Updated: May 24
The year is 180 AD. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor, well-known in modern times for his Meditations, dies peacefully in Vienna from an illness he had contracted while visiting Pannonia. He was surrounded by his servants and advisors, and his final words reportedly included intense feelings of grief for the future of the Empire. Next in the line of succession was Aurelius's eleven-year-old son named Commodus, whom historians remember as terribly corrupt and incompetent. The sixty year reign of Aurelius was a remarkable age of Roman peace, and perhaps out of respect and reverence for the great Emperor, no faction attempted an assassination on the young Commodus to usurp power (or, at least, none that history remembers). A succession without an assassination attempt is an event the united Roman Empire would never see again. Regardless, Commodus was poisoned by his mistress and strangled by an assassin just twelve years later.
Modern society has, for the most part, obscured the incredible danger inherent in the role of sovereign. About one in five Roman Emperors fell victim to assassins during their rule—if you were to select any Roman Emperor between Augustus and Romulus Augustulus at random, they would have more likely suffered death at the hands of an assassin than died of natural causes. These statistics paint a reality foreign to the sensibilities of the modern developed world, but assassination has historically been one of the most common methods of affecting regime change.
The question, then, is: why has assassination fallen out of favor as a tool of politics?
Adam Kotsko identifies two possible explanations. His first is that violent resistance has been replaced by non-violent resistance within liberal politics. This is compelling, as under the liberal system, the only protected form of non-electoral political action is “protest”. The term “protest”, which is characterized as a form of “assembly” in American Constitutional law, purposefully excludes the use of force as legitimate. In the liberal democratic state, the use of violence to achieve political ends is not “protest” but rather “insurrection”, “terrorism” or “militia warfare" (we may argue about whether or not those labels are warranted, but my point is simply that political violence has been "othered" from liberal democratic politics). It is granted that liberalism seeks to delegitimize violent resistance, but this does not explain the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield or McKinley. Perhaps the anti-violent zeitgeist had not yet developed in the nineteenth century, but then how do you explain the killings of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or John and Robert Kennedy? The argument that the liberal system, in legitimizing only “protest” at the expense of violent resistance, breaks down upon greater scrutiny.
Even if we include political violence within a more broad label such as “political resistance” (I admit that arguing over definitions borders on pedantry), has public opinion of violence really changed that drastically in the past century? If it has, then we must identify what specific changes have occurred in the public consciousness to warrant such a reversal. Has the public only just recently internalized the non-aggression principle? Or perhaps we have all accepted Max Weber’s state-monopoly on the use of legitimate force as an immutable guiding principle en masse. Or maybe the lack of violent action is a result of the Pax Americana and is a testament to the stability of American (and likewise, all western-oriented) institutions. Or, in my opinion most likely, there is some other factor besides public opinion of violence that correlates with the declining trend of assassination.
Even if we accept that some massive shift in political norms regarding violence has occurred in the last fifty years, it can hardly be denied that assassination is not a macropolitical phenomenon. Accordingly, assassination is undemocratic and illiberal, and the principles of nonviolent protest within liberal democracy cannot be attributed as a reason for the lack of assassinations in recent history. Just as the taboo of murder does not prevent the existence of murderers, the taboo of assassination (or political violence in general) does not preclude the existence of individuals or conspiracies willing to assassinate.
Kotsko’s alternate reasoning for the assassination gap is that the responsibility for social and political strife has shifted (and is continuing to shift) from public officials to the public itself. This, according to Kotsko, explains why mass shootings are on the rise and assassinations are not. The “neoliberal order”, in “legitimat[ing] itself by offloading responsibility for systemic deficiencies onto individual choices”, incentivizes self-punishment for “our role in societal decay” over the destruction of the representatives in power.
I cannot offer a truly nuanced commentary on Kotsko’s theory because I have not read his book, but I can note that his characterization of mass shootings as “punishment” is fitting—mass shootings are anti-political. An active shooter changes no minds and tramples no regimes; his/her aim is simply wanton destruction (and often recognition for his slaughter). This, however, is much different in aim and category than an assassination, which (for our purposes) is politically motivated. A shift from assassination to mass shooting, then, might be thought of as a shift from political violence to violence for violence’s sake.
This seems to contradict the hyperpolitical, hyperpartisan world we have grown accustomed to. The rationale, however, becomes much more clear if we consider what might happen to assassination at the End of History.
