The following is a transcription of an address I gave to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County.
A few weeks ago, 73 people were shot in three predominantly black neighborhoods of Chicago over a three-day period. 12 of them died. Most of them were black youth. All were probably shot by other black people, although no one has been arrested for any of the shootings. A few weeks prior to this bloody weekend a police officer shot an armed black man in the back sparking rage on the part of people in the community. He was employed as a barber and the father of a five year old. The question all of us ask in the wake of such incidents is why. The answer isn’t simple.
Throughout my lifetime there have been periods when violence of various sorts has become ubiquitous. This is one of those periods. In the U.S., domestic violence, gang violence, police violence, random shootings and bombings at schools, churches, rock concerts, public events have become regular occurrences. But just as important in this period of violence, is the fact that the U.S. has been in a perpetual state of warfare for the past 17 years. This form of violence, perpetrated by our government, has resulted in the killings of civilians and combatants alike and destruction of the homes and workplaces of millions.
This essay focuses on the U.S. but it needs to be said that ubiquitous violence of different sorts prevails in nations around the world. War and violence and economic collapse have driven millions from their homes and the land of their birth. And in response to the massive displacement of peoples, immigrants find themselves under attack.
In the U.S. there is a heartening push back from a number of quarters. Here in the U.S. we are seeing movements to counter violence and warfare. There is a growing support for the rights of immigrants. Campaigns against sexual violence have gained momentum.
But there has also been movement in the opposite direction. Neo Fascist and ultra right wing movements around the world are on the rise. Some groups preach national, white or male supremacy. Some oppose the entrance of immigrants into their countries and agitate to get rid of immigrants who are already in. Some attempt to build psychological or physical walls around one country or another.
I put all of these forms of violence together because I believe they originate from a common source. It is my view that the waves of different forms of violence today have a systemic basis, which means that any solution must address the roots of ubiquitous violence rather than simply its many symptoms.
Getting at systemic violence means we start with the global political/economic system – capitalism, itself. In my book, New World Disorder, I argued that from time to time the global political/economic system is no longer able to feed, cloth, house, care for and educate the mass of people. And the people of the world including the U.S. have been experiencing what I call a crisis of value since at least the year 2000. During a crisis of value, more claims are made on the value created by the economy and the people in it than the system is able to provide. Then comes a period that I call “churning and flailing” during which people, governments and businesses frantically attempt to find a way out of the mess. Value producing businesses and people themselves are eliminated, often through war and other forms of violence, causing a huge social disruption. In the end, historically, a temporary solution has been found and things settle down until the next crisis hits. The people and governments throughout the world are presently churning and flailing.
In the context of the ongoing crisis, I look at violence from two angles. First, how does global capitalism value human life? Secondly how does our sense of identity (gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual preference, religion) effect our relations with those who are different from us? And how do these two aspects of today’s churning and flailing add up to ubiquitous violence.
Nearly everyone in the world lives in a capitalist society that is based on competition, and the buying and selling things and each other through the use of money. Philosopher Anselm Jappe sums this up with the concept of the commodity logic.
I believe that the notion of commodity logic helps explain how we value human life and as a result sheds some light on the question of why we live in a period of ubiquitous violence.
First, think of the goods and services we really need to live a decent life in today’s world. What is it that enables us to survive and what else is needed to live a fulfilling life? Decent housing, sufficient and nutritious food, potable water, clothing that can protect us from the elements, health care, education are the things I consider to be necessities.
As an example, therefore, let’s see how commodity logic applies to housing. Housing in our present society has two, sometimes conflicting, definitions. Our home needs to offer shelter, protection from the elements and a safe place to live and possibly raise a family. But at the same time, our home defined as an asset or an investment that is worth money. When the price of houses or rents go up so that some people are no longer able to find a decent place to live, these two aspects of housing are in conflict. The commodity logic of our present system dictates that the price of housing is its ultimate value. And that this exchange value always has priority over any other consideration including the notion that a house is also a home that gives us protection and shelter.
