So, this is what a latter-day insurrection looks like: the crowd waving their mobile phones. Mirrors are smashed, boots are stamped on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Among the protests stalk those with the darkest of fantasies, zip ties ready to kidnap their despised liberal enemies. Five people lost their lives and although this is bad enough already, the casualties would have been even higher if the protesters had broken in before the politicians had a chance to flee.
From the point of view of the institutions, the far right were an embarrassment and inconvenience. Trump has lost the election; Biden will replace him. Yet politics is about more than who occupies the White House: it is also about the rise and fall of social movements and the values that underpin then. Before Wednesday’s event, the popularity of the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremist groups was already growing, which was confirmed by the broad approval of their actions at the Capitol. They returned home with the applause of tens of millions of right-wing voters ringing in their ears. One in five voters supported their action, including 45 percent of Republicans.
The fallout of Wednesday’s events will continue to echo for months, perhaps years to come. For all their seeming partisan differences, the center-left and center-right of US politics have a shared response for dealing with the crisis: it is to demand a greater number of cops and the removal of the social media accounts of the worst perpetrators. But neither strategy is in the interests of the majority of Americans or in particular of the US left.
The extraordinary thing about the protest is that it managed to achieve so much with a relatively small number of attendees. Barely 15,000 people answered Trump’s call to join him in Washington D.C. to protest the outcome of the elections. The crowd was in fact so small that in order to make the march on the Capitol appear the mass event Trump and his supporters wanted it to be, they resorted to posting recycled images of older, better-attended, anti-Trump protests.
Those who had taken to the streets against Trump and against the racism of the US federal government responded with images of their own, showing militarized lines of police that confronted Black Lives Matter crowds last summer. We remembered the sadism of the state when Black people marched, the way that even water bottles were broken. We saw how few bodies were placed in the way of Trump’s march.
Some, but only some, of this will be remembered on the center-right and center-left. There, the message will be a special kind of “Never again.” Never let a crowd form. Never authorize a demonstration. Never let a march take place without the National Guard being primed to stop it. The revenge for Wednesday’s demonstration will be felt in calls to increase police budgets and in demands for the violent suppression of protest. And its victims will not be the new fascists.
Friends tell me that there must have been some secret command from well-placed Trump allies, to make sure that his protest went on without being stopped. But life is rarely that convenient. The reason the police take sides with the fascists is ideology. The belief-system of American liberalism in both its Democrat and its non-Trump Republican form, accepts Trump’s claim that the far left are violent, secretive and likely to destroy property.
The police take a cue from that politics. They recognize that the fascists share with them a certain core ideology: a belief in the nation and in private property rights. They see anti-fascists as instigators and as challengers to their monopoly on the use of force, and never see far-right street movements in the same negative light.
Between the start of 1994 and summer last year, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in the US carried out attacks that left 329 people dead. In the same period, a single attack staged by an anti-fascist resulted in one killing (the anti-fascist perpetrator). One would assume that with a death toll so one-sided, the state would have to take a firm stance against hate. But in the mindset of US centrism, the Proud Boys and like-minded extremist groups are almost invisible, their right-wing politics inexplicable. Both the far left and far right require suppression in their view. And if the clubs are going to fall hardest on left-wing backs, then is that not a price worth paying?
For two years, the social media companies have been slowly deplatforming the worst of the far-right offenders both in Britain and the US. In 2019 and 2020, the Daily Shoah podcast was taken down from iTunes, Twitter and Facebook. Much the same happened to the Daily Stormer website. Former Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos was relegated from Twitter to Gab, complaining that “I can’t post without being called a pedo [sic] kike infiltrator half a dozen times … I can’t make a career out of a handful of people like that. I can’t put food on the table this way.” In the UK, Britain First (once the second most popular political page on UK Facebook) was relegated to the much smaller world of Telegram.
Last summer, when tens of millions of people took to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter, YouTube banned former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, alt-right leader Richard Spencer and so-called “race realist” Stefan Molyneux. Reddit deleted more than 2,000 subreddits including r/The_Donald. Two months ago, Steve Bannon was banned from Twitter.
This week, after Donald Trump repeated his praise of the people who had marched for him, Twitter finally took down his account, leading to howls of protest from right-wingers and claims that the most sacred value in US society, the First Amendment, was being contravened.
But if Trump is now a hate-monger, he was no less of one in October last year when he used Twitter to demand what became the extra-judicial killing of Michael Reinoehl. He was no better last spring when he first began calling the people onto the streets who became this Wednesday’s crowd. He was no different when he separated immigrant children from their parents, or when he promised to lock up Hillary Clinton. He has been the same for years, and for most of this time his presence has been of immense value to Twitter.
Between joining Twitter in 2009 and summer 2017, Trump posted more than 30,000 times acquiring 36 million followers. Every time he posted, and newspapers or television companies reported his latest outrage, he drove people onto the site to read him. From the perspective of the owners of the platform, he was devoting an incredible amount of time to boosting its profile. In 2017, one financial analyst, James Cakmak, estimated that if Donald Trump had to leave Twitter the company’s value would fall by $2 billion. Between then and Friday, when his account was taken down, the number of his followers on that site had nearly tripled.
Risks for the Left
Social media censorship is a tougher political question for the left than whether we want there to be more policing. While the removal of right-wing websites makes life harder for our opponents, the strategy of deplatforming carries all sorts of concealed risks for the far left in the long term.
On occasion, we have seen marginal individuals with modest public platforms use the fact that they were banned from social media as a way to invoke the morality of self-defense and build up a huge new audience, greater than anything they had had before.
The left and the right are never simply fascist or anti-fascist but combine multiple other causes. When social media companies ban right-wing figures from social media, they look to the left next, searching for sites they could punish in order to prove that they are above politics. Last year, after banning Duke, Spencer, Molyneux and the like, that meant taking down anti-fascist sites such as It’s Going Down, CrimethInc and Enough is Enough.
Five or ten years ago, it was still common to encounter leftist critiques of the tech giants’ social policies and, above all, of the ways in which they had opted out of the tax system. That criticism is still made, but it is now more muted just when it has become more urgent. Just last year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg became the world’s fourth richest person when his wealth passed $100 billion.
In the last decade, the amount of time the average American spends online has increased from less than two to more than seven hours a day. The increase in power and influence this grants to corporate tech giants is reflected in the fact that the top five wealthiest companies in the US by market capitalization — Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook — are all part of the digital-industrial complex.
While these tech giants amass their wealth through intricate tax avoidance schemes, American schools and hospitals and libraries have been steadily defunded and spending on the sorts of infrastructure required to keep an economy functional (roads, water, electricity) has been cut substantially over the past decades. The wealth of the major companies, in other words, belongs to the public. People are poorer, their lives diminished and they are in greater debt because of an unwillingness of the rich to pay tax, with the owners of the social media platforms being the ideal poster boys for this type of behavior.
For this reason, we cannot be at ease with allowing billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey to appropriate the inherently anti-fascist strategy of deplatforming, which grants them the power to decide what kinds of opinions are worthy of being heard and which deserve to be silenced.
In the face of a growing far-right, these are going to be the issues that will dominate the next four years: whether to depend on the state and social media platforms to take on Trump’s supporters, or whether we as anti-fascists need to build our own strength.