January 6 and the possessive white male by Jan-Werner Mueller


While there is much more to learn about the January 6, 2021 riot at the United States Capitol, participants’ motivations can be gleaned from their own statements. Like far-right movements everywhere today, the insurgents were resentful of the emancipation of others.

PRINCETON – The investigation by the United States House Select Committee on January 6 is still a long way from establishing a full record of the assault on Capitol Hill last year, so one must resist easy generalizations about the insurgents. Ideally, the committee will uncover enough evidence to make criminal referrals to the Justice Department for the main conspirators, not just the infantry.

Still, some basic statements about the rioters do not appear to be controversial. For example, we know that many of those who attacked the seat of American democracy saw themselves as strong supporters of the American Constitution. Are they simply wrong in their facts?

A key to understanding the event lies in a phenomenon that characterizes far-right parties and movements across countries: the promise to restore privileged status to white men who believe that women, nature and the inner workings of democracy ultimately belongs to them. The Capitol was “taken” by assailants who displayed an astonishing sense of entitlement, chanting slogans like “Whose house? Our home! ”Observers who noticed the insurgents behaving almost like tourists misinterpreted what they saw. Tourists – especially God-fearing conservatives – typically don’t grab, degrade, defecate not or unlawfully destroy the sites they visit.

A more in-depth look at the day’s events comes from German philosopher Eva von Redecker. Inspired by the medical phenomena of phantom pain and phantom limb, she recently coined the term “phantom possession” to give meaning to the new authoritarianism of our time.

For centuries white men in America have had the right to claim much – including human beings – as their personal property. The natural environment was there for the taking, and women were expected to provide sexual intercourse and various forms of care in accordance with the cover (legal submission to husband). That their reproductive capacities were under the control of men was obvious.

North American settlers seize territory that was first declared zero land (land belonging to no one), even if there had already been a lot of people before. And while (white) women could not be bought and sold as property, the cover-up meant that women were effectively under the control of men. It should be remembered that in some Western democracies, wives could not take a job without their husbands’ consent until the 1970s, and marital rape was not banned until the 1990s.

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As African-American scholar WEB Du Bois noted, the right to oppress certain groups has long served as a compensation for poorer whites who have themselves suffered from some form of domination. A sense of relative superiority generated a “psychological wage,” helping to keep the dominant social structure intact.

Things have changed since. And although they haven’t changed fast enough (even Sweden still has a wage gap of at least 5%), the social transformation has been enough to generate the rage and resentment towards phantom possessions that characterize people everywhere. extreme right movements.

A feature of modern property is that you can usually do what you want with it. As the great eighteenth-century British jurist William Blackstone explained, property is “that unique and despotic domination that a man claims and exercises over the outer things of the world.” And under the Napoleon Code, one of the prerequisites for owning property was the right to abuse or even destroy it.

There is a psychological dimension to this legal idea: an act of destruction can be used to prove that something is yours. This dynamic becomes horribly clear when men decide to kill or disfigure the women they claim to love rather than tolerate their emancipation (which literally means an exit from property, from the Latin mancipe).

Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the insurgents were men, many of whom wore military gear and pretended to engage in combat against alleged enemies of the US Constitution. The man who set his feet on a desk in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed “despotic domination”, seeking to make the ghost real.

As long as the far-right sidekicks assume they are entitled to things that don’t belong to them, there is no point in explaining to them what democracy really is, or pointing out that they are attacking the very thing that it is. ‘they claim to evaluate. If American democracy is not exactly as they conceive it – the exclusive possession of white men – they would rather destroy it than allow it to become sensitive to majorities including people of color.

Of course, far-right politics are not entirely reducible to misogyny. The far-right constituency has always been a minority, so what matters most is whether far-right parties and politicians can form coalitions that will satisfy a wider set of groups. Donald Trump, for example, appealed to a section of the wealthy who sought deregulation and tax breaks.

Nonetheless, as Shirin Ebadi and other Nobel Laureates note in a recent essay, “the founding autocratic market” promises a “restoration of the private privileges of men and of economic and social elites, in return for the tolerance of the erosion of democratic freedoms. “He therefore calls for a systematic attack on anything that looks like female property, including women’s reproductive rights, which have been severely curtailed in right-wing redoubts, most recently in Poland, Mississippi and Texas.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s tempting to interpret the rage on the far right as a sign that things are finally changing for the better. In this story, it is the insurgents who constitute the “resistance”, and theirs is a losing battle.

But those who suffered under Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Poland’s de facto leader JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„ski, still bear the costs, as do the victims of the January 6 terrorists and their families. A complete overthrow of the emancipation of women and minorities may be a far-right pipe dream, but further acts of destruction by white men seeking unique and despotic domination are more than likely.


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