Issue 1/2021 - Geschichte reparieren

Just Criminal?

Depoliticizing Racist and Colonialist Violence

Ana Teixeira Pinto

On January 6, 2021, a white mob stormed the US Capitol, trying to overturn the presidential election. As I switched on CNN, the first words I heard were “This is not us!” Watching from Lisbon, where I was born, these words ring false. In 1975, the US tried to overturn the Carnation Revolution here, which had just ousted the fascist regime. Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile was, for Kissinger, then National Security Advisor, the blueprint for an armed intervention in Portugal. But I am not trying to score cheap points; the involvement of the US in regime change, both overt and covert, is widely known. Rather, I would suggest that what happened on January 6th can illuminate the nexus between fascism and settler colonialism.
Trump is not an anomaly. Nixon was elected president because previous incumbents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson heeded calls by Black leaders—albeit reluctantly—and made overtures towards desegregation. The so-called “Southern Strategy” is a euphemism for white supremacy: fearing the end of the racial ordering of life outcomes that had persisted since Reconstruction, white voters rejected the Democratic Party and, by extension, the very notion of federal government. The Civil Rights Movement grew in direct proportion to white opposition to federal programs, and support for small-government platforms resulted in Reagan’s subsequent presidency.
Among those who invaded the Capitol, a great many waved Confederate flags or wore animal pelts or horned headdresses that evoked the Wild West, in what the New York Times called a “pageantry of aggression.” This carnivalesque quality—a crucial element of the ideological formation known as the alt-right—led other opinion-makers to dismiss the non-humorous intent that animated the crowd, decrying the usage of terms like “coup” or “insurrection.”1 The invasion of the Capitol was, in their view, a “pseudo-event,” an outburst of disorganized, unfocused anger, or a Cosplay revolution.
Though apparently opposed, these two positions, the one calling for criminal charges, the other deriding the former’s “persecutory hysteria,” are not mutually contradictory. In fact, they both see the Capitol attack as a moment of law-breaking violence, an eruption of irrationality spilling into the public sphere and running rampant over middle-class civility. They only differ on whether to punish the perpetrators or just ridicule their ineptitude. White supremacy, as Charles W. Mills argues, is never “seen as a political system”; it is just the backdrop against which “other systems, which we are to see as political” play out.2 By shielding it from scrutiny, both positions depoliticize violence, obscuring the structuring force of race in American politics, a country whose founding was tied to a war fought to preserve the institution of slavery3 and to the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
Colonialism, as Nikhil Pal Singh maintains, is not something that happened in our past; it is an expansionary process that keeps moving forward and outward, structuring formal and informal rule and presiding over the differential distribution of benefits and burdens. Though the US believes that fascism is not native to its political culture, many of the elements that define fascism, as Singh notes, inhere in the conflicts attendant upon frontier expansion, slavery, and the removal of Indigenous peoples, and keep recurring in a disaggregated form well into the contemporary period. This is the reason why, according to Singh, “liberal democracy in the United States has always been a very strained and constrained institution, governed by a series of exceptions derived from the legacies of settler colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws.”4 In Europe as well, rather than the absolute opposite of totalitarianism, democracy can accommodate a totalitarian dimension, differentiating between those whom the law protects but does not bind and those whom the law binds but does not protect, those who are insulated from liability and those who are besieged by state or state-sanctioned terror, targeted by racial oppression at home and by colonial violence abroad.

