Midnight Notes on capital punishment and its liberal supporters.
Political power then I take to be a right of making laws with penalty of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property.
- John Locke
Here is life and death set before you: take whether you will.
- Gerrard Winstanley
Almost every month now one of our fellow creatures in this country is coldly, matter-of-factly murdered at the hands of the state. Everything indicates that in the months to come we will witness more executions as the Supreme Court has formulated new guidelines to remove possible delays and thus speed up the disposal of hundreds presently waiting on death row.
With this we are preparing to witness a steady slaughter of people the state has declared unfit to live – a slaughter made more horrifying by the callous, hygenic way in which it is conducted: A cold factual announcement on the news – the first jolt of electricity was administered at 8:30, at 8:44 he was pronounced dead: a routine assurance that the prisoner appeared calm – everything to impress on us the uneventful character of these deaths and by this the roach-like quality of our existence in the eyes of our rulers.
Equally ominous is the lack of any outcry against this barbarity and the apparent eagerness of many respectable citizens to see thousands of their countrymen wiped out from the face of the earth.
Where are those touchy-feelings that seemed to endlessly ooze out of the youth in this country? Where are the hundreds who fought to save the whales – are we perhaps too many to justify outrage against this butchery? And where, finally are the “friends of the earth” who shed tears thinking of all the trees destroyed to print Sunday New York Times? Aren’t we humans worthy of their compassion, if not their political consideration? With the exception of a few religious groups and the campaign by Amnesty International, actually no mobilization is presently under way among “progressive forces” against this crime. We occasionally here concerns voiced about the arbitrary nature of its implementation, but no significant opposition to the very existence of the death penalty exists. Why is this the case?
But, first of all, why has capital punishment been reinstituted in the U.S.?
In the fall of 1982, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution was voted on in referenda throughout the U.S. It did well, and in Massachusetts it did extremely well almost 75% of the voting electorate supported the Freeze. This was no surprise, as Mass. Is considered the “most liberal state in the Union,” the home of Kennedy, Tsongas, Markey and Dukakis who were all firmly identified with the Freeze. Not so noticed or mentioned, however, was the result of another state-wide referendum held the same day on the reintroduction of the death penalty: 60% of the same “liberal” electorate voted in favour of it. Thus about 35% of the voting electorate was for both the Freeze and Capital Punishment.
Who are these pro-execution Freeze supporters, what do they think and why?
They do not appear to be “better dead than red” racists; on the contrary, they see themselves as at least “moderate”, often “liberal” and “progressive”, but above all “prudent” and “reasonable”. Their basic assumption is that the state is reasonable too.
True, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union have created arsenals capable of destroying the planet many times over, and this is mad, but it is possible to make our leaders listen and eventually make some kind of a deal. Their real fear, is not of Reagan pushing the red button of Nuclear Apocalypse, but of the black kid who lives in a neighbouring housing project and the white drifter they meet on the highway. It is these people, armed with at most a pistol, or a knife, and not warheads packed with thermonuclear death, that our prudent voters see as the ultimate danger, as animals without reason.
Reagan, after all, might be “not too bright” or perhaps “senile” or “too ideological”, but he does represent the state which is, after all, reasonable, and which protects us. So the prudent voter is willing to have the reasonable state execute the irrational animal because they consider these murderers and rapists and thieves to be beyond any bond of humanity, outside the circle of their understanding, much less identification. These liberal voters conceive it possible to sit with a Chernenko or a Reagan and convince them of their "errors" (which have already led to millions of deaths). But for an Evans or a Spenkelink, only a poisoned syringe or a burned brain will do.
These same voters maintain that the restoration of the death penalty has come about because "the people" want it. This is their first illusion, that the state bends to the popular will coming from below. The reality however is quite different as can be seen from the fact that many other issues presently claim popular support, from support for enforcement of anti-pollution regulations to an end to the arms race, yet no compliance by "our government" is on the agenda. This first illusion persists because behind all the arguments for capital punishment, it is the prejudice for state power that shapes the thinking of these "prudent and reasonable" voters.
Yet this prejudice is the deepest illusion. The state needs the illusion to pose order and discipline for capital. Appointing the state as the arbiter of life and death legitimizes the state's assumption of the right to destroy individuals wherever they do not fit a certain criterion of socio-economic utility--a principal that, once established, is carried out in every area of social life.
