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So who can we shoot?

Early in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath there’s a confrontation between a dispossessed tenant farmer and a man driving a bulldozer, sent to flatten his farm buildings. This tenant farmer is representative of thousands of other families across the United States in the 1930s – destitute, facing hunger and with no prospect of work, pushed off the land by a combination of economic depression and environmental disaster. The following dialogue takes place as the farmer warns the driver of the bulldozer that if he tries to demolish his home he will shoot him:

‘“It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down -- I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit.”

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look -- suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”

“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’”

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.”’

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all ...”

It’s an old ethical/political question – and somehow the structuralism of the driver of the bulldozer doesn’t quite wash. Structures don’t do anything. People do things – like drive bulldozers and draft foreclosure notices. The driver of the bulldozer has made a choice: as he explained to the farmer, in order to look after his own family he had taken a job and this required him to do what he is told by his employers. He is free to refuse to bulldoze anybody’s farm but if he does make this choice then he will lose his job and there aren’t many paying jobs. His children will go hungry too.

It is not difficult to sympathise with the farmer’s desperate attempt to protect what he believes is his – and with his anger and desire for revenge. But equally, it’s not difficult to feel an uneasy sympathy with the driver of the bulldozer who has had to make difficult choices, placing loyalty to his family above loyalty to his community. He is confronted with unpleasant alternatives – but he does make a choice.

And here we can usefully turn to a brilliant book -- Responsibility for Justice (Oxford, 2011), by the late and much lamented Iris Marion Young. She makes a distinction between two kinds of responsibility. On the one hand there is the liability model of responsibility. It identifies parties to blame. As she puts it: ‘the agent, whether individual or collective, must be shown to have caused the harm by actions or a criminal failure to act’. If thus convicted of responsibility the agent is subject to punishment and/or the assessment of damages owed to the victim. But this model of responsibility, Young argues, is not very useful in responding to structural injustice. So she suggests a different model of responsibility – something she calls ‘the social connection model of responsibility’. Harms are often not the result of the specific actions of a specific individual or group of individuals, or even of identifiable institutional agents. Rather these harms are the result of the normal, ongoing structural processes of society – in other words, harms and injustices are the unintended consequences of the everyday actions of hundreds and thousands and millions of people. As she puts it: ‘Though many people contribute to producing and reproducing structures that cause injustice, and often many people are privileged in these structures, it is usually not possible to isolate the particular contributions of particular agents.’

This is the point that Steinbeck’s bulldozer driver is trying to articulate. Shooting him, as the direct agent of the farmer’s dispossession, will not change anything. Dispossessions and the bulldozing of old farmsteads will continue regardless. So is nobody responsible for anything? Iris Marion Young’s ‘social connection model of responsibility’ does not assign individual blame or fault but it does enjoin a political responsibility to organize individual and collective action to oppose injustice, especially within an individual’s own particular institutional context. We all share responsibility – for homelessness, say, or for youth unemployment or for racism. Though we are not liable to individual punishment, our shared responsibility requires of us a commitment to act against injustice when and where we can. Of course, we do not all have the same capacities and opportunities for transformative action. The headmaster of a school can probably do more than a newly-qualified young teacher or the school caretaker to resist, say, racist abuse of particular pupils. His responsibility is greater. But everybody can contribute something. If we are not part of the solution then we are part of the problem, as the old adage has it.

One of the many political problems confronting Europeans in the continuing economic and political mess of the present is precisely what Milena points to in her ‘Tale of the Virtuous Poor’ – the manipulation of narrative and in particular the personification of nation-states. So Bulgaria is the virtuous poor; Germany, the hard-working and abstemious taxpayer; Greece the idle spendthrift tax-dodger. In Greece the genre is not so much the moral fairy tale as a historical melodrama. Germany becomes personified in the form of Angela Merkel as an unusually chubby Nazi storm-trooper trampling over the innocent Greek people (birth-place of democracy, etc.). And so a complicated political and economic situation becomes a crude cartoon or a simple fairy story: good Greek versus bad German or good German versus bad Greek.

They fed their hearts on fantasies
And their hearts have grown savage.

George Oppen 

These discursive strategies are not only profoundly stupid, they are also dangerous. Politics is war by other means – but only if you subscribe to these kinds of clumsy narratives and personifications of complex political formations; and if you subscribe to a liability model of political responsibility. If we think of the current European situation in terms of Iris Marion Young’s social connection model of responsibility then every Greek has some responsibility for the bankruptcy of the state and has a responsibility to act now to reform and revitalise Greece. And every German and every other citizen of the EU shares responsibility for the desperate poverty, unemployment, fear and despair that millions of Greeks are now experiencing every day. The issue of blame and liability – of caricatured Greeks and caricatured Germans – has to be transformed into an active and collective commitment to cooperate and to change the situation. Each of us has to find some ways to act to this end.

“Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me,” Steinbeck’s poor dirt farmer says. But no individual man is starving him. There’s nobody who he can legitimately shoot. But he is being starved – and so is his family. Unfortunately if the situation in Greece is not transformed, and quickly, I fear that people will be driven to such despair that some will indeed start shooting. We don’t have to look very far to the east to see people who have been driven to violence by poverty, despair and stories of good and evil.

John Seed, July 2015