Gun violence and atomisation
It is not only pacifists who have doubts about the right to bear arms, writes Rex Dunn
‘Thank god we raised the right to bear arms only as a matter of principle’
In the United States gun massacres by citizens against other citizens has become ‘routine’. This poses a real problem for communists; in particular, the democratic demand that the people “have the right to bear arms and defend themselves”.
As Jack Conrad explained during a debate at Communist University 2015,1 this demand appears in the programme of the Second International; the 1880 programme of the French Workers Party, which Marx himself had a hand in writing; followed by the 1891 Erfurt programme of the German Social Democratic Party: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in place of the standing army.” Jack goes on to point out that a historical precedent had already been set by the American revolution of 1776 and the second amendment to the constitution, which reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state and the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
Note the context: the infant United States of America faced the threat of a loyalist counterrevolution. But what about now? Midway through the second decade of the 21st century, the consciousness of the working class across the world is at its lowest ebb - especially in the United States, the world’s most advanced capitalist society. A lot of educating has to be done (and not just on how to use guns!). Workers are unable to defend themselves against austerity or oppose imperialist wars, which are prosecuted in their name, let alone take on the real enemy, its own ruling class. If and when it does, that would be the right time to raise this demand. Meanwhile, there have been 355 gun massacres in the US this year, so far, which averages at more than one per day!
Bearing this in mind, it would be better to defend the right to bear arms in principle, rather than make it a ‘virility’ test of revolutionary credibility. Otherwise we fly in the face of the reality of America’s love affair with guns. Easy access to such weapons is the main reason why the USA has the second highest murder rate in the world. If we do not take this into account, how can we expect to win potential recruits to the communist cause?
From a well-organised citizen’s militia to gun massacres. How did this happen? The United States’ ‘manifest destiny’ (after conquering the continent and cowering its neighbours) was to become, in Adorno’s words, the world’s ‘first completely commercial society’, Hollywood and all. By 1945 the USA had not just become the world’s greatest imperialist power: it would go on to export this to the rest of the world, in the form of neoliberalism and the ‘free market’.
Part of the problem is the truncated history of American labour. Unlike its European counterpart, it never really got beyond militant syndicalism. Therefore it did not form a political party of its own - even a reformist one - able to represent its interests in Congress. American workers put their faith in either the Republicans or the Democrats, which are bourgeois parties from top to bottom. Of course, the October revolution did have an effect on the American masses. But the newly formed Communist Party of the USA remained tiny. Its links with the Comintern were constrained by law.
But the biggest reason for its lack of appeal was the fact, after World War I, that the majority of American workers - many of whom were first-generation immigrants seeking a better life - embraced a growing economy and the idea that, as long as you work hard, you can become rich and live off the ‘fat of the land’. This fostered patriotic illusions - ‘God bless America’ (which remains strong even today, despite the USA’s decline as an industrial power, the destruction of whole communities, etc). But for nearly two decades the USA adopted an isolationist attitude to world events: eg, the rise of fascism in Europe.
Things might have been different after the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the onset of the great depression; but the situation was saved by Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Then came Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, which precipitated America’s entry into World War II. Thus the economy began to expand again, now fully primed by the military-industrial complex.
Unlike the old world, in the new world, Mephistopheles (the bourgeoisie) did not have to make a pact with Faust (social democracy and the Stalinised communist parties) in order head off the revolutionary masses.
Because American labour remained backward as a political force, the US bourgeoisie had a smoother ride. Therefore, post-WWI, given its enormous resources and a growing labour force, as well as the availability of investment capital, the USA was able to develop new technologies, overtaking Britain and Germany (the latter crippled by reparations) and thus establishing itself as the world’s leading industrial power. It not only took the lead with heavy industry and manufacturing. Henry Ford’s model-T Ford provided a template for the age of mass consumerism - mass production of new consumer products, based on standardised design and the assembly line.
These practices were soon applied to other areas of the economy, such as the advertising industry, the news; but also a burgeoning entertainments industry: first came ‘Tin Pan Alley’, the records industry and its conduit, the private radio station, soon to be rivalled by Hollywood and the cinema chain. The moving image proved to be even more exciting. Thus the basis for an entertainments industry was laid, which would go on to make billions of dollars for its corporate owners.
At the same time the feature film began to reflect - as well as reinforce - the prevailing model of social life: On the one hand, the idea of the USA as the ‘land of the free’; on the other, private property and free enterprise, which are sacrosanct, because hard work is rewarded! This includes an ambivalent attitude towards the black economy or the criminal ‘fraternity’. (The days of Al Capone and bootlegging might be gone; but they have been replaced by gang warfare over hard drugs!)
