Lessons of the Capitol riot


As the dust clears from the events of Jan. 6, the necessary lessons for working and oppressed people become sharper. The riots at the U.S. Capitol and in state capitals around the country represent the culmination of shifts in the political situation of dying U.S. imperialism. 

The phenomenon of Trumpism, which is an especially bald strand of American conservatism that whips up and defends street mobilizations of the right-wing rank and file, must be understood in its global context. U.S. capitalism is in a position of accelerating weakness and unsolvable crises. Today’s global conjuncture is characterized by the severely diminished and discredited state of European social democracy; the growing economic power of Chinese imperialism vis-à-vis Europe and the U.S.; the deepening destruction of the environment; increasing political influence of Russian imperialism; electoral growth of the far right (i.e., in India); and, crucially, the reawakening of global class struggle virtually everywhere.

Class rule in the United States

In this context, the U.S. ruling class has been flung into political disarray. The ground is quickly disappearing underneath the feet of not just capitalist politicians but also the corporations they represent.

All sectors of the capitalists and their state are responsible to one degree or another for the anti-democratic riots on Jan. 6. Now, the Democrats, Republicans, and institutions of capital like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are attempting to backtrack and retroactively erase their role in creating the conditions that led to these uprisings on behalf of their class.

In reality, over the last year, both parties of capital have done their job in defanging, demobilizing, and violently attacking the ongoing mass movement for racial justice and for ending police terror. At the same time, corporate and state policies have pushed for “reopening” the economy without marginally adequate public safety measures. The mechanisms used to force the working class back into the shops and the stores include a looming evictions crisis, armed protests of the petit bourgeoisie, and pandemic-induced austerity that is already meager social services. The Democratic Party is an equal partner to this immiseration of workers just as much as it is also responsible for the billions of dollars in hand-outs to capital in the name of economic “recovery.” 

Democracy falls apart

As with their inability to control the pandemic, the ruling class is also responsible for the ongoing erosion of basic democratic rights that has begun to explode into a constellation of reactionary conspiracy theories and open racism. Over the last 15 years, sections of capital have been attacking the Civil Rights Act, itself a wholly inadequate piece of legislation, in order to disenfranchise Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant voters.

An offensive of gerrymandering, voter restriction laws, and voter intimidation campaigns were underway well before Trump’s 2016 aspirations were made apparent. By 2010, the newly activated militant right, under the guise of a very well funded Tea Party movement, had already spawned groups such as True the Vote, intent on “proving” massive voter fraud amongst especially urban voters of color.

Today’s “Stop the Steal” movement must be seen in the full context of an ongoing effort by capital to disenfranchise voters from oppressed groups. Recent reporting by The New York Times underlines the interconnectivity of ruling-class politicians and “Stop the Steal” organizers. “Stop the Steal” itself began in 2016 with the guidance of long-time political hit man Roger Stone. The participation of Roger Stone in crafting the “Stop the Steal” organization and narrative highlights the continuity between the Capitol riot and more milquetoast efforts at overturning elections. Stone is a long-time, well-connected political operative who has worked as an advisor for multiple presidents. He directly represents large capitalist interests, especially sugar producers. Crucially, he was the organizer on behalf of the Republican Party of the so-called Brooks Brother riots, which unleashed right-wing violence against the 2000 election recount in Miami-Dade County. These efforts pushed the state to effectively throw out thousands of votes.

Of course, this does not even mention the tens of millions of people who are ineligible to vote due to being incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or undocumented; the white supremacist structured Electoral College; or election laws supported by both parties that make running independent working-class campaigns nearly impossible.

From the Tea Party to today

The legislative/legal offensive of political disenfranchisement and disempowerment has been increasingly supplemented with mobilizations in the streets of the right-wing rank and file. These movements of the right are the “new” aspect of the Trump era, but they precede and are separate from Trump the politician. Beginning in 2008, magnates from industries including energy, tobacco, and beer began funding confrontational demonstrations based on conspiratorial and racist thinking, whose purpose was to discipline those sections of the ruling-class political establishment who had spoken positively about single payer, immigration reform, and rolling back military spending.

The Tea Party movement, while certainly linked directly to large capital, was also part of a process of organic right-wing radicalization among unemployed whites in the formerly industrialized Rust Belt; small business owners and farmers blaming capitalist austerity on people of color, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants; downwardly mobile children of the professional middle classes; police officers; and recent veterans of U.S. occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global outposts. The confluence of these often overlapping groups led to the resurgence of “Patriot” militias, especially the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers.

In this climate, there has been a strong resonance of conspiracy theories—amplified by right-wing websites and media outlets—especially those theories that can impress an imagined “anti-elitist” unity, e.g., QAnon.

