You won’t say it, so I will: capitalism is the underlying cause of mass shootings in the US
A society whose narrative is built on hyper-individualism and competition disenfranchises quicker than men can cope. And it makes them dangerous.
“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings,” (Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free).
There is a story inoculated into your mind at a very young age in the U.S. The story that competition and individualism are the prerequisites to liberty or freedom.
This is a story told by neoliberalism, the defining political ideology of our time. Neoliberalism’s ideology has seeped into our language. Its tendrils so deep that not a single aspect of our lives isn’t touched by it.
At its heart is a radical belief in the ultimate personal freedom at the expense of everyone. Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist, first created the ideology in the mid-1900s. It was simple. That redistribution of wealth, political freedom, and human equality were harmful. Those ideas restrict the freedom of the rich and powerful. Who, he argued, would drive humanity forward with their opulent spending, their freedom to push the boundaries of human existence.
The first wave came under Thatcher in the UK with Reagan soon following in the US. It’s worked startiling well for those it was meant to. The privatization and marketization of public services have made the rich filthy rich. The deregulation of the financial service sector has created an entirely new class of bourgeois that live entirely on financial tools.
It’s horrible. It’s gut-wrenching. But it’s based on something incredibly misanthropic. It’s based on the story told by philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651. In his famous work Leviathan, he postulated that human relations are based on war and struggle. In essence, everyone is at war with each other at all times. The only thing that stops this boiling kettle from erupting is a strong central figure like a monarch.
Pull back the veneer and you’ll see. We are just as sordid, self-serving and maximizing as ever. We have heard this story so often that it’s become part of us. And it’s changed the way we address problems. We no longer work together to solve issues. Instead, we are individuals striving against each other to overcome our private problems.
It’s enough to make you feel alone, abandoned. I’ll admit that in moments of weakness, I tend to recoil into a self-survival mode. My first instinct is to protect myself. To withdraw. To disentangle. One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned early in my career has been to not treat your employer loyally. It’s hard not to be self-maximizing when you feel exposed to the pressures of your employer. When you’ve had to scratch your way out of a sea of equally qualified applicants. You feel the “replaceability” mantra hounding you if you take a day off to be sick. You’re stuck in a constant cycle of probation period and contract renewal. You feel alone.
Why not surrender to this narrative then? And forgoe any bonds of fraternal cooperation? Because its consequences have been catastrophic.
The very existential crisis that we face as a race cannot be solved by individuals. As much as we applaud someone like Elon Musk for having the bravitas to launch a sports car into space, his solutions are not social solutions. Silicon Valley is morally bankrupt. They look for tangental technological advancements to circumvent society. Musk’s own hyperloop idea is a private solution. Even if it works, it will only be able to hold 16 people at a time. How will this fix the broken metro system in DC?
Moreover, without shared common purpose, we lose our sense of self-worth. And this has hastened the toxification of masculinity over the past decades.
Here are the facts: faith in democratic norms are collapsing. Democracy itself only works when the system works for it. Giving a populace a useless vote every 4 years is not a democracy. Of those born before WW2, 72% in the US believed it was essential to live in a democracy. That figure has dropped to 30% among those born in 1980.
Disenfranchised at work, robbed of their opportunity—men are angry. They’re looking for answers elsewhere and finding them in demagoguery: the venom spat up each night on Fox News. They’re finding it in extremist, far-right groups’ scapegoating. In their tirades against democracy, men have seen vindication in their hatred towards women, migrants, and minorities.
As the resources consolidate and the anger, the alienation builds it will get worse. Alienation is many things. But it is chiefly the loss of control over your work or life and a disconnection between you and your surrounding community or society. These conditions lead to a disconnect between what you do daily, and the lack of purpose you feel internally. In many cases, it can erupt. It certainly has in these mass shooters.
This brings us back to the topic of hyper-individualism and toxic masculinity. From a very early age, men are conditioned to believe that what makes them a man is their strength, their ability to lead. This is compounded by other sexist ideas, like that men are responsible for providing for a family. When it comes to it, however, the vast majority of men lack the resources to even acquire the skills they would need to do so. As George Bernard Shaw famously remarked, “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.”
This completely ignores the coming tide of automation (with its first ripples arriving on the shore). It will only get worse. Despite this, many men continue to rail against the virtues of education, trapping themselves in a cycle of resentment and alienation. “Many people sense, often with justification, that their lives are being stitched up by managers, lawyers, journalists, bankers, and a permanent governing class,” (George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage).
On the factory floor, if we are to find work there at all, we are segregated by zero-hour contracts, freelance work, and performance tracking software. Within this hyper-individualized neoliberal reality, we have all become self-optimizing entrepreneurs. This is supposed to free us. But what you don’t hear about are the actual figures. The salary for independent contractors in the UK, for example, is now less than what it was in 1995.
The philosopher Byung-Chul Han states that under neoliberalism, “Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed.”
This is where gun violence comes from. It starts with the violent rearing of men—taught to be self-sufficient—followed by a stripping of their livelihood. Surround them with demagogues who will appeal to their base (worst) instincts and it gets ugly. What we are witnessing is the psychic rupture of an entire population group of the United States losing their self-purpose. They have lost the narrative that has defined them.
Within this narrative, strong individuals succeed. What they are failing to notice is the structural violence perpetrated against them to ensure they don’t. Once this tension finally snaps in their brain, they do what they have been trained to do: the ultimate act of individual violence. To lash out at the real problem: people, themselves, the otherwhere.
What is most horrifying about this, is that these men often have nowhere to go. Atomization is often seen as the precondition for an entrepreneurial society—one where traditional social relations of commonality collapse. There is an extensive literature emerging on the deadly loneliness of men. Where once a family or community group may have picked them up or supported them, they fall deeper into their “failure,” placing it entirely on their shoulders. And that in itself makes it easy to sacrifice everything (when you have nothing to lose).
White domestic terrorists like Timothy McVey and Anders Brevik are “united by a ‘narrative of victimhood and the heroic struggle between the faithful and the unfaithful, the authentic and inauthentic,’” (George Monbiot, Out of the Wrekage). In short, these madmen see themselves as saviors.
Gun reform will help. But America is rotten to its core. And it requires a radical reformation of society and its communal politics.
But it’s possible. The wonderful thing about neoliberalism is it’s all bullshit.
We’ve broken our social bonds and abandoned our sense of commonality based on a lie. We as human beings possess an unmatched amount of compassion. This is something almost unknown in the animal world. At the age of 14 months, we will begin to help each other. As a species, we survived because we worked together. Not because we were stronger or faster than the other animals.
Moreover, we are hardwired to be social beings. The pain caused by social isolation can be worse than physical pain. Self-harmers know this all too well, as they seek the physical release to the social agony they feel. The opioid crisis itself stems from social isolation, as the painkillers relieve both its physical and psychological side effects.
The quick start here is to find a common cause. That cause for me is the social control and re-humanizing of the economy. Everyone does have and must have a stake in that. Use your strength to be a voice for others who have none—to shield those who cannot protect themselves.
As Thomas Paine wrote, “The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together.”
Until this chain is forged, we will never see a society free of violence, destruction, and hate.