The far-right love it, liberals dread it. Since the 2021 Capitol Attack a second American civil war has entered mainstream discussion. The far-right embraces it, an apocalypse that will birth a White ethno-state. Scared, liberals demand electoral and judicial reforms, or harken to the good ol’ days of Obama and Clinton, where neoliberal consensus kept politics civil.
Socialists and Marxists dismiss the possibility of civil war. “They got you fighting a culture war to stop you fighting a class war” is a popular saying. Presumably, the culture wars are superficial, with no economic basis. What is forgotten is that class conflict is not only between classes, but within classes. In America, conflict is emerging between urban and rural capitalists, with the culture wars acting as a proxy to recruit the working-class. While it is in capitalists’ collective interest to fight the working class, it is in each capitalist’s individual interest to fight each other until monopoly is established. Usually this is done through the market. But when expansion in the market reaches its limit, war becomes another means towards capital accumulation.
During the Scramble for Africa, Europe enjoyed relative peace while pillaging Africa. War was unnecessary as long as there was more African land to conquer. But when no land was left, European imperialist had no one other than each other to fight. Thus, came World War I. Of course, capitalists did not fight each other directly. Nationalism helped recruit working-class people into the war—a war they had no economic interest in fighting.
Likewise, during the Cold War a collective effort was needed to stop the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, capitalists turned against each other and used the culture wars to recruit the working-class to fight. As long as elections were contested, fighting occurred at the ballot box. But as politics has become zero-sum and democracy is undermined, civil war becomes more likely.
As civil war becomes more probable, defeatists and reformists will emerge. The former will say war is inevitable, embracing the death drive in a call to arms. The latter will demand electoral and judicial reform without economic change. Class analysis will expose this folly. War is not inevitable, but rather a choice of the ruling class, who benefits while sacrificing workers. Reform can buy time, but cannot stop class dynamics that lead to war. Rather, it is class consciousness—the realization that workers have a collective interest—which will make it impossible for the rich to recruit the poor in war.
Back to the USSR
Political polarization is everywhere, from football to abortion. What is unclear is why this is happening. Everything from gerrymandering to Fox News is blamed. Few consider the Soviet Union.
When a group faces an existential threat, consensus is needed. Facing both an ideological and nuclear threat, America’s ruling class worked together against the Soviet Union. Severe partisanship would undermine this unity. Consequently, many issues that now divide the parties did not exist. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, Republicans and Democrats shared similar views on abortion. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the threat to American capitalism was gone. No longer looking outward, they turned inwards and fought each other.
This is best illustrated in public opinion graphs. Republicans and Democrats share similar beliefs, which diverge after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Below are three examples: confidence in newspapers, marijuana legalization and abortion. A straight red line marks 1991.
A similar trend emerges in Congress. Democrats’ ideology in the Senate and House prior to 1991 is minimal. Afterwards, they become more liberal. Republican trends are more ambiguous. In the House, increasing conservatism seems constant from the 1970s to now. But in the Senate, the impact is clear: conservatism accelerates after 1991. The trend is starker when examining a single issue, such as environmentalism, with Democrats and Republicans rapidly diverging after 1991.
The Soviet Union’s existential threat to American capitalism made it unique. When it fell apart, Islamic terrorism, Russia and China became the new enemies. Yet, they do not significantly challenge American capitalism. Islamic terrorism can disrupt supply lines, cause property damage and produce market uncertainty. But few believe groups like Al Qaeda will destroy capitalism. Russia’s influence is mainly limited to its periphery. While its nuclear arsenal is large, nuclear war is less likely than during the Cold War. Finally, China’s economic and military strength challenges America. However, rather than a threat, American capitalists benefit from China as a producer and (more recently) consumer market. Regardless of your opinion of the Soviet Union as communist or state capitalist, its victory would have ended American capitalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism won and the war between capitalists began.
All Conflict is Class Conflict
“If you’re worried about a second Civil War, the question to ask isn’t whether people hate each other… but whether that hate results from the irreconcilable social and economic interests” writes columnist Jamelle Bouie. According to Bouie, slavery’s abolition was an existential threat to White slaveowners, whereas he’s “not sure there’s anything in American society right now that plays the same role”.
Bouie is right. Ideas and beliefs are important, but without an economic basis, they cannot generate war. However, he is wrong that post-1991 polarization has no economic basis. There are real economic interests that divide Democrats and Republicans. In the 1860s it was between North and South. Today it is between rural and urban capitalists.
We see this in immigration. Donald Trump promised to ban immigrants from America. Yet the real exclusion was not from America, but from economic security. Immigrants still came, but arriving illegally, had no status. Without status, farmers can keep wages low by threatening deportation. While Trump boasted about stopping “illegals”, deportations were lower under his presidency than Obama’s. Too many deportations would have deprived farm owners of exploitable labour. For this reason, agribusiness donated far more to Trump than Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
The Democrats have the opposite policy. Unlike farm labour, professional employment, which is concentrated in cities, requires legal status. Thus, legislation like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act would expand status for those who don’t have it. But there’s a catch. Eligibility is restricted to those who pass a criminal background check and have a high school diploma. These requirements favor immigrants who want to enter the professional class and disfavors immigrants who work in low-wage labour. The former are more likely to be urban, while the later are more likely to be rural. Undocumented immigrants make up half of American farm labour and 6.5 million live in America’s largest cities. Polarization around immigration is not just a “wedge issue”, but one that affects rural and urban capitalists’ profits.
