Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Murder-Suicide by Capitalism

With apologies to John Ross (author of the book Murdered by Capitalism - a good read by the way):
A man who fatally shot his wife, five young children and himself Tuesday had earlier faxed a note to a TV station claiming the couple had just been fired from their hospital jobs and together planned the killings as a final escape for the whole family.
Just an odd story that doesn't tell us anything about the system he was living under? It would be, except for this:
It was the fifth mass death of a Southern California family by murder or suicide in a year.
There seems to be something in the Zeitgeist that invites murder-suicides. An acquaintance elsewhere made some attempt to understand that Zeitgeist a few years ago in The Autumnal City 14 -- Murder-Suicide:

Before I DO ask why, I want to take up a few aspects of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. I should say at the outset that I did not follow the news story at the time: I did not think the media would say much of substance. One virtue of that is that the movie was able to take me by surprise.

Moore starts out with the atmosphere of paranoid fear that pervades Littleton Colorado. Through the metal cage of a front door he interviews a local suburbanite about his ready-to-fire gun collection. This is a treat for a big bad city-dweller like myself. Even in the ghetto nobody has front-doors like that!

He moves on to the local economy. Set on a desolate stretch of prairie, Littleton exists to build nuclear missiles, whose plain purpose is to commit mass murder, and if used would likely end human civilization and many larger lifeforms. He asks, but does not answer: What kind of people can devote their lives to this?

Plainly, these people never think about what they are doing, ever. Robots have deeper souls.

Finally he gets to the school itself. It is bizarre. All of the kids, including the killers, are inundated with material wealth. They seem hard-put to even make proper use of all their toys. But the loneliness and the aimlessness are palpable. These last are familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Midwest. But one thing I did not expect was the utter cluelessness of the adults. Worse than anything I remember. Times change.

When I was in school, bullying (when it was finally noticed) was supressed. At Columbine scapegoating and bullying among the students is encouraged and utilized by the staff as a form of child-management.

By this point, you have to know what is coming, even if you never read the news or heard about the movie.

Needless to say, I had not seen the footage of the killings themselves. That they HAD been filmed was the big surprise--but only for me. Everyone else, Moore included, was not concerned about the cameras. But for me, this was the turn--like in Dylan's song: Oh, this is the way it is SUPPOSED to happen! Everything is JUST FINE.

Before I explain, let me note that the killings certainly appeared to be traumatic. The kids were upset. Their parents were upset. Only--and this was curious--even as new "security" measures were being devised, nobody wanted to know why the murders had occurred. No matter how horrible people thought it was, everybody tacitly accepted that it had to be this way. They might add new fences or more cameras. But they would never, ever do anything that might prevent violence from happening.

Why were the cameras the turn?

Although it appears that our entire civilization (and not just the US) is either rooted in, or turning to embrace murder/suicide, there is something about the Midwest that brings it closer to the surface. The country is open in a way that might suggest freedom but equally suggests desolation and exposure. The social mood is constrained and claustrophobic in the extreme: Everyone is into everyone's business, but not in a nice way--the tone is hostile and invidious.


The immediate effect on the subject is to induce a false personality to show to the (ever-present) camera. This is a psychological distortion, and carries a risk: Some children will not be able to separate their false personality from their real one, and in the process they will lose track of what is real and what is not. The result is a gradual depersonalization. Depending on how much stress is laid upon them, they will drift into unreality but remain functional, or they may eventually crack up. Separating personalities carries a different risk: It very much matters which personality is which, and the talent of keeping track is yet another layer. If everything goes well, by separating your personalities you can cope with the hostile environment.


It is about time to ask: Murder/suicide is an acceptable price for WHAT? What is it buying us? And who is the "us" to whom these benefits accrue?

At this point, I have written myself into a box: I can see where this is going, but not how it gets there. The essential point is this: Our civilization has learned how to make slaves responsible for their own slavery. This was perfected toward the end of the nineteenth century. The downside is that they do tend to crack up. The upside is that it is very, very efficient.

How is it accomplished? Bait and switch, of course. We start with individualism and freedom. It sounds good to those who have been brutally subjected to another's will. That the world actually works through a network of mutual constraints and interactions may pass unnoticed. After all, the children in Littleton are actually growing up in an artificial, enclosed environment of hostile control. Suppose, at the same time, we can teach them an ideology of individualism and freedom? The switch comes when the freedom never materializes. Meanwhile the individualism means they take it on themselves.

Life does not get much more enclosed than that.

Suicide begins to seem like a choice.

From suicide to murder is very easy. But this is only half the picture. For the mania that is endemic to the bottom of our society seems to have possessed the top. Indeed, it radiates from the top. The techniques of depersonalization that are practiced on the children of Littleton were not created by sane people, and cannot be implemented by them--that is a salient feature of all these techniques. So where did they come from?

Like the writer, Gaianne, I'm not sure I have the answers, but I can at least ask some questions in the hopes that answers will one day be forthcoming. Gaianne lays out some pieces of the puzzle - some sort of hyper-individualism, an illusion of freedom, and depersonalization. I'd add a hierarchical social structure that thrives on competition, violence at all levels (from interpersonal to structural), and which instructs its residents to attach personal meaning to the attainment of ephemeral "wealth". Somehow, the way the pieces of this particular society fit together to invite a sort of narcisissm (a fancy way of saying extremely high but extremely unstable self-esteem), which itself is a marker of aggressive and violent behavior (I'd add not only at the individual interpersonal and intrapersonal levels, where most social psychologists seem to leave it, but also at the organizational and structural levels as exemplified by certain policies adopted by ruling elites). The stressors inherent in our current economic and political climate are those that would invite behaviors that would be arguably unthinkable in another context.

The kids who committed the murder-suicide in Littleton about a decade ago were written off as pathological, as have those belonging to religious cults - e.g., The People's Temple, and I'm sure the couple in the story that began this particular dispatch, but I would offer that those exemplars rather than being "bad apples" are actually merely visible symptoms of a society that lives and potentially dies by the threat of murder-suicide: US foreign policy since WWII has been predicated on the concept of murder-suicide from the "good old days" of Mutually Assured Destruction to the present "War on Terra"; economic policy is based on the exploitation and depletion of nonrenewable resources with no consideration for the future (If we can't have it now, we'll make sure that NO ONE will have it later).

Not sure what a workable solution would look like at this time - merely looking for a way to get my head around the problem.

Note: Top article was courtesy of Left I on the News.

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