American Death Fetish - On the Commodity of Guns

by Alexander Quaresma

After yet another senseless massacre, this time in Las Vegas, a large and dare I say inconvenient truth has emerged for all to bear witness to. It's a truth that has always been there, just one nobody really wanted to readily acknowledge. That truth is that the American fetish for guns as a commodity goes hand-in-hand with the dehumanizing effects of an intensely capitalist society. In 2017 there can be no denying this. And that is why -- in spite of the Las Vegas Massacre -- the likelihood of any of us seeing meaningful gun legislation being passed is all but a pipe dream.

There is no fact to better illustrate this sobering reality than the statistic Nicholas Kristof famously cited in an op-ed for "The New York Times" in 2015 when he observed that more Americans have died as a result of guns since 1968 than there have been Americans killed in all of the wars it has ever fought… combined. If that isn't sobering enough on its own, the statistics Politifact uncovered when verifying Kristof's claim read as follows: 1.2 million American deaths from war vs. 1.4 million deaths as the result of guns. Incidentally, those numbers have gone up in the two years since Kristoff originally posted his piece.

Karl Marx may not have hit the nail completely square when it came to all of his observations as to how a capitalist society would function, but one thing he absolutely got correct is the magical power commodities seem to hold. He wrote all about this peculiar phenomenon in Chapter 1, volume 1, of his magnum opus critiquing the capitalist system, Das Kapital. And there has been no physical commodity so fetishized over in American society than the gun.

Ever since Columbus first landed on islands in the Caribbean and began butchering the Arawak peoples living there in his quest for another item destined for commoditization -- gold -- it seems as if a spell of commodity fetishism had been cast on those destined to be transplanted in the New World from the Old, a spell that has not been broken in the centuries since as that enchantment persists to this day. When one analyzes history critically, beginning as early as Columbus, the endeavor that eventually evolved into the American empire, and all of the political entities existing on the continent prior to 1776, they can all be described in any number of ways, the least of which would not be "bloodthirsty."

Seemingly born out of the inhumane crimes perpetrated against indigenous people of different cultures by globalizing Europeans as far back as 1492, and the practice of murder as an acceptable form of industry which took place on the continent for centuries, another, more abstract fetish form emerged; one which also persists to this day. A death fetish cult has always had a place in day-to-day American society. This can be seen in everything from the American brand of Christianity -- which loves to emphasize the afterlife -- to popular entertainment, and to what it deems as acceptable behavior by people elected to run the state. It's not uncommon to hear a typical standard middle-class American talk about using bombs as a means of solving difficult foreign diplomacy issues which they somehow feel obligated to offer an opinion on. In fact, a typical schlub like this is now sitting in the Oval Office.

This death cult fetish is so integral to both the individual and collective psyches of most Americans, that indeed, the abstract idea of death itself has grown into a marketing tool aimed at American consumers. A perfect example of this would be the way in which cheese commodities have been designed to be marketed to Americans. It was discovered that the optimum way to market cheese in the U.S. would be to package it in body bag-like plastic to be stored in a refrigerator, which in the back of the mind of a typical American consumer represents nothing more than a morgue disguised as a home appliance. Wrapping cheese in plastic, or selling it in little Ziploc body bags has become the standard m.o. of selling cheese in American markets, rather than simply letting cheese be exposed to the open air as other cultures do. This was something Douglas Rushkoff demonstrated in his "Frontline" documentary for PBS, "The Persuaders." Consider that we live in a culture where mottos for insecticide commodities tell you to "Kill Bugs Dead," a shrewd and ingenious method of tapping into a subconscious latent pleasure many many Americans seem to harbor, a desire to kill. It would seem that if you want to succeed in business in America, find a way to incorporate the death fetish into what it is you are marketing, or how you market it, and you just might have a leg up on potential competition. Incidentally, nothing markets the idea, or even the industry, of death quite like the cold black steel of a gun.

This is not to single out the United States, or even American culture itself, specifically when it comes to death cults or death fetishes. Indeed many nations, empires, kingdoms, or city-states can be accused of being obsessed with the idea of killing the "other," for whatever the reason throughout history. However, in the case of the U.S., there seems to be something else pathological behind what it is that drives its death lust when compared to other geopolitical entities in history. I do not profess to have any statistics to back up this claim, this is speculation on my part, but I can't help but feel that one would be hard-pressed to find another warlike political entity -- which the U.S. most certainly is -- who has suffered more deaths domestically, where citizens kill fellow citizens -- or themselves -- due to one specific and preventable cause than deaths it suffers on the fields of battle. And Kristof's statistic is all the more amazing to behold when you take into consideration that in its history the United States has essentially been at war for two hundred and twenty-four of its two hundred and forty-one years.

