What would Marx say on the Zimmerman case?

There is justified grief, and anger, among many U.S. citizens, about the way in which the recent Zimmerman case has been handled. Although I am not American, and no expert in the law, I would like to add to the perception of what is going on here by trying some philosophical reflection. As I understand it, the problematic aspect of the stand-your-ground law, which aquitted George Zimmerman, who shot 17 year old Trayvon Martin when he walked home at night, is that it blurrs to an unbearable extent the line between defense and attack. I will not go into the question of racist motives in U.S. courts, or in the general public – one can simply acknowledge that they are there, and it should make one sad and angry. But, suppose that both actors in that drama had the same skin colour, only one was very paranoia about defending himself and people’s property – and he could legally carry a gun. And could suppose that when he used it against a person which he thought was threatening the law would protect him… in other words, I would like to try to show what this law as such expresses about being human in our time.

Originally, as I understand it, the stand-your-ground law was designed to exonerate persons who defended their property, their home, their own safe place to live, to intruders (for my Dutch readers, we are having a discussion to alter the law in this direction in recent years, think ‘Teeven’). But what does it say about being a person – in relation to property, that one would rather kill another human being than try to run first and call the police? It happened that I was reading just now in the early writings of Marx, where he discusses the ideas of Hegel on the state and property. Where a certain class of property-owners, land owners in the case discussed, are allowed special political representation, as in the House of Lords in England, this is not in the interest of individual property-owners, Marx notices, but in the interest of property itself. This has to do with ancient European customs related to succession. It provides, Marx notices, a possibility to buy rights for ‘younger sons’, who do not inherit the land of their fathers (along with the race question, I will also leave out the feminist question here).

Marx criticizes Hegels idea that property is something one can dispose of (‘meines Eigentums kann ich mich entäussern’), since it would be mine only because I can do with it what I want, and is as such external to my personality. To Hegel property is not substantial to a person, as are his free will, his morality and religion – those would make up a persons self-awareness. Marx points to the fact that certain historical social arrangements (and their legal articulations) make property undisposable (‘unveräusserlich’). Although he speaks of the special political representation mentioned above, I would suggest one reads his words as applicable to discussions as the one excited by the stand-your-ground law: ‘Property is becoming a good one cannot dispose of, a substantial destination, which makes up the very person, the general essence of self awareness […], personality as such, its general freedom of will, morality, religion.’

These are harsh words, and to my view they describe without mercy the situation of present society. They apply not just to Florida, but also to Bangladesh (to remember those workers who died in the collapsing factory where they were slaving), to the Netherlands, to anywhere. Marx continues: ‘property is not any more ‘because I can do with it what I want’, but my will is ‘because of my property’. My will does not posess, but is posessed.’ Modern humanity has accepted to let itself be defined by property, as something which one cannot dispose of, and traded it for the disposability of human beings, not only those considered a threat to it, but also those who as workers without rights have to keep the stream of goods to be posessed flowing. In the process we have traded in something essential, I think.

Karl Marx lived from 1818-1883. I translated freely from Die Frühschriften (the early works), in the edition of Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1971. The passages cited are on page 120.

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4 comments
  1. tatjana9 said:

    I agree that calling police is a preferable option than killing another human being. Yet, does this law refer to property alone? Or it includes the defence of your life and the life of people around you as well? I find the law indeed strange in relation to property. But if it concerns self-defence of one’s life, it is a different matter. Don’t you think?

  2. Thanks, Tatjana, for your comment. The problematic point is that the mentioned law, if I understand it correctly, gives immunity to prosecution for using violence if one thinks one (or one’s property) is under threat. In The Netherlands we had this discussion whether it was justified to kill someone who wants to steal from your shop. It is not about killing someone who is actually assaulting you and trying to kill you! About this last fact, I must admit, there is difference of opinion in the Zimmerman case – but I do not want to take a stand on that – my point is just about how laws express society’s conditions.

  3. Albert Sonntag said:

    Wonderful article, and I totally agree with your interpretation of Marx’s statements.It’s interesting to me that he could still see that so clearly, in the early nineteenth century, as today it is far more difficult. I think that in one of his first articles for the Rheinische Zeitung, where Marx wrote just after he finished his studies in Berlin and went back home, that the new law outlawing the gathering of kindling in the woods around Cologne, recently enclosed, had taken the rights from people and given them to the trees. Today, that is much harder to see, which is the great thing about your article, Angela. It awakens us to the reality that capitalism has become our second Nature.

  4. Thanks, Albert, for your very clear thoughts on this. I like your word ‘still’ – which surprised me at first (I thought you could also have said ‘already’) – yes. Marx could still see things that have become nearly invisible, because of how they have become enrooted in our being. That’s why it is so important to read older thinkers!

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