There is a neat, though dreadful, indication of the crisis besetting America in the character of the awful events that unfolded in San Bernardino, California, this morning (our time), where three black-SUV-driving, body-armoured gunmen have killed at least 14 people and seriously injured at least 17, at a centre for the developmentally disabled. The event’s very contemporary American character comes from the fact that it is impossible to work out what the gunmen’s motives could be, if they happen to be political and programmatic.
The act is evil and nihilistic in the extreme, and in that sense it has an affinity with Islamic State-style terror. But here is the crucial difference: the nihilism (of method) in the acts of Islamic State are designed to be, among other things, an act of communication. IS and affiliated groups don’t need to claim responsibility and phone in a code prearranged with the police, as the IRA did for 20 years. The sheer horror of the act tells you who did it. No one else would do that.
In this recent attack in America, almost anyone could have done it. Except Islamic State – they’re the one group no one is really suggesting. Apart from that, it could be members of the crazed right, thinking the place is somehow associated with Planned Parenthood, or that it is ungodly for something something the disabled, or it’s reprisal for a drug deal gone wrong, or a talking dog told them to do it to appease Jodie Foster, or just about anything. We’ll find out in real time, probably the moment I file.
The San Bernadino attack gives the lies to the charge of “nihilism” so often attached to Islamic State. Yes, in their methods, they are so evil as to go beyond merely ruthless — but that is a nihilism of means, not ends. IS know what they want — a caliphate on the old borders, abolishing Western-imposed state boundaries, and then the global victory of Islam — and those dozen preceding words express 90% of their program. That is the very opposite of nihilism. It is a belief that the world should be a certain way so concrete, specific and passionate that it licenses all depravity.
Indeed, such nihilism of means, passion of ends, counterposes itself to the United States, whose main cultural problem is a nihilism of ends. When you put the market at the centre of your life and culture, you will eventually annihilate both, because that is what the market does. That’s how it works in the places it’s supposed to. By making objects exchangeable by price — ten bushels of wheat equals eight pigs, etc — the wheatness of the wheat and the pigness of the pig is momentarily abolished, to reappear when you make a ham sandwich.
For aeons cultures have surrounded that process with concrete, sacred meanings, things that cannot be exchanged, to keep the market in check. Even the era of high capitalism surrounded the market with church, nation, royalty, rank, privilege, etc (the workers themselves, playing the role of wheat and pigs, are not afforded that protection, until they take it, through the labour movement). For the last 30 years, the US has been an experiment in … not doing that. By trying to turn market processes into the ground of cultural meaning, America has dug a pit for itself. Various recent phenomena — Planned Parenthood killings, Donald Trump, relentless daily violence, Ben Carson, this recent attack, Donald Trump, the complicated “safe spaces” movement on US campuses, Donald Trump — are all examples of the dust being thrown up by this tumble. To quote English writer G.K. Chesterton, people who believe nothing will believe in anything, and that is the state of the American marketplace of ideas, where anything that offers concrete and simple meaning can form the kernel of violent action.
Coincidentally, not coincidentally, this was the time, to the day, that Rupert Murdoch decided to make his views known on the state of America in a speech to the Hudson Institute, introduced by Henry Kissinger. The global projection of power these men have prompted over the last decade has turned west Asia/the Middle East into such a pit of ultra-violence and despair as to draw the whole world in, undermine America’s economy, and speed China to dominance a decade or so earlier than it otherwise would have. At home, the political movement it favours is headed by a populist anti-politician with cartoonish fascist stylings and a neurosurgeon who is an amiable lunatic — and a pernicious one as well. Its credible candidate, Marco Rubio, has 10% support from Republicans who are 20% of the population.
The disparity is a measure of the impossibility of a rational right-wing politics under such circumstances, one in which the proposed society was so magical in form that no realistic discourse of government could express it. People ask how it is possible that so many such Americans follow Trump when he says that “we’re going to lower taxes and cut spending and have the strongest military ever, and we don’t have it because everyone who leads us is stoopid, they’re stoopid”. The answer is: because, within the framework of right-wing politics, which is magical in its overall form, such magical thinking is the rational discourse. It’s trying to describe right-wing America’s desired object — where the poor are left to die, but have all the guns they need, but there’ll be no crime, and no one has any wages but there’ll be a boom because ingenuity, and though we lost the last two big wars we tried in the past half-century, if we go out and try it again the world will respect us — in the terms of traditional cost/benefit, means/ends governance, that is truly crazy.
Murdoch’s speech — in which he blames liberalism for America’s decline, a narcissistic leadership for blah blah, and “the culture of self” for opposition to fracking — is what you’d expect from this silly old coot, the bloke on the tram with firm opinions, who happens to have a media empire and a Twitter account. But what is perhaps less noticed is that the difference between Murdoch and Donald Trump is less about the content than the style. Mainstream US right-wing thinking is as fracked as Trumpism is — it’s simply that Trump expresses it in a popular tone (learnt, he says, from being on building sites, and knowing how to talk to “all sorts of people”, which goes a long way to explaining his rhetorical skills) that makes the bizarreness visible. What makes the bizarreness so bizarre is that it has become the house ideology.
Thus it won’t be bizarre when the NRA comes out and says that the San Bernardino massacre shows you why the developmentally disabled should have guns, and when it is pointed out that the attackers wore body armour, the NRA will say we should repeal the Supreme Court’s repressive ban on armour-piercing ammunition and rocket launchers because how else are you going to take out an SUV? San Bernardino is the centre of that quintessentially American no-space known as the Inland Empire, the vast sprawl behind Los Angeles to the mountains. It is unimaginably large, a galaxy of freeways, side roads, gas stations, strip malls, tract housing, apartment blocks, mile on mile on mile in every direction. The first McDonald’s comes from here, and so does the high period of Tarantino, and the late aesthetic of David Lynch.
As the right seeks to maintain an American sense of self by projecting a new imperial possession outwards, it is the empire inland that has become ungovernable — indeed it is the deepest inland, the social self of desocialised Americans, that now suffers the same chaos as regional Iraq, the inland empire of IS. In such predicaments people yearn for simple and savage gods, to return to them something out of nothing, at any cost to the others. And, as well as Trump, IS is pretty scary too.