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We Don't Live In A Society
Something is out of joint. The shootings of the past two weeks, the racist murders at the supermarket in Buffalo and the apparently senseless massacre at the elementary school in Uvalde, are not new. They are all-too regular occurrences in American life, but it feels like quantity is transforming itself into quality: this is no longer an aberration, this is the norm, this is the country we live in. The system can apparently absorb these things endlessly. It feels even worse, like things are actively designed to frustrate the basic imperatives of communal life and collective action: being able to freely and peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The mere idea of changing laws, the most basic thing a society can do when faced with a problem, feels impossible. The outrage is diffused, immediately churned up by a propaganda machine that tells us the only solution for guns is more guns. Or guns plus “hardened schools,” in other words, fortifications. What are we heading towards? Society as a war zone, which is to say, not a society at all.
Everything now seems to be moving backwards. At the dawn of the liberal tradition, Thomas Hobbes imagined the Bellum contra omnium omnes, 'a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour', as the origin point of the polity, the unbearable condition from which it arose; the beginning, not the goal. His Leviathan state, as terrifying, remote and tyrannical as it might be, is at least supposed to guarantee safety. That was its source of legitimacy: it removed the constant terrors of the state of nature, for the more limited and controlled fear of the state. The isolated individual, the rational, self-interested atom, would inevitably want to proceed to this state, preferring it to the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” life outside. It’s all very logical, a progression towards civilization by the laws of nature and reason. But it seems have been exactly wrong: when treated as atoms, we tend towards entropy, coming apart rather than combining. In any case, we seem to be on the reverse course: back to the war of all against all, back to the state of nature.
We seem to be in the slow and torturous process of dissolving ourselves as a civil and political society. Laws cannot be changed or passed. No one wants the responsibility of governance. The answer is always “it can’t be done.” But it was done to us. The laws actually were made worse. The main symbol and the main engine of this process is the anarchy of our gun laws. Max Weber said the state was the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Carl Schmitt said the sovereign was he who decided on the state of exception. Now each man can be his own commando force, an army of one, each man is the sovereign that can decide on the exception when the laws of society no longer apply, when he can suddenly resort to violence. No one can tell him otherwise: he has a gun. There’s no “legitimate” or “illegitimate,” just force. The only solution on offer is to further distribute sovereignty: make more men their own armed-to-the-teeth statelet to be a check the other guy. The idea is hopefully that will create stasis—if not exactly peace— through mutual fear. Every man his own nuclear-armed power.
Haven’t they heard of the Wild West? Even in our mythical version, everyone had guns and there were still lots of shootings. Men were famous for their skill at shooting other men. For many, this is the American ideal itself: the rugged individual at the border of anarchy, able to defend his own. But the cowboy with his six-shooter or his shotgun, his cynical good humor, his alternation from cruelty to innocence and basic decency suggestive of primitive man, has been replaced with a more sinister figure: the cowled special forces operator, the death squad member, silent, cold, impersonal, almost a robot, programmed to slaughter. Samuel Colt produced the gun that won the west, a revolver, a technological feat at the time that is now an antique and almost a harmless toy compared to the Colt AR-15.
We’re far from the myth of the frontiersman, the minuteman, the cowboy, the gunslinger, which as heroic images always were covering up more murderous realities, but at least were attractive ideals of self-reliance or communal self-defense. In place of self-reliance, we now have only the nightmare obverse of the life of a solitary individual: paranoia, solipsism, selfishness, seeing in every shadow a conspiracy against the self. A “they” out there, someone you have to get before they get you, or someone who just isn’t really a human being to you anymore. Because what’s a human being, anyway? For that notion to exist you have to recognize others and be recognized, to live in a community. People? They are just something that angers you, that thwarts you, humiliates you, so why not lash out? Kill them, then yourself—anything to break the unbearable shame of being perceived. Arming the public has not created heroic Beowulfs, ready to do selfless deeds, but so many Grendels, driven mad by the sounds of conviviality, stealing into our halls from the swamps, and shedding blood to avenge the offense done to them by basic humanity.
Racism is one of the logical outcomes of this world-view: it is just naked egotism and grasping transposed from the individual to the collective level, the denial of common humanity. It should no longer surprise anybody that so many American Nazis get there from first reading radical libertarians: they both share the same poisonous root. Instead of cities shared by men and women, they conceive of a world of beasts, swarms, hordes, warrens, dens, places to lurk and to ambush. Vico called this state, the last stage of his cycle of civilization, the “barbarism of reflection,” when the excessive self-consciousness and self-seeking of civilized man would create a return to bestiality:
For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure. Thus in the midst of their greatest festivities, though physically thronging together, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure or caprice. By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits, that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense
If we stretch our imagination just a little we can catch glimpses of ourselves living “like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will,” scarcely able to agree, while our cities have turned into “forests and lairs of men.” In Uvalde, the police apparently got their own kids out, and then just were actually worse than useless, stopping other parents from saving their kids, creating a perverse spectacle of “law and order” that’s just about permitting malice to work unhindered and that just frustrates people’s tendency to join together for common purposes. That’s the future we are facing now. Not the Leviathan, dictatorship from above, but the decentralized, endlessly distributed, granular, block-by-block tyranny of the assault rifle, preventing people from coming together freely. More atomization, more loneliness, more hatred, more fear: a war of all against all, lives that are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. We will have to figure out how to join again, or die.