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Who's the Villain?

The Vilification of Teachers and Muslims

by ELLIOT SPERBER

Among the issues raised by the Chicago teachers’ strike is the one involving the villainization of labor. Yet, while teachers have been shamelessly conflated in the corporate media with the very gluttons who are in fact fleecing the teachers of their pensions and other benefits, it is important to bear in mind that teachers, and labor in general, are far from the only ones being villainized in the ongoing efforts to privatize what were until relatively recently socially – rather than privately – controlled resources.

Indeed, a far broader, and deeper, historical phenomenon is at play. In addition to the ongoing villainization of organized labor appearing and reappearing in the press, as well as in popular films and other media, social welfare recipients have also been subjected to villainization recently, as well as over the past few decades. To be sure, who is not familiar with consumer society’s archetype of the ‘welfare queen’? Beyond its misogyny (who ever hears of welfare kings?), and the lopsided classism that villainizes welfare recipients while simultaneously accepts the common-sensical naturalness of, for example, agricultural policies that subsidize millionaires’ and billionaires’ dairy empires, it completely distorts social reality. Still, one finds no dearth of stories villainizing food-stamp beneficiaries. That this villainization does not end there seems widely understood. However, in order to arrive at anything beyond a superficial understanding of villainy, it is important to acknowledge that it does not start there either.

For a better understanding of the phenomenon of villainization – which is a historical no less than a criminological phenomenon – it is instructive to consider the meaning of the term villain. Long before it designated a criminal, the term villain, or villeiny, referred specifically to the peasantry. Though generally forgotten, during the centuries-long period of enclosure acts that began in the late Middle Ages, the lands that the peasantry had historically lived off of – and, importantly, enjoyed rights to under feudal era law – were commodified and sold. As a result of this shift in property relations, the peasantry/villeiny was kicked off their land and into a world of increasingly privatized social relations. Deprived of their former resources, many could only offset starvation by theft, among other petty crimes. And herein lies the origin of the term villain as a designation for a criminal.

Expelled from their homes, this freshly created class of poor people was treated with extreme harshness in England. From the reign of Henry VIII and well into the eighteenth century, any person caught begging would be deemed a vagabond and sentenced to six months imprisonment. A second violation received a two-year prison sentence. And a third violation earned its perpetrator a sentence of death. Thefts, as well, were punished with death – and to such an extent that in the reign of Henry VIII alone (1509-1547) “72,000 great and petty thieves were put to death.” That is, about 1,900 people a year were killed for 38 years simply for theft. Throughout the period following the mass privatization of formerly collective lands, multitudes were sent off to the colonies to further privatize the world. Resistance to these conditions was met with not only swift and violent punishment, but as a preventative measure to such breaches of the new security, new institutional and ideological apparatuses were constructed. Not only did prison and poorhouse populations explode during this time, new notions of identity and morality were constructed, securing the new system.

For, not only were those resisting these new social arrangements branded (often literally) as criminals, further blurring the distinction between the villeiny and villainy, it would not be long before a pseudo-science sought to explain and naturalize this criminality – deflecting people’s attention from the actual, historical causes of these conditions. At the same time that Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, and the Declaration of Independence was being penned, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was writing his treatise On the Natural Variety of Mankind, in which he established the concept of race which deemed much of the world’s people inferior to “caucasians,” one of the founding studies of what came to be known as Criminal Anthropology was composed. In his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), the Swiss deacon Johann Kaspar Lavater presented arguments linking physical characteristics to crime, further justifying the dominant position of those in power. By the 19th century, in French studies of the social origins of disease, the poor were identified as “a race apart,” a barbarian, uncivilized multitude – that is, “science” not only established that the former villeiny were villains in the criminological sense, but that their condition was physically unavoidable as well. Unsurprisingly, within a few hundred years of the enclosure acts, these new historical conditions were taken for natural normalcy. As Karl Marx put it, “By the nineteenth century, the very memory of the connection between the agricultural laborer and community property has, of course, vanished.”

Additionally, as kidnapped and exported Europeans and Africans were being villainized, and the concept of race was being concocted from a blend of superstition and science to justify the colonization and privatization of the world, these lands’ indigenous inhabitants were being villainized as well. Under the imperialistic dogma holding that their ways of life were obstructing progress and civilization, native peoples were increasingly criminalized for merely existing in ways that did not conform to this privatization of the frontier. Of course, there are some exceptions. However, it is important to note that, while in England the peasant/villein became the villain, in what was to become the US it was the Native American whose land was taken. As such, in some respects the Native American, as an obstacle to capitalist “development,” assumed the position of iconic villain in the United States. To be sure, today’s privatization of a new international frontier calls to mind just this earlier period’s villainization of natives.

For beyond the ongoing villainization of organized labor and the poor, people of color, the homeless, debtors, immigrants, and political activists, not to mention whistleblowers and journalists like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, there is an international correlate to this villainization of people in, perhaps most visibly these days, the villainization of Muslims. Just as Native Americans were deemed to interfere with progress and productivity on the frontier of capitalism and privatization, and those who merely sought to live in their own way were marked as villains – a designation which justified their destruction, the appropriation of their land, and the extraction of its minerals – there exists today a comparable relationship internationally between the US’ and Muslims. Tellingly, Muslims are even referred to as (American) “Indians” in US military operations along this new frontier. This designation itself, however, has a considerable history.

