Reading Guide to: van Krieken, R (1999) 'The barbarism of civilization: cultural genocide and the "stolen generations"', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 50, no.2: 297--315.

NB all emphases are in the original

This paper examines Elias's notion of civilization as the greater and more sophisticated management and control of violence. Whereas Elias himself sees this process as interrupted by occasional moments of 'decivilization', van Kreiken wants to argue that there are more complex combinations, where the one interpenetrates the other. The main case-study to illustrate these possibilities is the policy towards indigenous Australians in the 20th century, especially in the forcible removal of children from families in an attempt to annihilate their indigenous identity -- a process now recognised as 'cultural genocide'.

This policy has raised considerable debate in modern Australia, engendering in some quarters as a 'collective shame'. But the main implications here are more abstract, and turn on the implications for the work of Elias. These include:

(1) This policy was carried on in the name of civilization, rather than occurring as some unfortunate lapse into barbarism. It arose as part of a process of state formation and social integration, not from a process of social disintegration.

(2) The term 'civilization' had long been used to distinguish between European and Aboriginal persons, a specific usage lost in more general ideas of a 'civilising process'.

(3) The specific political uses of the term are underemphasised in Elias, especially in the neglected area of colonialism. '... the ritualised civility of European court society was built on the blood of murdered "primitives" and bought with the land, labour and raw materials which marauding Europeans plundered from "their" empire' (300). This sort of violence underpinned neutral descriptions such as the 'spread' of Western civilization. Indeed, Elias can be convicted of being 'persuaded of the actual as well as the self perceived superiority of Western civilization based on a supposed greater ability to manage their emotions and impulses, with far less attention paid to their instrumental technological and military superiority' (300).

(4) The civilising process is sometimes countered with a lapse into barbarism, as in Elias's analysis of the Holocaust: but barbarism can be combined with civilization and seen as part of it, as in (3) above. Elias may recognise this himself, in his work on state formation, and in seeing social norms as both binding people together and excluding others. But this ambiguity needs further development. Thus Fletcher [as discussed by van Krieken] identifies three components in the civilising process '(a) "a shift in the balance between constraints by others and self-restraint in favour of the latter", (b) "the development of the social standard of behaviour and feeling which generates the emergence of a more even, or round, stable and differentiated pattern of self-restraint" and (c) "an expansion in the scope of mutual identification within and between groups"' (302). Van Krieken suggests that these three need not be closely related, and that the first two can take place without developing the last one. '... mutual identification has only started to become central to processes of civilization in the second half of the 20th century' (302).

(5) Elias needs more detail on the specifics of civilization, identifying 'alternative aspects of social organisation which can have almost identical civilising effects, and... the diverse, often barbaric effects of state formation... the violence and brutality lying at the heart of every nation state' (302). Colonisation needs special attention, to overthrow the 'linear view of European history', to overcome euro centrism in the case studies, and to examine the relationship between the treatment of citizens and subjected peoples (302). In particular, we need to examine 'civilising offensives', the deliberate civilising projects of powerful groups within societies and between societies. In this way, we can see how civilising processes have actually been steered, rather than seeing them as unfolding automatically as a part of social development. Elias can be convicted here of 'automatism', where what is needed is attention to 'the actual dissociation which takes place between different aspects of civilization processes, especially when identification is absent' (303 ) -- this raises questions about the value free or scientific conception of civilization too.

(6) The case study of Europeans colonising Australia shows this complexity [and I am not able to summarise it in very much detail]. Europeans never identified with Aborigines, and developed various policies towards them, some 'softer' than others. After an initial policy of extermination, a more 'regretful sorrow' (303) for the inherent inferiority of Aborigines led first to a policy of neglect, then to a policy of deliberate absorption of the black population into the white. Social distance between the ethnic groups was threatened by 'the reality of interbreeding' between them (305). The resulting population of 'mixed - bloods' were seen as classically uncivilised, displaying 'idleness, nomadism, emotionality, lack of discipline and productivity, sexual promiscuity, poor bodily hygiene, and a group rather than an individual orientation' (305).

A policy of quarantine ensued, allowing 'full-bloods' to die off 'naturally', combined with an attempt at absorption of the 'mixed bloods'. This policy already had a 'social technology in place' (306), since the European Australian authorities had long had European 'problem groups' to deal with, pointing to 'a certain degree of isomorphism between "race", "class" and "gender"' (306), at least when it came to dealing with 'sexually dangerous and prolific nonrespectable' groups. Thus the State became the guardian of all children of Aboriginal descent, and reallocated them to white families, affecting somewhere between 10 and 33 per cent of indigenous children (307). The policy only stopped in the 1960s.

This policy was justified as the bringing Aboriginals into civilization, replacing a '"primitive social order" composed of "ritual murders, infanticide, ceremonial wife exchange, polygamy"' (308). Europeanisation was seen as inevitable as well as beneficial, and it became a humanitarian matter to absorb Aboriginals in this way.

(7) The 'barbarism' of Aboriginals was central to the formation of the Australian identity. European Australians could not see themselves as civilised without contrasting themselves to a threatening 'other' who had to be met with 'civilising offensives' (309). In this way, aggression towards outsiders became part of civilization itself -- 'civilising processes involve not simply the reduction of violence and aggression, but their rearrangement' (309). Violence might be developed in different ways, of course, and van Krieken suggests that it is only very recently that non-indigenous Australians can recognise policies of assimilation as violent, overcoming the 'sheer disgust they felt and expressed for whatever they understood as Aboriginality' (310).

(8) Elias could have understood such developments, but he needed to see examples of 'modern barbarism' 'as... understandable as the outcome of particular social figurations and processes of socio-historical development' (310). This would involve the recognition of the political uses of civilising offensives, and how the variety of civilising processes might omit the crucial identification with others. As a result, we would recognise both 'how easy it is for barbarism to be contained within our current conception of civilization' (311), and how much we need to decolonise "both the theories and practices of contemporary civilization' (311).