Death Penalty

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Wed Mar 3 08:14:01 PST 1999

On Wed, 03 Mar 1999 09:08:13 -0600 Carrol Cox <cbcox at> writes:
>A few observations.
>1. I'm amazed at how few bring to this subject the Epicurean
>insight that death is a tragedy for the living, not the dead. The
>death penalty primarily penalizes the relatives and friends of
>the executed person.

However, the process of awaiting execution with all the uncertainies this entails is itself "cruel and unusual" punishment. Very often a death row inmate does not know for certain whether he or she will be really executed until practically the last minute. Of course popular acceptance of the Epicurean insights concerning death would undermine the religious ideology that the US ruling class places such a high premium on.

>2. As Linebaugh points out, the use of the death penalty always
>increases during periods when the working class is being transformed
>in some way or other.

Sixty years ago Georg Rusche & Otto Kirchheimer published their pioneering study PUNISHMENT AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE explaines historical changes in punishment practices from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century in terms of labor control. The criminal justice system is itself a weopon in the class struggle, which the ruling class deploys for the sake of maintaining domination over the working class.

>3. The primary victim is the public -- the death penalty pollutes the
>public mind in innumerable different ways. It is in fact much worse
>than private vengeance, for it brings the whole magesty of "The
>People" (i.e., the Ruling Class masquerading as The People) to
>bear in the most dramatic way possible on one isolated individual.
>And the way common sense (which I have come to regard as
>a better phrased than "ideology" to get at this social mechanism)
>operates, it generates the general mass consensus that *the*
>great menace to human happiness is from individual criminals.
>(Why would "we" go to so much trouble to kill this one person
>with such pomp and ceremony if there were not really great
>concerns involved? Common sense (ideology) is never either sensible
>or conscious.)

This point to what I would consider to be one of the prime functions of capital punishment which is to reaffirm the ideology of bourgeois individualism. Crime is to be seen as solely the fault of the criminal who was free to act otherwise. He or she must bear sole responsibility for his or her actions. The institution of capital punishment (along with our society's other punishment practices) reaffirms this ideology in a particularly graphic way. The legitimacy of capitalism, particularly the variety that we have in the US very much depends on public acceptance of individualist ideology. Individuals are to be held responsible for their fates whether good or bad. Just as the criminal is responsible for his situation so the sucessful entrepreneur like Bill Gates is likewise considered to be responsible for his good fortune. Social, political, and economic forces are either ignored or treated as factors which individuals are capable of rising above. As the Canadian/British philosopher Ted Honderich points out this ideology is closely tied to belief in a metaphysical Free Will which can transcend any causal determinism.

Likewise, the fact that western European countries have largely abandoned capital punishment is IMO not unrelated to the fact that these countries have strong social democratic traditions which at least in the past sought to restrain capitalist individualism. To the extent that the ruling elites in these countries put less of a premium on individualist ideology they had less need for such graphic and lurid reaffirmations of this ideology like capital punishment.

>4. Emphasizing the execution of the innocent obscures the real
>issues involved. by suggesting that all would be well if only
>the guilty were punished. As is usually the case with opportunism,
>it is in fact impractical and inopportune. From the perspective
>of humaneness, it would be better to carry out executions within
>a week or so, even at the cost of killing many more innocent,
>because the real horror of the death penalty for those subject
>to it is the long stay in the death cells, which are torture
>chambers. The illogic here is not mine but the "logic" of the
>penalty itself.
>5. Emphasizing the sanctity of human life (and all other pacifist
>garbage) is also inopportune. It opens up endless irrelevant
>arguments and only increases the corrupting effects of the
>death penalty on the public mind.

Peter Singer in his book PRACTICAL ETHICS gives the ideology of the "sanctity of human life" a good drubbing, although he does it from the perspective of a utilitarian liberal rather than from a Marxist perspective.

Jim Farmelant

>6. Someone mentioned approval of the death penalty by African
>Americans. That is the one thing I use to really tangle with my
>black students on.

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