What Is Sociocide?


Above and cover image of gacaca courts by Elisa Finocchiaro.

by Keith Doubt

Wars have taken not only an unconscionable but an unfathomable dimension. Not only are houses destroyed, but the prestige of homes. Not only are women and children killed, but cities, their traditions and ways of life. Not only are communities decimated, but their places of worship and their material culture. Finally, not only are social systems lethally wounded, but the societies themselves. The violence in the first case is called domicide; in the second urbicide; in the third genocide. In the fourth, we use a neologism, sociocide, the killing of society.

What, then, is sociocide? Sociocide resonates with the term demodernization formulated by A. V. Tishkov to account for the consequences of the war in Chechnya. “During the armed conflict, the Chechen ‘nation’ and even Chechen ‘society’ ceased to exist as an agent of social action” (Tishkov 170). This holds true now for Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and to some degree, Ukraine. These societies barely exist as a positive agent of social action in the lives of its members.

Giorgio Agamben theorizes this condition as a camp, a territory placed outside the normal juridical order where brute force (what Agamben calls the state of exception) is the rule. In a camp, human beings cannot actually be murdered. Nor can they be sacrificed as scapegoats. Why? There is no society to understand these deaths in such terms. Human beings are simply killed.

José Saramago’s novel Blindness narrates the death of society when all but one person, the wife of a physician, goes blind. The novel chronicles the resulting and increasing anomie and the energy of the death instinct at a collective level. Blindness becomes a trope for the absence of the social along with the demise of every social institution. Eventually, the novel shows how it is that human solidarity re-arises, capturing a resilience in the human spirit. A modest burial, a ritual particular to the human species-being, occurs for a neighbor, a woman, who is not liked but respected as a human being. Sightedness slowly returns. Society re-appears. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tells a similar story but with a less positive ending.

Eros is the instinct of self-preservation and the preservation of the human species. Sigmund Freud calls the libido the energy of Eros. Sociocide is the consequence at the collective level of what Freud calls the destructive instinct, which turns what is living into an inorganic state. Sociocide reflects the negative energy of necrophilia leading to the near destruction of the human species.

The social has an unfathomable resilience even in the worst of times. Interdependence and interconnectedness are elements of who we. The Hobbesian jungle is so nasty, so brutish, and human life so painful, so short, that, in response to this empirical condition, human beings (with a capacity not only for reason but also for empathy) cease collectively to use violence. Violence – the capricious use of force and fraud – is a less efficient means to everyone’s ends; the Hobbesian social contract is a more efficient. Voila! Society.

A tacit fear in the writing of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx is that unbridled capitalism in modern times will result in the demise of society. The fear is articulated in different ways: in Weber’s work as the spirit of capitalism, in Durkheim’s as the division of labor, and in Marx’s as alienated labor. In contemporary social theory, sociocide sometimes appears in a positive way, for instance, in the work of John Urry, who endorses the slogan from the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “There is no society,” given the fluidity and malleability of social phenomena.

It is best to view sociocide as an ideal type rather than a description of an empirical reality. Sociocide as an ideal type can be used for heuristic purposes. Here is an example. If evil is, in fact, an oriented course of social action, then evil has an end or a purpose. What, then, is the end or the purpose of evil? Evil’s end or purpose is to kill society, after which evil dwells in a utopian state of impunity. After a society is murdered, there is no collective sentiment to be offended. The problem is that social action has no existence without the social. The social is action’s raison d’etre, which is why Hannah Arendt says evil is banal.

Will Iraq be a society again? Will Syria? Will Libya? Will Ukraine? Will they ever exist as a functional agent of social action in the lives of their members? Will social order be restored? After the genocide in Rwanda, the government of Rwanda took various political and judicial actions, such as forcing Hutu to return to Rwanda and work their farms and setting up a community system of justice called gacaca, to insure that Rwandan society was not killed. The genocide here did not lead to sociocide.

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. 2000. Means without Ends: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hatzfeld, Jean. 2010. The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. London: Picador.

Saramago, José. 1997. Blindness. London: Harvill Press.

Tiskov, Valery. 2005. Dynamics of a Society at War: Ethnographical Aspects. Pp. 157-180 in Chechnya: From Past to Future, edited by Richard Sakwa. London: Anthem Press.

Urry, John. 2000. Mobile Sociology. British Journal of Sociology (51) : 185–203.

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne (Buybook, Sarajevo) and Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press). With Omer Hadziselimovic he is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary, bilingual journal, Duh Bosne / Spirit of Bosnia. His most recent book, Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina was published in 2014 by Central European University Press.