Once you have provided for your family (legally or illegally), you need to protect what’s yours. But guns are no longer needed to defend the body politic and the revolution; they are needed to defend the individual and his property. Moreover they can be purchased easily by mail order or online. Thus the right to bear arms has morphed into an obsession with guns, epitomised by Hollywood and the rest of the entertainments industry.
This is the context for Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of enlightenment (1944). As refugees from fascism in Europe, both ended up in New York. Fresh from the old world of the enlightenment and Marxism, they were plunged into this ‘brave new world’, aka the world’s ‘first fully commercial society’. They already had an impression of the latter, thanks partly to the export of Hollywood films to the European market (NB - Hollywood had enhanced its standing via its willingness to take émigrés from the profession into its bosom: eg, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, etc). But, once he was actually in America, Adorno’s worst fears about the future of art and culture were confirmed.
Whereas Benjamin had tried to maintain a positive attitude towards “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (especially film), Adorno reacted with an equally one-sided pessimism. For the latter, the whole society appeared to be regressing in the face of popular culture. On the one hand, we have the ‘culture industry’: ie, manufactured entertainment by private enterprise (as opposed to that which is spontaneously produced by the people); on the other, the production of authentic art begins to suffocate. Therefore avant garde and popular art “are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up”.2 Contra Benjamin’s take on the distractions of a Charlie Chaplin film, for Adorno, “the laughter of the audience at the cinema is anything but good and revolutionary; instead it is full of the worst bourgeois sadism”.3
The post-war period saw the rise of the transnational corporation (for which the USA provided the first HQ), the rise of the global market and finally the rise of finance capital (centred on Wall Street and, latterly, London). The age of the post-industrial society had begun, characterised by the outsourcing of the old industries to the underdeveloped world, where labour is cheap. As a result, in the developed world, the working class has lost its collective way of life (trade union, cooperative society, the community, etc). State welfare for the poor, the sick and the elderly has been rolled back, along with nationalised industries and services; the right to a job for life and a decent pension is also a thing of the past. In other words, the working class has been atomised once again (cf the early period of the industrial revolution).
But the bourgeois division of labour does not change: Everywhere the worker continues to be fragmented at the psychical level; as Marx says in his Economic and philosophic manuscripts, the bourgeoisie’s need to accumulate capital required a new division of labour, which has a ‘man-crippling’ effect on the worker:
As a consequence of this division of labour ... the worker becomes more and more uniformly dependent on labour, … on a particular, very one-sided and machine-like type of labour [which leaves him/her] depressed, therefore, both intellectually and physically to the level of a machine …4
Here we have the example par excellence of ‘instrumental reason’, whereby thinking is governed solely by ends and means. It won the approval of the greatest bourgeois political economists and it permeates the whole of society. (Only art resisted the dehumanising effects of industrial capitalism: eg, the English Romantic poets.)
This is essentially true today. But under the rule of neoliberalism, the right to strike is once again under attack, along with job security. As a result, many workers are forced to work longer hours for less money, and can be laid off at any time. Hence they become preoccupied with making ends meet. At the same time, they seek distraction in the form of the ‘culture industry’. The latter has become more accessible at the individual level, thanks to the new information technology: ie, the internet and now social media (see below). You can also do your own thing. Therefore, increasingly, the masses live for the moment, waiting for the next thing to ‘go viral’ (however trivial). Whereas the older generation confuse communism with Stalinism (and therefore reject the former as a goal to struggle towards), the youth are not interested in past struggles.
But there is always the exception to prove the rule! Indeed, in 2015 we have seen an upsurge in left populism, both in the USA and Britain. It also relies on internet technology (eg, one can register online as a Labour Party supporter, vote for Jeremy Corbyn, etc). But, as previous internet-led struggles have shown - such as the Arab spring and Occupy - when the class enemy organises the inevitable fightback, such movements fade away. This is because the internet, by its very nature, atomises the individual “both intellectually and physically” (cf the fragmenting effects of the division of labour). It is no substitute for real collective struggle. Therefore the working class is unable to rebuild its own organisations on the ground, let alone reconstitute itself as a revolutionary movement. Thus the mass are more and more exposed to the naked power of commodity exchange, which, “together with its structural consequences, [is] able to influence the total outer and inner life of society”.5
When Lukács wrote those words in the early 1920s, he could not foresee what lay ahead: not only reified consciousness has become more entrenched: it would also return to Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But in 1919 (or thereabouts) the Soviet Union offered this exile (from the defeated Hungarian revolution) a new intellectual home.
