Politicians have come together across the aisle to decry the storming of the Capitol on January 6 as “lawless,” “anti-democratic,” and “extremist,” going so far as to misrepresent the result as “anarchy.” But the problem with the invasion of the Capitol was not that it was unlawful, undemocratic, or extremist, per se, but that it was an effort to concentrate oppressive power in the hands of an autocrat—which is precisely the opposite of anarchy. Direct action, militant tactics, and a critique of electoral politics will remain essential to movements against fascism and state violence. We must not let the far right associate them with tyranny, nor permit centrists to muddy the waters.
The way politicians and corporate media tell it, there was nearly an anarchist revolution in the United States on January 6 when Trump supporters invaded the Capitol.
Democratic Representative Elaine Luria labeled the protestors “the President’s anarchists,” condemning “those members of Congress who have supported this anarchy.” Republican Senator and Trump loyalist Tom Cotton echoed, “Violence and anarchy are unacceptable,” while Marco Rubio couldn’t resist injecting a racist and nationalist note: “This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.” For sheer Orwellian doublespeak, nothing could beat the Fox News headline: “Attack on Capitol by un-American anarchists is a terrorist act and disservice to Trump.”
Compounding the confusion, Trump loyalists from Rush Limbaugh’s radio show to Rep. Matt Gaetz in Congress are claiming that “Antifa” infiltrators were somehow responsible for the lethal riot—even as QAnon enthusiasts and Proud Boys are being identified and arrested or fired for their roles in the mêlée.
For actual anarchists who opposed Trump and his agenda from day one at severe cost, it is a particularly cruel irony. At the dying gasp of his administration, when the final act of his ignominious reign finally unites the entire political spectrum against him, his last die-hard militant supporters are slapped with the label of those who struggled the most courageously against everything he stands for.
Mark our words—in the long term, the repressive measures provoked by our bitterest enemies storming the Capitol will be directed at us. Biden has announced that he will prioritize passing a domestic anti-terror law and create a federal post “overseeing the fight against ideologically inspired violent extremists.” Since September 11, 2001, the top “domestic terror” priorities have been suppressing earth and animal liberation activism as well as anarchist and anti-fascist movements; we can anticipate a new wave of crackdowns on our own struggles under the guise of cracking down on the extreme right.
But this effort to rebrand unruly Trumpism as anarchy could have even more sinister consequences.
The Movement for Black Lives that emerged onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 and exploded this year with the George Floyd uprising represented a tremendous step forward for social movements. As we argued last summer, these protests reflected anarchist ideas in action in that they embodied decentralization, mutual aid, resistance to white supremacy, and other core values. For a brief period, anarchist approaches to social change gained widespread traction, with police and politicians of all stripes in retreat.
Fierce backlash against these movements consequently focused on demonizing anarchists and anti-fascists, while manufactured panic over the election diverted momentum from struggles based in direct action towards voting for the lesser evil. Now, outrage over the storming of the Capitol could equip centrist politicians to portray key anarchist approaches to social change as beyond the pale, confining movements to ineffective reformism for many years to come.
As the world pushes back against Trump and his crumbling authoritarian spectacle, the extreme right appears to be on the defensive, and we may dare to hope that the coming years could offer popular movements for freedom a chance to regain the initiative. It remains to be seen whether the events of January 6 provoke a backlash that incapacitates the MAGAverse or lay the groundwork for a mass base for fascism to emerge—or both. But our ability to respond, both offensively and defensively, depends on whether we can reclaim core anarchist ideas and practices and apply them on the new terrain that is emerging in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol.
Today, it’s more important than ever for anarchists to speak up—actual anarchists, who fight for a world without hierarchy or domination, not the clowns LARPing in the Capitol with Confederate flags and “Fuck Antifa” patches. We have to defend and extend our approaches to social change, showing what distinguishes them from both the fascists who attempted to carry out a coup and the politicians they sought to bully. We have to make it clear that direct action is not the province of the extreme right—that Trump and his minions don’t have a monopoly on critiques of electoral democracy—that militant protest still belongs at the center of our movements for liberation.
