On Social Sadism
Two women sit leaning against a wall, wrapped in dirty clothes. Their hair is raddled, their faces filthy. One holds a bottle, the other a cardboard sign on which is scrawled a slogan both plaintive and defiant. But their smiles are arch, and the schmutz on their faces is as artlessly precise as a child’s clown makeup – easy on, easy off.
Halloween. This is a fancy-dress party, and the women have come as the destitute.
Marie Antoinette performed rustic fantasies of peasant life to herself and her sycophants in Hameau de la Reine, her pre-Disney theme park. The privileged have long enjoyed playing at poverty.
The dominant mode of these games shifts. Class spite, always present, stops half-heartedly disguising itself with bowdlerising condescension, as in Versailles. It’s a rampant articulating principle in the venom of TV comedies, in the ‘chav parties’ so in vogue at elite institutions in the late 2000s. At a gathering at Sandhurst in 2006, Prince William talked all common, like, ‘swaggering from side to side’, the Sun reported, in his baseball cap. The Halloween party dress-up was in this tradition, and was also its intensification.
It occurred a little after the high point of the jocular pleb-sneer: two years, instead, into the eruption of the financial crisis, simultaneously with a historic peak in foreclosures. Nearly 2.9 million US properties had foreclosure actions against them initiated in 2010 – huge numbers improperly, even according to the system’s own rules – up 2 per cent from 2009, itself a record. Millions were fighting, and failing, not to lose their homes. These 2010 Halloween celebration occurred at the Buffalo, New York, law offices of Stephen J Baum, a specialist firm acting mainly for banks and lenders. It was what’s known as a ‘foreclosure mill’, the largest of its kind in the state: its expertise was evicting the poor.
This wasn’t, then, some generalised, timeless jeer. It was more specific and pointed, gleeful malice at those whose lives were, at that very moment, being ruined, directed at them by those doing the ruining.
In the photos, props embody favourite ideologemes of the rich: the booze, the misspelt signs denouncing the injustice. The homeless are drunkards; the homeless are stupid; the homeless take no responsibility. But these gestures are perfunctory; they make no attempt to convince. The anonymous former employee who leaked the images in 2011 did so aghast at what she called a ‘cavalier attitude’, but what’s on display is the opposite: not cavalier, but considered. She decried a ‘lack of compassion’, but what’s visible is a swaggering presence – of cruelty.
‘Will worke [sic]’, one sign reads, ‘for Food.’ The sign’s the prop of a comedian waiting for the laugh. The homeless are starving. We made them homeless and now they’re starving. Laugh laugh laugh laugh.
Capitalism’s history might be tracked in a genealogy of the corporate apology. That of Baum’s eponymous head was typical of this sub-epoch of viciousness, mawkishness and entitlement. An initial denial of anything untoward; a rapid U-turn and apology for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, ostentatiously meeting a homelessness activist; ultimately, parading in the mourning clothes of victimhood. Three weeks after the exposé – of a firm already under investigation – the company closed. ‘There is blood on your hands’, Baum wrote to Joe Nocera, in whose New York Times column the scandal broke. ‘I will never, ever forgive you’.
Baum’s quivering lip should provoke only piss and vinegar. It’s true, too, that the ritual slaying of a designated scapegoat, however just, can serve as exoneration by and for the system that threw up, nurtured, rewarded their behaviour. Our rulers and their media clercs are shocked, shocked by such Baum moments, these cruelties-too-far. As if there hasn’t always been, in capitalism’s marrow, a drive not only to repression but to cruelty, to down- punching sadism. They denounce it, partake of it, propagate it.
Consensual peccadilloes are not at issue here: this is about social sadism – deliberate, invested, public or at least semi-public cruelty. The potentiality for sadism is one of countless capacities emergent from our reflexive, symbolising selves. Trying to derive any social phenomenon from any supposed ‘fact’ of ‘human nature’ is useless, except to diagnose the politics of the deriver. Of course it’s vulgar Hobbesianism, the supposed ineluctability of human cruelty, that cuts with the grain of ruling ideology. The right often, if incoherently, acts as if this (untrue) truth-claim of our fundamental nastiness justifies an ethics of power. The position that Might Makes Right is elided from an Is, which it isn’t, to an Ought, which it oughtn’t be, even were the Is an is. If strength and ‘success’ are coterminous with good, what can their lack be but bad – deserving of punishment?
Meanwhile, liberal culture wrings its hands over the thinness of the veneer over our savagery, from the nasty visionary artistry of Lord of the Flies, to lachrymose middlebrow tragedy-porn, emoting and decontextualising wars. These jeremiads beg for a strong hand, for authority, to save us from ourselves. A state, laws. As if those don’t – and increasingly – target the poor.
Class rule necessitates violence and its contested, overlapping, jostling ideologies. It justifies, or more, Orgreave in 1984, the armed wing of the state laying down manners on insurgent workers. It insists that waterboarding is not torture and anyway it defends our freedoms. It explains the necessity of the spikes carefully fitted at the bases of new buildings to ensure the homeless can’t sleep there. Rising unevenly from a fundamental necessity to capital – oppression – are brutalities necessary to sustain class rule at home; to sustain imperialism abroad; everyday sadisms so metabolised their cruelties often hide in plain sight.
The drives to such phenomena are hazy-edged, non-identical but inextricable, imbricated, mutually constituting. They’re constant but not static. The parameters and place of violence, repression and sadism change with history. And with them, from the rush of jouissance they tap, inevitably flows their excess – a scandalous, invested sadism, enjoying its own cruelty. A surplus sadism. Baum’s Halloween party.
In the first issue of Salvage, Neil Davidson mooted that neoliberalism may be undermining the basis for capital accumulation itself. What we inhabit, the phase we’ve tentatively come to term ‘late’ capitalism, is its senescence. With its means and relations of production so violently out of joint it’s an economic, political and cultural milieu of increasing derangement and toxicity.
The concept of decadence is tainted on the Marxist Left by association not only with moralist Stalinist kitsch, but with economic teleology. But what if decadence isn’t a prelude to its own inevitable end? In the absence of a project that can overthrow it, what might follow but more of it and its monstrosities?
Monstrosities: not, or not simply, pathologies. The sadism of capitalism is a deep grammar, and it is always functional. And/but it is never only functional. With the jouissance comes the surplus, what Bataille might call its accursed share.
In neoliberalism’s decadence, social sadism is entering a febrile new stage.
In the 1990s the energy company Enron was a favourite child, a cause for capitalist celebration. It is in 2004 that it becomes a morality play. Audio tapes of internal conversations relating to its role in the profitable and socially catastrophic deregulation of California energy are released.
A forest fire shuts down a transmission line, with all the misery that the ensuing blackout provokes, and – supply, demand – spiking prices. ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ we hear two traders sing. ‘That’s a beautiful thing,’ one concludes.
