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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Calls the Capitol the “Citadel of Democracy”

While speaking out against the ultra-right white supremacist mob that stormed the Capitol last week, AOC referred to the Capitol as the “citadel of democracy.” Organizing and speaking out against the right should not mean glorifying the imperialist, capitalist U.S. Capitol and what takes place within its walls. 

Tatiana Cozzarelli

January 16, 2021
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is interviewed on the ABC News program "This Week
ABC News

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram Live on Tuesday to speak about the right-wing attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. To her credit, she correctly highlighted the long history of white supremacist violence in this country — the storming of the Capitol is only its latest iteration. She pointed out the discrepancies between how the cops treated peaceful BLM protesters and an overwhelmingly white murderous gang. And she highlighted that some members of Congress supported the attacks and suggested that some may even have been in communication with the white supremacist protesters. 

Without a doubt, the events of January 6 put on full display the emergence of a radicalized far right. The crowd that day was a broad coalition of white supremacists, neo-fascists, cops, and conspiracy theorists. Some carried the flag of the Confederacy — “traitors to the United States,” she said — which she noted hadn’t even happened during the Civil War. Though it is clear that most people who stormed the Capitol were unarmed and lacked a clear plan, others came prepared for violence and, in particular, to do harm to leaders of Congress and the vice president. Those with special targets on their backs include Nancy Pelosi, especially hated by the right wing, and the outspoken women of color in the House who make up the Squad: AOC herself, Ayanna Presley, and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both Muslims Ocasio-Cortez was absolutely correct to point this out. 

But while repudiating the right-wing attack, AOC glorifies a racist institution — U.S. “democracy” itself. AOC used the opportunity to call the Capitol  — the government building most symbolic of the world’s most brutal capitalist, imperialist empire — “a citadel of democracy.”  With that remark, she paints a picture of a somehow “neutral” capitalist democracy as a beacon for good in the world, glossing over that it was built on the enslavement of African people, genocide of indigenous people, and hyper-exploitation of the working class. Nothing about that was “democratic.”

The United States, since its founding, has expressly stated that it isn’t a “democracy.” This country is a republic with some democratic forms to help maintain the rule of those who own the wealth, and to prop up a government that works in service of the world’s most brutal capitalist power. Despite all that, AOC’s remarks have been touted as a model by Jacobin, which published an entire article praising them, as well as the NYC DSA, which posted a 40-second clip that ends with Ocasio-Cortez railing against the storming of the “citadel of democracy.” By doing so, they have glorified the U.S. capitalist empire just as AOC has done.

Socialists need to be clear that we should fight to keep and defend the democratic rights we have won under capitalist democracy, including the right to vote, and that those votes should be counted. We should fight to crush the dangerous right wing which stormed the Capitol a week and a half ago. But we shouldn’t fall into a trap of rebuilding faith in the very capitalist institutions that were built to maintain the exploitation and oppression of the multi-racial working class. 

History Refutes AOC’s Claim

It doesn’t take much effort to counter the notion of the U. S. Capitol as the “citadel of democracy.” In its chambers each year, the United States funds the largest and most brutal military power the world has ever seen, increasing the budget time and time again. The United States spends more money on “defense” than the next 10 countries combined so it can drop bombs in the Middle East and attempt coups against democratically elected foreign leaders, as in Venezuela. More often than not, U.S. funding, support, and outright organizing and involvement in coups is successful — just ask the people of Haiti, Iran, Chile, Guatemala, or any number of other countries. 

The “citadel of democracy” drips with the blood of those murdered by U.S. imperialism around the world.

Rather than highlight that, AOC stated in an interview, “If a foreign head of state came in and ordered an attack on the United States Congress would we say that should not be prosecuted? Would we say there should be absolutely no response to that?” — giving credence to a myth of just wars by the United States.

It is in the halls of Congress that the wealthiest Americans are routinely rewarded with massive tax cuts, such as the one Trump successfully engineered. It’s where Obama and Biden bailed out Wall Street instead of the working class during the economic crisis that began in 2008. It’s where initiatives such as Medicare for All and adequate aid for unemployed people during a pandemic go to die. It’s where education gets “celebrated” by politicians who then turn around and underfunded it at best and slash its funding at worst, It’s where student debt relief is revealed to have been nothing more than a hollow campaign slogan.

The “citadel of democracy” is where the oppression of the working class is turned into law. And yet, in the same video, AOC claimed, [Democracy]  s fragile. We must cherish it.” I must disagree. It is in the halls of Congress that the systemic racism undergirding this country is perpetuated year after year. It’s the Congress that funds the federal prisons. It’s the Congress that sends money to states and municipalities to increase the strength of the racist cops that routinely target working-class communities of color. Together, in the country with the largest incarcerated population in the world, the federal and state governments spend $182 billion on prisons every year. Joe Biden and his Crime Bill are partly to blame —  but his bill is but one of many “law and order” measures enacted within the walls of the “citadel of democracy.” The Capitol is where the racist border wall is funded — with bipartisan support. It’s where funds are allocated to police a border through which goods can pass freely but that forces refugees — escaping their home countries ravaged by economic and military policies promoted by the United States — to die in the desert. 

