Two Dead Whistleblowers: History’s Lessons on Capitalist Violence

I’ve been listening to arguments in favor of capitalism for at least a couple decades now, since long before I started wanting a different system. Most often, people will point to the “failures” of 20th-century efforts to create something else, but if you take the time to drill down past the examples, and the factors that led to those failures, the conversation often ends up in some form of naturalization. Capitalism is the best we can hope for, because it’s the natural state of things, and/or because human nature is inherently selfish, and so we should have a system that acknowledges and uses that fact.

Personally, I think if you believe that about humans, then capitalism makes even less sense than left-wing systems. History has been pretty clear about what happens when you give the most wealth and power to those most obsessed with increasing their personal wealth and power. Those people are pretty much always going to use what they have to change the system to give themselves even more wealth and power, no matter the cost to the rest of us. After all, that’s what they’ve been doing for their whole lives, and they’re celebrated for it.

This also calls into question another common argument I see, that our society has “advanced”, and learned from past mistakes, so the militancy of labor movements past is no longer necessary or helpful. That opinion seems to be in decline, as the abuses of the owning class become more blatant, but I still run into it from time to time. If human nature is unchanging, then surely modern capitalists would be just as willing to use violence as the robber barons of old, right?

Capitalist corporations, and the people they serve, have always demonstrated indifference to human life, and intense disdain for human happiness. This can be seen in their constant fight to get more hours from their workers, for less pay, their hatred of safety and environmental regulations, and their apparent scorn for the wellbeing of their customers. This is true whether it’s Johnson and Johnson knowingly selling asbestos to be used on babies, or Boeing knowingly selling unsafe airplanes. Why, then, would we expect them to suddenly value the lives of their workers, when those workers are standing in their way?

Personally, I don’t buy that narrative about human nature. Humans are complex, and shaped by the world around us, including those parts of the world that we ourselves create. What I do believe is that our system is designed to empower and reward the same kind of thinking and behavior as it did back when bosses were hiring thugs to fire machine guns at striking workers. Similar incentives tend to yield similar results.

Readers of this blog probably saw the headlines when John Barnett, a whistleblower who was testifying in a case against Boeing, was found dead, killed by a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound back in March. Suicide is a complicated phenomenon, and sometimes it can take those left behind by surprise. That said, those who knew the man seem convinced that he did not take his own life, including a claim that he had explicitly stated that any declaration of his suicide should not be believed.  We may never know for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

And then, just a couple days ago, a second whistleblower died, this time from a sudden respiratory illness, at age 45. His name was Joshua Dean.

It was a stunning turn of events for Dean and his family. Green says he was very healthy — someone who went to the gym, ran nearly every day and was very careful about his diet.

“This was his first time ever in a hospital,” she said. “He didn’t even have a doctor because he never was sick.”

But within days, Dean’s kidneys gave out and he was relying on an ECMO life support machine to do the work of his heart and lungs. The night before Dean died, Green said, the medical staff in Oklahoma did a bronchoscopy on his lungs.

“The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it before in his life. His lungs were just totally … gummed up, and like a mesh over them.”

Green says she has asked for an autopsy to determine exactly what killed her son. Results will likely take months, she said.

“We’re not sure what he died of,” she said. “We know that he had a bunch of viruses. But you know, we don’t know if somebody did something to him, or did he just get real sick.”

Now, just as suicide is a thing that happens, so is sudden, lethal illness at 45. That said, the timing is odd, isn’t it? And as we’ve already established, the giant corporation that makes military aircraft and sells unsafe planes to increase their profits does not value human life the way you or I do, and neither do the people running that corporation.

We may never know for for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

So what’s my point here? Is it just to ensure that my suspicion is shared by my readers? Well, partly, but it’s more than that. I also think that those of us who want to build a better world would be well advised to acknowledge that we are up against people who have the means, motive, and I would say inclination to kill those who threaten their wealth and power. Depending on your perspective, Dear Reader, this may sound like I’m understating the case, or like I’m paranoid, but I absolutely believe that most capitalists would purchase the death of an opponent and not lose a wink of sleep, if they thought they could get away with it.

Therefor, I believe it is necessary for workers to cooperate, and have each others’ backs, and to build the kind of organized, collective power that cannot be stopped just by killing leaders or whistleblowers. I don’t know whether either of these men would have wanted a union security detail, for example, but it seems like something that should be available. The one bit of good news – insofar as any of this mess can be called “good” – is that the entirely coincidental and innocent deaths of John Barnett and Joshua Dean have led ten more whistleblowers to step forward. That’s the kind of solidarity that can make a movement unstoppable – cut off two heads, ten more take their place.

It seems like we’re entering an era in which, to quote Dennis the Peasant, we are seeing the violence inherent in the system. Capitalists are over-reaching, and the results of their greed are eating away at the foundations of society, leaving it as unstable as infrastructure in the United States. Whether it’s by firing organizers, brutalizing activists, or assassinating whistleblowers, those at the top will use violence to keep their place above us. Thankfully, history doesn’t just teach us about the viciousness of the powerful, it also teaches us that together, we are stronger. Individuals and leaders can be shut down or shot down, but the movement carries on.



    Same old capitalism. A couple decades ago, workers who died in the course of their work in Washington State were limited to workman’s comp payments, and could not sue the employer for wrongful death. Then came a Boeing memo discussing that the company could eliminate a couple deaths a year if it did X, but X was more expensive than making the workman’s comp payments, so let them die. This led the state courts to create a deliberate acts exception to the ban on suing employers.

  2. billseymour says

    I don’t know whether either of these men would have wanted a union security detail, for example, but it seems like something that should be available.

    This boomer’s paternal grandfather, James Seymour, was a big shot in the Carpenters’ Union back in the early days (Business Manager IIRC).  My father, Walter Seymour, and my uncle, James Jr., were basically sergeants at arms at the meetings.  That’s just n = 2; but, yes, I’d guess that there would be many union members who would happily become part of a physical fight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *