The Storming of the Capitol and the New War on Terror
The recent mob action the Capitol has been described by some of the most powerful news and media organizations in the U.S. as a coup and an insurrection. Many liberals have been quick to take up similar articulations, and have generally been receptive to the idea that what seems to have been mostly a ragtag bunch of conspiracy theorists and hooligans that broke into the Capitol building (with assistance from the Capitol Police) are a real threat to Biden’s confirmation as President and to “our democracy.” This raises questions about the actual threat that these forces posed to the political system of presidential and congressional elections in the U.S., and the nature of this system itself; is it really a democracy for the people?
These questions are all the more important because a broad consensus is emerging among many of the U.S. elite that there is a need to roll out more “counter-terrorism” laws in the wake of this incident, with these laws specifically focused on “domestic terrorism.” A broad section of liberal and self-identified progressive people are supportive of this, with some even going so far as to help the FBI and other law enforcement identify those who marched into the Capitol building. However, much like with the Patriot Act—which was hurriedly passed in the wake of 9/11 and nominally aimed at fighting terrorism—it is clear that these laws will be aimed at broadly suppressing dissent. While politicians are quick to promise that these proposed laws would target “violent extremists” and white supremacist forces, the reality is that many of these measure are indistinguishable from the “anti-rioting” bills that were proposed in states throughout the country during the George Floyd uprisings.
All of this requires that we look closely at the events that occurred as well as the larger political situation in this country. This is all the more important as many of the those now calling for new counter-terrorism laws, who decry the use of violence for political ends, have in fact built their careers on systematic violence and slaughter which dwarfs the scuffles and scraps that occurred at the Capitol. These include people like Joe Biden (who supported the 1994 Crime Bill, the invasion of Iraq, and many other such measures) and Jon Brennan (Obama’s head of the CIA who ran the drone-strike assassination program), as well as many Bush-Era officials who pioneered the Patriot Act, supported the use of torture, and oversaw the genocidal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. When politicians and officials like these—in conjunction with the billionaires who run the Big Tech companies—are presenting themselves as heroic defenders of democracy, and urging us to support new laws and policies which further restrict our rights and civil liberties, it should have us very worried.
Hooliganism by Any Other Name is Still Just Hooliganism
The hysterical and over-the-top reactions to the events at the Capitol show that many Americans are unfamiliar with the nature of coups, despite the fact that the U.S. government has been the architect of some of the most brutal and bloody in modern history. For example, from 1965-1967 the CIA-orchestrated an anti-communist genocide in Indonesia which left several million dead and replaced former anti-colonial leader and bourgeois democratic President Sukarno with the dictator Suharto, who would go on to rule the country for three decades, presiding over the massacre of at least 100,000 people in East Timor in the late 1970s, among other atrocities. Or take the coup in Chile after Salvador Allende won the 1970 presidential election. The U.S. worked with right-wing members of the Chilean military to lead a coup in 1973, which included bombing the Presidential Palace, the execution of Allende, the murder of thousands, and the imprisonment of tens of thousands in the first days of the coup alone.
When compared to these and other coups throughout modern history, the recent events in the Capitol come into better focus. Instead of being a coup or an insurrection—both of which generally involve barricades, armed combat, and a coordinated plan to overthrow the government—the mob at the Capitol more closely resembled the drunken riots that sometime follow after a local sports team losses a major game. A bit of drunken and disorderly conduct, some civil disobedience, a few people hurting themselves or trampling others, some relatively minor property damage, etc. One of the main differences in this case is that this riot occurred in the Capitol building with the tacit blessing of a relatively weak and disorganized president, instead of in the neighborhood around a sports arena.
In a piece written the day after the riot, independent journalist Glenn Greenwald put it well:
One need not dismiss the lamentable actions of yesterday to simultaneously reject efforts to apply terms that are plainly inapplicable: attempted coup, insurrection, sedition. There was zero chance that the few hundred people who breached the Capitol could overthrow the U.S. Government — the most powerful, armed and militarized entity in the world — nor did they try. […] There is a huge difference between, on the one hand, thousands of people shooting their way into the Capitol after a long-planned, coordinated plot with the goal of seizing permanent power, and, on the other, an impulsive and grievance-driven crowd more or less waltzing into the Capitol as the result of strength in numbers and then leaving a few hours later. That the only person shot was a protester killed by an armed agent of the state by itself makes clear how irresponsible these terms are. There are more adjectives besides “fascist treason” and “harmless protest,” enormous space between those two poles. One should not be forced to choose between the two.
