Friday, September 25, 2015

Deconstructing Willie Sutton


It is time to start taking the near absolute perversity of both Protestantism and Capitalism more seriously as a matter of language, which is also a matter of linguistic and psychological domination.

They manifest themselves in the United States in seemingly mindless anti-slogans like, "I never got a job from a poor person."

This has been repeated so often it becomes part of the Calvinist Capitalist landscape, and in effect constructs that landscape psychologically.

No doubt the vast majority who voice it are merely repeating what they see as an economic insight--to wit, that "jobs" mean money and obtaining money means working for those who have money, to wit, rich people.

As a matter of grammar and semantic reference it is not far from Willie Sutton's legended answer to a reporter who asked him why he robbed banks. According to the reporter Sutton answered with the famous and obvious, "Because that is where the money is".

"Why work for rich people", the radical Leftist asks. "Because that's where the money is" answers the petit bourgeois eager to have a "job" that pays money, or rather answers the Capitalist anti-sloganeer who crafts or disseminates this response for him.

The putative obviousness of Sutton's answer later became a diagnostic rule of thumb in symptomatology, to the effect that in diagnosis one first investigates the more likely causes of a collection of symptoms, and, until those have been ruled out, leaves the least likely to hang fire.

Using Sutton's law, then, is to discount the unlikely until the likely has been disproved. This advances the hypothesis, therefore, that in any particular case the likely and unlikely can be known, and urges diagnostic action on the distinction as a matter of common sense.

A patient appears with all the symptoms of morning sickness. It is a good bet, reasons the doctor, that if the patient is female and fertile, she may be pregnant.

If the patient is male or female but prepubescent or octogenarian, all such bets are off.

In that case the modern physician may very likely consider "sympathetic pregnancy" the most likely and call in the psychiatrists as the first application of Sutton's law.

The same Sutton's law is also now a rule of thumb in the diagnosis of problems in computer hardware and software.

If the computer, for example, has lost power, it is best to see if it is plugged in before investigating other possibilities.

Another application is Activity-based Costing--”ABC”--in Management accounting, where Sutton's Law provides that ABC be applied "where the money is", that is, where the highest costs are incurred, thus where the potential for the highest savings are.

In most businesses the highest costs are invariably labor and wages.

Application of Sutton's law, therefore, often results in huge layoffs and firings as the first response to any attempt to cut losses or invigorate the profit margin.

This only shows how rustic and informal is modern diagnostic reasoning and investigation.

In practice, actually, the physician, who in the United States is also mainly a businessman and works for personal profit, will apply in his diagnosis any one of a score of automated technical tests, whatever the symptoms may be.

Another likelihood is that, again motivated by profit, whatever the diagnosis turns out to be, and curable or not, it will be treated, usually by drugs or surgery or some other far from inexpensive prescription.

Noting this, by the way, is just another application of Sutton's law, founded on the principle that the best diagnosis of physicians in the United States is the profit motive.

In the US in particular, the only industrial nation without national health care, the businesses which are physicians and hospitals have the luxury of another perversely profitable rule, that is, to be paid for treatment not cure.

If, say, plumbers enjoyed the benefit of the same rule, when they treated your toilet, they would be paid their high hourly wage whether or not the “treatment” worked.

The real irony is that Sutton's law is a complete failure when applied to what Willie Sutton said or did not say in response to the reporter, a certain Mitch Ohnstad, who reported his repartee.

In fact, Sutton himself denied the story, though his denial is at least as interesting as the legendary response:

"The irony of using a bank robber's maxim as an instrument for teaching medicine is compounded, I will now confess, by the fact that I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy...

If anybody had asked me, I'd have probably said it. That's what almost anybody would couldn't be more obvious.

Or could it?

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all.

Go where the money is...and go there often."

Notice Sutton's use of "job" to describe robbing banks.

In American English, when a member of the criminal class, says he is “on a job”, it usually means he is robbing or killing someone or something.

Damon Runyon made a whole new genre and a career using such a vocabulary, some of which he invented out of whole cloth, and which criminals, taking fiction for fact, imitated.

Notice also Sutton's recognition of the irony that a law named after him is not founded on what he said, but on what a reporter wrote, and at best what he might have said had he been asked the question.

This confirms beyond much doubt that the original question, "Why do you rob banks", was never actually asked of Willie Sutton but was invented and answered for him in absentia, so to speak.

It is scarcely encouraging, either in a rule of diagnostics and symptomatology or in a historical investigation of a now often quoted dictum, that Sutton himself allows that it is what he would have said had he been asked.

But this is just the surface.

Stylistically the reporter who invented the story seems to have been playing on the ambiguity of the question.

