Yesterday morning a shooter, purportedly an ex-reservist and civilian IT contractor Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people at the DC Navy Yard. As information about the recent mass shooting on a military facility emerges we appear faced with yet another instance of a mundane act of violence. An act of terrorism appears unlikely, instead a combination of anger issues, mental health, and workplace disputes is being identified. It is obviously too soon to make any judgment on the facts, but the reactions and a recent trend makes it worth exploring.
I come into contact with patients with PTSD, veterans, and people who have experienced and perpetrated such violence through my employment as a healthcare worker. Before the identity of the attacker was released, the response from a number of vets I heard yesterday was almost exclusively that “this could not be one of our own, it has to be foreign terrorism”. This was surprising to me because of the recent spate of mass shootings carried out by Americans, let alone the less well acknowledged fact that most acts of terrorism at home have been carried out by Americans ourselves. There is a real disconnect here between the perception of our society and people and where we have come to. In Miami even just in the past six months a casual survey of local news shows a disturbing trend of anti-social violence: a whole family bound and gagged and shot execution style, children shot without apparent reason in robberies, and elderly people executed without request and subsequently robbed. Objectively these situations are quite rare, and their incidence has been decreasing (although anecdotally there appears to be some rebound since the crisis for which I haven’t seen good data either way). Still, we should pause and reflect on the fact that events like someone opening fire with an AK-47 on a park filled with children is less than a national event. Today, it seems everyone, even some people from foreign nations for whom such acts are nearly unheard of, is unsurprised about such violence in the US. A familiar chorus points to gun control or mental health as the source of the violence. Why do we not see questions being raised about what it is that is causing people who live here to seek out carnage against people who they don’t know and have no reason to wish any harm on? Increasing funding for mental health and restricting access to guns would likely help and should be supported. Yet the underlining corrosion of social relationships will be unaffected by such changes.
Mass shootings are acts defined by their willingness to harm indiscriminately, in a way an attack on society as a whole or at least some sub-section of it. While larger scale violence against strangers is more flashy, anti-social attitudes and acts are much more common than this. Everyday in this country there are more mundane examples of people who resort to other less attention grabbing acts of anti-social violence that show total disregard for the lives of others. Beneath the criminal side of this phenomenon lies a social decay across American society that has eaten away at our trust, relationships, and capacity to function as a society. We live in a society filled with fear, mistrust, and a perception by many that we get ahead in spite of each other rather than with each other.
The blame must be placed strongly at the door of the State and ruling capitalist interests who have carried out a toxic experiment on this country. This should be made clear, the moral and social violence and misery of this society is produced in part by the values and order of this society. Neighborhoods have been decimated by social engineering aimed at neutralizing political opposition in poor neighborhoods. Drugs and crime flourish while the State sustains a program of mass incarceration against large sections of the population, leaving whole communities drained of resources, under siege by police and gangs, and creating the impetus for more crime and trauma. Social safety nets are slashed and everyday brings new experiments in shoving people into greater precarity and poverty for the benefit of an increasingly tiny and insulated elite. Without politically organized community and movements, people face this deprivation and the violence of everyday American life alone. The effect has been a social and moral decay in spite of the earnest efforts of millions to improve their situation through whatever means they find.
Yet we should also reflect on what could have been done to prevent the downward spiral, and what has been done to avert worse social decline. Faced with this situation, much of the progressive forces of American society has been channeled into charity and institutionalized social service or at least played a defensive role in trying to maintain existing social welfare measures. While clearly inadequate as a response, it must be recognized how the humanitarian work of countless individuals, many outside any organized social or political spheres, keep society functioning in spite of the barbarity of the ruling order. Large scale acts of solidarity like the anti-globalization movement, anti-war movements, Occupy, etc., accentuate this but also should not overshadow the innumerable people who constantly try to carve out a more humane existence by dedicating themselves to others. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans put forward effort to help Haiti after its horrible earthquake should be noted for a clear desire for and vacuum of ways to contribute to a greater whole.
