Class War 101: What Affluenza Tells Us About Wealth and the Legal System

by R.L. Stephens II on December 12, 2013

Drunk and barreling through the streets at 70 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone, Ethan Couch killed 4 pedestrians and injured 9 others with his pickup truck. Three of the victims had pulled over to the side of the road in order to help the fourth with a flat tire just before they were killed. Couch, who had just stolen alcohol from Walmart, was driving with a blood alcohol content level at least four times the legal limit.

Ethan Couch is a killer. He’s also 16, White, and wealthy. In an entirely predictable turn of events, Couch was facing up to 20 years in prison, but he walked out of the courtroom with only10 years probation. The local news reports that his attorneys also requested that he be allowed to attend a therapy program at a “small, private home in California”, and that his “father would pay the entire $450,000 price tag”.


Couch’s legal team argued that he was suffering from “affluenza”.

Prior to sentencing, a psychologist called by the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller,  testified that Couch’s life could be salvaged with one to two years’ treatment and no contact with his parents… Miller said Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called Couch a product of “affluenza,” where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences. Jim Douglass and Todd Unger, WFAA

Instead of reactionary condemnation, let’s examine what exactly “affluenza” means.

First, affluenza is not a new term. It’s previous definition only described people attempting to pursue wealth and status. Affluenza labeled those who were trying to keep up with the rich, but did not apply to the wealthy themselves.

  1. Affluenza is an epidemic of stress, overwork, shopping, and debt caused by dogged pursuit of the American dream. University of Minnesota
  2. Social condition that effects a society because of the elevated number of individuals striving to be wealthy. Business Dictionary

Couch’s defense inverted the term, and it now describes the toxic mixture of negligence, recklessness, and arrogance that is so often a defining characteristic of elite status. Affluenza now antagonizes the wealthy rather than the poor; that’s the kind of class war that I can get behind.

I don’t see why people are so upset with the “affluenza” argument. Rich White folks have been trying to force all kinds of labels onto other people for years. Now we finally have a case where a wealthy white boy is admitting that his rich-white-maleness is making him unstable, dangerous, and in need of an intervention. I think that’s fantastic, despite the fact that it’s clearly a ploy designed to avoid prison time.I’m 100% behind the diagnosis that indulging in the benefits of wealth and power within an oppressive order causes serious personal and social harm.

Given that wealthy men are disproportionately in power, Couch’s argument is a tacit acknowledgment that wealth, not poverty, is the true menace to society.

The Couch family does not exist in a vacuum. Our power structure gave Ethan Couch “freedoms no young person should have”, not his parents. According to Dr. Miller, the family believes that wealth grants them privileges and allows them to avoid the consequences of their behaviors– and they are completely correct. As I’ve argued before, there are levels to this shit.

 Affluenza & the Legal System

For those familiar with the legal system, Couch’s lenient sentence is not a surprise. Rather than evidence that the system is broken, the Couch case is proof that it’s working just as it was designed.

Richard Posner, a prominent judge and legal scholar in the US, reveals that the legal system treats rich and poor people differently by design.

The criminal law is designed primarily for the nonaffluent; the affluent are kept in line, for the most part, by tort law. This may seem to be a left-wing kind of suggestion (“criminal law keeps the lid on the lower classes”), but it is not. It is efficient to use different sanctions depending on an offender’s wealth… Almost every criminal punishment imposes some non-pecuniary disutility in the form of a stigma, enhanced by such rules as forbidding a convicted criminal to vote. There is no corresponding stigma to a tort judgment. Richard Posner, An Economic Theory of Criminal Law, pg 1205

Essentially, Richard Posner promotes neoliberalism, which holds that the rules of market capitalism should be applied to every aspect of society. Under neoliberalism, rich people really do live by a different set of laws than the poor. Tort law, which typically substitutes fines for prison time, is for the wealthy; while the non-wealthy are controlled by criminal law.  As Posner reminds us, there is no additional wide-spread stigma associated with the fines, whereas prison time comes with a host of social backlash and obstacles (like losing eligibility for jobs and housing).

The Couch case is a textbook example of the neoliberal tendency within the legal system. Instead of receiving prison time, Ethan Couch will likely lose the numerous civil law suits currently pending against him, with the potential judgments totaling millions of dollars. This outcome is conscious and deliberate, and if we’re honest, we’ve always known it.

“Money always seems to keep [the teen] out of trouble,” Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the wreck, said after District Judge Jean Boyd delivered the sentence. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.” Editorial, Star-Telegram

The same week of Couch’s sentencing, a federal court in Washington found that in the towns of Mt. Vernon and Burlington poor defendants relying on public defenders were “not represented in any meaningful way”. The crisis is nationwide and yet, in this time of neoliberal austerity, funding for public defender offices is being cut across the nation.

What’s the big picture here? Though the Couch story is as tragic as it is sensationalist, we should be outraged at the system’s design, not the outcome of this particular case. The problem is that under capitalism, justice is just another market good.  I don’t actually think that sending the boy to prison is the answer (abolish prison!).  In fact, I think nearly everyone should be treated like Ethan Couch and be given access to treatment rather than prison.

The most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society. Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape. Angela Davis, The Challenge of Prison Abolition

Class war is here, and we’re losing. For further analysis on building positive class war, check out a lecture by David Harvie of the Free Association entitled The Crisis of Antagonism and the Crisis of Organisation.


What do you think of affluenza and the Couch case, and what do they say about the legal system?

2 responses to “Class War 101: What Affluenza Tells Us About Wealth and the Legal System”

  1. diz says:

    the obvious cure is seizure and redistribution of assets belonging to sufferers