Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege

According to Hobbes, the state exists to save us from the dystopian state of nature, in which we are constantly vulnerable to interpersonal violence. We submit to the sovereign’s violence in the expectation that being subject to one possible source of violence is better than being potentially attacked from all sides and at all times.

In the contemporary world, as Agamben and many others have pointed out, there are sites where the state of nature reemerges within the bounds of the state. Though Agamben emphasizes that one is subject to unlimited state violence in such situations, one should also note the return of a vulnerability to interpersonal violence as well.

This is the case, for example, in prison, where in many cases the most fearsome part of the punishment is abuse coming from other prisoners. We can see a similar dynamic in urban areas targetted in the War on Drugs: the police are present in an extremely disruptive and heavy-handed way, even to the point of gunning down innocent people in cold blood, and people also remain vulnerable to interpersonal violence within their own community. Indeed, the police presence produces even greater criminality by exposing those populations to disproportionate imprisonment. In both cases, the black community bears much of the burden of this double dystopia, this worst of both worlds.

If we turn now to the phenomenon of mass shootings, it seems that one can draw a parallel: in an era of vastly increased state supervision of the population, there are also outbursts of random interpersonal violence. In this reading, the experience that has become normative for blacks in America is somehow “overflowing” to affect the white community as well. This is one way of understanding the fairly common claim that America has a baseline level of violence and the shootings represent something like localized spikes.

I don’t think this works, however, at least not so neatly. The surveillance measures of the War on Terror do not affect people matching the demographic profile of the average mass shooter, nor does the state intervene with such one-sided violence against members of that population. And what motivates such shooters is not deprivation, or criminalization through contact with the justice system, or systematic deprivation of any legitimate option for gaining a livelihood. Instead, what we see again and again is a sense of wounded entitlement, leading them to lash out at the population that is supposedly victimizing them.

The target varies, but the story is the same: these are the people ruining my life and ruining America. The two don’t always go together, but it is telling that they so often do — America is supposed to be for me, it is supposed to work to my benefit, and if it’s not, then someone must be to blame.

Rescuing myself and rescuing America are somehow the same thing. And since the vast majority of these shooters are not facing genuine material deprivation but instead feel underappreciated or overlooked in some way, we can make the implication explicit: America exists to protect my privilege. If the currency of my privilege seems to be devalued, then that’s a plot against America.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the wave of mass shootings, which has reached epidemic levels, started after Obama’s reelection. We know that a certain segment of the white male population had a very adverse reaction to his initial election, but presumably the real despair set in once he was reelected and we knew that this was no one-off fluke.

Of course, it wasn’t Obama who actually devalued the currency of white male privilege. A generation of plant closings and off-shoring and union busting had destroyed the security and relative comfort that white men brought up during the postwar boom had taken to be their birthright. What replaced that golden age for the white working class was an era of ruthless competition, where the sexual and racial hierarchies were no longer as legible and no one could take their status for granted.

Why is it, for instance, that it is precisely schools that are so often targetted? Perhaps because they are the engines of meritocracy, the institutions that promise you a path to earn your way up the food chain — and very often break that promise.

At this point, it may sound like I’m saying that this is a question of immature or otherwise inadequate individual white men who do bad things. While it is partly that, mass shootings are clearly a systemic problem, and systemic problems have systemic causes. And I believe that the cause is ultimately the breaking of the postwar settlement in the transition to neoliberalism.

Certainly it is the case that the level of relative privilege enjoyed by the white working class man was neither sustainable nor just. The transition to an era of greater equality would have been difficult to manage in even the best of circumstances. But we did not get even an attempt to manage it — instead, we saw a ruthless consolidation of privilege and power at the very top, which legitimated itself electorally by harnessing and actively stoking the resentment that came from the devaluation of white male privilege.

Part of that strategy entailed promising to prop up white America’s wounded masculinity with guns. And now that the inevitable explosion has come, we can see the mainstream media working overtime to rehabilitate the shooters, to make them relatable and even tragic figures. They can’t simply be thrown under the bus, because they threaten to expose the whole scam.

Hence a new and toxic path to recognition for the alienated white man has emerged, one in which we are all potential collateral damage in the quest to prop up the hollow shell of white male privilege. And I think we have received a clear message from the powers that be that the collateral losses are still at an acceptable level.

5 Responses to “Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege”

  1. Craig McFarlane Says:

    My students just finished three rather intensive weeks on Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” and Schmitt’s Political Theology. We even talked about Benjamin’s essay—third year students who had never read philosophy or theory at a not especially selective school—for four hours! (Theoretically they are submitting papers this afternoon on these texts.) The most recent shooting was pedagogically fortuitous and I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about these shootings in the context of our readings. Theory isn’t just theoretical, after all. We talked about how, in the US, there hasn’t been a period longer than eight days without a mass shooting, that politicians seem unwilling or unable to reign in violence through law, and that there is a rather consistent demographic (male, youngish, marginalized or feeling marginalized even if not marginalized, wielding violence on anonymous innocents, culminating frequently in the death of the shooter either through suicide or suicide-by-cop). We talked a bit about whether this was the inverse of Benjamin’s point about police violence: the police can simultaneously make and preserve law. Are these rituals of mass killing this type of violence? We weren’t too sure. But, when we turned to Weber’s definition of the state, we were left with two options: either the state is complicit in this violence insofar as it is able to authorize the legitimate use of violence or the USA is a failed state akin to Somalia.

    It was a nice discussion and we also talked quite a bit about the rather nasty turn in the Canadian election against brown women who wear a niqab at their citizenship ceremony—there are two known cases and the government has strenuously pursued one woman through the courts, losing last week. But, I’m sure, if the current government is reelected they’ll appeal to the Supreme Court and (hopefully) lose. Following from this, some Ministers in the government announced plans to create a tip line for “barbaric cultural practices.” They meant brown people (maybe Natives too) doing things regular white folk don’t do: like wear facial coverings or burning sage.

    We’re on a Foucault detour now, but will close out the course with reading the entirety of Homo Sacer and then looking at Wolfe’s short book and Chamayou’s book on drones (which I should read…). Great course.

    As a relatively safe person living in Canada, I’m thankful we have Americans to give us these wonderful demonstrations of violence. Too bad the MSF bombing only happened after class.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That sounds like an absolutely awesome class.

  3. Craig McFarlane Says:

    It was an especially good meeting of the class and the course is dear to me. (And it currently has 61 students registered, a good 90% of whom show up every week!) I might even like it more than my animal rights seminar. The outline is here for those interested.

  4. Josh K-sky Says:

    Thanks for posting the outline. The academic manqué readership always appreciates a good syllabubbin’.

  5. Mauricio Martinez Says:

    I agree very much with this, but certainly the arms manufacturers worry that gun control would negatively impact domestic sales, which could turn into big losses for investors. I don’t think a “business friendly” government wants to be seen as causing investor turmoil. Certainly one element of this toxic brew is an industry–or network of industries–that is such an influential lobby that it can make certain issues off-limits to meaningful political action.


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