Sunday, December 30, 2012

‘Django Unchained’ in Context…

Spaghetti Communism? The Politics of the Italian Western

Sept 1, 2011 - If Westerns allegorize a mythical space of gradual resolution and order, the western all'italiana explodes the American dream of stabilizing prosperity with excessive violence and explicit anti-colonial themes. Benjamin Noys argues for a deeper analysis of an intensely political cinematic genre

By Benjamin Noys
Mute Magazine

Cleaning up the Whole World

Gilberto Perez remarks that 'the Western doesn't just tell violent stories, it tells stories about the meaning, the management of violence, the establishment of social order and political authority'.1 Perez elsewhere concedes that the Western runs 'a gamut of political persuasions',2but is keen to emphasise that in the classical American Western this 'management of violence' takes the form of a 'vital dialectic'3 in which is synthesised a 'civilized violence'.4 Serving his deliberately provocative re-imagination of the 'frontier' as equivocal site of liberty, Perez regards the Western as the romance of the birth of a new political order through the, often literal, marriage of East and West, in which violence plays the role of a 'vanishing mediator'. Such an argument hardly seems to hold for the Italian Western of the 1960s and 1970s, often known affectionately or derogatorily as 'Spaghetti Westerns', in which the excessive hyper-violence associated with the form makes it difficult to see how it might be pressed into service for a 'vital dialectic' of 'civilised violence'. The very excess of the violence on display, as well as its displacement from the 'mythological' place of America, fragments any dialectical sublation of violence within a national or political order.

This suggests a very different 'political persuasion', and very different questions concerning the 'management of violence'. In fact, objections to Spaghetti Westerns, often by critics enamoured of classic American Westerns (or 'Hamburger Westerns'5, in Christopher Frayling's mischievous suggestion), were usually founded on their 'excess' of violence. Philip French, writing in 1972, describes a filmography of continental Westerns as 'to me read[ing] like a brochure for a season in hell.'6A surprisingly apposite comment as we will see. Spaghetti Westerns, in fact, constructed a form of violence that carried a rather different and more intense charge. Franco Nero, who played the eponymous 'Django' in the seminal Spaghetti Western, remarked:

Spaghetti Westerns were for a certain kind of audience - the workers, I think. Mainly workers, boys... yes, all kinds of workers - and the workers they fantasize a lot, and they would like to go to the boss in the office and be the hero and say 'Sir, from today, something's going to happen.' And then - bam, bam! they want to clean up the whole world.7

A rather extreme example of the refusal of work, although if one considers the strategies and intensity of conflict in Italy between 1968-1977 - 'Our Comrade P.38' as one anonymous tract had it - 'clean[ing] up the whole world', gains a prescient resonance.8

This is reinforced by Johanna Isaacson's argument that the genre films of the late '60s and '70s belong to a 'moment when it was taken for granted that genre film was political to the bone, reflecting the subjectivity, anger and tastes of a radicalized proletarian sensibility.'9The question of violence, in terms of audience, turns here on sensibility: bourgeois or proletarian? The Spaghetti Western is, I would argue, exactly the archetypal film form of this moment, to quote Isaacson again, 'appealing to both [the] proletarian desire for spectacle and for representations of political repression.'10Although this schema of divided sensibility is too simplistic, not least in its supposition of a unified 'proletarian sensibility', it draws attention to the 'class' charge of violence emergent in these films. While this often takes overtly and unequivocally political forms, as we will see, what I want to focus on here are a small number of films that take their 'representations of political repression' into the realms of what Gail Day, in a very different context, has identified as a 'left-oriented nihilism'.11 These are Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) and The Big Silence (1969) (also known as The Great Silence), and Guilio Questi's gothic horror Spaghetti Western Django Kill! / If You Live Shoot (1967). Produced and shown on the cusp of the eruption of the most militant workers' movement in Europe, these films display a striking nihilist politics that internalises and prefigures the experience of defeat.

Popular Excessive Violence

First, some context: between 400 and 450 Italian westerns were made, according to Christopher Frayling, in the period from 1963 to the mid-1970s.12 The most familiar are obviously the works of Sergio Leone, who broke out from the 'ghetto' of popular filmmaking into the category of auteur. The 'other Sergio' - Sergio Corbucci (1927-1990) - is perhaps a more representative figure of the cycle, especially with his work Django. It should be noted that although Spaghetti Westerns are often regarded as hyper-violent works, a large number were 'guns and gadgets' Westerns, heavily indebted to the Bond movies and with a comic streak, such as the charming Sabata (1969), starring Lee Van Cleef complete with four-barrelled derringer.

