Dear Left: The NRA Is Right – The Mass Shooter as High-Achiever: Historical-Materialist Considerations on the Resistible Fall of James Holmes and the Pathologization and Culturalization of the Cinema Massacre in Aurora, Colorado1


The Pathology of the Eternal Pathologizers

In the advanced capitalist countries we have now become so accustomed to mass shootings and extended suicides, that after a few days of indulgence in horror-voyeurism the event disappears from the media. The initial shock over such barbaric acts is usually overcome, as recently in the case of the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, by pathologizing the perpetrator. We learn that the perpetrator, though “from our midst”, is schizophrenic or otherwise abnormal, which is why the very attempt to comprehend his motives would be superfluous. If and when the question is at all posed as to how a society must be conditioned so that such monstrous acts of violence in civil society become normal, the answers provided usually betray a cultural reflex: first-person shooter video games, torture-porn films, aggressive or “Satanic” music, comic books, “gun culture” and all the other things bourgeois journalists have always disparaged in order to draw boundaries between themselves and the lower classes are invoked in an attempt to delimit the “cause”.  The contradiction, that such cultural products may indeed inspire power fantasies and their realization in reality, but that they cannot themselves be the cause of the individual’s experience of social impotence that creates the need for such fantasies, is generally overlooked. Usually the debate ends with a Pavlovian reflex and a shadow boxing match between finger-wagging liberals advocating gun-control and conservatives defending their right to gun ownership based on the Second Amendment to the US constitution. Regardless of the usefulness of bans on assault weapons, which can fire unnumbered rounds of ammunition, or the practicality of potential monitoring systems sending out warning messages when someone buys thousands of rounds of ammunition in a very short time, the urban liberal left overlooks that the NRA’s main defence of the Second Amendment (which happens to coincide with the arms industry’s profits) is correct: Guns don’t shoot people; people like James Holmes shoot people! Of course, the interventions of the Second Amendment crowd, according to which the permission to carry concealed weapons may have saved lives in the cinema, are not helpful either because they take mass shootings as a given and thus also obstruct the necessary debate about the causes and prevention of the growing number of civil-society killing rampages.

Pathologizations and culturalizations are hardly modernized versions of medieval witchhunts. Saying someone is simply “crazy” or video games made him crazy, i.e. took over his will, is saying someone is “possessed by the devil” in more modern terms. And it is no coincidence that the word “evil” is commonly used by commentators and politicians to denounce violence that is not state violence. Culturalizations and pathologizations function as means to the exterritorialization of “inexplicable” social contradictions, and the gun control debate is the means by which the “evil” is exorcized.  And that exorcism is of paramount importance, since the majority of male mass shooters come from the achievement oriented, white middle class, which is not only the role model of the perfectly integrated citizen but also that particular section of society from which the majority of mainstream journalists also stem. The halcyon surface of middle-class society need not be disturbed by such abnormal events.

The Damaged Society

In what follows, to help counter the usual pathologization and culturalization, the material foundations of James Holmes’s act of mass killing will be examined pointedly, polemically, and with all due detachment.

Let’s, then, attempt to fashion a historical-materialist rhyme of reason based on the known facts. A young man by the name of James Eagan Holmes comes from Torrey Highlands, a typical American suburb near San Diego, California. His parents decamped there in 2005 to make a good education possible for their son. As is well known, a good education in the United States does not just mean endeavouring to obtain good grades, but first and foremost attending a “good school”. Insofar as public education is largely financed through local property taxes and not by state or federal funding, residing in a wealthy town or city likewise means obtaining a better education. What is commonly taken to mean “better” is however usually not a profound acquisition of knowledge, or a capacity for critical thought, but simply a more intensive preparation for university entrance exams.

Holmes’s father is a denizen of what neo-Marxist class theory once identified as the new petty bourgeoisie. A mathematician educated at Stanford and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) he is employed as a manager by a software firm. In other words: the small enterprise is not his property but he controls other wage earners, who, if he’s not careful and depending on the company’s set-up, may start playing solitaire or abscond to the restroom, newspaper in hand. In any case, the “schizophrenic” wage-earner consciousness typical for his class representing, indeed required to represent the outlook of the firm’s owners, finds its genesis here.

