Capitalism Is Violence

United Airlines' forcible removal of a passenger exposed the everyday violence that keeps capitalism running.

United Airlines jet at Philadelphia Airport in the early 1960s. Janet Lindenmuth / Flickr

United Airlines violently removed a passenger from an airplane earlier this week. The company had overbooked the flight, which is standard practice in the airline industry, and then failed to entice enough people to give up their seats by offering as much as $800 to anyone who would volunteer. The final solution to the conundrum of too many passengers and not enough seats was to demand certain passengers give up their seats. When one man refused, he was forced out.

The video of the event, which showed the man being beaten and bloodied by the police, went viral and attracted nearly universal condemnation. But the condemnation that I’ve seen so far is very unclear about what the problem is. The video is violent and repulsive, but only insofar as all property and contract enforcement is. The forceful removal of the passenger is not an extraordinary aberration from our civilized capitalist order. Rather, it is an example of the everyday violence (and threatened violence) that keeps that capitalist order running.

To see what I mean, let’s consider two of the objections prominent commentators have made to the video to see how they stand up.

1. Offer to pay the man more.

This argument, especially prominent among economists on Twitter, says that the airline should have resolved the problem by continuing to increase the amount of money it was offering for volunteers to give up their seat until it had a taker. This, it is argued, would have avoided the disturbing violent outcome.

Although it’s likely true that, at some price level, a passenger would have volunteered to get off the plane, it is not clear why the airline should have to offer any of the passengers any money. The property rights in this case are clear: the plane belongs to United Airlines, and the passenger’s ticket does not entitle him to a seat on the airplane in a situation like this where he is commanded to give it up due to overbooking. Thus, he is, according to prevailing thought on this matter, engaged in trespassing.

Do small-l liberal economists really think that, every time someone is trespassing, the owner should have to bribe them to leave? Imagine the incentives that would create. Anyone low on cash could just squat Bill Gates’s house until he paid them enough to go away. Surely this is not what Coase’s theorem imagines.

2. The police involvement was wrong.

Over at the libertarian Reason magazine, Brian Doherty somehow avoided an obvious contrarian libertarian take here and decided instead to write that the episode was bad because the police should not have gotten involved.

While there may be something to be said for the ability for private businesses to summon the help of the police to remove people from their premises if they refuse to leave peacefully and their presence is unwanted, there is no excuse for the police to cooperate when the reason their presence is unwanted is not “causing a disturbance” or being violent or threatening to other customers, or stealing goods or services, or doing anything wrong at all, but rather wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for.

Two things here.

First, Doherty’s ad hoc theory of when the police should not enforce an owner’s property rights is not actually applicable in this case. Doherty concedes that normally it would be okay for a private business to call in the police muscle to enforce its property rights, but then says that this case is special because the passenger was merely “wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for.”

But the terms of the ticket did not entitle the passenger to refuse to leave when he is asked to because of overbooking. According to the rules of the game, his sit-in protest was not legitimate and he was obligated to leave the airplane and catch the next flight.

Second, whether it was the police who did the removal or private security guards does not really seem to matter here. If it was wrong to violently expel this man, then surely it would have been wrong even if United staff did it. On the flip side, if it is the case (and it is) that the man had no contractual or property right to remain on that plane after being told to leave, then surely the police are authorized to enforce the property rights of the airlines. That is, after all, how the system works.

The Point

No matter how you cut it, there does not seem to have been anything wrong with what happened here, under the logic of capitalist institutions. It may not have been a good PR move for the airline. They probably could have avoided it all by gratuitously offering more money to get the trespasser to leave. But none of these points turns the thing into a violation of capitalist ethics. It wasn’t.

Instead of soothing ourselves with the idea that this particular application of violence was illegitimate or extraordinary, we should instead confront it head on as a necessary feature of capitalist society. This kind of violence (or threats of it) is operating all the time.

Why does the homeless man sleep in the doorway of an empty office building instead of inside the building itself? Because the police have threatened to attack him just like they attacked this airline passenger. Why does a poor family go to bed hungry when they could just grab food from the supermarket a few blocks away? Because the police have threatened to attack them just like this passenger.

Of course, these threats of capitalist violence are so credible that few dare to act in ways that will trigger them. But the violence is always there, lurking in the background. It is the engine that makes our whole system run. It is what maintains severe inequalities, poverty, and the power of the boss over the worker. We build elaborate theories to pretend that it is not the case in order to naturalize the human-made economic injustices of our society. But it is the case. Violent state coercion like what you saw in that video is what runs this show.