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The Appeal of Violence

Rage Killings in the Neoliberal World

by JEFF SPARROW

‘Misogyny is nothing new, but there is a specific and frightening trend taking place, and if we’re not going to accept it, we have to call it by its name. The title of the PUA bible belies the truth: this is not a game. Misogynist extremism does not exist in a mystical digital fairyland where there are no consequences. It is real. It does damage. It kills.’

That’s from Laurie Penny’s impassioned response to the atrocity in Santa Barbara.

Her point seems undeniable: certain misogynistic online subcultures were to this crime what the counterjihad websites were to Anders Breivik’s murder spree, providing the killer with the moral framework necessary for his actions.

Yet necessary is not the same as sufficient. Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic massacre was not simply misogynistic, it was also a massacre – a fact that also requires explanation (without for a moment disputing Penny’s argument).

So common have rage massacres become in America that we take their conventions for granted. The stealthy preparation, the rambling manifesto, the berserk yet systematic rampage culminating in suicide by gunshot: we all know that tripartite generic structure, just as much as Rodger did.

But in a study of what he calls the ‘autogenic massacre’, forensic psychologist Paul Mullen [paywall] makes a simple but crucial point:

Mass killings of this type, unlike family slayings and killings as part of other criminal enterprises, appear to be a modern phenomenon in western society.

Reports of autogenic massacres do not even begin to appear until the twentieth century and only emerge as a recurring theme in the last thirty years.

These are, in other words, crimes of the modern era. Humans have murdered each other since Cain killed Abel – but very rarely in this particular fashion.

Very rarely, that is, until recently. For, as Mother Jones notes:

Since 1982, there have been at least 70 mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Thirty-three of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006. Seven of them took place in 2012, and another five occurred in 2013, including in Santa Monica, California, and at the Washington Navy Yard. The first five months of 2014 brought another bloodbath at Fort Hood, Texas, and mass killings in northern and southern California.

As I’ve argued before, the most interesting attempt to historicise the rage massacre comes from Mark Ames’ book Going Postal. Ames’ title reminds us that, in the US, such killings were once synonymous with postal workers (a historical fact that now seems almost quaint). That’s why he identifies the rise of rage massacres with Reaganomics: he suggests that neoliberal reforms to the postal service reduced job satisfaction, placed employees under unbearable stress and transformed workplaces into cesspits of toxic bullying.

Signfiicantly, when Ames’ interviewed massacre survivors, some expressed a remarkable sympathy for the shooters, while very few surprises at the crimes. They’d expected something to give, they said, even if they hadn’t known quite what.

Ames notes the migration of rage massacres from the workplace (in the 80s) to the school (during the 1990s), a trajectory that followed the generalization of neoliberal principles into the US education system. In their suicide notes, school shooters also referenced prolonged bullying, as the entrepreneurial values of mainstream American culture found schoolyard expression in concentrated form, and the gulf between the school’s winners and its losers became more pronounced and more significant.

Like the workplace gunman, the teenage killer embraced mass murder as a brutal and incoherent expression of social despair.

That makes more sense if we think of the perpetrators’ relationship to violence. These are killed performed less to achieve a specific goal (at least as we normally understand that term) than as an end in itself – violence valorized as violence rather than because of its outcome. (In that respect, Anders Breivik, who did outline a strategic plan, belongs in a different category, even if certain parallels can be drawn between him and American rage killers).

Why does violence appeal?

War – the most widespread and socially acceptable form of violence – provides a clue.

‘Even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life,’ says Chris Hedges in his War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. ‘[…] Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversation and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. ….[T]hose who have the least meaning in their lives […], even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.’

Writing of Vietnam, Philip Caputo described how going into battle made him feel ‘happier than [he] ever had’. In his book Trained to Kill, Theodore Nadelson quotes another Vietnam vet who says of combat: ‘I discovered freedom. I don’t have that now, and I miss it – it’s terrible how much I miss it.’

You can find similar passages from almost all wars. But the early years of the Great War offer the most striking examples, simply because throughout the combatant nations, last sections of the public expressed, at least initially, an almost elemental enthusiasm for the conflict.

In Australia, Prime Minister Billy Hughes declared frankly that it would save the nation from ‘moral, aye, and physical degeneration and decay, by which we were slipping down with increasing velocity into the very abyss of degeneration. [W]e were becoming flabby, and were in danger of losing the ancient qualities which made the race. This war has purged us, and is still purging us like the glorious beams of the sun.’

Across Europe, as the historian Eric Leeds explains, ‘It was commonly felt that with the declaration of war, the populations of European nations had left behind an industrial civilisation with its problems and conflicts and were entering a sphere of action ruled by authority, discipline, comradeship and common purpose.’

The visceral militarism of 1914 explicitly contrasted a peacetime that left citizens alienated, purposeless and vaguely discontented, with a war that promised to restore the traditional values and ideals supplanted by modernity. The industrialised order reduced men to anonymous cogs in machines; war would bring back heroism and gallantry to a world that was ‘old and cold and weary,’ as Rupert Brooke says. Battle meant honour and purpose and camaraderie; peace was inane and emasculating, dominated by those Brooke called ‘half-men’.

Crucially, the world away from which men were turning in 1914 was one in which the industrial order was still new, a process that had only recently brought millions of people who had previously lived on the land under the sway of commodity relations. The wrenching novelty of that experience, the sense of shock and dislocation generated by what was then a new phenomenon, helps explain the visceral enthusiasm for war.