Then in 1924, the Stalinist faction turned its back on the world revolution, opting instead for the utopian goal of building ‘socialism in one country’ (however, the ‘gravedigger of the revolution’ would ultimately dig its own grave as well!). Meanwhile, between 1944 and 1948, acting in its own interests - and on behalf of imperialism - the Stalinist bureaucracy ensured the defeat of a new wave of the world revolution, which had sprung up at the end of the war (ranging from Italy and Greece to Indo-China). But the door had already been opened to the United States as the next world imperialist power (ie, since 1924). Post-1945, the US, now the industrial/technological powerhouse of the world, had a free hand to usher in a new kind of society - the mass consumerist/mass-media society - TV on multiple channels pumping out news/propaganda, Hollywood movies or trivia 24/7. (But here the US also found a useful partner in Japan, as producer of audio-visual products. After the atom bomb attacks and military occupation, Japan’s resurrection was overseen with US financial help.) Henceforth, the image would rule supreme (cf the written word in an earlier epoch).
As early as 1938,6 Adorno had already identified the ‘culture industry’, as a new form of mass culture, albeit distinct from traditional folk art: ie,
industrially produced and carefully calculated artefacts ... not works of art, [but] commodities calculated to fulfil the present needs of the masses ... [They] are not genuine ... The audience is meant to amuse itself, [which] is nothing but the elimination of critical thought ... amusement means agreement.7
This takes the form of
Distracted viewing or listening [which] no longer allows for a sense of the totality of the work to develop. Instead the focus of attention turns to disjointed individual stimuli ... the shortening of the attention span [which] leads to infantilisation.8
Violent entertainment, given its excitement factor, is arguably the supreme distraction.
Debord continues this idea of a ‘total system’. In 1967, he published his book, in which he describes the post-war world as “the society of the spectacle”. The latter is not just a product of “the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a Weltanschauung that has actualised, translated into the material realm - a world view transformed into a material force.”9
This is not something added to the real world ... On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality, ... news/propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment - the spectacle epitomises the prevailing model of social life.10
Now, anyone who has access to the internet and the right ‘apps’ can create their own entertainment. Unfortunately, the majority of this individual ‘creativity’ amounts to an imitation of Hollywood values: violent themes or - for light relief - degrading trivia.
In the period of late capitalism, the ‘reified’ masses turn to the culture industry, and technology (from the computer to the mobile phone to the ‘social’ media or socialising in cyberspace; whilst becoming unsocial beings in reality: a friend engages in a long conversation on his mobile, whilst you are socialising together, etc). But the addiction to mass entertainment remains (you can download it onto your tablet). According to Adorno, this can also be seen as an attempt to escape the terror of ‘loss of individuality’:
One attempt to escape such anxieties [is] through the various forms of psychological regression in mass culture. With ‘nothing left for the consciousness but to capitulate before the superior power of the advertised stuff’, the audience seeks to ‘purchase spiritual peace’ by making the goods literally their own thing.11
If you live in the United States, this could be a firearm, which can be easily bought. Other commodities include packaged entertainment, such as a Hollywood action thriller on DVD (or streamed online). But the consumption of entertainment still takes place in the form of atomised listening/viewing.
Many people fantasise about becoming one of their Hollywood heroes. They wear the T-shirt etc. In an extreme case, one alienated individual fantasised about being Batman. He bought an automatic weapon, went to the premier, jumped on the stage and shot dead several members of the audience. Other mass killers have a personal grudge, which they wish to take out on their fellow citizens. Apart from having a cache of weapons and ammunition, a black commando uniform is also de rigueur. Of course, you will probably be shot dead in the process; but at least you know that you will have your moment of fame, because the TV news will broadcast the outrage worldwide!
Too many guns
In October, The Guardian ran an article about the latest school shooting in the US with a byline which read: “994 shootings in 1,004 days: this is what America’s gun crisis looks like”, plus a large graph, detailing the date, place and number of casualties (a total of 1,260 deaths; 3,606 injuries).
Yet in December, 2014, after two decades of polling on the question of the right to bear arms, which is enshrined in the constitution, “those feeling strongly that the rights of Americans to own guns should be bolstered were in the majority”. The Pew Research report stated that, “according to the survey, 52% said it was more important to protect Americans’ right to own guns; in contrast 46% said it was more important to control ownership of the weapons”.
