Certain pseudo-left circles seem to think that the January 6 assault on the US Capitol was no big deal.
Radical journalist John Pilger, for instance, tweeted that “the made-for-media theatrics on Capitol Hill were not an attempted ‘coup’. Coups are what the CIA stages all over the world. Neither was ‘democracy’ in peril. What democracy?”1 Jacobin magazine, the unofficial outlet for Democratic Socialists of America, announced that, appearances notwithstanding, the takeover was a defeat for the ultra-right in the face of growing ruling class unity.2
Over at Sidecar, a blog site recently unveiled by the New Left Review, the editors airily dismissed the “hysteria over the Capitol Hill occupation”. “Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy – oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc – constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy,” wrote Mike Davis, a member of NLR’s editorial committee:
What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians – including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat – stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home.3
It was the usual parade of slobs, rednecks and grotesques, in other words, so what, really, was the big deal? Once the fuss died down, Davis went on, the only change would be that Trump would find himself out in the cold, as “more traditional interest groups” such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and the ultra-wealthy Koch family took the reins and steered the Republican Party back in a more conventional direction.
Thus, it was nothing to write home about – or so the radically blasé assured us. But this was nonsense. The January 6 uprising was not a simulacrum, but the real thing: America’s most serious constitutional breakdown since the Civil War. If the coup had succeeded, it would have plunged the US into a period of dark authoritarianism, as Trump wreaked vengeance on a long list of enemies, with no-one in a position to hold him back. Pilger is right to put ‘democracy’ in quotation marks, since the American version has become so fraudulent. But there is a difference between hollowed-out democracy and no democracy at all. If Trump had gotten his way, Americans would have been in a position to see first-hand how big that difference can be.
As for the dark comedy of it all, it is worth keeping in mind that the 1923 beer-hall putsch was also a “half-baked” affair that came to “an ignominious end” when the Munich police opened up with a volley of gunfire, sending Hitler and his cronies running for cover.4 The New York Herald chortled in the aftermath that Erich Ludendorff, Hitler’s monarchist associate, “may never live down the laughter”, while The New York Tribune declared that both men were “down and out and thoroughly discredited”.
But no-one was laughing 10 years later, when Hitler entered the Reichskanzler’s office and began transforming Germany into a Nazi totalitarian state.
No-one knows whether the American crisis will reach such extremes. But two things are clear in the wake of last week’s titanic events. One is that the uprising was not an isolated event on the part of a president who should never have entered the White House in the first place and now, fortunately, is nearly out the door. To the contrary, it is the result of pressures that have been building for a generation.
The other is that unless the working class steps in and takes matters in hand, the decline will accelerate. With its ancient constitution, America is like a Model T limping down the road, as Teslas and BMWs go whizzing by. Conceivably, there are ways of repairing the old contraption and bringing it up to date. But it will not happen by wishing and hoping, and invoking the timeless wisdom of the founders. Rather, it will only take place if the working masses overthrow the ancient bourgeois republic and replace it with a social democracy suited to their needs. Otherwise, the downward slope will intensify. For the moment, the US is deficient in terms of classic fascist parties with their uniformed stormtroopers and the rest. But that shortage will be rectified, as the crisis grows.
The January 6 assault begs comparison with any number of events – with Munich in 1923, with Mussolini’s March on Rome a year earlier, or with “the great secession winter of 1860-61”, as historian Henry Adams called it, when the US constitutional order finally collapsed under the impact of slavery.
But an incident nearly two centuries earlier is no less relevant. This was in January 1642, when England’s Charles I took 400 soldiers and tried to arrest five members of parliament on treason charges. The five men escaped. But such was the shock over the executive branch’s violation of legislative prerogatives that civil war became all but a certainty.
