The battle-cry of the American Revolution: “give me liberty or give me death!” Reflecting upon my first year living in America and upon what I have learned in criminal law, I find it hard to believe that Americans truly value liberty. What I see is the human spirit crushed under the yoke of an overly oppressive criminal justice system. I fail to understand how to logically reconcile over-criminalization and mass incarceration with the famous American love of freedom.
The rhetoric justifying this draconian criminal system does not help. Classmates speak of deterrence and signals – which is simply a way to sugar coat what is truly happening: we are scaring people into submission. But is this the sort of human we wish to foster? A being whose conduct does not flow from virtue but from fear. This is our vision of humanity’s highest form or greatest potential? Do we want a society of craven and vindictive worms that curl up lest they get stepped on? The idea that we must design our society according to such a vision reveals a troubling pessimism regarding human nature and a profound lack of ambition regarding the possibilities for society.
And this is all for the laudable (and supposedly necessary) goal of self-preservation. But the emphasis on preserving society neglects the more important antecedent question: is it the sort of society that is worth preserving? What if the methods through which our society ensures its survival creates the sort of society that is undeserving of survival?
We bear a heavy burden. Human life is a great luxury. As a species, we are unparalleled in our consumption of space and energy. Yet it is other creatures who pay the predominate share of the butcher’s bill. As our modes of production become ever more sophisticated, our civilization conducts an increasingly escalating scorched-earth battle against Mother Nature in pursuit of ever more resources to fuel further development. Only by considering the totality of destruction wrought by our civilization can we appreciate its true cost – its “Blood Price” so to speak. And we can only honestly answer whether our society has justified its existence only after measuring its accomplishments against its Blood Price.
Moreover, our history is the history of atrocities. The edifice of our civilization is built upon a mountain of corpses. To create the current technological society, multitudes had to die in the burning furnaces of industrialization and the savageries that were its preconditions. We wasted away the lives of countless more in pointless drudgery. And yet the bodies haven’t stop piling up. The calculus of rational sacrifice is built into the fabric of the logic of social organization – a logic whose primary imperative is to guarantee its continued reproduction. Are we not obligated to justify the wastefulness of our existence and redeem the sacrifices of our ancestors by aspiring and achieving a higher purpose/value than mere self-preservation?
A much cheaper form of life, such as an apple, is capable of realizing mere existence. And yet the strain it places upon nature is incomparable. Furthermore, it accomplishes mere existence in a manner that is more complete than any human. Apples never have to deal with sado-masochistic impulses, depression, anxiety and the plethora of other ailments that torture human life. What is the point of being human if all we can achieve is mere existence – and that poorly when compared to the humble apple? If human life only accomplishes this much, then it would behoove us to step aside and make way for other life forms – life forms that self-preserve in a manner that is more stable and less destructive. I posit that if the costs of preserving society is clipping the wings of human freedom, then it is not a society worth preserving. We must thus gamble our future on the human potential and risk our self-destruction. We must move past the view of humans as a creature to be dominated and disciplined.
Our society’s unhealthy fixation with self-preservation is reflected in the elevation of wealth (comfort) as the highest measure of success. But this “ambition” is no more than valorized and reinterpreted mediocrity. The mediocrization of social values is then secured through excessive disciplining that fatally arrests the development of the human spirit with its full potentialities. In light of the exorbitant Blood Price of reproducing society, the mediocrity of current civilization repudiates the value of its preservation. Thus, we reach the paradoxical conclusion that society, in its current form, is unworthy of preservation as a result of the very methods deployed to assure its preservation. Only by completely eliminating punishment, both as a legal and a social tool, can we hope to transcend this mediocrity that consigns us to mere life – to a cheap imitation of an apple.
A plausible alternative would be one that abandons the fixation with punishment and is rather premised on community therapy and rehabilitation. This would require the renouncing of guilt and blame as legitimate categories and instead engage with violence on the basis of mutually shared responsibility – for all violence is ultimately the result of community failure and thus everyone’s responsibility. In light of this observation we can see the penal system as means of deflecting away from the general omnipresent violence by focusing on very specific manifestations.
Following up on this train of thought we are lead to the conclusion that renunciation of punishment will most likely result in a lesser need to punish. Punishment is interwoven into a generally inhumane society and thus participates in perpetuating a culture that is based on violence. Punishment does not transcend violence – it merely determines its legitimacy and is thus regressive. Finally, I think that the question of practicality is at least partially circumvented if we agree that our society is unworthy of preservation. If the result of abandoning punishment is social collapse then it is a worthwhile risk given the totality of the cost of society’s reproduction.
My happiness is a fighting happiness,
My happiness is a struggler’s battle.
Its fuel is the burning desire
To face the world and survive!
To live without fear
Free and unspoiled.
All other happinesses
Are a viper’s nest.
The last refuge of the craven,
In his unfreedom,
That perpetuate all unfreedoms.
This is my arrogant boast.
Higher than all the timidities
In the face of gross injustice.
 This is only one of the more blatant and obvious forms of regulation of human behavior in American society – one can draw attention to many more quite easily.