For fifty years, since Arendt’s report on Eichmann, we’ve been assured that what characterises evil is its banality. A cliché deployed against a cliché. The avatar of evil’s enormity, goes the claim, is no operatic Satan, but a dull quotidian bureaucrat, number-crunching, invested in the agonies she or, more usually, he inflicts only insofar as they impact the spreadsheet.
The banality of the banality of evil, the eagerness with which official liberal culture has adopted this description, should arouse Red suspicion (as should the obvious class sneer of it, of the middle-class intellectual’s favourite caricature, the vulgarian petty bourgeois – the architect of the Final Solution recast as a variant of that awful little jobsworth councillor who refused planning permission for the conservatory). Becoming a radical critic of capitalism involves a process of disenchantment, the dying of surprise at the system’s depredations; but being one, a long-term witness to those depredations, is to repeatedly discover that we can be shocked by what no longer surprises us.
On 20 November 2000, Enron traders Kevin McGowan and Bob Badeer moan about growing complaints from officials over their price-gouging, in the context of those catastrophic power cuts. The exchange becomes infamous.
‘They’re fucking taking all the money back from you guys?’ says Kevin. ‘All those money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?’
‘Yeah,’ says Bob. ‘Grandma Millie, man.’
A moment’s banter about the contested election, then Kevin continues: ‘Yeah, now she wants her fucking money back for all the power you’ve charged right up – jammed right up her ass for fucking 250 dollars a megawatt hour.’
This image of rape and electrocution provokes much laughter.
She’s old, she’s cold, she has no light, or if she does we supplied it like torturers and made her pay for it. We did it to make money but that’s no reason we can’t enjoy her misery too.
Evil may indeed often be the most banal Eichmann. Perhaps sometimes it comes instead with Mephistophelean splendour. But very often it’s a party-goer; boisterous; braying; a frat alumnus; a bully who loves being a bully; a successful professional, lip-smacking at the misery of those s/he hurts; and one who is increasingly happy to cop to that enjoyment, to proclaim it, to perform it.
There’s an arrogance to despair. Everyone thinks their own epoch is unique, and the sense that it’s uniquely awful is no less solipsistic or ahistorical than the belief that it’s the culmination of Weltgeist. But history is not endless recursion: some times are worse, in certain ways, than others. The fact that it has become commonplace on the Left and the liberal left to claim that neoliberalism is a culture of cruelty doesn’t mean the diagnosis is wrong.
August 2015. Bobby Douglas, a UKIP council candidate in Wales, calls for immigrants to be ‘gassed like badgers’. It would be hyperbolic to attach much significance, in and of itself, to the spleen of a racist mediocrity. But quantity becomes quality, and Douglas is one of many, many such symptoms. His ranting breached even his own party’s standards – UKIP suspended him. This doesn’t obviate the fact that such sadistic cathexis was shoved into the public sphere in the first place: in fact, as we’ll see, it’s part of how it performs a function. UKIP’s an efficient machine for the extrusion of such fantasies into social life, to a purpose, and the party’s repeated suspension of its own members is just the clattering of the mechanism resetting itself.
In their discussion of what the media theorist Nick Couldry calls its ‘theatre of cruelty’, Henry Giroux and Philip Mirowski, among many others, have have written extensively on neoliberalism’s sadistic culture, the increasingly open vilification of ‘losers’ and the crowing of and over ‘winners’. Swathes of mass entertainment celebrate physical agony (‘torture porn’), metaphorical ‘eviction’ (reality TV) and the punitive gaze at the desperate – leavened with the schmaltz that is its obverse. As Mirowski points out, in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, it is not, of course, that ‘spectacles of cruelty’ are new, but that the theatre is ‘unabashed’, ‘has been made to seem so unexceptional’; and that in the context of neoliberalism it is doing something distinct. It serves, he says, ‘more targeted purposes [than distraction], such as teaching techniques optimised to reinforce the neoliberal self’.
Cultural products, however tendentiously or at whatever effort, may be read against their grain. But the elective affinities could hardly be much clearer between such programming – ‘so ubiquitous that one need hardly recite the titles’ – and the depths of political economy on which it is the froth: the lionising of the flexible, depth-free, entrepreneurial subject, pat redemption for those who earn it, and the ‘debasement of victims’.
- Hip San Francisco entrepreneur Greg Gopman complains online that he has to share the streets with the poor.
There is an area of town for degenerates … There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. In other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society … beg[s] coyly, stay[s] quiet, and generally stay[s] out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town…
Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morals, saw social sadism as inextricable from debt.
[T]he creditor is given a kind of pleasure as repayment and compensation – the pleasure of being allowed to discharge his power on a powerless person … the delight in ‘de fair le mal pour le plaisir de le faire’ [doing wrong for the pleasure of it], the enjoyment of violation. This enjoyment is more highly prized the lower and baser the debtor stands in the social order, and it can easily seem to the creditor a delicious mouthful, even a foretaste of a higher rank. By means of the ‘punishment’ of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters. … The compensation thus consist of a permission for and right to cruelty.
This reads far less like some timeless truth of human psyche than like advice for the culture industry and their paymasters on how to dole out a public and psychological wage, the ‘aspirationalism’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ of neoliberalism channelled into spectacular sadisms. Extending to the lower orders a small share in domination.
Law has always, in capitalist states, been a class project. ‘In its majestic equality,’ Anatole France allows, ‘the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges’. But the back-handed oppression of abstract equality is not always sadistic enough. More and more, with increasingly overt spite, laws and the politics they bespeak and shore up explicitly punish the poor for their poverty.
The US Supreme court may have ruled against imprisonment for failure to pay legal fees, but that hasn’t stopped defendants in several US states being jailed, says the American Civil Liberties Union, ‘at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford’. In Arkansas tenants are jailed for failing to pay rent on time. A mentally ill teenager in Georgia is prosecuted for stealing school supplies, released only when her mother can pay the $4,000 cost of her incarceration – ransom.
In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that the slashing of tax credits will lose 8.4 million low-income working households £750 per year. Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative Health Secretary, openly proclaims the exemplary nature of these attacks. Those who live with the help of welfare, he implies, lack dignity and self-respect. The cuts, he insists with orientalism as fervent as his atlanticism, are ‘a very important cultural signal’ which will encourage people to be ‘prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard’. Mining tycoon Gina Rinehart, richest woman on earth, clarifies for the poor: ‘don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working’.
To succeed in such a landscape, to be a ‘winner’ among necessarily despised ‘losers’, takes a certain mindset. If one’s too full of the milk of human kindness to enjoy everyday sadism, one must at least negotiate it without hesitation or regret. It’s a popular and titillating factoid that Wall Street and the City are statistically heavily overpopulated with psychopaths. And for those who aren’t, culture sells the traits as pedagogy. ‘Should we all be a bit psychopathic at work?’ asks the BBC. ‘Unleash your inner psycho for success’, the Sun answers, one of countless outlets to puff The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success by Kevin Dutton and ex-SAS soldier Andy McNab. ‘The ability psychopaths have to turn down their empathy and block out other concerns make them the best operators in high- pressure environments,’ McNab tells the Telegraph.