That statistic, more than anything else, is an indication of a disturbing trending truth about the U.S. and many (though certainly not all) of the Americans who call it home. It seems to be indicating that there is a perceivable lack of humanity present when it comes to death and murder, even on mass scales. Sure, an American will be the first to offer their hollow sympathies, their "thoughts and prayers," or even try to feign solidarity with victims by modifying their Facebook avatar, but the general standing rule is that most people in the United States simply do not want to be bothered with the notion that adjustments to their fetishes may be necessary. "It's so sad that fifty-nine people were massacred in a shooting, I'll pray for them, but, ya' know, oh well!" The idea of any kind of regulation being imposed on the private mechanism of industrial death is an anathema to them never to be considered.

Instead, murders and massacres in the U.S. are transmuted into a means of fulfilling the morbid curiosities and fantasies of a population completely disassociated from one another. The abstract subject of death itself is packaged as entertainment, be it fictionalized motion pictures, television "murder porn," or as fodder for cable news media selling fear and horror in order to lure in advertisement revenue. It all serves as a means of quenching the thirst of a violence-starved audience always craving more and more violence. It should be noted that I'm not simply referring to the deaths of people in faraway lands here; that many Americans crave the deaths of people in foreign lands with different cultures goes without saying -- but I'm also referring to their fellow countrymen. Americans simply do not substantively care what happens to fellow Americans.

In spite of all the racial injustice running rampant in the country at the present time, the fact is that this is an issue that transcends racial discord. There is no question that there is a racial component to the death fetish, but beyond the racial component there is a cold and unsympathetic globalizing system -- practiced most intensely by the United States -- which seems to have fostered a mysterious lack of constructive empathy for fellow human beings and for the fetishization of commodities to exist in its place. And it is the commodity of the gun that transcends any and all others. At the same time, as the United States has been the main champion of the globalization agenda for as many generations as it has been, there seems to now be a subconscious idea seeded in the minds of many Americans that people, too, are at best nothing more than commodities; just as disposable as a used napkin or an empty jar of peanut butter. In which case, it would be easy to see how their warped logic works: "If people are as cheap and as disposable as any other cheap commodity, why infringe upon the fetish object of our death cult?"

This is the dehumanizing result in an intensively capitalist society I mentioned in my open.

White upper to upper-middle-class America couldn't find it in itself to care enough about a classroom of young innocent white upper-middle-class children being massacred in December of 2012 to enact any kind of legal changes then. What would make anyone think that those same upper to upper-middle-class white Americans would care about, never-ending war being waged on brown people abroad, state-sanctioned violence on brown people at home, let alone shooting spree victims in Las Vegas, when they couldn't have cared less about the potential dangers of a repeat of Sandy Hook?

Many calling for reforms to gun regulations would have been satisfied with mental competency and background checks. But not even that was to be tolerated. This is the talismanic power of commodity fetishization which lies at the root of this issue, and as I keep saying, there is no talisman as powerful in the American psyche as that of the gun. To threaten the sanctity of this talisman is to threaten their entire understanding of how their version of the universe -- with America at its center -- is structured and goes against everything they think being an American is supposed to mean.

Verily, I say unto thee, the capitalist system itself will implode -- or the United States will fall as an existing political entity -- before the spell of the gun as the most fetishized commodity in that system is broken. Sandy Hook was the check and mate in the proverbial chess match to once and for all enact gun regulations; it didn't happen then, it won't happen now. You can have a massacre of fifty or more people every week, and it will not help the cause to have stricter regulations on guns. The power of the fetish object in the current system is too strong. In fact, in our violence-soaked culture, arrived at through its ultra-violent soaked history, all it would do is normalize these instances; therefore lessening the impact of the horror such massacres might otherwise have in another society that hasn't been quite as jaded as ours. In all likelihood what such tragedies would result in would simply be cause for more Americans from the pro-gun side of the fence to cite a human gargoyle-like Bill O'Reilly -- an individual who has built a media empire on fear and death, between his former television show and his "Killing" whoever series of books -- who claims massacres such as the one in Las Vegas constitute "the price of freedom."

In observing that the capitalist system would have to fall before anything like meaningful gun legislation is passed I am essentially illuminating a very disheartening fact, that such legislation will never be passed in any of our lifetimes. This is because capitalism will not collapse anytime soon -- not as any kind of prevailing global economic system. Sure, economic collapses will continue to occur, that's par for the course. Crashes like 1929, 2007-08, and all of the others before and between are all part of the globalization process; they're to be expected. It's how capitalism works. Capitalist modes of production and free market economics are the lifeblood of globalization itself, and it is in the tuna net of globalization that we are all enmeshed in, for good or for bad.