The comparison is important, because America, in a sense, is still stuck in the 17th century. Indeed, the conservative political theorist, Samuel P Huntington, argued in the 1960s that America was a Tudor polity founded by Puritans, who were appalled by Stuart absolutism and who longed for the good old days of Elizabeth I – the English Deborah who had sunk the Spanish Catholic Armada in 1587. Tudor devotion to England’s “organic” constitution, Huntington noted, was quite genuine. Despite his brutality, for example, Henry VIII was a master politician, a proto-LBJ, who was adept at manipulating the complex power structure of the day and making it do his bidding. His daughter, Elizabeth, was also a skilled practitioner. For Puritans, constitutional complexity was a source of strength. The Stuarts’ great sin, in their view, was not only their crypto-Catholicism, but their disregard for traditional constitutional constraints, which could only end in national defeat.5
So Puritans believed. But the 1640s brought about a divergence, when the civil war forced English parliamentarians to abandon tradition and to ‘new-model’ both government and the military. Safe in their New England redoubt, their American co-thinkers did the opposite by burying themselves ever deeper in the old. The upshot in 1787 was a US constitution that took Tudor-style pluralism and updated it with various 18th century add-ons: John Trenchard’s and Thomas Gordon’s writing about checks and balances in Cato’s letters, which were required reading in the colonies in the 1720s; Viscount Bolingbroke’s 1749 pamphlet, ‘The idea of the patriot king’, which laid the theoretical basis for the US presidency; Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the law, which was also a key text of the day; and so forth.
But the core remained unchanged. Separation of powers was the antidote to tyranny. Checks and balances were the key to stability. Loyalty to the ancient constitution was the source of national strength. These were ideas that the founders incorporated in an unbreakable legal contract they called the US constitution.
Which, give or take the occasional war, mass uprising, and industrial revolution, brings us to the present day. But plus ça change … which is why Washington never seemed more 17th century than it did last week, when another monarch sent his forces trampling over the legislative realm. The only difference was that this time Congress had each branch’s limits and responsibilities in writing, which is why House speaker Nancy Pelosi is now determined to invoke the constitution’s most punitive mechanisms by impeaching Trump in his final days in office.
As Marx noted during the Civil War, “Up to now we have witnessed only the first act … the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”6 That judgment may have been a trifle premature when Marx made it in 1862, but eventually the question of a revolutionary break must occur.
No historical analogy is complete, obviously. The United States may be a Tudor polity that has persisted long past its sell-by date, but it is also a high-tech economic power, not to mention the first empire to achieve global hegemony. That makes the contradictions all the more acute. Thanks to America’s obsolete constitution, US politics have never been more dysfunctional, the political classes never more out of touch. The legislative process on Capitol Hill is chaotic, democratic accountability is nil, while corruption is so rampant that Americans hardly notice – it is simply the air they breathe.
The results are all too evident in the growing social decay out in the hinterlands. Some 22 million jobs have vanished since the start of the pandemic, a massive foreclosure crisis is looming, while the total Covid-19 death toll is nearing 400,000. Anger is growing too, quite legitimately. But, since Americans have no way of expressing it democratically in an upside-down political system, they can only do so in ways that are increasingly incoherent and self-defeating. They follow a Mussolini-style demagogue like Trump, they trash the Capitol, they race-bait whites, or they beat up passing black pedestrians.7 The left meanwhile languishes in tiny woke ghettoes.
The upshot is a system in its death throes. But, since Americans cannot blame themselves and certainly cannot blame the constitution, they must direct their anger at someone else. In previous generations, this might have been the Jews. But, since that is verboten, it is now – yes – the Russians. This is why Pelosi took time off from blaming Trump last week to charge the Kremlin with ultimate responsibility: “Putin wants to undermine democracy,” she told the press. “That’s what he’s about domestically and internationally, and the president gave him the biggest of all of his many gifts to Putin, the biggest gift, yesterday.”8
Blinded by conspiracy theories and spooked by ghosts of its own making, the Democratic leadership is incapable of diagnosing the problem in a sober and scientific fashion, which is another reason why it can only intensify. In the end, the republic will go down not with a whimper or a bang, but amid a welter of confusion and scapegoating.
4) RJ Evans The coming of the Third Reich New York 2003, pp193-94.︎
5) Huntington’s politics are repugnant, but his insights are still considerable. For more on America as a Tudor polity, see Political order in changing societies New Haven 1968, pp93-133.︎
6) ‘A criticism of American affairs” Die Presse August 9 1862 (emphasis in original).︎
This article first appeared in Weekly Worker.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.