Taxonomies of mass political violence.

The assault on the US Capitol and constitutional crisis that it has caused was telegraphed, predictable and yet unexpected and confusing. There are several subplots involved: whether the occupation of the Michigan State House in May was a trial run for the attacks on Congress; whether people involved in the Michigan attack and other rightwing extremists from groups such as the Proud Boys were involved (as video shows individuals rallying and directing the crowds to the Capitol, initiating the first and subsequent clashes with the Capitol Police over the concentric perimeter barricades and then leading the charge towards the debating chambers and congressional offices while yelling threats to specific politicians like Pence and Pelosi; whether there was collusion between the president and elements in the DoJ, DoD and Capitol Police leadership to “stand down” their forces even in the face of intelligence reports that mass violence was distinctly possible; whether this was done purposefully to allow the occupation in order delay the electoral college certification vote hoping that somehow Trump would be declared the default winner (he would not); and so on.

Rather then get into these subjects while the smoke has yet to clear, allow me to offer a critique and then clarify some key concepts needed to understand what happened.

To begin with, the liberal corporate media is doing us no favours by loosely throwing out words like “domestic terrorists” and “coup” (the rightwing media prefers to blame everything on Antifa or portray the rioters as “misguided patriots” so will be ignored). This a prime example of conceptual stretching that devalues the true meaning of the words and renders them meaningless as analytic tools at a delicate moment. Conceptual precision, not conceptual stretching, is needed now. So in the interest of conceptual precision let me briefly offer the following taxonomy:

Military coup: removal of a government by the armed forces often working on behalf of or with civilian elite factions via the threat or use of force. It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and often pre-emptive in the face of a potential grassroots mass uprising. Its scale of violence can range from low to very high depending on the perception of common threat by the coup-mongering elites. It can involve universal or particular (corporate, in terms of specifically military) grievances. Depending on what the coup-mongering coalition intends, it can involve regime rather than government change. Other names for this phenomenon are “golpe de Estado (golpe)” or “putsch” (although in recent history the term refers to violent inter-military leadership disputes rather than regime change per se).

Constitutional coup: removal of government by a disloyal opposition via manipulation of legal norms (e.g. impeachment under false pretences). It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and the scale of violence is low. May embrace universal claims but uses particular grievances as precipitant or justifying factors. Does not involve regime change.

Insurrection: attempted/actual overthrow of government by armed political faction(s). It involves collective violence that is mass but not necessarily majority based. It is bottom-up in nature even if encouraged by elites and the scale of violence ranges from low to very high depending on the level of State and/or civil resistance to it. Embraces universal claims but may use particular grievances as a justification for action. May or may not desire or cause regime change.

Armed revolt: violent protest against government. Non-elite and bottom up in nature and execution. Low to medium scale of violence depending on scope of adhesion and State and social resistance. Often particularistic rather than universal in its grievances or claims. It can be minority or mass based depending on the scope of social adhesion. It may or may not result in government or policy change and will not result in regime change.

Sedition: advocating or instigating the usurpation/overthrow of duly constituted government. Can be elite or grassroots in nature and execution but with a limited mass base in any event. Low to medium scale of violence depending on degree of State repression. May have particular or universal grievances or claims but is not focused on regime change.

Revolution: mass (violent/non-violent) collective action leading to socio-economic and political parametric change (which involves regime, social and structural changes that transcend simple government overthrow). Bottom-up and grassroots in nature and execution based on universal claims or grievances (even if led by organised revolutionary vanguards). Scale of violence low to extreme based on scope of social and State resistance (i.e. class, religious and ethnic divisions increase the probability of violence).

Revolts, insurrections and sedition can lead to coups or revolution but are not synonymous with them.

So what happened in the US? The attack on Congress is best seen as an insurrection/limited mass revolt instigated by a seditious president refusing to step down after losing an election. It is not a coup because those are basically quarrels amongst elites that require overt or tacit involvement by the armed forces in support of one faction or one elite faction overthrowing another via “constitutional” means. It did not intend regime (or even governmental) change but instead the reassertion or re-validation of a particular type of administrative authority in a presidential democracy.

