Guns, Agency, And The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Liberal Democracy
By an Anonymous Comrade
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
What we learned in 2017 is that social democracy is in acute crisis.
How did this happen? For many years the power of hegemonic broadcast media combined with wage labor to carefully suppress the tensions brought into being by the contradictions of capitalist society. The war is now again visible every time a video explodes across social media of a cop killing someone in the service of white supremacy and capitalism.
Police killings, however, are not the clearest entry point to understanding the tensions inherent in the liberal democratic nation state.
The clearest entry point is the spree killing.
They've become one of the defining features of today's social media landscape. Every few days we are assaulted with images in our social media feeds of the latest outburst. The responses to this phenomenon reveal much about the underlying tensions in the liberal democratic state that we have been taught to accept as the status quo. This is true both on the left and right -- although the shape of the public responses differs notably depending on the commentator’s political views.
Spree killings, for the purpose of this essay, are public killings of three or more people unknown to the perpetrators. Increasingly, the attacks are accompanied by a social media presence, whether a formal statement of intent, or a series of hostile social media posts that precede the incident. Attackers use a variety of weapons, from knives, to guns, to trucks. Some have overt political motivations and some do not.
Regardless of the political motivations, we can be sure that there will be breathless, instant coverage, with minute by minute updates, followed by think pieces about mental health, racism, and of course, gun control. The killers’ picture will be plastered over websites, with deep dives into his biography. This spirals across our social media feeds, with endless threads of despondency, debates, and panic. The social media environment reinforces and spreads the incidents, giving fame to the perpetrators and acting almost like an amplifier. It seems not a mistake that as social media has become ever more present in our lives, the number of firearms spree killings has increased, even as other types of crimes have fallen.
In order to truly make sense of these seemingly disparate mass murders, we need to understand what binds them all together: all of them undermine the lies we tell ourselves about the liberal democratic state. Many of these lies center on the role of violence in our society.
The Role of Violence in Ordering the Liberal State
In general, the state is the set of permanent bureaucracies that organize the government, and that claim the monopoly on violence (in the Weberian sense) in any given society.
Liberal democracy refers to state governance via representative government, with a strong emphasis on the rule of law. As Francis Fukuyama has summarized it, ”[t]he liberal part, which is rule of law, generally accepted rules that put clear limits on the way that the state can exercise power. Then the second is democracy, like elections to guarantee that the state represents the interest of as much of the population as possible and not just the elites that are running the state.”
In the context of the United States, then, both the Republican and Democratic parties embrace liberal democracy as the baseline social order. Republicans will explicitly argue that the government should be “smaller” and favor the interests of large business, with an explicit tone of white nationalism. Democrats argue that the government should be “bigger” and address “market failures” — places where the private sector is unable or unwilling to address needs of the population, with gestures toward gender, sexual, and ethnic diversity. But for both, questioning liberal democracy -- and capitalism -- is unacceptable.
The leadership of both parties agree on capitalism as the fundamental economic order — as Nancy Pelosi has said “we're capitalists, that's the way it is.” As parties that uphold the capitalist order, both the Republicans and Democrats depend on the function of the security services to defend their interests.
State Violence Undergirds Private Property and Contracts
Consider currency. At a basic level, whether political leadership acknowledges it or not, the value of the US dollar depends on the ability of the state to impose taxes in dollars, which it collects at gunpoint. If you do not pay you go to prison.
In fact, state violence undergirds the whole system of private property and contracts, as private contracts depend, in the end, on state violence for enforcement. That is not quite obvious in daily life, as most people fulfill their contracts. It only becomes notable when someone defaults on a contract and the other party uses local law enforcement to enforce the contract. The classic example of this, of course, is an eviction. The threat of state violence means that even if the tenant does not want to pay, she will think twice before stopping payment, even when she might have a strong legal claim against the owner of her apartment for, say, failing to maintain the heating system. If the tenant does refuse to pay, the owners of the apartment can send the police to kick out the renter, and if she resists, the police are fully empowered to use lethal force if they deem it necessary to protect themselves or others.
In all these ways and more, the liberal democratic state depends on violence. This fact is often obscured in daily life, especially for members of the professional class.
Professional class values emphasize discussion and deliberation as the basis for problem solving. This is taught within higher education settings, implicitly in many undergraduate programs and explicitly in graduate education for fields like business, journalism, law, and medicine. The value on discussion and deliberation are reinforced further in the workplace.
Violence, by contrast, is seen as a lower class activity — hence the barely concealed disdain for the police and the military as barbaric, if sadly necessary. You can see the emphasis on the concealing of violence when corporate human relations departments discourage discussion of fired employees, and when they employ elaborate systems to conceal who and how people are fired, complete with the cliche “Friday afternoon meeting.” Since most people depend on wage labor to earn money, and they need money to eat and keep a roof over their head, firing someone exposes them to the possibility of eviction and starvation on the one hand, or a confrontation with the forces of state violence on the other, should they choose to obtain housing and food without the use of money.