This is sacred, holy stuff: one highlight of Forbes’ ‘Leadership’ section in 2012 was, in the words of its headline, ‘Learning From Psychopaths and Monks’.
Cruelty is common and tenacious. In their eagerness to dampen down the empathy that might restrain it, aspirational capitalists attest to the tenacity of that capacity, too. Not even professionals in pain are immune from guilt and its somatic effects.
Of course whether innate or assiduously acquired, that profitable adaptation psychopathy, as indifference to, rather than investment in, others’ pain, is not sadism. But sadism can be learned, once the initial visceral distress at inflicting pain subsides. Though, according to Roy F. Baumeister and W. Keith Campbell in their paper ‘The Intrinsic Appeal of Evil: Sadism, Sensational Thrills, and Threatened Egotism’, ‘the majority of perpetrators do not seem to develop a sadistic pleasure’, for others ‘the pleasure in harming others … seems to emerge gradually over time and is described by some as comparable to an addiction’.
Sadism is not for everyone, not even for every neoliberal. Some just don’t have what it takes. ‘Mr Clinton’, Kissinger once famously (and rather unfairly) muttered into a cocktail, ‘does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal.’
The Reign of the Cops
On Canadian TV, in January 2014, businessman Kevin O’Leary is asked to respond to the fact that the wealth of the eighty-five richest people in the world is equal to that of the bottom 3.5 billion. It is, he says, ‘fantastic news’. Because the statistic ‘inspires’ the poor. But it’s self-evidently impossible for even a tiny proportion of that impoverished mass to become economically secure, let alone, in his words, ‘stinking rich’, and he can only enjoy the statistic because of that.
John Tammy takes on the argument in an article for Forbes in that same month. Income inequality, he says, is ‘unrelentingly beautiful’. The emphasis is his.
At some level O’Leary knows, whatever flimsy Horatio-Alger lie he might recite to himself, why he likes that statistic so much, and we know why, and he knows we know why, and that we know he knows it, and so on. The imposition of their own reality is a key component in the dominance of those who dominate.
2006. Ten-year-old Huda Ghalia’s family are blown apart on a Gaza beach. The Israeli government denies, in the face of all logic, history, evidence, and the researches of a Pentagon battlefield analyst, that their shells are to blame. The sheer absurdity of the claim that the munitions were Palestinian is part of its social- sadistic traction, the relentless bark of the attacking bully. ‘Why are you bombing yourself? Why are you bombing yourself?’
History is a procession of torture and the spectacle of agonised mass deaths, in the Colosseum, the ziggurats of the Aztecs, the autos-da-fé of heretics. ‘Without cruelty’, Nietzsche says, ‘there is no carnival.’ Again, as a theory of humanity this is arrant nonsense: as advice for statecraft, it has proved invaluable.
But though social sadism has not been rare, there’s no eternal social ontology of cruelty. All these moments are defined by and do specific and distinct things, perform functions. The Roman games grew from funerary rites, showcased the increasing and spectacular power of ruling classes; provided for the popular punishment of scapegoats, all sanctified and embedded within legal codes and mores – and libidinally sanctioned, too, in their sadism, in part because of the empathic load that those who’d make them spectacles must overcome. In countless societies performed violence was openly descriptive and sustaining, according to various parameters, of boundaries and social logic.
By contrast, there is something distinct about social sadism in modern capitalism, and in neoliberalism in particular. This is surplus cruelty in a specific sense, sadism supererogatory in relation to the – conjunctural, contested – ‘functional’ requirements of the system, a social formation characterised by the hedged, reversible, embattled but well-documented historical shift away from social punishment as overt – the qualification is crucial – spectacular, sanctioned, performative cruelty. The sociologist Norbert Elias, discussing punishment politics in 1939’s The Civilizing Process, described the adjustment of behaviour over hundreds of years according to ‘the expanding threshold of repugnance’. A socially stimulated sense of revulsion, that a growing field of acts are considered ‘uncivilised’, and – at least openly, at least proclaimedly – unacceptable.
This is not to buy capitalism’s bullshit about itself. Uncovering the dynamics behind this deeply uneven trend reveal it to be conditioned by subtler and no less ruthless power politics, to be a thin, fragile result of overlapping social pressures and powerplays, rather than because of any Whiggish dynamic to history. The concomitant diffusion of the state into the biopolitics of everyday life underlies its growing powers, including for repression, and sadism. Nor of course does the repugnant cease to happen. It may happen more. The politics of where and how become central.
The Enlightenment was always a dark enlightenment. Viciousness and brutality in their most unmediated forms were still – and are – deemed appropriate for the colonies. Today, our everyday and surplus sadisms are inextricable from capitalism’s history of racist violence.
Few countries have cultivated so assiduously and ostentatiously a self-image not only of ‘civilisation’ but ‘civilisedness’ as Britain. Its imperialism is the ostentatious bad conscience to this ‘civilising process’: there’s not much sign of expanding repugnance in the savage beatings and sexual assaults of prisoners during the ‘Aden crisis’; the torture by pepper and the waterboarding avant le lettre in Cyprus in the 1950s; castration, rape, mass-murder in Kenya in the same decade, in what Caroline Elkins has called Britain’s Gulag.
It is not irrelevant that these acts were not proclaimed: with varying success, they were hidden, denied, and if uncovered, variably defensively justified. When the cover-up of a massacre in Hola in Kenya failed, the parliamentary record for July 1959 runs through the gamut. The security services do a tremendously difficult job; problems are the result of muddle and crossed wires; in any case, their enemies are, as one MP insisted, ‘sub-human’.
There’s no surprise in that: in a system of white supremacism, there is an exclusion clause in the ‘arc of civilisation’ at the edges of the polity. Accumulation, particularly so-called ‘primitive accumulation’, is always-already a system of rapacity and its sadisms. A grim corollary of the uneven and countervailed tendency to juridical equality and the abstraction of commodity exchange is the expropriation of colonial theft, and the concretely subordinated colonial subject.
Its settler-colonial nature is key to the vivid social sadism of the Israeli state. ‘Supererogatory’ cruelty is brazen and startling and often remarked upon, by visitors and victims and dissident Israelis themselves. ‘The vindictiveness of many (not all) Israeli soldiers’, John Berger carefully writes, ‘is particular.’ The relentless surplus sadisms of everyday life for Palestinians, of the checkpoints, described exhaustedly by Oded Na’aman and others who once manned them, accompany those of politicide – senior Israeli official Dov Weisglass impishly describing the starvation strategy of the blockade as to ‘put the Palestinians on a diet’.
Colonial sadism is not a result of racism; racism, rather, is created by that sadism – viciousness justifying itself post-facto. The agonies inflicted by the metropole’s torturers are the ‘civilising process’.
This exonerated colonial savagery continues even – especially – where the ‘civilised’ population is a subset within the borders of the state. Thus the management techniques of slavery, the panoply of baroque, spectacular, inventive viciousness, whips and rapes, punitive scatology, spiked wheels, salt-rubbed wounds.