The “citadel of democracy” is the centerpiece of a racist system of injustice launched in 1619 and built up by Congress ever since.

Even the structure and organization of U.S. “democracy” isn’t democratic. An Electoral College contradicts the very notion of “one person, one vote.” The systematic disenfranchisement of Black people and other people of color, corporate buying of elections, and all the structural barriers to third-party candidacies put the lie to the idea of a “citadel of democracy” in such an undemocratic country. 

The far-right mob that stormed the capitol wants more white supremacy and less democracy in this already undemocratic system. But knowing that shouldn’t mean exalting the existing system. 

AOC’s Words Prop Up Capitalist Unity 

The bourgeoisie’s counter-attack against the right-wing protest on Wednesday has been overwhelming. The capitalist class is disciplining Trump and his supporters in the political arena, with corporations — Amazon, BP, Mastercard, and more — cutting funding to Republicans. Trump has been banned from Twitter and Facebook; Parler has been essentially banned. The state is also playing a role, with the FBI investigating hundreds of people thought to be part of the Capitol mob. The National Guard has been deployed en masse in Washington to protect the coming inauguration of Biden A second impeachment passed the more Trumpist House of Representatives with 10 Republican defections, and Mitch McConnell is said to support the impeachment effort as a way to “purge” his party of Trump — and, presumably, return to the past “stability” of “bourgeois order.” 

This capitalist unity brings together, on at least some points, the Wall Street Journal, Liz Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Betsy DeVos, and yes, even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They stand together in repudiating what they incorrectly call a coup attempt, and they stand together exalting American “democracy.”

All of this is only a short-term setback for the right wing, not a long-term defeat. Up to 45 percent of Republicans supported the storming of the Capitol. There are reports that organizations such as the Proud Boys are growing despite the most recent repression against them. And more importantly, the  the “progressive neoliberalism” that created a radicalized right — and that Donald Trump and his followers rebelled against, leaning on xenophobic and racist tropes — is precisely what Joe Biden has set out to revive. In that context, the right wing isn’t going away. Far from countering it in the long term, the conditions of capitalism feed it. 

There is no good news for the working class and oppressed in “capitalist unity.” When Joe Biden proposes an “anti-terrorist law” and lines up both ruling-class parties to support it, we can count on it being used against Black and Brown people, as well as the working class and the left. Akin Olla makes this clear in the Guardian, writing about “supercharging a new age of political repression”:

All the pieces are in place for him to attempt to unite the parties by being a “law and order” president and effectively crush any social movement that opposes the status quo. Much of the Patriot Act itself was based on Biden’s 1995 anti-terrorism bill, and Biden would go on to complain that the Patriot Act didn’t go far enough after a few of his provisions to further increase the power of police to surveil targets were removed. Biden will be desperate to both prove his competency and demonstrate that he isn’t the protest-coddler that Trump framed him as. This, combined with demands for repression from Democrats, Republicans and large segments of the American public, is a perfect storm for a radical escalation in the decades-long war on civil liberties and our right to protest, at a time that we need it the most.

AOC came dangerously close to calling for greater mechanisms of repression by the state. On the day of the storming of the Capitol, she tweeted, “Our republic is in great danger, and it is imperiled further without swift action to protect it.” Indeed, Biden’s anti-terrorist law is a next step in that “further action.” 

The capitalist counter-attack against Trump is not in our interests. The capitalists want to discipline Trump only to create better and more stable conditions for our exploitation and oppression. They want to discipline Trump to restore the legitimacy of U.S. institutions that have been so questioned — from the left and from the right. And AOC’s rhetoric about the “citadel of democracy” is helping: after all, wouldn’t you want the “citadel of democracy” to fight the right? 

Not a Slip of the Tongue

This isn’t some mistake or slip of the tongue. Consistently over the past week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has talked about traitors to “our democracy” — the one she says we must “cherish.”

But it’s not our democracy. It’s a democracy by and for the capitalists. Leon Trotsky got it right when he wrote, “The democracy fashioned by the bourgeoisie is not…. an empty sack which one can undisturbedly fill with any kind of class content. Bourgeois democracy can serve only the bourgeoisie.” 

Our job as socialists is two-fold. We have  to fight the right, but also the Biden administration and the institutions of capitalist democracy that are used to discipline working-class and oppressed people. To do that, we must organize as a working class against every wing ofthe capitalist class: its progressive neoliberal wing, now with Joe Biden as its political leader, no less than its white supremacist wing embodied in Donald Trump. Both wings hold up the same system — a system that the working class needs to organize to crush. 


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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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