The second American Civil War has already begun.
This fact is not acknowledged by those who expect a civil war to look like previous wars: having large and well-organised armies, having territories with definite (even if moving) borders, and having wide battle zones along or near those borders.
The second American Civil War, already in progress, has battle-fronts in any place where a politically radicalized person murders those whom he regards as no longer American like him. The perpetrators might not belong to any organizations, and might not be taking direct orders from anyone; it’s enough that they have adopted a value program which certifies mass-murder as ethically right and required. (In that sense, the factions in this war have franchises rather than regiments and divisions.) In that respect, the war looks more like an insurgency. It is being fought in cities where it is possible to get a coffee and have a normal conversation with a friend less than two city-blocks from the scene of the fighting. The battlefields of the second American Civil War include synagogues (the most recent being yesterday, in Pittsburgh PA), schools, churches, mosques, movie theatres, political rallies– any place where there has been a politically motivated mass shooting. Taking those locations as not merely the scene of a crime, but also the scene of organized political violence, the second American Civil War already meets one of the standard academic definitions of a war: one thousand battle deaths, per year, or more. (*See the addendum, below.)
When did it begin?
Historians might some day pin one date or one event as the beginning of this second civil war: for my part I would pin it on 16th June 2015, the day that Mr. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. For although there had been this kind of political violence in America for at least the previous thirty years, Trump’s candidacy and presidency gave to the perpetrators of nationalist right-wing violence the feeling that they had someone from the economic and political establishment on their side. If no one is taking direct orders from him, still they are taking “hints”, in the form of the various remarks and code words that he uses to reassure people he would approve of certain modes of violence. In terms of principle, rather than in terms of a calendar date, the second American Civil War began when America’s dominant class, finding their dominance in decline, rose up against the oppressed in order to preserve their dominance and their ability to oppress.
Who will win?
The date of its beginning is tangential to the real point I wish to make, which is: The winner of the second American Civil War will not be any faction in that war. It will not even be any “true America”, whatever that might mean. It will be whatever country, or several countries, other than the United States and other than any American political faction, that can transform their economy and their culture such that they no longer rely upon the United States. Or to put it another way: the winners will be the countries that can leave the United States behind, especially in these four fields: economics, political influence, culture, and knowledge.
At this time, the economy of the United States is still the largest in the world; the US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency; American banks and other financial institutions still shore up the global economy. As a consequence of America’s second civil war, America will lose that position of economic dominance. Whatever other country, or block of countries, can take over that position, as a net exporter of money and of strategic commodities (cash crops, energy, manufactured goods especially cars and aircraft, etc), will win the economic front of the war.
2. Politics and diplomacy.
America’s economic dominance of the world helped it to dominate the world politically, too. Through most of the second half of the 20th century Americans have been expected to lead, and in fact did lead, in things like international peacekeeping, foreign aid and disaster relief, nuclear non-proliferation, and the creation of trans-national trade partnerships and military alliances. In the next five to ten years, that influence will end. In the future, fewer and fewer countries will treat America as a reliable and honest participant in global affairs. This trust will erode slowly, but it will erode in step with the speed that the American people lose trust in their own institutions– a loss that will accelerate as the democratic institutions of the United States which should be above politics become instead politicized battle-fronts in their own right: the Supreme Court, the armed services, the police, the means of drawing electoral districts and of counting ballots in elections, and so on. The political front of the second American civil war will be won by whatever country can present itself as the reliable, stable, and trustworthy, alternative. That winning country is likely to be the same country that wins the economic front. This may or may not be a free country– consider how many countries today are leaning toward populist and patriarchal authoritarianism. Just today, for example, Brazil elected an authoritarian populist president. So I worry that the country who wins the American civil war on the political and economic front will also be the next country to lose it. But I do hope that the winning countries will be those who can keep their democratic institutions above politics, and so preserve their trustworthiness in the eyes of all citizens whatever their political beliefs.
Most of the world watches American-made film and television shows, listens to American music, reads American books, reads American print media on the internet. That, too, will slowly end. Fewer and fewer people will want to watch, hear, or read stories that glorify the foundational mythologies, or even the day-to-day realities, of a society in violent decline. The culture front will be won by whatever countries have an arts and culture sector — a sector of musicians, filmmakers, writers, playwrights, and so on — that can out-compete American arts and culture in box offices, bookstores, internet downloads, and so on. These arts and culture creators will have to create a new philosophy about humanity and its future, which can capture the imagination in a way that American stories like The American Dream used to do. (My philosophy to take that place is called The Deliberate Civilization – read about it here.) Again, the winner of the culture front may or may not be a free country– ideas like patriarchy, racism, religious chosen-ness, and the like, are seductive to people who imagine themselves both oppressed and at the same time justified to oppress others.
