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Socialism 2023 conference talk on social murder

I gave a talk on social murder at the Socialism conference. The text I used as the basis for the talk is below. The talk is informed by various things I've written on the covid pandemic, conversations with the Death Panel crew (who organized the panel I spoke on and kindly invited me to present), and on my chapter in this book. Abby Cartus spoke as well and I thought her talk was totally fascinating. She made connections I hadn't thought of between the social murder analysis some of us are developing and my chapter here giving an idiosyncratic spin on EP Thompson's concept of moral economy. I found that super thought provoking and hope to eventually have time to think the thoughts provoked. Anyhow, in case anyone's interested, my talk's below. Hi everyone, I’m Nate Holdren. It’s great to be here with a group of comrades interested in these issues. There’s a sort of dispersed group of us who have all been working on the themes I’m going to talk about. I think a lot of us were working on these themes in relative isolation before the pandemic hit, the pandemic then gave this work a new urgency and a lot of us started to find each other through trying to make sense of the pandemic, and of course a lot of people have plugged in since the pandemic hit as well. What I try to do in my remarks here is to give an overview of some of the analysis developed by those of us on the panel today and other people we’re in dialog with, in the hope of bringing more people into the conversation, which can then in turn start to deepen the conversation further.

Capitalism is a social system that kills people. I call it social murder, a term I take from Engels. Capitalism’s violence happens in a lot of different ways and at a lot of different speeds and in ways that are often hard to detect until it’s too late. I should say, I’m talking here about forms of violence that often don’t appear as violent at all, but appear as natural or as economic in an apolitical way. Capitalism also produce wars and other forms of political violence, which is terribly important but tends to be organized and experienced differently. To put it a little conceptually, think of the public health phrase “social determinants of health.” That phrase means that the health of any individuals and groups is not only the result of the actions of those individuals and groups. Instead, poor health comes from the social context people live in. “Social determinants of health” means society determines people’s health. Capitalist societies determine people’s health in capitalism-specific ways. For most people, that’s a very bad thing.

There are a few patterns in where social murder is underway in capitalist society over time. First of all, one fundamental quality of capitalist societies is that people are market dependent, which is to say, in capitalism you need money to get stuff. Access to money is not socially guaranteed, let alone access to enough money to have a good life. So on a regular basis people don’t get some of the stuff they need to live well, and suffering and death results. That’s just baked in to a market dependent society. Second, another fundamental quality of capitalist societies is a pressure for competition among private productive units - that is, capitalists compete with each other. That creates pressures to cheapen the quality of products produced which can include the products being unhealthy for consumers - unhealthy food, chemicals in consumer goods, addictive products, and so on.

Third, because production is for profit, goods that can’t be profitably produced or that are less profitable than other goods will tend to not be made in sufficient quantities. The system steers itself by profits, so to speak. This has two facets. One facet is that there will be important things it is currently possible to make, where too little of those things gets made. Another facet is that investment in research to expand what it is currently possible to make tends to go more for things that will be profitable. The result of both facets is that some people have important needs that go unmet, causing suffering and death. We can see this in the relative lack of money spent eliminating diseases that mostly afflict poor people. Doing what’s good for poor people is a lot less profitable than doing what’s good for rich people, and since the system steers by profitability, poor people’s needs are even less likely to be provided for. Fourth, whoever controls our access to money has a ton of control over our lives. This means we can be forced to do unsafe things by the people who control our access to money. Among other things this leads to workers remaining in unsafe conditions at work. About 5,000 workers a year die in a fatal workplace accident or occupational illness in the US, and that’s prior to the covid pandemic. The last estimate I know of from the International Labor Organization was 5,000 workers a day dying in the global economy. Fifth, competition puts pressure on employers to lower safety standards in production, speed up work, and introduce new technologies to work that are often dangerous. So any given workplace may well get more dangerous over time in the form of long hours, insufficient rest breaks, too rapid a pace of work, dangerous equipment, and exposure to unhealthy conditions like pollution, heat, disease, and so on. Sixth, because the system steers by profits and because of competitive pressures on capitalists, capitalist production processes tend to have effects on their immediate surroundings. Think about pollution in the area around a factory or incinerator, and think about train derailments. Every worker has their workplace as their living conditions in the time they’re at work, and many people have the immediate capitalist production process occurring very close to where they live outside their jobs as well. Climate change is an example of how capitalist production as a whole is in effect occurring in, and ruining, the living conditions for all of us everywhere.

