manufacturing, distribution and communications technology to present the possibilities for genocide at the speed of computer messaging.

Practices such as the annihilation of a whole or a part of a population either by direct armed attack or the deprivation of the necessities of life (food, medicine, etc.) are well established as crimes against humanity in international law. We have seen such crimes, mainly in the peripheral countries, too often in the past century; so, the fact of genocide is plainly one with which we are familiar in the contemporary world. What might remain questionable in the minds of sticklers for technicalities is the question of mens rea. Is imperial genocide the intentional act of capitalist nations? For Leech, no claim of innocence through ignorance will do. Even if not premeditated, as Jean-Paul Sartre (1971, p. 545) is recruited to protest: “genocidal intent is implicit in the facts.” Over half a century of postcolonial carnage permits no government or citizenry—no matter how dim and discredited—to claim exemption.

There’s more. Assuming a capitalist model in which demand is the engine of the economy, what is to be done about those people who lack the resources to make demands on the system? Almost twenty years ago, Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker (1996, p. 36) put the matter poignantly. On the same weekend that the United Nations “safe haven” the former Yugoslavia was destroyed, Bill Gates made a very big splash in the pond of personal computing. They write (Kroker & Kroker, 1996, p. 36):

“Windows-95 opens up onto the dominant ideology and privileged life position of digital flesh. It installs the new codes of the master occupants of virtual worlds: frenzied devotion to cyber-business, life in a multi-media virtual context, digital tunnel vision, and, most of all, embedded deep in the cerebral cortex of the digital elite, an I-chip: I, that is, for complete indifference. Technological acceleration is accompanied by a big shutting-down of ethical perception.”

The Bosnian Muslims were massacred because they didn’t fit into the new digitized economy. They had nothing to add to the virtual market. They were “ethnically cleansed” because they had already been “technically cleansed … They were surplus to world domination in a cyber-box.”

Whether by military or economic means, the extermination of peoples is at least foreseeable. We have, after all, a lengthy history of transforming whole societies into subhuman stereotypes, making their removal a matter of capitalist logic. If they cannot “demand” commodities and are not internally productive according to the monetary logic of capitalist development, they cease to exist as creatures of concern.

The consequences of capitalism from the end-of-the sixteenth-century to the mid-seventeenth century Enclosures Acts in England, to the Highland Clearances in Scotland and the "potato famine” in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century are well known to anyone willing to be attentive and to understand such matters. Today’s maquiladoras in Mexico, the unknown thousands of casualties of the insane “war on drugs” in Latin America, the roughly four million internally displaced persons who are victims of military and paramilitary operations in support of global megaprojects, and the millions who have perished from easily cured diseases resulting from contaminated water are ignored by the mainstream media in wealthy countries, but they are surely well-known by the victims and perpetrators of the crimes against them, all committed in the name of intellectually indolent citizens of the advanced (post)industrial world.

For Garry Leech, the clear and present alternative, of course, is socialism. It is here that sceptics may find flaws. Leech correctly states that nothing less than an almost metaphysical transformation must occur in order to alter the present pattern. No half-hearted reforms and ineffective solutions will do.

Leech therefore turns his attention to operational choices. Ignoring cooperative development tactics advanced by aspirant visionaries, humanitarian aid providers and government-sponsored bilateral and multilateral economic and national-building projects, he cites options in the models of Cuba and Venezuela.

Neither country is a flawless model of human rights and economic prosperity in theory or practice. They have nonetheless been fascinating and occasionally inspirational, but also sometimes imperfect experiments. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chàvez introduced a measure of economic equity to their countries. They vastly improved education and health care. They withstood the opprobrium of brutal regimes in other American states from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua south. Their achievements have been tremendous, especially in view of unremitting hostility of the United States. Their sheer power of endurance merits recognition, even by their adversaries. The surprise is not so much that these attempts at socialist nation-building have not wholly triumphed, but that they have persisted in any way despite all manner of economic, political, military and “covert” opposition.