Ohnstad prefaced the question so: “Willie, tell me something ... I'm looking for a motive, you understand. Why do you rob banks?”

The ordinary understanding would be, "Willie, whatever came over you that you became a bank robber and robbed banks?"

Instead, the question is answered with a quip to the effect that Willie Sutton was after money by whatever means necessary and therefore found banks the most promising depository for what he was after, sometimes with a pistol, sometimes with a Thompson submachine gun.

Was Ohnstad a fan of Damon Runyon?

Sutton later claimed that in all his robberies his weapons were unloaded, "so no one would get hurt."

Why in the world anyone would believe this testimony, unsupported by other evidence, is a mystery of journalism and naivety only Americans can explain.

In the end, Sutton's law is just another way of saying, in answer to question X or question Y, "Stupid question--it is patent on its face”.

But to American culture, such as it is, P. T. Barnum is mother's milk.

Is the proposition about jobs and working for the rich, as phrased, an empirical observation by an "individual" (the "I")?

Or is it not rather a finely crafted act of reactionary anti-sloganeering designed to keep both the poor, and more importantly, also the petit bourgeois, working for the rich?

Likely it was not a chorus and only one person said it originally, so the act of repetition by others suggests it is the latter.

Except for Guy Debord and the Situationists, who rightly made a philosophic and poetic exercise out of responses in graffiti, the Left has ignored the Capitalist and bourgeois use of just such anti-slogans, or, when confronting the person who uses them as an insight into universal reality, often goes off on some long-winded dialectical tangent, valid enough perhaps theoretically, but lost on the likes of those mesmerized by the deceptive logic of an “I” that “never got a job from a poor person.”

What they do not do is bother to deconstruct, not for the speaker or his audience, but first of all for themselves, the anti-slogan and how it works semantically and psychologically.

“Anti-slogan” is defined as the antithesis of a slogan, not in the sense that it is a response to another slogan, but in the sense that, whereas a slogan is a battle cry or call to action, an anti-slogan is a call to inaction and futility.

It has not been noticed hitherto how much Capitalist propaganda is psychological warfare and also of the nature of anti-slogans, directed, obviously, at keeping workers and poor and other malcontents inactive and passive, and resigned inevitably to “working for the rich.”

Actually, this particular anti-slogan, which one saw for the hundredth time recently, appeared in a comment on an article about how to stimulate an economic recovery in the crypto-Neo-Conservative newspaper that now goes by the name of the Christian Science Monitor

Note that the form--the statement of an individual "I" about his or her supposed "experience"--is unanswerable except by concluding that the statement about individual experience is false.

This might work factually as an answer in a biographical context: "What you say is untrue," the biographer answers, "five years ago you worked for a group of poor people, and cheated them out of their eye teeth."

But, as said above, repetition by many different voices shows that a biographical critique based on the statement of an individual about his own experience is misdirected.

Did Willie Sutton rob banks because he enjoyed it, and the money was just “chips" in a game, or did he rob banks because that is where the money is?

The value of the statement about jobs and the poor to the Capitalist anti-sloganeer is that it is repeated by many different people as a supposedly plain and incontrovertible proposition about their own individual experience.

Actually Debord's "Ne travaillez jamais"--"Never work" happens to be a brilliantly crafted answer. Why? Because in working as commoditized labor, one actively contributes to one's own economic exploitation.

Interestingly enough, however, another of Debord's slogans, "Boredom is always reactionary" also jibes nicely with Sutton's revisionist implication of excitement and enjoyment, and also with Abbie Hoffman's "Revolution for the hell of it".

But perhaps another, distinctively American and radical response is possible.

"I never got a job from a poor person," the born Capitalist factotum says.

"That's what Willie Sutton didn't say about banks" answers the American radical.

But this is still skimming the surface.


In fact all "jobs" in the Capitalist system are founded on exploiting the poor, including "workers", who have no other possibility of earning a livelihood in the system except to sell themselves and their time in wage slavery to the "rich".

Or do they?

That puts into a different context, not only Willie Sutton, but Josef Stalin, who began his career robbing banks for the Communist Party.

Is there anyone with any insight at all who will deny that Stalin was patently not after the money obtained for himself or his gang, and that he enjoyed what he did enormously?

Moreover, Stalin did not pretend he robbed banks with unloaded firearms or that nobody got hurt.

So enthusiastic was Stalin about robbing banks as a way to raise funds for the Party that he continued to do so for some time after the Party ordered him to stop.

This was a man, plainly, who loved his job.

It is only a short step from that to Che Guevara in the Cuban mountains.

In fact, rich people have money exactly because the "jobs" they offer not only exploit the poor and jobless, but systematically keep them poor, with or without a job.

