“Going Postal”: Neoliberalism and Mass Shootings

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Recent weeks have seen a wave of mass shootings, inspired in no small part by Trump’s racist scapegoating. Despite politicians’ attempts to blame everything from mental illness to video games, the fault ultimately lies with capitalism and its propensity towards constant violence.

In recent weeks, communities across the U.S. were shaken by a wave of white supremacist violence. It is clear that Trump’s rhetoric plays a large role in the recent mass shootings, as it is seen as a rallying cry for the racists and bigots whom his presidency has emboldened. As Tatiana Cozzarelli puts it, “The blood is all over Donald Trump’s hands.” 

However, although mass shootings have gained a certain rapidity and an especially vile character under Trump, it would be a mistake to lay the blame for violence solely at the feet of the Trump White House, as is sure to be the response from many in the Democratic Party. Indeed, violence pervades most aspects of our lives, and the numbers paint a staggering picture. In the United States, there were 11.8 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2016—six times higher than Canada and fifty times higher than Great Britain. From 2015 to 2017, there were 46 mass shootings in the U.S., accounting for 31 percent of mass shootings globally. Further statistics paint an even grimmer picture: police killed almost 1,100 people in 2016 alone, and 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police were people of color. One in every 6 women in the U.S. has been raped, and 1 in every 3 women will experience sexual violence. For women of color, this number rises to an astounding 49.5 percent. Finally, a 2015 study showed that 1 in 10 transgender people had been physically attacked and that 47 percent experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. That number rises to 53 percent for trans people of color. 

The United States has also been at war for 93 percent of its history. The country operates between 700 and 800 military bases in 156 countries and has an annual defense budget just short of 1 trillion dollars. The capitalist drive to accumulate ever larger sums of resources has left no generation unscarred by the brutalities of the imperialist project. For the millennial generation, the “war on terror” has been a permanent fixture for most if not all of their lives. 

These statistics put in stark relief the quote from Marx in Volume One of Capital that capitalism “comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Indeed, it is the very nature of how capitalism is organized—that is, a system of exploitation and alienation built from colonialism and slavery—that has bred and continues to breed violence. However, the mass shooting has come to define, for many people, the barbarity of life within capitalism. 

“Going Postal”

For those of us who have lived our entire lives in the daunting era of neoliberalism, this violence has been an ever-present aspect of our lives. So much so that the term “going postal” has become a discursive way of denoting frustration with a boss or workplace. But the term itself is a historically specific phrase, and its historicity can help us understand the systemic nature of mass shootings specifically and violence more generally. The term “going postal” is derived from a series of workplace shootings in the 1980s, the formative years of neoliberal capitalism. The first and perhaps most well known of these incidents was the case of Patrick Sherill, a post office worker who massacred 14 postal workers before taking his own life in Oklahoma in 1986. Prior to Sherill’s attack, the mass shooting as we understand it was largely absent from the public lexicon. Jeff Sparrow argues that the modern mass shooting: 

entered the public consciousness in the US during 1980s, after a series of killings by postal workers. At the time, the postal service was under particular pressure from what we’d now call neoliberalism, as market reform fostered unbearable stress and unhappiness among the employees…The experience of work—the activity that most people spend most of their lives performing—had become a waking nightmare.

Sixteen years prior to Sherill’s massacre, hundreds of thousands of postal workers had gone on a wildcat strike. President Nixon, in his characteristic incompetence, federalized the National Guard to deliver mail with “predictably disastrous results.” Postal workers won important gains from their strike, and a month later the Occupation Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed into law. Eight years later, as a response to a rebellious working class, Democratic president Jimmy Carter passed the Federal Labor Relations Act, which barred federal employees from striking. This left federal workers toothless in the face of a Reagan presidency and the coming onslaught of neoliberalism.

