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Why America’s a More Violent Society Than You Think

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The Hidden Violence Which Pervades American Life, But No One Talks About

Quick — how violent a society would you say America is? Pretty violent, probably. More mass shootings than all its peers combined. Kids doing “active shooter drills.” Guns as a regular feature of life.

I think there’s a hidden layer of violence, which is the deadliest one of all — yet its’s hiding in plain sight. It’s not made of guns, knives, or bombs. It doesn’t need bullets and shooters or explosions. And yet it’s more efficient at its job — swifter, quicker, more merciless, more relentless — than all those. It’s something invisible and silent, like air, and hence, we’re so accustomed, maybe inured, to living right amidst it, that we don’t seem to see it at all. Let me explain.

Consider the average America’s life. You should know the dismal statistics by now. 80% live paycheck to paycheck, 70% can’t raise $1000 for an emergency, real median incomes are shrinking — while the costs of everything, healthcare, education, finance, media, food, skyrocket, adding up to thousands of percent over time. The average American is broke. So what’s life like as a broke person in a nominally rich country? Well, you might know all too well, because you might be living it. He or she lives balanced right at razor’s edge of ruin. One missed paycheck, one unforeseen illness, one misstep, away from disaster.

But what does “disaster” or “ruin” really mean? It means losing it all. Ending up homeless, on the streets. Bang! There goes your home, belongings, future, and maybe your family with it. Maybe even your life. Maybe you’re unable to pay for that cancer treatment and your mortgage both, or that life-saving medicine and your kids’ college both — so you end up choosing to end your own life. Maybe that’s an extreme example — and yet you probably know and I do know people who have lived it. Wait: isn’t all of that violence, too — only by another name?

More precisely, it is structural and institutional violence — not personal violence. And it seems to me as if in America, we are taught to see personal violence — but remain blind to structural and institutional violence. The American always bears on their own shoulders the risk of being left for dead, abandoned, neglected, forced into having to make terrible choices like “my mortgage or my cancer.” But the job of modern, democratic institutions and structures is precisely to prevent all that, and bear that risk — not to enforce it.

And so the average American lives his life under compulsion, duress, forced into terrible, unbearable choices (“My kids or my cancer? My retirement or my home?”). He is being forced to bear as asymmetrical risk — one that no one seems to see: the constant, perpetual threat of very real harm. What kind of harm? Americans aren’t just at the risk of being shot, or their kids shooting each other — they’re forever at the brink of of losing their livelihoods, homes, belongings, incomes, families, health, and even their lives. Bang! Gone. The spectre of ruin, just one step away, is relentless, and it never ends, tires, or changes. Hence, the average American lives his whole life under an ever-present billy-club of threat and intimidation — of genuine and very real violence befalling them, if they’re not “productive” or “useful” or “employable” (or even “healthy” or “strong” or “young”) enough. But who can be all those things a whole life long?

Now, it’s one thing to lose a job. But should the stakes be as high as life and death? As real, lasting, and intense harm and suffering befalling a person and their loved ones? Do you see my point? What is the point of being either a rich country or a democracy then? That’s what I mean by “hidden violence.” Americans often have a hard time distinguishing between these two things — “oh, that person deserved to lost their job, they didn’t work hard enough”, and “wait, isn’t that person is going to die without healthcare?” (or “oh, that person is short on their bills this month” and “wait, doesn’t that mean that whole family will end up homeless?”) But those are precisely the stakes of American life now.

The choice Americans make isn’t really “I can walk away from this job, institution, career” — but “I’m trapped: if I do, I might lose it all — my home, kids, family, even my life.” American life has been reduced to a dilemma, in other words — obey, conform, and submit, or die. Work at this job, for a dwindling income, where you’re given little dignity or respect, often at a career with no meaning or purpose, so you can pay those skyrocketing bills — or be ruined, and have you and your loved ones suffer grievous and serious violence. What American life isn’t is a genuine choice between equally good options — which is a minimal definition of what freedom really is, and that’s a point I’ll return to shortly.

Do you think I exaggerate? I wouldn’t blame you. If you’re American, all this might strike you as outlandish, and not make a whole lot of sense — until you think about Europe. Americans go to Europe for vacation, and say, “why, what happy and nice people they are! What a wonderful place this is!” And then they dream of retiring to little villages in Tuscany or Provence. But why are Europeans so much happier and saner than Americans? Well, the reason is that Europeans don’t live under the constant, pervasive threat of genuine violence that Americans do. It’s not just that they don’t have access to guns — remember, we’re talking a deeper level of violence. It’s that they have “safety nets.” Healthcare, childcare, elderly care, retirement, pensions, and so on. And so they merrily go on with their lives, and become happier, healthier, saner people — they are not as psychologically and culturally and socially insecure precisely becasue they are not constantly threatened and intimidated with structural and institutional violence.

