Violence is the oxygen for authoritarianism. It is the symbolic and visceral breeding ground for fear, ignorance and greed, as well as cruelty. It thrives in societies marked with despair, ignorance and hate.
Violence — and especially the killing of children such as the mass killing that occurred this week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, leaving at least 19 students dead — can’t be understood in the immediacy of shock and despair, however deplorable and understandable. It is important to uncover the ideological and structural conditions that support and legitimize it, both in their connections with power and the systemic unmasking by those who profit from these death-dealing conditions.
The general reaction of Democrats to mass violence in the U.S. has been to call for more gun regulations, criticize the NRA, gun lobbyists, and the weapons industry. This is understandable given that the arms industry floods the United States with all manner of lethal weapons, pays out millions to mostly Republican politicians, and in the case of the NRA has sponsored an amendment banning “any federal dollars from being used to research gun injuries or deaths in the US.”
Although we must criticize the gun lobby as well as the arms industry, it is not enough. The tragic murders of the 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in rural Texas at the hands of a young man who resorted to a horrific act of violence — and the killing of Black shoppers in a Tops grocery store in Buffalo by a hate-filled racist and self-proclaimed fascist — represent the end points of a culture awash in guns and violence, a society that nourishes and rewards the gun industries, and values the accumulation of profits over human needs. This is all amplified by the modern Republican Party which accelerates a gun culture and revels in violence for political opportunism. It also strips young people from crucial social provisions and encourages a culture that lies to make it difficult for people to discern truth from lies, good from evil. New York Times columnist Charles Blow rightly claims that “The Republican Party has turned America into a killing field.”
In the current historical moment, the market-driven values of “freedom,” choice and rugged individualism have merged with the concentration of power in the hands of the super-rich and corporations, an unbridled individualism, and a culture of terror and fear. One consequence is that politicians are corrupted and big money is used to pay them while corporations control the media to flood the culture believing that individual liberty is synonymous to unfettered gun rights. How else to explain that “Gun rights groups set new records for lobbying in 2021, spending over $15 million, with GOP Sen. Ted Cruz the biggest recipient,” as Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote this week. It’s not surprising that Cruz responded to the Texas school shooting by declaring that arming teachers was the best way to end school violence. It is worth noting, according to Al Jazeera, “Sales of weapons and military services by the world’s 100 biggest arms companies reached a record $531bn in 2020.”
While the power of the NRA, arms dealers such as Lockheed Martin — the largest war industry in the world — and the military-industrial complex to shape politics and a permanent war economy is indisputable, this is only one register of a form of gangster capitalism that believes that market values, which privatize, commodify, and commercialize all social relations, are more important than addressing vital human needs, crucial social problems and the public good. This logic suppresses human rights and views the struggle for justice as a problem. It also cancels out the future of young people. In his book, William Greider Who Will Tell the People?, published in 1992, stated that if the U.S. lost its civic faith in the promise of democracy, it “has the potential to deteriorate into a rather brutish place, ruled by naked power and random social aggression.” Greider’s words were not only prescient, they capture the loss of vision and cult of authoritarianism at work in the United States.
Neoliberalism makes it impossible to see the future and gives up on civic responsibility. Neoliberalism strips society both of its collective conscience as well as democratic communal relations. Violence proliferates in a society when justice is corrupted and power works to produce mass forms of historical and social amnesia largely aimed at degrading society’s critical and moral capacities.
In a country of 325 millions people, there are more guns in circulation than in the United States. The U.S. constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population and owns 25 percent of all guns on the globe. Judd Legum in Popular Information reports that in 2020, “39,695,315 guns were sold to civilians.” He notes further that this is an alarming figure given that “firearm ownership rates appear to be a statistically significant predictor of the distribution of public mass shooters worldwide.” Equally significant but not surprising is the fact that “More Americans have died from gunshots in the last 50 years than in all of the wars in American history,” according to NBC News.The Pew Research Center reported, “More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2020 than in any other year on record.” What emerges from these figures and the relentless mass shootings in which young people have become an increasing target is the question of what kind of society has the United States become, and what are the broader economic, political and social forces that produce massive violence and its increasing collapse into authoritarianism?
These figures are horrific, but the background to the violence and politics in the United States is seldom discussed in mainstream media. Even though specific policies are being debated, it is not the backdrop of a neoliberal economy system that feeds off self-interest, inequality and cruelty, punishment, precarity or loneliness. Neoliberal society promotes a criminogenic culture that celebrates violence as a source and organizing principle of governance.
Neoliberal capitalism has led to a carceral system that criminalizes the behavior young people while filling prisons with people of color. This destroys their families and their futures. This system is so cold-hearted it refuses to renew Child Tax Credit, which pushes 3 million children below the poverty level.
The United States is the only country where children as young 13 years old are sent to prison without the possibility of parole. These policies are only one example of the state violence against young people that is being waged in tandem with the mass violence produced by a society that places injustice, poverty and racial cleansing at the core of its governance. Ironically, the Republican Party of white supremacy claims it is the party that protects children. This claim is laughable when compared against a party which bans books, models schools on prisons, attacks reproductive rights, demonizes transgender children, and consistently puts in place policies that undermine efforts to lift children’s families above poverty line.
Domestic terrorists are now able to parade as politicians. White supremacists have taken over the Republican Party, and they revel in a civically depleted culture, which has abandoned justice, ethics, and hope for the corrupt currencies wealth, power, and self-aggrandizement. An increasing number of young people are being targeted by gangster capitalism. This has stripped them of their democratic rights and placed them at the mercy politicians who are self-described white Christian nationalists. They are losing their dignity, hopes, as well as their lives in an increasing number of cases. This is the death machine that causes social abandonment and terminal isolation, which creates the conditions for blood flow in the streets and schools, malls and supermarkets, churches and mosques, and synagogues.
