The Capitol Rioters and Punitive State Power

Shane Burley

In a fragmenting world that is rapidly turning to political radicalism, modern states must continually reassert their monopoly on the use of violence. By coercion or consensus, states are faced with the task of unifying social forces under their auspices, and our current neoliberal regime relies on the prodigious use of both to enforce its hegemony. Formal institutions of the violence monopoly, i.e., the police and military, are alloyed with the ideological reproduction of propaganda and a national mythos. The public must be made partners in cementing political and civil society, the foundations of the historic bloc and state legitimacy. The security state of the U.S. has, meanwhile, instituted a technological panopticon of big-data dragnets to project omnipresent surveillance, with a reach that is rapidly expanding as it adopts complex technologies. Throughout its history, the state also has conscripted members of the public, primed to defend democracy and the law, to aid in its prosecution of radicals.

The FBI investigation of the January 6th fiasco is the latest manifestation of this dynamic: in an effort to multiply indictments of the Capitol rioters, the FBI has turned to “open source” citizen researchers, who paw through thousands of hours of videos and connect perpetrators to social media profiles. The FBI has claimed that, without this volunteer labor, it would be impossible for investigators to scale up prosecutions and deter future assaults. Such collaboration is nothing new: from the Department of Homeland Security’s “see something, say something” to Red Scare witch hunts and anti-communist raids, the FBI has always tried to enlist would-be spies amongst civilians.

Recently, the state’s attention is being pulled towards the reactionary movement, whose threat to its authority can no longer be ignored. The January 6th “Capitol insurrection” exemplified the fracture in the neoliberal consensus opened up by Trump: a new terrain has formed wherein an increasingly extreme right-wing mass movement is taking on the foundations of liberal society. Ground has been cleared for fascistic configurations, as we’ve seen with the proliferation of hate rhetoric and the appearance of new street enforcers of political violence. Neoliberal destabilization and austerity are fueling this morbid symptom. Though as buffoonish as their fearless leader, these reactionary goons are a sign that sinister forces have been gestating, and are not poised to disappear anytime soon.

January 6th, one year ago today, forced a mass reckoning with the ugly results of conspiracism and the Trump doctrine. Just as Charlottesville was a flash point for understanding the alt-right, January 6th was evidence of what large-scale “patriot” collusion looks like, with the passive—and in some cases, active—endorsement of a new crop of right-wing politicians, who are increasingly displaying reactionary sympathies.

The muddled, libidinal ideology of the reactionary right situates them as both defenders of capitalist hierarchy and opponents of the pluralistic society that it has generated. They have been whipped up into a frothing rage, their ire and internal pathologies displaced onto marginalized communities, tech companies, and the establishment—the liberal elite and mainstream Republicans alike. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the attack on the Capitol: the very symbol of democracy gleefully swarmed and defaced by paramilitary goons.

On the other side of the split, centrists and liberals were aghast at the desecration: the fact that insurrectionists fought the police, that they threatened Congress, was beyond the pale: proof that the far right was at heart anti-American, that they were “seditious,” opposed to the benevolent state, for which the Capitol building serves as the essential metonym of democracy. To these groups, this insurrection was an attack on what they see as a flawed but fundamentally decent system. Their sanctification of the Capitol is misplaced: it is in that same building that a committee of the rich plans the depredations of capitalism. For decades, neoliberalism has laid the groundwork for the anti-democratic reactionary turn that is now unfolding.

Some of those good citizens have now taken it upon themselves to help the FBI deliver justice. Hundreds of self-appointed intelligence agents have made themselves the eyes of the FBI’s sweeping indictments (chalking up 575 federal complaints so far). The FBI has also reported a 750% rise in called-in tips. One group of these volunteer researchers has given themselves the tongue-in-cheek moniker “the Deep State Dogs.” They have taken up tasks like annotating videos, tracking articles of clothing, and drafting spreadsheets with data on rioters. In this highly complex investigation, they are serving to augment limited FBI staff and budgets.

Another of these groups, the “Sedition Hunters,” describes itself as a “global community;” it includes non-U.S. citizens. It’s another interesting choice of name—“sedition” being the accusation used during past Red Scares to round up alleged communists and radicals, queer people, Jews, and people of color. The terminology is telling: while “sedition” now being repurposed to single out the far-right, what is really being targeted is radicalism (that is to say, threats to state authority) of all kinds.