Supporting the Freeze but calling for Capital Punishment is not merely contradictory; rather it is a clarifying moment in a suicidal course. The threat to launch a nuclear war is but the last step in a chain of social policies that are directly or indirectly condemning us to die. To grant the state the power to destroy individuals who are considered wasteful for the system is to arms and give a God-like (beyond appeal) power to the very agency that is threatening us all with death. Most of us won’t die by the electric chair or by the poison poured into our water and air by state-license factories and chemical dumps. Most of us are killed slowly, the minutes of our lives daily butchered by the way we live. And the state, in all its reasonableness, stands behind the daily slaughter, ready to intervene to kill to ensure the perpetuation of this daily death. DEATH – OUR DEATH AS A LEGITIMATE MEANS TO ACHIVE COST-EFFECTIVENESS AND PROFITABILITY AND ORDER IS DAILY ENFORCED ON US IN A THOUSAND DIFFERENT WAYS.
A clear continuity exists between the present reinstitution of the death penalty and the murderous policies the Reagan regime is carrying on against citizens of this country: cutting any means of support for thousands who have nothing to live on while denying that hunger even exists, never mind growing infant mortality; condoning the most outrageous forms of pollution, nuclear contamination ,death by toxic waste, death by malnutrition.
Simultaneously, the reasonable voter has almost a determination not to hear about the appalling condition in which many people grow and live in the U.S. to say nothing of other locations of centuries-long beneficence of the U.S. state.
As there is no social responsibility for the existence of crime, there is not social responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of the citizens. If people are poor, it is because they are lazy or inferior. Life is, to echo Reagan’s previous incarnation, unfair. If people commit crimes, it is because they are bad – presumably they kill for not reason – and so they do not deserve to live. In any case, “we” cannot afford to keep these worthless animals alive. We are poor and resources are, as the economist remind us, scarce. Anyway, of all resources, humans are cheap and plentiful, particularly poor and uneducated and unemployed ones (perhaps there too many of them period, particularly in the “Third World”, so…). Our prudent voter concludes that humans – even oneself – are resources to be invested profitably, and where they cannot be so used, they are superfluous.
We see here a massification of a triage mentality: who is who is fit to live? – the state will decide. The death penalty continues the “social debate” on life and death: the “right to die” the “right to starve or not”, “the right to let defective children die or not”, “the right to abortion”. The state hampers the right to abortion, sterilizes the poor, particularly people of colour, and invests in artificial birth research. The state forces parents to raise retarded children with no social support and thus costs parents their very lives whether the parents want this or not. The state kills you in the electric chair while suicide remains illegal even for the condemned. These seeming contradictions are not real contradictions. For behind them the state is attempting to assert absolute control over life and death, over the body, to establish most fundamentally, that we are state property.
The death penalty, then, is itself a green light to both the “economic” policies which create mass pauperisation in the U.S. and the rest of the world, and in the construction of ever more nuclear implements of mass death. Calling on the state to execute murderers assumes the neutrality of the state in a war of all against all, and assumes that the state has no responsibility for the existence and intensification of crime. The state is thus absolved of policies which lead increasing numbers to fall through the "safety net" into social violence.
The death penalty does not eliminate crime, it only eliminates the criminal while leaving the cause of crime intact. Indeed, eliminating crime is the last concern. Street crime is extremely advantageous to the state as it keeps the working class at war within itself, and makes us run to the government as the saviour, imploring it to control us more, to be more repressive against us. Every study indicates that the death penalty does not, deter, and why should it when society has declared war to the death against the poor, or when every year out of 20,000 murders “only” 200 are selected to die (or should the state execute the 20,000?)
The state can eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor, eliminate unemployment by eliminating the unemployed --but of course not too many, lest the remainder push up the wage bill.
The death penalty reconciles us to a cycle of brutality and revenge that the state is more than happy to manage for its own purposes. One of the oldest defences of the state has been that by taking its anonymous hands the "necessary job of punishment" it overcomes the infinite cycle of vendetta. But the death penalty does not put an end to violence, the state does not bring social peace. Rather, the state attempts to deflect violence, defuse it, and use it to divide, making us accept known killers like Berger and Reagan as mediators between ourselves and our neighbours, it picks and chooses who is to die and when according to its needs, intensifying social divisions when it can, cooling things when afraid of reprisals. This is shown by the statistics: the peak of executions in this century was during the Great Depression (1,667 between 1930-39, among them 819 blacks) while there were next to none from the middle 1960s to the middle 1970s during the height of the Black Movement's power. Similarly, a decisive argument against capital punishment during the recent Parliamentary debate in England was the fear of retaliation by the IRA.
