What might it mean to have “something” to lose? If this question seems silly, indulge its silliness for a moment, for I want to suggest that it might tell us something important about how we understand the relationships among ownership, attachment, and identification. If I fail to accomplish such an ambitious agenda, excuse that as well. Writing in this abbreviated medium necessitates the constant use of ellipses.
The initial question springs from what has been a constant tic, or refrain, in the media and on blogs, that the young men (and one would suppose old men, too) who “perpetrated” the grossest attacks had “nothing to lose.” They are, we presume, jobless, have no material property worth “any value,” and, supposedly, lack the sense of attachment to place or people that might halt their attacks. Having “nothing to lose,” they do not understand “what it means to lose.” Something about this formulation nags me.
It might be the idea that “something” is necessarily material, which means it has a price tag. In this logic, those without cars cannot know what it means to own a car. They do not value the labor that goes into acquiring the car, owning a car, operating a car. They cannot appreciate that petrol is expensive, waxing takes times, and changing tires is arduous. Not having experienced the material processes of owning a car, they have no basis for comparison. As such, they can stone a car with impunity. This idea we can quickly dispense with, for it is precisely because those without cars understand the value attached to a car that they choose to attack it. In fact, by attacking the car, the attackers affirm its value.
But what if “something” is less material and more emotional? In this scenario, those who attack others’ property and kill others lack a capacity for sympathy, the morality and ethics that would make them good citizens or, perhaps, simply good company. Lacking a capacity for feeling toward others, those who attack do not lose what we like to term, euphemistically, their “humanity.” They are, to use old poststructuralist cant, always already monsters, dehumanized. Lacking the capacity for attachment, those with “nothing to lose” are always already lost.
However, to assume that “those with nothing to lose” have never had “anything to lose,” be it material or emotional, has the inadvertent (though deliberate) effect of removing “them” from history and historical processes. If “those with nothing to lose” have never had “anything to lose,” then we with “everything to lose” or “something to lose” become the normative subjects of history (or the state and nation) and, this is the crucial point, need not account for or consider how those with “nothing to lose” became the ones with “nothing to lose.”
In a more simplified way: how do we restore potential and “something” to the young men with “nothing to lose” so that we can understand their condition as inextricably bound to ours, not aberrant, not opposed, but, more precisely, proximate and intimate. What have these young men lost? What do they have to lose? And how might it be important?
Here’s the more complex and, arguably, difficult question: in claiming that the young men have “nothing to lose” do we implicitly indict ourselves as the ones who “took everything,” leaving “nothing” for them to lose?
The question is difficult because it traverses the material and emotional, and refuses to grant us the innocence of victimhood or the moral shock of the middle-class. We would like to think, for instance, that unequal distribution of wealth is solely attributable to our so-called leaders. Asked about social inequity, we point quickly and readily to “those who steal.” We “ordinary” Kenyans, and I would like to put pressure on that ordinary, “struggle” to survive. Now, I do not mean to minimize the forms of economic erosion that have made ordinary, once sustainable lives occasions for struggle. But I would like to complicate the notion that our gains are independent of others’ losses.
In terms of the emotional, which is really more my forte, I am interested in how the idea of the “normal” Kenyan, the one with “something to lose,” is predicated on certain foundational ideas of what it means to have and to nurture attachments, and how those attachments, which are often taken to be natural, are actually deeply embedded in material conditions. For instance, accounts of domestic and family violence among poor (and I don’t mean working class, I mean poor) populations are often depicted as perversions of humanity. We, in our middle-class morality, wonder how “anyone could dare” to “do that” to “a child,” “a wife,” “a woman.” What remains unexamined is to what extent these forms of familial attachment are, to cite Hortense Spillers, not natural, but cultivated under specific material circumstances. To say this is not to claim any sort of deterministic relationship between class and forms of familial attachment. It is to suggest, however, that forms of familial attachment emerge within material circumstances.
Rather than claim, then, that certain young men have “nothing to lose,” we might begin to ask how we started believing that they had “nothing to lose?” In claiming they have “nothing to lose,” how do we devalue what they both “have to lose” and are in the process of losing? How, in other words, do we complicate the state-sanctioned narratives that would distinguish between the “good citizen,” the “mwananchi,” the one with “something to lose,” and the “bastard” child who lives only to destroy?