Evil organizations. The normalization of terror. Violence as normal practice. How is it possible to create an organizational infrastructure that leads to genocide? Researcher: Miguel Pina e Cunha
Are genocides explosions of rage or are they carefully organized processes? By studying the organization of the Khmer genocide of the 1970s, a group of Portuguese and international authors suggests that genocides are organized explosions of inhumanity. They involve a careful combination of utopian ideals, a sociology of exclusion of the victims, a bureaucratic apparatus, and the materials that create an appearance of banality. Once these elements are in place, the stage is set for people to enact their roles and it is then possible for perpetrators to claim that they were nothing but cogs at the service of deadly machines – such as Eichmann in Jerusalem or Comrade Duch in Phnom Penh.
Organizations can be evil
Organizations are generally expected to participate in the construction of a better world. In our research project on the organizations of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), corresponding to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (1974-1979), that was not obviously the case, despite DK being ideologically saturated with a rhetoric of revolutionary utopia being built by the Communist Party. In fact, the regime produced organizational machinery whose genocidal process killed more than 2.5 million people. Even in a century characterized by organization for evil these figures are remarkable: they represent approximately 25% of the population annihilated in less than five years.
How was it possible?
Miguel Pina e Cunha, Professor at Nova SBE and member of the research team explained:
In this research project, we have been studying how was it possible, from an organizational perspective, to create the organizational infrastructure that led to genocide. We asked:
• What is the institutional and bureaucratic apparatus that transforms normal people into perpetrators of atrocious acts? We have explored this question in the JPP 2012 paper (d) on the S-21 death camp and on our JMI 2013 paper (a). Both papers explore how total, genocidal institutions socialize people in extreme violence as normal practice. The normalization of terror involves a heavy bureaucracy as well as the use of banal objects that conjointly create organizations whose sociomaterial traits irresistibly transformed members into functionaries. S-21 can be described as a Kafkaesque organization in a state of exception, a combination that produced a condition of organizational opacity transforming its members into cogs in a machinery of interrogation and death rather than free-willed agents.
• The sociomateriality of the DK regime is also studied in the 2014 JPP paper (c). It discusses how enveloping young soldiers in a specific sociomaterial context created an “object-ive” situation in which horror is banal. In a world of poverty, division, and death, punctuated by the presence of ideological tools related to violence, violence becomes normality.
• Finally we have studied the role of utopia as an organizational process. Organization scholars have given insufficient attention to the role of utopias. In our OS 2012 paper(b) we study the role of utopia in pushing organizations in the direction of totalitarianism. Utopian ideals of exclusion, supported by obedience-based organizational machineries, are fertile grounds for the creation of organized evil.
Lessons learned from this research
• The extraordinary requires a façade of banality; therefore beware with evil in disguise;
• Words count: language of violence produces acts of violence;
• Utopias are potentially dangerous; beware utopian leaders.
• Be an agent, as soon as possible; resistance becomes difficult as the process unfolds.
We humbly dedicate this research to the memory of the victims of DK and wish to put this research to the service of the individuals and organizations that fight against genocide, a persistence form of evil organization.
(a) Clegg, S., Cunha, M.P., Rego, A. & Dias, J. (2013). Mundane objects and the banality of evil: The sociomateriality of a death camp. Journal of Management Inquiry, 22(3), 325-340.
(b) Clegg, S., Cunha, M.P. & Rego, A. (2012). The theory and practice of utopia in a total institution: The pineapple panopticon. Organization Studies, 33(12), 1735-1757.
(c) Cunha, M.P., Clegg, S. & Rego, A. (2014). The ethical speaking of objects: The ‘object-ive’ world of young Khmer Rouge combatants. Journal of Political Power, 7(1), 35-61
(d) Cunha, M.P., Clegg, S., Rego, A. & Lancione, M. (2012). The Organization (Ângkar) as a state of exception: The case of the S-21 extermination camp, Phnom Penh. Journal of Political Power, 5(2), 279-299.