Capitalism has an amazing duality inherent in its structure. It can build homes in Fordist fashion yet yields homelessness. It can produce enough food for all yet turns a blind-eye as much of the world starve. It discovers cures for diseases but denies them to those afflicted. In short, this polarity is exactly that: profoundly positive at one end and woefully negative at the other.
One of the most shameful aspects at capitalism’s negative end of the spectrum is that far too often its victims are voiceless, nameless individuals. Here we might think of a starving baby in Mogadishu or an AIDS victim in Botswana. Although I can still remember as a child pleas from NGO’s and charity organizations that gave some voice to these victims while at the same time legitimating states and corporations by concealing the larger crimes from which such victims are suffering—but that is another part of the larger story. Instead let’s turn our attention to the 2,500 Greeks who have killed themselves since economic crisis beset the ancient land in 2010 or to US veterans who, unable to find solace either, take similar means toward that ultimate end at a rate of roughly 20 suicides per day.
What is interesting to take note of here is that these are not passive victims, rather they are active in their own demise; they take their own lives. These people, who once loved and were loved, who laughed and made others laugh, who cried tears of joy and tears of pain, made a conscious decision to end their own existence. Many might assert that they gave up, they still had a chance, and they could have opted for a different—for any other—route. And too often people dismiss such victimization as exactly that: they took the “easy way out” and therefore examinations of exigent circumstances aren’t required. Such thought processes mean we effectively exculpate ourselves for any complicity we may have had in their passing. That is why when someone leaves behind any insights into what drove him or her to extremes, it is important to look into them critically.
In 2010 Andrew Joseph Stack, an engineer, flew his small airplane into an IRS building in Austin, TX. Killing himself and an IRS manager, Vernon Hunter, Stack was angered at the IRS, blaming them for being left penniless, compelling him to act as he did. Let me be clear from the outset, Stack’s action was ignoble as a seemingly innocent life was additionally claimed. This is something I will return to. Stack left behind a memo outlining his life and explaining his desperate action, a denouement that unfolds the life of a single person and the history of the United States at once.
As a young man Stack recalls living next to an elderly woman, the widower of a unionized steel worker whose pension was stolen by management, she was left to live off of Social Security and cat food. Stack brings up Arthur Anderson, the corrupt accounting firm complicit in the Enron Scandal, as having lobbied for the introduction of a regressive, 1986 tax law that rendered engineers like him at a disadvantage. He goes on to talk of the loss of military contracting jobs in Southern California, a hallmark of postwar growth-liberalism that became a harbinger of 1990’s neoliberalism. Stack writes at length about rapidity of over-accumulative busts that characterize the neoliberal period and how the rich get bailed-out with “HIS MONEY!!” while the rest of us, like him, “rot and die”. Left with nothing after a lifetime of giving everything, so it was that Stack took upon himself the unthinkable.
More recently, a member of the LAPD and US Navy, Christopher Dorner left behind another such memo. As a black man, after a lifetime of enduring abusive racial epithets and witnessing the all-too-well documented racism and violence of the LAPD, as well as being a target of its systematic character assassination for speaking out against such injustices, Dorner, so enraged, is waging a war against his former co-workers and their families. Again, this is not an act to be defended but condemned as two seemingly innocent people have already lost their lives. However, this is not our purpose here and I will return to such connections, however tenuous, later.
Dorner pens in considerable detail the dates and times of abuses perpetrated by his fellow officers against the most hapless members of our society they are supposed to serve and protect. These include a mentally ill man and an elderly woman. Dorner recounts how Nazi songs celebrating the burning of Jewish Ghettos were sang to a Jewish police recruit. And of course he writes about how causally LAPD members, even in his presence, used the word “nigger”. When Dorner followed protocol he was abraded, eventually being discharged, left without anything including what was most important to him—his “name”. Like Stack, Dorner felt there was but one path to take, which is ultimately suicidal.
In Stack’s “manifesto”, he quotes Karl Marx. Ironically, Marx is useful here. Explaining how human labor-power is objectified in commodities, which then become realized as social relations once they are put to use, Marx demonstrates how through our labor, which is our dominant mode of social relation, we are all connected. Marx was fond of using linen as an example. A weaver’s social value is realized after a person wears a coat made by the tailor. That is, these heretofore unrelated persons now share a common relationship. If we expand upon this and ask how many people today are involved in producing the coat we wear, from the electricity that powers the sewing machines to the petrol used for delivery, the answer is infinite; the answer is all of us. Marx further explains how once the “universal equivalent”, or money, is supplanted as a metric for our labor, that organization of production tends toward profit rather than collective good.
This is a powerful tool in understanding how we share a common relationship with a destitute Greek worker or an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD and/or other psychological disorders. With wages earned from our labor we purchase German goods, exacerbating the economic imbalance between Germany and peripheral countries like Greece, thereby adding to the extreme suffering Greek workers are being forced to endure. It can explain how a solider, upon his or her return home, cannot easily reveal that the jingoist notions of freedom, liberty and security we are all imbued with had no role to play in the killing that we as a society, at least through our taxes, tacitly asked of them. It can further explain how police can criminalize the indigent for their own victimization. As Stack described, the loss of jobs from L.A. caused some Los Angelians to lose their already precarious footing in American society, namely Blacks and Latinos. Combined with systemic, inter-generational poverty and racism, it is all too easy to mistake the symptoms of this malaise for its etiology.
This is not an indictment of particular individuals or as members of society. Nor is it meant to be a blanket justification for individuals’ improper actions. Rather it is meant as a wedge to insert into the fissures that each day widens on our societal edifice so that we can widen them further. In so doing, it calls upon us to examine less reflexively and more critically our own roles we play in society. It is only through critical inquires that we can hope to reorganize our social relations in order to minimize human tragedy and maximize human potential. After all things are never as they appear on the surface and the more we dig, the less most of us like what we find.
Benjamin J. George is a social justice activist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org