Broadly to characterise the whole 'cycle' of Italian Westerns, we can borrow Philip French's comment on post-Wild Bunch American Westerns:

At a social level the movies are reflecting current concerns and anxieties; from a commercial point of view a profitable subject is being exploited that seems to go down well at the box office; viewed aesthetically, the cycle of movies is offering a cumulative series of variations upon an established theme.13

In terms of the aesthetic 'variations' it is worth noting that many of the instances that seem most singular to the Italian Western, especially of masochistic violence, in fact occurred previously in American Westerns or in the immediate source material for Spaghetti Westerns: Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). Yojimbo, its plot almost certainly derived from Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key (1931) and Red Harvest (1929) (Hammett was an anti-fascist who joined the American Communist Party in 1937, pleaded the Fifth in a case linked to the communist witch hunts in 1951, served time in prison for contempt of court, and was later blacklisted), literally set the pattern of the lone hero playing off two gangs against each other to their mutual destruction, and also the tendency to quasi-homosocial or homoerotic torture scenes.

So, we are talking here of what Christopher Frayling calls 'formula cinema', but at the same time we have to recognise that this was an intensely political genre cinema.14 Obviously, as I've just noted, its source material is broadly left-wing, with Hammett's account of corruption and collusion linking to the general 'populist' politics of the Western (although we should well note, as Philip French does, the limits of that 'politics': 'the Western is ill-equipped to confront complex political issues in a direct fashion. The genre belongs to the American populist tradition which sees all politics and politicians as corrupt and fraudulent'.15) Also, to court the 'intentional fallacy', many of the directors and writers of these films were men, and yes men, of the left; either communists or sympathisers often energised by the emergent struggles of the 1960s, especially the Cuban revolution and the struggle of the Vietnamese against the Americans.

In the extensive debate on the politics of the possibilities of 'popular' film versus more Brechtian and modernist strategies of alienation that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it may be surprising now to realise that Spaghetti Westerns played a key role. Pierre Baudry, writing in Cahiers du Cinema during its most haut-Marxist period, noted, in 1971, the shifting and recurring patterns of these genre films, especially in their exploration of the dynamics of colonialism and revolution through moving from the 'Gringo'/Bandit pairing to the 'Gringo'/Mexican revolutionary pairing. Ultimately he found wanting this 'commercial' cinema, preferring the austere path that was to be taken by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Brechtian critique of the Western, Vent D'Est (1970).

In fact, much of the political discussion of the Spaghetti Western has focused on these 'pairing' films, which contain obvious reflections on Vietnam, as well as Italy's own situation. The best of these is probably A Bullet for the General (1967), which was scripted partly by Franco Solinas, who was also responsible for writing The Battle of Algiers (1966), and for the script for what we could consider as the finest film on this theme of coloniser/colonised pairings: Queimada / Burn! (1969), which were both directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Solinas' impeccable political credentials, his deliberate decision to work in the popular medium of the Western as a political act, and his sophisticated inclusion of Fanonian themes, all make the politics of these films striking and evident. What I am concerned with are films with a rather less direct politics, a politics in which the excess of violence is not placed in a 'revolutionary' or anti-colonial context, but operates in a more 'free-floating' and ambiguous form.

Epic Nihilism

Key to my analysis is the conjugation of 'epic nihilism', derived from Badiou's analysis in The Century where he remarks: 'may your force be nihilistic, but your form epic.'16 We can find this conjunction already encoded in the Ur-work of the Spaghetti Western genre: Sergio Corbucci's Django. Here, the epic form of the Western is, literally, dragged through the mud - in its striking opening sequence in which Django drags a coffin through the mud; a coffin, as we later find out, that contains the machine gun with which he will exterminate his adversaries. The town at the centre of the usual plot of playing off rival gangs is bathed in mud, and the film ends in a gunfight in a cemetery in which Django, with smashed hands, painfully and finally manages to shoot his chief tormentors after mounting his gun on a grave cross. It is not difficult to identify the mud as an allegory of the practico-inert, with Django becoming mired in the inertia that seems to afflict the supposedly decisive Spaghetti Western hero.17