Nor was terrorism involved. Terrorism is the use of seemingly indiscriminate extreme or disproportionate violence on defenceless targets for symbolic purposes. It has a target (victims), object (purpose) and subject (audience(s)). The object is to sow pervasive fear and dread with the purpose of bending the subject to the perpetrator’s will. It can be criminal, state- (including military), state-sponsored, or non-state ideological in nature.

The assault on Capitol Hill did not involve extreme or wanton indiscriminate violence against defenceless targets. It was not designed to sow generalised fear. It was a limited, low-level mass act of partisan violence on a symbol of power that involved thuggery (including corporal harm) for the purposes of intimidation. It resulted in arrests, injuries and deaths, but it failed.

Once we understand these basic differences, we can more specifically consider the proportionate remedies needed to address the problem. Throwing around emotive language during a delicate and charged time only cheapens the debate and compounds the real issues involved. So let’s be precise.

PS: Long term readers will note that I have discussed various aspects of civil-military relations and the causal factors at play in coups in previous posts. Things like push and pull factors, vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military, disloyal oppositions and partisan stalemates–there is much more to the coup phenomenon than simplistic (mostly Left) punditry would have us believe. The truth with regard to recent event in the US is more complex, scary in part and yet comforting in the end.

20 thoughts on “Taxonomies of mass political violence.

  1. Thanks for the clarification, Pablo – it’s very helpful. I’ve been calling these people insurrectionists, but have made the mistake of describing the activities of yesterday as an attempted coup, which it is clearly not.

    Looking forward to your analysis once the dust has (hopefully) settled.

  2. Touché to Di Trower.
    I, too have described the events as “insurrection” and an “attempted coup” but am thankful to have Pablo confirm insurrection is correct.

    We are indeed fortunate to have Pablo explain the intricacies/complexities of government, administrative and intelligence related developments to us laymen and laywomen.

  3. “conceptual precision”
    What a great phrase.

    I think there is one missing from your list though. Self-coup (or auto-coup); where a legitimate government significantly extends its authority or rule through illegal means.

    There are no good terms to describe what is happening imo, that is why dubious descriptors are being thrown around. More than insurrection I prefer to describe it as a “seditious riot”, given that it does not appear to be organised for the long term but is more of a one-off (this could change in the future of course).

  4. Yes James,

    I neglected the possibility that you describe. I think that the difference with (other) coups lies in that rather than a clean/clear break with the previous government or regime (i.e. involving some sort of overthrow and ideological and personnel change), an already autocratically-disposed elected Executive begins to incrementally extend the scope of its powers and is not checked by design or weakness by the other branches of government. At some point the “hardening” of Executive authority becomes rule by Executive fiat and the descent into authoritarian rule is complete.

    That situation is known as the “authoritarian temptation” in presidential democratic systems whereby such minded presidents use executive authority to impose their control over the other two branches as the foremost priority, using the justification of law and order, economic crisis etc. to do so. If that succeeds, they proceed to impose their control over civil, economic and political society. If they succeed with that project (and it takes ambition, considerable power and commitment to do so), as has happened to varying degrees around the world, then the slippery slope towards autocracy becomes an well-oiled slide. Erdogan in Turkey is a good recent example of this, although the abortive military coup against him (perhaps self-instigated or false flagged by his regime) complicates the analysis.

    I remain uncertain about the “auto-coup” categorisation only because it will have to involve elites beyond the Executive, and the degree to which others are complicit leads me to believe that, if no or little violence occurs, then it is a type of incremental constitutional coup. But it clearly is a sub-category, at a minimum, so thanks for pointing that out.

  5. It’s a rare type to be sure, but I just checked the wiki entry for it and it listed Trump’s attempt (anyone could have put that there, but I don’t think it a mistake that both I and this wikipedia editor would think of Trump and self-coup at the same time).