Mother Holmes, a registered nurse, also took up an occupation in an economy in which the feminization of the labour market, in light of the defeated trade unions circa 1979-81, had less to do with emancipation and more with declining real wages – wages whose real decline was masked by innovative inflation calculations by official statistical bureaus who assume today’s worker does not necessarily need to consume beef and may as well get by on chicken.  But be that as it may, in no other advanced capitalist country have the amount of hours spent toiling per week increased as much between the 1970s and the 2000s as in the United States.  Nevertheless, the standard of living for the wage-dependent classes – above all in the lower income groups – has only been maintained by means of a credit-based increase in household debt and a general Walmartization of the US economy. In other words: children in Cambodia piece together Nike shoes, and in Colombia trade union members at Coca-Cola suppliers are gunned-down, so that in North Carolina or Arkansas (right-to-work states) the “American Way of Life” can be enjoyed a little while longer without a struggle having to be waged for it.

Ask why the cliché “hard-working families” makes an appearance in every US election and you will be reminded of Maggie Thatcher’s famous dictum according to which “there is no such thing as society.” At a short glance, “society” can be quite hard to find in wide sections of the US. Instead, there simply appear to be “individuals” and “families”. And said individuals and their families are almost all hard-working, because the era of neoliberalism requires that they give it their best 110 percent. It is of more than just passing interest that the overwhelming majority of Americans actually welcome this. According to a global poll published in July by the renowned Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Americans still believe “hard work” to be salubrious. According to the same poll, the only people who seem to be less inclined to ask “whose hard work?” when confronted with someone telling them that they got rich through hard work are apparently the Germans (75 percent) and the Chinese (87 percent).

For someone who has been inspired by hippie or punk culture, and who is familiar with writings by Paul Lafargue and Herbert Marcuse, the question emerges: How is it possible to be thrilled about hard work? Leaving aside for a while questions of hegemony, and staying away from Freudo-Marxist theses about the “identification with the aggressor” and the assumption of a specifically capitalist Stockholm Syndrome, in which people, for lack of an alternative, develop a crush on capitalism, the answer to the riddle can be found in the Suburbs. Here we may find the only institution which deters people from going bowling by themselves, as a concerned Harvard political scientist once feared they would. This institution is the “(mega-)church”.

The (mega-)church exists for the sole purpose of proving the Iron Lady and her neoliberal apostles wrong. Their idea that human beings in capitalism could behave as rational, interest-maximizing individuals and endure being pitted against each other in competition and still refrain from banding together in one form or another, is nothing more than a utopian dream of well-to-do people who are so individuated and free from traditional superstitions and collectivist myths, that it would make any liberal enlightenment philosopher weep with joy.

The Middle-Class Religion

The rest of us, however, who are blinded by the mesmerizing elegance of the free neoliberal individual, depend on “ugly collectives”. For this reason, the (mega-)church is to the suburbs what the union’s local hall used to be for the cities. As per Marx, every “oppressed creature” needs a “religion” to cope with real misery or fear of social decline. And, as The Simpsons once observed, organized religion exists to make it all complete (“We add God to your misery!”). In the United States about 90 percent of the population indicates a belief in a Supreme Being and weekly church attendance belongs to the routine of countless millions, who prefer life in the rural areas (where one half smokes weed and the other half prays that God makes them stop) or the suburbs.

The church of the Holmes family, in which Mom, Dad as well as their shy and well-behaved son were very active, is Presbyterian. For the unacquainted, Presbyterian in the United States has, as Americans like to say, upper middle-class “written all over it”. Born-again Christianity is left – according to the well-known saying of the German-American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – to the “disinherited”: the plebeians. This is why many plebeians in turn adhere to sundry conspiracy theories regarding the world-domination-seeking Presbyterians; because even where there is or appears to be no class struggle, people simply cannot do without class resentment. And just as with class struggle, class resentment articulates itself in all ideological discourses and does not give a damn about liberal distinctions of secular and religious.