While a section of Trump supporters are sympathetic to fascist politics and there were some outright fascists at the riot, it is far from the case that this romp through the Capitol building was an attempt to lead a fascist coup. What’s more it should give many pause many critics of the riot are using the same language to describe the Capitol building as the rioters themselves. Both are calling it the “people’s house.”
This term raises further questions, question about the very nature of the U.S. government itself. If one is willing to accept the idea that the Capitol building is the people’s house—and again, both the rioters and their critics have promoted this idea—then it follows that the present form of society, government, and the overall status-quo is basically just, and that the key thing is to prevent a corrupt and dangerous group from seizing control of this supposed “house of the people.” In the view of the riotous Trump supporters, this danger was Biden and his allies stealing the election and establishing an authoritarian form of government—which they often refer to as “Left wing” fascism—that would steal the power from the people. In the view of the liberals who are now eagerly pushing for the roll-out of new repressive laws, this danger was Trump and his supporters stealing the election and establishing a fascist dictatorship.
The parallel between these two narratives is more than incidental, it reflects an underlying misconception of U.S. society common to the two. It’s helpful to step back and reflect on the nature of the U.S. government and the status quo.
Democracy in the U.S.?
Over the past four years liberal and progressive media have peddled the narrative that Trump and his lackies constitute an existential threat to U.S. democracy. Everyone from major companies like Coca-Cola and Twitter, to George W. Bush himself have lined up behind this idea. Numerous Neocons, Billionaires, and members of the “Intelligence Community,” long reviled by the U.S. left and even liberals, have taken this opportunity to rehabilitate and rebrand themselves as courageous members of the #Resistance, standing up against the supposedly imminent threat of fascism.
However, these supposed freedom fighters are often the same people who have made billions of dollars off of the backs of the poor and working people of this country. They are the architects of the War on Terror, mass surveillance, CIA black sites for torture, the militarization of the police, the system of mass incarceration, and so much more. They are the one who have led the charge of capitalist accumulation in the face of unprecedented ecological destruction and have been more than happy to initiate genocidal foreign wars and sponsor far-right dictators around the world.
These narratives about Trump being an existential threat to “our democracy” have served to distract Americans from the basic fact that this country is not run by the people or for the people. Democracy in the U.S. has never meant the people having real democratic control of society. The so-called “Founding Fathers” envisioned as their model the Roman Republic, which was a slave society in which the vast majority of people were denied basic rights and participation in the political system. While there is no longer slavery in the U.S., and things have changed a bit since the founding of this country, the system of control by a wealthy elite is how the country is run to this very day. With the rise of immense corporate wealth and power combined with a continuous assault on organized resistance and genuine workers unions for decades, democratic privileges and rights are arguably at a low point in America at present.
Of course, it is true that things could always get worse, and we are not yet living in a fascist country or a police state in which the people are stripped of even their most basic rights and civil liberties. However, over the past few decades we have seen one administration after another strip away right after right, and impose new and draconian measures on the people of this country in the name of protecting “our freedom.” The government now spies on all of our phone calls, records every click we make and letter we type on the internet, forces us to be x-rayed every time we get on a plane, tracks our every movement via our cellphones, and more.
These curtailments of rights and civil liberties have been a consistent feature of both Democratic and Republican administration, they are nothing new with Trump. He just continued the decades-long trend in a somewhat more blatant and ham-handed fashion. And looking at the broader picture, in a country where around 80% of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck, we have no real democratic say on the major economic issues of the day. We don’t have the option to vote for better pay and fewer hours, for lower rent and better housing, or for an end to corporate tax breaks—since most major corporations pay nearly no taxes, while working Americans pay around one third of their income in taxes. Working-class workplaces are generally very oppressive, where people have nearly no say in how anything is run, and workers are often forced to endure racism and sexual harassment as part of their daily experiences on the job. Generally, speaking up about these things results in retaliation and a prompt firing, and all the things that come with this (loss of income, risk of homelessness, etc.). So much for democracy.
