The massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, one month ago today, left seventeen children and school staff dead. It was the third highest-casualty mass shooting at an educational institution in American history (after Virginia Tech—32 dead—and Sandy Hook—27) and the ninth highest-casualty single-shooter mass shooting in modern American history. Assembling such ranked lists, surveying body count subtotals, and tracking the fatalities balance sheet is nauseating, and it was perhaps in the spirit of that enterprise that South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds told NPR the day afterward: “You have to recognize, our most valuable assets are our kids.”
As a Republican with an “A” rating from the NRA, it would be entirely defensible to say Rounds’s words are belied by his deeds: He may say children are our greatest “assets,” but he certainly seems to value an NRA endorsement far more. But what’s striking about Rounds’ phrase isn’t its hypocrisy, but the way it captures a central truth about contemporary American politics. Our political rhetoric, like our moral imagination, uses the vocabulary and logic of the market, of assets and investments, of incentives and innovation. Your personal health is an asset, which you must safeguard through savvy navigation of insurance markets, shopping for doctors and medications, and close-reading complicated medical bills. Immigrants, too, are assets, human resources whose financial contributions to their communities and potential for entrepreneurship become the pivot on which we hang appeals for empathy and support (This man being tragically deported by ICE is a successful small business owner! This drowned child refugee could have been the next Steve Jobs!). And so on.
There is a word to describe this state of affairs, a word that describes both the way we’ve organized our current political and economic system, and the way we have let that system shape our social and emotional lives. That word is neoliberalism.
What is neoliberalism? The many competing definitions can be confusing and even misleading. And, since the history of neoliberalism has played out in many different countries, what the word denotes in one place is not necessarily the same in others. But we shouldn’t let nuance and complexity dissuade us from using the term, because neoliberalism is an incredibly powerful concept for understanding not just contemporary American life and politics in general, but our reactions to gun violence and school shootings specifically.
Neoliberalism is at once a subspecies of capitalism and a model of governance, a vision of what politics can and should be. It sees political and social life almost exclusively through the lens of the free market, and asks us to consider ourselves and our fellow citizens primarily in terms of our economic activities: as consumers, as workers, as competitors, as human resources. Under neoliberalism, in other words, the individual is less a human subject with rights that entail obligations from the government, but rather a variable in a broader calculus of efficiency, a site for maximizing revenue and minimizing expenditure. Simply put, neoliberalism is about the withdrawal of government responsibility for political problems in favor of market-based “solutions” and individual “choices.”
In a very granular and insidious way, neoliberalism narrows the bounds of what counts as a “political” problem as such. Dramatic political change becomes increasingly unthinkable, dismissed as unrealistic, impracticable, and naïve. Transmuting hopes for radical transformation into market-based “innovation” as a primary driver of social change, neoliberal governance recedes into technocratic administration, busying itself with ever-more-arcane and bloodless policy tweaks intended merely to keep capital flowing smoothly and efficiently. Meanwhile, as state responsibility for political problems evaporates, individuals are left to pick up the slack, obligated to perform vast amounts of compensatory emotional and material labor even as they grow ever more vulnerable, atomized, and overwhelmed. Not coincidentally, neoliberalism has become our dominant system against the backdrop of decades of corporate deregulation, privatization, and the dismantling of social services, developments that it celebrates and champions.
The emotional and political landscape of American gun violence and school shootings specifically reads like an atlas of neoliberalism. To be sure, our singular problem with gun murder—of which mass shootings are only a fractional percentile, one with no real analogue anywhere in any other nation in the world, neoliberal or otherwise—has deep roots in America’s unique history of ethnic cleansing, racial oppression, globalized militarism, entrenched inequality, and violent ideologies of masculinity; these forces shape how gun violence plays out in and determines which Americans must bear its traumas most. But how our society has chosen to frame and respond to the problem of mass shootings, and school shootings specifically, over the course of the past two decades illustrates neoliberalism’s corrosiveness.
Consider, first, the scope of mainstream reactions to mass shootings. The problem of random massacres in public spaces is a properly political problem. It strikes at the core of our basic ability to live together and interact safely with each other in the public sphere. And yet the primary themes in responses of our politicians from across the political spectrum have been disavowal, indifference, resignation, and opportunism. Conservatives who are otherwise unabashed about endorsing heavy-handed and repressive responses to the evils of terrorism respond to gun massacres by waxing theological and proclaiming that evil cannot be “legislated.” Liberals, meanwhile, have long operated from a position defined by a self-fulfilling preemptive concession to “reality” whereby entertaining the idea of an outright gun ban is taboo, foreclosed from the get-go.
Whatever one may think of a total gun ban as either a moral or a practical matter, the fact that it is a position currently espoused in public by precisely zero national-level politicians is significant. The outcome of any political debate partially reflects a middle ground defined by the most extreme positions espoused by mainstream political actors. American politics accommodates plenty of extreme positions, and the Republican party has been particularly successful in normalizing and leveraging the obstinacy of its most extreme politicians and constituents to consistently move policy and discourse rightwards. Yet while voices calling for an elimination of the minimum wage or abortion bans are commonplace among conservatives, the signal absence of prominent Democrats stridently demanding a blanket gun ban—even as an ideal principle, deployed for purposes of bargaining—markedly predetermines the entire national conversation on guns.
