Coping with Capitalism

Why a Truly Anti-War Movement Begins (and Ends) at Home

The most famous part of Frantz Fanon’s classic 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth is its powerful first chapter, “Concerning Violence,” a hard-hitting call to arms against the injustice and exploitation of European colonialism. What often goes unnoticed from the book is the series of anecdotes presented in its final pages: case studies of patients that came to Fanon seeking psychiatric help during Algeria’s bloody struggle for independence. Particularly notable is the story of a 30-year-old French police inspector, married with three children, who spent his days torturing Algerian prisoners and his nights plagued by terrible dreams and violent impulses towards his family. He first sought therapy after sadistically tying his wife to a chair and beating her. The offense? She had protested his physical abuse of their 20-month-old infant. 

The solution to the torturer’s problem is immediately obvious: stop torturing. Indeed, one does not have to be a Sigmund Freud to connect the dots linking his abuse of loved ones back to his grisly occupation. The French torturer, however, did not resign from his day job. Instead, he continued working full-time while in Fanon’s care and had no apparent intention of quitting. This was not, as one might surmise, a result of denial. Indeed, the police inspector was not blind to the fact that his job was the source of his violent tendencies. As Fanon reported, “This man knew perfectly well that his disorders were directly caused by the kind of activity that went on inside the rooms where interrogations were carried out.” Nevertheless, the patient asked Fanon “to help him to go on torturing Algerian patriots without any prickling of conscience, without any behavior problems and with complete equanimity.”1 In other words, the French torturer only wanted help finding an effective coping strategy for dealing with the side-effects of his hideous vocation.

The case of Fanon’s mentally disturbed torturer has many parallels in modern society. Today there seems to be a great tendency for people suffering from the side-effects of certain activities to treat the negative symptoms without bothering to evaluate their cause. This includes the use of prescribed medication both to lose weight and to calm down those children who do not get the attention they need. In this way, we are allowed to mindlessly continue on with the same damaging practices and life-styles that caused our initial complaints to begin with.

A similar observation has often been made by Slavoj Žižek who sees a striking paradox in the capitalist marketplace. In The Puppet and the Dwarf, for instance, he writes, “On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol.”2 There is a direct parallel here between Fanon’s torturer and current market trends; both represent attempts at treating the symptom without dealing with its causes. What seems to be lost on those who partake in such easy (but ultimately empty) solutions is that by removing the harmful contents from harmful products we tend to forget that those harmful products are perhaps best not consumed in the first place.

This detachment of the symptom from its cause can also result in a failure to recognize that the two were ever connected. As Žižek has pointed out, “The ultimate example [of this trend] is arguably a chocolate laxative, available in the USA, with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! (that is, of the very thing that causes constipation).”3 Indeed, did not this exact situation arise when, after the tragic September 11 attacks, President Bush sidestepped the issue of the economic grievances that had led to that atrocity and instead provided the American public with his own chocolate laxative, an instruction to consume: “Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”4

Of course, the Bush administration had no stranglehold on such ill-conceived remedies, and indeed, in the context of US politics, the championing of chocolate laxative solutions is a bipartisan affair. Thus, the catastrophic 2008 financial meltdown was dealt with by inundating the money mismanagers who caused it with even more money, redistributing public wealth into private hands on a massive scale. Likewise, the Obama administration’s strategy for taming the abusive practices of for-profit health insurance companies has been to secure even more customers for that industry, making the purchase of private insurance mandatory for all citizens. In both of these cases, the cause of our problems is presented as the solution.

This same idea might also apply to all of those frightening tales of US veterans who turn their war-time instincts upon their loved ones after returning home. Most recently, a soldier in Washington State was accused of submitting his four-year-old daughter to water torture for failing to recite her ABCs.5 Such cases are typically treated as monstrous and inexplicable aberrations — the doings of a few “bad apples” — rather than as byproducts of the standard operating procedure. So ingrained is this theme in the popular imagination that it has formed the plotline of several examples of Hollywood cinema. Notable here is Brothers (2009), a film in which the character of Captain Sam Cahill, played by Tobey Maguire, returns from Afghanistan a changed man. Before entering the war, he had represented the all-American ideal: his father’s favorite son, the head of a happy family, the husband of a beautiful wife, and the father of two lovely girls. In short, he was an upstanding citizen, living a life of luxury in a large, comfortable home in small town USA. After being captured, tortured, and forced to murder his friend by a smarmy group of vile Afghan terrorists, he returns to his consumerist paradise unstable and unfriendly, paranoid and ready at any moment to crack. The war apparently served as the great corrupter.