In places that are supposed to protect young people, they are being murdered. Mass violence has become a common feature in fascist politics. This is because of a culture of conspiracy theories and moral indifference, corrupt politicians and a social media that trades on hate. Also, there is a grotesque public silence when it comes to massive inequalities in wealth or power.
It is not surprising that Republicans are supporting violence as a way to resolve political problems in such a context. It gets worse. The Washington Post has reported that, “1 in 3 Americans say they believe violence against government can at times be justified.” Violence has become so widespread that it both neutralizes the public’s sense of moral outrage and shatters their bonds of solidarity. With society becoming more militarized under neoliberalism violence is the solution to everything. This is especially dangerous to those who feel isolated in a society that atomizes everyone. Many of these people turn to social media and the Internet to find community. This is often a result of white supremacist conspiracies, such as the one that led to the shooting at Buffalo.
The culture of violence has grown in America since the 1980s. It has been given a prominent place in the cult that is authoritarianism in the United States. It is accepted, legitimized, and endorsed by the Republican Party, which uses gun violence and school shootings as part a poisonous script. as Ruth Ben-Ghiat argues to transform “public schools into death traps as part of a deliberate strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion conducive to survivalist mentalities and support for illiberal politics.”
Gun violence cannot be separated from a wider culture of violence, authoritarianism, and police that calls for more gun ownership and more national security. Right-wing politicians and the gun industry both know that extremism and fear sell more guns and make it easy for them to make a profit. The right-wing response is just as morally corrupt as it is disingenuous to school shootings. To feed the surveillance industry and other merchants, it calls for schools to be turned into armed camps. This includes more police, more guns for teachers, and high-tech security systems. It also encourages a militaristic language to define the purpose and meanings of schools. These actions create a mass consciousness that glorifies violence while also recognizing the terrible cost it imposes on human lives, especially when children are the collateral damage. The U.S. has a cult that glorifies violence, as well as authoritarianism and the rise neoliberal capitalism.
In such moments, we must all remember that justice depends partly on the fusion of civic courage and historical understanding. The U.S. has a long history that resists the right-wing Republican politicians. They are now trying to erase it from schools, libraries, and books. This is not only an assault on historical consciousness; it’s also an assault on thinking itself, and the very ability to recognize injustice and the tools needed to oppose it. One result is that neoliberal authority has thrived in an ecosystem of historical forgetfulness and has become a powerful agent of violence.
Authoritarianism is a death machine that thrives on hiding behind common sense and the discourses fear, terror, and moral panic. It becomes more common, and it becomes even more destructive. Normalization is a form of mystification, and it can be seen in the way in which the larger forces behind mass shootings such as those at Tops supermarket and in the Texas school are often reduced to personal stories of individual grief and narratives limited to the assailants’ lives. It becomes more difficult to connect the dots to a wider culture of violence when structural conditions are obscured.
In hiding behind a rhetoric that reduces political collapses to personal and private problems, power now serves a cabal made up of religious fundamentalists and charlatans, who are able to remove broader systemic considerations from power. The corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses, which trade in dishonesty and violence spectacles, as well as the demonization, dehumanization, and demonization of all people other than white Christians, also hide behind a rhetoric. Even worse, the modern Republican Party endorses violence calls by its members, including those made Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar. It has also become a party that demonizes and dehumanizes anyone who is not a white Christian. openly views violence as a legitimate way to secure its desired political outcomes — to seize power and destroy democracy. The Republican Party is not alarmed by violence but has created conditions that suggest it wants more. As Charles Blow observes, trading in fear and paranoia, the Republican Party terrorizes the public by claiming that “criminals are coming to menace you, immigrants are coming to menace you, a race war (or racial replacement) is coming to menace you and the government itself may one day come to menace you. The only defense you have against the menace is to be armed.” The only solution is to not only accept the American way of violence and death but to affirm it, be complicit with it, and in doing so legitimate it.
The killing of children turns this invisible scourge and its poisonous instruments upside down, if only for a second, because of the shock and the unimaginable, which reveals at its roots the workings and structures of current political, economic, and social formations that function as a deadly force that turns everything into dust. These horrors call out for the connection of the inexorable threads of violence waged against women and transgender youth, Indigenous peoples, youth of color, youth of disability, the environment, as well as all those considered disposable by this neofascist social system.
We all need to unite against this death machine. We must turn despair into militant hope, critical analysis and action into collective struggles to resist the seductions offered by gangster capitalism and its rebranded fascism.
Youth are already leading this organizing on multiple fronts. After the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, youth took a stand against gun violence in unprecedented ways. March for Our LivesConnecting the issue of school shootings to police violence, racism justice and other urgent issues.
Youth are speaking out and standing up in monumental ways about the issues. climate crisis, racial justice, immigration justice, war, prisonsAnd more. Adults would be wise to recognize, encourage and amplify these forms of youth activism to help them grow.
History is open. The signposts of the present moment are waiting for radical change in consciousness and institutions. How much more blood will flow into schools and other places where young people live and work before a mass movement is formed to end this capitalist system of institutional and ideological violence?
Resistance is the only option, and it has to be educational, structural, bold and disruptive — far removed from the weak call for a revitalized electoral politics or moderate gun reforms. Resistance must be able to elicit anger and outrage and create a sense of moral righteousness by mobilizing a mass movement for social, environmental, and economic justice.
Frederick Douglass was right when he stated: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It has never done so and will never again. You can find out what people will do to make you feel comfortable, and then you can determine the extent of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them. These will continue until they are overcome with words, blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
How many more people will die in this country before there is a mass movement that can end this social systemic violence?