Politically, progressives aspiring for liberation have lost sight of a collective universal needed to help society heal and to form the foundation of a future society. The reaction against the old left’s universal concept of humanity was correct as it was one which in the name of humanity wrote out the majority from it’s program. The needs of the oppressed were subjugated in a way that held back the advance not just of oppressed communities, but of everyone as a whole. An understanding of difference and autonomy were too long absent from the dominant currents of progressive thought. Yet the alternative has left us with a solution as fragmented as society itself. Too often the left is content to reinforce existing capitalist identities. Post-modern politics of fragmentation often aligns itself with the cultural politics of ascendant ruling classes now contesting power within the existing political and economic structure. The pragmatics of alliances and balkanization of the political landscape is one factor in disarming us against the ruling class attacks. What is missing is a sense of how we can move forward in dismantling the divisions that this society creates rather than reinforce or seeking to advance with them. The problem is less conceptual than practical. How can we heal this society and create a new order for social relationships that dismantles the corrosive structures and interactions of exploitative, racist, patriarchal, and other hierarchical relations?
Of course we all have a role to play in this too through having internalized the culture of America. We are neither perpetrators nor victims of this system; we are simply people making hard choices everyday. Often we choose to overlook chances to help others and avert harm because of all the things society has thrown at us. While not the main factor, thoughts and deliberations do have an impact and power that sometimes is not recognized. A mass change in attitudes can’t be willed into existence, but working to change our thinking can have a positive effect on our communities in the long run.
There are few voices that seek to fix this situation for everyone, in part because the problem goes beyond where people normally do politics. Social healing would require both removing the causes of constant trauma in American society, as well as creating new social forms and struggles outside the institutions of American power. It is not simply attacks and poverty that have created this situation, but also the absence of positive community. Defending against new encroachments on social welfare and standards of living are justified. Yet our program should go beyond both defense and expansion of social welfare measures. Any increase in people’s standard of living is good for humanistic reasons and should be supported. However, politically our efforts should focus on ways in which we can wrest control of social life out of the hands of hostile forces, and into those of a conscious collectivity. For example, we should be struggling not only for universal healthcare, but for healthcare directed and administered by organized communities. We should not let market forces or elements of the political establishment set what our health is. Instead we need to build an autonomous political force behind our own conception of health arising from discussion, debate, and activity within our neighborhoods. That is to say our struggle should be to organize people for the expropriation of resources for their own health and wrestle that control out of the hands of business and the State. While not realizable within capitalism, the lines drawn by such struggles carries the potential to sustain revolutionary movements acting based on their daily lives against the State and capitalists.
Combatting anti-social acts and mentality requires a process of healing and construction of social alternatives. While limited by the corrosive nature of capitalist society itself, part of the contribution of anarchism is its understanding of the self-organization of societies and the possibility of collective action to transform our daily lives. The role of anarchists in particular in social healing should be experimenting, promoting, and educating about the potential of solidarity, and wherever possible creating opportunities for social bonds of mutual aid to grow and flourish. In absence of large scale movement against dominant values and order, such a path is difficult. Yet we benefit from being more clear about both how far society has fallen and our potential as healers. Anarchism has the ability to become a motivating force in society and with its actions contest the dominant values and ideas leading society to perpetual trauma and decay. For all of its faults, Occupy Sandy gives an example of how radicals can in key moments expose capitalism and offer an alternative. If that kind of universality of solidarity can be built upon, we may have a chance at stemming the tide of anti-social violence and decay. The flourishing of society is tied not just to opposing evil, but also to sustaining beauty, justice, kindness, and compassion. In this way the struggle of anarchists is not merely to defeat the evils of capitalism and the state, but also for the construction of moral and aesthetic virtues in common with each other. Against the tide of depressing anti-social violence and attitudes, we must be building new worlds and new values every day wherever we find the strength and capacity to break through.