This is reflected in the constant delay of revenge which affects Django, and many of the other heroes of these films. Once they become involved in double-crossing the competing gangs, these heroes persistently fail to act and as a result are usually tortured before exacting 'final' revenge. The films themselves, despite their bursts of hyper-violent action, are also tortured in their following of this repetitive path of delay and finally action. Of course, we could make the usual references to Hamlet, or to psychoanalytic explanations based on the displacement of murderous desires, but it strikes me how these films also mimic the affective texture of the working day. Django's own 'mechanical' killing, carried out with the Gatling gun, is over promptly, but seems to leave him as mere 'appendage' of the machine (to use Marx's phrase). The freelance 'labour' of the gunfighter is filled with longueurs, in a state of a kind of proto-precarity awaiting a new contract, or failing to execute a supposedly personal and pressing desire. What we have here is a strange tempo of labour that retards and confines action to sporadic outbursts of 'acting out', which appears to require the extremities of torture to 'activate'. Even the recurrent trope of the usually deliberately inflicted injury to the hero's gun hand, which can be found in Django and other films, seems to have the echo of the industrial accident. Despite the 'hopeful' ending of Django, in which the hero escapes with his life, his time as a gunslinger is presumably over.

In fact I wonder if these films do not take place in the 'factory-universe' described by Maurice Blanchot.18 This is a space of infinite repetition, excess, and the vacancy of Being. The deliberately hellish towns which our heroes tarry in figure this space. As Blanchot puts it, of the factory:

There is no more outside - you think you're getting out? You're not getting out. Night, day, there's no difference, and you have to know that retirement at sixty and death at seventy will not liberate you. Great lengths of time, the flash of an instant - both are equally lost.19

The factory is the space of infinite excess, of 'the infinite in pieces', figured in the broken and ruptural spaces through which the Spaghetti Western hero drifts, or becomes mired.20 These enclosed towns are not the wide open plains or vistas of monument valley, or even Almería, but have no more outside; are circles of hell (a metaphor literalised by Clint Eastwood in his post-Spaghetti Western High Plains Drifter (1973), as his hero has the town road sign painted red and renamed 'Hell').

Interminable Inertia

In Corbucci's later The Big Silence it will be snow that performs a similar function of signifying this inertial time. These two films by Corbucci are, to borrow Maurice Blanchot's phrase, 'condensed around thick living substances, which are at once over-abundantly active and of an interminable inertia.'21 We can take this as a certain coagulation of living labour in dead labour, and dead time, in which the performance of virtuosity is only ever fleeting, and forever punished. The 'production line' of killing runs on receding amounts of living labour, as value production is mechanised into the machine gun. Taking this motif of inertia to the extreme, The Big Silence also takes the usual taciturn Western hero to the limit, with the character of 'Silence' (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is mute due to mutilation by bounty hunters (or 'bounty killers' as the film usually prefers) when he was a child. Again, we have the tempo of freelance labour, as Silence intervenes in a small-scale war between the 'bounty killers', who 'operate according to the law', in pursuing the former townspeople and farmers who have been driven into banditry by the actions of Pollicutt, the banker and Justice of the Peace.

This political fable, which follows closely the usual script of political populism - good people driven to 'social banditry' by a corrupt law - is complicated by the film's own seeming lack of faith in this story. Silence works for money, but works, again, in a lackadaisical and intermittent fashion. In contrast, the leading bounty killer Tigrero (an excellent performance by Klaus Kinski), is a model of sadistic efficiency: killing in the most expedient fashion, loading his dead victims onto the stage, and assiduously collecting his 'reward' (with a cut going to the banker Pollicutt). Upbraided by the new sheriff, Tigrero remarks: 'Every business has its own risks and rules'. Later, after having got the drop on the sheriff, who has lectured him on justice replacing violence, Tigrero kills him and remarks the only law is 'survival of the fittest': Homo homini lupus, although, as Tigrero notes to his friends 'when are wolves afraid of wolves?'