  6. The classic cases of auto-coup are Fujimori in Peru or Napoleon III back when he was “merely” an elected President of the French Republic. I wouldn’t call this such a case. Of course, every case has its own particular idiosyncracies.

    Just wanted to second Anne – I admit before I read this blog I considered myself somebody who was “educated” in political phenomena largely due to my university education, which I now see was pretty misplaced. It’s good to have Pablo here to expose the truth! Don’t know what I would do without it – I am going to spend a lot of time correcting simpletons in my acquaintance who do not use the correct political terminology as outlined here. Ah well, the price of knowledge…

  7. Atrocitator:

    We should remember that these “auto-golpes” as they are called can only happen in presidential systems. The Executive in parliamentary democracies simply does not have the power/authority to invoke the type of authoritarian measures that presidents do in presidential democracies, be they called Decree-Laws, Executive Orders or Emergency Powers. This is one of the reasons, having lived under both presidential and parliamentary democracies, I much prefer the latter. Add MMP into the mix rather than a first-past-the-post two party legislative system and I am positively delighted because there too the authoritarian ambitions of large parties are tempered by the presence, if not to need to accomodate, smaller parties (the current situation with Labour notwithstanding).

  8. I agree – it is very hard to imagine an autogolpe happening in a parliamentary system. One of the many arguments against Presidential rule. However, it is very hard to imagine a shift away from Presidentialism in the USA. Even the rhetoric of those who want to down-power the Presidency is, when looked at from a comparative perspective, extraordinarily modest – even Bernie Sanders only wants to take it from a 9.5 to an 8 (whereas France would be a 6, and somewhere like Germany or Ireland would be a 2).

  9. I think there are at least 3 types of Republican voters going around today.

    One is the diehard who believes everything Trump says even though he will never deliver for these tortured soles.

    Another I would describe as the centrist who disregard Trump’s failings for some kind of economic wind fall.

    The other is the grifter, the Candice Owens who will never be accepted. The Fox News who for selfish reasons lie, the black grifter like Candice and Fox has seen an opportunity to say what ever to grab attention, ratings and profit.

    But the real point in my opinion is that in a few days Biden and Haris will be sworn in and America will become everything the so called good white folk has grown to hate.

    Democrats all over need to understand that this is their defining moment in history because because this will pass. The need to heal America and fix up employment relations so everyone has a living wage and equal access to opportunity may very well be beyond even the democrats.

    Make no mistake if there is no deal the good white folk will rip into the last of the constitution and put the bottom of the barrel at the top again.

  10. Atrocitator: other recent examples of auto-golpes include Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary & Erdogan’s Turkey.

    Pablo: I’ve personally drawn loose comparisons between the Capitol invasion & the George Speight putsch in Fiji 2 decades ago (which I followed closely on TV at the time). As for the GOP, either it kicks the Trumpniks out of the party or vice versa & risks a 1912-grade split; or the GOP keeps the status quo & slides further into fringe extremism that could pile up a body count.

  11. You see, I would not call those auto-golpes. A creeping authoritarianism is not a coup – in none of those states has there been a single discrete moment where the existing authority puts troops on the streets in order to create a non-democratic regime. A coup (auto or otherwise)represents a single moment of transformation, not a drawn out process, which is what occurred in the three examples you have pointed out. Auto-golpes are not a generic description of an executive amassing more and more power, they are very similar to more “traditional” coups in that they involve a rapid, violent seizure of power backed by raw power, not a gradual erosion of existing institutions and democratic norms. If Putin were to deploy the Russian armed forces internally en masse and use them to arrest all of his political opponents, seize independent media, dissolve the Duma and provincial assemblies, ban all political parties except United Russia and unilaterally amend the Russian constitution to allow him to remain as President without elections, that would be an auto-golpe. He hasn’t done that, or indeed, anything like it (largely because he doesn’t need to).