Not surprisingly, Brothers ends on a positive note with Cahill receiving what appears to be beneficial psychiatric treatment. Conspicuously absent from the film is any connection between the various wars out there with the social structures back home. To the contrary, therapy serves as a method of bringing Cahill back into the fold of normality without acknowledging that this normality caused the war in the first place. Thus, the film does not recognize that its two diametrically opposed spheres — the Cahill family’s life of luxury and the death and destruction in Afghanistan — are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. As with Žižek’s chocolate laxative, Brothers suggests that the remedy to the symptom is indulging even more in its cause.

This is, of course, not to say that therapy does not work. To the contrary, therapeutic practices like meditation, religious experience, and spirituality can, in fact, serve as effective coping methods. But this is precisely what makes them so dangerous. By soothing our symptomatic aches, these treatments act as a kind of anesthetic, dulling the pain and diverting our attention away from the systemic causes of our unpleasant maladies. As Dana Cloud put it in her study Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics, “the therapeutic […] dislocates political conflicts onto individuals or families, privatizes both the experience of oppression and possible modes of resistance to it, and translates political questions into psychological issues to be resolved through personal, psychological change.”6 Thus, while therapy may indeed deliver instant gratification, such remedies remain incredibly short-sighted as long as they address problems only at the level of the individual and do not point towards the larger, structural causes behind the bothersome symptoms.

What happens, then, if we take these observations yet a step further and apply them to the realm of politics? Does the same lesson not also pertain to typical attitudes towards the global “war on terror”? If our wars abroad are, by themselves, the cause of our various societal ills, then we just simply need to get out. While the general call for withdrawal is one that all who are concerned for human life should wholeheartedly endorse, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Blaming the war entirely for today’s various problems is far too easy, and such a diagnosis acts to obscure the raw truth that merely withdrawing from Afghanistan or Iraq without also addressing those wars’ structural causes will do nothing to prevent the next conflict. Indeed, to treat the wars simply as a misguided policy decision or as a monstrous aberration serves only to hide the sinister reality that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, created by the political and economic structures of our very own society. Ignoring this while simultaneously indulging in the happy consumerist fantasy would be tantamount to treating constipation with Žižek’s chocolate laxative. The path to war begins at home, and we must recognize that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are also symptoms — symptoms of the capitalist empire.

Thus, in the same way that Fanon’s torturer wanted to carry on with his business of torturing, just without the bothersome nightmares, does not the liberal anti-war movement today seek to carry on with the business of capitalism, just without its malignant symptoms? Indeed, the economic disparities and grievances that lie behind many of the globe’s acts of violence — both by states and by terrorists — are never really addressed. To do so would, in fact, require a fundamental rethinking of the capitalist fabric of the US state, something nobody within the system is willing to do. To truly address these issues would require that we treat the cause of the symptoms rather than just the symptoms. Or, to put it another way, if we want to end the wars that are caused by capitalism, we must work to overturn the capitalist system itself. Just like those people who think they can lose weight merely by gorging on “healthy” junk food and just like Fanon’s torturer who wanted to cure his nightmares through therapy, those who today believe they can continue to enjoy their capitalist cake and eat it too — just without the unpleasantries of terrorism, torture, and war — are only kidding themselves.

  1. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Constance Farrington (London, Penguin, 2001 [1961]), pp. 216-17. []
  2. Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), p. 96. []
  3. Ibid., p. 97. []
  4. “A Nation Challenged: Excerpts from Bush Speech on Travel,” New York Times, September 28, 2001. []
  5. “Soldier Charged with Water Torturing Daughter, 4,” The Associated Press, February 16, 2010. []
  6. Dana L. Cloud, Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetoric of Therapy (Thousand Oaks, California, Sage, 1998), p. xviii-xix. []

Greg Burris is based in Santa Barbara, California. His other writings have appeared in CineAction, CounterPunch, Electronic Intifada, and Jadaliyya. Read other articles by Greg.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on April 14th, 2010 at 9:41am #

    Everything is caused and the visibles of causal effects act as causes. However, to ?all pols, media people, ‘educators’, lawyers, priests, cia-fbia-arm echelons, judges, et al nothing is caused.
    According to them, shit happens. Poverty, wars, or stupidity just happen. There is neither actors or factors for it!
    And the annointed, nevertheless, fighting all this on our behalf or to keep us safe and sound!
    It begs the question, tho, why bother controlling what cannot be controled or already controled by god!

