The January 6 Anniversary, Julian Assange and the Erosion of Democracy

The invasion of the Capitol one year ago was an assault on democracy. So too is the Biden administration’s continued persecution of the Wikileaks publisher who is being targeted for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq.

Costas Panayotakis Jan 5, 2022

When Trump’s self-styled “army” invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, its immediate objective was to overturn U.S. voters’ resounding condemnation of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency.  Although that objective was not achieved, this invasion forms part of Trump’s otherwise successful effort to consolidate his hold over the Republican Party despite his humiliating — though deserved — failure to secure a second term as President.  Most Republican legislators and political figures who immediately after the Jan. 6 invasion expressed outrage at Trump’s conduct that day quickly made a spectacular about-turn and have by now completely aligned themselves with Trump and the fascistic elements in his January 6 legions whom these Republican politicians were not so long ago vehemently condemning. 

This realignment has also contributed to another development that bodes ill for the democracy we currently enjoy. Despite the fact that Trump and the Republicans have failed to produce any evidence that the election was stolen from them and that the Republican “recount” in Arizona simply confirmed Trump’s defeat, the sense among Republican voters that the election was stolen has not diminished, but grown. Similarly, the aftermath of the Jan. 6 events has led to support for the far-right fringe groups that helped to organize it to soar rather than diminish. 

See here footage from Indy photographer Sue Brisk, who was in DC for the riot.

All in all, the increasing acceptance by Republicans of the notion that the 2020 election was stolen has also made it possible for Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country to assault the voting rights of groups — notably people of color — who cannot be trusted to take to heart Trump’s racist and xenophobic message. Meanwhile, Democrats have done precious little to combat this assault, even though they control all the levers of executive and legislative power in Washington, D.C.

Julian Assange during a press conference in 2014.

Trump’s brazen attempt to stay in power even after voters had spoken understandably led many mainstream media outlets and Democratic politicians to focus a lot of attention on what exactly transpired on Jan. 6 of last year as well as on the period immediately before it. Interestingly, however, those same journalists and politicians wringing their hands over the threat that Trump poses for U.S. democracy have been mostly silent on another assault on democracy that the Biden administration has been complicit in: the continued and unrelenting persecution of Julian Assange. Assange’s sin as the editor and publisher of Wikileaks was to expose, among other things, the criminal acts of the U.S. army during the war in Iraq.

The U.S. government’s continued attempt to have Assange extradited to this country to face espionage charges that could land him in prison for the rest of his life is motivated by a determination to punish him for divulging state secrets that pose a threat on the longstanding use of the U.S. military as a guarantor of our grotesquely inegalitarian and undemocratic global capitalist order. The Democrats are no less committed to defending the military in this respect than the Republicans and they clearly take this commitment much more seriously than freedom of the press remaining a fundamental pillar of democracy. Ironically, their selective and hypocritical commitment to democratic principles may actually run counter to their political interest, narrowly conceived. 

The Trumpist assault on democracy fits with a long-standing pattern in American politics and beyond insofar as it represents the backlash that often follows the upsurge of progressive and radical social movements, in this case the Black Lives Matter movement which has sought to challenge structural racism and police violence. However, another element that inspired the actions of Trump’s foot soldiers is a general distrust of government and the spread of a multitude of conspiracy theories regarding the actions and machinations of government and politicians. 

 In reality, political democracy has always been compromised by a capitalist economic order that seriously constrains the ability of democratically elected governments to defy the wishes of the capitalist class controlling the economy.

Zealous defense of state secrets fuels distrust of government and the spread of conspiracy theories. This is especially true when these secrets are protected for the benefit of a social and economic order that allows a super-rich oligarchy to rule even as a majority of the population is buffeted by poverty, violence of all kinds, natural disasters, recurrent waves of economic austerity and, now, global pandemics that claim millions of lives. 

The Assange cases exposes the inconvenient truth that there is nothing that the U.S. government — with the complicity of Democrat and Republican politicians alike — will not do to protect its “‘right” to hide from people any embarrassing piece of information that could jeopardize the use of the U.S. government as a bulwark of an increasingly unequal, undemocratic and destructive global capitalist order.

Since Jan. 6 of last year, we have often heard that democracy is in danger. This statement is misleading if it is interpreted as an assertion that democracy would have been fine but for Trump’s scheming to ignore American voters’ will. In reality, political democracy has always been compromised by an economic order that seriously constrains the ability of democratically-elected governments to defy the wishes of the capitalist class. At the same time, it is true that not all capitalist societies are equally undemocratic and that Jan. 6 is an important signpost in the ongoing erosion of such political democracy as we may have enjoyed up to that point. 

Reframing the events of Jan. 6, 2021 in this way is important because it serves as a reminder that the Trump phenomenon, as well as the blatant hypocrisy of Republican and Democrat political elites alike, is not the cause of the sorry shape that democracy finds itself in but merely a symptom of capitalism’s fundamental intolerance of any political democracy that is worthy of the name.   

Costas Panayotakis is Professor of Sociology at New York City College of Technology (CUNY). He is the author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press) and of the forthcoming The Capitalist Mode of Destruction (Manchester University Press).

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