Before terrorists flew hijacked passenger planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the US government was already dominated by neoconservative ideologues who pined for a modern-day “Pearl Harbour”—a dramatic event that could serve as a catalyst to radically reshape the political agenda and open a new era of US imperial expansion.
With 9/11, they got everything they ever dreamed of. The world, though, did not. It got wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives. US citizens got the Patriot Act, Guantánamo Bay, a massive expansion of the surveillance state and, later, an unprecedented militarisation of police forces as the weapons of imperial wars were shipped back home and sold as scrap to local police departments to use on their own people, particularly Blacks.
All this happened with the consent—or in most cases the enthusiastic support—of the so-called “opposition” Democrats.
The neoconservatives who oversaw this shameful period in US history—people now rebadged as “Never Trump Republicans”—are back in the halls of power. Their relationship with their counterparts on the liberal wing of US capitalism has been reversed—they are the junior partners now. But that hardly matters. The US ruling class is divided on many secondary questions, but it agrees on two basic things. One, the US must remain the world’s preeminent military and economic power. Two, the class system internally must be maintained at all costs—the plebs must be kept in their place.
And these dual wings of the ruling elite have spent the last three weeks trying to make the 6 January Capitol riots the new 9/11—a galvanising moment that will justify a new era of authoritarianism, re-establishing the unity of the US ruling class, further fusing the power of capital and the state, and squeezing the life out of any opposition to the status quo.
The FBI, the same FBI which destroyed the Black Panthers by assassinating their leaders and infiltrating their ranks, the same FBI that has terrorised every leftist group in US history, is now touted by liberal media as a heroic anti-fascist force. Every arrest it makes is hailed as a victory for democracy.
Former top CIA officials, who are now the dominant voice on liberal cable channel MSNBC, demanded action to protect the inauguration of Joe Biden. They got it. Tens of thousands of National Guard troops were deployed in Washington for the event. The “Green Zone” they set up might have been ludicrously named (the comparison to the US enclave at the centre of Baghdad, where US control was actually under serious and sustained military threat, was ridiculous), but it fit with the mindset of a US establishment that saw it useful to rule its own capital in the same way it occupies foreign cities.
However, that the new enemy is not Muslims or leftists or African Americans or one of the other regular bogymen, but elements of the GOP, significantly complicates matters. The Democrats might be the most powerful capitalist political party in the world, commanding the loyalty of the military industrial complex and the majority of the key sections of US capital. But when confronted with Republican politicians, even those who aid fascist thugs in gaining access to the Senate to try to kill or kidnap them, Democrats have the strange habit of acting like our social democrats—spineless pathetic creatures worshipping the power of others but too afraid to use it when they have it themselves.
So it may prove that in spite of the uniquely perfect opportunity offered to it, the new Biden administration is incapable of using this moment to unite the US establishment around a new post-Trump technocratic liberal authoritarianism. It’s not that it doesn’t want to, or that it’s not possible. It’s just that the thing you have to do to get there—mercilessly crush the GOP—is the one thing Democrats just can’t seem to bring themselves to do.
But other sectors of the state and capital are already establishing a new reality. The banning of Donald Trump and the crackdown on right-wing social media networks in the wake of 6 January was widely heralded in the liberal media as a step in the right direction, ending the years-long role of social media platforms as enablers of Trump and his far-right base.
It’s true that the rapid-fire actions taken first by Twitter, and almost immediately followed by Facebook, Amazon, Google, and numerous other companies who in one form or another control access to the internet, struck a severe blow to the right, at least in the short term. Though less decisive than the huge mobilisation of the National Guard in Washington, the wave of arrests carried out by the FBI and other police agencies, and a hysterical media campaign decrying the 6 January “insurrection”, the ejection of Trump supporters from large parts of the internet nonetheless played an important role in crippling the ability of the far right to disrupt the inauguration.
But it is not a good thing that tech capital has, with the backing of the vast bulk of liberal opinion, established its right to suppress political speech that it doesn’t like. The gatekeepers of the internet might not love Trump and the far right—though his offence to their sensibilities didn’t stop them building their business around his tweets for the last four years—but whatever hostility they have towards him is nothing compared to the animosity they hold towards the left.
Within weeks of the Trump social media ban, left-wing sites—some of his most vigorous opponents—also found themselves under attack. The US-based World Socialist Website and the UK Socialist Workers Party had a number of their official Facebook pages and the accounts of prominent members disabled without explanation.
Some of these accounts have now been restored in response to protests, but their removal is a sign of how dangerous it is to allow the tech giants to establish themselves as the arbiters of what political speech is acceptable. The internet is the public space of our age. Access to servers, payment systems, social media platforms and search engines are akin to the right to access public roads, town squares and printing presses.
Of course, these have always been contested spaces too. The left has had to fight for the right to protest in the streets, or to hold meetings or print political materials. There is a long history of both state and private repression of free political expression. Governments have made protests in public spaces illegal, or subject to draconian permit systems. Private companies, as they have been handed control of public squares and the like, have tried to outlaw protests and other political activities on the grounds that the only legitimate activities in these previously public spaces are those geared towards private profits.
In the debate about freedom of political expression online, the left can’t get caught up in an argument about state versus private control. Both states and private corporations can and have attempted to impose controls and limits on political speech. We need to demand the right to act and organise politically online regardless of whether it is state entities or private corporations in charge.
Most importantly right now, the left needs to see beyond its justified hatred for Trump and the far right to understand what is happening to the public debate. In the name of “anti-fascism” freedom of expression on the internet is being shut down, the right to organise online and offline is being undermined, new police powers to repress “insurrectionists” are being drawn up, and the limits of what is acceptable public debate are being narrowed. Today, liberals cheer as right-wing activists are denounced as “domestic terrorists” by FBI and CIA operatives. What do they think will happen the next time left-wing protesters come into conflict with the state apparatus, as they did only months ago during the Black Lives Matter rebellion?
The fight against the new far right will be one of the crucial struggles of our epoch. But the left will never win it if we align ourselves with the emerging liberal authoritarianism, which is just as much our enemy as the far right.