In 2015, I was in a taxi in Medellin on my way to the airport. Upon hearing the news about the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC, the taxi driver vehemently complained that the authorities were negotiating with people who perpetrated atrocities.

I jumped in and pointed out that Colombian paramilitaries also committed atrocities, yet the government negotiated their demobilization a decade earlier and rightly did it so. The taxi driver paused for a moment in silence and then replied: “You’re right. At the beginning, paramilitaries only eliminated drug addicts, prostitutes, gays, and communists. Then, they started to do drug-trafficking, and that is when they went bad.” 

In Cali these days, and in other parts of Colombia, this is exactly the kind of mindset at work as we witness white SUVs running into the protesters at roadblocks and shooting at them. In an intercepted communication that Colombian media recently circulated, a vigilante laid out his modus operandi. “We go to the police officer in charge of the area and tell him – we tell him, we do not ask for permission – that we will approach the protesters and try to convince them to remove the roadblocks. And if they don’t get convinced, then we go back and take care of them” – with lead. 

In a country in which a part of society thinks that way at all levels of the social pyramid, the democratic process has little incentive to converge onto the center and support more encompassing and more moderate arrangements that isolate the extremes. There will always be people who will be ready to turn to their own guns if they do not get what they want. And the party that is willing and able to apply the greatest force will be the one that will ultimately have the upper hand. A race to the bottom will ensue: “When they go low, we will go so much lower.” 

For over a decade during my time in Colombia, I have devoted my sociology to identify channels that might help expand the horizon of civil interactions across a variety of social and institutional scenarios and have attempted to convince the parties on one side and on the other that this was the only path to sustainable gains for all. 

There comes a time in life, though, when one needs to acknowledge one’s own limits and accept that there are actors within society that will play the civil game only till it serves their own interests and that when it does not, or no longer, then they will opt for violent confrontation and for a war of attrition. 

Before this bitter realization, one is confronted with a question that is hard to elude: “And now, what?” One option is to leave my sociology and do something else in life. Paraphrasing Adorno, to do sociology of the civil sphere in certain contexts is almost like writing poetry after Auschwitz.

It is not barbarianism, but one is left powerless and without teeth in the face of barbarianism. It is a bit like writing sermons of hope in Germany or Italy in 1941 or in East Berlin in 1965.

Carlo Tognato is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Change, Institutions and Policy (SCIP) of the Schar the School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

To hear Carlo discuss his newest work, please click here.