Industrialization is obviously no novelty in twenty-first century America. Nevertheless, since the 1980s, ordinary Americans have experienced a social dislocation in its own way almost as profound, as the neoliberal revolution has fundamentally reshaped everyday life. The systematic destruction of postwar reforms has weakened – and, in some cases, dissolved altogether – long standing social bonds, extending market relations into every nook and cranny of the public sphere.

In that context, violence can possess the same appeal as it did in 1914: presenting itself as a miraculous restorative, an antidote to an ordinary life experienced as a living death.

Obviously, a social argument cannot supplant psychological diagnosis. Almost by definition, perpetrators of mass killings are disturbed individuals, whose specific disorders are a necessary component of their awful deeds. Yet their crimes take place in a particular context, one that makes specific social scripts (for instance, multiple murders) seem more viable than others (say, individual suicide).

So let’s return to the particular subculture that seems to have informed Elliot Rodger’s manifesto.

If the neoliberal revolution initially focused on the privatisation and corporatisation of the public sphere, it quickly moved to exploit our sexual lives. Indeed, as traumatic as the dislocation of work has been, the transformation of sexuality has arguably been more profound, as our most intimate acts and most secret yearnings have been reframed market terms.

The PUA subculture with which Rodger was obsessed perfectly exemplifies desire as experienced by the neoliberal, entrepreneurial self. As Neil Strauss’ bestselling book indicates, PUAs understand sexual encounters as ‘a game’, a competitive engagement between antagonistic and atomised individuals that necessarily produces winners and losers. Each rational agent must calculate profits, losses and gains; each bears sole responsibility for the outcome of chosen actions, irrespective of whatever external constraints they face.

In their analysis of the new neoliberal subject, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval explain:

The self-entrepreneur is a being made to “succeed”, “to win”,’ write. ‘[…] This is true of the professional world but also of many other areas – for example, sexuality. In the vast “psychological” discourse that analyses them, encourages them and surrounds them with advice of every kind today, sexual practices become exercises in which everyone is encouraged to compare themselves with the socially requisite norm of performance. Number and duration of relationships, quality and intensity of orgasms, variety and attributes of partners, numbers and types of positions, stimulation and maintenance of the libido at all ages – these become the subject of detailed inquiries and precise recommendations.

The sexual market therefore replicates all the contradictions of markets more generally. It is, on one hand, a locus of equality, in which absolutely everything can be bought and sold; on the other hand, it replicates and intensifies traditional oppressions, precisely because it refuses to acknowledge they exist.

Rodger’s anger stemmed from his perception that he had been denied commodities that should have been available on the sexual shelf.

‘I’ve wanted love, affection, adoration,’ he said. ‘You think I’m unworthy of it. That’s a crime that can never be forgiven.’

What greater offense against the market is there than refusing to trade?

In Slate, Amanda Hess records the response by a PUA site called Strategic Dating Coach to Rodger’s complaints about his sex life. ‘He should have gone to our website and got our personal dating coaching or purchased one of our products.’

This is, of course, the quintessential neoliberal perspective: individuals must augment themselves however they can to avoid failures for which they will be entirely responsible.

‘The fact that these men see “game” as the remedy to all personal and social ills,’ writes Hess, ‘is perhaps the greatest indictment of the way they view the world.’

She explains that Rodgers belonged to a site called Puahate.com:

a website for men who feel they’ve been tricked by the Pick-Up Artist pyramid scheme, which takes men’s money and promises to teach them how to have sex with women. (And not just any woman, but one who scores at least a 7 on the PUA decimal rating scale of female attractiveness.) PUA Hate is a community devoted to criticizing the Pick-Up Artist movement and “the scams, deception, and misleading marketing techniques used by dating gurus and the seduction community to deceive men and profit from them.” It is not, however, interested in putting an end to the PUA community’s objectification of women; it simply complains that the tips and tricks don’t work.

If, then, there’s a whiff of fascism in Rodger’s manifesto, that’s not entirely coincidental. He’s tried the courses, he’s trialled the techniques – and still the commodity called ‘love’ remains unavailable.

The young man in those awful videos presents as a petty proprietor, enraged because he’s been tricked out of what should be rightfully his. His is the scream of the worm who wants to be a dragon, the rage of the little man oppressed by forces he doesn’t understand and seeking an outlet upon which his fury might be vented.

One thinks of the line from the Leonard Cohen song: ‘Lie beside me baby, that’s an order!’

‘[H]e is dead who will not fight/And who dies fighting has increase,’ wrote Julian Grenfell (another soldier poet) during the Great War. Grenfell’s verse concludes by exulting a berserker state that sounds remarkably familiar:

And when the burning moment breaks,

And all things else are out of mind,

And only joy of battle takes

Him by the throat, and makes him blind …

If it’s true that rage murderers like Rodgers crave something similar – the ‘burning moment’ in which ‘all things else’ leave their minds and they can feel, for an instant, a heroism and significance entirely lacking from their day-to-day lives – what are the implications?

The argument suggests that, while it’s essential to challenge what Penny calls ‘misogynist extremism’, that can only be the starting point. One can easily imagine the next gunman might massacre Muslims or gays so as to experience the ‘joy of battle’, to feel he belonged, even if only for a few minutes, to a familiar hierarchy from an idealised past. Certainly, there’s no shortage of unhappy, alienated young men out there.

War presents the traditional values of the left, albeit in an inverted fashion. In combat, soldiers find excitement, meaning, purpose and camaraderie – alongside, of course, brutality, hierarchy, destruction and cruelty.

To put it another way, the appeal of violence constitutes an indictment of a peacetime order in which so many people cannot find much worth living for. Yes, we need to combat the misogynists and the racists. But we also need to build something better.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.