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Systems of Power and their Human Costs


In dealing with enemies (say, Pol Pot, or Maoist China), we properly attribute to them deaths caused by starvation, disease, overwork, etc., insofar as these result from institutional structures and political choices. That’s quite independent of intention.

Thus in the Black Book of Communism, compiled to demonstrate the evil of our enemies and very highly praised in the West (here too), they estimate 100 million deaths from 1917 to the end of the century, the largest component being the famine in China in the late 1950s, maybe 25 million. No one claims that it was intended or planned. The most serious studies do regard it as criminal, attributing it to the sociopolitical system that prevented information from reaching the center in time to do anything — studies by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, notably. The very same studies, in the same books, conclude that democratic capitalist India alone was responsible for 100 million deaths that were avoided in China from independence in 1947 to 1979, attributing the difference to sociopolitical structures. That half of the studies is ignored in the West. If we were to apply the standards we use for enemies, the toll would be colossal.

If we keep to killings, it’s a complicated calculation. How do we decide how many of the killings in our Latin American dependencies are the direct responsibility of the US — including not only the government but the institutions and culture that support or tolerate them?

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