The intervening years between the Tea Party’s peak and Trump’s personal fall were filled with ebbs and flows of these “grassroots” right-wing movements. All the same, there is no denying a qualitative shift in the status and tenor of far-right populism. Always full of its own internal contradictions, far-right, “anti-establishment,” middle-class elements grew bold through armed confrontations with the state.

One pressing example is the two, relatively successful, armed stand-offs led by the Bundy family against the federal government in Nevada and Oregon. Likewise, a spectrum of young fascist organizations has been built ranging from the provocative street brawling of the Proud Boys (2016) to the white nationalist Identity Evropa/American Identity Movement (2016) to the annihilationist terrorists Atomwaffen Division/National Socialist Order (2015).

These groups remain relatively isolated but regularly test the water through creating spectacles, engaging with the state, and alternatively attacking and provoking the left and minorities. This played out especially in the middle years of Trump’s presidency with a slew of far-right speakers on college campuses and, more perniciously, the 2017 Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville. Ultimately, those attempts to gain notoriety were smashed by counter-mobilizations, particularly in Boston less than a week after Heather Heyer was killed by a fascist in Virginia.

Over the next two years, elements of the far and neo-fascist right reassessed strategy and orientation. Richard Spencer, a Nazi and organizer of the Unite the Right demonstration, has turned on Trump and encouraged his supporters to vote Biden while they await a more orthodox Führer. For their part, the Proud Boys have become the street soldiers of the ruling class’s bipartisan denunciation of “Marxism” and “anarchism,” and formed a personal connection with Roger Stone. As the major parties adopt increasingly aggressive stances against immigrants and workers, white supremacist violence continues to rise.

Protests in the capitals and their fall-out

The significance of the protests in the Capitol and state capitals around the country is three-fold. On the one hand, the actions give the capitalist state a wide justification to increase its already-in-motion crackdown on activists. Three days before the riots, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler began draconian new anti-protest laws targeted especially at BLM and the left. One day afterwards, Florida Republicans used the moment to propose legislation that would punish cities that reduce funding to the police, protect Confederate monuments, legalize vigilante violence against protesters, and increase ‘riot’ charges.”

On the other hand, far-right groups now have an example that concretely shows potential recruits that they are “serious.” While liberals take solace in the relative isolation of the far right and openly fascist elements, spectacles like the ones on Jan. 6 are the types of events that garner support from a wider milieu and can solidify the resolve of those already won over. The actions at the Capitol help to color the numeric fact that millions of people believe in the racist conspiracy of mass Black and Brown voter fraud.

Lastly, the majority of the ruling class is attempting to distance itself from the anti-democratic riots by disciplining the largely middle-class elements directly involved and ostracizing Trump and a nominal group of politicians that support him. In the same way that millions were donated to nonprofits as a means of slowing the fire of anti-racist mass mobilizations, some corporations are withholding donations from those federal politicians who deny the presidential election results. Similarly, bourgeois politicians across the aisle are pushing for Trump’s impeachment. In a more symbolic framework, there is Rep. Cori Bush’s proposed legislation to investigate and expel lawmakers involved with the DC riots.

The hoped-for effect of these maneuvers is stability and credibility for capitalism to function “as normal.” Biden has been given the historic task of reviving trust in the institutions of U.S. imperialism as they continue to bankrupt, starve, and poison millions of working people. “Unity” against the “insurrectionists” fosters illusions in the possibility of the bosses’ state to solve the fundamental problems facing the vast majority of the population. That same “unity” is to continue the anti-immigration agenda begun under Obama, abrogation of Indigenous sovereignty, increased war spending, rolling out new forms of state repression against Black and Brown people and activists, expanding fossil-fuel build-out, and refusing to carry out a fully adequate response to COVID-19.

Out of the impasse: the united front

Over the last 40-plus years, the fundamental social problems of the U.S. working class—worsened by austerity, capital moving out of unionized areas, etc.—have been compounded by the weak and compromised leadership of the workers’ movement. Rather than leading and organizing a fightback against the deprivations that affect the working class, union bureaucrats and the leaders of the big social welfare organizations regularly sidetrack grassroots movements into the Democratic Party. However, the only way to successfully fight the right is for working people in their millions to break definitively with the parties, tactics, and strategies of capital in order to build a powerful campaign to gain real economic welfare and social justice.

There is likewise a desperate need to rediscover the method of the united front, in which actions are developed through democratic discussions by working people themselves. Only in this way can workers and oppressed people organize the defensive formations necessary to protect our right to protest from both the state and the far-right without falling into ultra-left substitutionism or depending on the bourgeois police. The latter, of course, will not protect us but rather our attackers.

Such common activity, focused not just on action but also on composing a coherent and far-reaching political program, is the means of forging what is most desperately needed above all else—a revolutionary party with not only social weight in the working class but also a program capable of leading the proletariat to take state power. The molecular experiences gathered in demonstrations, pickets, and building defense guards are the steps through which the working class can gain confidence in itself and its vanguard.

Illustration by General Strike Graphics

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