Mayaki Kimba | Reflections on Abolition Democracy 7/13: The Punitive Society after the January 6th Insurrection

By Mayaki Kimba

Abolition Democracy 7/13 took place one day after a mob attacked the United States Capitol. Insurrectionists broke into the office of the Speaker of the House. They sat on the chair of the President of the Senate—a man whom some of the insurrectionists planned to execute. And they came within feet of lawmakers.[1] In response, the FBI has promised an investigation that will be of a scope and scale without precedent in the history of the US Department of Justice.[2] Commenting on this investigation, the acting US attorney for the District of Columbia resisted categorizing the attack on the Capitol as an insurrection or a coup attempt. In an interview with NPR reporter Martin Kaste, he explained this reluctance as follows:

I don’t want this tyranny of labels saying this was sedition, this was a coup. But what I will say is, it was criminal. I’m a prosecutor. I’m not a political scientist. But what happened was criminal, and I’ll leave the labels, whatever it was, in terms of a coup or sedition, to the political scientists that I’m sure are going to look at this for decades. But as I sit here as a prosecutor, what we’ve seen and what we’ll prove and what we’ll charge is criminal conduct.[3]

As such, the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol—including those who, according to Arizona prosecutors, “attempted to overthrow the United States government”[4]—are first and foremost criminals. Whether they are also coup plotters or domestic terrorists or seditionists remains, the acting US attorney suggested, a matter for academics. This determination to view the attack on the Capitol purely through the lens of criminality confirms the contention with which Bernard Harcourt opened Abolition Democracy 7/13: the contention that US American society is a punitive society. In this blog post, I reflect on the discussion of Abolition Democracy 7/13 and seek to relate it to the fallout from the attack on the US Capitol. In doing so, I argue that the punitive nature of US society inhibits it from responding to attacks as the one on January 6th in a way that will meaningfully curb the influence and power of far-right extremists. In fact, all the arrests of insurrectionists notwithstanding, a punitive response will only facilitate, as opposed to eliminate, far-right ambitions and aspirations.

Abolition Democracy 7/13 powerfully reminded its audience of the degree to which US society is punitive. Adnan Khan, the Executive Director of Re:Store Justice who himself had been incarcerated for sixteen years, spoke insightfully of the parole board and its fundamental arbitrariness. Parole boards, Khan explained, dissect prisoners, forcing them to speak like a robot and with the very specific language that the parole board endorses and demands. It calls to mind what Foucault wrote of the coupling of supervision with punishment as “a means of ethical and political coercion.”[5] The extent of this coercion became painfully clear in the conversation between Fonda Shen and Lonnie Morris, who has been incarcerated at San Quentin for over four decades on a life sentence and was finally found suitable for parole after having been denied twenty times. He described how much it hurt him that it took twenty-one parole hearings for the Board to finally see him as he was. Before, all the parole board saw was not him but records and case files and letters. This dehumanization reflects the ways in which the punitive society serves to make us forget a basic truth with which Cori Thomas ended her blog post for Abolition Democracy 7/13: the basic truth that “incarcerated persons … are humans like any other, like you and me.”[6] Thomas collaborated with Morris on the play “Lockdown,” and her insistence on the basic truth that incarcerated people are people like everyone else demonstrates the degree to which we think of incarcerated people as a class apart. And this view of incarcerated people as a class apart lends itself, as Foucault described, to a view of this “class” as consisting of socially dangerous deviants who form a kind of foreign population that must be supervised, disciplined and transformed.[7] The opening conversation of Abolition Democracy 7/13 thus connected in a very tangible way the theoretical notion of a punitive society with the actual practices of othering and dehumanization which one continues to encounter in US prisons and at US parole boards today.