Capitalist social sadism is still, of course, a racialised, colonial logic. Its victims are by no means always non-white, nor are those who apply it always white, but it’s intrinsically derived from these techniques of colonialism, its social Darwinism and naturalisation of hierarchies, and the racialising drive is irrepressible. New configurations of viciousness illuminate this, as neoliberalism stretches the boundaries of quotidian sadism.
Civil-rights struggles mean that, for now, mainstream culture deems the overtly white-supremacist sadisms of Jim Crow impolite. Which leads to immense white resentment. Of course there are strategies aplenty to maintain racist power in this new climate: ‘By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you,’ explained Lee Atwater, Republican strategist, in 1981. ‘Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.’ The sadistic racial drive is unabated – a result of the ‘economic things’ that Atwater explained replaced the racist slurs as mobilising calls is that ‘blacks get hurt worse than whites’.
But white supremacy wants, unendingly, its mastery to be overt. To be rehabilitated under neoliberalism, racial sadisms have to be deployed with a kind of abusive suppleness. Subtler microaggressions are inadequate, whatever the power structure they maintain: they must be obvious and swaggering, conspicuous consumption of the public and psychological wages of white spite; and they must also, just, be plausibly deniable as such, enough to redouble the cruelty with racial gaslighting, huffing that to read race into racist sadism is to play the legendary race card, to be obsessed with race.
This can go too far. When Cliven Bundy muses on camera about whether ‘the Negro’ was not ‘better off’ under slavery, even Fox TV distances itself. But as we’ll see, though not without risk, such excess, such surplus sadism, can perform an invaluable role.
Some virtuoso racialised sadisms have been displayed in the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. Arrested for selling cigarettes, his last moments are filmed as he’s choked by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, desperately and repeatedly gasping, ‘I can’t breathe!’
Jason Barthel, a corporal in the Indiana Police with a sideline in clothing, promptly releases a t-shirt bearing the words ‘Breathe Easy: Don’t break the law’. ‘[P]lease understand’, he writes online, with palpable twinkle, ‘when we use the slogan “Breathe Easy” we are referring to knowing the police are there for you!’
December 2014. Around 100 people turn up to counter- protest a demonstration against the police murder. They wear black hoodies on which is written, ‘I CAN BREATHE’.
More, far more than in the other counterslogans ‘Blue Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter’, the will to viciousness is visible. What possible relevance is it to these people proclaiming their gratitude to the killers – ‘Thanks to the NYPD’ the shirts say on the back – what possible ethical claim could it announce, that they can breathe, except that Eric Garner cannot, and never will again?
The ‘civilising process’ inheres not in any ending of these acts of sadism, but in a certain draping of a veil over the acts. But to perform their tasks they must be detectable. The act of veiling is visible, cognitive distortion, the creation of reality. So, like a
children’s puzzle in which you’re asked to find images hiding in the lines of another picture, if this is a camouflage it is one that exists to be uncovered. That is what ‘dog-whistle’ politics is.
The point of plausible deniability has never been believability. Now, in the sadism culture of neoliberalism, the necessity of even the barest due diligence, the performance of a scrap of such deniability diminishes. The threshold of repugnance recontracts.
When Moussa Khebaïli , like so many North Africans, was taken by the police in Paris to the torture room in 1958, he was told, ‘C’est le régime des flics qui commence’ – ‘The reign of the cops is beginning.’ It’s still the reign of the cops, and – as the Chicago police’s Homan Square black site, uncovered by the Guardian, makes clear – they still have their torture rooms. But they are also doing their business out in plain sight, in the glare of social media, not retreating but doubling down on the sadism of the acts and their justifications.
There’s contestation, certainly, a debate about what’s appropriate, even within the ruling class. The direction of the trend, however, is hard to deny.
In 2009, anchor Shep Smith, in a debate about torture on foxnews.com, slams his desk, announcing, ‘We are America. I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps. We are America. We do not fucking torture!’ America does, of course, but Smith’s naïvety on that point is less important than the almost touching, outraged bewilderment of a man having the wrong argument. He dates himself: his interlocutors Trace Gallagher and Andrew Napolitano have long-since moved on, are discussing torture’s possible efficacy.
Torture is even recast as politically progressive – sadism as the salvation of civilisation. One of the most acclaimed attorneys in the US, Alan Dershowitz, among many others, proposes not only that it should be legalised, but that the ‘torture warrant’ would be a restraint, minimising ‘excesses’.
In his seminal work Two Laws of Penal Evolution, Durkheim described the loi d’adoucissement, the law of softening, according to which, as societies ‘advance’, the penalties for crimes are reduced in intensity, particularly physical intensity. Never monolinear, the trend he identified was away from physical cruelties towards the deprivation of liberty. This obscures the fact that the advance in ‘moral education’, and the ‘softening’ of social life for some can be congruent with deepening repression, a hardening of punishment for others. There is a very partial truth that legitimation has stressed the ‘amelioration’; that there was a juridico-political performance of an ‘adoucissement’ trend. Note the past tense.
It’s no surprise that it’s in this most symptomatic arena of juridical punishment that the shift to social sadism is so blatantly manifest. Nor, given the incarceration frenzy of the US state against the black population, could its racialisation be more finely poised: to viciously punish the ‘criminal’ is, literally in hundreds of thousands of cases, and synecdochically in general, to be invested in the torments of the black subject. It’s particularly vividly in carceral history that the ‘civilising process’ – the phrase remains useful, if spoken with a sneer – is visible. As is, increasingly, the countervailing tendency, the neoliberal trend towards its unravelling.
In 1990, David Garland wrote, in Punishment and Modern Society, that
our culture imposes heavy restraints upon … emotions … ‘Vengeance’, for example, is no longer an acceptable sentiment to be voiced in this context. … In fact, ‘punitiveness’, as such, has come to be a rather shameful sentiment during the twentieth century, at least among the educated elite, so that arguments about prison conditions, severity of sentences, or the justice of the death penalty tend to be couched in utilitarian terms.
A quarter of a century later, the claim rings absurdly naïve. The cultural shift is undeniable. The chain gang, pioneered in the southern states, was phased out by 1955. In 1995, Alabama was the first state to reintroduce it: it still exists in Arizona. In Georgia, under a program called ‘Tier Step Down’, inmates are deliberately malnourished, receiving half-rations, are denied access to medical and educational opportunities – and are unable to flush their toilets. This is widely understood to be collective punishment for a series of strikes and hunger strikes in 2010 and 2012 against degrading conditions, the aftermath of the first of which saw one inmate, Kelvin Stevenson, brutally beaten by guards, on film, with a hammer.
On 23 June 2012, at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida, according to testimony by fellow prisoners, Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill man who had, in a long-established act of jail resistance, shat in his cell, was locked in a shower by prison officers with the water blasting on its hottest setting. This was not a new form of punishment. ‘I can’t take it no more,’ he started to scream. ‘I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.’ He was left for an hour as the narrow chamber filled with scalding water and steam. When the guards finally opened the door, he was lying dead on his back, his skin so burned it had shrivelled from his body. No one has been charged.