I contend that this commodity logic applies to all of our basic needs because they are first and foremost commodities to be bought and sold. The money price of the commodities food, clothing, health care and education always takes priority over our need for these things. So that the only way we can meet our needs is to sell our labor. In the process, labor also falls under the sway of the commodity logic.
Seeing labor as a part of the commodity logic of our society brings us to the question of the value of life itself, and constitutes part of the explanation for the violence we see around us.
The poet, Carl Sandburg, expressed the commodity logic aspect of labor succinctly in his poem, “Buyers and Sellers.”
What is a man worth?
What can he do?
What is his value?
On the one hand those that buy labor,
On the other hand those who have nothing
to sell but their labor.
And when the buyers of labor tell
the sellers, “Nothing doing today, not a
Our education is directed toward building our capacity to “make a living.” And our success is measured in terms of the income we earn. For those who find pleasure in their work, they find that pleasure subordinated to financial return for their work. All those who have nothing to sell but their labor, must sell their capacity to work to the highest bidder. And we compete with others who are also trying to sell their labor power.
We can see the commodity logic of work in rather dramatic form in laws known as the Workers’ Compensation System. State laws assign a dollar value to injuries or death. In Wisconsin, if an injury results in permanent disability the award is 2/3 of your weekly wage. The total lifetime payout is capped. So if you are very young and live a long life on disability, your state compensation will end before you do. If you die due to a job related accident, your spouse gets four times your average annual earnings with some extra benefit for each child.
While each state has slightly different schedules, what is the same is that a worker’s value is based on his or her wages. So if you are a woman doing the same job as a man with less pay, you are essentially worth less than the man. If you are black and earn less than a white person, the white person is worth more.
This is how the commodity logic is institutionalized into laws. The fact that human beings in their most critical activity are valued based on wages and salaries carries over into the logic of violence and it is reinforced by the fact that the commodity logic dominates all social relations. The humanity of individuals and groups is subordinated to their status as things with different values.
Racist and misogynist ideology carries with it the commodity logic in that it can justify violence against people whose lives are less valued. If some groups of people are seen as having a lesser value than others, it is easier to discriminate, lowering their “value” even more and ultimately easier to dismiss violence against them.
All of this can be exacerbated as we develop a consciousness of who we are—of our identity.
Identity and Difference
In the U.S., many people proclaim that they are American, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, white, black, Latino, woman, man, lesbian, gay, straight, trans, bi or q. These are physical, political and cultural identities that impact our lives in many ways and help define who we are. Our age, nationality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation and preference are all part of how we may identify ourselves or how others identify us.
Identity is a basis to mobilize people with similar identities to either push for equal treatment or move against those perceived as “others.” Identity and difference comprise a contradiction. . The contradiction of identity and difference can be a source of growth – human development. It can also be a source of violence against those who oppress us because of our identity or against peoples perceived as “others.”
Awareness of identity comes through the discovery of differences between ourselves and others. If you were born in the U.S. and live in this country, you are constantly reminded of what it means to be an “American.” And this is defined in relation to differences with others who are not. Class identity, as defined in the Sandburg poem I read earlier, is developed through life experiences as we try to sell our capacity to work. But among those of us who have nothing to sell but our labor, there are a number of different identities that sometime divides the class – race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation.
Racial identity is determined solely by social “assignments” of race based largely on skin color and sometimes national origin. Racial identities are learned through family socialization and life experiences.
Biological differences between men and women are physical. Gender is behavioral. It consists of what is considered masculine and feminine behavior. And it is learned through socialization. But perceived differences between what is expected and what one feels can lead to different sexuality identities than those taught to us from birth.
Many of us were brought up in a particular religion. We learned its theology and gained our religious identity in our homes and churches. But the acquisition of an identity as a Unitarian or a Roman Catholic or as a Christian, Muslim or a Jew came through how our faith differed from others of different faiths.