Daniele Lorenzini moderated the subsequent panel discussion which provided wide range of perspectives on the punitive society as Foucault theorized it. Miguel Beistegui drew helpful distinctions between, for instance, punishment on the one hand and the punitive society on the other hand. He also suggested we may already have moved beyond the punitive society toward a more “efficient” model and asked whether our challenge today consists in overcoming the punitive society or in abolishing normative power. Henrique Carvalho emphasized that a punitive society is not just a society that punishes, but one that is punishing in the sense that punitive logics have become inherent to the social order and the way in which we experience society. Stuart Elden focused on the word “dynasty,” noting that The Punitive Society is the only instance in which Foucault uses genealogy and dynasty as synonyms, before turning to the exclusive use of genealogy in his later work. Goldie Osuri discussed The Punitive Society in relation to India’s settler colonial occupation of Kashmir and moved from a discussion of punitive logics to one of impunity and state sanctions of extrajudicial violence. Irene Dal Poz stressed the need to get rid of the dualism that contrasts criminals with “good” citizens. And, finally, Federico Testa discussed the role of capitalism in penalization as well as the axes of materiality and contemporality around which Foucault understood capitalism. That is to say, control of the worker’s body coincides with control of time.

How to relate this discussion to the January 6th attack on the Capitol? Daniel Wyche brought up this question during the Q&A of Abolition Democracy 7/13. He was particularly interested in understanding the attack on the Capitol in relation to the concept of impunity that Goldie Osuri brought to the fore. Impunity indeed appears as highly relevant to understanding the storming of the Capitol. Jeremy Kohler of ProPublica, for instance, has drawn a direct line between the storming of the US capitol on January 6th and earlier attacks on state capitols where armed far-right groups faced no charges or were even let into state legislatures by Republican lawmakers. [8] This track record of storming houses of democracy without consequences was clearly not lost on the mob of January 6th, as they eagerly filmed and photographed themselves, live posting their own insurrection.[9] And the stark contrast between the police response on January 6th compared to the one faced by Black Lives Matter protestors months earlier encapsulates, as Kellie Carter Jackson has argued, the impunity white Americans enjoy, even when perpetrating violence against the state.[10]

All these analyses of impunity are valuable, though there is also some punitive element to the fallout from the Capitol riot. Indeed, at the time of writing, 135 insurrectionists have been charged, including Jacob Chansley (the “Q Shaman”), Richard Barnett (the man with his feet on Speaker Pelosi’s desk), and Kevin Seefried (the man waving the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol building).[11] As such, a full understanding of the Capitol riot and its aftermath requires an understanding of not just impunity, but also the punitive nature of US society that was equally on display on and especially after January 6th. Given this goal of understanding January 6th in relation to the punitive society of the United States, Abolition Democracy 7/13 offers important insights.

First, reflecting on Abolition 7/13 highlights how viewing the insurrectionists exclusively through the lens of criminality—as the acting US attorney plans to do—turns them into a self-perpetuating class of delinquents. “Delinquency” in this context refers to a psychosocial deviation that can lead to social dangerousness but can also be the object of scientific study. This psychosocial deviation, moreover, is deemed to reside in a specific foreign and lower-class population that political power should supervise, correct and transform.[12] Yet such punitive practices, Foucault argues, only serve to reproduce and regenerate delinquency. The modern prison, when it was first introduced, already faced critiques that it manufactures its own prisoners.[13] By sealing off delinquency “as a kind of autonomous, clear-cut social phenomenon in itself” and fostering feuds and hostilities between delinquents and non-delinquents, the prison fosters what Foucault variously describes as a “circuit of delinquency”, a “carceral circle,” and a “great cycle of recidivism.”[14] As such, the criminal lens on which the investigation into the Capitol riot is premised risks framing the rioters as a specific, foreign, and socially disintegrated class. This comforting idea ignores the degree to which far-right sympathies are not concentrated in a specific group, but diffused throughout and embedded in US society.[15] It disregards the fact that far-right violence is not, in fact, foreign to the United States, all the exclamations that “This is not America!” notwithstanding. Indeed, the long and brutal history of the Ku Klux Klan should dispel any notion that far-right violence is somehow alien and unknown to the United States. The idea that authoritarian impulses exist only in a discrete and “foreign” class also ignores the fact that far-right sympathies abound not only among the socially disintegrated but also very much among the socially powerful—a majority of households with family incomes over $100,000 voted for Trump in 2020, an improvement over 2016.[16] Yet most importantly, framing the rioters as a discrete class of delinquents turns their cause into a psychosocial problem—e.g., “cultural and economic anxiety”—as opposed to a political pursuit of white power and white supremacy.[17] And, as Foucault reminded us, punitive tactics will only homogenize, reproduce and regenerate this group, while we should be in the business of resisting and defeating them.

