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America’s Death Wish


Again we hear (NYT ed., 4/6) about “the damage wrought by the gun lobby,” as though a cabal of manufacturers and other interested parties was responsible for the diseased mentality centered on gun violence in America.  What a convenient scapegoat, when in reality structural-cultural behavioral malfunction taking ideological and political form, increasingly seen in daily life, speaks instead to the institutional core of society.  America exemplifies a social system of puristic capitalism.

Whatever occurs in that matrix, from top to bottom, from targeted assassination to streetcorner hold-ups, from the activities of POTUS to that of the gang member, must be related back to the originative framework, one characterized by militarism, the commission of war crimes, abrogation of the rule of law, policy-designs promotive of unemployment, deregulation, trickle-down wealth distribution accentuating and making worse class differentials of income and power, and inequality as the first principle of life.  In sum, human worth has no intrinsic value or meaning. This profound alienation is not caused by, but is the precedent condition for, gun violence.

How view Newtown, when drones kill more children in a year via collateral damage than a half-century of senseless mayhem?  A deranged killer, or America’s top leadership huddled together on Terror Tuesdays, flipping baseball cards to determine who next is vaporized, just steps off the Situation Room?  To exonerate a dying culture and the death it creates and sucks down with it, is simplistic when before our eyes we see human indifference at every turn, and cover-ups to hide our mechanisms of repression and exploitation, a condition of self-pacification which makes life tolerable and the blood-letting normal.  Violence, of course, has been central to the American experience, over 400 years in the making.  This has been not only individual violence, always present when the political culture sanctions what some can do to others with impunity, but also structural-economic violence, as in the enforcement of slavery and the immiserization of the working class, in both cases reflecting stages of capitalist development in which the organization of the labor force receives prime consideration.

But with the disciplining of labor inevitably comes the legitimation of force per se, part of the inventory of the peacetime army and also franchised out to Pinkertons, strikebreakers, and goon squads of every description.  Suppression was America’s middle name when it came to maintaining the status quo, more recently giving way to subtler means of gaining class advantage (as in stimulating false consciousness), but with the same unmistakable authorization of force should there be the need.

Does this take us to the roots of gun violence?  Probably not.  Antecedently, we must look to how the human personality has been shaped by the specific features of the institutional system–and oddly enough, the starting place for both is the same: the political economy which thrives on the insensate individual, rejects moral standards not generated by or conducive to the property right (the materialization of ethics), and finds war the ideal state for advancing hegemonic interests (as well as disposing of surplus production).  This may seem a stretch in accounting for garden-variety crime, but consider, how would crime, gun violence in particular, be sustained in the absence of invidious distinctions? In juridical principles and practices devoted to the equalitarian administration of justice?  In gross domestic product directed to the well-being of society, not simply its militarization?

The odds are stacked against gun control, let alone gun disappearance.  Cosmetic surgery may follow the recent flurry of interest.  Even then, the pathology of force, intuitively sensing nothing has been done, will create a still deeper penetration of the American psyche.  Here follows my New York Times Comment (Apr. 6) on the gun lobby, an editorial–to its credit—that encounters the problem at least half-way:

The gun lobby would be powerless if the society were genuinely democratic. As it is, America reveals its inmost nature (gun violence providing irrefutable proof): a culture of unrestrained individualism, underpinned by a doctrine of unlimited wealth accumulation, by any means possible. Humans become transvalued as objects, better yet, obstacles, to be run over when they stand in the way of one’s goals, themselves narrowly materialistic. How expect otherwise, given policies at the top favoring assassination, massive defense spending, confrontation with China, paramilitary operations on a global basis?

Desensitization to death, contempt for rule of law, the doctrine of permanent war, all testify to the enshrinement of violence. Demonizing advocates for “gun rights” merely passes the buck. WE are the problem, not the crazies in our midst, and until we take stock of American militarism, poisoning the wellsprings of society’s basic values, there shall be countless more Newtowns in our future, marching stride for stride with interventions, joint exercises, weapons’ development, an atmosphere of shock and awe.

If Obama wishes to make an impact on gun control, let him first forswear the use of armed drones for targeted assassination, campaigns for regime change, and, at home, the slow deaths of our people facing unemployment, foreclosure, and other social diseases brought on directly through deregulation of the economy and the wider militarization of American life.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.


Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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