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The Trump presidency has been a rocky road for pretty much everyone to the left of Trump himself – and not only in the United States. Nonetheless, the efforts of the President’s supporters, at his command, to ‘stop the steal’ and overturn the election result by force really has taken the biscuit now, it seems.
In the UK, Boris Johnson condemned the events of 6th January as a ‘disgraceful’ moment for a country that ‘stands for democracy around the world’. In France, Emmanuel Macron characterized the make-shift coup attempt as ‘not American, definitely’. Back in the States, President-elect Joe Biden condemned the ‘lawlessness’ of ‘a small number of extremists’ in a televised address to the nation, declaring that ‘the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are’, and the mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser described the attack as an ‘affront on our American democracy’. Even George W. Bush, himself a Republican former President, was withering in his comments. ‘This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic’, he said.
There is much that could be said about these reactions. For a start, and as many have been pointing out, it was of course fully-functioning ‘American democracy’ that funded, armed, and orchestrated numerous military coups that systematically destroyed ‘banana republics’ in the Global South during the Cold War, from Honduras to Nicaragua, to Iran the Philippines. Equally, the cliché of ‘American democracy’ up as somehow more ancient and hence more authentic than any other is belied not only by its historical rootedness in conquest, slavery, and genocide but also by its contemporary pathologies, from highly racialized patterns of escalating police violence and incarceration to the ‘zero-tolerance policy’ towards undocumented immigrants, thanks to which thousands of primarily Latino families have been decimated and hundreds of children remain in detention.
But in addition to this breath-taking combination of exceptionalism, hypocrisy, and ignorance that underly the tenor of these condemnations, the reaction to the events of 6 January is notable also for the consistency with which it places this attempted ‘fascist coup’ as an external attack on the normal functioning of democracy and the rule of law. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tweeted:
‘Today, domestic terrorists attacked a foundation of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power following free elections. We must reestablish the rule of law and hold them accountable. Democracy is fragile. Our leaders must live up to their responsibility to protect it’.
But there is something here that doesn’t fit into this neat picture of ‘democracy’ and ‘law’ versus ‘fascism’ and ‘violence’, which becomes clear as soon as we look at what appears to have motivated these ‘domestic terrorists’. On the one hand, the ‘very special’ people who broke into the Capitol building carried the flag of the Confederacy – including several well-known neo-nazis – sported sweatshirts emblazoned with slogans including ‘Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom’ and left two-pipebombs in their wake. Having failed to overturn the election results in the courts already more than sixty times, they were absolutely explicit about their aim of overturning those results by force – and if necessary of triggering a new civil war. On the other hand, however, these same protestors insisted that their efforts were designed, not to undermine, but rather to protect what Trump described as ‘the honesty of our elections and to the integrity of our glorious republic’ form being ‘stolen’ by ‘radical left democrats’ and the ‘fake news media’. Groundless as they might be in a factual sense, in terms of their form those arguments are anchored in the Constitution just as firmly as the arguments of most of those who have weighed in to condemn them. The right of ‘the people’ to ‘throw off’ a government whenever it seems to be about to ‘reduce them under absolute despotism’ has been baked into ‘American democracy’ from the Declaration of Independence onwards.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the ‘natural’ and ‘inalienable’ right to ‘liberty’ has always found its purest expression in the liberty to appropriate land and other ‘resources’ from the members of any community, and from any species, that found itself unwilling or unable to muster enough violence to resist, or enough capital to reciprocate.
Of course, the lawfulness or otherwise of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ thorough which the (primarily) British and French colonies that eventually became the United States gradually acquired their territory and imposed their law is no longer an issue (unless, of course, you look at it from the perspective of Indigenous law). Sovereign statehood has been recognized, and the rule of law has been established – not only in the US but across the world, plastering over the astonishing violence of this genocidal process until all that remains visible (as long as you are white and rich) is the smooth, modern orderly surface of property and propriety.
