Marxism

The Gun Debate: Commodity Fetishism and Alienation

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by Tom Michalak & Raymond Duprey

The tragic memory of the events in Newton, Connecticut at Sandy Hook elementary school is still fresh on the minds of people, not only nationally, but globally as well. The massacre incited a wave of reaction which culminated in a recent rally in Washington with its central demand being the banning semi-automatic rifles. Many people involved in that rally and others like it are increasingly alarmed by the rise in frequencies of these massacres involving the usage of semi-automatic rifles. Not long after that rally another case of a shooting spree took place in Phoenix, Arizona, in which 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 essentially 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 which is nothing more than a distraction is the root of this violent loss of human life. The root of violence is indisputably,  flaws found within the capitalist mode of production, namely the alienation of the individual from his 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 of 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 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. Capitalism however, is not based on cooperation and improving the lives of others, but rather 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 the whole of society.

For instance, in the case of Arthur Harmon, a contractor whom was hired by Singer and Fusion Contact to remove, refurbish, and re-install office furniture and fixtures in the Scottsdale call center in which Fusion operates. After moving the furniture to storage, Harmon upon further inspection, claimed that the furniture is worthless. 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 costs, which Fusion in turn responded with a counter-suit, claiming that Harmon had damaged equipment in the call center.

How does this relate back to the theory of alienation by Karl Marx? In his “Comment to James Mill” written in 1844, Marx describes alienation in capitalism as:

“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. In a society in which the means of producing a livelihood are privately owned, the products of labor (e.g., firearms) take 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. That same labor which produced these products in turn have to use the wages paid to them to buy these products (an increasingly difficult task, especially considering the 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 worsens, and sends shock waves throughout society. A gun is a commodity of self-defense, and as the material necessities of the people become too expensive for the meager wages provided, violence and desperation will trend up. The need to defend oneself 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 onto 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 in some way shape or form could be used to cause harm onto others, but that does not mean that the object itself is something to be condemned. Those who attribute murder, robbery, etc. solely to the means by which the lives are being lost are missing the underlying fact of the matter, which is that the objective material conditions of society is what drives people to commit violent crimes in the first place. The fetishism of commodities, attributing human or divine qualities to material objects used to fulfill a human need, are making an error of tunnel vision and lack of social consciousness.

When right wing groups like the National Rifle Association proclaim that their guns will have to be taken from their “cold, dead hands” 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 murdered 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 that deal with the oppressed rights of self-defense was deafening and told us all we need to know about whose side they stand on.

The usual argument from those in favor of gun regulations, and also the reinstatement of the ban on military semi-automatic rifles reasons that it is irrational to “need” a semi-automatic rifle for protection. It goes without saying that few which argue the irrationality of protecting oneself with a semi-automatic rarely find themselves in a position that 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. Let us keep in mind, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense first gained prominence when they staged a protest, armed to the teeth, outside of the California capitol building in 1968  in opposition to then governor Reagan’s “Gun Control Act”.

Forgotten completely in this debate which is nothing more than a distraction is the declining state of mental health treatment and the systematic gutting of education. One option would be to push for further reforms and funding of both institutions of education and mental health treatment. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that one-quarter of Americans suffer from mental illness, and often these illnesses go untreated, resulting in the United States being the global leader. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/06/AR2005060601651.html)

But no reform, no matter how extensive, will prevent the violent loss of human life because it is not the gun itself but, but rather the social antagonisms which find their roots in societal contradictions; as the global financial crisis deepens and the gap between incomes grow, violence is sure to follow. In Britain, the home of CNN’s Piers Morgan who was among the first in the media to call for drastic change in American gun policy, people may not need to worry about gun violence (many of the police themselves are not carrying firearms) but they do however face a much higher risk of being stabbed in public.

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 this issue is simply a distraction that pits the working class against one another in ideological squabbles that in the past has resulted in little social change. Real social change rarely comes from reforming laws or institutions, it comes from class struggle. To put an end to a society that will continuously chew up and spit out people because of material inequalities is the only way out. Revolutionary socialism, an economic system based on the production of commodities for human need instead of profit, is the only road for us to take. Reform efforts only lead to demoralization once those reforms are either defeated or once they are repealed, which leads to political disillusionment and further alienation.

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