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The Normal Violence of Capitalism

Mary McCurnin and husband Ron Bednar

Mary and Ron

Americans believe that the normal state of things is not-violence, and that is why they are shocked and appalled when they see violent acts. The health care debate has revealed that violence is normal. Look at our own Mary and Ron McCurrin: forced into an unnecessary divorce to survive financially. Look at this study (.pdf), which tells us that being uninsured dramatically increases the risk of death, primarily from lack of treatment for chronic diseases. This isn’t an abstraction: recently a young woman died because, lacking insurance, she refused to go to the doctor when she had swine flu and pneumonia. This kind of systemic violence is normal in our system; it is killing people, and no one is accountable.

The financial crash reveals another side of normal capitalist violence. Millions of Americans lost jobs and millions more lost their savings either through direct theft or through the collapse of the stock market, and no one is held accountable.

Health care and the financial system are closer than they may seem. I recently went to the sentencing hearing for a man convicted of stealing millions from retirement plans. One by one the victims came to the podium to tell the Judge how they were affected by the loss. “I worked 35 years on the factory floor, and that was my retirement. I don’t know when I can retire, and I’m tired.” These people have lost years of their lives, just like many of our sick people.

Somehow we perceive this as shocking, not as the normal state of things. In fact, these examples are the direct consequences of the way we organize our society. Statutes and rules, court decisions, executive branch decisions, all interlock to create a system, and the outcomes are predictable results of the rational operation of that system. Slavoj Zizek discusses this in his book Violence. We think of the real economy as the system in which real people make real things for sale, and we think of financial speculation as a non-real abstraction, a parasite on the real system. In fact, the inexorable logic of speculation drives the productive sector. It is not an abstraction. It has rules, logic, and money, and people to operate with them, and it has real world impact. When the financial system fails, the productive sector suffers.

Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective,” systemic, anonymous.

Zizek expounds on this in a new book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, excerpted in the October Harper’s. For Zizek, the financial crisis reveals that the left has no real alternative to capitalism. That is a dire problem.

Recall the cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be: when asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer known as Concentration Camp Erhardt snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy scandal of November 2001, which can be interpreted as a kind of ironic commentary on the notion of the risk society? Thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings were certainly exposed to risk, but without having had any real choice in the matter—the risk appeared to them as blind fate. On the contrary, those who did have some insight into the risks involved, as well as the power to intervene in the situation (namely, the top managers), minimized their risks by cashing in their stocks and options before the bankruptcy. We do indeed live in a society of risky choices but one in which some do the choosing while others do the risking.

This succinctly states the history of American capitalism. The Ludlow mine workers do the camping, and the Rockefellers do the concentrating. Railroad workers do the camping, and George Pullman does the concentrating. American GIs do the camping, and Henry Kissinger and and the coward Dick Cheney do the concentrating. Sick people do the camping, and Aetna does the concentrating. Investors do the camping, and Goldman Sachs does $18.8bn worth of concentrating so far this year.

I agree with Zizek that the left in the US has failed to come to grips with the nature of capitalism, and has little to offer in the way of solutions to a system that is driven by speculation. The solutions proposed by the administration are ameliorative, but they don’t represent real change in the anonymous forces of violence in our society.

As a first step, perhaps we could recognize that violence is normal. As a second step, we can take Zizek’s advice:

When we are transfixed by something like the bailout, we should bear in mind that since it is actually a form of blackmail, we must resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus wound ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting-out, we should control our fury and transform it into an icy determination to think—to think things through in a really radical way, and to ask what kind of a society renders such blackmail possible.

Indeed. What kind of society is this?

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I read a lot of books.