Membership in the professional class requires a lot of education. Professionals may be able to choose how to perform their job, they will generally not be allowed to determine what to do. Control resides with the C-level executives and the board of directors. At best the capitalist firm is typically an oligarchy ruled by a benevolent executive committee. At worst it is a tyrannical dictatorship ruled by an iron-fisted CEO with a cult of personality. No matter how well a professional class employee marshals the facts, with all the skill and education that marks her as one of the educated elite, she can and will be overruled by senior executives, with very little recourse. If she doesn’t like that, and is too vocal about it, she will be fired and forcibly removed from the office by the police if she refuses to leave. In other words, her discussion and deliberation are trumped by state violence, wielded on behalf of the bosses.
To put it in Marxist terminology, professional class workers do not control the means of production. They are alienated from that control by the power of the capitalist class to determine the direction of the enterprise. And despite their sense that liberal society protects them from violence, the instant they defy the power of their capitalist bosses, all the implicit and explicit violence of the liberal democratic state is brought down upon their heads.
Liberal Professional Class Responses to Alienation
How then does the educated professional address their alienation? There are a couple general ways to respond, and it differs by politics. And nowhere is this more clear than in the response of liberal and conservative professionals to spree killings. It’s there that the whole illusion breaks down, and interesting forms of denial emerge.
Professional class liberals, and those who aspire to that status, react very strongly to spree killings committed with firearms.
Spree killings with guns make up a tiny percentage of all firearms homicides, yet they cause complete panic by liberals. Why? Some might say it’s because spree killings draw attention to the outrageous availability of firearms to Americans. Yet, at the same time as spree killings have risen to prominence in the last 20 years, overall crime has dropped. Life is, in fact, safer, on the day to day, than it was in the 1990s. Professional class liberals, especially in the heavily policed major metropolitan super regions are safer than they ever have been. So why the panic?
Consider the liberal personality. Above all, and against all evidence, US liberals believe in the myths of meritocracy and the rule of law. They think conservatives are unreasonable and that if everyone could just be highly educated and devoted to The Discourse, that we could solve all our problems. They have mixed feelings on the police. Many believe that the police exist to protect them, and that there is no problem that cannot be solved by picking up their cell phone and calling the police. When confronted by the now inescapable proliferation of abusive police killings, liberals default to discussions of “bad apples,” and suggest that if only police officers had more education, perhaps in the form of diversity training, then the problem of white supremacist police anti-black violence would go away. The liberal must believe that he is the meritocratic product of a system that rules fairly and justly via a neutral state and police force, and not the subject of a heavily armed white supremacist capitalist system that is tilted ever more in favor of the capitalists. This belief undergirds their whole identity.
Thus, professional class liberals react in panic to spree killings with guns because it reminds them that their autonomy and rise to the top were illusions. They have surrendered their agency in their workplace and in their daily life — to their corporate employers and to the police. Yet, for all that surrender, their employers and the police cannot even defend them at all times and places. Every time a firearms spree killing pops up in a social media feed, professional class liberals are exposed their powerlessness.
This is compounded by certain aspects of the places where liberals make their home. For historically contingent reasons, liberals currently mostly live in dense urban areas that have (or are developing) strong laws against weapons carrying and use. New York is the paradigmatic example of this, where handguns have been strictly controlled since the early 20th century via the Sullivan Law. New York’s power elite had to control handguns because in the intense income equality that characterized the Gilded Age, the powerful and wealthy lived in very close geographic proximity to the poor and working class. During the intense political ferment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New York elite worked to lock in their financial privileges and to dismember all threats to their power. As the wealthy, they would always have access to pistol permits and armed guards; at worst, they could be guaranteed that the police would work for them and enforce their writ. Those outside the elite, its professional-class servants, had to surrender their agency to the police, or face the unpleasant psychological truth that they were defenseless against those who would do them harm. As commonly happens, necessity became a virtue, and the prevailing liberal class morality in the Northeast embraced the security services as the only legitimate wielders of violence. As New York is a major media center (then and now), these professional class morals — bourgeois morals if you will — replicated themselves across the United States.
Yet firearms spree killings broadcast on social media present undeniable evidence that the liberal democratic state cannot protect their bodies at all times. But because they cannot fundamentally acknowledge, much less reject, their surrender of their agency to these oligarchical powers, the professional-class liberal has no recourse other than panic and despair.
Conservative White Supremacist Panic
While the firearms spree killing is a distinctly liberal concern, conservatives do not escape panic either. And their reaction is no less interesting.
