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January 6 and the possessive white male

Jan 09,2022 - Last updated at Jan 09,2022

PRINCETON  —  The investigation by the US House Select Committee on January 6 is still a long way from establishing a comprehensive record of the assault on the Capitol last year, so one should resist facile generalisations about the insurrectionists. Ideally, the committee will uncover sufficient evidence to make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice for the lead conspirators, not just the foot soldiers.

Still, some basic statements about the rioters seem uncontroversial. For example, we know that many of those who attacked the seat of American democracy saw themselves as staunch defenders of the US Constitution. Did they simply have their facts wrong?

One key to understanding the event lies in a phenomenon that characterises far-right parties and movements across countries: the promise of restoring privileged status to white men who think that women, nature and the machinery of democracy ultimately belong to them. The Capitol was “taken” by assailants who displayed an astonishing sense of entitlement, chanting slogans like, “Whose house? Our house!” Observers who remarked that the insurrectionists behaved almost like tourists misinterpreted what they saw. Tourists, especially God-fearing conservative ones, generally do not illegally seize, deface, defecate in, or outright destroy the sites they visit.

A deeper insight into the day’s events comes from the German philosopher Eva von Redecker. Inspired by the medical phenomena of phantom pain and phantom limbs, she recently coined the term “phantom possession” to make sense of our era’s new authoritarianism.

For centuries, white men in America were entitled to claim much, including human beings, as their personal property. The natural environment was there for the taking, and women were expected to provide sex and various forms of care in accordance with coverture (legal submission to the husband). That their reproductive capacities were subject to men’s control went without saying.

The North American colonists seized territory that had first been declared terra nullius (land belonging to no one), even though there had in fact been many people there before. And while (white) women could not be bought and sold as property, coverture meant that women were effectively under men’s control. It is worth remembering that in some Western democracies, wives could not accept employment without their husband’s consent until the 1970s, and marital rape was not outlawed until the 1990s.

As the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois famously observed, the right to oppress certain groups long served as compensation for poorer whites who themselves suffered under some form of domination. A sense of relative superiority generated a “psychological wage”, helping to keep the prevailing social structure intact.

Things have since changed. And though they have not changed fast enough (even Sweden still has a gender pay gap of at least 5 per cent), the social transformation has been sufficient to generate the rage and resentment over phantom possessions that characterise far-right movements everywhere.

One hallmark of modern property is that you can generally do with it as you will. As the great eighteenth-century British jurist William Blackstone explained, property is “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world”. And under the Code Napoleon, one perquisite of owning property was the right to abuse or even destroy it.

There is a psychological dimension to this legal idea: An act of destruction can be used to prove that something is one’s own. This dynamic becomes horrendously clear when men decide to kill or disfigure the women they claim to love rather than tolerate their emancipation, which literally means an exit from property, from the Latin mancipium.

Viewed in this light, it is perhaps no surprise that most of the insurrectionists were men, many of whom donned military gear and pretended to engage in combat against supposed enemies of the US Constitution. The man who put his feet up on a desk in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office was asserting “despotic dominion”, seeking to make the phantom real.

As long as far-right acolytes assume that they are entitled to things that are in fact not theirs to own, it does little good to explain to them what democracy is really about, or to point out that they are attacking the very thing they claim to value. If US democracy is not exactly as they conceive it  —  the exclusive possession of white men, they would rather destroy it than let it become responsive to majorities comprising people of colour.

Of course, far-right politics is not entirely reducible to misogyny. The far right’s constituency has always been a minority, so what matters most is whether far-right parties and politicians can form coalitions that will satisfy a broader set of groups. Donald Trump, for example, appealed to some segment of the wealthy who were looking for deregulation and tax breaks.

Nonetheless, as Shirin Ebadi and other female Nobel laureates note in a recent essay, “the foundational autocratic bargain” promises a “restoration of private privileges of men, and of economic and social elites, in exchange for tolerance of the erosion of democratic freedoms”. It thus calls for a systematic assault on anything resembling female self-ownership, not least women’s reproductive rights, which have been sharply curtailed in right-wing redoubts, most recently in Poland, Mississippi, and Texas.

In the grand scheme of things, it is tempting to interpret the far-right’s rage as a sign that things ultimately are changing for the better. In this telling, it is the insurrectionists who constitute the “resistance”, and theirs is a losing battle.

But those who have suffered under Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, are still bearing the costs, as are the January 6 terrorists’ victims and their families. A full reversal of female and minority emancipation may be a far-right pipe dream, but further acts of destruction by white men seeking sole and despotic dominion are more than likely.

Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of Politics at Princeton University, is a fellow at The New Institute, Hamburg. His most recent book is “Democracy Rules”, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, London, Allen Lane, 2021. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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