Even fifteen years ago Jonathan Simon could counter Garland, with a wealth of examples, that ‘it is far from clear that cruelty or vengeance is no longer an acceptable sentiment’. He cites the growth of ‘life-trashing’ sentences and ‘shame’ sentences, and changes around the death penalty and its culture.
States pump up the spectacularity of death, reintroduce the electric chair and firing squads. In an article from 2002, Mona Lynch described how support for the death penalty in the US has ‘especially intensified and “hardened”’, that it is not just uninformed but doesn’t wish to be informed, that ‘deterrence’ is cited by fewer and fewer Americans, ceasing to be the majority justification that it was in the 1970s, and that support is not even driven by fear but by ‘more and more by anger and retributive urges’.
The growth in social sadism is not in contradiction to, but codependent with, the growth of social sentimentality and the mindfulness industry. This Simon calls the ‘therapeutic culture of punishment’ – and we can add, sadism. ‘[T]he notion of retribution’, he writes, ‘is giving way to the ability of specific individuals to obtain satisfaction from cruelty, and is reflected in the prominence that politicians now give to the desires of family members of the victims … for the emotional satisfaction of a death penalty carried out with … a minimum of solicitude for the offender.’
These desires, of course, articulate their culture, and would be unthinkable as part of a formal legal process in many other parts of the world. ‘A new kind of state psychology is evident in the frequency with which elected officials invoke the need for surviving loved ones of the victim to achieve “closure”’.
Given the record of ‘humane’ executions, and the recalcitrance of human empathy, this ideology of therapeutic viciousness is valuable. The suffering of those frozen by the anaesthetic in lethal injunction is unknown, but the litany of even those who’ve obviously visibly suffered, gasping, looking up, straining against the straps holding them, repeatedly stuck by misplaced needles, moaning, is long. Clayton Lockett, Dennis McGuire, Joseph Clark, Emmitt Foster, Angel Diaz, Justin Lee May, Tommie Smith, Joseph Cannon, Raymond Landry, Michael Lee Wilson, whose last words as the drugs entered him were, ‘I feel my whole body burning’.
These agonies are not mistakes: they are accounted for, legally. Before the execution of McGuire, in January 2014, David Waisel, a Harvard professor of anaesthesia, warned the Ohio court that the cocktail of drugs would leave McGuire awake, conscious and in pain, and cause ‘agony and horror’. He was correct. McGuire was to gasp for breath, snort, clench his fists, try to rise, as he slowly died. Judge Gregory Frost rejected the stay, while acknowledging in his ruling that the process was ‘an experiment’. He heeded Thomas Madden, Ohio assistant attorney general, who insisted in his submission that ‘you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution’.
Sometimes all this unsubtle subtext is simply spoken as text: the pain of the executed is not just permissible, but desirable. On the 24 July 2014, Arizona executed Joseph Wood for the shooting dead of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, in 1989. The process of his death continued for two hours. After the first 10 minutes Wood was gasping, ‘sucking air’ as he fought for breath, in the words of one witness. Another described it as like a fish thrown to shore.
Richard Brown, Dietz’s brother-in-law, lambasted the press. ‘You guys are blowing it out of all proportion about these drugs. … Why don’t we give him a bullet? Why don’t we give him some Drano? People on death row deserve to suffer.’
Below the Line
Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms. Even allowing for hyperbolic moral panicking over new modes of expressions, online bullying displays a real, toxic seam of performative sadism – particularly, of course, aimed at women and minorities.
Rot is fecund. Fruiting bodies sprout and spore on the body politic: gamergate; the ‘beta uprising’. The clamour of such trolling shows how very unquiet sadism is, how not nearly repressed enough. It seems poised to become less so.
It would be absurd technological determinism to blame social media for this, just as it would to praise it for creating any of the collaborative collective action it has, without question, aided. Conversely, it would be naïve to deny that forms impact norms. With social media and online culture the barrier to entry to performative psychological sadism is lowered. The conjunction of the addictive narcissistic economy of social media with neoliberal subjectivity feeds, feeds off and encourages such obsessive and toxic behaviours, and the performativity of the panopticon.
The release of coagulated clots of such matter as online ‘manifestos’ and statements by racist and misogynist mass- murderers such as Anders Breivik, Elliot Rodgers and Christopher Harper-Mercer is commonplace. Their actual acts, too, feel inspired by below-the-line sadism, in spectacle and vindictiveness, in the pettiness-as-terror. This is real-life and -death trolling, the literalising of the flame-war injunctions to hate-objects, targets of spite and sadism, to die.
For non-stupid analysis, it’s a truism about ‘Islamic State’ (Daesh) that it is no atavism, but intensely modern: in the demographic of its personnel; in its particular state form; in its vigorous social media presence. In the erosion of the line between statement, trolling and policy, the group represents a hypertrophy of the modern state’s reliance on social sadism. It is unusual less in that its representatives rape, enslave, torture and brutally execute, than in that it justifies such practices explicitly as such.
Part of the ‘civilising process’ has traditionally been the meandering historical growth of the state’s function as a repressive superego, battening down various egoic drives, such as that to sadism, deemed, for various social reasons, impermissible. So repressed, they will dutifully return, as indeed the superego state needs them to. Not so here: though in recent documents it has stressed more loudly the joys of citizenship, there is still in Daesh’s output an explicit glorying in what one researcher calls ‘ultraviolence’.
Always eager to instrumentalise the worst human drives, the modern state has tended, officially, to relax the superegoic repression of sadism mostly to circumspect degrees and at specific moments – for the embattlement and carnage of war; in fascism; during times of ‘exceptionality’. Though by no means tout court, Daesh collapses state ego and superego on this point of sadism: it’s open about the fact that its exceptionality is permanent.
In the US-hegemonic sphere, there remains a line between the superego of the social lie, and the comments threads below – unconscious desire, the righting of imagined wrongs, the social -adistic ego of enjoyed spite – the troll-culture it neither can nor would be without.
The membrane is not only permeable, but movable. And it is moving quickly, through telling mechanisms.
Every person’s name is legion. Among our components are those we don’t want, and/or want not to want, and/or surrendered to which society itself couldn’t survive. A modicum of repression, then, is a necessity for social life. Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization, his lurching 1955 attempt at a synthesis of Marx and Freud, coined the term ‘surplus repression’ for the degree of repression above and beyond that necessary for human social life at all. The term was perhaps somewhat misleading, or utopian, describing as it did phenomena nonetheless functional for the maintenance of oppressive class systems. Is there no surplus beyond this surplus? A level of repression, including sadism, excessive even for the exigencies of the class rule which has thrown it up?
In fact, capitalism, an astoundingly adaptive system, can and will use any depredation: this doesn’t, though, imply that they’re all equally, or merely, functional in its service.