The modern mass shooting, then, is a historically specific form of violence rooted in the conditions of neoliberalism—a project that both Republicans and Democrats have been instrumental in building. While it is Reagan who is most notoriously remembered for his attacks on labor and laying the foundation for the program of austerity, it is also true that a key component of neoliberalism—the destruction of the social safety net—was perfected with Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which got rid of “welfare as we know it.” It was this one-two punch of crushing the labor movement while gutting welfare and state subsistence programs that set the stage for a massive accumulation of profits on the backs of working people. While neoliberalism created unheard of profits for the ruling class, it visited staggering levels of misery and inequality on the majority of working people. It is no wonder, then, that the social phenomenon of mass shootings began when it did. The destruction of the movements of the sixties and seventies, the defeat and retreat of organized labor, and the dismantling of the welfare state all contributed to the construction of an era of extreme exploitation and alienation. The rise of the mass shooting, then, can be traced to the very conditions that constructed the neoliberal order. 

Misogyny and Violence

Though the recent perpetrators of mass violence have clear ties to white supremacy, it is also true that the majority of mass shooters have a history of misogyny and intimate and domestic partner violence. In fact, Connor Betts, the gunman who killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, had a history of threatening violence towards women and even kept a “rape list.” When Dimitrios Pagourtzis walked into his Santa Fe high school in May of 2018, where he shot and killed ten people, the first person he shot was Shana Fisher. Fisher was a classmate who had spent the previous several months rejecting his advances. The 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooter was physically abusive to his ex-wife, and the list could go on. According to the Huffington Post, 54 percent of mass shootings involve the murder of the perpetrators current or former partner. Jessie Kindig posits the issue this way:

“becoming a woman involves the daily negotiation of violence and its threat, and figures women as both subjects of desire but also its objects. All of us who choose to be women or are bound by the strictures of gender are confined. Poor women, trans women, women of color, undocumented women, refugee women, trafficked and enslaved women are made infinitely more precarious…but none of us are unqualifiedly free.” 

This fact was thrust into the mainstream in October 2017, with the beginning of the MeToo movement, following a New York Times editorial detailing decades of abuse and assault by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.  While the pervasiveness of violence against women came as little surprise to most people, especially women, the shock was that the doors to the hidden abode of misogyny were being thrown open. While it is true that bourgeois solutions remain prevalent—the Sandbergian “lean in” approach—it is also true that MeToo shifted the lens of analysis to a point where a growing number of people are reaching the conclusion that it is the entire system that needs to go. 

Indeed, gender oppression has deep roots in the foundation of capitalism. From its very beginnings, capitalism has depended on gender oppression for its survival.  Not only does capitalism benefit from the divisions within the working class produced by sexism, as has been the traditional Left explanation, but capitalism depends for its survival on unpaid or undervalued reproductive work that has traditionally been done by women. In order for capitalists to avoid the cost of this reproduction, they deploy any number of tactics, including various forms of violence, aimed at the subjugation of a portion of the population whose job it is to reproduce the worker daily, yearly and generationally. Far from an abstract theoretical perspective, this orientation allows us to understand how violence is a tool to reinforce gender roles that are integral to the healthy functioning of capitalism. 

These gender roles were thrown into flux beginning in the late sixties with the Women’s Liberation Movement, and then reorganized with the founding of the neoliberal epoch. The decades immediately following World War Two witnessed a massive economic boom, and the organization of the family (where the reproduction of labor largely occurred) took the form of the single-earner family. This was the period of the male breadwinner/female homemaker, at least for much of white America. The women’s movement challenged this organization, setting its sights on women’s unequal place within the home. Part of the neoliberal project was the co-optation of the demands of the women’s movement and putting them in the service of profit. The reorganization that resulted was the two-earner family, with women working outside the home and pulling double-duty within it (though it should also be said that for women of color, this had already been the case). The neoliberal model of familial and work organization brought with it a threat to the masculine understanding of work. Though this does not fully account for the gendered nature of mass violence, it can help us understand the social and economic contours of the question. 

More Police is More Violence

While Trump’s rhetoric and the rise of the far right have acted as an accelerant on the relations that produce and depend on violence, politicians from both capitalist parties seem bent on producing (and reproducing) non-solutions. While Trump is busy shirking any responsibility by blaming video games (or in an even more bizarre routine of mental gymnastics, immigrants), other politicians—including Bernie Sanders—are recycling the old solutions of more police. But for most communities, especially communities of color who have seen their neighborhoods terrorized at a growing rapidity by an evermore militarized police force, the “solution” of more police is simply a guarantee of more violence—and with good reason. On average, police kill someone every eight hours in the U.S., and the majority of these victims are people of color.

