Storming The Capitol – Symptom or Antigen?

So far, 2021 has been an interesting year. As the first month comes to a close: the United States (US) has seen President Biden inaugurated; North Korea wholly established Kim Jong-Un as ‘General Secretary of The Workers’ Party of Korea’[1]; with the arrest on the return of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, protests led to an estimated 3,500 being forcefully detained[2]; the Prime Minister of The Netherlands, Mark Rutte, and his cabinet resigned due to a welfare scandal[3]; and COVID-19 (C19) is still a global security threat, having killed 2,127,206 individuals worldwide to date since the outbreak began[4]. Equally, amongst this, a total of over 64 million doses of C19 vaccine have now been administered.[5] Therefore, January has been a tale of two interwoven narratives: one of dead-ends and mortality, alongside one of natality – of new beginnings.

There was of course one event which represented the synthesis of both – the storming of the US Capitol on the 6th of January. On the morning of the 6th of January 2021, the President Donald Trump held the ‘Save America’ rally in order to address his supports whilst a joint session of Congress was beginning to formalise Joe Biden’s electoral victory by counting (and by some such as Sen. Ted Cruz – Objecting to) Electoral College votes. After the rally had come to an end, with a truth-negating emphasis concerning (a) how the election had been ‘stolen’, (b) denial of C19 as a public health threat, and (c) even traces of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory; although difficult to determine the precise number, thousands of Trump supporters began to protest outside of the Capitol.[6] Although the precise events are still yet to be fully investigated, this protest led to a ‘soft breach’ of the security gate and, subsequently, metamorphosizing into a ‘mob’ that infiltrated the building by forcefully breaking and entering, leaving five dead, the Capitol evacuated, offices ransacked, equipment stolen, and the democratic mystic-symbolism of the Capitol  shattered.[7] Indeed, perhaps as the sociologist Christian Fuchs claims, the Capitol storming was the outcome of a long chain of occurrences subsequent to a continual unfolding of an underlying phenomenon of ‘Trumpian’ authoritarianism that, although may be questionable to such an extent concerning Trump himself, can no longer be denied amongst factions of American society that weave together politics and violence.[8] As for these faction, I am thinking of The Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, or Boogaloo Boys, who appear at rallies with firearms and exhibit the distinct image of what could only be described as a contemporary LARPer – prepared to embody the aura of violence for visual effect and self-valuation.[9]  

Another event also marked the beginning of 2021, and this was the mass-rollout of vaccinations globally, in order to heighten collective immunity to C19. At the time of the Capitol riot, for whatever reason, Roberto Esposito’s notable work ‘Bios’ came to mind, in which he explores the philosophical discourse of ‘biopolitics’. At the heart of Esposito’s project is the notion that the paradigm of ‘immunization’ had been overlooked by thinkers of the biopolitical, such as Foucault.[10] The biopolitical concerns where life (bios) and politico-legal structure (nomos) intersect; where sovereign right, in Foucault’s terms, “which was formulated as the ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live”, a political power over the living bodies of citizens.[11] Esposito affirms that ‘immunity’ is a key phenomenon that protracts a politics pertaining to (a) the preservation, and (b) the taking of life, and thus involves a re-centring of ‘community’. In this manner, immunity, as the characteristic essence (eidos [εἶδος]) of biopolitics, “is the power to preserve life”, be this in an affirmative or, sadly all too often, lethally negative form.[12] One of Esposito’s fundamental queries concerns the political potentiality towards an ‘affirmative’ community that does not succumb to attempts to immunize itself from living bodies it considers a pathogen or contagion to be removed as a ‘threat’ to the whole.

As Esposito does indeed state, in its medical and clinical usage ‘immunity’ “refers to a condition of natural or induced refractoriness on the part of a living organism when faced with a given disease”.[13] Vaccination plays a part in this process, in which an antigen is introduced in order to construct a level of immunity to preserve life itself – in an affirmative sense. Although the political dialogue that Esposito goes on to engage with does not directly relate to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, the notion of vaccination and immunity can do so. The purpose of a vaccination is to deliver an antigen into the body so the immune system is triggered to forge a response. In this, if the corresponding pathogen is contracted, the immune system may present a strong reaction to fight it, i.e. the life of the body is preserved. In the wake of the events at the Capitol, most have outright condemned the violence – as is proper to do so – without necessarily accepting the affirmative immunizational effects against the populist authoritarianism from which the events were a normative extension of.  

The events of January 6th can be utilised for progressive purposes, through the immunitary framework. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the actions of those who did indeed storm the Capitol, accepting it to become a frequent occurrence would imply the collapse of the legislative branch of US government and the failing of state mechanisms to govern. By simply denouncing the event as a symbolic and political catastrophe, it appears that most are neglecting the event’s utility through sublation (negation accompanied by synthesis).