There is, however, a long tradition of scholarship that supports the view that fascism is a thing of unreason, a mental pathology if you will. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, as Mahmood Mamdani details in Neither Settler nor Native, the Allies reconceptualized Nazism as “an accumulation of individual crimes rather than a political project.” By focusing on atrocities, the victors could identify Nazism “with the crimes of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of individuals,” and call for justice for its victims. Denazification became, thus, a “punitive effort rather than a politically transformative one.“5 The same tendency to individualize and pathologize political violence animates a widely read study published in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, whose team of researchers developed and popularized the F scale (F for fascist) in order to gauge the psychological predisposition for fascism among the democratic citizenry. Equipped with a set of criteria by which to identify fascist features, the postwar consensus embraced the notion that fascism was a personality trait resulting from the devolution of the individuated and autonomous liberal subject into an irrational, frenzied mob. In his often-quoted essay titled “Eternal Fascism,” Italian theorist Umberto Eco would consolidate this view, arguing that “Mussolini did not have a philosophy, he had only rhetoric.” Many authors would second his opinion, arguing that fascism has no political ideology, or even ideology proper. To borrow Barbara Spackman’s words, “there were no ideas, and hence no appeal to rational faculties in fascism; there was only rhetoric, and behind that rhetoric, violence first illegal and then of the state.” Reason and rationality had, according to this account, “no part in fascism.“6 The logic that presided over the Nuremberg tribunal is key here: The singularity of the Holocaust is predicated on its irrationality, and its irrationality is demonstrated by the atrocious nature of the crimes committed. Those carrying out the denazification process, to paraphrase Mamdani, treated Nazi atrocities as forms of criminal violence rather than political violence, thereby delinking National Socialism from other modalities of nationalism and their own legacies of extra-judicial killing, deportations, differential allocation of resources, racialized citizenship, or activation of murderous mobs. While the relation between settler colonialism and fascism remained under-theorized and poorly understood, the Cold War reduction of the political to an epic battle between the forces of freedom and unfreedom allowed the West to elide the colonial question and the struggles of the Third World, ultimately conflating fascism and communism under the blanket designation of “despotism” or “totalitarianism.” Eventually, fascism became another generic term denoting an undifferentiated evil, leaving the postwar consensus to settle on the notion that fascism was a negation or distortion of modernity, not one of its constitutive features.
But fascism is not a psychology, and it is not anomalous or irrational either. Fascism is a structuring aspect of modernity. The modern nation-state, as Mamdani argues, was born in 1492, when the Castilian monarchy sought to establish a Christian polity by expelling Moors and Jews. Nationalism, he maintains, “did not precede colonialism, nor was colonialism the highest or the final stage in the making of a nation. The two were co-constituted. The birth of the modern state amid ethnic cleansing and overseas domination teaches us a different lesson about what political modernity is: less an engine of tolerance than of conquest.“7 When one affirms the singularity of the Holocaust by virtue of the irrational nature of the crimes committed, what one is saying without saying it outright is that one accepts the colonial rationale as the logical basis for a course of action, regardless of its genocidal outcome. What in Europe is called “fascism,” Aimé Césaire argued in his essay Discourse on Colonialism, is just colonial violence finding its way back home.

The tendency to think of violence as criminal rather than political, to return to Mamdani’s argument, fits in well with the late-eighties notion of the “end of history,“8 which proposed the wide cultural convergence of an iterative liberal economy as the final form of human government. Since market-driven prosperity and unabated growth would rid us of political strife and ideological antagonism, the era of “law-making (political) violence had come to a close.“9 All violence would henceforth appear as criminal. The legal forum, so appealing to contemporary art-makers, presumably because of its theatrical potential, came to replace the struggle for social justice. But singling out perpetrators and bringing them to justice, either literally in the International Criminal Court or performatively in contemporary art institutions, individuates violence, extricating it from the wider historical context from which it springs. Though the choice of the term “tribunal” in a project like the NSU tribunal is itself an indictment of the German justice system and its attempt to insulate the state from scrutiny, para-legal projects like Milo Rau’s Congo Tribunal, as Sven Lütticken points out,10 slide into excessive personalization and struggle to incorporate the racial dimension that undergirds the geopolitics of plunder playing out in the Congo, in effect outsourcing culpability by de-centering whiteness, then re-centering it via the repulsive white savior optics, which double down on the same strategy of value extraction the film is meant to question.
The logic of criminalization is the logic of guilt, and guilt speaks the language of contrition. It has become the norm in recent years to be profusely apologetic for white privilege—to be clear, white privilege exists, and its unearned wages are legion—but there is a subtle yet sizeable difference between expiation and reparation. The Western colonial powers never offered plundered African nations or enslaved Africans or their descendants any form of restitution. Instead, Britain paid reparations to white slave owners. (British taxpayers paid compensations to slave-holding families until 2015; this means that the descendants of the enslaved, who themselves never got compensated, contributed to the further enrichment of former slave owners.) And France forced Haiti, after its successful insurrection, to pay the modern equivalent of US$21 billion as compensation for lost revenues, an amount whose interest the island nation kept paying until as recently as 1947. While Emmanuel Macron vowed to repatriate looted African artifacts, there is no public debate over the CFA franc, created at the end of World War II, which keeps France’s former African colonies in a neocolonial economic stranglehold. Decolonization is not a metaphor, as Tuck and Yang insist, while wondering “whether another settler move to innocence is to focus on decolonizing the mind, or the cultivation of critical consciousness, as if it were the sole activity of decolonization; to allow conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land.“11