Of course the true destruction of this fable of populism, and proof of the power of the 'representation of political repression', is the film's ending. The comedic sheriff character is drowned in a frozen river when Tigrero shoots out the ice from under him to ensure an 'accidental' death. The town's prostitute matron, who had a touchingly comic and halting relationship with the sheriff, is shot by Tigrero after he has baited her with news of the sheriff's death. Although the sheriff had planned to feed the 'bandits' pending an amnesty this plan now turns into a fatal trap as Tigrero's men capture them when they come for the food. Silence, his hands ruined in a fight, and his female companion, wife of one of the men he is avenging, are gunned down by Tigrero after Silence refuses to flee and chooses instead to fight. As a result the 'bandits', tied-up in the saloon, are massacred. The 'civilising vital dialectic' of violence is broken, but, as Tigrero says, 'all according to the law'. He and the bounty killers plan to return to collect their now considerable bounties, as the distinction of law-making and law-preserving violence is broken through the 'law' of original accumulation that pays for the necessary violence required at all points.

Foul Gold

These thematics reach their baroque extreme in Guilio Questi's Django Kill!. Questi was not interested in making a Western. Instead, when offered such a project he took the opportunity to make a more personal film that dealt with his experiences as an anti-fascist partisan: 'I wanted to recount all of the things, the cruelty, the comradeship with friends, the death, all the experiences I had of war, in combat, in the mountains.'22 The result is a work of convulsive and violent beauty. If Jansco's The Round-Up (1965) is a film of the balletic choreography of physical repression, Django Kill! is a film of violence, sexual and physical, as carnivalesque, and the non-sequiturs of repressive desublimation.

It begins with the hand of the central character, the stranger (played by Tomas Milian), emerging from a grave to a surprisingly jaunty Western tune. In a series of bizarrely edited flashbacks (at one point a body appears to roll uphill in a reverse of the actual shot), we learn he was betrayed by a gang of outlaws led by the racist Oaks after their successful robbery of a gold shipment. Rescued by highly unlikely mystical-hippy 'Indians', who smelt his share of the gold into bullets, the stranger determines to take revenge on the gang.

The outlaws, meanwhile, have arrived in quite the most disturbing town, which makes Dogville look like a good choice for a holiday, and is known by the Indians as 'the unhappy place'. Riding in they see a naked boy playing with himself, a girl twisting the hair of a playmate, a man retching, a young girl under the boot of 'uncle Max', a woman threatening to bite her husband, and a crippled hedgehog (!). Soon recognised by the townspeople, the outlaws are killed in a carnivalesque episode of 'civilising' violence; complete with beatings, hangings, stringing-up bodies, drowning, and close-up head shot executions. Arriving in time to find Oaks holed up in a store and fighting for his life, the stranger agrees to take $500 for killing him. Confronting Oaks, who remarks, 'you've come back from hell', they engage in a quasi-comedic shoot out. Oaks is left bullet-ridden but still alive. A local criminal boss Zorro (or Sorro - the dubbing is unclear) realises gold is at stake and wants Oaks alive for interrogation. Digging the bullets out of him (the 'doctor' remarks 'you won't feel a thing' to the groaning and screaming of Oaks), 'honest citizens' tear him apart when they realise these are gold bullets.

Structured by the 'factional' pattern, with the hero moving between them, we have three 'groups' in the town. The barman Tembler, initially in alliance with the Alderman, but who later split over the gold, creating the 'faction' of Alderman and his mad wife, and finally Zorro, with his black clad and often open-shirted gang, which, Questi points out somewhat redundantly, as fascisti. The stranger stays with each of these groupings in the course of the film, moving from Tembler's saloon to Zorro's hacienda, then to Alderman's domestic gothic. In each case these surrogate families are constructed through an hysterical and excessive sexuality: at Tembler's, his son Evan's violent rejection/desire for his father's mistress, Flory, is expressed by his slashing her clothes; at Zorro's, a now kidnapped Evan, being used to extract the gold from Tembler, is sexually-abused, off screen, by Zorro's gang, who have been taught by Zorro to 'enjoy good things'. Evan commits suicide in the morning and, in one of the more sinister remarks in a remarkably sinister film, Zorro says 'He didn't want to be a man... a man who can take on responsibilities, a man who does what he must and accepts it.' Finally, at the Alderman's house the stranger is seduced by the Alderman's deranged wife who, in full Bertha Mason mode, will later burn the house down.