That is all already obvious in Ricardo, though unlike Marx, Ricardo was part of the system and merely an honest witness of how he and the other Capitalists operated and why.

This is no doubt why reading David Ricardo is not a popular past time among the Capitalist economists nor even the supposedly antiwar but hyper-Capitalist “free market” Libertarians.

The simple fact of the matter is that Ricardo, too wed to truth, gave away the game.

One of the cliches in various American newspaper articles and books about Willie Sutton is that he robbed American banks of around two million dollars and spent thirty years in prison.

Adjusting for inflation, the amount Wille Sutton robbed from banks may range beyond $200,000, 000 in currently valued USD.

It is not now easy to derive the original source of the play on “spent”. The more interesting question, always left unnoted, is what he spent the money he made on, not how he spent thirty years in prison.

Another interesting aside is that Willie Sutton twice escaped from prison, and was sent up for the last time because he was spotted on the New York subway by an amateur detective whose report to the police led to Sutton's capture.

Arnold Schuster, the amateur detective, was shot down outside his home on March 9, 1952.

The story goes that Albert Anastasia, enforcer for the New York Gambino family, saw Schuster's appearance on a television show celebrating Sutton's arrest, interpreted “amateur detective” as “squealer” or “stool pigeon”-- that is as police informant--and ordered the amateur detective whacked.

The popular portrayal of Willie Sutton in the American media of the time leaned toward the picture of a twinkly-eyed, polite, non-violent criminal, who just happened to like to rob banks.

The Outfit connection is usually portrayed as coincidental, to the effect that the likes of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone also found Sutton fascinating and likeable and had him protected during his earlier stints in prison.

This is very likely another media legend. Sutton, as these matters usually transpire, probably paid the Outfit a doing business fee in their territories, and this was perhaps also the source of his being protected and even avenged.

Schuster was a distant cousin of the Schuster in Simon & Schuster, the New York publishers.

He was shot at close range once in the groin and once in each eye.

Frederick J. “The Angel” Tenuto, was eventually identified as the likely killer. He had escaped with Sutton in one of his prison breaks and was also, like Sutton, on the FBI's “Ten Most Wanted List.”

Joseph Valachi, the government informer, later testified that Anastasia had ordered Tenuto to kill Schuster and later had Tenuto killed to erase any trail to the Outfit.

Some speculate that the Schuster murder may also have led to Anastasia's assassination in 1957 because of the bad publicity it generated, establishing to other members of the Outfit that Anastasia was out of control.

The Outfit's rule here is simply stated, “Killing civilians is bad for business.”

It was apparently Schuster's appearance on the television show, “I've Got A Secret”, that led to Anastasia's ire.

Schuster's estate eventually won a landmark ruling in Schuster versus the City of New York (1958), allowing them to sue the city for failing to protect a citizen who had furnished the police with information in a dangerous case. The city eventually settled for damages of $41,000.

Fingered by Schuster, Sutton was sentenced to thirty years for one bank robbery, with additional sentences for others. In the end he served only seventeen years and through the efforts of a New York lawyer, who got Sutton's sentences reduced, was released from New York's Attica Prison on December 24, 1969.

Public contrition, religious and economic, also as American as P.T. Barnum, was an integral part of the release.

Suffering from emphysema, Sutton broke down in tears and told the press that all he wanted to do was serve as an example to the youth:

"Any kid who wants a life of crime can look at me and see what I have. I'm the best living example of the fact that crime doesn't pay."

To reinforce the point it was noted Sutton now had only a few hundred dollars from his wages in prison.

With contrition came also an ode to the Protestant work ethic, even in a life of crime, and all the more impressive as coming from an American Irishman and professional:

"Times have really changed. In my time, you had to get up at 5 AM or 6 AM on cold winter mornings and case a job for a month or two. People don't seem to want to work hard for anything anymore....These young kids, they don't believe in hard work. All these kids want to do is run into a bank, grab the money and run out."

So were Capitalism and banks, the work ethic, and the law, along with the mercy of the American justice system, validated by the wheezing pale criminal, without the courage of his convictions, and on Christmas Eve to boot.

Is there such a thing as chronological irony?

On December 3, 1969 the Black Panther Fred Hampton was executed sleeping in his bed and drugged by an undercover police agent in a predawn raid by the Cook County State's Attorney and the FBI. In the raid, another Black Panther, Mark Clark, was also killed.

"We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place,” noted FBI Special Agent Gregg York, and without even 'but' continued: “Only two of those black nigger fuckers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark."

Hampton's crime?

To this day, as far as ever has been established in a court of law, mainly being Marxist-Leninist, a gifted and effective organizer, and worst crime of all in those years, being black into the bargain. Wounded but sill alive in his drugged sleep, Hampton was polished off still in bed with two shots point blank to the head.