Second, the equation of criminals with social enemies is key to Foucault and key to understanding the futility of the approach taken by the federal investigation into the Capitol insurrection. Because we understand the criminal as a social enemy, punishment must be “a measure of protection, of counter-war that society takes against the criminal.”[18] In this sense, the criminal, conceived as a social enemy, is tied to the notion of civil war in which “a number of collective units, groups, seize certain fragments of power, not in order to abolish them and return to something like a war of all against all, but rather to reactivate them.”[19] Of course, what is notable about the Capitol riot is that the rioters are not implicitly deemed social enemies engaged in a civil war. Rather, they openly and explicitly declare themselves to be fighting a civil war, a revolution and reliving of 1776.[20] Yet in doing so, they (perhaps unwittingly) solidify the connection between criminals and social enemies. And that solidified equation is likely to legitimate a further securitization of the state. Rather than expecting this expanded security apparatus to (finally) be turned against white supremacy, we should expect it to be turned against those whom the United States considers its real social enemies. Foucault might say that these real enemies are the workers whose bodies must be turned into labor power and whose proximity to wealth must be supervised. I would add that in the United States (and elsewhere), these bodies are racialized, to the extent that the “criminalblackman” remains US law enforcement’s number one target.[21] The upshot is that the introduction of the Capitol rioters as high-profile criminals may justify an expansion of the security state which will in turn be targeted against those whom US oligarchs deem their real enemy: workers in general and Black and brown workers in particular.

To be clear, my argument against a punitive approach should not be read as an argument against consequences for the far-right mob. Indeed, as Goldie Osuri emphasized during Abolition Democracy 7/13, impunity is just as much tied to capitalism and colonialism as the punitive society is. So rather than allowing far-right extremists to storm the Capitol with impunity and rather than reinforcing the punitive society, far-right extremists should be resisted and held accountable in a way that furthers a future beyond the punitive society. I do not claim to know what that future should look like or how to get there. Indeed, Bernard Harcourt began the Q&A of Abolition Democracy 7/13 with this question. The speakers of the seminar had shown how the problems of the punitive society interrelate, leading to the inquiry of whether there is a way beyond that. While the question remains vexing, the events of January 6th underscore that we must work and learn together to develop and arrive at an answer to it.

Notes

[1] Mary Clare Jalonick et al., “Chaos, Violence, Mockery as pro-Trump Mob Occupies Congress,” AP News, January 7, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/34417ac51a765e297faf53eb0ad15517; David Leonhardt, “Inside the Capitol Attack,” The New York Times, January 19, 2021, sec. Briefing, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/briefing/trump-biden-brazil-1776-report.html.

[2] Zachary Cohen, Evan Perez, and Shimon Prokupecz, “Investigation into Capitol Attack Is Unprecedented in Scope, Justice Department Says,” CNN, January 13, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/12/politics/justice-department-capitol-hill-attack/index.html.

[3] Martin Kaste, “D.C.’s Acting U.S. Attorney Calls Scope Of Capitol Investigation ‘Unprecedented,’” NPR, January 10, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/10/955314373/d-c-s-acting-u-s-attorney-calls-scope-of-capitol-investigation-unprecedented.

[4] Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein, “Feds Edge Closer to Sedition Charge in Capitol Riot Aftermath,” POLITICO, January 15, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/15/feds-edge-closer-to-sedition-charge-459573.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Punitive Society: Lectures at the Collège de France 1972–1973, ed. Bernard E. Harcourt, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2015), 196.

[6] Cori Thomas, “The Genesis of Lockdown,” Abolition Democracy 13/13, January 1, 2021, https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/abolition1313/cori-thomas-the-genesis-of-lockdown/.