GWF Hegel first wrote about the end of history in 1806 after Napoleon Bonaparte’s resounding victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt. For Hegel, the French victory marked the end of history because the “vanguard of humanity” actualized the basic principles of the French Revolution—a set of principles which could not be improved upon but only realized more extensively. Concerning Napoleon’s influence on absolutist Europe, Hegel writes:
“Thanks to the bath of her Revolution, the French nation has freed herself of many
institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child. These
institutions accordingly once oppressed her, and they now continue to oppress
other nations as so many fetters devoid of spirit…
“This is what gives this Nation the great power she displays against others. She
weighs down upon the impassiveness and dullness of these other nations, which,
finally forced to give up their indolence in order to step out into actuality, will
perhaps—seeing that inwardness preserves itself in externality—surpass their
In hindsight, we know that even if we accept Hegel’s premise that the values championed by the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen are supreme, he was wrong: the Stein-Hardenberg reforms would reinvigorate the Prussian agrarian economy and empower the monarchy. Despite this, the concept of an “end of history”, or a system of government which cannot be improved upon, persisted well beyond the death of Hegel and German Idealism.
The “End of History” is now most associated with the controversial theory advanced by Francis Fukuyama: that Western liberal democracy has actualized an Hegelian universal homogeneous state and has entered a “post-historical” era. If history and conflict are defined by contradictions (e.g. the struggle for the recognition of rights, the relationship between master and slave, or the dichotomy between capitalist and proletarian), the universal homogeneous state is that which resolves, or more precisely overcomes all dialectical contradictions and culminates in a synthesis that contains both the positive and its negation. In the absence of social conflict, there is no need for the general nor the statesman—all that remains is economic activity. This stands in parallel to what Adam Smith considered the final stage of history: the Age of Commerce.
Kotsko’s critique of neoliberalism, which is characterized by the primacy of economic behavior over all other social concerns, is thus intimately related with these theories of historical progress. Let us then analyze the effects of this neoliberal attitude from both a materialist and idealist perspective, and consider how these interpretations might explain the replacement of the assassination with the mass shooting.
The materialist maintains that the realm of consciousness is a superstructure which is wholly determined by material—our ideologies and principles are defined by material conditions, i.e. the mode of production. Ideology, then, exists to legitimize the material base. In forming a logical system which upholds the dominant mode of production and distribution of resources, ideology becomes little more than a linguistic exercise. The end of history, or as the Marxists call it, “utopia”, can only be achieved through the establishment of a mode of production which is free from contradiction, especially the contradiction between the interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
If we view the neoliberal order through this historical materialist lens, we might determine the economic liberalization that Western liberal democracy values so incredibly to simply be a form of self-preservation. The rich seek financial capital and the public officials seek political capital. Neoliberal policy is, as Kotsko points out, a way of obscuring the dialectical relationship between man and his material condition as one party (the ruling elite) prioritizes their own interests at the expense of the proletariat.
How might a materialist approach our discussion of assassinations and mass shootings? He/she would first point out that the emergence of the mass shooting as a frequent method of destruction is a natural and inevitable consequence of the material conditions the perpetrators face. This interpretation aligns with Kotsko’s theory of neoliberal causality, as the reduction of man to simple “economic unit” without political agency might plausibly cause some to develop intense neuroses. Man might be thought of as alienated from his ‘right’ to determine his own future as the political is reduced to the economic. Let us table this point for the time being and first consider the idealist perspective before making any further judgements.
The idealist claims that society can be built from any arbitrary set of principles and is not defined by the material world. The realm of consciousness manifests in the material world in the long run. Max Weber thought that materialism was in fact a superstructure dependent on religion and culture.
An idealist might point out that neoliberal economics is the natural continuation of the principles that define the final stage of a dialectically advancing history: the democratic-egalitarian society. From this perspective, neoliberalism does not “offload” responsibility for social conflict, but rather embraces and overcomes these social contradictions. Fukuyama says that within the Dialectic, this is the only means of progressing towards the post-historical world. Social conflict is not a product of liberal democracy (or neoliberalism, etc.) but actually the result of premodern conditions such as slavery, colonialism, and economic exploitation before the rise of liberalism.
From this point of view, the mass shooting is not a consequence of neoliberal supremacy, but of the failure of neoliberal economics paired with liberal democracy to overcome and resolve historical difficulties. Fukuyama asserts that economic behavior is determined by a prior (historical) state of consciousness. Thus, a population that remembers the contradictions in society before the End of History is unable to completely overcome the consequences.
