Mob Rule, American Fascism, and Cellular Telephony
From the Series: American Fascism
Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.
—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
[In the crowd], the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.
—Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd
During the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Walter Benjamin and Charles-Marie Gustave LeBon must have been rolling in their graves. The first predicted how an individuating shift in reproductive circulation—indexed these days by cellular telephony and social media—could prefigure fascism (W. Benjamin 1986). The second anticipated the loss of accountability that emerged from the Make America Great Again mob when it smashed the Capitol and murdered its protectors to overturn democracy (Le Bon 1897). Mobile technology is often blamed for both phenomena. Here we suggest disentangling media effects by focusing on the way that multiple potentialities hover over all cellular phone use. These diverse instantiations of cellular phone use play out in particular ways in mobs, where sounds and images not only capture the event, but become part of its enactment.
As January 6th unfolded on millions of screens, we watched people storm the Capitol in paramilitary gear, wearing MAGA hats, waving Trump flags. Cheering each other on, they held aloft their devices broadcasting their privileged impunity via social media. While these images in their uniform whiteness and violence contrasted with those surrounding the Women’s March or protests by Black Lives Matter, they nevertheless circulated through the same cellular telephony, resulting in new digital publics and helping to constitute existing ones. On January 6th, the resulting image-events (Strassler 2020) catalyzed collective action in ways that had significant reverberations; the taking of the images became a crucial part of what the mob was doing, and how its actions were understood. These image-events, which varied from the preposterous to the horrific, were circulated as trophies. Later, they became sources of mockery and shame as critics transformed them into memes, while their makers frantically erased them to avoid prosecution.
Through remarkable reporting, it is clear that the voices of the mob on January 6th were simultaneously, but variably, “fascist” (i.e., exalting “nation” or “race” above the individual), “populist” (i.e., submitting to a charismatic figure who speaks for “the people”), and authoritarian (i.e., refusing to accept divergent interpretations), depending on the publics to which they were oriented. While many saw themselves as part of a virtuous cellular image-event, the diversity of the expressive genres through which they represented their experience was striking for their different ideological stances (i.e., stadium chants, shamanic prayers, constitutional declarations). Cellular technology does not—in and of itself—transform consciousness.
Benjamin would have recognized our age as one of increasing mechanical reproduction of individual subjectivities through cellular technology—an era in which fascist riots offer expressive individualism as a proxy for freedom. He knew that crowd behavior proffered an ephemeral display that shortcut the emancipatory work of transforming property relations to equitably distribute opportunity. What many of the rioters initially experienced as an expression of their individual rights of protest turned out—after circulated media were retrieved, traced and analyzed—to be a lesson in surveillance capitalism. Rioters simultaneously wanted to be watched, but put themselves at risk through this visibility.
When Trump’s Twitter privileges were revoked permanently on January 8, 2021, many thought this validated techno-deterministic accounts of his authority, and of cellular technology and social media. Taking a broader view, John Durham Peters (1999) suggests that transformations in the mediation of face-to-face communication have always been accompanied by anxieties about how we are supposed to interact. With the emergence of cellular technologies, various critics have pointed fingers at our mobile devices as the problem (Orlowski 2020).
In our research with teenagers in Washington, D.C., we’ve found that our interlocutors are not techno-dopes about the effects of media, but see these devices ambivalently. They know smartphones permit individualization while allowing them to broadcast themselves to wider unknown audiences; at moments, this comes with a new freedom from accountability, though at others, it brings dangers. While the mob of January 6th seems to have been less savvy about this ambiguity than our teenager interlocutors, the comparison allows us to understand that cellularity is neither inherently bad nor good. While our D.C. teens and the January 6th mob are remarkably different from one another, too often, our devices and their circulating media are positioned as the root cause of distraction and political disenchantment.
While the technology for convening mobs has become more personal, portable, and networked, what it communicates follows class and race lines that are sadly resonant with long and bitter histories (R. Benjamin 2019). As Washington Post global opinion editor Karen Attiah remarked, for Black journalists, the image-events of January 6th were not surprising. Rather they were materializations of hate speech and white supremacy which Black journalists have been identifying to little effect for years (Shapiro 2021). The reckoning with the dark forces behind January 6th echo those within anthropology, and within technology’s social relations. These histories deserve more ethnographic attention. If we are to understand mobs such as those that formed on January 6th we need to examine the entanglements of cellular telephony and the various publics they materialize. We also need to examine the ambiguities of cellularity in diverse localities—from contemporary teenagers to American Fascists. Doing so will help anthropology understand not only the events of January 6th, but also the long burn of settler-colonialism and white supremacy in the United States as well.
Benjamin, Ruha. 2019. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 1986. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Le Bon, Gustave. 1897. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T. F. Unwin.
Orlowski, Jeff, dir. 2020. The Social Dilemma. Los Angeles: Netflix.
Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Strassler, Karen. 2020. Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Shapiro, Ari 2021. “‘Washington Post’ Columnist on the Media's Role in the Rise of Political Extremism.” NPR, January 28.