So, although supporters like Samir Amin may be correct to claim that Leech makes an excellent argument for the proposition that “the only plausible alternative is a socialist perspective,” it is presently a little much to imagine that even the poor in most capitalist societies would quickly trade places with the Latin America campesino movement. Revolutionary socialism, to the disappointment and chagrin of many a Marxist, remains unrealized in precisely the advanced countries where traditional Marxist analysis expected it would first and most effectively arise. In fact, despite declining living standards, the employment insecurity, looming ecological crises and social problems of every kind, even a tentative display of class consciousness and a minimal demonstration of class-based political action seem more than a little remote.

As for what was once called the “third world,” it is difficult to understand the basis for revolutionary optimism. Instead, if there is any ideological movement in Latin America at all, it appears to be toward evangelical Christianity which, the courage of “liberation theology” aside, is not likely to promote transformative social action. As well, abolishing capitalist genocide is not about to be the result of anemic reforms by regimes which remain described and dominated by capitalist social formations.

If the prospects for revolutionary change in the poor countries are slight, the logic of capitalism in the imperial centers is most certainly unlikely to be undone in anything like the near future. Barring a revitalization of the trade union movement, the reinvigoration of feminism, actionable forms of protest by environmentalists and the building of coalitions among various genders, ethnic and aboriginal movements resulting in a coherent common front, the potential for significant, systemic social change will have a hard time. Even the most energetic reform movements currently struggling to win control of social democratic parties and governments in the OECD are finding the temptations of opportunism too tempting to press for radical change.

Garry Leech, however, is undeterred. He is ardent in his scorn for the vicious, mindless and irredeemably evil theoretical and factual implications of capitalism at home and abroad. What, then, is to be done?

Javier Sethness (2012), a libertarian socialist, rights advocate and environmentalist, seems to me to be right in worrying that Leech puts too much hope in the prospects of Marxist movements that could create or subsume environmental or social democratic movements and parties, develop the organizational capacity to undermine the hegemonic corporate control of the structures ideological reproduction including the mass media and educational institutions from K-12 to post-grad studies, and win the authority to move us in a very different and ultimately redeeming direction. The flaccid left is seemingly incapable of bringing the horror of the processes that permit the “Northern” lifestyle to the attention of even the nicest of people who enjoy it. The voice of meaningful reform, to say nothing of revolution, is therefore rendered mute.

Moreover, there is overall the dead, heavy air of repression. Spooked by the events of September 11, 2001 into welcoming “spooks” of a different sort to insinuate themselves into the fabric of even representative, liberal democracies and content to stand silent as long-treasured civil liberties are undermined and emptied, we seem content or at least stupefied as we yield control over public discourse or, worse, as we refrain from public discourse at all.

Leech offers a convincing diagnosis of capitalist genocide. He does not offer an encouraging therapy. The times are not yet right and may never be. Yet, it is important to remain alert to the signs. If we can at least recognize the hideous results of calculated and calibrated exercises in human destruction and immiseration that betoken the legacy we will leave, we may choose to resist the seductive impulse to despair. We may then recognize the patterns not only of death, but of life as well. It would couldn’t hurt.


Farmer, P. (2004). An Anthropology of Structural Violence, Current Anthropology 45(3), 305-325.

Fromm, E. (1955). The Sane Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Fromm, E. (1961). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Ungar.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research 6, 167-191.

Galtung, J. (1971). A Structural Theory of Imperialism. Journal of Peace Research 8(2), 81-117.

Harris, M. (1980). Cultural Materialisn: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York, Vintage.

Kroker, A. & Kroker, M. (1996). Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90s. Montréal: New World Perspectives.

Mises, L. (1991). Two Essays by Ludwig von Mises. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 15-46.

Sartre, J-P. (1971), On Genocide. R. Falk, G. Kolko & R. Lifton, eds. Crimes of War: A Legal, Political, Documentary and Psychological Inquiry into the Reponsibility of Leaders, Citizens and Soldiers. New York: Random House.

Sethness, J. (2012). Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Smith, A. (1981 [1776]). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. R. H. Campbell & A. S. Skinners, eds., Vol. 2 of the Glasgow Edition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

United Nations. (1948). Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Available online at

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at