An issue arises here, however, if you consider the homogeneous state within the larger dialectical framework (bear with me as I attempt to summarize some particularly abstract ideas in Hegel’s Dialectic). Fukuyama’s claim that we have achieved the End of History and that social conflict arises from only historical society is antithetical to the Dialectical system. The course of history is a function of the Practical Idea, the Notion that supersedes the Theoretical Idea of discovering what the world independently is like. The Practical Idea seeks to make the world what it ought to be.
The Practical Idea, Hegel maintains, must actualize itself in both a serious and unserious manner. The Practical Idea is a Notion (for those unfamiliar with Hegel’s lexicon, a Notion is a universal concept whose “nature it is to specify itself in various definite ways and be expressed in a multitude of mutually exclusive individuals” that, in turn, moves forward the Dialectics of Nature and Spirit and culminates in Absolute Spirit, the Idea) that seeks to nullify and master the Object, but is also unserious insofar as its success—the total conformity of the Object to itself—dissolves its raison d’être and nullifies its activity. The mishandling of the Object, then, is integral to the life of Practical Endeavour. In The Science of Logic, Hegel introduces the Practical Syllogism, the premises of which include the Will seizing upon some immediate thing and the use of this immediate thing to reach its general aim. In the end, the Will discovers itself. Hegel writes:
“The execution of the Good in the teeth of an opposed reality is the mediation which
is essential for the immediate relation and realization of the Good. For this
(mediation) is merely the first negation and other-being of the Notion, an objectivity
which would submerge the Notion in externality. The second is the overcoming of
this other-being whereby the immediate execution of the End first becomes the
actuality of the Good as the Notion which has being-for-self, inasmuch as therein it
becomes identical with itself, not with something alien, and is thereby posited as
The Idea of Will develops dialectically into the Idea Absolute when it realizes its view in either. Active Endeavour continues to push against an alien barrier, but the Absolute Idea emerges when the Will realizes this barrier is its own shadow, a reflex of the Active Life. A barrier which cannot be thought to be overcome is definitionally not a barrier (for the notion of a barrier presupposes some other that surpasses the barrier). Due to the rather obtuse nature of Hegel’s prose, it’s best not to paraphrase his conclusions. Here is a passage from the Encyclopædia of the Physical Sciences:
“The Will knows the End to be its own, and the Intelligence sees the World as the
Notion Actual. This is the true attitude of rational cognition. Nullity and transience are
merely the surface, not the true Essence of the World. The true Essence is the
Notion in and for itself [an sich und für sich], and the World is thus itself the Idea.
Unsatisfied endeavour vanishes when we realize that the purpose of the World is
just as much accomplished as it is forever accomplishing itself. This is in general the
attitude of the mature man, whereas youth believes that the World is given over
wholly to evil, and must be remade into something quite different. The religious
consciousness, on the contrary, treats the World as ruled by Divine Providence, and
as accordingly agreeing with what it ought to be. …
“This agreement of what is, and what should be, is nonetheless not rigid and
stationary, since the Good, the Purpose of the World, only exists in so far as it
perpetually engenders itself. Between the spiritual and natural worlds there is still
this distinction, that while the latter only returns continuously to itself, in the former
there also must be progress.”
Since, as Hegel insists, the Absolute Idea is nothing more than the method from which it develops, it is difficult for an Idealist to rationalize the current existence of an homogenous state, the End of History, with the dialectic path to the Absolute Spirit. Such would be the termination of Absolute Endeavour. In other words, man must meet the alien barrier that is beyond his reach. What is (the supposed End of History) and what should be (the Practical Idea, or that state which better achieves the Good) would be stationary. The natural world returns to itself, or in other words, reifies its own concept, whereas the spiritual world is forever progressing. Man can imagine the Purpose of the World but existence is characterized by a constant striving or outstretching to a divine shore beyond his reach.