Finally, in matters of knowledge: remember it was Americans who led the world in technology for most of the last century. Americans invented the internet, the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane, the film projector, the nuclear reactor, the Saturn V rocket which put twelve men on the moon. Yet the second American civil war has treated information, and all instruments of mass communication, as a battle front, by treating intellectuals and scientists with contempt, by ignoring important scientific discoveries such as climate change and global warming, by treating their news media as an entertainment media with no need for truth or journalistic integrity. This may seem the most abstract front of the war– but it is a war front like every other, in the sense that people kill and people die because they are captured by the lies created around them by their leaders and by their propaganda-saturated culture. From “Pizzagate” to the anti-vaccination movement to the storms and droughts of climate change: wherever propaganda and subjectivity replaces knowledge and truth, people suffer and die.
The knowledge front will be won by whatever countries have a knowledge sector– professors, scientists, school teachers, journalists, clergy, entrepreneurs, politicians, administrators, and so on– that protects an honest and objective relationship with reality.
Here, however, I think the knowledge front will be won – can only be won – by countries that remain liberal, multicultural, and free. I claim this for the reason that as the American civil war drags on, scientists and intellectuals who might have thought of moving to America will instead stay in their home countries, or else move to countries they regard as safe. They’ll go to cities that welcome immigrants rather than scare them away. They’ll go to places where there is still money from government, from academia, and from private foundations, to pay for pure research – pure, in the sense of being directed only by the curiosity of the researcher and by the evidence of observable reality, and not by the economic or political interests of the paymasters. Over time, as they and their children settle into in their new homes, their different life experiences and different languages will help people around them think and see things in new ways. In so doing, they’ll help create a culture of experimentation, imagination, and (to use the language of our zeitgeist) disruptive innovation — not only in economics, but in culture and politics too. Those countries, and only those countries, will bring the next wave of world-changing scientific discoveries and technological developments on to the stage of history: interstellar space flight, for example, or cold fusion, or quantum computing. And in bringing those new scientific and technical transformations to the world, they will leave America behind.
Lots of people in these winning societies won’t like the new social contract that will emerge in their countries. There might be some who will romanticize the losing side of America’s civil war. There might be some who will want to re-start the war in their home countries the moment they think they can win it. That is because the winning countries will not be the countries that dominate or conquer America. Rather, the winners will be the countries where la lotta continua — where the struggle for a better culture, a better humanity, goes on. The losing countries will be the countries where that struggle has ceased, because America’s second civil war has reduced them to a struggle for the minimum necessities for life – food and shelter – or else where everyone is dead.
Good luck, everyone.
* Addendum, 29 October 2018.
I was asked to provide a citation for the statement I made above, that the number of deaths in politically-motivated violence in the USA meets the threshold definition of a war: 1,000 battle-deaths per year.
First thing to note: the definition of a war comes from Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, which defines a “minor conflict” as between 25 and 1,000 deaths per calendar year, and a “war” as more than 1,000 deaths per calendar year.
According to https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/, there have been 12,072 deaths by gunfire in the United States in 2018 – that’s as of 29 October 2018, the day I checked the page to get the data. The same database reports that 15 of those deaths were classed by American law enforcement agencies as “hate crimes”, zero as “political violence” and 2 as “terrorism involvement”, since October 2017. That’s a total of 17 deaths: so if those are the only ones you count, they’re not enough to meet the above-mentioned criteria of a “minor conflict”.
But much might depend on which 12-month frame you look at. A mass shooting in Orlando Florida, which killed 50 people, was classified as terrorism, and so it meets the requirements of my argument. But it took place in June of 2016 so it wouldn’t count “in the last calendar year”.
Or, much might depend on incidents which are not counted as terrorism or hate crimes or political violence, but perhaps some of them should be. For example, the Washington Post reported that in 2018 so far, 159 Black people and 109 Hispanic people have been killed by police officers, of whom 14 of the victims were unarmed.
Or , we could count the deaths where the killer has no particular feelings about the people he killed; he’s merely taking pleasure in the ability to kill, treating violence as an end in itself— a behaviour that fits the 3rd and 12th items on Umberto Eco’s fourteen features of fascism.
I think that we have enough information to assert a disjunction proposition, as follows: “either the 2nd American civil war is in progress now, or else it is brewing.” It’s perhaps not as definitive as I would like. But I think the situation in America, in which the rhetoric of racism, sexism, religious hate, and the like, has moved from the margins of society to its mainstream, and which moves people to kill their neighbours, calls for a new category of conflict. The Dept of Peace and Conflict Research, cited above, defines several types of wars: for example, between states, between a state and a non-state organization, between a named organization (a state or a non-state org) and an unarmed population (ie, a genocide). We might have to invent a new category of political violence, in which the number of battle-deaths is not the only relevant criteria. We might include the number of incidents which result in injuries but not deaths: 12 in the last 12 months, according to gunviolencearchive.org again, bringing the total to 29, which is within the definition of “minor conflict”. Or we might include some measure of the fear felt by members of minority communities.
In any case, whether the 2nd American civil war is in progress now or is only “brewing”, I remain convinced that when that second civil war breaks out, the winner will still be: not America. And I’m sorry for it; I assure you that this conclusion brings me no pleasure. But I hope this conclusion will be thought about by people around the world, including within America, to help everyone prepare for the unhappy but very likely prospect of a world without America.