Covid is another example like climate change. Covid seems to have originated from a virus jumping from non-human animals in to humans, it’s called zoonosis. That initial zoonotic transmission most likely occurred through the commodification of non-human nature and the exchange of those commodified animals. Industrialized farming makes similar kinds of transmission much more likely as well. After that initial transmission, human to human spread of covid occurred to a significant degree because economic activity is compulsory in capitalism - it’s mandatory to get money and the system steers by profits. Stopping transmission early on would have meant stopping economic activity, and there’s tremendous pressure not to stop economic activity. That pressure is intensified by the fact that the harms of social murder concentrate downward on people in capitalist society, while the benefits of capitalist production concentrate upward. As Marx puts it, in capitalism the “accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery at the opposite pole.” A lot of us live much closer to the misery pole than to the wealth pole.

Capitalism also has a tendency for periodic crises where a great deal of wealth is destroyed. These include economic crises as well as others sorts of crisis, ecological, social, political. Generally speaking a crisis that is just narrowly one kind of crisis doesn’t exist, and those different kids of crises are more a matter of where the crisis starts. An economic crisis tends to become a political crisis. An ecological crisis tends to become a social and economic crisis, and so on. When a crisis hits, some people’s access to money tends to get massively reduced, which intensifies some of the harms of capitalist society that I talked about above.

Pretty much everything I’ve said so far is me giving a compressed summary of arguments in Friedrich Engels’s 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, and chapters 10 and 15 of the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital. I strongly urge you all to read those texts - you can read those Capital chapters straightaway without reading the rest of Capital, they stand well on their own. I want to make a plug for Artie and Bea’s book Health Communism as well. I will also make a plug for Tony Smith’s book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. All of these texts help illuminate the social patterns I’m talking about. Among the many things Bea and Artie’s book does well is to underline how these harms fall most on disabled people and are an important part of the social construction of disability. We can talk about race, gender, and similar categories along similar lines, as naming populations especially vulnerable to social murder, as naming categories that inflect the concrete expression of the tendency to social murder, and as constructed in part by social murder.

Another aspect of capitalist society is that there’s a domain of society that’s called an economy, and it’s treated as relatively nonpolitical, and there’s a domain of society associated with the state, which is treated as political. Tony Smith calls this fundamental quality of capitalism the bifurcation of the political. Now, a lot of economic activity is actually totally political according to any reasonable definition of politics - it’s all about power and it shapes who gets a good life and who doesn’t. But it’s politics conducted as if it was not political. A key thing that the capitalist state does over time is regulate the line between what’s political and what’s not. We tend to associate the state with politics, for a lot of people the word politics means doing stuff as part of the state, but really a great deal of the time what the state does is help prevent a lot of social life from being treated political. For instance, the state works to keep capitalists in the role of privately controlling the means of production.

Whenever a crisis breaks out - and crises of various kinds break out pretty frequently - there are people who demand some change in the normal way business is done, which is to say, people demand that something that is usually not considered political ought to be treated politically, while other people demand the opposite. Those demands raise problems for the personnel who staff the state, as they’re going to end up making someone unhappy. They tend to side with the more powerful a lot of the time, but not every time. It depends on a lot of factors and ultimately struggle and luck.

This is to say, crises afflict the state too, and the state largely responds by trying to get out of having to deal with the problem. Like capitalists stuck in a competitive market, the personnel who control the state are doing better than most people but they are also still forced to deal with the problems thrown up by capitalist social relations. Everyone’s trying to ride the tiger of capitalism, so to speak.

There’s a little bit of a pedantic Marxist theory point here that I want to make. Some people say that the state serves capitalist profits. That is basically true, but I would say that what really happens is that the state serves itself. It tries to make capitalist profits happen in a way that don’t cause problems for the state, and it tries to make disruptions to capitalist profits not be a problem for the state. And remember, because of capitalism’s crisis tendencies, disruptions to capitalist profits will always happen eventually, in one way or another. This it say, the state tends to act in a self-serving way and by doing so it serves capitalism. The state’s not especially ideologically committed to capitalism and it’s serving capitalism is not selfless. It’s more a matter of how the state is designed, funded, and what kinds of things cause political problems in our society.