The US gun industry is massive: “Nearly 11 million guns were manufactured in the US in 2013, with 16 million already in circulation after illegal imports were excluded” (US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). The US has
by far the highest rate of guns per capita in the world with 89 for every 100 residents ... This does not mean that 89% of Americans own a gun. [The Pew Survey shows that] about 37% of households had one. [This means that some households own multiple guns.] The US has the highest murder rate after Mexico [which is sinking under a quasi-civil war between the drug barons and the police, army] about two thirds of all those deaths involving a firearm ...12
The Guardian subsequently published another article written by American critic Alex Suskind:
Few films dare to tackle our gun epidemic - perhaps because there’s no catharsis to be had and no end in sight.
We are a nation hopelessly and endlessly addicted to violence, and as such look for the same in our television shows, our books and, of course, our movies. That’s why our multiplexes are filled each year with a cavalcade of big-budget shooter flicks and apocalyptic action fare, both real and fictionalised ... We cheer on the pornographic gore of Mad Max: Fury Road and Lone survivor, the bloodless brutality of Avengers ...
Yet, despite that brutality, there has been curiously little space in film devoted to real-life mass shootings - gun-wielding, American-bred slaughters are basically non-existent on screen ... strange, considering how much money Hollywood contributes toward depicting violence ...
A 2013 study found that in the last 30 years gun violence has tripled in PG-13 movies, with 94% of the most popular projects containing at least one violent scene. And, while tragedies like 9/11 receive the big-screen treatment (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, United 93) - getting mined for every bloody detail, wrung from it every last drip of emotional juice - none of that cash is being devoted to portraying our society’s gun epidemic ...
... after every mass shooting, we are quick to blame the things that are popping up in front of us. It’s easy to put a terrible tragedy squarely on Hollywood’s shoulders instead of the parents, gun laws or mental illness, when in truth it’s some deceptively twisted version of all four. Making a film based off Newtown or Aurora or Littleton is just asking to be thrown into the middle of that debate - one studios are probably not eager to enter ...13
The above article appears to confirm my own observation: the masses are obsessed with violent imagery, because it is exciting and that is why it is entertaining. At the same time, they choose to ignore the real violence, which is going on all around them (unless it visits them in person).
However, while Suskind is strong on observation, he is short on analysis. At the very least, he could have examined the role of the National Rifle Association as chief sponsor of the firearms industry in the United States. On the one hand, it spends a huge amount of money lobbying Congress to get the lawmakers on the industry’s side (business is business!). This amounts to bribing the people’s representatives to ensure that they vote against gun control legislation. Therefore people can still buy firearms with a minimum of background checks. They can also buy assault rifles more suited for the battlefield than self-defence at home: ie, guns which fire rapid rounds and have large magazines (ideal for a school massacre!). On the other hand, the NRA spends millions of dollars on advertising campaigns against gun control, centring around the constitutional right to bear arms.
The NRA has been quick to respond to the problem. Early in 2013, Media Matters for America posted an article which stated:
At a press conference held at a Washington DC hotel, the National Rifle Association’s leadership responded to the tragic mass shooting at a Newtown CT elementary school by decrying the impact of violent movies on our culture. Less than 20 miles away, their organisation’s museum was hosting a laudatory exhibit on the firearms used in popular violent films.
[NRA executive vice-president, Wayne LaPierre] passed blame to what he called “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people”, specifically highlighting “the blood-soaked slasher films like American psycho and Natural born killers that are aired like propaganda loops”.
... museum senior curator Phil Schreier says: “We encourage you to come by and visit this sequel and come see a true blockbuster here in Fairfax, where all the stars of the silver screen have descended into these galleries and are represented by some of the firearms that we’ve fallen in love with in our youth and our adulthood, wishing that we too could be like our matinee idols.”
Gun expert Tom Diaz has detailed how the NRA and the firearms industry use violent movies to sell more guns, including the role of the ‘Hollywood Guns’ museum exhibit. As he explains, the exhibit is based in the museum’s William B Ruger Gallery, named for the founder of the Sturm, Ruger and Company firearms company. Diaz also points out that Ruger himself blamed violent movies and television for gun violence, not the availability of the firearms themselves.
Diaz also highlights how firearms companies seek to have their guns featured in violent movies, particularly pointing to the rise of Glock handguns as in part a result of their strategy to get the guns into the hands of Hollywood prop houses ...14
In the course of this article, Media Matters also claimed that “academic research has discredited the notion that violent movies encourage violent behaviour”, whereas the truth of the matter is that academic research is unable to prove the case either way, because the causes of gun violence are multi-faceted.