Identities are complex. You can have several identities at once. They can be building blocks for self-development. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Reverend Jesse Jackson often began his talks by getting the audience to chant “I am somebody!” While he applied this phrase to everyone in his audience, he was also appealing to black people directly. Other organizers also emphasized a pride in being Black through Afro Centered education and the phrase “Black is Beautiful.” Other identity movements used a similar approach to mobilize against discrimination and oppression. “Sisterhood is Powerful,” “(GLBTQ) Pride” are examples. Affirmation of who you are enables you to join with others of similar identities and organize for your rights.
But identities can also be a source of discrimination or even oppression. When people have mixed identities the discrimination can be amplified. For example, people identified as black have been systematically oppressed and discriminated against since they were brought to the U.S. as slaves. But today, a black person can be oppressed and discriminated against by other black people based on class. Black people who have “nothing to sell but their labor” are sometimes victimized by other black people who are in a position to buy labor or by black people who represent the class of people who do. Similarly, black police can be agents of oppression against black citizens.
Identity, the Competitive Logic and Violence
Identity as an ingredient in the commodity logic can make up a toxic stew that explains to a great extent, the ubiquitous character of today’s violence. And this takes on greater force as the current global economic political crisis of value deepens. The commodity logic today means that there will be both winners and losers in a desperate competition over the declining availability of the goods and services that define human need.
The radical historian E.P. Thompson termed this process “exterminism.” Here is what he had to say.
“What happens if the masses are dangerous but are no longer a working class, and hence of no value to the rulers? Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to get rid of them.”
Phil Neel in his book Hinterland argues that there are geographically defined areas all over the world where those who are no longer needed by the global political/economic system live. He terms such regions the “hinterland.” The people of the hinterland must struggle to simply get by. They are a surplus population. In their case, they lose their designation as a proletariat and become a part of the “uneccesariat.” In the U.S. where residents of the hinterland identify as “white,” some join fascistic organizations promoting a white supremacist ideology. In city neighborhoods where the uneccesariate is black, men and some women are put into prison and the populace not in prison is kept in place by police. These neighborhoods are essentially holding pens or concentration camps for those not needed by the system. Some people in these areas are dangerous because they are desperate to get by and sometimes do so through the drug trade and other illegal activities. But those people who are close to becoming part of the unnecesariate can also be dangerous because they are determined not to become part of the growing surplus population.
Competitive hierarchies based on various identities may clash as exterminism proceeds. This explains who the players are in both the wars at home and abroad. Homicide rates in poor communities, police murders of the people there, mass incarceration, the rise of white and other forms of white supremacism are all part of the same process. In the toxic atmosphere of a growing unnecessariate, acceptance of the commodity logic and a narrowing of our various identities to exclude more and more “others” opens the doors to random and not so random violence.
Most people are a part of the class who, to quote the poet, “have nothing to sell but their labor.” But within that class there are a variety of identities that, using the commodity logic, are sitting in a hierarchy or a pecking order relative to the bottom category of the unnecessariate. It was striking to me to see films of the march in Charlottesville, Virginia last year in which white youth marched with torches chanting “You will not replace us!” They were saying that as white people they were above and superior to people of color in the pecking order and intended to stay there. This is a source of the appeal of President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again. And as the crisis deepens and the process of exterminism grows in strength they will fight to not be exterminated, mobilizing around white identity.
Those trapped in the urban hinterland will use identity in another way. Some will choose to use the potential of the drug trade. Their identity is not predominantly as a member of a racial or national group, but as a member of a particular gang, protecting their territory and each other using armed violence.
The police are charged with keeping the surplus population at bay. It is, as many have pointed out, a dangerous thing to do. Many of them are themselves people of color who have chosen to serve the interests of those who buy labor, thus staying out of the ranks of the unnecessariate. They are quick to arrest wrongdoers and help store them in the nation’s prisons. But many are, possibly out of fear for their own lives or fear of becoming a part of the growing population surplus, quick to use violence; hence the epidemic of police violence.
