There is increasing talk of a looming civil war in America. There has even been a website – anewcivilwar.com – established to track the increasing speculation on civil war by both left and right. Two years ago the academic military strategist, Michael Vlahos speculated on the form and likelihood of a Third Civil War.
Vlahos described five phases of a civil war in modern military and social conditions:
- moving apart, where two visions of a nation’s way of life fail to agree to disagree and move towards a showdown
- way of life, where “As kinship splits, ideological conflict coalesces into a perceived existential threat to one’s “way of life.” This initiates a dynamic othering in which opponents become identity-enemies over an issue that has become a threat in itself.”
- othering, where “Warring identities have concluded that the only solution is the complete submission of the enemy party, and both sides are beginning to prepare for an ultimate showdown. Othering is a transforming process, through which former kin are reimagined as evil, an American inner-enemy, who once defeated must be punished.”
- the decision, where “Othering’s most decisive effect is to condition the whole of society to believe that an existential clash is coming, that all must choose, and that there are no realistic alternatives to a final test of wills. … This demands, perversely, that they work together to bring on open conflict, successfully coercing the majority of Americans to buy into its inevitability. At that point, only a trigger pull is needed.”
- the fight, where “the political balance shifts dramatically, then conflict checks—held in place by lingering political norms and a longstanding electoral standoff—disintegrate. Suddenly, both newly advantaged and disadvantaged parties rush to a test of wills sooner rather than later. A triggering incident becomes a spark—yet the spark itself does not ignite. Rather, it is the readiness for combat in this emerging “community of violence” that makes a fight the natural way forward.”
In 2018 Vlahos thought America was deep in phase 4, the decision. Today the riots, the violence on the streets, the coming of the Red Guards and speculation on a coup suggest now the country is spiralling into the fight.
Then Vlahos wrote:
“So what would a non-military civil war look like? Could it be non-violent? Americans are certainly not lovers, but they do not seem really to be fighters either. A possible path to kinship disengagement—a separation without de jure divorce—would here likely follow a crisis, a confrontation, and some shocking, spasmodic violence, horrifyingly amplified on social media. Passions at this point would pull back, but investment in separation would not. What might eventuate would be a national sorting out, a de facto kinship separation in which Blue and Red regions would go—and govern—their own ways, while still maintaining the surface fiction of a titular “United States.””Michael Vlahos, “We were made for civil war,” The American Conservative (October 2018)
The crisis, the confrontation, the shocking spasmodic violence have played out in the events of 2020: impeachment, pandemic, George Floyd, riots, insurrections… and growing separation.
A colour revolution is already being plotted there, as has been exposed most tellingly by Alexander Mercouris and Alex Christoforou at The Duran. The Democratic Party leaders behind the report of the Orwellian Transition Integrity Project have prepared the ground for threats of secession, violence on the streets and the intervention of the military to enforce a partisan outcome. But will it lead to civil war? Will it harden into two militarised forces conducting political conflict by other means?
In 2015 on this blog I wrote about a prediction by the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in Millenium that big states – including the United States of America and China – would break up. Fernandez-Armesto had speculated that big states could not provide the comfort and containment needed to hold their people in multifarious cultures together. He wrote
“Whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.”Fernandez-Armesto, Millenium: a history of the last thousand years (1996)
In my 2015 blog I doubted whether the fragmentation of large states would generate newly cohesive smaller states, fashioned around a more comforting, small-scale identity, whether by civil war (Sudan) or negotiated civil politics (Czechoslovakia). Then I wrote:
“But I think Fernandez-Armesto has a loyalty to quaint and local cultures, and is perhaps too optimistic that they can survive in political form despite the death of culture in the endless spectacle. I see a breakdown of political and governing authority and a fragmentation of cultures, but without alternative identities that recreate nation or civil society at a smaller scale. The state is breaking down, but not fragmented, and may remain a husk of institutional identity for many years unless a countervailing current begins to develop from the ruins. Collapse not fragmentation may be our fate, and from collapse dark riders may come.”Jeff Rich, “Millenial Predictions: big states will continue to fragment” The Burning Archive (November 9, 2015)
So as Americans confront their crisis I see three paths, not just a prospect of civil war.
Civil war is certainly one path, but I suspect the elites of left and right are unable to mobilise sufficient foot soldiers for this tragic manifest destiny of America. Will Americans fight for their moral armies, or just tweet about it?
Fragmentation is another path. Red states and blue states could go their own way. California might secede. New York may be besieged or faced with a hostile hinterland. Already there are reports of a conservative exodus from the large coastal cities in response to the cultural revolution and the pandemic. Yet I wonder if the lesson of identity politics is that the nation — even a separated fragmented nation of California – is not the exclusive form of political attachment. Citizens can go into an internal exile as members of the Black Lives Matter or MAGA nations, without recommitting to Little Americas.
And, in any case, could America’s imperial elites in government, business and especially the military-intelligence state permit such a diminution of state prestige? This seems unlikely, but then perhaps an elite carve-up of power may be a more likely course than full-range warfare. A peaceful political fragmentation – such as the split of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic a few years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution – requires the virtue of political leaders to negotiate and to fashion new institutions.
But enduring institutions appear to be the very things most under attack in America’s current crisis. As shown by John Podesta and the Election Integrity Project, its so-called Democratic elites strategise to subvert its Constitution, to discard the ideas of its no longer useful founders (remember Adam Schiff gushing about the founders during impeachment in early 2020?), and to topple its statues, its history and its “racist” culture. They do this all the while denouncing the other guy, the bad orange man, as the Norm-Breaker, the friend of tyrants, the enemy of democracy.
This cold civil war may never ignite. It may smoke and smoulder for many years, and so stain the spirit, culture and institutions needed for America to function. America may simply collapse into dysfunction.
I expect this collapse is the most likely scenario. The husk of the American Empire will be long inhabited by the ghosts of its once virtuous elites, who will prowl its feral cities, ransacked by cultural banditry.
For America and for the rest of the world this will be a mind-changing tragedy that will unfold over at least a decade. And it raises the fearsome prospect: who will be the dark riders who will come into this chaos? It will not be Donald Trump – he is but a comic warm-up act. The real dark and epic tragedy is still to come.