The Resumption of the American Civil War

‘All of the post-war agreements and compromises are being torn up’, he said.

In reply to my puzzled look, he added: ‘Post-American Civil War’.

With that observation, a whole new angle opened up on what is happening in the ‘United’ States of America. Forget using a certain Mr Donald Trump as a scapegoat, for he is a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Forget the idea that things were going relatively well until the current anomaly in the system appeared.

Instead, the ‘United’ States has always been based on a compromise. The organs of governance, the institutions of society, the structure of the ‘sacred’ constitution,  if not the infamous American version of liberal democracy, all witness to the compromises and efforts to ameliorate a fundamental contradiction.

Let me put it in more philosophical terms: the much-vaunted ‘freedom’ championed by US ideologues is based on a structural unfreedom. As Losurdo has shown so well, the freedom in question is based on slavery.  The early liberals of the United States argued that a basic right of a ‘free man’ was to own slaves. The ‘all men are created equal’ of the Declaration of Independence restricts the meaning of ‘all’, for it excluded slaves, let alone women and indigenous people. You cannot have an idea of freedom within this framework without unfreedom. In some respects, American liberal democracy expresses the ultimate truth of ancient Greek democracy: the first European development of a robust category of freedom was enabled by a structural slavery, so much so that the Greeks could simply not imagine a world without slaves.

How does all this bear on the civil war? It is the obvious manifestation of this contradiction. We may distinguish between the ‘hot’ war of 1861-1865 and the ‘cold’ war since 1865. As with ‘cold’ wars, actual skirmishes are frequent. Think of the lynch mobs after 1865 (which can be seen as the ultimate expression of the self-governance of civil society), the prison system with its millions of inmates, the almost daily massacres in one part or another, the incredibly high death toll from handguns, if not the sea of poverty and lack that surrounds islands of obscene wealth and power … One can easily argue that the civil war has never really abated.

If you care to look at what passes for ‘news outlets’ in the United States, you will find quite a bit of discussion about a new civil war. It is nearly always framed as a war to come (soonish). Obviously, this misses the whole point I have been proposing.

What form might a resumption of the ‘hot’ civil war take? Perhaps it would once again be a move to secession, as happened in the 1860s. Wait a moment: are there not already multiple secession movements, challenging directly the constitution’s efforts to rule out precisely this possibility? Indeed, a 2017 poll found that ‘nearly four in ten (39%) agree that each state has the ultimate say over their destiny and that secession is a right’. Region by region, the poll found ‘high support for secession within the South, Northeast, and out West (48%, 43%, and 43% respectively)’.

Or perhaps it is the comment from a forlorn liberal: ‘they hate us’.

Or the Rhode Island’s resident’s wish that all the ‘deplorables’ in the central west and south would be moved to cities to learn how to work, die off or be killed by a foreign power.

Or the observation from an ex-pat: ‘This is just like Pakistan, so I am used to it’. But this is somewhat unfair to Pakistan, is it not?

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The Cold War as a self-fulfilling prophecy

After the Second World War, Stalin’s over-riding aims were peace and a buffer. Peace was to be attained by continuing the Grand Alliance with the UK and the USA, which would contain Germany from future aggression. The buffer against a potentially resurgent Germany was to be developed by encouraging the new democracies in eastern Europe that would be friendly to the Soviet Union. He calculated that the UK and USA would be quite amenable, given the social-democratic turns in those places and his urging of West-European communist parties to take it easy and assist with postwar reconstruction. He assumed that everyone would see the logic of having a buffer, just as they did in Western Europe.

The problem was that the other members of the Grand Alliance did not share Stalin’s assumptions and calculations. They saw the Soviet Union as a threat and with undue haste enlisted what would become West Germany as an ally (along with a goodly number of genuine Nazis). And that threat was regarded as immediate – if the Soviet Union didn’t collapse as a result of the massive war strain. They also assumed that Stalin was a conniving communist setting out the establish puppet states as a basis for world domination. It was, as Roberts points out, ‘a classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the west’s overly defensive actions and reactions in response to a perceived threat provoked a counter-reaction in the form of a tightly controlled Soviet-communist bloc in Eastern Europe and a militant communist challenge in Western Europe – the very thing London and Washington had feared all along’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 253).

Stalin was no fool, though. Already in late 1945 he observed:

Do not believe in divergences between the English and Americans. They are closely connected to each another. Their intelligence conducts lively operations against us in all countries … everywhere their agents spread information that the war with us will break out any day now. I am completely assured that there will be no war, it is rubbish … Whether in thirty years or so they want to have another war is another issue. This would bring them great profit, particularly in the case of America, which is beyond the oceans and couldn’t care less about the effects of war. Their policy of sparing Germany testifies to that. He who spares the aggressor wants another war (Roberts, p. 302).