Across town lives a second captive of sorts: a homeless and destitute woman. She has thus far been able to survive by visiting soup kitchens and staying in shelters. However, recent economic downturns, combined with the reduction and removal of government safety net programs, has drastically reduced her options. Desperate, she begins to steal food, gradually becoming more comfortable with breaking the law. One night, after a series of failed shoplifting attempts, she sees a rich Wall Street trader drive into the neighborhood and begin talking to a prostitute. She accosts the man with one of her few remaining possessions: a knife. The rich man does not survive the encounter, but the second captive now has enough money to survive for several more months.
It should go without saying that most would consider the actions of the first captive self-defense, but few would say the same for the second.
Why is this? If it is considered self-defense to fight back against a kidnapper who is slowly starving an individual in his basement, why is it not self-defense to fight back against a kidnapper who is slowly starving an individual on the streets? Is the homeless woman not just as much a victim of the banker as the hostage was to his kidnapper?
True, the city is larger and more open than the basement, but in either case the alternatives to starvation are non-existent should the government remove the collective social safety net. This has happened before: Reagan turned out hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, then callously rationalized his indifference by arguing that "the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice" and deriding the recipients of government programs as "welfare cheats." Today, 15 million children in the U.S. live below the poverty line; tens of thousands of Americans die each year due to lack of health insurance; hundreds of thousands die due to exposure to pollution; opportunities for living, let alone comfortably, are rapidly evaporating and the likelihood of a political solution in 2013 is all but nil.
Neither could the captive on the streets rely on the potential largesse of a passing stranger, because private charity is not equal to the task of caring for the downtrodden in the best of times, let alone during a record recession, and we would not say that the captive in the basement deserved to starve simply because he was unable to catch a mouse or subsist on the basement's roach population. Neither should we excuse the woman's death because she was unable to find a winning lottery ticket or move to a more charitable or resource-rich area (mobility, and unclaimed land, being in finite supply).
What of the circumstances leading up to their capture? If the kidnapped man had been captured due to his own stupidity or drunkenness, we would not excuse his forced starvation. On the other hand, if the homeless woman had foolishly gambled on the stock market or developed a costly drug habit, proponents of the free market would be quick to point out that her starvation was her own fault—that as a rational actor she ultimately decided to starve. In response, we could suppose that the woman was impoverished through nothing more than bad luck (which is entirely unrelated to rationality), or simply ask how this kind of economic rationality is obtainable, especially for those who are already teetering on the brink of total poverty. It has, for example, been established that food insecurity during the formation of a child's brain will inhibit its capacity for language and memory, and that exposure to pollution during pregnancy likewise stunts infant brain growth. If the capacity for rational thought is necessary to excuse the starvation of the second captive, but we cannot even be sure that she has access to the same potential intellect as those born to richer parents, then how could she, or anyone else, have chosen to starve? Even forgetting the physical and mental damage caused by the experience of poverty, how could a struggling family ever evaluate economic decisions with the luxury and clear-headedness of a financially stable competitor? The playing field is simply not equal—poverty, and the danger of starvation, defeats economic rationality.
Knowing this, it is clear that the excess resources currently being held by the richest Americans have not been acquired through any kind of valid or rational exchange; at no point in history has resource redistribution been undertaken to ensure a level or fair playing field—those who got rich by enslaving, oppressing, and killing others have passed along this wealth in an essentially unbroken line to its current holders (and the lack of income mobility in the U.S. attests to this). The rich have no claim to this wealth, and their greed carries horrific consequences for the less fortunate in America, let alone throughout the rest of the world.
The imperilment of both captives is also the consequential result of actions taken by the respective kidnappers. The rich man is perhaps less directly involved in the suffering of the homeless woman, but this is only a difference of degree: all rich capitalists (and indeed, all willing participants in the capitalist system) are directly responsible for the unavailability of resources. We would not excuse the kidnapper by noting that the basement walls also had a hand in the young man's starvation, nor would we do so if he had several accomplices (or several thousand). Guilt spread is not guilt diffused—we all benefit from the suffering of the captives, and are ourselves just as valid targets as the richest banker.
The difference between outcomes is crucial though: violence against the banker would allow one to ameliorate his or her circumstances to a much greater extent than violence against a fellow destitute, a fact which has not escaped the attention of the rich, who work to ensure that unrest stays within the inner city. Yet it is also true that preying on one’s fellow poor is easier than finding a vulnerable, rich banker carrying cash and salable goods—a successful murder against another victim of capitalism might only net a few dollars, but they are in increasing supply and weaker by the day. At the end of the day, this latter action offers no impact on the system itself, whereas targeted violence against the rich serves to both alleviate poverty and strain the system which is maintaining it. We would not, for example, excuse the recent activity of the U.S. military abroad by arguing that some number of its members enlisted to escape poverty; they are engaged in killing their fellow poor, not the ones most responsible for their financial predicament. While the difference of degrees is immaterial from a moral standpoint, it is important from a revolutionary standpoint to focus on the long-term goal of the establishment of a socialist system, and asking those with the greatest capacity to act to take on a greater responsibility in doing so, as well as a greater accountability to their current victims, is justified under any self-defense principle. After all, the kidnapper has the most control over his victim, and letting him go would not endanger the kidnapper in any way.
The homeless woman is in reality as much a captive as the young man, in both a figurative and literal sense. The unavailability of common goods presents a barrier less visible yet no less effective at killing than the walls of the kidnapper's basement. She is morally forgiven for taking the life of the banker in order to feed herself if the young man is morally forgiven for killing his captor in order to escape. Yet violence begets violence, and the resource holders would surely guard their position with every tool at their disposal should their many victims begin to fight back. We arrive at the distressing conclusion of centuries of capitalist greed: we are all both victims and oppressors, trapped in a system that tarnishes us from birth and offers no real recourse to reformers, save the vicious and unthinkable.