What does it take to change the world? Anarchists have long insisted that the best way to get things done is to take matters into our own hands rather than waiting for politicians to pass laws or police to grant permission. We call this direct action. We endorse direct action not only because it’s effective, but because it’s a means of self-determination, a way to realize our own desires rather than those of leaders or representatives. In this model, everyone takes responsibility for pursuing their own goals while seeking to coexist and collaborate as equals and respecting each other’s autonomy.
But as we saw at the Capitol on January 6, defying the law and acting directly against politicians can serve other ends, as well. Expanding the range of permissible tactics to concentrate power in the hands of authorities at the top of the hierarchy has been a defining feature of fascist politics from Mussolini’s blackshirts to the Nazi Kristallnacht. Even when it involves breaking the law, carrying out marching orders from your Beloved Leader the way the MAGA drones did at the Capitol is not anarchist direct action. The whole point of anarchist direct action is to keep power horizontal.
In the narrative emerging from Washington, the heroes of January 6 are the politicians and on-duty police—the same people who exploit and brutalize us on a daily basis, whose job is to prevent us from engaging in real self-determination. The villains in this narrative are the ones who defied the law, fought the police, and drove the politicians from their comfortable seats—not because they were attempting to keep Trump in the office that democracy elevated him to in the first place, but because this time, they were doing so in defiance of democracy and law and order. According to this logic, had Trump won the election by receiving a few thousand more votes, any degree of tyranny he might have introduced would have been absolutely legitimate, so long as he did so via legal means.
Should this version of the story gain traction, the reaction to the coup attempt will become a profound defeat for all who seek liberation—for it is precisely this separation of the ends of political action from their means that characterizes both the politicians and Trump’s insurgent hordes.
To the politicians, no action is legitimate unless it goes through their channels, follows their procedures, and affirms their power over us. Freedom and democracy, they claim, only function if the rest of us content ourselves with casting a vote every four years and then returning to our roles as spectators. What’s important is not the outcome—whether we have access to health care, are able to survive COVID-19, or can protect ourselves against racist police, to name a few examples—but that we remain complacent and leave everything to our representatives, come what may.
For Trump supporters, the ends are also separated from the means, but in the opposite way. Their goal is to preserve authoritarian power by any means necessary, and to subjugate and punish all who oppose them. In defense of that “sacred” end—Trump’s tweet on January 6 shamelessly channeled Mussolini here—they hold that people are justified taking power into their own hands, regardless of what on-duty police or politicians say.
Only anarchists insist both on freedom for all and the unity of ends and means. Freedom is meaningless unless it is for everyone, without exception; and the only way to get to freedom is through freedom. Whatever progressive reforms Biden claims he will enact, we are supposed to submit and obey as we await them—to delegate our power away. Such “freedom” can only be a hollow shell, vulnerable to the next shift in the seats of power. But the insurrectionary means of the Capitol rioters, though clothed in the rhetoric of freedom, can only further disempower us when its goal is to bolster white supremacy and prop up a tyrant’s power.
This is why we must defend direct action as a pathway to social change, rather than letting the proponents of law and order reduce us to the dead ends of lobbying representatives and begging power brokers. Remember—had their clumsy coup attempt somehow succeeded, direct action would have been the only way to resist the government they would have implemented. At the same time, we insist that the value of direct action lies in restoring power where it belongs—distributing it to all on a decentralized basis, rather than concentrating it in the hands of leaders.
The Critique of Electoral Politics
By storming the Capitol in a mob bent on upholding authoritarian rule, Trump’s rioters did the Electoral College a favor. Critics across the political spectrum have condemned this bizarre system; even the most fervent loyalists of US electoral democracy have criticized its flaws. Yet suddenly, despite the fact that it was designed explicitly as a hedge against popular sovereignty, the incursion of January 6 has transformed it into a sanctified symbol of the popular will, reuniting the country behind this archaic procedure.
More importantly, it has intensified a phenomenon that Trump’s months-long campaign against the validity of the election catalyzed: the uncritical defense of American electoral democracy as the only bulwark against fascism. Trump’s fascistic belligerence has been a blessing for defenders of the status quo, marshaling fear to prop up a system that had been losing legitimacy in the public eye and associating any criticism of US democracy with authoritarian ambitions.