Liberal outrage that pathologises social sadism as ‘madness’, backhandedly counterposing capitalism to it, is naïve or obfuscatory. Conversely, to deny that some excesses may be, indeed, accursed shares, potentially troublesome, embarrassments and autotelic reveries, would be left functionalism, granting capitalism a homeostatic hermetic smoothness it doesn’t warrant. The ‘civilising process’ – sneer and all – means that particular actions that could be proclaimed at one moment must be hidden the next, as Atwater makes clear. The boundaries of social sadism – and other ethical loads – are changeable and contested, according to a capitalist logic of accounting.
7 September 2015. Responding to the devastating plight of refugees, British Prime Minister David Cameron bizarrely proclaims that ‘[w]e will continue to show the world that this country is a country of extra compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need’.
Extra compassion? Compared to what? To the ‘natural’ compassion capacity of our polity, presumably. That the government offered to take a risible 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 was thus signalled as a kind of ethical superprofit. An ingenious ideological move. ‘British compassion’ is inflated, while the brief, grotesquely inadequate opening of the door is flagged as, literally, surplus: it can be closed at any moment, ‘extra’ compassion withdrawn, without any ethical deficit.
As with compassion, so with sadism: the bookkeeping heuristic is an absurdity that the system strives to make true. And which, because capitalism is dynamic, is functional, excess and all.
The Elasticity of Spite
Increasing and better calories, improved housing, time to rest – such progress is fought for, wrested from rulers, sometimes won, sometimes lost again. An outrageous demand becomes a contested principle becomes a right.
‘In contradistinction … to the case of other commodities, there entered into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element’. On top of the cost of the physical reproduction of the worker’s animal body, there is, as Marx describes in Capital, that moral-historical element. It is no illusion: it is part of labour-power’s value, according to which, many mediations later, wages are paid. What comprises that historical and moral element, leads to the incorporation of expanding or contracting social norms as part of a worker’s baseline needs, is class struggle.
While the contestation is ongoing, is yet undecided, the status of the mooted elements are quantum. It’s only with the success or failure of each struggle that the box is opened, and the constantly shifting value of labour-power becomes, fleetingly, clear.
Particularly in crisis, moments of constricting accumulation, capitalists will fight vigorously against any expansion of this moral- historical element. The fight will mean blood and blows and bullets, and the onslaught will be as brutal as necessary. And, especially where hegemony relies particularly on fear as well as consent or habit, the attacks and the general culture will be savage enough to be exemplary.
Go too far, and resulting outrage may backfire against the state. The limits of viciousness are no more timeless than are the moral-historical components of labour-power they’re deployed to restrain. What’s socially possible in one epoch might bring down the government in another.
The more techniques and degrees of repression are openly available to the ruling class (because black ops are always an option) the more room it has for cruel manoeuvre. In a bleak echo of the struggle over the constituent elements of labour-power, so there is a struggle, waged down, by the powerful against the rest of us, over those of repression. The historical and (im)moral components of social sadism.
Here, supersadism, both in its specificities and as part of a generalised culture of spite, can be functional to capitalism even when scandalous. These are moments of class struggle, to push the limits of brutality.
The results are plain, in the normalised sadisms of fascist powers, and within the bounds of liberal democracies too. Even the simple fact of the reintroduction of the death penalty in the US in 1976, let alone its later apotheosis as a totem for legitimation of sadism, shows how the threshold of repugnance can shrink. Or to put it more accurately, how it can be shrunk. The unconscionable becomes the exceptional becomes mainstream class rule.
The constitutive, superpositionally avowed and disavowed supersadisms of capitalism test, inform and shape politics by breaching its limits. Even decried. In this decadence, essence and excrescence are inextricable – in the first issue of Salvage, we termed this an excr/essential capitalism.
This is its secret: it is a system that can instrumentalise its own decadent excess.
To expand their field of possible action, the clerks of ideology must keep pushing at both the permissible and the impermissible.
This claim is not abstract. Liberal professors of law debate not how to end torture, but how best to torture. American state functionaries, who would doubtless join in the magisterial disgust of the ‘civilised’ at the human experiments of Mengele or Unit 731, carry out experimental executions, declared as such.
As fast as capitalism outrages, it excuses as much as it can, through special pleading, tendentious reasoning, bullying and bullshit. As soon after the Enron scandal as 2006, Newsweek, in a piece going ‘beyond the verdicts’, insisted that ‘this was a company that not only had a number of great ideas, but pointed the way for other businesses to make billions’. Nothing so gauche as an explicit defence of the Grandma Millie fantasy; only an encomium to the profits and practices of which it was exuberant expression.
What remains more steadfastly inexcusable, capitalism deploys negatively, to legitimate new debasement of norms on the grounds that the debasement is not as bad as it might have been. ‘What they’re saying is obviously unacceptable: we, by contrast, propose only this.’
And the inexcusable is used to shift the grounds.
In 2000, hard-right provocateur Ann Coulter glossed Genesis 1:28 by declaring that ‘[t]he ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man’s dominion over the Earth. … God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.’ Like a five-year-old who has learnt a swear-word, she was to repeat the sentiment more than once. Despite the best efforts of Time journalist John Cloud, in his 2005 cover-piece gush about her, to advocate rape, even of Gaia, remains almost unrecuperable – as Coulter, neither a fool nor a person who gains her energy from being liked, must have known. The phrase remained shocking.
But its work was done, an agenda stretched. It looms, an unacknowledged parent, over the Republican slogan born in 2008, and given later prominence by Sarah Palin: ‘Drill Baby Drill!’ Not only in its enthusiastic scorn for any environmental concerns but in the grotesque and ostentatious sexualisation of the image. Wink wink: this is the symbolic rape you can get away with, the sadism you can speak to push your politics of remorselessness, and it relies on the excess that proceeded it.
Here is the class logic of surplus social sadism. Whether any particular iteration of sadism is rehabilitated or not – which is
the result of class as much as an ethical struggle – the bounds of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched. Depths plumbed.
For our enemies there are, in an inverse of the boosterism of the Left, and one with more claim to realism, #massiveopportunitiesfortherightinallthis.
A Harder Battle
Can you fight sadism with its opposite? What even would that be? We have, astoundingly, a Labour Party leader of the principled socialist left, who has declared for a ‘kinder politics’. And because of who Corbyn is, this does not sound like the kind of lie-turd we’re used to hearing drop from politicians’ mouths. Should Reds overcome traditional hippyphobia on this issue? What is the potential in a revolutionary strategy of political kindness? Kindness is – here cautiously – worth celebrating. Both for its own sake, and because, particularly in excr/essential capitalism, it does embed a utopian dissenting kernel. But always with that caution. The injunction to kindness can usher in a pro-kindness sadism, a ruthless positivity, hunting infractions. Open up: it’s the tone police. Still, the jouissance sadism taps can become autotelic, can shock consciences far wider than the hard Left. There are dangers in any strategy which relies on provoking opponents’ outrage. In a milieu of generalised cruelty and encouraged sadism, unlikely, seemingly ‘pre-political’ qualities of empathy – courtesy, decency, good neighbourliness – might even be nascent solidarity, recruitable to radical opposition. The liberal is often the most outraged and vociferous chanter on the demonstration. Richard Seymour once made the indispensable distinction between those who are liberals out of fidelity to liberal ideas, and those who are liberals out of fidelity to the liberal state. The latter will never be on the side of emancipation. The former, to the extent that such ideas embed ethical politics predicated, however fallaciously and ideologically, on certain supposedly liberatory and universal claims, may be.
