ZNet, October 16, 2015
The presidential candidate Ben Carson should be relegated before long to the dunce-bin of political history. Before he disappears, however, we might take a closer look at his bone-chilling and tone-deaf suggestion that the victims of the recent mass shooting in an Oregon community college were complicit in their own deaths because they failed to rush their heavily armed killer. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (Carson’s former profession) to see how brain dead and tone-deaf that argument is. But let’s resist the temptation to engage Carson’s “reasoning” by mentioning the obvious barriers to such split-second group action on the part of everyday people. “Never argue with an idiot,” an old saying goes: “you might be confused with one.”
Why mention Carson’s comment at all? Because it is indicative of the vicious, victim-blaming savagery of the neoliberal “personal responsibility” narrative that has taken hold in the United States at the behest of the nation’s ruling capitalist class over the last four decades. Carried to extremes by right-wing Republicans like Carson, this narrative “can imagine,” in the words of the prolific left cultural theorist Henry Giroux, “public issues only as private concerns.” It works, Giroux notes, to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” all questions of social inequality and oppression to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity.” Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation as “a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of the poor and oppressed. Popular and governmental efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are relentlessly portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, and “anti-American.” It all comes down to personal and group irresponsibility on the part of those on the wrong end of structural disparity and oppression. “They did it to themselves” is a central article of American doctrine and not just in the Republican Party.
In the Oregon atrocity, Carson shamelessly applied the same basic viewpoint to community college students and a teacher mowed down by the automatic weapon of a mass murderer. According to Carson, it is your own personal and small-group fault for letting a mass shooting take place in your immediate proximity. Yes, that’s right, rugged and serious Americans, you must gather your wits, pull yourself up by your boot-straps, and rally yourself and your fellow citizen-patriots to charge straight at the well-armed mass killers in your schools, workplaces, and shopping malls! Get it together, American mass-shooting victims: rise up off your lazy and fearful butts and attack those killers with your bodies! Take some personal responsibility: don’t expect Big Government and its laziness-inducing welfare state to stop those bullets! You certainly must not ask U.S. authorities to do what a conservative-led Australian government did after a shooter wiped out 35 people in Tasmania in April of 1996. Australia undertook a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, roughly one-fifth of all firearms in circulation there. It passed strict laws that prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required gun buyers to provide a “genuine reason” for “needing” each weapon at time of purchase – and “self-defense” did not qualify. Australia hasn’t had a major gun massacre since. Gun homicides and suicides fell dramatically there in the wake of the new legislation.
A nasty irony is that the culture and politics of neoliberal capitalism – carried to absurd extremes in the Republican Party and in Carson’s comment on the Oregon atrocity – are great driving forces behind the generation of a rising number of people so deranged as to murder on a mass scale and equipped to do so. Whence this rising internal cadre of homicidal sociopaths in the U.S.? Why are guns and above all automatic weapons suitable for mass killing so widely and absurdly available in the United States, well within the reach of the large crop of murderous people this society appears to produce on an increasing scale? Why does this society and culture worship deadly and sociopathic violence? In a recent widely read essay, Giroux argued that the real culprit behind the current ongoing epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S. (the Washington Post recently reported that 294 such shootings took place in the first 270 days of 2015) is the neoliberal state-capitalist and military-imperialist U.S. social order:
“Unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos, and war-like values…produc[e] an indifference to the common good, compassion, a concern for others …[and a]withering of public life….American society is driven by unrestrained market values in which economic actions and financial exchanges are divorced from social costs, further undermining any sense of social responsibility….A wasteful giant military-industrial-surveillance complex fueled by the war on terror along with America’s endless consumption of violence as entertainment and its celebration of a pervasive gun culture normalizes the everyday violence waged against black youth, immigrants, children fed into the school to prison pipeline, and others considered disposable…a society saturated in violence gains credence when its political leaders have given up on the notion of the common good, social justice, and equality, all of which appear to have become relics of history in the United States…Americans are obsessed with violence. They not only own nearly 300 million firearms, but also have a love affair with powerful weaponry such as 9MM Glock semi-automatic pistols and AR15 assault rifles. Collective anger, frustration, fear, and resentment increasingly characterizes a society in which people are out of work, young people cannot imagine a decent future, everyday behaviors are criminalized, inequality in wealth and income are soaring, and the police are viewed as occupying armies. This is not only a recipe for both random violence and mass shootings; it makes such acts appear routine and commonplace.”
That is an all-too-accurate indictment. I would add that the National Rifle Association and its mission of turning every American household into a neo-feudal bastion of heavily armed self-defense are perfectly matched to the proto-fascistic project of neoliberalism. In the extreme-capitalist/neoliberal anti-vision of life, there is, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “no such thing as society.” As Thatcher, widely heralded in U.S. political culture, elaborated: “Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…People must look to themselves…It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind…”
The NRA dream – a 9mm Glock and AR15 in every American home – is perfectly suited to the atomistic ideology of neoliberalism. It’s an ideal match for the notion that society is nothing more than a collection of competitive, disconnected, and individual market actors with no solidaristic obligations and egalitarian commitments beyond self, family, and (sometimes) neighbor. The mutually paranoid, automatic rifle-brandishing ethos of “Don’t tread on me” fits the project of keeping social and democratic popular sentiments at bay. The gun industry and lobby is part of the ideological weaponry of capitalist neoliberalism as well as the supplier of the actual material weaponry to those consumed with the neoliberalism-fueled impulse to murder on a mass scale.
The blood-drenched (at home and abroad) neoliberal world view should not be confused with anti-statism. Beneath its “free market” pretensions and its blather against “Big Government,” it is only opposed to what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”: the parts of government, won by past popular movements, that protect and advance the interests of workers, the poor, and the common good. Those are the “entitlements” properly marked for rollback, starving, and elimination in the neoliberal world view. The “right hand of the state” – the parts of government that work to redistribute wealth and power yet further upward, fight wars, and discipline the working and lower class majority – is to remain big, well-fed, and powerful. Those and other unmentionable ruling class entitlements stay intact and indeed grow, with government’s repressive functions expanding in accord with the misery and chaos imposed on the working and lower classes by the relentless “free market” rollback and slashing of opportunities and supports. Rampant “homeland” gun violence, fanned and fueled by Hollywood and the NRA – and by the psychosis-inducing marginalization and ruthless disposability of an ever-rising share of “surplus” and “precariatized” Americans – provides yet another systemically self-fulfilling pretext for the expansion of a militarized police state that functions (under the guise of “security”) for the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white-supremacism, patriarchy, and eco-cide.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2015).