In the solemn rhetoric of the politicians who were chased out of their cozy offices, the only alternative to fascism or mob rule is their brand of democracy. But this centralized, winner-take-all, majoritarian electoral system has bred widespread popular disillusionment, while propagating the idea that it’s perfectly legitimate to employ systematic coercion to govern one’s political adversaries. Together, these effects make more authoritarian approaches dangerously appealing in times of crisis, especially in the hands of a charismatic leader who glorifies power while presenting himself as victim, underdog, and superman all at once. One of Trump’s strokes of genius has been to craft a language that deploys popular resentment against Washington, “the swamp,” federal power, elites, and the like to expand that very power and elitism while concentrating it in his hands alone. This is how he was able to incite a band of self-described “revolutionaries” to attempt to carry out a coup intended to strengthen the same state that they were defying. Trump tapped into the resentment and alienation that democracy has generated to lead a rebellion against democracy in the name of defending democracy—a rebellion that, had it succeeded, would have only exacerbated the worst things about democracy.
Many liberals scratch their heads at Trump’s misled masses who continue to insist, without a shred of evidence, that the election was “stolen,” that somehow Trump must have actually won. While the precise mechanics of how this supposedly occurred vary from one absurd conspiracy theory to the next, it’s more useful to look beyond the conspiracies to the emotional context of the election and its political consequences.
Nearly 75 million people cast their ballots for Trump. In the winner-take-all system of American democracy, since these weren’t distributed in such a way as to capture an Electoral College majority, they had zero impact on the outcome. Having been whipped into a frenzy by demagogic rhetoric and encouraged to believe that voting for Trump was the only thing they could do to protect their liberty, these voters were suddenly confronted with liberal media outlets telling them that all their votes had amounted to nothing. Facing that outcome, and encouraged by Trump and other proponents of white supremacy or Christian dogmatism to feel that they were the only ones entitled to power, it’s not surprising that many chose to embrace a dramatic narrative in which nefarious liberals had stolen the election.
If you believed that narrative, you, too, might come to Washington, dreaming of taking a lead part in the drama yourself, imagining a story in which your actions wouldn’t be limited to a wasted vote, in which you could put your body on the line to sweep away the corrupt elites from the halls of power and usher in the millennium yourself.
Of course, the dream became a nightmare. Whether they were trampled by their MAGA comrades, shot or beaten by police, fired from their jobs, or arrested on federal charges—or simply returned home with the world labeling them seditious traitors—their efforts to take revenge for the profound disempowerment of the election by disempowering others failed, for now. But if the political center thinks that this means that democracy is safe, they are deluded.
The lesson here is not simply that demagoguery threatens democracy—it was democracy that rewarded Trump’s demagoguery in the first place. Rather, it is that democracy is buckling under its own contradictions, its own failure to deliver the sort of empowerment and self-determination that it promises. Smug liberals may condemn the ignorance of Trump die-hards who tilt at voting machine windmills and spout absurdities from QAnon conspiracy networks. But they are failing to see that the grievances Trump voters are voicing are caused by real problems, even if their response is misdirected. While those who deny Biden’s victory employ rhetoric about democracy having been betrayed, it would be more precise to say that they feel that democracy has betrayed them. And in a sense, they are correct about this.
What kind of a system presents the vote as the supreme expression of empowerment and participation, describing it as our sole and sacrosanct political “voice”—then tells 75 million voters that their votes meant nothing and changed nothing, that they have to return to passivity for four years, obeying the dictates of a regime they oppose and had no hand in choosing?
A democratic one.
This is the context in which we must view the denial of Biden’s victory. Key hallmarks of fascist politics include popular mobilization, the emotional investment of the masses in the state, and the sanctification of politics. Trump’s machine masterfully manufactured all of these, generating high levels of voter turnout and intense reactions of furious denial when he lost. Yet these could not have had such power if not for the already existing disillusionment with the way that the lofty promises of democracy compare to the reality of the alienating electoral spectacle. We see this in the popular disdain for Washington, with its remoteness from the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary people and its air of unaccountability and corruption.
