Tuesday, May 09, 2023

One Amendment to Rule them All: Symptomatically Reading the Bill of Rights


Photos from the Ameriguns by Gabriele Galimberti

If one wanted to find a text to confirm Louis Althusser's thesis that the writings of the young Marx were not yet Marx, and thus best left to the dustbin, one could perhaps find not better contender than "On the Jewish Question." Much of the essay is a response to Bauer, and part of a long forgotten debate. When Marx breaks free of this debate in the final paragraphs it is to engage in horrible stereotypes of Jewish materialism and greed that many have considered to be not only anti-semitic, but symptoms of self loathing. I am not entering into these debates here, but will say that I have regretted every time I taught the text. If there is one argument for considering to read the essay, as well as to teach it, however, it has to do with the reading and analysis that Marx puts forward of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

One could even argue, using Althusser's own concepts and terminology, that Marx offers a symptomatic reading of the Declaration. He reads the various rights bestowed by the articles of Declaration to demonstrate that property is not only the central right, the one that all of the rights such as security are marshaled to defend, but as central right it effectively undoes all of the rest, placing the private man of civil society above the citizen, and subordinating political society to civil society. As Marx writes, 

"None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.

It is puzzling enough that a people which is just beginning to liberate itself, to tear down all the barriers between its various sections, and to establish a political community, that such a people solemnly proclaims (Declaration of 1791) the rights of egoistic man separated from his fellow men and from the community, and that indeed it repeats this proclamation at a moment when only the most heroic devotion can save the nation, and is therefore imperatively called for, at a moment when the sacrifice of all the interest of civil society must be the order of the day, and egoism must be punished as a crime. (Declaration of the Rights of Man, etc., of 1793) This fact becomes still more puzzling when we see that the political emancipators go so far as to reduce citizenship, and the political community, to a mere means for maintaining these so-called rights of man, that, therefore, the citoyen is declared to be the servant of egotistic homme, that the sphere in which man acts as a communal being is degraded to a level below the sphere in which he acts as a partial being, and that, finally, it is not man as citoyen, but man as private individual [bourgeois] who is considered to be the essential and true man."

This can be considered an inversion of the symptomatic reading Marx performs of political economy in Capital. In that text Marx examined a question that political economy could not pose, as to why value appeared in the form of commodities. That unasked question leads to the fundamental mystification of the difference between labor and labor power, of the fact that labor power is unlike all of the commodities in that it is a potential, a capability, and not an actuality, its use is thus inseparable from domination. In Marx's reading of the Declaration, however, it is not a matter of a question not asked but of a conclusion not seen. Property is fundamentally different from other rights in that it is subject to a zero sum game. What I possess you cannot. This makes it fundamentally different from the equaliberty that underlies all other rights, the way in which the recognition of my right hinges on my recognition of your and vice versa. Even the right of privacy, to be outside of political and social considerations, only functions if it is recognized by others as a paradoxical political limit of politics. Property is different from the other rights not just in its form, but in its content. Property belongs not to the political, the state, but to the economy. It is the economic limitation of politics. 

All of this is a very long preamble to the issue at hand, which is guns. Last weekend Megyn Kelly of Fox News tweeted a rant that argued that the issue of gun control had lost. In its place she suggested measures such as protecting "soft-targets" and ultimately locking people up. As people commented on twitter an elsewhere this would effectively be a matter of trashing the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment in order to save the Second. In effect Kelly proposed her own symptomatic reading not of the text of the Bill of Rights, but its current interpretation in American society. In the second, the right to bear arms, is seen as the foundation of all others, guns protect us against tyrants ostensibly securing our freedoms. However, in some sense despite herself, Kelly suggested that a society that is dedicated to protecting the right to guns above everything and anything, include the protection of children, ultimately ends up undermining all of those other rights in order to protect the right to arms. Given a choice between getting rid of guns and locking people up it is better to lock people up. 

One could add the First Amendment to the list of collateral damage of the second. I am reminded that when Texas passed a law allowing people to carry concealed guns on campus several campuses responded by recommending that professors "avoid sensitive topics" in the classroom. Contrary to the claim that an armed society is a civil society, guns have a corrosive effect on civilization itself. Even knocking on a stranger's door, or turning around in a driveway, can become a death sentence. 

As with property in Marx's reading, the right to have a gun tends towards a particular zero sum game. It is a right that is all the more effective if one has exclusive claim to it. As much as we hear about "good guys and bad guys with guns," the model of gun violence seems to be an armed person against an unarmed person. This is the scenario that is referred to in all of the bumper stickers that mention reaching for a gun rather than calling police, and it is also the scenario that played out with George Zimmerman, Kyle Rittenhouse, etc. One could track here an inverted trajectory to the one Marx traced, from content to form. The Second Amendment is not just the dominant right, the one that calls others into question in practice, it is also how the other amendments are interpreted. The so-called defenders of free speech against "cancel culture" are really defending the exclusive right to free speech against anyone who would question or criticize their position. The pundit class misses the day when they had almost exclusive control of the means of intellectual production and dissemination and they could say whatever they wanted without having to dodge the potshots made possible by social media.

One could situate these two symptomatic readings historically, arguing that a society founded on private property ultimately disintegrates into guns, but it makes more sense to argue that these two things intersect and reinforce each other, the obsession with guns is itself the logical culmination of the atomization and destruction of political society that Marx warned us about. 

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