The Capitol carnival was candid about its fetishization of the Confederate cause, which was to perpetuate slavery, and the cult of the frontiersman, whose legacy was the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We ought to take this seriously, but the persecutory zeal directed against Trump and his supporters, amidst denunciations of racism on prime-time TV, fails to recognize that this racism is productive, that it produced not only white prosperity but also imperial hegemony, and that those who lament it also enjoy its benefits. Those who, on the other hand, contend that the Capitol was invaded by the crazed QAnon cult membership, not by a political movement, ignore the fact that anger, like all emotions, is filtered through concepts and ideas, and that the content of the QAnon conspiracy is political in that its very purpose is to (re)order the political community by removing those who are not “real Americans”—literally by executing all those who oppose their authoritarian program. It is no coincidence that, outside the US, QAnon has found its biggest following in Germany, a country whose national identity is predicated on the opposition between abstract and concrete forms of capital, lionizing industry and maligning financial speculation—and by extension its personification in the figure of the “international Jewry,” with anti-Semitism driving adherence to QAnon in Germany—or that the revival of anti-Semitic tropes goes hand in hand with fear-mongering about reverse colonization and the coming subjugation of white people.

The question of violence is crucial here. If we understand the Capitol attack as criminal, that is, as law-breaking violence instead of as political, one leaves undisturbed the logic that begets said violence and the institutions that sustain it. Power, Walter Benjamin writes, rather than the most extravagant gain in property, is what is guaranteed by all law-making violence. It is not relevant that the coup did not succeed, that it wasn’t even meant to succeed or had no strategy for effectively seizing power. Power was already successfully seized, the power to make (ethno)nation-building violence thinkable once again. And without the will to confront the racial schemas that undergird Western democracies, partial or distorted critiques of capitalism will continue to open an equivocal space in which a great many quasi-political positions can be inflected in the direction of fascism.



[1] See for instance:
[2] Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), JSTOR, (accessed February 1, 2021), 1.
[3] The Somerset v Stewart court decision in 1772 ruled that “slavery was antithetical to the British constitution and English common law.” Though its impact in the subsequent abolishment of slavery is debatable, the case rattled the plantocracy in Virginia, who financed the rebellion that led to the 1775 war of independence. Some of the first articles in the US Constitution were written to protect slavery. Article 1, Section 9, prohibits Congress from banning the importation of slaves until 1808, and Article 5 prohibited this provision from being amended. Article 1, Section 2, provides that, for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved Black people in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. Article 4, Section 2, contains the “fugitive slave clause,” which required that an escaped slave be returned to their owner.
[4] I am paraphrasing Nikhil Pal Singh discussing his essay “The Afterlife of Fascism”:
[5] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).
[6] Barbara Spackman, Fascist Virilities (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 115.
[7] Mamdani, op cit.
[8] The concept of the “end of history” was put forth by conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
[9] Mamdani, op cit.
[10] See Sven Lütticken’s Actors and Directors,
[11] Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012),