Reactionary law and bourgeois desire

An unfortunate tendency of exceptionally repressive laws and draconian sentences is that, in middle-class eyes, they tend to justify themselves: to bourgeois stiffs, it begins to seem as if anyone who would risk such harsh punishments must be so crazy and dangerous that it feels appropriate and reassuring to be protected by such a vicious legal machine. Indeed, the self-justifying effect of a draconian legal system increases as punishments get more severe for less and less significant behaviors. As the punishments become larger and the crimes smaller, even more inclined is the average person to wonder with a mix of fear and envy why anyone would insist on actions that seem to them so trivial given such great costs.

Knowing already that countless people are jailed for years on simple, non-violent drug charges, we begin to read more and more absurd headlines: a black homeless woman is given a 12-year prison sentence for sending her son to a public school with an incorrect home address; even a white man is given a 2-year prison sentence for outbidding oil companies in a big land auction and another white man is sentenced three years in prison for accessing a publicly available website simply because it wasn’t intended for public view. In response to increasingly absurd and vicious applications of the law, the average fish-blooded citizen tends to think only that anyone who still insists on such unorthodox exercises of freedom must lack all sense of proportion. And this frightens them half to death, for good reason. Of course, in some sense, this view is technically correct (to maintain any integrity in a society such as ours requires a deep refusal of its ratios) but what is critical to grasp is that to the average and spineless citizen, those who display any kind of autonomy inconsistent with the police order truly appear that dangerous. And perhaps they really are. Not only because such behavior lacks the proportions of everyday middle-class order and therefore generally threatens it; because middle-class comforts and privileges could and would be re-distributed if it were not for a firm legal system, they are_ especially_ threatened when increasingly decent people are punished with increasing absurdity for breaking increasingly stupid laws for engaging in fairly reasonable actions. When there are individuals who insist on doing what they want despite the risk of increasingly insane legal punishment, the average citizen who marginally benefits from this legal system will only prefer more laws, more police, and more prisons.

It will never cease to astound us how impoverished the bottom ranks of the relatively privileged groups (in particular, white people, male-gendered people) can become without rebelling. But the present thesis might solve some portion of this classic puzzle. No matter how obvious it is that the contemporary political system has been destroying, and will continue destroying, even these historically privileged groups, they are paralyzed from resisting because they are wholly indebted to precisely this system and its tendencies of exclusion and oppression for whatever material and psychological possessions they still possess. The reason that rebellion is perhaps impossible for such souls, the reason they can see no other option than to double-down on their reactionary wagers, is because every advancement of capitalist exclusion and oppression is simply the advancement of what they once unconsciously but nonetheless gleefully assumed as the core of their beliefs and behaviors. Their refusal to rebel is suicide, but rebellion too would be suicide. Whichever path they choose, may they only choose quickly!   Finally, this same thesis which helps us understand absurdly aggressive legal reaction also sheds light on why other types of crime are surprisingly under-punished relative to what we would expect. For example, as the recent and now notorious Steubenville rape case attests, young men who engage in brutal sexual violence against women often receive significantly shorter prison sentences than many non-violent, drug offenders. For the reasons already articulated, it is easy to see why property-related crimes are so grossly over-punished while crimes such as rape are relatively under-punished: crimes even vaguely related to property threaten relatively powerful (but increasingly fearful) groups invested in the status quo, while sexual violence against women—as one of the most basic substructures underwriting our political system built on domination—is the most basic kind of activity that constitutes the power of these relatively privileged but increasingly fearful groups invested in the status quo. From this perspective, it is not at all surprising that the former set of crimes is increasingly punished while the latter is punished less and less.

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Murphy, Justin. 2013. "Reactionary law and bourgeois desire," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2013/03/19/reactionary-law-and-bourgeois-desire/ (August 13, 2017).