The situation in the U.S., far from being a democracy by the people and for the people, instead resembles Karl Marx’s famous statement that “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” The political system provides us with little say on much else besides this.
In contrast to the common people, the wealthy and the big corporations have immense influence on policy and politicians. They spend billions of dollars lobbying—a legalized form of bribery—and make massive campaign donations—another legalized form of bribery—to ensure that their interests are looked after from one administration to the next. The standard policy for most big companies is to “hedge their bets” by donating to the campaigns of both parties, and doing so is one way in which they protect their interests regardless of who ends up in office.
The Research Unit on Political Economy—based in India—offered a succinct summary of how decisions are really made in the U.S. political system:
The US ruling classes generally adopt a drawn-out process in the course of which they reconcile and resolve the often conflicting demands of their own various sections. Typically, apart from legislators and the press, a proliferation of research institutes, semi-governmental bodies, and academic forums circulate proposals voicing the case of one or the other lobby (leaving the administration free to deny that they constitute official policy). These proposals elicit objections from other sections, through similar media; other powerful countries too press their interests, directly or indirectly; and the entire discussion, in the light of the strength of the respective interests, helps shape the course of action finally adopted, and helps coalesce the various ruling class sections around it. (This process of course has nothing to do with democratic debate, since the people are excluded as participants, and are included only as a factor to be taken into account.)
In one sense, this system is no democracy at all. The interests and wishes of the vast majority are ignored, or even trampled, by a wealthy and powerful elite, as they debate among themselves on how best to preserve and expand their wealth and power. In another sense, the U.S. can be described as a democracy, but a democracy in which only the rich and powerful have any real say. Sure, the common people have the right to vote, but we only get to vote for one representative or another of the elite.
And in fact, the politicians, these elected officials and supposed lawmakers do very little to actually craft the legislation themselves. For example, the $900 billion coronavirus stimulus bill which was passed this past December was part of a 5,600 page document called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The final text of the bill was released at 2pm on December 21, 2020, and voted on two hours later. Even with any army of aides, there is no way that Congresspeople would have been able to read even a tenth of the bill in that time. And yet it was passed into law by a wide margin. This example is not exceptional, in fact it is quite typical of how legislation is written and passed into law in the U.S.
It’s important to be clear about the nature of the U.S. political system if we are to understand the riot at the Capitol, and figure out how to respond to it. Narratives about Trump’s band of hooligans posing an imminent threat to U.S. democracy are doubly misleading. First, the riot that sprawled into the Capitol building was nothing close to a coup attempt or an insurrection. Second, and more importantly, these narratives serve to obscure the true nature of U.S. society, they cover over the fact that this is a country run by and for the rich, in which the poor and oppressed seen both as a source of cheap labor and a potential threat to the powerful.
Over-simplified narratives that have portrayed Trump as an existential threat to the status-quo cover over just how bad the status-quo really is. They also paint numerous oppressors and members of the ruling elite—many of whom have a long history of repressive actions at home and abroad—as courageous heroes, bravely standing up to the threat of fascism. All of this is quite disorienting for activists and movements seeking to bring about positive social change.
Of course, despite the difficult situation in this country things could always get worse. In fact, at present there is a major danger of a significant crackdown on protests, a further erosion of civil liberties, and the continued development of the police state. However, this threat is not primarily due to Trump; instead, cracking down on Trump supporters is being used to justify this new “War on Domestic Terror.” This is worth examining in more detail.
A New War on Terror, This Time at Home
Anyone familiar with the impact of the U.S. war on terror abroad should be terrified by the prospect of the government launching a new “War on Domestic Terror.” While the official target of the War on Terror was those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, nearly two-decades later it is clear this policy had a far wider impact. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan destabilized the countries, left millions dead, and U.S. troops remain in both countries to this day. The U.S. also launched a massive drone-strike program which has impacted dozens of countries, created a system of electronic surveillance aimed at spying on everything everyone in the world does online, and has poured trillions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money into expanding the military’s capability to slaughter human beings across the globe.
