The gun debate, commodity fetishism and alienation
Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared at Can’t Jail the Revolution, “home of the revolutionary socialist youth of Workers World Party,” at cantjailtherevolution.org.
By Tom Michalak and Raymond Duprey
The tragic memory of the events in Newtown, Conn., at Sandy Hook Elementary School is still fresh on the minds of people, not only in the U.S., but globally as well. The massacre incited a wave of reaction which culminated in a recent rally in Washington, D.C., with its central demand being the banning of semiautomatic rifles. Many people involved in that rally and others like it are increasingly alarmed by the rise in frequency of these massacres involving the usage of semiautomatic weapons.
Not long after that rally, another case of a shooting spree took place in Phoenix, where a 70-year-old man named Arthur Douglas Harmon shot multiple people, including a CEO of Fusion Contact, a lawyer and a bystander who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The lawyer, Mark Hummels, and the CEO, Steve Singer, both died.
After every tragedy, regardless of how severe the event is compared to the last, people fume and insist that further gun controls will curb these tragedies, but what is forgotten in this debate is the root of this violent loss of human life. The roots of violence, indisputably, are flaws found within the capitalist mode of production, namely the alienation of the individual from his or her labor and the human community as a whole.
How humans interact with one another is determined primarily through production; how material human wants (commodities) are satisfied. The capitalist mode of production is based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power in exchange for wages, which are determined by what yields the capitalist the highest rate of profit while at the same time providing the minimum required to keep the worker coming back to work, and thus continue being exploited at the hands of the capitalist.
As human beings we have an innate desire to help out one another and provide not just for ourselves, but for humanity. We get satisfaction knowing that what we accomplish makes the world a better place and improves the lives of other people.
Alienation instead of abundance
Capitalism, however, is not based on cooperation and improving the lives of others, but rather on improving the lives of those who own the means of production. People are forced into needless competition with each other for higher wages and often to simply maintain the meager existence they’re already living.
In a world in which the productive forces are more than capable of providing an abundance of all that is required to sustain human life and culture, the masses are needlessly thrown into the pit of barbarism and become alienated from the products of their labor as well as from the whole of society.
Look at the case of shooter A.D. Harmon, a contractor hired by Singer and Fusion Contact to remove, refurbish and reinstall office furniture at a Fusion call center location in California. After moving the furniture to storage, Harmon, upon further inspection, claimed the furniture was unable to be rehabbed. Fusion subsequently canceled the agreement, and told him to sell the furniture, which Harmon insisted was worthless. Harmon later sued the company for “lost wages” and other damages, and Fusion in turn responded with a countersuit, claiming Harmon had damaged equipment in the company’s facility.
How does this relate back to the theory of alienation by Karl Marx? In his “Comments on James Mill,” written in 1844, Marx describes alienation under capitalism:
“Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”
Harmon, after losing the litigation case over wages, reacted by going on a shooting spree, killing Singer and Hummels. This is absolutely not an attempt to sympathize with any murderer, but an attempt to understand them.
In the case of the Empire State shooter, it is even a clearer example of alienation. The man loses his job, his means of obtaining a livelihood through wage labor, and kills two people. Humans selling labor power for their survival are chained to the past by capitalist production.
Social character of labor and its products
In a society in which the means of producing a livelihood are privately owned, the products of labor (e.g., firearms) take on a social character due to the social relation between producers and owners. The owners sell the products of labor which were created by wage labor. The same workers who produced these products in turn have to use the wages paid to them to buy these products — an increasingly difficult task, especially considering these unstable financial times, with the rise in prices of basic human necessities.
The reader asks, “But what does this have to do with guns?” As the “job market” shrinks and only offers low-wage employment, antagonisms from the expanding gap in incomes worsen and send shock waves throughout society. A gun is a commodity of self-defense, and as the material necessities of the people become too expensive with the meager wages provided, violence and desperation will trend up. The need to defend oneself occurs in a society stricken by inequalities, racism, bigotry and bloody competition between workers and capitalists, and capitalists against other capitalists. Only when a tragedy occurs does the social character of firearms change through a social relation between humans.
At the core, a firearm is little more than a tool created from natural resources to satisfy a concrete human need. The person holding it in his or her hand is determining its use. It can be used as a means of self-defense just the same as it can be used as a means to do harm to another. Just as a pencil has a practical use of writing on a piece of paper, it could also be used to assault someone. Most objects could be used to cause harm to others, but that does not mean the object itself is something to be condemned.
Those who attribute murder, robbery, etc., solely to the [access of the means] by which [these acts are carried out] are missing the underlying fact of the matter, which is that the objective material conditions of society are what drive people to commit violent crimes in the first place. This fetishism of commodities, attributing human or divine qualities to material objects used to fulfill a human need, is an error of tunnel vision and lack of social consciousness.
Self-defense of the oppressed
When right-wing groups like the National Rifle Association proclaim that their guns will have to be taken from their “cold, dead hands,” they are coming from a point of view based on racism and fear. When they talk about the rights of “law-abiding citizens” to defend themselves, they aren’t talking about the oppressed peoples.
Where were these fascists when Trayvon Martin was shot dead on his walk home, or when CeCe McDonald was attacked by white supremacist thugs? They weren’t advocating for the right of Trayvon or CeCe to defend themselves. Their silence on issues dealing with the right of the oppressed to self-defense told us all we need to know about whose side they stand on.
The usual argument from those in favor of more gun regulations and reinstatement of the ban on military semiautomatic weapons is that it is irrational to “need” a semiautomatic rifle for protection. Few who argue the irrationality of protecting oneself with a semiautomatic find themselves in a position where protecting themselves becomes a necessity.
But what’s more, this argument supposes that the primary means of the oppressed to defend themselves should be left in the hands of the oppressive state itself. Keep in mind, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense gained prominence when they staged a protest, armed to the teeth, outside of the California Capitol building in 1968 in opposition to then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s gun control act.
Forgotten completely in this debate is the declining state of mental health treatment and the systematic gutting of education. One option would be to push for progressive reforms and increased funding of education and mental health services. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that one-quarter of people in the U.S. suffer from mental illness, and often these illnesses go untreated, resulting in the U.S. being the global leader in mental health problems. (washingtonpost.com, June 6, 2005)
Revolution, not reform, really needed
But no reform, no matter how extensive, will prevent violent loss of human life because it is not the gun itself that is the root of violence, but rather the social antagonisms which find their roots in societal contradictions. As the global financial crisis deepens and the gap between incomes grows, violence is sure to follow.
In conclusion, it is not the gun that creates the opportunity for violence but the very convulsions of society itself through alienation, and because of a lack of clear understanding of the root problem, guns are given qualities which are entirely human. What’s more is that this issue is a distraction that pits the working class against one another in ideological squabbles that in the past have resulted in little social change.
Real social change rarely comes from reforming laws or institutions — it comes from class struggle. Reform efforts only lead to demoralization once those reforms are either defeated, repealed or found to be ineffective, which leads to political disillusionment and further alienation. To put an end to a society that continuously chews up and spits out people because of material inequalities is the only way out. Revolutionary socialism, an economic system based on production for human need instead of profit, is the only road for us to take.