Though Hampton's and Clark's families finally won a civil suit in 1990 and damages of more than a million dollars, and though later testimony all but established a premeditated act of murder, neither Hanrahan nor any of the police or FBI were ever prosecuted.

Hanrahan, a graduate of Harvard Law School, lost the endorsement of the Cook County Democrats in his run for reelection as Cook County State's Attorney, won the primary anyhow, but was defeated in the election.

He ran unsuccessfully twice for mayor of Chicago in later years, and also failed in a run for Alderman.

He died at 88 in June, 2009 still practicing law.

Is there such a thing as economic irony?

Willie Sutton lived another eleven years after his final release from prison.

In October, 1970—less than a year after his release from prison--Sutton appeared in his first television commercial, hawking a Connecticut bank's new Master Charge credit card.

“They call it the Face Card,” says Sutton showing the card with his photo on it, “Now when I say I'm Willie Sutton, people believe me.”

The commercial fades out to an announcer saying, “Tell them Willie Sutton sent you.”

The commercial was produced by a New Haven advertising agency. Sutton was paid $1500 dollars for a few minutes work.

Said Sutton about the commercial, “It's an unusual relationship, all right, but it's a very pleasant way to make money.”


By far the most revolutionary work, in the West at least, about the young bank robber Josef Stalin, is that of the Britisher Simon Sebag Montefiore under the title, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Montefiore, who is the first biographer to have full access to the old Soviet archives and even Stalin's personal notes, concludes, ''It is no longer enough to describe him as an 'enigma.' . . . The man inside was a superintelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature.”

One of the more interesting items in the book is that Stalin often told the same hunting story about himself when he was exiled in Siberia.

The story goes something as follows.

Out hunting one day, Stalin ran across birds in a tree. He opened fire and killed a number of birds but ran out of ammunition. He then walked back to the village, got more rounds, and returned to the tree, where the remainder of the birds were still perching.

He finished them off.

After telling the story, he would laugh uproariously, eyes twinkling, especially when drinking or pretending to drink (as he often did).

Many of his inner circle, including Nikita Khrushchev, listened politely to the same story over and over, and often discussed it among themselves, all agreeing that it was fantastic and could not be believed.

Was it a Georgian folk tale? Was Stalin testing them or trying to tell them something?

It is not known how much Stalin raked in during his bank robbing days. Some have even expressed doubt whether he was ever personally involved in the action.

One story has it that sometime in June, 1907, after the Party had ordered bank robberies to cease, Stalin was present nearby with a Mauser pistol when his outfit expropriated a shipment of close to a million rubles on the way to the State Bank in Tiflis.

Scores were killed and scores more were wounded, including the Cossacks and police guarding the shipment.

The leader on the scene was Kamo, but it is universally agreed that Koba ('the pock-marked one”) was the organizer and director.

Stalin never denied his career as a bank robber for the Bolsheviks, and stopped only when personally confronted by Lenin.

It is known beyond any shadow of a doubt that Stalin was never fingered by an amateur detective, was, like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, never on the FBI's “Ten Most Wanted List”, and also never did a lucrative television commercial advertising a credit card for a bank.

Did he later in life aspire to be an example to the youth?

How did Willie Sutton spend the millions he robbed from banks? The question keeps recurring.

The answer is simple as ABC: from all available evidence he spent it just like a banker or a Finance Capitalist, that is, selfishly and even worse, unimaginatively.

He was, for example, when out of the joint at least, and like most bankers and Finance Capitalists, and also like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia (as well as Arnold Schuster, who was a clothing salesman when he was not an amateur detective)--a dapper and expensive dresser.

His taste in firearms, including the Thompson submachine gun, was also an expensive addition, loaded or unloaded, and especially on the black market.

Did he not earn his wages then, in his various enterprises, from robbing their banks to doing television commercials for them, in the much the same fashion, if a bit more openly and blatantly?

At this pass occurs an intriguing question no reporter ever asked or invented about Willie Sutton.

It might be phrased as follows, “Willie, how and the world did you, a bank robber, become a media celebrity and hireling of the very bankers you robbed from?”

The answer is also as plain as ABC. Because Willie Sutton perversely but, still very effectively, validated money obtained by whatever means necessary by a self-interested, autonomous individual outside the law as the very essence of how Capitalism operates psychologically not only on the rich and not so rich, but also on the poor.

About the only distinction is that Sutton did indeed never get a job from poor people.

And what of Fred Hampton and Josef Stalin?

(copyright E. A. Costa, 2010)

E. A.Costa 25 September, 2015 Granada, Nicaragua

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

change of subject matter....fascinating history lesson'