There’s much here that resonates with an anarchist sensibility. The difference is that we take this frustration to its logical conclusion by looking at the root cause. The problem is the system itself—a way of organizing society and making decisions that limits our participation to meaningless rituals and delegates our power to distant icons, while forcing us to go along with decisions made without our consent and imposed on us from above. At best, we can choose who wields coercive power over others, but we can never escape it ourselves. When this alienating hierarchy in the political sphere is echoed in the other spheres of our lives—at work, at school, and in so many other contexts in which someone else is calling the shots—it’s no wonder that people feel powerless and resentful. Without an analysis of how this power operates, they may displace that resentment onto others who are not actually responsible for their alienation, siding with some of the beneficiaries of the system against those who are even worse off than themselves.
Unlike the political center and left, which insist on the legitimacy of the election’s process and outcome, and the far right, which insists that it was stolen, anarchists say every election is a steal. Representative politics steals our agency, our ability to make decisions collaboratively and to determine our own lives directly. The problem with the 2020 election wasn’t that Trump should have won instead of Biden—that would have led to even more people being disempowered and oppressed. The problem was that no matter which politician wins, we all lose.
While the 81 million people who voted for Biden emerged from the election with a greater sense of satisfaction or at least relief that their vote counted for something, in fact they have no control over what Biden does with that power and little recourse if he wields it contrary to his promises or their desires. As for the 77 million who voted for someone else—not to mention the 175 million who didn’t or couldn’t vote, the real majority, as in every other election in the history of the United States—they don’t even have the consolation of being on the winning team. No wonder this leaves people cynical and alienated, grasping for conspiratorial explanations, however far-fetched.
Anarchists propose that we need neither the false promises of democracy nor the false premises of conspiracy theories to organize our own lives. What we need, rather, is collective self-organization from the bottom up, solidarity and mutual defense, and a shared understanding of what we all have to gain from coexisting in peace rather than struggling for supremacy. We reject the legitimacy of any system, democratic or otherwise, that alienates us from our shared capacity for self-determination and collective coordination.
As we argued around the election, if Trump had been duly elected according to protocol and certified by the Electoral College, that wouldn’t have made it any more ethical to accept the legitimacy of his rule. There is no democratic process that could justify mass deportation, mass incarceration, mass COVID-19 deaths, mass evictions, homelessness, hunger, ecological devastation, or any of the other consequences of Trump’s authority. Those things are wrong—not because they are “undemocratic,” but because they are incompatible with a free, just, and egalitarian society.
Even—or especially—if it is unpopular after this contested election, we must articulate these critiques and demonstrate alternative forms of popular self-determination. We can put these into practice in countless ways in our everyday lives without necessarily needing to storm a Capitol to do it. We can undertake collective participatory decision-making in our homes, workplaces, schools, and movements. We can organize mutual aid projects, neighborhood assemblies, and other gatherings as spaces of encounter to build relationships with each other outside the adversarial model of party politics. We can draw inspiration from radical experiments around the world that organize power from the bottom up, from the caracoles of autonomous Zapatista territory to the council system of Rojava. We can undermine the authority of bosses, managers, and politicians who claim to speak for us by defying their orders and organizing to meet our needs without them, or at least organizing to resist their efforts to prevent us from trying to.
At a moment when the entirety of what passes for the left in the US seems to have no more visionary program than to defend the integrity of the electoral system, anarchists have a responsibility to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes—to affirm all the good reasons why the electoral process should not be worshipped as the highest expression of freedom and responsibility. If we fail to do this, that will leave the far right as the only ones articulating the problems with the current system, just as they have managed to position themselves as the chief critics of the corporate media.1 That would be a huge advantage for them and a costly missed opportunity for us.
The “revolution” that these self-described patriots have in mind is the very opposite of the free world we want to create. Where anarchists propose coexistence and mutual respect across lines of difference, they aim to use force to dominate everyone else. For all their “Don’t Tread on Me” rhetoric, the events of January 6 showed their willingness to trample—literally and figuratively—on the bodies and freedom of any who stand in their path, even their allies. Anarchists, by contrast, advocate racial justice, mutual aid, and horizontal grassroots organizing as antidotes to the toxic mixture of white supremacy, hyper-capitalist individualism, and authoritarianism that the red-hatted crowds embody.
