Every revolution has its martyrs, a tradition upheld by Wednesday’s Walpurgisnacht in Washington (WWW for short). Police officer Brian Sicknick died this morning, after some rampaging thug had struck him on the head with a fire extinguisher.
The mob will doubtless claim its own martyrs: Ashli Babbitt, shot in the head when clambering into the Capitol building through a smashed window, another woman trampled to death by the stampeding mob, and two other rioters who couldn’t handle the excitement and suffered cardiac events.
Yet they have no right to that claim. A martyr is someone who willingly gives his life for a good cause, the adjective being the operative word. Hence, say, those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were martyrs; the SS soldiers killed there were not.
We can argue whether the low number of casualties among the thugs was due to the restraint shown by the police or their incompetence. All I can say is that, had I been in charge when the Capitol building was breached, I would have ordered the police to fire at will.
Lest you accuse me of being a crypto-leftie, I would have issued a similar order last summer, when BLM and Antifa mobs were turning Minneapolis, Portland and Manhattan into a pogrom orgy of arson, looting and violence.
Our information on WWW is woefully scant. We need to know who organised it, for example. We already know who inspired it: Trump, with his incendiary messages and entreaties for all ‘true patriots’ to demonstrate against Biden’s congressional rubber-stamp.
“Be there, be wild,” screamed Trump on Twitter, and the mob complied with alacrity. How could it not respond to such an elegant appeal?
To be fair, Trump didn’t specifically call for violence, and neither did he take care of the organisational details. Yet someone did – a hundred people may act on the spur of the moment, but never thousands.
Exactly how many took part in WWW is another datum we haven’t got yet. Moments before she went through the window towards the fatal bullet, Ashli Babbitt shouted: “Three million plus people here. God bless American patriots.”
Maths couldn’t have been her forte for TV footage shows a crowd smaller by several orders of magnitude. But even that mob had to be enrolled, coordinated, kitted with posters and so forth. Someone evidently did all that, and we should know who.
Until we have all the facts we should refrain from making specific comments, a wise policy regrettably disdained by many commentators. But general comments ought not to be off limits.
First, I can’t accept the view that WWW threatens to bring American democracy down. Riots may put paid to a political regime, but a political system of long standing can’t be destroyed by anything other than itself.
Thus WWW won’t upend unlimited democracy. It has, however, emphasised this system’s congenital defects.
A democracy of near-universal and constantly expanding suffrage based on birthright was brought to the fore by the American and French Revolutions, which, among other things, vindicated the eternal law of political upheavals:
Every revolution produces consequences unintended by its perpetrators. The likelihood of such consequences being the exact opposite of such intentions is directly proportionate to the temperature of the perpetrators’ stridency.
The democratic revolutions of the 18th century, just like the quasi-republican ones of the 17th and the socialist ones of the 20th, are a case in point. They too produced unintended consequences that gradually assumed a significance arguably greater than the intended ones (which were bad enough, but this is a separate subject).
One such was assigning an overriding importance to national politics, something that never existed in any pre-Enlightenment dispensation. People were given an illusion that they had the power to affect national affairs, rather than merely elect every few years this or that increasingly inane member of an increasingly homogeneous elite.
Another by-product is a gradual, eventually almost total, shift of political power from local to central government. That empowers the chaps in the capital to an extent unimaginable to even the absolute monarchs of Western polity: Louis XIV’s famous pronouncement on the nature of the state was more wishful thinking than reportage.
The democratically elected operators of central government can make the claim that people who put them into office consent to anything the politicians will then do in their name. Hence the shibboleth “consent of the governed”, which, like most other shibboleths, is often enunciated but seldom analysed.
Since neither Locke nor his followers could pinpoint the granting of ‘consent’ to any specific historical event, they had to talk about some nebulous ‘social contract’, to use the term first popularised by Democritus and later by Hobbes and especially Rousseau.
An important aspect of ‘consent’, as understood by Lockeans, is that it’s irrevocable: once given, or presumed to have been given, it can’t be reclaimed by any peaceful means.
Yet in no conceivable way could it be true that those voting in, or at least accepting, a government ages ago gave perpetual consent on behalf of all future generations. For example, I don’t recall ever consenting to the state extorting half my income, and I find it hard to accept, say, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as the time when such consent was given on my behalf.
Any real contract includes terms under which it may be terminated. Yet no ‘social contract’ can have such a clause. Therefore violence is the only recourse either party has, meaning that in a modern state a revolution – or at least a mini-coup like WWW – isn’t so much an aberration as a logical extension of the ‘social contract’, the only way for the people to withdraw their ‘consent’.
Conservative thinkers realise this inherent flaw of unrestrained democracy. That’s why they seek to mitigate it by opposing political extremism of any kind, an effort akin to trying to tame a wolf cub into growing up to be a cuddly pet. Alas, this side of Jack London’s White Fang the beast’s true nature may burst out at any time.
It’s pointless trying to plead with the masses that relatively benign politics doesn’t really matter, provided it stays benign. The notion that everyone is qualified to steer the political ship even in the absence of any navigational skills (Plato’s metaphor) has been indelibly etched into people’s minds.
Those minds are bound to become agued whenever they feel strongly, whether positively or negatively, about the figurehead of national government, its elected leader. They are inclined to think that their lives will be inexorably affected by yet another fool or knave governing in their name.
Elementary tradecraft can easily turn such febrile passions into violent action, and Brian Sicknick, may he rest in peace, fell its victim. Now I hope that some American conservative pundit, if there’s any such animal, will explain to the Trump fanatics involved that they are typological twins of the BLM mob. Hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?