Born-again Christianity speaks to the socially unhinged precariat and the panicked sections of the middle class.  Its fundamentalist interpretation of the bible and its feel-good theological elements not only satisfy the longing for absolute certainties, and the submission to a father figure who can reassert the control lost by people over their own lives, but above all also appeal to the longing to get back at and punish those who are (unfairly) successful or are materially just as unsuccessful but think they’re something better simply because they attended college: the atheists, hedonists, liberals. According to the conception of the Rapture crowd, Jesus and his Old Testament troops will punish these sinners on Judgement Day in ways compared to which “The Passion of the Christ” or “Saw” will seem like Hollywood RomComs. A majority of believers are convinced they will live to see this. After all, anything else would be mightily unsatisfactory.

Presbyterians consider such “bible thumpers” whose theology is tantamount to the claim “Jesus loves me, but he can’t stand you!” to be vulgar. Presbyterians value life-long learning and theological debate. For this very reason they have been losing members for decades, since in neoliberalism the consumer first of all inquires as to the utility of a product or service. And of what use is religion today if it does not also do one’s thinking?

Presbyterians attract those for whom the “American Dream” has not yet turned into a nightmare. This is the amiable section of the population that looks down on the evangelical riffraff and wants to have confirmed to them that they still belong to the chosen few, because, unlike the people who serve them food or clean their bathrooms, they are such marvellously productive citizens and top-performers. And if God gives them the power to be productive, then the result is a win-win-situation for the flock and the Shepherd with his overflowing collection basket. This much was already understood by Calvin, who developed the doctrine of predestination in wondrously perfect alignment with the new capitalist social relations. The -ism named after him, that Max Weber in his critique of Marx used to explain the emergence of (US) capitalism, exists to this day and can be heard from Presbyterian pulpits. It is not a contradiction that some Presbyterian churches also teach Christian charity, since unlike the have-nots the haves have the option of giving.  After all, giving makes you feel good, as long as it’s voluntary and not forcibly rendered unto Caesar via Matthew the tax collector. In any case, at the local church of the Holmes family this appears to have been preached since for a time James Holmes performed volunteer work for “underprivileged” children.

James Holmes’s Way to the Top

Feeling chosen, the young Homes left high school to start studies at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). He confirmed his chosen status with his outstanding performance. Perhaps he also thought to himself that with professional success he might compensate for his shyness and also have success with the ladies, which apparently left much to be desired. After all, in our everyday struggle we do not just strive for tangible objects but also objectified status symbols – or, as unrepressed Americans would say: getting paid, and getting laid.

Now, it did not require Holmes the investigative skill of his much more famous namesake to figure out that, even minus a systemic crisis, with a mere bachelor degree from a good, but not Ivy League, American university one likely ends up cleaning windows rather than cleaning up on Wall Street. In ancient times, the expectation reigned that one’s formal employment upon completion of a spell of higher education should have something to do with one’s qualifications, and should come at a respectable rate of compensation combined with some sort of security at that. American students have long ago bid farewell to such wild communistic fantasies. Holmes, whose life-goal in his senior high-school year was to become a scientific researcher, will have understood that his parents, the state and society would expect more from him, if he was to become a top achiever. He kept his distance from all impractical and easy subjects like English lit and political science, and enrolled instead into something respectable (neuroscience). He networked himself into the fraternities “Phi Beta Kappa” and “Golden Key”, applied himself beyond all measure, turned in an immaculate performance, and eventually belonged – according to UCR – to “the top of the top”. In a country in which 72 percent have understood that whoever works hard is going to succeed without handouts and entitlements from the tyrannical nanny state, this ought to suffice.

Yet, Holmes came to realize that the only profession an achievement-oriented and talented person like himself could find was one usually reserved for people whom his class with its fine nose for racist and sexist discriminations likes to refer to as “white trash”, “rednecks” and “hillbillies”. For a whole year, the young aspiring Holmes, who actually had had in mind improving the effects of Ritalin on the children of the underclass, was now flipping burgers at McDumb’s, a children-friendly charity organization which also happens to sell fast-food.