And yet in spite of this, the ‘terrific boomerang effect’ of colonialism identified by Aimée Césaire – the violence with which colonialism’s techniques eventually return, in the form of fascism, to smack its perpetrators in the head – lives on. And when they do (as they are doing now):
‘People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves…that they…cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack’.
But what (with due respect to this most notorious of cultural appropriations) is it that makes this boomerang boomerang? The answer is the law – or rather European law; the concrete that holds this edifice together. European law is a form of law that recognizes only one form of subject – the free individual, collectivized at the ‘macro’ level in the form of the sovereign state. It is also a form of law which endows this subject with one fundamental right: the liberty to regard everything that is not a ‘subject’; – everything that is not human (an ever-shifting category in any case) – as an ‘object’; or more accurately as an unlimited reservoir of objects that it is free to appropriate, transform, accumulate, exchange, consume and discard without any restrictions whatsoever other than the duty to respect the right of fellow-‘subjects’ to do the same.
However, this paradigm runs up against a problem; for the supply of non-human objects or ‘natural resources’ is not, as it turns out, unlimited. Or, to put it differently, the subject’s ‘fundamental’ or ‘inherent’ right to freedom limited only by the same right on the part of other subjects comes up against a material restriction. Interestingly enough, this problem – which all those taken aback by the January 6th ‘assault on democracy’ seem to have forgotten about – is precisely the problem which colonialism and fascism were designed to respond, both in theory and in practice. Both these two expansionist systems took as their starting point the fact that the ‘resources’ of the state cannot be expected to satisfy the growing demands of an increasingly healthy, prosperous and population of equally free individuals in the medium-to-long term – unless, of course, large swathes of the population are either relegated to the category of object and/or liquidated. In short, the flipside of the individual right to freedom is an equivalent right to expand – a right to lebensraum – on the part of the state. This is the relationship to which the American constitution – or any ‘modern’ constitution, for that matter – refers.
The logic of the (European) rule of law, then, is one of violent competition, not peaceful coexistence. What has changed, in our post-fascist, post-colonial era – in which the category of humanity now includes not only white, property-owning, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian men but (in theory) all members of the human species – is that slavery, genocide, apartheid, and conquest, being now unlawful, have become less viable options for states than they once were. This does not, however, do away with the problem of how to meet the demands of all these subjects with a supply of objects sufficient to allow them to realize their constitutional rights. On the contrary, it makes that problem, on which the internal harmony of all constitutional states depends, even more acute.
This is not to say, when poor Elizabeth from Knoxville, Tennessee travels to DC to ‘storm the Capitol’ and enact a ‘revolution’, only to receive a surprise dose of mace in the face, or when ‘Q-Shaman’ Jake Angeli – covered in Yggdrasil, Mjolnir and Valknut tattoos, red, white and blue ‘war paint’ and with his faux-Native American buffalo-horned coyote skin on top, successfully – successfully does storm the Capitol to howl ‘FREEEEEDOOMMMMMM’ from the Senate floor, that they aren’t acting illegally. Of course, they are. The point, however, is a different one: that in the context of a legal system in which the ‘inherent’ right to individual freedom can be elevated in a second to the point at which any kind of taxation, let alone the regulation of access to assault rifles, becomes a form of tyranny to which death is preferable, Elizabeth and Jake must be understood as the creations of this system no less than Joe Biden, or the Capitol itself. On the ‘level playing field’ of the law, only the fittest survive. No wonder, then, it is this entirely haphazard, almost accidental crack at ‘stopping the steal’ – not the ‘Muslim ban’; not the ‘pussy-gabbing’; not the ‘zero-tolerance policy’; not the abandonment of the Kurds; not the ‘fine people on both sides’; not the ‘shit-hold countries’ (and so on) – that has finally taken Trump’s biscuit (for now, at least).
Rose Parfitt is a Senior Lecturer at Kent Law School