Bigger Capitalism, Better Hearts: Addressing Random Violence

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

A particularly maddening sort of violence—seemingly random violence—has been in the news a lot lately. Maddening, perhaps, because as Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature showed, modern society is less violent in many ways than what came before it. How can American violence be at once so random and yet more rare?

Fringe ViolenceCapitalism is the answer. Capitalism has successfully organized much of the violence that used to flow throughout society. But it is not big enough to cover all of American life, and those left without its benefits lack reasons to accept its rules. A humane response to continuing violence involves both expanding capitalism and expanding our notions of ourselves as more than capitalists.

Max Weber, modern sociology’s founder, wrote about the dramatic changes that capitalism’s rise brought about in the world. Central to the modern capitalist order, he said, was the idea of rational organization. In contrast with earlier, less formal ways of working, trading, and resting (think midday siestas and personal reputation as a proxy for business worthiness), everything in capitalism has its place. Eight hours for sleep, eight for work, eight for leisure, as it were. Clear distinctions between commercial relationships on one side and friends and family on the other. Everything in society is broken up into neat spaces under the division of labor. People aren’t farmers-fixers-builders-sellers any more. They are managers, owners, blue-collar, and so on.

Life becomes, in a word, regimented.

Violence has evolved similarly. Sure, civil rulers always kept dungeons and set skin ablaze. But killing did not used to be confined to the state. Families feuded for generations, first with swords and arrows and then with Kentucky rifles. It was acceptable for two gentlemen to resolve a dispute in a duel—so much so that a vice president of the United States fatally shot one of the country’s most influential founders and never saw a day in jail.

What happened to change that wild world? Capitalism. Free-flowing violence proved a critical threat to the existence of long-term rational business relationships. It’s hard to imagine the Hatfield-McCoy feud being possible off of the self-sufficient farmsteads where both clans could raise their own chickens, grow their own vegetables, or draw water from their own wells. Even more so, if either clan needed technology more complex than wagon wheels and plows that could be repaired at home with scrap. To keep necessary channels of commerce open, it became necessary to channel human blood in predictable ways.

Capitalism’s own defining feature, the division of labor, proved the solution. Authorize certain people to have a monopoly on lawful violence: soldiers, police officers, and wardens. Build special places where punishment is done, namely, prisons. Set up full-blown court systems with exclusive jurisdiction over crime. Sop up all that violence flowing from society’s wounds and pour it into one big bucket, the criminal justice system.[1]

Why would most people agree to dump their troubles in the bucket? Because it became the price for being a part of the commercial society. Obviously, the criminal justice system’s ability to force people into cells (or worse) if they keep doing things on their own helps. But if enough people get in the system’s way, its power saps. What was true for Robin Hood several centuries ago is true today: a sympathetic populace can deny the system the witnesses, evidence, and jury votes it needs to control outlaws.

Most people today accept the criminal justice system because they enjoy the benefits of the division of labor. Having certain people take care of violence saves victims the time, money, harm, fear, and social isolation that come with trying to deal with problems on their own. And it means people can stay in their own places within the division of labor, continuing to put in eight hours at the desk, eight on the couch, and eight on the pillow. Capitalism makes violence a special problem, addressed by special experts.[2]

However, the division of labor in society is not complete. Capitalism is a blanket too short to cover America all the way from her shoulders to her ankles. There are folks for whom the same tradeoff does not happen, because they are disengaged from the economy. They are told that they can stay in their place, because it’s someone else’s place to deal with violence. Except that they do not have a place in which to stay, no threefold division into which to break up their twenty-four hours. Nor do some have the kind of financial and relationship concerns that stop other people from going off to settle their real and imagined scores. They may be citizens of America, but they are not citizens of its capitalism.

Is it any wonder that so much of the uncontrolled violence that horrifyingly splashes outside our criminal justice bucket comes from (a very, very few) individuals who are not full members of the mainstream economy? The street performer and his unemployed wife who killed two Nevada police officers this month. The California mass shooter who only sporadically attended school—an alternative regimented institution—in the years before attacking.  Another college dropout who opened fire on an elementary school. The rancher—possessed of a way of economic life far less structured than ordinary modern capitalism—who threatened old-fashioned brush war against the federal government this spring. Check up on many of the major media stories of sudden mass violence in America recently and you’ll often find an economically disconnected perpetrator.

What can be done against the threat of such sporadic violence from the economic margins? It’s no answer to just wait until people act out violently and then submerge them in the bucket forever. No decent society waits until people become threats to address them. There are two problems that need answers. One is that capitalism is not large enough. But there are ways to expand capitalism to cover more of American economic life. More jobs would pull more people out of unemployment and desperate underemployment. Making it easier for people to legally sell food, rent rooms, drive cars, and do other basic services would mean more people enter into commercial society and get the benefits of its rules. So would reforming, say, marijuana or prostitution laws so that these activities—whatever their impact on health or morals—are at least part of the capitalist milieu that keeps violence organized.

But that does little for the many people for whom the capitalist way of life will never be an option, or at least won’t be all the time, for any number of reasons. To address this second problem, we must recover a sense of ourselves as more than just capitalists, as something other than people who have commercial exchange with our equals. We are human beings, capable of providing care and compassion and sensing the need of others. We are family members, embedded in relationships from the instant we are conceived. Some of us are religious, called to imitate the Love loving us perfectly. We are citizens, with shared memories and aspirations of the pursuit of happiness.

Answering the vestigial violence that lingers in our capitalist society means making capitalism at once larger and smaller: larger in the economic activity it embraces, smaller in the hold it has on our hearts.


[1] As regular readers of The Bell Towers know, the author does not think organizing violence is all that justice demands. Even organized violence must be limited.

[2] This does not mean state violence is actually as rational and expertly applied as the system claims. But the author will spare the tired reader a dissertation in blog post format.

 

Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

2 Comments

  1. Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton says:

    “Capitalism has successfully organized much of the violence that used to flow throughout society.”

    Yes, quite, particularly into a force to violently suppress those not strong enough to fight back. What’s a few random deaths here or there when you can wipe out a million in Iraq? And that’s just for starters. Good show ol’ chap, you got your point across within two paragraphs!

  2. Duhhhh, a simple farmer what can't even tie his shoes for they have no shoelaces due to no capitalism says:

    “Max Weber, modern sociology’s founder, wrote about the dramatic changes that capitalism’s rise brought about in the world. Central to the modern capitalist order, he said, was the idea of rational organization. In contrast with earlier, less formal ways of working, trading, and resting (think midday siestas and personal reputation as a proxy for business worthiness), everything in capitalism has its place. Eight hours for sleep, eight for work, eight for leisure, as it were. Clear distinctions between commercial relationships on one side and friends and family on the other. Everything in society is broken up into neat spaces under the division of labor. People aren’t farmers-fixers-builders-sellers any more. They are managers, owners, blue-collar, and so on.”

    Oh, sirrah, what a wonderful discovery you’ve made! Now that we lowly pre-capitalist barbarians know about “spend certain hours of the day doing one thing, then other hours of the day doing something else,” we can finally master this technique known as “agriculture.” Previously we had simply tossed seeds about willy nilly and then slept throughout the day, but now we know better. Yes truly we, the people who invented the calendar and all the tools necessary to create civilization, would be nowhere without a future man here to invent a concept that has completely not existed at all up until the 20th century. We’re saved!

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