It will have gradually dawned on the boy from the good home, who stares out from his high school graduation photo all shy and well-adjusted like all youth who stay away from drugs, punk rock, and the black bloc and instead offer to carry the teacher’s bag, that the system well and truly had taken him for a ride. In the neoliberal paradise of the USA, where everything from healthcare to education and company pension plans are commodities, in which the “labour power entrepreneur” (Arbeitskraftunternehmer) invests, because in the free market there is no “free lunch”, Holmes noticed that something was not right with the price-service relation. He might have thought to himself: “Something is wrong with the product, I want my life back!”2 But in a free-market system customer complaints are just not in the cards when your speculative investment has backfired – unless, of course, you are a giant investment bank, which James Holmes unfortunately was not.

Even though Holmes as a California resident enjoyed “preferential” rates for tuition, he was now sitting on a mountain of debt that – even if his parents, who also needed to finance his sister, paid half of his expenses out of their petty cash (a piece of cake for middle-class families) – could hardly have been less than $50,000. Tuition fees for in-state students are $13,684 per year at UCR. To finance the costs of the crisis California considerably raised tuition in the last few years, though they are still considered a bargain in America. The total cost for the academic year 2012-13 (tuition, accommodation, books, transportation and provisions) is estimated for UCR to be at $23,384.  This is valid as long as one is resident at “Hotel Mom”. If you have sweeter dreams than mom coming in unannounced and finding you sweating between the sheets with your sweetheart or smoking a bong with the guys, as did James Holmes, such freedom awaits on a campus dorm for a meagre $31,534 and usually comes, at least in the first year, with an extra roommate. Staying the course with a bachelor degree while not encountering any emotional and/or intellectual problems and staying away from the crazy left and its rallies against tuition fee hikes and other things for which there is no alternative thus requires an outlay of about $120,000. All this for an eventual job at McDumb’s. Quite remarkable when one considers that what we’re dealing with here are future wage-earners going into debt to shoulder the costs for capital of training the labour power capital will later exploit for a profit. In any case, one now understands why the student debt of American wage earners, that until now produced only shrugs of the shoulders, is suddenly on everyone’s lips, even President Obama’s. Because, as every sane person would agree, it wasn’t a problem as long as it only happened to human beings; but now that the indebted student as a social category has created a debt bubble whose bursting has the makings of a drastic intensification of the current crisis, we are realizing that all the little James Holmes from San Diego up to Maine combined might now be too big to fail and therefore worthy of our attention.

“Crazy” James

It requires no extraordinary capacity for empathy to imagine how often the young Holmes from “the land of the free, home of the brave” calculated in his head how many burgers he would still have to flip until he’d be able to pay off his debt. It also does not require much sensitivity to picture for oneself how, in view of the unnatural selection of the labour market, anxious he may have become, when he – after the heartfelt six millionth “Would you like fries with that?” – received his acceptance letter from the University of Colorado in Aurora. This gave him the permission to keep the greasy fries at a distance for the time being but potentially with the prospect of more debt. With tuition fees at $26,485 for Colorado residents and $51,311 for outside students, the $5,000 entrance scholarship from the University of Colorado, the grant of $21,600 from the National Institute of Health (which ran from July 2011 to June 2012), plus possible T.A.-ships may very well have not covered all his expenses in his new home in Aurora, another one of those sprawled out suburbs (largest employer: the military), this time of the city of Denver. In any case, his situation and that of many others echoes an earlier time period in capitalism. The only difference is that while PhD programmes at the time of the Vietnam War functioned as sanctuaries from the draft and a – possibly – one-way ticket to “go and kill the Yellow Man”, today, during the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, which makes the Fordist full employment of the late 1960s ring out as a siren song from the Promised Land, the same PhD programs function as middle-class refuges from debt repayment and a precarious labour market.