    The last unambiguous auto-golpe was Fujimori in 1994 (regardless of what Wikipedia says).

  12. It’s hard to believe that in just 4 years the “pussy grabbing” buffoon that was Trump then, has become a totally out of control anarchist. Or is he ‘out of control’ or a deliberate anarchist? Is 4 years the passage of time needed to become totally nuts? We know he was enabled munificently. Out of fear? Why was he so feared? Where did his power come from? Is he a one off? Hopefully none of his ilk are waiting in the wings to replace him. I don’t feel I’m particularly insular as I have travelled a lot. I have even been to Cuba! But this New Zealander cannot understand America (unquote) or how all this can be happening. Many thought his initial crudeness was distasteful and undignified but who could have guessed what was in store. I guess the tealeaf readers and the hindsighters may make claims. I did some US jurisprudence in my law degree and we had the leading cases rammed down our necks but it seemed to have little relevance to the NZ models of law.

  13. The article has its heart in the right place but it makes a mountain out of molehills. To take one representative example, its discussion of the military shows clearly that military involvement in the coup was zero – there was not even benign neglect, let alone active participation. Compared to the coups she mentions, e.g. Louis Napoleon’s, the contrast is very stark. In France the military was out in the streets actively executing the coup. In the USA there were warnings about the military, but nothing beyond that.

  14. Yes, as I said I do not agree with her analysis or conclusion but respect how she wants to ground her argument. II assume that it did give you pause to think. Did it not?

  15. I read it a few days ago and ironically had your post in mind as I read it. It made me wonder what would happen if you and Ms Hill were to debate the issue of political terminology, no holds barred… I think we all know who would win there :-D

  16. It strikes me that it was an insurrection precisely because it did not meet the criteria for either a military or a constitutional coup. He could not get enough politicians to vote against the Electoral College certification of the election, so the constitutional avenue was closed, and he could not convince the military to back him in an armed take-over. Thus, even though he had plenty of seditious politicians and corporate/social media creeps supporting his move and there is plenty of support for him within law enforcement agencies and the military ranks, he could not get enough of them to tip things in his favour. In other words, the institutional centre of gravity did not shift in his favour.

    The objective of kidnapping and holding politicians hostage appears to be rooted in the mistaken belief that if they held out for five days (which is the constitutionally mandated time frame for certifying Electoral College votes dating back to the days of horse-drawn carriages), then Drumpf would win by default and/or could impose a state of emergency by which he could rule indefinitely. From the insurrectionists viewpoint, it was unlikely that a SWAT team or military troops were going to be sent in to deal to them with lethal force unless they started killing hostages, so as long as they barricaded themselves in and allowed hostages food, water and bathroom breaks and otherwise did them no harm, they could hold out for five days and achieve their objective. What would have been “interesting” to see is if this “strategy” was shared by the white supremacists and other freaks whose motivations went beyond keeping Drumpf in office and whose hate-based violent fantasies were not limited to chat rooms and apps.

    In any event, all of that was nothing more than magical thinking born of conspiracy, but that is the reality that they projected onto events as they stormed the Capitol. And whether born of fantasy or deluded or misguided conviction, they (politicians, media figures and mob alike) need to pay a heavy price for their treasonous actions.

  17. I love how you call him “Drumpf”… savage.

    My understanding is even if certification had not occurred, Trump’s and Pence’s term would still expire and Nancy Pelosi would have become President as next in the line of succession. Is that correct or am I misunderstanding the way US elections work? As is probably clear, I am not an expert.

  18. My understanding, admittedly not that of an expert, is that the Speaker of the House serves as president pro tempore in the event the Electoral College vote is not certified and until new elections have been held and certified.

  19. Yeah that is what I heard too. So I guess that shows that even if Drumpf’s “plan” had worked, it would not have resulted in his Presidency continuing, but in fact handing power to one of his political enemies. Classic Drumpf!

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