    Priests are trying to make us believe that first cause is god! The remedy: pray to god.
    I say the first cause for our maladies is actually the belief in god and not god. Or to be accurate-adequate, all ills that befall us are caused by priestly misteachings and later the ‘laws’ written by priestly-patrician class of life; which i often call the greatest criminal minds!
    Only this elucidates our troubles! tnx

  2. bobo said on April 14th, 2010 at 10:44am #

    Excellent article! I would like to read more from you.

  3. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2010 at 11:44am #

    Gregory that was a good post and on kidding themselves the few who practice this insanity or make the law’s only kid when it suit’s them. Today in DC the Tea Party started by the few for the few and to pull it off it is kind of a like the circus. All the clowns are there a high wire act in the form of people like Ted Nugent and side show’s talking head’s Hannity, Palin, Beck it is sad to watch as we all go down the drain in not such slow motion. The few there thinking of course is screwed up and so far the best I can figure is it’s just better this way we all go down together while watching the greatest show on Earth and the greatest show on Earth is yet to come and like so many things we see put off until tomorrow I think they call it short term thinking it’s the best we can do.

  4. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2010 at 11:56am #

    It is the system that has been out of control for a number of years now and man they don’t want people to find out about that little fact and here in the States it makes for strangeness and lot’s of screwed up human’s. There are a few who see this and will keep trying until the real greatest show on Earth starts and how will that play out good question.

  5. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2010 at 12:06pm #

    Blaming the war entirely for today’s various problems is far too easy, and such a diagnosis acts to obscure the raw truth that merely withdrawing from Afghanistan or Iraq without also addressing those wars’ structural causes will do nothing to prevent the next conflict. Indeed, to treat the wars simply as a misguided policy decision or as a monstrous aberration serves only to hide the sinister reality that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, created by the political and economic structures of our very own society. Ignoring this while simultaneously indulging in the happy consumerist fantasy would be tantamount to treating constipation with Žižek’s chocolate laxative. The path to war begins at home, and we must recognize that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are also symptoms — symptoms of the capitalist empire. Burris

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/30835791@N07/3536886336/

    A picture is worth 6 billion plus words. The truth the knowledge there worst enemy still time if we start now.

  6. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2010 at 12:27pm #

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/30835791@N07/3433436712/

    The strangeness goes on in clowntown USA and the real show hasn’t started yet but it will.

  7. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2010 at 1:02pm #

    When you watch TV they all all do it screwed up thinking the system Capitalism demands it yes it does and headquarters kind of is Fox New’s. Old Glenn Beck is a clever screwed up human as when you watch his show he tell’s people we are losing American trouble in river city. Of course he blames Obama the progressives for all our troubles. I can only imagine with what I know is coming and the unprogressives in power. I guess he just keep’s his bases covered with those book’s and the tea party that is no answer of course but I guess help’s him and a few more get up in the morning. For all of us to make a real try at this the person giving a speech needs to tell the truth and we walk away thinking oh shit I had no idea man this isn’t going to be easy maybe I should stock up on can good’s.

  8. Rehmat said on April 14th, 2010 at 5:41pm #

    It is estimated that there are 450 billionaires and 3,000,000 millionaires in United States (more than 60% are Jewish) as per 2008. The net worth of all households in US (population aound 300 million) as per June 30, 2008 – was US$56 trillion. The 450 billionaires are worth US$1 trillion, while 3,000,000 millionairs are worth US$11 trillion – which comes to one percent of US population owning more than 21 per cent of countries resorces.

    Most of these billionaires and millionaires have accumated their wealth by managing fellow Americans’ money or looting the resources of under-develope nations – mostly Muslims.

    On Global level – Americans are less than 6 percent of world population – but consumes more than 40 percent of world’s resources and produce more than 50 percent of world’s garbage.

    In the US, the real estate rose 50 per cent between 2002-2007, while the mortgage dept rose 75 percent during the same period. Consumers’ debt rose by 30 percent, while durable goods assests have only risen 24 percent – and financial assests rose to staggering 55 percent. The vast majority of this financial assest growth benefitted the billioniares and the millionaires.

    http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/capitalism-at-the-best/

  9. AaronG said on April 14th, 2010 at 6:49pm #

    We can’t remove war – it’s the “demand” part of the “supply and demand” religion. By the way, I wish everyone would stop complaining and start consuming……………….I’m gonna buy a skinny latte with 3 custard tarts, followed by a low-carb, light beer!