Conservatives in America are the sort of folks who will tell you that they “aren’t racist” and that “affirmative action is the real racism,” while un-ironically advocating for a Muslim ban and freaking out over “illegal alien crime waves,” along with “black criminality.” They are proud of their guns and don’t worry much about spree killings by whites. But when a black or brown person is behind the trigger, or the wheel of a truck, they become apoplectic.
Why do conservatives create a media panic every time they think a Muslim or immigrant person has engaged in a spree killing? After all, conservatives criticize liberal media panic over mass shootings by reminding people that “freedom isn’t free,” and that firearms spree killings make up a tiny fraction of yearly deaths. This is just as true of spree killings committed by Muslims or immigrants. Moreover, the conservative movement has worked hard to make sure that in most states, people can legally carry a concealed handgun with minimal disruption.
Presumably, conservatives are not panicking over the inability of the state to protect their bodies, since they don’t believe that the state is the only institution that can wield violence with legitimacy. After all, much of their rhetoric revolves around their insistence that they can protect themselves just fine. From where, then, does their panic in the face of violence by people of color stem?
The answer is that conservative professional class employees face exactly the same pressures as liberals do under capitalism. Conservative employees are likewise alienated from the means of production. To the extent that their reaction is similar, it’s because it’s conditioned by similar material causes -- they too have given up their autonomy. It’s merely their way of channeling their frustration which differs.
Conservatives love to venerate the American Revolution, with the Boston Tea Party, the Constitution, and citizen militias as common objects of worship. We know that in many parts of colonial America, the citizen revolutionaries elected their officers and engaged in what Murray Bookchin called face-to-face democracy as a means of governing themselves, via the town meeting. Yet, today’s conservative professional class Americans generally do not engage in any of these activities as politics. Just like professional class liberals, for most, politics involves pushing a button every two years and then yelling at people on the internet via angry Facebook posts or dashcam videos.
Conservatives cope with their political and material alienation by identifying with the state as the enforcer of white supremacy, and indeed putting themselves in its place. Even though they personally feel alienated, by identifying with an all powerful state that enforces white supremacy, they receive what W.E.B. Dubois referred to as the wages of whiteness. White supremacy holds that white men are the standard by which everyone else must be judged, and that white people must rule over all others, though, some non-whites may be granted provisional white status if they “earn” it by groveling hard enough and proving their devotion to whiteness by condemning other people of color.
The political right’s appeal to its followers lies in the succor they draw from these wages of whiteness. To the extent that they can identify with the state through their whiteness, they can make themselves out to be better than those without their racial status and more powerful and autonomous than they in fact are as wage slaves like everybody else. And to the extent that a strong system of enforcement for white supremacy makes them feel bigger and stronger, they are happily willing to take part (or pretend to) in the defense of their white homeland.
When a Muslim or immigrant person launches a spree killing, then, the lie behind their comforting illusion is revealed. The American state is not an all powerful white supremacist entity -- if even a non-white person can launch an attack on it from within, is it really that powerful at all? Hence, a person whose emotional stability depends on their identification with the American state as the all-powerful defender of white nationalism as their primary defense against existential dread, has that shield stripped away. This leaves them only with what they had long suppressed: the full horror of life as an alienated subject with very little political agency in anything they do day to day.
This is why conservative professional class Americans have such a massive overreaction to Muslim or immigrant spree killers, much as liberals do to spree killings in general.
People panic over spree killings because the killings expose the lies they use to hide from their material and political alienation. If they’ve justified their lack of power and subjected themselves to state violence in the hopes it will protect them from greater violence, it reveals such protection to be a farce. If they’ve concealed their lack of power by playing a game of pretend whereby their personal ability to enact violence is identified with the violence of an all-powerful white supremacist state, a spree killing by a person of color will collapse the sense of security and racial hierarchy which is the foundation of their self-worth.
An End to Alienation and Powerlessness
So in the end, what can possibly resolve the dialectical tensions of liberal democracy which are made evident by spree killings? In my view, it requires going to the roots -- not treating symptoms, but eliminating the alienation and powerlessness which causes them.
Libertarian socialists, dedicated to radical, face-to-face democracy in all aspects of our lives know that real freedom comes from learning to govern ourselves and from building a world where all can participate in the exercise of self-government whether in the workplace or otherwise. We know there is no fundamental economic barrier to building a maximally democratic polity that overturns workplace alienation and gives people more control over the way they live their daily lives. As we seek to attract others to our beliefs, we must realize that it is not our arguments that will win them over. Rather, it is our ability to address the yawning existential dread that in most people is salved by their faith in the state. Only when we do that will we be successful in convincing more people to join our cause.