The issue is whether the liberal remains in radical opposition when the demonstration is over. This can’t remain a stable alliance, but it might be a valuable one, and grounds can shift, especially to the extent that the Left can show that this is a system of sadism, with an underlying logic and dynamic. To this extent there may be radicalism in kindness. In acting, in Alasdair Gray’s words, as if we are in the early days of a better nation.
But this can be no grounds for systemic opposition. The politics of kindness are an opportunity, but a vague and inadequate one, and one that runs far too strong a risk of taking social ‘common sense’ at its own word. Social-democratic kindness, no matter how sincere and radically inflected, cannot face the amoral ruthlessness of reaction and have the slightest hope of not being destroyed.
Hate is frightening, and dangerous. But class hate is also inevitable, and – particularly faced with social sadisms – legitimate, and radicalising, and necessary.
Failed revolutions bring forth a blossoming of ruling-class viciousness, carnivals of reaction, the sadisms of relief and retrenched rule. In the new social sadism, it seems as if the bourgeoisie are intent on getting their counterrevolution in first.
None of which is to say that socialists shouldn’t strive for a politics of radical empathy. Not cool calculation; not realpolitik; not, in extremis, necessary ruthlessness; nor our earned hate, obviates that. Indeed hate, unlike contempt, presumes empathy. An empathy which can check what surplus hate might provoke.
No matter how much we might wish it, no uprising of the oppressed will be disciplined and rigorous enough to contain all expressions of the vengeful urge, nor even that to cruelty. Much ‘Leninism’ has fondly fantasised about leading charges: it’s as likely – and desirable – that a key role of socialists in any insurgency should be precisely to act, as far as it is feasible, as fleeting superego for a new empathic politics, to hold retribution back – vanguardism as restraint. Marlin, leader of the International in Paris in 1871, risked his life in the dying days of the embattled Commune begging a furious and terrified crowd not to execute hostages. He was unsuccessful. There may be brutal necessities in hard times: still, it’s not at all to be hamstrung by a ‘beautiful soul’, to have illusions in prefigurative politics, to want there to be ten, twenty Varlins in the communes to come. To want success in their future efforts, to break the equivalence principle of violence or spite.
Long Live Death
There’s obviously more than mere grim approval at necessity in the deaths of those marked out as enemies: there’s a sadistic jouissance in it, and in displaying it. Ann Coulter enthuses about Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico: ‘I love the idea of the Great Wall of Trump. I want to have a two-drink minimum … And every day live drone shows whenever anyone tries to cross the border.’ In Sderot, 2014, Israelis settle down with picnics on sofas on the hillside to spectate IDF jets bombing civilians in Gaza. ‘What a beauty!’ Harriet Sherwood describes one observer exclaiming at a particularly destructive blast.
It doesn’t have to be ‘enemies’: the death of the merely disposable is also grounds for raucous partying. Martin Peake and Karen Reilly were teenage joyriders, not paramilitaries, when British paratroopers killed them in Northern Ireland in 1990. But the eighteen-year-old Reilly’s death was still commemorated in a party decoration the soldiers rigged up, a cardboard car, festooned with balloons, a Reilly-doll’s face lolling from it, bleeding red paint.
In the testerical sadism of neoliberalism, in fact, ‘losers’ are all disposable, so ultimately the dead’s deadness justifies their death.
Defending the Confederate Flag, South Carolina representative Bill Chumley criticised those murdered by racist killer Dylan Roof for their passivity. ‘These people sat in there and waited their turn to be shot,’ Chumley said. ‘Why didn’t somebody just do something?’
Like the disdain (shared by antisemite and hard-right Zionist) for those scornfully described to one Jewish survivor of Kamionka as having gone ‘passively to the camps and then to their deaths’, death here does the Darwinian job. Thins the herd. Before its ineluctable drive, the sadistic spite at its victims for their ‘weakness’ can be disavowed.
In an example of the process described here, by which sadistic excess can be functional by pushing the limits of discourse and behaviour, a scant four months after Chumley’s victim-blaming, Ben Carson, presidential candidate, chides the corpses left by another mass-murderer. Unlike them, he would ‘probably not cooperate with him … would not just stand there and let him shoot me’.
Carson is criticised, yes, but he said it, in this new discursive space. He does not back down.
Social sadism’s affair with death runs deeper, more uncontrollable, than its most fervent and cynical advocate may know. It taps a powerful psychoanalytical current, and it’s by no means in the control of those who deploy it.
Martin Amis, in a once-notorious interview with the Times in 2006, said: ‘There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.”’ Here, with vivid clarity, is an indispensable element in the justification of social sadism: complicity.
‘Don’t you have it?’
Even before the exposition of the sadistic drive, Amis demanded not only the agreement and empathy of his interlocutor, and the reader, but pre-emptively expressed scepticism that it was not there.
This appeal to complicity is a mainstay of the Right. ‘In your heart’, read Barry Goldwater’s 1964 slogan, ‘you know he’s right.’ The more prominent the Right’s violence program, its appeal to cruelty, the more overt the annunciation of pre-emptive social complicity. On 5 October 2015, at a meeting of the quasi-libertarian right-wing pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance, their research director demanded that a variety of pensioner benefits should be cut immediately, including the winter fuel allowance, designed to keep the elderly warm. Many affected, Alex Wild insisted, would die before the next election, and many others, he implied, would be too doddery to remember who was responsible for their misery. The high-profile Conservative MP Liam Fox spoke too. He described a ‘great opportunity for us to do some of the more difficult things, however unpalatable they will be in the short term’. ‘We need to do’, he said, ‘what we all know deep in our hearts to be right.’
Social sadism relies on complicity for legitimation. Most defences of such sadism, particularly surplus supersadism, focus less on the necessity of the measures, and more on insisting that everyone has these drives, that we all understand and share them. We are all sinners, all fallen, all always-already sadists.
The tactic of complicity goes back to slave management.
On the 28 January 1756, Thomas Thistlewood, enlightenment gent, autodidact, successful Jamaican farmer, caught his slave Derby eating sugarcane. ‘Had Derby well whipped’, Thistlewood wrote in his diaries, ‘and made Egypt’ – another slave – ‘shit in his mouth’.
Thistlewood was to repeat ‘Derby’s Dose’, as it became known, each time forcing the victim immediately into a gag, their mouth full, for several hours. He did not use his own waste. Each time, part of this inventive act of sadistic degradation was to force another slave to do the shitting or the pissing.