In any case, a major state response to crises tends to be to try to prevent political action from breaking out in new ways. Basically the state tends to be a conservative force, working to keep things the same as they were pre-crisis as much as possible. Of course what ‘the same’ means is itself a matter of political conflict. What I mean is that a ton of working class people can have their lives disrupted while capitalists continue to profit massively. For us, that’s a disruption, for the capitalists it’s keeping things the same. And in all these actions the state is trying to prevent meaningful dissent, to prevent the eruption of politics, through a variety of means like channeling people to deal with their problems through existing mechanisms like lobbying and voting and using state agencies, as well as repressive force and propaganda.

We can see this in state responses to the covid pandemic. The state has all along made its own well-being the top priority in every country. In the United States this has mostly meant responding to covid and public concerns over covid by partially only partially mitigating covid spread, and above all trying to walk back mitigations and to ideologically minimize the need for mitigations. That is to say, with covid the state has worked as an accomplice to social murder. It has worked to intensify social murder and to try to prevent any effective dissent and organizing in opposition to social murder. That’s generally what the state does in response to social murder, though how that patterns plays out concretely varies quite a bit.

There’s one other thing I want to mention here which is that at least in liberal democratic societies there’s a degree of baseline social trust in the state, that works something like this: lots of people believe that at some level the state is looking out for them, at least to a limited degree. I think this leads a lot of people to think ‘hey if covid was still an ongoing massive danger, the government would have warned me. Since the government didn’t warn me, I think I’m safe enough really.’

I feel funny putting it this way, but people who think that way are assuming that their lives, that our lives, really matter in a political sense. What I mean is that a lot of people that if somebody gets killed, or at least if a lot of people get killed, that will be important to the government and to capitalists. To some degree, the state encourages us to believe that through the limited degree to which it’s a democratic state and a state the provides very minimally for public welfare and public health.

In the pandemic we’ve seen that the reality is much harder and uglier: most of us are straight up nobodies. In Health Communism Bea and Artie use the phrase ‘surplus population,’ an ugly phrase for an ugly reality: a lot of us are surplus to capitalism requirements. It appears to be the case that the system can kill a huge amount of us nobodies without it mattering to any major degree politically. That’s an awful thought in part because it’s unpleasant to face up directly to our status as social nobodies. It also a chilling thought because means there are no built-in guardrails whatsoever. While maybe the system might temporarily stop killing people basically by random accident - like if the virus randomly mutates to stop having any severe effects - there is no built-in logic for the system to stop itself. There’s no built-in political threshold where above a certain number of deaths the system will stop killing. It only stops killing temporarily and when it’s forced to stop by a confrontational mass movement. Again I’d strongly recommend reading chapters 10 and 15 of Capital on this point. In the present with the covid pandemic so far that movement hasn’t found its footing. And that baseline social trust in the state has been a real obstacle to that movement starting to create itself. I think building that movement will require making it very clear that we’re on our own, including by pointing out where parts of the state have said so in coded ways and once in a while in explicit ways.

I need to stop in a second but I want make one or two quick final points about stuff that’s been on my mind related to this stuff lately. All of this stuff is really ghastly, genuinely evil. And a society that is an evil death machine produces powerful people who are basically okay with the evil death machine. We need to recognize the ways in which people farther up the food chain really, really do not care about us nobodies. Have you ever been in a social situation - it’s an awful thing and I hate bringing it up - where there’s a homeless person begging for money and people walk by completely blanking them, ignoring them as if they’re not there? The most powerful people in the system are like that on steroids, times a thousand.

I think there are two elements to this. One, perceiving reality accurately. Two, seeing other people as their moral equals. The people who benefit from the system and especially the people paid to minimize covid and others forms of social murder, those people could not live with themselves if they accurate understood the violence of capitalism and if they saw the people capitalism destroys as being their genuine moral equals. And so they learn to actively misunderstand social reality or to not see us nobodies as their social equals, analogous to people blanking out homeless people. I think it’s important that we realize this about who we’re dealing with.

That’s my time so I’ll leave it there. Thank you.

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