What we observed was an underlying violence that has oft been regarded as bubbling below the surface of many right-wing groups and principles.[14] As a result of the storming of the Capitol, one should be under no illusion that the die-hard Trump supporters were, and perhaps still are, willing to utilise political methods that had been assumed outside of the purview of legitimate political action in the US. Although a somewhat problematic allegory, the veil has been thrown back and the will to violence beneath their activity has been brought into the light, now exposed. In this manner, as opposed to merely citing the violence as ‘deplorable’, ‘unamerican’ or ‘thug-like’, the exposition of the underlying violence of these factions presents grounds to legislate in order to strengthen the institutions from such activity at the heart of liberal democracy. Equally, perhaps in a dialectical manner, the storming of the Capitol may forge a spatial dimension in which a genuine left may construct itself in response to expose the structural and systemic issues underlying the US political system. In a number of cases, those issues are the same that lead to the grievances of some on the right – e.g., unemployment, systemic inequality, economic and social precarity, and so on. This is the space that ‘the left’ can open by affirmatively responding to the events. I doubt this, however, given the history of the US left (especially in contemporary years with its emphasis on moralisation) but we live in strange times and stranger things have happened.

The greatest problem on the horizon is, rather, the inability to wholly negate the events of January the 6th in an affirmative manner. There is space to legislate for the limitation of Right-Wing provocation in law (a Liberal response), or to form counter-hegemonic groups to press for wider systemic and normative change (a ‘left’ response). In both of these cases, the US political system – a not unflawed system by any stretch – may be able to vaccinate itself from the populist right-wing authoritarianism that seems to have made its way into the legitimate political horizon. At least for the time being. The Capitol violence went some way to de-legitimate the authoritarian undercurrents of some Trumpian factions. However, this affirmation could be wholly ignored.

It is not enough to merely state how awful the events of January the 6th were; how awful it was that a confederate flag was brought into Congress, or that this was the first incident of its kind since the early nineteenth century; how deplorable it was to ransack the office of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi; how this is an attack on democracy itself, etc. This is not enough. If this is all that can be mustered, the violence experienced will become nothing more than the symptom of a wider issue – that of fully legitimated right-wing authoritarian populism. By responding to the events through an affirmative negation of its impetus, it can become an antigen to such violent activity and the principal system of thought from which it stems. Maybe, thus, January 2021 can be the month of vaccination in a manner greater than that of C19 alone.


[1] Richard Lloyd Parry (11th January 2021) ‘Kim Jong-Un Takes New Title and Leaves Sister Out’, The Sunday Times, thetimes.co.uk, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/kim-jong-un-takes-new-title-and-leaves-sister-out-m8kp9g8h9 (Accessed 24th January 2021).

[2] BBC News (24th January 2021) ‘Russia Navalny protests: Kremlin hits out at West as it downplays rallies’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-55790699 (Accessed 24th January 2021).

[3] Reuters Staff (15th January 2021) ‘Dutch PM Rutte hands government resignation to king – statement’, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-politics-rutte/dutch-pm-rutte-hands-government-resignation-to-k ing-statement-idUSKBN29K1NK?il=0 (Accessed 24th January 2021).

[4] COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (2021) ‘COVID-19 Dashboard’, coronavirus.jhu.edu, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (Accessed 24th January at 23:17).

[5] Our World in Data (2021) ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations’, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata. org/covid-vaccinations (Accessed 24th January 2021 at 23:32).

[6]As far as the difficult to calculate numbers are concerned, see: Steve Doig (8th January 2021) ‘It is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the size of the crowd that stormed Capitol Hill’, The Conversation, https://theconv ersation.com/it-is-difficult-if-not-impossible-to-estimate-the-size-of-the-crowd-that-stormed-capitol-hill-152889 (Accessed 25th January 2021). I have emphasised ‘Trump’, as I would like to distinguish their support to Trump with their support for the ‘Republican’ party, illustrated in calls by many to: “hang Mike Pence” in his refusal to subvert the constitution on this occasion to benefit his and Trump’s mutual cause to overturn the election result. For more information on this, see: Ashley Parker, Carol D. Leonnig, Paul Kane and Emma Brown (15th January 2021) ‘How the rioters who stormed the Capitol came dangerously close to Pence’, The Washington Post, https:// http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pence-rioters-capitol-attack/2021/01/15/ab62e434-567c-11eb-a08b-f138 1ef3 d207_story.html (Accessed 26th January 2021).

[7] Nicol Turner Lee (8th January 2021) ‘The ‘thugs’ that stormed the Capitol just joined a long list of others’, Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2021/01/08/the-thugs-that-stormed-the-capi tol-just-joined-a-long-list-of-others/ (Accessed 26th January 2021).

[8] For Fuchs’ discussion of the Authoritarian speech-acts made by Trump in the weeks leading to the events of January 6th, see: Christian Fuchs (2021) ‘How Did Donald Trump Incite a Coup Attempt?’, trippleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 19(1), pp. 246-251.  

[9] ‘LARPer’ – A participant in a Live Action Role Playing game, such as battle re-enactments.

[10] Roberto Esposito (2008) Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[11] Michel Foucault (1990) The History of Sexuality – Volume 1: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books, p. 136.

[12] Roberto Esposito (2008) Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.46.

[13] Ibid, p.45.

[14] Concerning the discussion of underlying legitimated violence in the US right-wing, see: Cas Mudde (2019) The Far Right Today, Cambridge: Polity Press; George Hawley (2018) The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Arie Perliger (2020) American Zealots: Inside Right Wing Domestic Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press; David A. Neiwert (2017) Alt-America: The Rise of The Radical Right in the Age of Trump, London: Verso.

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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