These 'sexual' exchanges are mirrored in the film's use of the stolen gold as the 'object' that inscribes a lack and excess, equivalent to the structuralist mana, the dummy hand, Othello's handkerchief, Poe's purloined letter; the empty object that 'circulates' in the structure, and everywhere brings death and passes through death and corpses. Seized in the massacre of the soldiers guarding the shipment, then the execution of the 'disposable' members of the gang, the smelting of the gold bullets from the share interned with the stranger, the 'liberation' of the rest of the shipment through the killing of the bandits, the literal extraction of the gold torn from the still-living flesh of Oaks, the gold which then leads to Evan's sexual abuse and suicide, which is stashed in his coffin, and finally the half share that melts in the fire set by Alderman's mad wife and encases him as a living gold corpse.

The gold has the function of motivational value but, if not quite converted into the Freudian equivalent of excrement, has the levelling, if not nihilist, function of equivalence through death and the 'abusability' of bodies. To use one of Marx's favourite quotes from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens:

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods, I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens! Thus much of this will make black white; foul, fair; Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.

The 'common whore of mankind' is, precisely, the 'quilting point' (le point de capiton) of sexual and social violence, to use the Lacanian term.23 Gold functions in Django Kill! as the 'floating signifier' par excellence, it is the term that unifies the ideological field and texture of the film's universe. At the same time, within that universe, we see demonstrated the excess violence implicit in this ideological structure that is usually concealed by the seeming 'neutrality' of money as 'general equivalent'. In Marx's terms gold is rendered as the 'visible God', but the 'alienated capacity of mankind', in Marx's words, has no possibility of return or recovery.24

Unbroken Inward Rebellion

What we have in these works is the displacement of the epic towards Badiou's inscription of an 'epic nihilism' that is inflected by the passion for the real. That 'passion' is not simply the revolutionary passion, but rather the 'passion' of the everyday brutality and enmity of capitalism. In Engels' memorable characterisation, from the Condition of the Working Class in England:

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live - forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence - knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.25

The Spaghetti Western, in its political guise, gives form to this violence as literal murder - deriving from the explicit violence of original accumulation a figuration of inexplicit everyday violence.

This experience was raw in an Italy that had witnessed large scale internal migration from the rural South to the newly industrialising North during the 1950s and 1960s. The influx of young male workers, no doubt the viewers Franco Nero had in mind, experienced both a 'late' form of 'primitive' or better, 'original accumulation', and the immersion in the new inertial world of factory labour. The Spaghetti Western, probably inadvertently, mediates this experience that binds together these experiences - displacement, the rural, inertial labour, and the precarious violence that composes the 'rule of (capitalist) law'.

The excess of the Spaghetti Western's violence reveals the violence encrypted in labour: in the subsumption of living labour, the pumping out of value, and the replacement of living labour with dead labour. This 'epic' takes a tragic form; Marx remarks in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: 'Wages are determined by the fierce struggle between capitalist and worker. The capitalist inevitably wins.'26 The Spaghetti Western is the film of defiance in the face of an awareness of the experience of defeat unfolding through militancy and the acceleration of armed struggle.27 This is a radicalised proletarian sensibility that is not simply a joyous celebration of violence against the bosses, though it is that, but also awareness of the logic of repression, and resistance to the epic tone of prophesying or fantasising victory, and denying defeat, that took hold in certain factions of the movement, armed and otherwise, of the 1970s.

This epic nihilism, given a more elegiac tone in Peckinpah's work, now seems to figure the crisis of labour, a long drawn out defeat, the de-energising of nihilism into the superfluity of labour. In fact, we might revise or question the projective fantasies that could attach to such a sensibility, and see instead something more austere in that excess, a registration of historical defeat in advance that depends on the incorporation of such defeats at the bodily level.

Engels recognised that the violence of the capitalist class resulted in a counter violence:

There is, therefore, no cause for surprise if the workers, treated as brutes, actually become such; or if they can maintain their consciousness of manhood only by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie in power.28

His prophesy was that communism would mitigate and civilise this violence, providing it with its dialectic. The communist aim to do away with class antagonisms displaced it from embracing a bloody war of classes: 'In proportion, as the proletariat absorbs socialistic and communistic elements, will the revolution diminish in bloodshed, revenge, and savagery.'29

The Spaghetti Western, in the instances I've traced, does not seem so sanguine about this dialectic, and in fact aligns the experience of hatred and nihilism in the experience of defeat that is everyday experience. Lacking faith in the victory of proletarian violence over the technological and politically inflated violence of the capitalist state and capitalist economy it resonates in registering an antagonism, but is less hopeful that the solution to the riddle of history can be achieved.