The death penalty is a crucial pillar of a society where "thanatocracy" -- rule by death -- is increasingly the form of the state. This has immediate international implications, as well as implications for nuclear war. The policies of the U.S. are crucial in setting a model, a guideline internationally. It counters the NATO trend in which most NATO countries have abolished the death penalty. It legitimizes the butchery that is taking place worldwide by giving the message that if it is the state that kills openly (rather than in hiding through death squads) it is no violation of human rights. And accepting the reasonableness of state murder allows --indeed encourages-- events such as the Grenada invasion (the state as protector of “innocent American (sic) lives"); the Lebanese invasion (the neutral hand of reason trying to bring stability and order –soon to come to the Persian Gulf>); and the Beirut massacre, about which the U.S. state could act as though it bore no responsibility.
As to nuclear war, if the right to execute individuals is granted, why can’t this right be multiplied in number and concentrated in time, which after all, is the essence of nuclear war? The continued operation of death machines and death rows habituates us to an experience essential to nuclear war: murder without murderers.
In the same way as the technicians in the missile silos won't even know what what people, what city, what country they'll blow up, so in the case of every execution everything is done to make it appear as an anonymous death for which nobody has responsibility. And not a human being an abstraction --"a criminal"-- the "enemy”— hygenically disposed of. The condemned hooded to erase any trace of humanity, and in the execution by chemicals (prelude to chemical warfare) three tubes are inserted into the condemned's arm; two carry only water, the third the poison, and the three executioners assigned to inject the fluid do not know who has the lethal one. An execution is a little Hiroshima and Nagasaki teaching us that murder is legitimate as long as it is performed by the state.
A thanatocratic society is ripe for nuclear war as the average citizen becomes used to accepting the state as the final arbiter of life and death and cannot see the possibility that social violence can be ended. That there could be a life without brutality just as there could be a life without hunger is Implicitly rejected by those who today clamor for the return of the death penalty as a utopian dream. Ironically, this is the very attitude that is needed for the state to prepare people for acceptance of wa r--people who can watch whole cities and populations (including their own) destroyed, people who will defend and seek to expand the very power that is killing them.
The death penalty, capital's punishment, rests at the base of a new social contract which capital has been struggling to impose since the early 1970's. The working class in its manifold actions tore up the old social democratic/welfare state' contract, but has lost the ensuing war over work and wages. Now the class scrambles, each sector, element, person protecting itself. In this scramble, many seek the "moderating" hand of the state to curtail the actions of those dumped on the bottom beneath the safety net who, knife and gun in hand, try to crawl back through the holes to take a piece for themselves; or of those driven mad by the grinding of the system who slash out at others physically weak enough (women, children) to become their victims.
From left to right, from defenceless Social Security recipient to corporate boss, "everyone" calls on the state to ensure "justice" and "order". Under capitalism and the state, order is work and justice is acceptance of one 's role within work and punishment of those who do not accept. We see then the continuums of the death penalty. On the one side, the state's killing of one leads to acceptance of the state's killing of many and to the right of the state to kill all of us to protect us. On the other side, the state imposes the death penalty as a negative wage, beyond the negative wage of years in prison; the bottom of the wage ladder is not wagelessness, it is execution. The accumulation of capital, of living and dead labor, means one belongs, body and soul, to capital, if not to an individual capital, (what else is wage slavery) and thus to capital's state. To support capital punishment is to ask for our own slavery and death.
If we have developed an accurate analysis, then political action flows from it. We must make the campaign against the death penalty a critical component of struggle. We can summarize by noting two reasons why:
--the death penalty is central to capital's devaluation of labor power as it sets a negative minimum wage, death, to keep us in line;
--the death penalty enables the state to more forcefully "mediate" the divisions in the class, and thus use them for capital's own ends.
To attack capital's devaluation of our lives and to attack the state's control over our lives, we must attack the death penalty.
How? We suggest, for one, that anti-war groups focus some of their energy and attention on prisons and courts to oppose the death penalty with the same means they have opposed nuclear weapons. Not only would the ensuing publicity and controversy be valuable for countering capital's punishment plans, but also such actions would be effective against the more massive executions capital plans for us in conventional and nuclear war. Moving against the death penalty may well prove a more effective attack on nuclear arms than Freeze marches or civil disobedience at military bases. To stop the death penalty gets to the heart of capital’s war-making capabilities.
The international rage at the execution of Caryl Chessman in 1959 stands as one way in which we can mark the start of the struggles of the 1960's. In 1959, university students in California demonstrated against the death penalty; in 1984, students in Florida and Texas have held demonstrations for the death penalty. We need, it seems, to start again. But we ought not to do so simply out of moral horror on behalf of them,- rather, our point must be to attack capital and its state by refusing what they do to us.