Even if some Trump supporters are responding to real frustrations with American democracy, we must distinguish their confusion from our critiques. Like all binaries, the supposed absolute opposition between authoritarian “liberty” of the Trump hordes and the alienated “democracy” of the Congress they stormed breaks down when we examine it more closely. Whereas we aim to decentralize power so that neither majorities nor minorities can coerce us, those who stormed the Capitol want to centralize it in their preferred executive rather than the unwieldy legislature. This makes it all the more critical that we distance ourselves from both centrist “defenders of democracy” and those who attack it from the right, asserting that neither fascist strongmen nor duly elected Washington elites deserve to call the shots in our lives.
While pundits lament the partisan divide, there’s always one issue that unites all politicians, both Democrats and Republicans: they agree that they should be the ones making decisions for us. This is what brought Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell together so swiftly on January 6. If Trump and Biden supporters joined the actual majority—the ones who cast no ballot last year—and decided that together we could make decisions better than representatives in Washington, we could remake society from the bottom up.
In the aftermath of the “riot” of January 6, Joe Biden joined many commentators in pointing out the stark contrast between the militarized repression brought to bear against the Black Lives Matter uprising last summer and the willingness that police officers showed to let an armed mob storm the Capitol. From a liberal perspective, this illuminates how race, rather than a concern for law and order, shapes police responses to protest; from a radical perspective, it shows how white supremacy is integral to law and order. But the agenda that Biden was pursuing when he made this comparison sheds light on how last year’s protests are being strategically (mis)remembered to reframe what sort of protest tactics will be publicly affirmed as legitimate in the years to come.
In contrasting the Justice for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests to the storming of the Capitol, most liberal media outlets define the anti-police uprisings as “peaceful” or “mostly peaceful” while castigating Trump’s hordes as “violent.” Have we forgotten that one of the most catalytic moments of 2020 occurred when rebels captured and burned the Third Precinct in Minneapolis? Have we forgotten the looting that broke out from New York to Los Angeles to Philadelphia? Have we forgotten the months of nightly clashes with police and federal officers in Portland? The conservative media certainly hasn’t, even if their cherry-picking is just as disingenuous as they attempt to paint pro-Trump rioters as the real victims.
This is just the latest example of the tendency to define actions or groups as “violent” or “nonviolent” according to whether the speaker wants to frame them as legitimate or illegitimate.
President Obama notoriously praised the Egyptian revolution—a mass uprising in which a hundred police stations were burned during weeks of fierce fighting—as “the moral force of nonviolence that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” He used this rhetoric in order to acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome—the overthrow of a (US-backed) dictator—without acknowledging the efficacy or even existence of approaches to social change that exceed the limits of “nonviolence.” We have already seen that sort of selective amnesia and doublespeak in regards to the Justice for George Floyd rebellion. The left portrays the actions of last summer as legitimate by emphasizing that they were nonviolent, while the right condemns them as illegitimate by emphasizing that they were violent. These are competing strategies for keeping people pacified and forestalling the threat of revolutionary change. While the right-wing strategy promotes aggressive repression by conjuring images of violence to justify external policing, the left-wing strategy carries out underhanded repression by spreading a false memory of a nonviolent movement in order to justify internal policing. The goals are the same: both seek to keep people in line, protecting the rich and powerful against real threats to their power.
If the anti-police uprisings of 2020 were legitimate, it was not because they were “nonviolent.” They were legitimate because they responded to immediate threats to people’s lives and communities. They were legitimate because they mobilized millions to push back against racism and brutality, expanding popular awareness of white supremacy and policing and shifting the balance of power in the United States. It was strategic that some of the demonstrations remained non-confrontational, especially in places where the forces arrayed against them could have easily overpowered and brutalized them; and it was strategic that many of the demonstrations were confrontational, especially where that empowered the participants, pushed back the police, and sent powerful messages of resistance that resonated across the world.