Fossil fuels is another industry. Global warming’s increasing threat puts pressure on Democrats to transition to clean energy. This will disproportionately affect rural areas. Fossil fuels make up a quarter of the economy of rural states like North Dakota and Oklahoma. In Canada, environmentalism’s perceived threat to oil-rich Alberta has led to legislation that lets the province ignore federal laws, which has created a constitutional crisis. As the cultural wars heat up, the same could happen in America.
These are only two industries. Other industries divided between urban and rural include technology, finance and mining. These industries are becoming politically aligned like never before. The graph below shows the difference in rural-urban Republican vote share across different regions of the United States. Once again, the difference has increased substantially after the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is a result of rural and urban industries becoming more partisan. From 1990 to 2016, the share of agribusiness political donations going to Republicans grew from 59 percent to 73. For technology, which dominates cities, the share going to Democrats increased from 57 percent to 71. When the Soviet Union was around, capitalists gave almost equal support to each party. Now their interests are partisan.
Of course, donations are not the same as armed conflict. They indicate political polarization, but also show that capitalists see their path to victory at the ballot box. But what happens if electoral victory is not possible?
Electoral victory becomes impossible when a party cannot secure enough votes or when a party with the most votes can’t win. The latter is built into American politics. The rural states’ overrepresentation in the senate and electoral college has prevented Democrats from winning the senate and presidency despite winning the popular vote. Gerrymandering and voting rights being undermined has created the same issue in the House. Republican control of congress has also resulted in a Supreme Court that is more conservative than the country.
If Democrats keep losing, they have three options: they can change their policies, secede from America or change electoral laws. Democrats could either appeal to Republicans or disengaged voters to get enough votes to win unfair elections. The problem with appealing to Republicans is it might alienate their base, which could decrease the number of votes. Policies that help the working class would appeal to disengaged voters. But urban capitalists won’t let this happen without significant pressure (more on this later).
The second option is secession. Although drastic, it might be necessary if Democrats can no longer enact their policies. For instance, if the Supreme Court or Congress bans abortion federally through fetal personhood, this might be the rallying point for states like California and New York to secede. But without an organized left, this cause will not be an end, but a means to urban capitalist rule. The current California separatist movement is illustrative. It is primarily supported by Silicon Valley, who worried Trump’s trade war with China would disrupt semiconductor supply chains. While pro-choice, the movement’s support for low taxes and cuts to social services shows the real purpose is not progressivism, but securing urban capitalists’ profits. Secession would also not be peaceful. A border between California and the United States would disrupt supply chains and set a precedent for other states to secede. While urban capitalists dominate California, rural capitalists in the Central Valley would seek the federal government’s help. War would ensue.
For this reason, liberals see electoral reform as the solution to avoiding war. This includes proportional representation, ending gerrymandering, expanding the Supreme Court and statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. The party with the most votes would win, restoring legitimacy to bourgeoise democracy. But “legitimacy” means little in the fight for power. Rural capitalists will do anything to preserve theirs. If reforms are made and winning elections becomes impossible for Republicans, secession will be pursued. Republicans are more supportive of secession than Democrats. Unlike California, this movement is not fringe. In June 2022, the Texas Republican Party backed a secession referendum. But once again, this would not go without a fight. Urban capitalists, such as tech companies in Austin’s Silicon Hills, would seek the federal government’s help. Secession leads to war.
Back to Class
None of this is inevitable. Although they fight in it, working-class people have no interest in war. Yet, despite the best efforts of the left, raising class consciousness is easier said than done. What should we do?
The solution lies in class analysis, which deconstructs the economic interests of the culture wars. Take immigration, which is portrayed as an “identity” issue between xenophobic Republicans and multiculturalist Democrats. Class analysis exposes this spectacle. Republicans don’t want to keep immigrants out, but rather want to deprive them of status so farmers can keep wages low. Democrats don’t care about immigrants, but rather want to grant status to some so that they can labour for urban capitalists while continuing to deport others. When this is realized, it will be harder for urban and rural capitalists to recruit working class people into a civil war. Working-class people can then advance a class-based politics. In the case of immigration, this would involve a campaign to not only allow immigrants in, but advance labour rights. This would not only protect immigrants from exploitation, but also increase the standard of living for all working-class people, including White rural Americans. Seeing the benefits of an immigration policy rooted in class analysis, the latter will become more class-conscious and be less likely to fight for rural capitalists.
It will not be easy. Capitalists will do whatever they can to protect their status. But as inequality grows, working-class people class people are looking for an explanation for their oppression and alienation. Relief will not be found in culture and civil war, but in class analysis and consciousness. Only this can avert war.
This content originally appeared on CounterPunch.org and was authored by Aidan Simardone.