Mary Kaldor is a professor of global governance at the London School of Economics. Her latest book is “Global Security Cultures.”


(Pantheon)

We tend to think of war as a deep-seated geopolitical contest between two organized sides or states. But contemporary wars are better understood as shared undertakings launched by aggrieved individuals and armed groups that believe they gain more from violence than from winning or losing. These kinds of wars reflect a reordering of social or economic conditions and involve a complex mix of repression, terrorism, crime and violence. The result is the emergence of “A Savage Order,” a syndrome that Rachel Kleinfeld chose as the title of her new book. The author describes a “decivilizing process” that causes a rapid descent into a culture of violence, destroying norms and inhibitions that have taken decades to build. Anyone who has studied events in Bosnia, Syria or other contemporary war zones will find this picture familiar.


(Pantheon)

Kleinfeld presents a powerful account of the “stumbling, staggering journey” needed to reduce large-scale violence, and provides detailed and informative portraits of successful examples — what she calls “happy stories” — from the United States, India, Colombia, Georgia and Sicily. By analyzing violence rather than an abstract notion of war, Kleinfeld offers an alternative way to understand contemporary wars distinct from the typical geopolitical perspectives of policymakers. In other words, her analysis treats war as a social problem in which political and criminal violence are intertwined.

Kleinfeld puts forward two important arguments. The first is that governments are nearly always complicit in the violence that characterizes the decivilizing process. She rightly contends that violence is not necessarily a consequence of state weakness, although in many cases states are weak. Rather, the critical factor is that politicians and officials are often responsible for the violence. A “particularly pernicious form of state power,” Kleinfeld writes, is that “in which political and economic leaders of both Left and Right consciously enable violent groups to proliferate to protect their perks and maintain control.”

This is what the author calls “Privilege Violence,” a form of repression and terror in which the government and the violent groups are complicit. She argues that this arrangement is often associated with systemic corruption, where political power can be achieved only through participation in the violence. In similar fashion, British researcher and writer Alex De Waal has identified what he calls the “political marketplace” to explain violence in the Horn of Africa. Complicity with the government enables the various groups to engage in violence — they are, as it were, in it together. To underscore the point, Kleinfeld quotes a Mafioso as saying, “Bandits, police and mafia are one and the same, like Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Kleinfeld’s second argument centers on how to address this type of violence. She calls for a whole-society approach, both bottom-up and top-down. She stresses the importance of the active involvement of the middle class, which, under these conditions, tends to retreat into gated communities; she also sees the need for participation by nonpartisan political movements and courageous politicians willing to use the system in order to change it. And she makes the crucial point that security depends on trust in institutions rather than on security forces, which are often corrupt and predatory.

Not all of her proposals are convincing. She singles out political heroes, such as President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia; but he has faced investigations into a variety of repressive and violent activities, and he fiercely opposed an initial peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Kleinfeld also seems to accept what she calls “dirty deals” that enable a pause in violence and offer a chance for change. But, as she herself points out, such deals often lock in criminalized politics, especially when they’re legitimized by the international community. Kleinfeld might have put more emphasis on the importance of justice, since attempts to achieve it appear throughout her story in the efforts of the constitutional court in Colombia, the Supreme Court in the United States and the Italian prosecutors who bravely took on the Mafia. Yet her book remains significant for the thrust of its argument: the need for complex social transformation in the struggle against the savage order.

If there’s a gap in the book, it’s the limited discussion of the role of globalized communications and finance in stoking violence. Improvements in these areas have transformed the nature of money laundering and other forms of criminal activity, and these changes are linked to political violence and terrorism around the world.

“A Savage Order” offers a timely perspective as right-wing populism takes hold in unexpected places worldwide. With racist and xenophobic behavior gaining legitimacy, violence becomes an ever-greater concern. The prescriptions Kleinfeld proposes for contending with a breakdown in norms — such as greater engagement of the middle class and the importance of political movements — offer valuable insight. We must recognize, after all, that even areas of the world considered stable are not immune from a decivilizing process.

A Savage Order
How the World's Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security

By Rachel Kleinfeld

Pantheon.
475 pp. $28.95