American Decline

What Kind of Historic Parallels Can We Draw?

At no point in the last 50 years has there been as much political conflict in the US as there is today. And while the conflicts of the 1960s/1970s may have been just as intense, or more intense in some instances, the situation then was qualitatively different because it pitted dominant majorities (middle American WASP culture and adjacent others) against insurgent minorities (students, young people, ethnic minorities, leftists, gays, other marginalized groups, the counterculture, etc.).  The present conflict more closely resembles the US Civil War with the society “split down the middle” between partisan interests reflecting irreconcilable differences. However, the obvious difference between now and the Civil War is that present conflicts are not fundamentally geographical, beyond the urban/rural dichotomy.

Many leftists and rightists insist, from different vantage points, that race and class are the principal dividing lines. But the “race and class” determinism/reductionism that was utilized by past generations of left-wing analysts simply doesn’t work in a contemporary economic, political, cultural, demographic, generational, and technological context. Instead of races and classes, US society is increasingly fragmenting into “tribes” or “sects” based on political ideologies, philosophical value systems, and political interest groups. Of course, all of these may overlap with race and class but neither is a definitive or determining factor. In traditional societies, most conflicts were between rich and poor, ethnic tribes, or religious sects. All of these things still exist but they’ve been blended with, superseded by, or paralleled by new forms of group affiliation and identity.

The more diverse and socioeconomically stratified US society becomes, the more different people from different kinds of backgrounds will perceive their own interests differently, and the more conflict there will be not only between but within traditional in-groups and within traditional out-groups. We’re fragmenting into a multiplicity of warring tribes. Less historic left vs right or “class struggle” and more like the pre-Columbian Americas, pre-colonial Africa, or the present-day Middle East.

I see a lot of leftist commentators (and some rightists) comparing our current political situation to Weimar or pre-civil war Spain. And I see a lot of rightists making comparisons to the period before the French, Russian, or Chinese revolutions. Anytime there is left vs right conflict, or perceived insurgent movements by the far-left or far-right, it’s possible to find certain parallels to all of those. Our present situation resembles the prelude to the dramatic revolutions of the past few centuries in that we have a rising upper-middle class in a society experiencing a wave of cultural liberalization, within the context of rapid economic and technological change, and where an entrenched gerontocratic oligarchy is being challenged. Political polarization accompanied by street battles by violent gangs is taking place in a way that resembles the final phases of failed democratic republics in the past.

But I think “Civil War Two” in the US would be less like any of those situations more like the Salvadoran Civil War, Lebanese Civil War, Yugoslavian Civil War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union all rolled into one but multiplied by 50 to 100.

Middle Eastern conflicts tend to pit different “tribes” or “sects” against each other, with each of these having its own internal elites and class divisions (like individual countries in the West). The Soviet analogy is a good one as well. It was similar to what happened to Yugoslavia. Both were multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empires ruled by an overarching state apparatus ostensibly committed to a universalist and internationalist ideology until it all fell apart. One issue that both we and the Yugoslavians have/had in common is that the population is also heavily mixed even on a local or regional level. And the US population is even more diverse and geographically intermixed than Yugoslavia was.

Many commentators, including myself, have raised the possibility of large scale secessions taking place. But secession would not necessarily mark the end of conflict given the political/tribal/sectarian geographical intermixture that exists in the US. For instance, I could see an independent California banning all guns followed by a guerrilla war by the West Coast Gun Nut Militia or an independent Deep South banning all abortions and gay marriage followed by an epidemic of leftist terrorism.  I could also see an India/Pakistan 1947 situation wherein the midst of secession/collapse/dissolution there is a rush by red tribers, blue tribers, or other assorted “tribes” to get to the “other side.”

Not that we are anywhere near that point at present. The US is presently becoming like most of the other countries in the Western hemisphere where wide social stratification, social conflict, political polarization and extremism, violence, crime, disorder, riots, open corruption, and clownish leaders are the norm (see our neighbors in Mexico and Central America).

It is also necessary to consider what would happen if the power elite thought its position was genuinely threatened. The present level of conflict fuels the divide and conquer strategy of the ruling class. But the state apparatus does not want disorder to escalate to the point where it suffers a complete loss of legitimacy and experiences unraveling. The power elite would attempt to impose an overtly authoritarian “law and order” regime if the survival of the state was in question. The success of such a regime would depend on the degree of unity among the ruling class and the continued support of state security forces.

It’s obvious, for example, that the Bidenists are trying to create a ruling class unity regime that purges the Trumpists while co-opting the cooptable sectors of the left, and repressing or marginalizing the non-cooptable sectors.

I have been suspecting all along that if the rising tech-oligarch/financier/new clerisy coalition got full control of the federal government, which they now have, they would initiate a crackdown on “domestic terrorism.” They may have given a wink and a nod to the protestors, rioters, or looters over the summer in order to weaponize them against Trump. But now that Trump is leaving and they are in power, they can’t have their legitimacy challenged or give the appearance of instability. I have thought all along as well that Biden’s (or his handlers’) modus operandi would be to not only create a “ruling class unity” regime, but one with a “back to normal” theme and the goal of ferreting out “extremists.”

The incident at the Capitol on January 6 gives them the perfect pretext for upgrading repression by an order of magnitude, and doing so with the 110% support of everyone outside the far-right right and a few old-fashioned civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald. Some among liberal and left opinion have been attacking Zuckerberg for not imposing enough censorship on Facebook already. It is likely that groups like the SPLC, which is a private intelligence service that works in consultation with the FBI, will be weaponized in the war against “extremists” which will include the far-right as well as other sectors that are not cooptable or which the ruling coalition can’t use or doesn’t want. The key determining factors will be whether or not there are additional waves of violence, whether the Blue Tribe manages to successfully consolidate its position, and whether additional fragmentation continues to take place.


Leave a Reply