Historically, the role of the police has always been the protection of bourgeois property and profits through violent and coercive means. The roots of the modern police force lay in two historical forms: the slave patrols in the South, and the Industrial Revolution with its centralized workforce in the North. Indeed, prior to the Industrial Revolution the police as we understand them did not exist. The model of patrolling, or “preventative policing,” did not emerge until the nineteenth century. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, large factories were built all over New England and other parts of the East Coast. With the advent of the large factory, and the workforce needed to operate it, came large concentrations of poor workers living and laboring in extreme conditions. Rebellions became commonplace. From strikes, to riots, to machine and factory sabotage, workers used whatever avenues they could to resist the extreme conditions in the factories. These rebellions, coupled with other forms of disorder that accompanied large concentrations of people in newly urbanized areas, threatened the property and profits of the factory owners. It was in this context that industrialists, working hand in hand with the state, developed the institution of patrolling. The purpose was to search out strike leaders and others they deemed vagrant and put them in jail. As David Whitehouse argues, “the focus wasn’t really on crime, which is what an individual might do. The focus was on the collective threat that the whole working population posed to the boss class.” 

At the same time, a similar yet distinct process was taking place in the South. Southern plantation owners felt pressure to produce at a level and pace unheard of in order to meet the needs of northern factory owners. This meant speed-ups in the fields, which resulted in slave runaways and rebellions. Plantation owners found that the decentralized slave patrols were inadequate in taming a continuously rebellious slave population, therefore leading to the first initial attempts at an institutional police force. 

While this is a necessarily condensed version of an at times much more nuanced historical process, understanding the roots of the modern police force is important in understanding the role cops play in the functioning of capitalism. That is, the role of the police has never been the prevention of crime but instead the subordination of the working class, through violent and repressive means, in the interest of capital. And racism is built into the very foundations of the police. 

Neoliberalism brought the intense militarization of the police. The various riots of the sixties left police departments ill prepared to handle an increasingly angry and rebellious population. Reagan, promising to be tough on crime through his “war on drugs,” passed the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act in 1981. This act allowed law enforcement to access not only assistance from the military, but also high-powered weapons. Reagan’s war on drugs was a brutal and disastrous war on poor communities of color by a police force armed with weapons of war. The policy of police militarization was further solidified by Bill Clinton in 1997 with his 1033 program, which allowed police departments to purchase excess military equipment. The militarization of the police has amounted to an increasing war on poor communities and has disproportionately affected communities of color. 

The solutions that socialists put forward have to be fundamentally different from those proposed by the two parties of capital. We must reject all arguments in favor of ramped up policing. Such policies will only lead to more violence and destruction, particularly for communities of color. Similarly, most calls for gun control legislation should be met with a certain amount of skepticism. Not only does much of the talk of gun control relegate the use of deadly force solely to the state, but calls for watch lists and heightened surveillance will and have been used to disproportionately target people of color and the Left. It should not be forgotten that the right has been anything but consistent when it comes to the regulation of arms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was quick to jump on board with gun control as soon as the Black Panthers began arming themselves. 

Our solutions must begin with an analysis that capitalism is an inherently violent system, which alienates the vast majority of us from the products we produce and from each other. Indeed, it is no surprise that workplace and school shootings began right when the solidarities that had been built during the sixties and seventies were being systematically dismantled. We need militant movements, rooted in workplaces and communities that can begin to rebuild solidarity and win back ground lost during the long neoliberal years. We need to demand an end to the constant state of war, whose logic permeates throughout society. Violence, in all its forms, is a social phenomenon that demands social answers. The student movement and walkouts that followed the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida in 2018 were an exciting example of what is possible in this political period. Unfortunately, the movement was quickly co-opted by the Democratic Party and largely disappeared. Any movement that hopes to mount a challenge to the violence of capitalism must remain independent of both capitalist parties. Finally, if we are to be free once and for all of the daily violence in our lives—mass shootings, endless war and colonial plunder, police murder, rape and sexual assault, etc.—we must lay the blame for such violence at the feet of capitalism, and put forward a clear alternative. Rosa Luxemburg once argued that our choices were between socialism and barbarism. With children in cages, escalating reactionary violence, decades of war, and a generation drowning in debt and precarity, it is clear we have reached barbarism. It is time to build a movement for socialism.

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