Benjamin Noys <> is a theorist living in Bognor Regis. His most recent book is The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. His blog is


1 Gilberto Perez, 'House of Miscegenation', review of Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, by Robert Pippin, London Review of Books, 32 no.22, 2010, pp.23-26,

2 Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, p.241.

3 Ibid., p.247.

4 Ibid., p.234.

5 Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998, p.xix.

6 Philip French, Westerns, London: Secker & Warburg/The British Film Institute, 1977, p.9.

7 In Frayling, op. cit., p.xi.

8 Anon., 'Let's Do Justice to Our Comrade P.38', in Italy: Autonomia, Post-Political Politics, Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (Eds.), Semiotext(e) III.3, 1980, pp.120-121.

9 Johanna Isaacson, 'You Just Tarried with the Wrong Mexican: Machete and the Aesthetic Politics of Negation', Lana Turner Journal Blog, 2010,

10 Ibid.

11 Gail Day, Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p.3.

12 Frayling, op. cit., p.x.

13 French, Westerns, p.43.

14 Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, p.xxi-xxii.

15 French, op. cit., p.43.

16 Alain Badiou, The Century, trans., with commentary and notes, Alberto Toscano, Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity, 2007, p.85.

17 The 'practico-inert' is a term coined by Jean-Paul Sartre in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), defined as a field of activity, which, despite being the outcome of a successful struggle by some group, has ceased to be responsive to that group's needs. Bureaucracy is the classic example of a 'practico-inert'. From

18 Maurice Blanchot, ''Factory-Excess', or Infinity in Pieces', in Political Writings, 1953-1993, trans. and intro. Zakir Paul, foreword Kevin Hart, New York: Fordham University Press, 2010, pp.131-132.

19 Ibid., p.131.

20 Ibid., p.132.

21 Maurice Blanchot, Lautréamont and Sade, trans. Stuart Kendall and Michele Kendall, Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2004, p.68.

22 In Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die, Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2009, p.143.

23 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso, 1989, p.87.

24 Karl Marx, Early Writings, intro. Lucio Colletti, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975, p.377.

25 Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844, Chp.7, Marxists Internet Archive,

26 Karl Marx, op. cit., p.282. 27 I owe this point to Giovanni Tiso. 28 Engels, op. cit., Chp.7. 29 Engels, op. cit., Chp.13.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Gun Control and the Lesser Known Reasons for the 2nd Amendment

By Carl Davidson
Keep On Keepin' On

I'm a 2nd Amendment guy from a semi-rural area of Beaver County in Western PA. Most folks around here have guns, but my guess, judging from the debate in our local paper's letter's page, is that most of them are also reasonable on gun control, not to mention horrified by the latest school slayings.

None of the Amendments in Bill of Right is absolutist dogma, including the 2nd Amendment. A line has to be drawn somewhere, unless you want to insist of anyone's 'right' to own Bazookas or Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that can readily take out tanks, helicopters or jetliners taking off from the airport.

Where do you want to draw it? I say ban these military capacity weapons and their large magazines, but keep our deer rifles and shotguns--for those of sound mind who want to keep them. I'm also for thorough  registration, full background checks-all to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, those convicted of violent crimes and those under 'orders of protection' regarding domestic violence.

But waging the 'gun control' debate often misses a deeper question that need to be highlighted. The main purpose of the 2nd Amendment, when it was adopted, had little to do with deer or varmint hunting or individual home defense.

The 'well-regulated militia,' in the eyes of many of the Founders, was for several purposes: putting down slave insurrections, seizing land and destroying threats from native peoples, and defending local governments, usually pro-slavery, against the possible 'tyranny' of a federal government that might become inclined against slavery.

In our modern age, this purpose carries over among our rightwing populists. A good number of them, to read their blogs, want military-style weapons as 'defense' against Black or Mexican 'hordes', or a government 'too left' to their liking. A handful of them have been brazen enough to state this openly on a few talk shows, but only rarely.

It remains, however, the main reason the NRA core leadership and others of their ilk insist of their right to weapons with a military-scale capacity. That's the real reason behind what seems to be the unreason and stubbornness you heard at the NRA's press conference.

I have no fear whatsoever of 'hordes' of people of color; however, I do worry about those who do, especially if they're organized in modern-day 'militias.' Finding a compromise will be tougher than it seems, and this bit of hidden backward thinking is one of the key obstacles. But all of us with any sense have got to put our shoulders to the wheel.

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