As America’s paradigm of mass shootings has re-entered the public eye in recent weeks, with over 130 mass shootings having happened so far in 2021 in addition to the ones we’ve lately all seen headlines about, a chill hangs over these new spatterings of bloodshed that wasn’t as acute prior to the pandemic. This is the chill of American anomie.
Anomie is the breakdown of a society’s cohesive moral fabric, the decline of a culture that’s taken severe hits from national tragedies, escalating ideological conflict, or the unraveling of the institutions that the masses used to respect and rely on. In American Anomie, a commentary on the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the liberal but often insightful Chris Hedges writes:
Societies are held together by a web of social bonds that give individuals a sense of being part of a collective and engaged in a project larger than the self. This collective expresses itself through rituals, such as elections and democratic participation or an appeal to patriotism, and shared national beliefs. The bonds provide meaning, a sense of purpose, status and dignity. They offer psychological protection from impending mortality and the meaninglessness that comes with being isolated and alone. The shattering of these bonds plunges individuals into deep psychological distress that leads ultimately to acts of self-annihilation. Durkheim called this state of hopelessness and despair anomie, which he defined as ‘ruleless-ness.’”
While looking at the data showing that more than half of the U.S. mass shootings since 1966 have occurred after 2000, and that more than a third of them have occurred since 2010, this dynamic of a society losing its perceived moral center feels extremely relevant. What trends have also defined American society since the 1960s? For one, the implementation of neoliberalism and the consequential hollowing out of the public institutions that are supposed to protect the masses, with corporations being free to loot, overwork, and deprive the population with abandon while creating an unparalleled prison-industrial complex. Especially since the 2008 crash and the discrediting of the ruling class ideology, this has destroyed the people’s faith in the justice system, the legislative process, and the other pillars that define our supposedly free republic. People are more and more seeing through the lie that America stands for justice.
Consequently, many have fallen into nihilism and bitterness. And among these disaffected masses, a certain type of person has taken it so far as to abandon the very concepts of empathy and morals. As Hedges observes:
Durkheim noted that the poor have lower rates of suicide. The poor know the rules are rigged against them. James Baldwin made much the same point when he wrote that African-American men are less prone to a midlife crisis than white men because they are less susceptible to the myth of the American Dream. Most African-Americans learn very early in life that there are two sets of rules. But white Americans, because of white supremacy, are more susceptible to the myth, and therefore more infuriated when that myth is exposed as a con. This, I suspect, is why nearly all mass shooters and members of right-wing hate groups, along with a majority of supporters of Donald Trump, are white men.
It’s a story which has become so commonly recognized, whether in media commentary, or in movies like Joker, or in meme culture, that we all now seem to be familiar with it to a certain extent: a white man in America grows alienated from society, then turns to nihilistic violence in an attempt to attain power and vengeance. Or at the very least he simply embraces nihilism as a life philosophy, scorning constructive belief systems like Marxism in favor of a 4Chan-type right-wing contrarian persona. He uses an ironic style of memetic humor to justify his unwillingness to work towards a better world, to face the pain of our reality.
This pathology of nihilism pervades our culture, enforced by the ignorance the media instills in us about the alternatives to the bleak paradigm we inhabit. The propagandists of empire and capital don’t want us to see through the absurd lies they spin about socialist countries like China or the DPRK, because otherwise we would recognize class struggle as a proven route towards making our lives better. All that our pro-imperialist, capitalist-minded cultural hegemony wants us to experience is a mindset of assumed hopelessness towards our prospects for a better world, and of warlike hatred towards manufactured enemies. And when war fills our collective consciousness instead of empathy, love, or hope, even more monsters are created.
As commentator Caitlin Johnstone wrote about a 2018 bar shooting that was committed by a man who served in the U.S. military, it’s this war paradigm that’s helping motivate so many of these disaffected white men to embrace nihilistic violence:
The plutocrats who use mass media propaganda and alliances with opaque government agencies to manipulate public thought to their advantage do not actually care if civilians are shooting each other, as long as it doesn’t damage their investments. They do not care how many bullets you are allowed to put in your gun, nor do they care if the mentally ill receive adequate treatment. They care very much, however, about their ability to manufacture consent for the endless military campaigns they wage for profit and geopolitical dominance. It is already well documented that individuals who’ve served in the US military are at least twice as likely to commit mass shootings as the rest of the adult population, and this should surprise no one. Being exposed to meaningless acts of slaughter can break your mind, which is why there is a suicide epidemic among US veterans. Couple that factor with PTSD and the way servicemen are psychologically conditioned and desensitized to the killing of human beings, and you’ve got a recipe for mass murder when those men come home.
All of these social ills that are producing ever more mass shootings have been exacerbated by the U.S. empire’s decline of the last half-century. Neoliberalism was implemented by the bourgeoisie in reaction to the decline in the rate of profits which capitalism has found itself confronted with since the 1970s. The U.S. ruling class has chosen to perpetuate a state of intensive war since 2001 (in addition to the milder state of war which existed prior to then) in reaction to Washington’s geopolitical decline throughout the last couple of decades. The degradation of the public sphere through cruel austerity, the militarization of American society through funneling War on Terror equipment to police departments, the propagation of a neoliberal culture which disregards empathy in favor of soulless competition, the demonization of immigrants to the effect that concentration camps have been built for them, the poisoning of our minds with hateful lies and fetishizations of violence, the campaign to portray our hellish late-stage capitalist environment as unavoidable and preferable to communism’s supposed evils — all of these societal sicknesses are symptoms of the system’s weakening.
Until the capitalist state is overthrown, and U.S. imperialism is defeated, things are only going to get worse. We can see this with the current events that surround the recent shootings. Biden and the Democrats are accelerating society’s militarization, authorizing a rapid speed-up of the funneling of military equipment to police in recent months. Unemployment is still rising after tens of millions have lost their jobs in the last year. A stimulus that would actually bring long-term relief to the country’s increasingly impoverished families has been rejected because of the Biden White House’s drive towards continuing the wars and military buildup. I’ve come to Marxism, but many others are going to continue to embrace the loss of hope.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
If you appreciate my work, I hope you become a one-time or regular donor to my Patreon account. Like most of us, I’m feeling the economic pinch during late-stage capitalism, and I need money to keep fighting for a new system that works for all of us. Go to my Patreon here.