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Apr 17

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The Violence Inherent in Capitalism

Matt Bruenig - The Violence Inherent in CapitalismUnited Airlines violently removed a passenger from an airplane earlier this week. …

No matter how you cut it, there does not seem to have been anything wrong with what happened here, under the logic of capitalist institutions. It may not have been a good PR move for the airline. They probably could have avoided it all by gratuitously offering more money to get the trespasser to leave. But none of these points turns the thing into a violation of capitalist ethics. It wasn’t.

Instead of soothing ourselves with the idea that this particular application of violence was illegitimate or extraordinary, we should instead confront it head on as a necessary feature of capitalist society. This kind of violence (or threats of it) is operating all the time.

Why does the homeless man sleep in the doorway of an empty office building instead of inside the building itself? Because the police has threatened to attack him just like they attacked this airline passenger. Why does a poor family go to bed hungry when they could just grab food from the supermarket a few blocks away? Because the police has threatened to attack them just like this passenger.

Of course, these threats of capitalist violence are so credible that few dare to act in ways that will trigger them. But the violence is always there lurking in the background. It is the engine that makes our whole system run. It is what maintains severe inequalities, poverty, and the power of the boss over the worker. We build elaborate theories to pretend that is not the case in order to naturalize the man-made economic injustices of our society. But it is the case. Violent state coercion like what you saw in that video is what runs this show.

–Matt Bruenig
Come See the Violence Inherent in the System

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/04/17/violence-inherent-capitalism/

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6 comments

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  1. Elizabeth

    As I told you on Facebook, this is a terrible article that doesn’t think very much about the major difference between the homeless man and the United passenger.

    The homeless man would be trespassing. Sure you can argue that as the building isn’t being used by the owners or the operators at that moment it is irrelevant that he is sleeping there because he does no harm and no one else is using the building at the time. The use of force by the police to remove the guy is done because in the capitalist society we have he doesn’t have a right of use of the property.

    The United passenger, on the other hand, had full right to keep his butt parked exactly where it was and it was United that violated his rights of possession of that seat. He had paid for the right to have that seat, the airline had given him permission to board the plane and subsequently the possession of that space passed to him through the laws of the land and the contract that the airline drafted and he agreed to abide by. Their use of the state’s power to remove someone who wasn’t trespassing was a violation of the norms of capitalism because capitalism doesn’t mean “whoever has the most power gets to do whatever” it is “whoever has the most right to the property gets to keep it through an entire legal system set up ostensibly allow that person to keep it.”* At that time he had superior right of possession.

    The use of violence when it comes to the exercising of capitalism does exist-witness the infrequent stories of the hell farm hands are put through. Or the use of police to remove people from their homes once they are evicted. The use of bombs to empty out a house when it is suspected someone sells drugs.

    *I am well aware that often it is power through other means than violence that has the company like the airline able to pull this sort of thing with near impunity since most people do not have the resources that Dr. Dao has to sue the pants off of United. So if it wasn’t for that he is a doctor, his wife is a doctor and his six kids are doctors all merrily ripping off of the rest of us through the medical system, the airline would probably have not been sued.

    1. James Fillmore

      I’m pretty sure that buying an airplane ticket involves agreeing to Terms & Conditions which allow the airline to boot anyone at any time for any reason. Clearly, if airlines do this often enough to rich enough passengers, it’s bad for business, and using security forces to brutalize a rich guy is going to cost them plenty in court. But if all they did was refuse to move the plane until the rich guy left, he’d have no lawsuit. Those Terms & Conditions cover everything.

      The nature of consumer power versus corporate power means that in effect, consumers have no power. A company can promise some warranty and utterly refuse to honor it. In most cases it’s not even worth it to fight them. They’ll spend anything to beat you, and you’re faced with fighting them being more trouble than it’s worth. This is how Trump got away with stiffing contractors. It’d cost them more in legal fees to make him pay than the amount he owes them, so why bother.

      In theory, there’s a difference between a paying customer and a homeless person. In practice, not so much. There are other forms of violence besides the overt. If I waste my life savings trying to sue some dishonest employer or company that screwed me over as a consumer, I can lose the ability to pay my rent and be forcibly evicted. Or be unable to afford needed medical treatment and suffer/die. What’s the worst that can happen to a corporation? They go broke? The CEO and board don’t suffer in that case. Except some ego damage, possibly.

      The way I see it, violence is at the heart of capitalism. Who’s “within their rights” has nothing to do with anything. It’s entirely a power struggle, and ultimately power is the ability of those with muscle to cause harm to those with less. Just because on exceedingly rare occasions power overestimates its ability to get away with whatever it wants, does not mean the power struggle is not on the whole quite useful to those with more power.

      I think we’re on the same wavelength here, just talking at cross purposes. Different backgrounds = different perspectives, even when we’re all on the same side.

      1. Elizabeth

        I’m pretty sure that buying an airplane ticket involves agreeing to Terms & Conditions which allow the airline to boot anyone at any time for any reason. Clearly, if airlines do this often enough to rich enough passengers, it’s bad for business, and using security forces to brutalize a rich guy is going to cost them plenty in court. But if all they did was refuse to move the plane until the rich guy left, he’d have no lawsuit. Those Terms & Conditions cover everything

        You would be wrong on this one part. I checked the contract of carriage and it doesn’t cover this situation which is why United was wrong to do what they did as a matter of law.

        1. James Fillmore

          Excellent. I hope this doctor wins a bundle. Although he really should donate half the winnings to a consumer-rights organization!

  2. Frank Moraes

    This is the end of my involvement:

    “The United passenger, on the other hand, had full right to keep his butt parked exactly where it was and it was United that violated his rights of possession of that seat.” But if he hadn’t, United would have had every right to drag his butt off the plane. Therefore: the violence inherent in capitalism.

    1. RJ

      In a way, Bruenig seems to intend this proposition to be less startling than it might appear at first glance. What he’s really trying to do is to rebut the common perception that a more left-wing political regime requires violence in a way not required by our current regime. In fact, in all cases, whenever someone is ‘within their rights’ to enforce something, those rights rely on the threat of force (rightly or wrongly). Thus any political-economic system replies on the threat of force. No force, no rights, whether left-wing or right-wing.

      If this is viewed as worthy of further discussion, let’s be clear on one thing: B. does not say that the airline passenger/homeless person cases are legally or even morally equivalent. Rather he points out that there can be no enforcement of property rights without violence or the threat of violence. If someone wants to defend those rights then the person, if honest, must endorse this violence as legitimate. If not so endorsing, then not honest.

      B. obscures his argumentative points through an unnecessarily melodramatic title (the 60’s are over, man). But they are a good deal less simple-minded than imagined by most critics at his site.

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