The Sedition Hunters list photos and profiles on the people they want to identify, share tools and resources, and act as an intermediary with law enforcement so that volunteers can most effectively support the investigations. It’s safe to surmise that there’s a fair amount of wannabe-spy playacting happening here. Still, they have effectively extended the state’s reach—or so the FBI claims. In these groups and elsewhere, there’s been a tendency to refer to the rioters as “terrorists”—forcing the right to share in the politically volatile label that they enthusiastically leveled against immigrant communities after 9/11. But it’s easy to turn the term around on your enemies—it’s harder to confront how the term itself reproduces militarized state repression.

After last year’s spectacle of reactionary violence, there is a widespread sense that there must be some sort of consequence. For leftists, it’s tempting to share in that hope—as anyone who has witnessed a clash between far-right protesters and antifascists has seen, the “patriot” side rarely faces arrest, and is in fact regularly aided by law enforcement. The notion that you can use the state against your enemies is a seductive one. While the left is largely critical of the police state, when it’s the far-right put behind bars, it’s hard not to revel in some schadenfreude. Furthermore, if the prosecutions against the January 6th insurrectionists are not successful, it will send a clear message that the far-right can engage in violence with impunity; this same message was recently sent by the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Still, there are consequences to actively participating in coercive institutions. For one, the Deep State Dogs, Sedition Hunters, and other citizen researchers are helping create an infrastructure for open-source research that helps the state hone techniques in social media investigation. Even if the “Sedition Hunters” and the like are wholly well-intentioned and only wish to take on the particularly vile cast of characters who appeared at the Capitol, they’re still serving as a testbed for state security techniques. One can imagine how eagerly right-wing volunteers would jump to assist the government in sifting through data to make arrests of leftists. During the months of protests at the Justice Center in Portland, Oregon—where federal agencies were deployed alongside local forces—police tried desperately to use livestream videos to identify and arrest protesters. What if they’d been able to turn to hundreds of volunteers willing to serve as a federal monitoring system?

The evolving ability of civilians to contribute investigatory muscle to the state itself, enabled by the Internet, puts those who work to undermine the far-right in a bind. Can the punitive state’s mechanisms be instrumentalized for good? The government can and does wield considerable power against right-wing and racist extremists, particularly the paramilitary white power movement that emerged in the 1980s and who targeted the federal government itself.

However, coercive state institutions are not ideologically opposed to white supremacy. They are opposed to threats to monopolistic state power. Law enforcement’s motive going after many of these groups was that the far-right was perpetrating destabilizing acts of terror and cruelty. This was fundamentally different from the role of groups like the Second Era Ku Klux Klan, which had a reciprocal relationship with the police in enforcing social controls and hierarchies. It is the structural role of the police to protect profit and shore up racial capitalism. (This is to say nothing of the fact that considerable fractions of the military and law enforcement have been directly infiltrated by white supremacists.)

The crimes of January 6th that citizen researchers are identifying are very commonly applied to the left: occupation of space, property destruction, or rioting charges, as evidenced by prosecutions of the Black Lives Matter movement. (An analogous example is gun control measures, which, while sometimes used to disarm far-right militias, are also used against communities of color. The National Rifle Association suddenly reversed its position on gun control in the 1960s when they saw the Black Panthers wielding weapons at the California state Capitol building: these were not the gun owners they had been talking about.)

The state’s backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests has been significant, and scouring social media is becoming a predominant method by which law enforcement pins down political activists—most of them on the left. Digital evidence was the foundation of investigations, criminal prosecution, and strategic planning against the 2020 protests in Portland, among other examples.

And the state’s reach is only widening. In 2020, the FBI reached an agreement with Venntel, Inc., a Virginia company that profits by selling data on Americans gleaned through social media, including mapping their movements. They have also enlisted a company by the unsubtle name of Dataminr on a $1 million contract to help surveil the George Floyd protests. This only hints at the vast scale of algorithmic monitoring, from the NSA to local cops: the rapid proliferation of social media surveillance has become a defining feature of modern law enforcement, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Part of the expanding surveillance was a slew of investigations into what the FBI labeled “Black identity extremists,” a term that functionally equates Black Lives Matter organizers with white nationalists. Documents released by the ACLU indicated just how closely this investigatory architecture surveilled activists, the justification being their purported threat to law and order. The disproportionate monitoring of anti-racist activist social media has been severe; civil rights organizations have released statements addressing the disparity.