For example, in one of its earliest overseas wars of conquest in the Philippines, US soldiers not only villainized Filipinos, they referred to them as “Indians.” During the Vietnam War, as well, the Vietnamese were referred to as “Indians.” Moreover, war zones were described as “Indian country.” When the first Gulf War broke out, these designations also recurred. And they are still employed by US soldiers and officers. Like others before them, Iraqi and Afghan belligerents are not only seen as obstructing the privatization of the new frontier (let’s not forget, the very first thing US forces did upon invading Afghanistan was to secure an important oil pipeline), they are referred to as “Indians,” too. In light of this, it seems almost predictable that the code-name for the mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden was Operation Geronimo.

Whereas Native Americans, and natives in general, however, were deemed to be villains, perhaps owing to an inflationary rhetoric Muslims are branded as super-villains – that is, as terrorists. Muslims, though, are far from the only ones being defined as terrorists. The super-villain category of terrorist is applied domestically, too. While white militia types aren’t generally so designated, activists involved in direct-action political activities in defense of the environment, who directly interfere with the privatization of the earth, are so labelled – as eco-terrorists. That is, just as it was during the period of the enclosures, it is the interference with the efforts of privatization and capitalist expansion that in the end determines who the label of villain will be applied to. But if Muslims, activists, teachers, journalists, whistleblowers, and others obstructing the privatization of the planet are being villainized, and villainization, related to criminalization, is in many respects a criminal justice issue, a consideration of villainization’s relationship to notions of justice may further clarify the situation.

While political and social theorists largely agree that a given society’s success can be measured by the degree to which justice is achieved, few agree on what justice in fact means. Recent efforts at articulating a lucid conception of justice have resulted in many overlapping, and at times conflicting, notions. These range from justifications for revenge – referred to as retributive justice – to theories of justice that concentrate on preventing injustices from arising in the first place, creating the conditions which justice requires in order to be realized. An example of this latter notion of justice is distributive justice, which seeks to distribute resources in a  just manner.

Somewhere between retributive justice and distributive justice theories rests the theory of restorative justice. Restorative justice sees justice arising from the restoration of a wronged party’s pre-wronged position. And while distributive and restorative justice tend to be viewed as distinct notions, a critical look at the former reveals that in at least one crucial respect theories of distributive justice are highly flawed to the degree that they neglect to consider a certain restorative justice dimension.

Advocates of distributive justice argue that a society’s resources ought to be distributed in an equitable manner. Beyond taking the position that people have an ethical duty to help one another, these advocates tend to contend that there is a human rights aspect to this as well: all people have a right to a certain basic level of welfare. As such, resources need to be distributed in such a way as to allow all people to benefit. This is objectionable only to the degree that the historical dimension just discussed is overlooked. That is, there is considerably more to this ‘injustice which demands correction’ than the moral issue of inequitable resource distribution. Beyond the wrong inhering in the situation which finds some having so much food that, for example, it rots before they can even use it – or they destroy it intentionally to  keep up its exchange-value, while people are starving to death the world over – lies the wrong of how they acquired control of so many resources in the first place. The obverse of this, of course, is how the rest of the world lost control of these resources.

Unlike their ideology has it, the few did not come into possession of the majority of the world’s resources by virtue of a more successful cultivation of the land, or a greater work ethic. Rather, the historical fact is that this acquisition was carried out by means of a conquest that itself constitutes a monumental series of harms. As the paraphrase to Balzac’s remark in his Pere Goriot puts it, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime. And the great fortunes deriving from the enclosure, privatization, and sale of what was formerly commonly owned land in Britain and Europe, among other places, not to mention the genocidal conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia, among the other former colonial possessions of the modern empires, are not excepted from Balzac’s observation. Indeed, the persuasiveness of distributive justice theories lies not so much in the recognition that the great majority of the resources of the world are held in a very few hands and that an equitable distribution of these would contribute to a just world. This is only part of these theories’ persuasiveness. The other part rests in the recognition that these very resources were once – and not very long ago, either – more or less held in common by most people in the world, and were only concentrated into extreme wealth by way of a series of murderous expropriations – privatizations – coupled with the villainization – then as now – of the victims of these acts. As such, the redistribution of the world’s wealth is not simply a matter of distributive justice, it is a matter of restorative justice as well.

In light of the above, one may wonder whether we ought to deepen and expand the debate concerning the villainization of the world’s people, and the privatization of the world’s resources, to encompass a discussion of the legitimacy of property laws, among others, as well as of the legitimacy of the capitalist economic system as a whole. Furthermore, one may want to consider whether villainization, which involves turning peasants into criminals no less than it accompanies policies that turn people into industrial and post-industrial peasants, has still further meanings. Indeed, the villainization of the rich, of the owners of the world, may mean more than merely regarding, or charging, the rich as criminals. It may also be interpreted to mean transforming the rich as well into peasants. And, perhaps, if all are villeinized, we will finally be through with villeins, and a just society (not just a more just society) may emerge from the shadows of the past.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com