Promoters of capitalism point to its endurance as a virtue. I, on the other hand, can't help but feel there is something more sinister behind its endurance, as it simply seems now to exist as some hypermutated behemoth which has broken out of its cage and is eating all of the people in the amusement park. In spite of all its disasters, wars it's caused, economies it's crashed, environments its destroyed, capitalism persists. What is it that keeps it animated? The answer to that question is the mystifying fetish of commodities.

If capitalism is the lifeblood of globalization, it is the commodity fetish that fuels capitalism. And such a fetish has the potential to fuel the capitalist commodity-predicated system far into the future; to a point in time where it leads to a situation where the resources of the planet are completely exhausted and multicellular life has become as rare as an American citizen with a decent credit rating.

So if you're waiting for capitalism to collapse, don't hold your breath. It's not going to anytime soon. Democratic states will devolve into fascist states before capitalism goes under. In fact, if you've been paying attention to incidents like what was seen in Spain over the referendum in Catalonia, the so-called drug war going on in the Philippines, proposed content streaming laws in the U.K., and the slow erosion of liberties in the U.S. that began in the wake of the attacks it had suffered as far back as September 2001, one could convincingly argue that this transition might be in the process of happening now. Studying the process of globalization, since the fourteenth century to the present, shows us that nothing happens during that process in a vacuum. Therefore the ancient meme of fascism is once again starting to go viral worldwide. People are only going to cling onto their commodities more as a result.

The globalization process is bloody, violent, and horrific. It's a process that has essentially gone unabated in global history since the disruptive forces of Genghis Khan wreaked havoc across the Eurasian continent. Since the dissolution of the Golden Horde's power and influence history can be seen as one long unbroken string of forces seeking to globalize. Since the establishment of a United States in the Americas, no land, no country, no geopolitical entity has partaken in globalization, and championed its cause, quite like it. It has since emerged as the self-imposed police force of the process. Therefore death and guns are ingrained in the country's collective psyche.

As political philosopher John Gray notes in the documentary film Marx Reloaded (2011), "Commodity fetishism is the capitalist version of a type of objectification which is humanly universal." This observation shows us how inherent commodities are to the reality of a subject living under capitalism. Ideas of another way in which the world might work are beyond most of those subjects comprehension. In the same film, German media theorist and author of the Consumerist Manifesto, Norbert Bolz, observed that a world without commodities could be imagined, but that it's probably not one that many would want, as a world without commodities would essentially be a world without money. It's hard to disagree with him. In which case, going back to Karl Marx, and comparing what he wrote on commodities in his opening chapter of Das Kapital -- that "the whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor, as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore so soon as we come to other forms of production" -- to the reality on the ground, that it is the commodities themselves which will keep capitalism and its modes of production chugging along, we should understand that the mass production and the mass distribution of guns and the cult-like fetishization of such machines are a product of the capitalist mode and a component of the shadow that is capitalism itself. Under this system, legislating or regulating guns would be considered a perceivable violation of the reality many Americans hold to; on multiple levels. And until efforts to mitigate or amend the capitalist mode of production are achieved, there will be no new laws regulating guns of any practical value that will be passed.
We're essentially living through a second American Civil War. Right now the war consists only of "meme" warfare and social media spats. Physical targets and tactics in this new war are symbolic in nature: bringing down flags, toppling statues, taking knees or standing during anthems. We can see how hot people can get when it comes to symbols, and a cold civil war can blow over to a hot civil war rather easily.Though a rational-minded individual can see guns for what they are, machines, many now view guns as their central holy icon in their death cult. I understand the need for all of the vociferous demands that Congress do something. Those who are calling for such measures are not wrong to do so. And I hope I'm wrong about what it would take for meaningful gun legislation to be passed. But meaningful legislation is simply not going to happen, not as the result of mass death and carnage. Not when one understands the power of the commodity fetish and how, in the United States, that fetish pathologically manifests itself around guns most of all. It would have to take some kind of a sea change more mystical than that of the hold the commodity fetish has on the psyches of a very large and politically mobilized portion of the American populace. What such a thing might be, unfortunately, remains unknown.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: An unfinished version of this piece was published on under a different title. I requested that the piece not be published as the draft I had submitted for approval was not complete. The error was my own fault and not the webmaster at "PNP." This, however, is the version of the piece as I would have intended it to appear.