Given this history, it is particularly important to keep in mind one lesson: it was the common people in places like Iraqi and Afghanistan who suffered the most as a result of the War on Terror. Instead of primarily targeting the architects of 9/11 and their allies, the U.S. government used the War on Terror as a justification to invade and plunder these countries, and to launch a series of devastating military operations around the world to secure the political and economic interests of the U.S. elite and associated multinational corporations. For example, during the U.S. invasion and occupation a huge number of Iraqi civilians were kidnapped off the streets, tortured, and in many cases killed. This was revealed in Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the disgusting and degrading forms of sexual torture done by the U.S. military and intelligence in the Abu Ghraib prison. Whole cities in Iraq were destroyed, reduced to rubble in the name of fighting terrorism and bringing freedom to the people of the country. While the War on Domestic Terror will almost certainly not involve the bombing of cities in the U.S., the brutality with which the original War on Terror was waged is quite concerning, as it shows the ways in which the government has been willing to oppress, arrest, torture, and even slaughter civilians in the name of fighting terrorism. It is woefully naive to assume that the government will hesitate to treat American citizens as enemy combatants, especially given the long-record of domestic repression in this country.
It is particularly striking that many of those who were so critical of the War on Terror are now calling for a new one to be launched within the domestic U.S. The specifics of this new policy are somewhat unclear, as terrorism is already illegal, and there is already domestic surveillance of everyone in the country. However, a look at some of the laws now being proposed across the country can give us a sense of who will be the real target of this policy.
Take for example, the anti-rioting bill proposed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. This law was original proposed by DeSantis during the George Floyd protests and includes a series of new repressive measures, including preventing people who are arrested during protests deemed to be riots from being released from jail before their first court appearance, and creating new felonies for organizing or participating in a protest that turned violent, potentially even if one did not participate in the violence oneself. What’s more, we saw during the George Floyd protests how police repeatedly instigated violence and then portrayed protesters as violent when they took basic measures to protect themselves. The fact that this bill was first introduced over the summer makes it clear that the main target of such laws is not white supremacist and fascist groups (who the police are generally happy to collaborate with), but rather the masses of people in this country, especially those protesting for progressive social change.
Beyond this one bill in Florida, there series of efforts around the country, including to expand the scope of the federal Anti Riot Act which was created in 1968 in response to mass demonstrations in Washington D.C. against the war in Vietnam. What’s more, Biden has promised to make passing a new law against domestic terrorism a priority in the first 100 days of his presidency. In January, 2020 he sponsored a anti-terrorism bill, which while nominally focused on white supremacist groups, also cited the dangers of “masked Antifa supporters” as well attacks on police officers. During the George Floyd Protests, Biden repeatedly emphasized that he opposed left wing protests that were not peaceful, and stated that he thought “arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted”.
All of this helps to clarify that even if the Proud Boys and members of other fringe groups are targeted by these new laws in large numbers, the U.S. elite will also use these new laws to go after other groups it sees as a threat to its power and existence. Biden and others' responses to the George Floyd protests showed how concerned the elite are about mass movements against police brutality, white supremacy, and related inequalities. The FBI has already labeled anarchists and “Black Identity Extremists” as major existential threats to the existing U.S. political system, and has devoted significant counter-terrorism resources to monitoring and disrupting the activities of these groups. Much like with the original War on Terror, the actual policy of the new “War on Domestic Terror” will differ significantly from the stated aim.
Biden, his allies, and the U.S. elite are happy to use the riot at the Capitol as a pretext for rolling out a series of new repressive laws. Unfortunately four years of corporate media fear-mongering about Trump’s supposedly imminent plans to establish fascism in the U.S. have left many blind to other dangers. While Trump and his hooligans are dangerous, most the U.S. elite has now lined up behind Joe Biden and they are eager to use this opportunity to push for a massive expansion of their repressive powers to quell an increasingly rebellious population. The liberal left’s fixation on the danger posed by Trump seems to have left them paralyzed, unable to understand or effectively oppose the New War on Terror. Some signs indicate that, at least initially, many are unfortunately eager to support it.