According to Hobbes, the state exists to save us from the dystopian state of nature, in which we are constantly vulnerable to interpersonal violence. We submit to the sovereign’s violence in the expectation that being subject to one possible source of violence is better than being potentially attacked from all sides and at all times.
In the contemporary world, as Agamben and many others have pointed out, there are sites where the state of nature reemerges within the bounds of the state. Though Agamben emphasizes that one is subject to unlimited state violence in such situations, one should also note the return of a vulnerability to interpersonal violence as well.
This is the case, for example, in prison, where in many cases the most fearsome part of the punishment is abuse coming from other prisoners. We can see a similar dynamic in urban areas targetted in the War on Drugs: the police are present in an extremely disruptive and heavy-handed way, even to the point of gunning down innocent people in cold blood, and people also remain vulnerable to interpersonal violence within their own community. Indeed, the police presence produces even greater criminality by exposing those populations to disproportionate imprisonment. In both cases, the black community bears much of the burden of this double dystopia, this worst of both worlds.
If we turn now to the phenomenon of mass shootings, it seems that one can draw a parallel: in an era of vastly increased state supervision of the population, there are also outbursts of random interpersonal violence. In this reading, the experience that has become normative for blacks in America is somehow “overflowing” to affect the white community as well. This is one way of understanding the fairly common claim that America has a baseline level of violence and the shootings represent something like localized spikes.
I don’t think this works, however, at least not so neatly. The surveillance measures of the War on Terror do not affect people matching the demographic profile of the average mass shooter, nor does the state intervene with such one-sided violence against members of that population. And what motivates such shooters is not deprivation, or criminalization through contact with the justice system, or systematic deprivation of any legitimate option for gaining a livelihood. Instead, what we see again and again is a sense of wounded entitlement, leading them to lash out at the population that is supposedly victimizing them.
The target varies, but the story is the same: these are the people ruining my life and ruining America. The two don’t always go together, but it is telling that they so often do — America is supposed to be for me, it is supposed to work to my benefit, and if it’s not, then someone must be to blame.
Rescuing myself and rescuing America are somehow the same thing. And since the vast majority of these shooters are not facing genuine material deprivation but instead feel underappreciated or overlooked in some way, we can make the implication explicit: America exists to protect my privilege. If the currency of my privilege seems to be devalued, then that’s a plot against America.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the wave of mass shootings, which has reached epidemic levels, started after Obama’s reelection. We know that a certain segment of the white male population had a very adverse reaction to his initial election, but presumably the real despair set in once he was reelected and we knew that this was no one-off fluke.
Of course, it wasn’t Obama who actually devalued the currency of white male privilege. A generation of plant closings and off-shoring and union busting had destroyed the security and relative comfort that white men brought up during the postwar boom had taken to be their birthright. What replaced that golden age for the white working class was an era of ruthless competition, where the sexual and racial hierarchies were no longer as legible and no one could take their status for granted.
Why is it, for instance, that it is precisely schools that are so often targetted? Perhaps because they are the engines of meritocracy, the institutions that promise you a path to earn your way up the food chain — and very often break that promise.
At this point, it may sound like I’m saying that this is a question of immature or otherwise inadequate individual white men who do bad things. While it is partly that, mass shootings are clearly a systemic problem, and systemic problems have systemic causes. And I believe that the cause is ultimately the breaking of the postwar settlement in the transition to neoliberalism.
Certainly it is the case that the level of relative privilege enjoyed by the white working class man was neither sustainable nor just. The transition to an era of greater equality would have been difficult to manage in even the best of circumstances. But we did not get even an attempt to manage it — instead, we saw a ruthless consolidation of privilege and power at the very top, which legitimated itself electorally by harnessing and actively stoking the resentment that came from the devaluation of white male privilege.
Part of that strategy entailed promising to prop up white America’s wounded masculinity with guns. And now that the inevitable explosion has come, we can see the mainstream media working overtime to rehabilitate the shooters, to make them relatable and even tragic figures. They can’t simply be thrown under the bus, because they threaten to expose the whole scam.
Hence a new and toxic path to recognition for the alienated white man has emerged, one in which we are all potential collateral damage in the quest to prop up the hollow shell of white male privilege. And I think we have received a clear message from the powers that be that the collateral losses are still at an acceptable level.