The idea that the Democratic party is militantly dead-set on nationwide gun confiscation or the repeal of the Second Amendment is simultaneously laughable and a potent staple of paranoiac right-wing fantasies. The reality is that many Democrats leap to pacify this fear as a token of their reasonableness. For decades now the horizon of political imaginability for gun control has thus been constricted from the outset, and the party has long condemned itself to measures that are so much triage and tinkering, to fundraising off the NRA rather than targeting the problem of money in politics or arms industry influence more broadly, and to publicity stunts and cynical legislative bids that are more about expanding the security state than about sustainably lowering gun deaths. Even an assault weapons ban, despite its undeniable potential as a wedge issue, has long been seen by most Democrats as a nonstarter. In the immediate wake of Parkland, the DCCC’s first instruction to Democrats was to avoid “politicizing” the massacre, steer clear of gun ban talk, and mirror the Republican language of “Thoughts and Prayers” themselves.
To be clear: Blame for America’s longstanding inertia on mass shootings cashes out differently for our two main parties. Republicans playing hardball is not the same thing as Democrats playing catch-up. But the causes of this inertia, which have everything to do with the influence of market incentives—from corporate money to regulatory capture to political careerism—implicate each party, and have produced a state of affairs that is bigger than both of them. For the sake of appearing “reasonable” and “realistic,” and for the sake of preserving their continued electability and “political capital” (a thoroughly neoliberal concept), our political elites reject responsibility for what could not more obviously be a political problem: mass murder in public spaces. In consequence, a kind of fatalistic resignation has settled over most Americans—a common wisdom that, on guns, nothing can or will ever get done.
Very literally, Americans teach their children to understand the intrusion of rampaging killers with assault rifles as a random force of nature analogous to a fire or an earthquake.
But neoliberalism means that as government responsibility recedes, and as the bounds of what is politically imaginable constrict, other players step in to pick up the slack—and make a buck. The social contract gets traded in for a profusion of End User Agreements, gig opportunities, and handshake deals with grifters and loan sharks. The mushrooming market for security equipment in schools and on college campuses reached $2.68 billion in 2017 alone, and school districts around the country have steadily devoted increasing sums to security even as their overall budgets have dwindled. These products look and sound like weapons and gear from America’s endless wars abroad: bulletproof whiteboards, School Shooter Kits (complete with tourniquets and trauma dressing), The Barracuda (a reinforced doorstop), The Raptor (a web-based “visitor management system,” the ad copy for which asks “Are you ready to take the next steps in protecting your school?”).
The market isn’t just for school administrators. Parents can buy their kids bulletproof backpacks and folders or invest in literal ballistic security blankets (available with free shipping from Walmart). This burgeoning cornucopia of products for protecting children does little to address the fact that not all schools and parents are equally capable of buying them, of course. But that’s neoliberalism for you: The choices and the opportunities to ameliorate societal problems exist, but only if you can afford them. The withdrawal of political responsibility in favor of market solutions occurs without any correlative empowerment of the citizen as a consumer—in fact, as American inequality increases and social mobility drops, the end result is quite the opposite. While the private sector flourishes, public institutions are hollowed out, and the people who depend on them are left in ever-more-precarious conditions. It should not be surprising—although it is rarely observed—that the overwhelming majority of school shootings have thus far occurred in public, not private schools, even as our leaders pursue massive cuts to federal expenditures on public school safety (including funds used for post mass-shooting trauma counseling). Meanwhile, advocates for the further hollowing out of the public sector seize on school massacres as an opportunity to argue for increased homeschooling.
The enrichment of the private sector is only one consequence of the neoliberal abdication of political responsibility for a political problem. The other half of the picture is the burden that devolves from the government onto private individuals. This burden demands labor and energy, but the costs are not just material. They are emotional, too. Neoliberalism is not just a way of organizing political economy. It imposes a regime of feelings and behaviors as well. Neoliberalism doesn’t just pull the rug of basic social welfare out from under people’s feet—it makes them responsible for getting back on their feet, and blames them for landing on their ass in the first place.
And so in schools across the country, Americans make their children participate in Active Shooter drills. These drills, which can involve children as young as kindergartners hiding in closets and toilet stalls, and can even include simulated shootings, are not just traumatic and of dubious value. They are also an educational enterprise in their own right, a sort of pedagogical initiation into what is normal and to be expected. Very literally, Americans teach their children to understand the intrusion of rampaging killers with assault rifles as a random force of nature analogous to a fire or an earthquake. This seems designed to foster in children a consciousness that is at once hypervigilant and desperate, but also morbid and resigned—in other words, to mold them into perfectly docile citizen-consumers. And if children reject this position and try to take action, some educational authorities will attempt to discipline their resistance out of them, as in Texas, where one school district has threatened to penalize students who walk out in anti-gun violence actions, weaponizing the language of “choices” and “consequences” to literally quash “any type of protest or awareness.”