Let us now return to our earlier materialist determination that neoliberal economics, in stripping man of his political agency, alienates him from his Will. If we are to take this as fact, then the Will will not “know the End to be its own” but rather see it as totally external to itself. Here, I will once again impose a quote from The Science of Logic (the last, I promise):
“The Knowing Subject relates itself through the very nature of its notion its abstract
being-for-self [infinity, or Spirit, which has collapsed into simple being], to an external
world, but it does so in the absolute certainty of itself, in order to raise the reality it
has in itself, this formal truth, to real truth. It has it in its notion to be the complete
essence of the objective world. Its process is to posit the concrete content of the
latter as identical with the notion, and contrariwise the notion as identical with
“The Notion is the absolute certainty of itself, but its being-for-self is opposed by its
presupposition of a world which exists in itself, but whose indifferent other-being
means something inessential for its self-certainty. It is therefore the urge to resolve
the other-being and to behold an identity between itself and the object.”
A totally external world therefore inhibits dialectical motion. The Subject, that is individuated Spirit or the Ego, cannot “behold an identity between itself and the object.”
In this vein, assassination might be interpreted as a political act afforded by self-consciousness. The death and the replacement of a sovereign or politician is legitimate because it returns to the Will its realization of the End. This replacement is indeed necessary for the realization of the Good. The first negation of the Notion of Spirit is that of objectivity, or of new external material conditions. The second negation returns the objectivity to the actuality of the Good, by which man achieves self-consciousness as he identifies the Good as being-for-self. When man is reduced to an economic unit, as Kotsko claims to be a result of neoliberal hegemony, the Subject cannot achieve this good. He is subjugated and stuck in a dialectical history.
In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the four historical stages after consciousness becomes aware of itself, or attains self-consciousness. These stages are the Master-Slave relationship, the Stoical consciousness, Scepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness. The dialectic passes into the Unhappy Consciousness as it recognizes the contradiction between the sceptic consciousness and the positive, natural consciousness it questions. The Ego experiences within itself the Master-Slave antithesis as it locates itself within the things of this world, but continues to reach out toward the divine shore. It cannot, however, do anything more than reach out for the divine, since a nearer approach would rid it of its unhappiness. It’s only in the next stage that consciousness sees its ‘other’, fellow people, positively rather than negatively—it accepts rather than opposes, and enters the realm of Reason.
The Age of Assassination was characterized by Stoicism and Scepticism. Stoic self-sufficiency achieved the idea of freedom, but could never realize freedom in reality. The Sceptic understands that the Stoic espouses only empty platitudes and rejects the laws and morals of the èlite class. This Sceptic consciousness will still only exist alongside the positive consciousness it rejects: within it contains the foundations of the previous consciousness. When one sovereign is assassinated, his predecessor exists in contrast and opposition to the deposed. It is in contrast to this ruler that his successor is defined. The Sceptic consciousness “has in itself the twofold contradictory consciousness of its own unmodifiable equability, as well as of its total inequality and contingency.” The revolution is institutionalized; the sovereign who inherits power accepts the reality of history, while proclaiming and believing in a reality opposed to it.
We have now entered the Unhappy Consciousness. There is an extreme division between the changeable, active world and the abstract and remote Unchangeable that we strive for. Hegel wrote that the defining contradiction in this stage of self-consciousness was the alienation of the living, changing world from the Godhead in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. Perhaps a better analogy in our current world is the glorification of the globalized laissez-faire market as the universal equalizer, a divine shore of equity that stands in utter contradiction to our living reality.
Kotsko is correct in his characterization of the mass shooting as a punishment, but it is not a self-punishment. The preeminence of the active shooter over the assassin is the consequence of a people being alienated from their Will. The shooter is skeptical of the world he inhabits and of the moral judgments placed on him, but also accepts them as the natural order over which he has negligible control. Within him lives the Master-Slave mentality, in the ‘other’ to his self-consciousness he does not see his fellow, equal man, but a slave lesser than himself. A new sovereign will not satisfy him if the regime remains, and the shooter knows he has no power to overthrow the regime. In the sceptic age, the radical would maximize social change (bring to rule a new sovereign) and minimize violence (killing only one person, the head of state). The unhappy conscious inverts this dynamic: the active shooter maximizes violence and does not seek the social change he knows is beyond his reach.
Ironically, where the mass shooter cannot dethrone the sovereign, he can dethrone the assassin as the principal administrator of violence on the body politic. Foucault wrote of the French Revolutionary government and the decline of supplice, public demonstrations of torture, in Discipline and Punish. “As a result,” he writes, “justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice.” Perhaps the shooter, in reclaiming the public responsibility for the wanton violence he commits, seeks his own perverse justice for the annihilation of his political agency. May God have mercy on us all.