Why the talented Mr. Holmes at the end of his first PhD year failed his first examination, which due to its comprehensive nature produces psycho-corpses en masse even amongst those not anxious about their future, can only be speculated on at this point. And yet, it does not require much cognitive skill to see James Holmes’s material situation as quite normal. His fate is typical of the masses of young people from the conformist and achievement-oriented middle class, who in view of the monstrosity of youth unemployment worldwide rightfully see their narrow-minded if absolutely legitimate dreams of a little suburban home with a car and a dream vacation to be in danger. And whosoever thinks that they should simply let go of the Fordist standard of living and the social security of their (grand-)parents’ generation, because that’s just impossible in a “global competitive market”, is abstracting from what E.P. Thompson once called the idea of a “moral economy” which everyone has and which indeed defines a person’s sense of social justice that hard work should be materially rewarded and recognized.  Thus, given his experiences, it does not seem far-fetched that like so many of the crisis generation James Holmes had a justified fear of falling and that there was a connection between his material situation and his anxiety or depression. In the US, where psychological care is largely privatized or a charitable service offered by churches, Holmes was lucky that his tuition fees at the University of Colorado, Aurora granted him “free” access to a psychotherapist, who later received drawings of the plans for his mass shooting. Yet neither cognitive-behavioural therapists, who sit in their practices trying to condition or medicate away the ailment or simply use “positive thinking” to combat anxiety disorders and depressions, nor critical systemic therapists who at least try and integrate the patients’ social environment into their therapeutic praxis can, even if they wanted to, alter the capitalist social relations that force their relentless logic onto their patients. We may read that Holmes’s therapist was an expert on schizophrenia. But how does such an expert heal debt, precarious labour markets and usually mutually reinforcing anxieties about the future both in terms of working and love life?

It is clear that Holmes seems to have felt himself to be in a hopeless situation. And as a man he didn’t have the increasingly popular option of female students in North America of becoming an entrepreneur of one’s own youthful body, and turning himself into a “sugar baby” for the financial market moneybags, who like vultures circle around economically distressed young female wage earners saddled with student debt, seeing them as purchasable commodities like everything else.

In his new unfamiliar city Holmes appeared to be longing for human warmth now, which is understandable, since when things do not work out “professionally”, human relationships take on increased importance. For a while Holmes engaged himself with online dating sites, where due to the anonymity of the net things are easier for shy people. Here he seems to have tried it with the seeking-help mode when a few days before his shooting spree he wrote in his online profile: “Would you visit me in prison?”

At the end of his play “The Mother”, Bertolt Brecht inserted a poem called “Lob der Dialektik”, “In Praise of Dialectics.” One of its final lines reads “Whoever has recognized his situation – how can anyone stop him?” The vanquished Holmes did recognize his situation. The University of Colorado, Aurora claimed they did not intend to expel him, but simply to grant him a leave, and there is not any reason to doubt this account. But in his obvious desperation Holmes anticipated his suspension. He prepared and pursued his own de-matriculation. In his state, he must have realized that he would probably no longer be a top performer.

High-Achievement through Other Means

Final examinations in doctoral programmes are usually written in April or at the beginning of May. On May 22, 2012 the spotless Holmes purchased his first of four firearms and – over the course of time – 6,000 rounds of ammunition. On July 20, almost a year to the day after the politically motivated terrorist attack by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, armed to the teeth Holmes barged into the premier of the last instalment of the “Batman” trilogy. The film – about whose ending Holmes allegedly asked his prison guards – appears to impart the message that elites and the system are indeed corrupt, but that the real danger comes from those like “Occupy Wall Street” who want to change that system. Only the fact that Holmes’s magazine jammed and the cops, who arrived 3 minutes into the shooting, took him quickly into custody, thwarted him from reaching the top of the High-Scorer Chart. The list of those socially immobilized people who reclaim – in the terminology of German Critical Psychologist Klaus Holzkamp – their own Handlungsfähigkeit (capacity to act), the feeling that they effect something in the world, that something depends on them, by striving for and displaying an even greater destructive force than their predecessors, with whose deeds most of them, in the weeks before their respective acts, become obsessed.