It’s not just children that the neoliberal system demands suffer the burden of responsibility for its failure to deal with school shootings. Even as legislators crush teachers’ unions and ask educators to do ever-more labor—to act as test-prep coaches and job trainers, substitute parents and grief counselors—they also seriously contemplate giving them guns. Many do this without ever really thinking too much about the emotional and cognitive onus that puts on them: not just to foster creativity and learning while safely controlling access to a firearm in overcrowded classrooms, but to be prepared, at any moment, to exercise lethal force against an assailant who may even be one of their own students. Teachers, the people on the front lines of a broken system, are demanded, unremunerated or with the promise of meager “bonuses,” to reconcile its contradictions: to educate, but also to be constantly ready to kill. The on-the-face-of-it obscenity of this as a “solution” to anything falls out in favor of dithering over incentives and efficiency, to Trump promising that “Shootings will not happen again – a big & very inexpensive deterrent.”
Only two weeks after Parkland, both Democrat and Republican leadership decided to forgo any legislative debates over gun control and instead agreed to focus on a project with bipartisan appeal—deregulating banks.
Meanwhile, the massacres continue. And so after each new bloodbath America’s leaders call on the general public to perform mass rituals of affective labor—moments of silence, sending thoughts and prayers, rituals that are excruciatingly draining, formulaic and tokenistic, and utterly useless. When people reject these rituals as hollow, they are shamed, condemned for “politicizing” or “capitalizing” upon tragedy, a prospect anathema to the neoliberal status quo, which seeks to depoliticize everything. And, like Trump after Parkland, authorities blame victims and their communities for failing to prevent their own murder by not adequately performing as unpaid forensic profilers, social media surveillance professionals, and police informants. The blame is especially fierce when the shortcomings of the authorities and current laws have been exposed and humiliated, as in Parkland, where police responded to incidents involving the future shooter at his home no less than 39 times in seven years, and where multiple armed officers wasted precious minutes waiting outside the school as gunfire continued instead of going in. This apportionment of blame should not be surprising: Under neoliberalism, the system can never fail you, you can only fail it—and your suffering is the proof that you deserve it.
Perhaps the most twisted and tragic feature of the neoliberal script for how American society metabolizes mass shootings is a hollowing out of grief itself. Americans have constructed an elaborate series of increasingly familiar rituals and performances for honoring the “sacrifice” of exemplary victims of senseless, entirely preventable butchery while doing precious little about it. Yet this heartbroken, anguished praise of children and teachers who are martyred holding open doors or shielding other people from gunfire indexes how normal and inevitable the demand for these acts—the ultimate unpaid, supererogatory labor—has actually become in our system. If you pay attention, you’ll notice how the statements of school security professionals and the scripts for active shooter response trainings inevitably emphasize delaying or containing the shooter, slowing their progress, keeping them in one place. We expect unarmed people to rush killers carrying military-grade weapons, to improvise weapons and stage ambushes, to use their own bodies as barriers, to soak up bullets and force shooters to reload, to buy time and keep them localized until the authorities arrive. In the tight confines of a classroom or school hallway, facing high-powered rifles firing bullets designed to cause massive wounds, that can penetrate multiple bodies, and can turn flying fragments of shattered bone into devastating projectiles, the carnage this entails is beyond description—and yet we ask people to volunteer for it as part of our safety protocols. It is hard to imagine a more nutshell image of contemporary American neoliberalism than this: Demanding our citizens, training our children, to throw themselves like human sandbags against a problem that we decline to attempt to solve.
None of this has to be this way. If the essence of neoliberalism lies in the denial of responsibility and the foreclosure of the political, the first step is to recognize this, to take responsibility, repoliticize the political, and demand radically better and more. Corporations and the individual consumers cannot possibly fix our national problem of gun violence. But mobilized coalitions of politically conscious citizens can. Nor can change come from our political elites, especially since, only two weeks after Parkland, both Democrat and Republican leadership decided to forgo any legislative debates over gun control and instead agreed to focus on a project with bipartisan appeal—deregulating banks.
In the wake of Parkland, the brave voices of student survivors have been a clarion call and beacon of hope. Once, our nation forced generations of school children to respond to the threat of thermonuclear war by hiding under desks in Duck and Cover drills. Those children grew up, leaving the existence of that threat—our world’s massive nuclear arsenals—unchanged, normalized away from regular consciousness. It is frankly incredible and genuinely inspiring that today, a generation raised with Active Shooter drills has responded to trauma and horror not by disavowing or normalizing it, but by confronting it head-on. What these young people are demanding is properly political and legitimately radical: not just an opportunity not to be the next victims, but that there not be any next victims at all. Their testimony and demands should galvanize us into reflection, solidarity, and action. America cannot and must not leave it to them to save us from neoliberalism, from gun violence, or from ourselves.
Correction: This piece originally misidentified the state Mike Rounds represents in the U.S. Senate. It is South Dakota, not Idaho.