[7] Foucault, Punitive Society, 164.

[8] In Idaho, for instance, the Republican House Speaker let maskless protestors fill the gallery after they had “shoved their way past Idaho State Police troopers and security guards, broke[n] through a glass door and demanded entry.” And in Oregon, a Republican state representative opened a locked door to let violent protestors enter the Oregon Statehouse. Jeremy Kohler, “‘Sense of Entitlement’: Rioters Faced Few Consequences Invading State Capitols. No Wonder They Turned to the U.S. Capitol Next.,” ProPublica, January 19, 2021, https://www.propublica.org/article/sense-of-entitlement-rioters-faced-no-consequences-invading-state-capitols-no-wonder-they-turned-to-the-u-s-capitol-next?token=H5XUYhBoyN_v2qMTsiJRtLcjOEweQC5e.

[9] David A. Graham, “Why the Rioters Thought They Could Get Away With It,” The Atlantic, January 12, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/trumps-culture-impunity-produced/617638/.

[10] Kellie Carter Jackson, “The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by Design,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/01/inaction-capitol-police-was-design/617590/.

[11] “Capitol Riots: Who Has the FBI Arrested so Far?,” BBC News, January 27, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55626148.

[12] Foucault, Punitive Society, 162–64, 178, 252.

[13] Foucault, 250–52.

[14] Foucault, 150.

[15] Cas Mudde, a political scientist who studies populism and the far right, has published an insightful Twitter thread on the way in which the association of the Capitol rioters with “freaks” and “eccentrics” serves to externalize them, effacing the degree to which and normalizing the fact that the US far right has already become mainstream. Cas Mudde (@CasMudde). “The one ‘Insurrection’ video you MUST see.” Twitter, January 17, 2021, 09:37 p.m., https://twitter.com/CasMudde/status/1350995768262406149?s=20.

[16] John Burn-Murdoch and Christine Zhang, “By Numbers: How the US Voted in 2020,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/69f3206f-37a7-4561-bebf-5929e7df850d.

[17] Days after the insurrection, Thomas B. Edsall published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he consulted “a wide range of experts,” in order to understand the insurrectionist mob. While the analyses were of course worlds away from the nineteenth-century discourse that so horrified Foucault, they did come dangerously close to framing the insurrectionists as a discrete group with a specific psychosocial problem—an inability to cope with a loss of status—that is then deemed to explain their estrangement from society and their violent impulses. Thomas B. Edsall, “White Riot,” The New York Times, January 13, 2021, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/opinion/capitol-riot-white-grievance.html.

[18] Foucault, Punitive Society, 33.

[19] Foucault, 29.

[20] During the Trump rally on the morning of January 6th, “a middle-aged man wearing a Trump flag as a cape told a young man standing beside him, ‘There’s gonna be a war.’ His tone was resigned, as if he were at last embracing a truth that he had long resisted. ‘I’m ready to fight,’ he said. The young man nodded. He had a thin mustache and hugged a life-size mannequin with duct tape over its eyes, ‘TRAITOR’ scrawled on its chest, and a noose around its neck.” Once Trump protestors got into the Senate chamber, there was a debate about whether they should sit in the chair of the President of the Senate. An Air Force veteran argued against sitting in the chair, saying “‘We can’t be disrespectful.’ Using the military acronym for ‘information operations,’ he explained, ‘You have to understand—it’s an I.O. war.’” And, finally, outside of the Capitol building at a pile of destroyed “mainstream media” equipment, a man wearing a “leather jacket and sunglasses declared to the crowd, “We are at war. … Mobilize in your own cities, your own counties. Storm your own capitol buildings. And take down every one of these corrupt motherfuckers.” Luke Mogelson, “Among the Insurrectionists,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/01/25/among-the-insurrectionists.

[21] Legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown first coined the term “criminalblackman” in her book The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fears, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Microaggressions, (New York: NYU Press, 1998). Quoted in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2012), 107, 279n51.

Fonda Shen