We use the term “safety nets” all too casually — but we should really understand it to mean something crucial. Institutions that don’t just “catch us when we fall” — but protect us from the gangs and mafias who’d intimidate and threaten us. Whether they wear suits and ties or tattoos makes little difference. Let me make that a little sharper. If a mafia boss moved into your neighborhood, and began to threaten to take everything away from you, would you object? But while you might think that’s exaggerated, there is no real difference between these two things — living at the mercy of a mafia, who’s exerting and preying on you, and the way Americans live now. Because the primary job of a civilized society is to ensure that no one, really, lives at the point of a gun — under the threat of violence.

So I don’t mean ”threat” that in the way that fringe right wingers derisively say “snowflake!” I mean it in a much more lethal sense. The average American, perpetually one step away from ruin, lives his whole under a state of duress. At any moment, he could lose everything — and fall into homelessness, illness, dispossession, have to choose to sacrifice himself or herself, into true and genuine ruin — no matter how hard or long or strong he or she has worked. That isn’t true for Europeans, so much, because they have better “safety nets” — which aren’t, as Americans think, just things that “catch us when we fall.” They are shields which protect us from being exploited and intimidated and threatened, into having to conform and obey and submit, like servile things, not genuinely free people.

Now, at this point, you might object — because American thinking might have brainwashed you into thinking all the above is perfectly acceptable, moral, and just. But it isn’t. We don’t have to think very hard to understand that intimidation and threat are themselves forms of violence. We don’t allow people to threaten one another, or intimidate one another — when they do, we call it harassment, abuse, bullying, and so forth. There are very real laws against it, codes to prevent it, and rules to stop it. At least when people do it to one another. So who is threatening and intimidating Americans with perpetual violence, anyways?

Predatory capitalism is. It is as if it is pointing a gun at the average American, laughing, and saying: “you had better sell me your labour, now, at the lowest possible price — or else.” Just like a mafia boss might. The result is that the strange paradox we see: Americans work harder than anyone else in the rich world, even in the poor world — but they only realize shrinking lives from all that hard work. And yet, every year, the cycle repeats itself. Americans work harder, only to lose more. More longevity, income, savings, assets, trust, meaning, purpose, democracy. Why is that? It makes a lot more sense when you understand that they’re being intimidated and threatened into having to do it, by capitalism. Marx would have called all the above “exploitation” and “immiseration” — but I think even he would’ve been struck by how carefully they’ve been institutionally and structurally contructed in America today.

(Now, here, of course, I want to distinguish between mega-capitalism — which is what I mean above — and mom-and-pop capitalism. Your local dry cleaner doesn’t have the power to force you to do anything. But mega-capitalism does.)

Hence, we see bizarre, weird, and perverse phenomena in America. Doctors’ organizations who are firmly against healthcare. LOL — did they take the Hippocratic oath? Gun lobbies that say carrying a machine gun is more important than kids’ lives. A financial system that blows up the economy — and then demands a bailout. These are all forms of capitalism threatening and intimidating a society with violence, if we think about it carefully.

And yet a society that is organized by the constant, pervasive, perpetual threat of violence can’t really be said to be a democracy — because people aren’t free to begin with. They are forced into decisions they wouldn’t make, if the threat were removed. So if America isn’t really a democracy, because people’s choices are severely, profoundly distorted by the threat of hidden violence, then what is it?

Well, what does threatening people with violence do to them? It leaves them traumatized, doesn’t it? Trauma is the repeated exposure to the threat of violence to one’s self, or to loved ones. And we see evidence of trauma everywhere we look in America. In the constant atmosphere of rage and envy. In the need for a kind of childlike safety — whether in the arms of demagogues, or through status competition, or power-seeking, or idolizing the mega-rich. In skyrocketing rates of depression, loneliness, and suicide — anxiety, dread, fear, pressure. And in the constant explosions of rage which are by now a regular feature of American life — school shootings, hate crimes, politicians who preach supremacy, and so on. All of these are ways that the hidden layer of violence has woven itself into American life.

America is something more like an abuse-ocracy than a democracy now. It is a society where the hidden layer of violence which permeates and pervades life — the constant, perpetual threat of harm — has chipped away at and eroded the pillars of democracy. It has made people afraid of doing much more than conforming, submitting, and surrendering to norms, values, and codes of cruelty, punishment, discipline, and exploitation — and that is the good case. The bad one is that it has made people enthusiastic advocates of that very system itself — prisoners Stockholm Syndrome, who cheer on their captivity, as noble, necessary, and just. That way lie fascism, authoritarianism, kleptoracy, and the weird combinations of them we see rising in America today.

And so if you ask me, what is really at stake, in these troubled and strange times, is not just rescuing American democracy — but genuinely rebuilding the idea of a functioning society. As a lever with which to lift people above lives lived at the point of a gun, at the edge of a razor, at the tip of a sword — for a society which is just a forge where violence is made cannot remain one for long. That is where Americans are now, and to me, it explains a very great deal of how America was led to this dark and ugly place.

September 2018

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