The Capitol drama : 6 February 1934/6 January 2021

Jasper Johns, Two Flags, 1980

The Capitol drama may perhaps not have yet have reached its peak. We lack the hindsight to form a comprehensive judgement, but it nevertheless reveals a pandemic of violence and a previously unimaginable advanced gangrene of democracy. Are we ourselves immune? What are our benchmarks in the face of such an explosion of violence?

It might well remind us of 6 February 1934 in France. On that day, the Republic wavered in a paroxysm of anti-parliamentarism. France had been suffering an economic and social crisis since the 1929 stock market crash, with  cohorts of the unemployed in the streets, alongside veterans’ associations – such as Colonel de la Rocque’s First World War “Croix-de-Feu” veterans – and extreme right-wing groups including the French monarchist political movement “Action Française“. In addition to its ministerial instability – the radical socialist Édouard Daladier’s government, formed on 30 January, had resigned on 7 February – there were numerous financial scandals, including the notorious Stavisky affair. After the most violent skirmishes in France since the Commune in 1872, which, inter alia, saw demonstrators attempting to cripple Republican Guard horses – there were reports of some thirty people being killed and around 2,000 injured.

But there is a limit to seeking parallels. At the time the uproar consisted principally of antisemitic and xenophobic slogans, whereas today what we are facing is more a statement of white supremacy in response to fear of loss of social status and the irrationality of conspiracy theories.

The major difference is that an incumbent President encouraged his supporters to storm one of the most prestigious state institutions he claimed to lead. This is unprecedented in history, except perhaps if you imagine – but this has never been more than a theoretical hypothesis – the USSR’s last leader organizing a putsch against himself.

For the United States, first of all, it is absolutely essential rapidly to stem this tragic and accelerated downward drift of American democracy, which has deep, ancient roots, (NB: the great historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle entitled his book on the period 1932-1939 La Décadence, and this is the kind of process we are seeing today). If there were no successful reversal, we would witness a kind of institutional and political “tsunami” and could not be guaranteed total immunity from it.

For example there is the concern Gideon Rachman expressed in the Financial Times, recalling that the rule that “what starts in America eventually ends up in Europe” is not confined to popular culture and technology. It can also apply in politics in the form of conspiracy theories, online radicalisation and extremist political movements as we have seen, for instance, in Germany and France. The major difference being the Trump factor.

Going beyond the initial analysis of the crisis, a major issue is going to revolve internally around the fundamental matter of the law, deemed the solid foundation of our societies. How is it possible, internally, in a democracy, to question the results of free elections which have been observed, scrutinized, judged and certified? How, without allowing appeal or the possibility of any recourse, can private tech companies set the rules governing the new channels for freedom of speech constituted by the social networks? In this respect, the concerns of the German Chancellor – like those of our Minister Bruno Le Maire who said that the state, not “the digital oligarchy,” is responsible for regulations – are more than justified, they are a cry of alarm. It must be clear, as the Minister reminds us, that “regulation is a matter for the sovereign people, governments and justice“. Ultimately, this is presumably a matter for the US Supreme Court. Finally, how can we go on asserting the centrality of law across the board while simultaneously freeing ourselves from international law, which is clearly more embryonic? This raises the issue, even if it means rejuvenating structures, preserving an international “order“, revising the mechanisms of extra-territoriality, some sort of excessive privilege of common law solely for the benefit of the powerful, and showing greater humility when it comes to demonstrating values often camouflaging purely mercantile ambitions.

So, yes, if the strange putsch in Washington is short-lived and the great Nation, which we love and has brought us so much, becomes stronger after the ordeal, we will all once again “feel ourselves Americans“, despite our very different identities, not only at the heart of the drama as has already happened, but to celebrate the return of happier days.

In the meantime, we can only hold our breath as what appear to be two fiercely divided countries like those in Jasper Johns’s lithograph “Two Flags“, confront each other.

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