With respect to this terror emerging from the midst of the capitalist societies in which we live, the question must not be: Why can such “sick mind(s)” (as the Democratic governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper formulated) hatch such senseless “evil act(s)” (as Obama called the perpetrator’s deed)? The real question ought to be: Why does a society, in which barbaric competition reigns (euphorically applauded by radical neoliberals) and an entire generation is sacrificed, whose “pursuit of happiness” consists of little more than maintaining the security and standard of living that they are used to from their parents, experience so few of these barbaric acts?

In his revenge campaign against an abstract society, that did “this” to him and that according to neoliberals does not even exist, James Holmes acted like a creative entrepreneur. Amongst his innovations was not only the further paralyzing of the already totally surprised and defenceless victims using gas, so that they can be even more defencelessly murdered, but also transforming his own apartment into a death trap with loud music timed to summon disturbed neighbours or the police in order to turn them into triggers of their own deaths by explosion.

Holmes’s deliberations for the maximization of destructive power, to which a “lone wolf” can attain, are not only terrifying, but are indicative of a tremendous creativity and a perverse will to achieve and perform well. This striving for the top distinguishes all the latest mass shootings. James Holmes, who apparently wanted nothing else but to become via his achievements a recognized member of society, which “the society” however prevented, would, under different social relations, have invested this energy and this readiness to achieve into construction rather destruction.

The Logic behind the Exorcism of “Evil”

The fall of James Holmes was resistible. Quite possibly the forensic psychologists will soon determine the accused to be suffering from schizophrenia, an illness that – completely inexplicably – was triggered for no reason. Quite possibly, such schizophrenia would then not be the cause but rather the effect of his deeds. Holmes comes from a country and a class in which like nowhere else bourgeois ideology dominates and unemployment and economic failure are deemed as self-inflicted and everyone is considered to be the architect of his or her own (mis-)fortune. The perfidy regarding the case of Holmes is that he appeared to have been uncertain right up to the end whether he failed society or whether society, on whose abstraction he took revenge, failed him. This can be concluded not just from the fact that he, as the adrenalin subsided, was still responsive to enough misgiving and compassion to warn police about his booby-trapped apartment and thus reduce his high-score, but possibly also explains the total breakdown of the defendant at his court appearance.

That bourgeois journalists are now endeavouring to explain away the mass shooting by means of pathologizations and culturalizations is nevertheless understandable. If the fault cannot be directed at first-person video games, torture-porn-films or aggressive music (as in the case of Columbine High School to Marilyn Manson and Eminem), then a connection would have to be established between the growing violence in civil society and the material, capitalist social relations. The culturalism and the pathologizing are not simply the helpless attempts at explanation by journalists who wish to combat social contradictions at the cultural level, because they regard economic relations including tuition fees as the natural order of things. The exorcism of “evil” qua culturalization and pathologization fulfils an objective social function: defending the status quo. Because it does not take the intelligence of a James Holmes to recognize that as long as local communities and states compete with each other through tax cuts and subsidies for capital investment, while their public sectors groan under policies of austerity, the demand for tuition fee reductions – not to mention their elimination – would fundamentally call into question the transnationalized elite’s political project of global capitalism in general and the austerity-path to deal with the global crisis in particular. For this reason the tears of the bourgeoisie reveal themselves to be those of crocodiles, and the time after this mass shooting is simply that before the next.

Translated by Sam Putinja


1. This slightly updated and modified article was originally published 27 July 2012 in the German daily newspaper Junge Welt. The article’s subtitle is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”. The author would like to thank Bill Fletcher Jr., Florian Flörsheimer, Stefan Huth, Leonie Knebel and Sam Putinja for helpful comments.

2. The quote is taken from the chorus of the song “Guten Tag! (Die Reklamation)” released in 2002 by the popular German band “Wir sind Helden” [We are heroes]. In the early 2000s, the song was often used as a pop-culture reference by young German leftists due to its anti-capitalist undertones reflected in lines such as “I’m not exchanging anymore, I want my life back.”

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