Still it is hypocritical of the NRA to place all the blame on the entertainment industry. A central plank of its argument is that it is defending the constitutional right of American citizens to bear arms. It claims, somewhat tenuously, that most gun owners use them responsibly, either to protect themselves or their property. As already mentioned, the latest opinion polls confirm that the American public also agree with this one-sided argument (the NRA’s advertising campaigns have proved to be worthwhile!).
Decline as concept
Just like Lukács, Adorno and Debord, communists today are also in danger of being overtaken by events, which point to the decline of capitalism itself.
Hillel Ticktin states that decline occurs when the “poles of contradiction” become more and more difficult to mediate. Bureaucracy then becomes “the mediation between use value and exchange value, [made] necessary, because all other forms have broken down in terms of political economy”. Then
finance capital became a new and necessary form to mediate the contradiction ... imperialism ... succeeded in maintaining capitalism for a time ... War and the cold war ... are other examples ... [But] they are extreme forms which have limited lives ... What happens, however, if there is no new mediation possible between the poles of contradiction? Then disintegration ensues.15
... unemployment [in the developed world]; mass unemployment in the third world; ... failure to use the means of production to their full potential, degradation of labour-power and capital with the use of drugs and criminal activity; the increasing gap between what labour-power can produce [necessary use-values, which enhance human life] and what it does produce, that is the increasing effects of alienation on production; the destruction of the means of production and of mankind itself are all manifestations of decay ... the inhuman nature of modern production of use-values and associated advertising [applies] right across the board from bloated expenditure on means of warfare to junk food,16 there is considerable expenditure on the state and so the means of control over the population in terms of the ... police forces, [mass surveillance], bureaucratic supervision and the army.17
In a nutshell,
Some people argue that decline must show itself in an absolute decline, [with] visible symptoms of a civilisation going in a downwards direction ... The standard of living, growth, morality, education and the overall standard of living from this point of view, must all decline.1813
This is the situation we are in now. Meanwhile commodity fetishism holds universal sway, “permeating every expression of life” (Lukács). Yet in his EPM, Marx says that, somehow, “inhuman, unsocial man” must become “social, human man”. But, as the United States shows - as leader of the ‘free world’ - the former appears to be becoming the default position of man as a ‘species being’, which is reflected and reinforced by the mass media.
Gun massacres must be seen in the context of all of the above. They have the following characteristics:
- They are irrational terrorist attacks on fellow citizens.
- They are random in character and could occur in any urban situation.
- They have no political agenda (cf Islamic State attacks in Beirut, Paris, the blowing up of a Russian passenger jet, etc. IS is the bastard child of imperialist wars in the Middle East).
- Although gun massacres do occur in other countries, they are far more frequent in the United States.
- Although they are not new to US life, they have become more frequent, reaching a record high in 2015 (355 so far; sometimes two a day).
- In that sense, this is a new phenomenon: the nadir of self-alienation, the hallmark of “inhuman, unsocial man”.
Therefore, when we raise the demand for the right to bear arms, communists should bear in mind the fact that, given the unprecedented rise of gun violence in the United States, it has becomes much harder to justify such a demand. This is a huge problem within late/declining capitalism, which needs to be properly addressed.
Otherwise we are in danger of resorting to a knee-jerk response - such as the accusation of “pacifism” - against anyone who dares to argue to the contrary. I for one, am not a pacifist, so this just will not do!
2. Adorno to Benjamin, March 18 1936, quoted in E Lunn Marxism and modernism London 1984, p156. Adorno does not dismiss mass culture - just its alienated form of production. He could have added that the bourgeois division of labour - as Marx points out in his Economic and philosophic manuscripts- is the main reason for the chasm between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ art, which the industry exploits, and the masses imitate.
4. K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/epm/1st.htm.
6. See TW Adorno, ‘On the fetish character of music and the regression of listening’ (1938): www.musiccog.ohio-state.edu/Music839B/Approaches/Adorno.html.
8. TW Adorno, ‘On the fetish character of music and the regression of listening’ (1938): www.musiccog.ohio-state.edu/Music839B/Approaches/Adorno.html.
11. TW Adorno, ‘On the fetish character of music and the regression of listening’ (1938): www.musiccog.ohio-state.edu/Music839B/Approaches/Adorno.html. Cf the educated classes, who can evade the terror of this crisis of individuality through authentic artworks.
16. He could have added: movies which depict fetishised violence; assault weapons for private use; the fetishisation of technology, such as the urge to upgrade one’s iPhone or car. At the same time the state and the media call for cuts in public spending.