‘Shame’, writes Jeremy Seabrooke, ‘is the most persistent attribute of contemporary poverty’ – and, we can add, of capitalism in general. As regards poverty in particular, in the culture of neoliberalism, as Seabrooke puts it, ‘under the barrage of resentment and loathing this incapacity’ – the failure to avail themselves of the ‘opportunities’ about which capitalism crows – ‘incurs’, the self-image of many is an echo of the culturally dominant ideology.
There is also the Thistelwoodian, Amisian, Goldwaterian, Foxian dimension: the social sadist can be expert at projecting shame. And no matter how blank-faced their indifference at the distress they cause – or how gleeful their pleasure – a source of the shame they project, at some chthonic level, is their own.
This is neither to excuse the perpetrators, nor to recast them as victims: only to point out a psychoanalytical truism, often well- recognised within their own ranks. In 1985, Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, wrote to her, ‘You should also have at the back of your mind the guilt complex among the “haves” about the “have-nots”. It is vital that you signal your compassion – and don’t deride the word, because that is what many of your supporters think you lack – to the “haves”’.
Thus the poisonous imbrication. Sympathy for the suffering of the ruled, as acknowledgement of ruling-class shame, as justification for brutality, as tactic for repression.
To the extent that it is successful in normalising social sadism, the invocation of complicity taps shared shame.
That doesn’t imply the innate wickedness of humanity, nor is it a retreat into therapy-babble. It is only to insist that we are, indeed, legion, that we are snarled in a complex of drives; that the perpetrator is performing and perhaps relishing what they know to be a transgression: sadism being an empathic function, a curdled one. Self-loathing is a cliché, but it is real. In social sadism, it is in part made functional for rule by disavowal and projection. And in a culture of shame, most especially of those at the bottom, for their ‘failure’, for being despised by the culture they inhabit, it’s no surprise that this is often effective.
Sadism and masochism are inextricable. And beneath them and social sadism tout court is something urgent and bleak and mute, looking a lot like Freud’s late discovery, the status or existence of which even many of his devout followers doubt: the death drive. Thanatos. A will to oblivion.
Whatever it is, it knows no boundaries at all.
Social sadism is a culture of death. Death aimed foursquare at enemies and the disposable without or within – Susan George describes the new central question of neoliberal politics as ‘Who has a right to live and who does not’ – but a total death too. One that encompasses object, subject, and indeed everything.
Nor is this sadistic culture’s desperation for total death, its idolatrous love of death, even hidden.
We’ve seen that the trope of the culling of the supposedly weak is deployed – with all due regret – by lawmakers and presidential candidates. There is also a far more overt enthusiasm for its ministrations in this culture of death.
At a debate between Republican candidates in September 2011, Wolf Blitzer, the chair, mooted the case of a hypothetical thirty-year-old uninsured man who becomes sick. ‘[C]ongressman,’ Blitzer asks Ron Paul, ‘are you saying that society should just let him die?’
‘Yeah!’ comes a shout from the audience. A smattering of applause. The shout is repeated, and again, and the applause grows. But still the victims of this imaginary death are too few. Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything, has written about the ‘subtext’, the ‘crueler side of the [climate change] denial project’ becoming more overt: that, lurking always under the increasingly absurd and fantastic claims to believe that it is not happening, is that it is, and that it is good, because of all the death it will wreak. 2011. Joe Reed of the Montana state legislature, tries (and fails) to pass a bill announcing that ‘Global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana’. Jim Geraghty in The Philadelphia Inquirer claims that ‘climate change will help the US economy in several ways and enhance, not diminish, the United States’ geopolitical power’. ‘Expect’, as Klein says, ‘more of this monstrousness’. But though both these expressions of the tendency accentuate the positive with a kind of thuggish idiot’s prometheanism, this remorseless drive for death is grander and more total than even that implied in Geraghty’s spiteful glee at the ‘dire circumstances’ for developing countries.
The dream is of nihil. Disavowed, certainly, unconscious most likely, but right there. The telos of this apologia is the end of all.
This makes little political odds, but for one thing: there is no point attempting to persuade partisans most invested in social sadism of the logic or science of ecological catastrophe, or that it makes not even strategic sense to retain nuclear ‘deterrence’, or what have you. Yes, they find profit in the catastrophe or the arms race; yes, they will be in unending denial.
And besides, that deep part most in thrall to spite and shame and sadism wants the apocalypse to come.
The Montana Waters
It has been drably traditional for socialist essays to conclude with a call for something. What fits here?
No to the Disavowed Pining for Death!
Good luck. One day, long after the Event, with the utter reconfiguring of everything, the Oedipal family a peculiar Gothic story, perhaps. For now, for all our lifetimes, even if socialism were to arrive tomorrow, there will be sadisms, and the drives that underline them, and the drives that undermine them
We can abjure the complicity demanded of us. Even as it snares us (as, creatures of it, it will), by speech act for a start. We aren’t immune to Thanatos, but we can recognise it and see who is pressing it most effectively to their service. As creatures of it, we may likely hate ourselves, and the world, but that’s not all we feel about us or it, and besides, we hate the sadisms of capitalism more, here, now, and we hate those who wreak them, without stint.
Humans have many capacities. It’s a doomed enterprise to prefigure socialism, but we can certainly feed the drives that, as far as we can imagine, we’d like to hope will cut with its grain.
Optimism of the will. The principle of hope. In the face of spite and history, there’s a better category of the positive, perhaps, to recruit into radical theory. One that’s rarer, that we don’t need to strive, a priori, to sustain, and/but that we know, even if for flecks of time in the worst times, we might experience, and that is joy.
Property itself is everyday sadism. To see it overthrown, even for a moment, is to know that joy exists, and to know that it is a material force.
We build against sadism. We build to experience the joy of its every fleeting defeat. Hoping for more joy, for longer, each time, longer and stronger; until, perhaps, we hope, for yet more; and you can’t say it won’t ever happen, that the ground won’t shift, that it won’t one day be the sadisms that are embattled, the sadisms that are fleeting, on a new substratum of something else, newly foundational, that the sadisms won’t diminish or be defeated, that those for whom they are machinery of rule won’t be done.
That the idea of quotidian social sadism won’t be unthinkable. There will be a new everyday.
The hotel overlooks the slums. The people from the slums are watched by the UN ‘peacekeepers’, the forces so central to the multilateralist reign of terror on the island, who try and fail to keep them out.
The protestors wave posters and chant as they take over the grounds. They explore. ‘Now is the time!’ they chant. A helicopter evacuates guests noisily from the roof. The protestors climb trees. They lie at rest on the sunlounges.
Most of the intruders, like so many in Haiti, lack running water. But on 13 February, the masses of the slums, of Cité Soleil, including very many children, dive into the Montana pool, and swim.
China Miéville is a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, including The City & the City and London’s Overthrow. His latest book is October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. He is currently collaborating with Robert Knox on the forthcoming Against International Law.