Most of the people who live in the urban hinterland want to survive without violence. They may add a particular religion and /or political party to their identity and join demonstrations and prayer circles that seek to end violence, reform police practices, and limit access to firearms.
I have left out many dimensions of the problem of a surplus population in our society with its commodity logic and warring identities. But I need to address one more before I close—national identity. In this country it is the ideological component of being “an American.” Economic collapse and perpetual war around the world heighten national tensions – creating a state of perpetual war against threats imagined or even real as was revealed in bold relief on September 11, 2001.
So we are told to rally around the flag and to cling to the ideological thread of “American Exceptionalism” – the idea that we are the greatest nation on earth – the most powerful, the most generous, the most kind. That everything this nation is doing and has ever done historically has been for the greater benefit of mankind. It is around this idea of “American Exceptionalism” that we wage or fuel wars around the world. Our troops are able to leave the worries of being part of the unnecessariate behind for life in the military. But that requires a willingness to kill or to die for the “greater benefit of mankind.” And all civilians, whatever our other identities may be, must pledge allegiance to the flag of the U.S.A., sing the national anthem with gusto, don’t dare to take a knee at sporting events when the anthem is belted out and support our troops without questioning the motives of those sending our troops into battle. The early 20th Century anti war slogan – “Workers shouldn’t fight the rich man’s war”—is relevant today more than ever. Those who buy labor start the wars. Those who have nothing to sell but their labor, fight them.
What to do
There is no magic bullet to stop the violence generated by a political economy in crisis where commodity logic and identity combine to get us to murder one another not only at home, but around the world. Certainly marching to end wars, electing peace candidates who support gun control as well as body cameras and sensitivity training for cops are steps in the right direction. But they don’t begin to get at the real causes of ubiquitous violence.
We need a politics that is not simply directed at electing those who agree on the need to limit violence. We need through our own actions and the way we raise our children to reject those elements of thought and action that perpetuate systemic violence.
One important aspect of such politics is the rejection of “American Exceptualism.” It is a dangerous ideological myth. Our government has engaged many times in destructive behavior that was never for the benefit of a greater good. I personally will not pledge allegiance to the flag or sing our war-like national anthem. I do this not out of disrespect for this land and its people but out of respect and support of all the peoples around the world who have nothing to sell but their labor. We/They are the ones who end up fighting the wars. And we need also to push back against the notion that criticism of militarism and the latest war mongering is somehow disrespectful of the soldiers who are sent into harms way.
Secondly, while pride in who we are is part of the process of human development and at times a needed rallying point to stave off oppression and discrimination, it can not be the end point. That process of development must not stop at our most narrow identity, excluding all others. Human development should aim to become increasingly inclusive until all of us who presently have nothing to sell but our labor are included. The path leading in this direction seeks to end all oppression and discrimination.
Finally we must seek to end a system grounded in commodity logic, replacing it with a system in which “the full and free development of every human being is its ruling principle” and the point of society itself. We need to refuse to accept the logic that we have the best possible system so that our priority becomes preserving the system rather than insuring that everyone must have enough nutritious food to eat, water to drink, a decent place to live, clothing to protect us and keep us warm, health care and education. We can’t accept the notion that “it costs too much.” If our system can’t provide these fundamental aspects of being human we must create one that can.
Some people may try to say that these things are impractical. It is true that attempting to pursue such an agenda through our present electoral system is impractical. But once the forces moving in such a direction are unleashed we will find that nothing else will be practical.
We have at our disposal technologies that could bring us food, water, security, housing, clothing, health care and education for all without wage labor or even money. Such a goal can be achieved through the will of all of us to move in such a direction. If you seek an American historical reference point for such a movement, look to Thomas Paine who helped spark the American Revolution by putting forth the ideal that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Only this time let’s insist that everyone means everyone.