The ostensible ideological neutrality of “anti-radicalism” is a charade. Using surveillance architectures to target radicals of all stripes really means disproportionately targeting the left. Leftist protesters arrested at Trump’s inauguration on January 20th, 2017, who did far less than storm the Capitol, were initially facing felony riot charges, with sentences up to 70 years. The state responds to threats to its interests, and the right is far more often aligned with those interests; January 6th is mostly notable for the fact that it was an exception to that state of affairs.

This is the system that the eager civilian collaborators of the FBI are aiding and legitimating. The idea of conscripting citizens into investigations is not new, of course. Recently, it was central to investigations of Muslims after 9/11 that brought in streams of racist allegations against numerous completely innocent people. Informants were also recruited to monitor environmental activists after a few fringe groups committed arson in the name of environmental preservation, setting the stage for ruthless police crackdowns on any green activist who remotely threatened property or profit. The drug war, the House Un-American Activities Committee, WWI-era sedition charges, numerous anti-radical actions like the Palmer Raids, the War on Drugs—all have relied on informants, tips, and social networks: the turning of neighbors against neighbors. The Internet has facilitated a relatively novel addition to this history: the crowdsourcing of investigation, using public sources not only for secondhand information, but for actual analysis.

The threat of the Capitol rioters was real, but moreso for what they symbolized than for the overt physical danger they posed. The incursion was a product of the corrosion of American society, of democratic stability. However satisfying it might be to see reactionaries get their comeuppance, a focus on rounding up the cadre of buffoons, rather than the crises’s roots, accomplishes little in confronting the looming crises. More broadly, hopes that deus ex machina prosecutions will hold the architects like Trump, his loyalists, or his accomplices in Congress accountable are mostly illusory wish fulfillment. The notion that the left can rely on law enforcement to push back on the illiberal forces of the right is a false hope—of a piece with the liberal fawning over Robert Mueller, pining for moral deliverance from a right-wing FBI agent. The historical trajectory of social movements and law enforcement responses reveals the short-sightedness and severe costs of this approach.

Facing the possibility of a new Trump election bid, the larger concerns should be structural: how Republican state officials and elected leaders have made it easier to challenge election results and corrode checks and balances. It is the weakening of democratic infrastructure, both physical and procedural, that allows the right pry at vulnerable points—just one of the major crises with which this juncture has presented us. We need to confront the threat of the far-right, including those armed combatants that entered the Capitol, but the state’s mechanisms are hardly equipped to take on this challenge in the ways necessary.

As an edifice of white supremacy and hierarchical exploitation, the U.S. state is better suited to perpetuating  reactionary ideologies than to combating them. The fundamental racial, class, gender, and other inequities in our legal system ensure that any increase in repression will be stratified along these lines. Punitive approaches do nothing to target the underlying social conditions that create the far-right to begin with, and are at best stopgap measures that also strengthens the state security apparatus and its  ability to engage in repression across the board.Those who wish to use it against the far right are proceeding on the flawed assumption that the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house. It is the ideology of the reformist: any critique of the system is premised upon the assumed impossibility of meaningfully changing it. Its mechanisms can be adjusted, but it remains the guarantor of civil society, the fundamental core of justice.

Still, there are alternatives. Online pressure tactics can be used to deplatform or otherwise thwart reactionaries. There are many open-source researchers on the radical left who successfully do this without relying on the aegis of the state. Instead of threatening state violence, these techniques can be grounded in community accountability, which operates on a vastly different moral and tactical framework. The towering challenge is to create direct-action alternatives that can give us a glimpse of what a more equitable world might look like. Confronting the threat of this far-right is essential, but to deter violence and fascist radicalization, we should look beyond the carceral-punitive system. We must imagine new ways to keep communities safe and put pressure on the far-right in more accountable ways, by creating ground-up solutions based in community self-defense, solidarity, and mass power.♦



Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.