So the ones who invaded the Capitol should not be condemned simply for being “violent.” Certainly, we don’t want to live in a society governed by coercive force; neither the brutality of the Capitol stormers nor of the riot police who belatedly pushed them away model the world we want to create. But what was significant in the events of January 6 was not the violence that the rioters undertook in pursuit of their message—or that the police marshalled in response—but the immense suffering that would have resulted had they succeeded. Trump’s supporters deserve to be condemned because they were trying to help a tyrant hold on to power in order to preserve an administration that is inflicting misery upon millions of vulnerable and oppressed people. The problem was not that the invaders adopted militant tactics, but that they did so in order to intimidate and dominate.
Insofar as Biden will govern by the same means and preserve many of the same policies, it will be necessary to resist his administration as well as the fascists who threaten it.
As anarchists, we’ve always insisted on the value of a diversity of tactics and the importance of doing more than politely asking the powerful to make concessions. In the aftermath of January 6, we can expect to see politicians and pundits across the political spectrum uniting to shift focus away from the agenda of those who stormed the Capitol towards the tactics they used that exceeded the boundaries of law and order. A particularly brazen and hypocritical example of this occurred just hours after the incursion, when Florida governor and Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis used what had happened at the Capitol as an excuse to revive his push for one the most draconian anti-protest laws in the country. This echoes Trump’s notorious effort to make a false equivalence between the murderous fascists in Charlottesville and the anti-fascists who sought to defend against them, or the Southern Poverty Law Center’s shift from targeting hate groups to focusing on “extremism,” a category that includes militant liberation movements as well.
In the face of such maneuvers, we should redirect the focus to what we’re fighting for and what it will take to get there. We can challenge the liberal amnesia about this past summer’s uprisings by pointing out that the only reason we know George Floyd’s name—in contrast to the names of thousands of others the police have killed—is because the courageous rebels in Minneapolis paid no attention to the boundaries between violence and nonviolence. We can point out that for all of the invective against the supposed violence of “antifa terrorists” and Black Lives Matter rioters, the red hat-wearing Blue Lives Matter crowd killed more police officers in one afternoon than the entire movement against police violence and white supremacy did throughout 2020. We can draw on revolutionary history and examples from parallel struggles around the world to show that militant tactics are necessary to make lasting change and to defend ourselves against an emboldened extreme right that has no scruples about wielding force.
Finally, we can organize in our communities to turn out into the streets in defiance of whatever efforts politicians make to clamp down on protest in response to the events of January 6, insisting that fascism can only be defeated through popular grassroots self-organization. Strengthening the state will not protect us from fascism—it only sharpens a weapon that, sooner or later, is bound to fall into the hands of fascists.
In the aftermath of January 6, we have to debunk the smear campaigns that portray Trump supporters as anarchists, refute efforts to delegitimize our ideas and tactics by associating them with our enemies, and brace for the repression that may nonetheless sweep us up alongside them. Our work is cut out for us.
But we have many advantages, too. This past year, millions of people saw how powerful direct action and militant protest can be. They can catalyze millions to act, effecting lasting change. We know that our critiques of electoral democracy speak to an alienation that is deeply felt throughout this society.
For anarchists, revolution doesn’t center around storming symbolic citadels, but reorganizing society from the bottom up—so that even if the Capitol is occupied, the occupants cannot impose their will on us. In the end, this is the only truly reliable defense against aspiring strongmen like Trump and mobs like the one that tried to seize power for him. Electoral politics can just as easily raise them to power as remove them; laws and police can implement their power grabs as easily as thwart them. Horizontal grassroots resistance is the only thing that can secure our freedom.
- Direct Action—What It Is, What It’s Good for, How It Works
- From Democracy to Freedom
- The Illegitimacy of Violence, the Violence of Legitimacy
- This Is Anarchy—Eight Ways the Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd Uprisings Reflect Anarchist Ideas in Action
“The knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s strategy has been to defend the importance and integrity of the corporate media. On the contrary, Trump would not be able to capitalize on widespread distrust of the media if we hadn’t already failed to popularize an anarchist critique of the corporate media ourselves. One of the roles that the far right plays is to compel us to side with the other oppressive forces in this society, normalizing them. If we do so, the next generation of rebels will have no reason to trust us—and the next time corporate media outlets attack us, it will be more difficult to undermine their narratives.” –“The Real Truth about Fake News” ↩