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Why We’re Not Trending Towards a Second Civil War

Another U.S. Civil War is never going to happen. Here’s why.

Is the United States trending towards a second civil war? Several political pundits have suggested that the intensifying political divide and the heightened civil unrest in the nation indicate the potential for the outbreak of a civil war. In September, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said the political climate reminded him of when he was covering Lebanon’s second civil war. Even social media technologists who admit responsibility for exacerbating today’s political divide, suggest that a civil war is on the horizon.

Large portions of the public agree. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken two years ago — arguably when the political climate was less intense — showed that at that time 31% of “Likely U.S. Voters” said that they expect the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years.

To understand why this prediction is wrong, we need to understand why political divisions lead to war in some moments and not in others. Using Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) understanding of the two main ways political power is challenged — war of position and war of manoeuvre — we can better interpret and explain the infeasibility of another U.S. civil war.

War of Position and War of Manoeuvre

In Prison Notebooks, Gramsci drew a distinction between two different moments of political struggle — the war of manoeuvre and the war of position. The war of manoeuvre is when new leadership takes power through military force. This can happen through a civil war, international wars, or a coup d’état. During this form of struggle, there is “a breach in the enemy’s defenses” that allows for “one’s own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory” (p. 233).

The second type of war strategy is what Gramsci calls the war of position.This power struggle is waged through attempts to influence and control a society’s critical social, economic, and political institutions — today’s would include public education, mass media, organized religions, law enforcement, finance and financial services, and real estate development. These institutions are critical to shaping both the consciousness and the conditions of the masses.

Fighting a “war” for control over influential social institutions creates the conditions in which social change happens much more slowly than the “war” that is fought with coordinated military aggression. Yet, Gramsci observes that as societies become more complex, especially with multilayered political structures and diverse civil institutions, it is far more important to “win” the war of position. He points to a time before the second half of the 20th century when it was common for leadership to change hands through military combat. As the structures that hold nation-states together became more complex, it became more difficult for a group of people to rise to power through violent forms of aggression.

Writing in the 1920s, Gramsci refers to the Russian Revolution as likely one of the last instances in Europe in which the state would be won internally through military force. He attributes this historical transition to relatively small civil societies and weak political apparatuses being replaced by more robust political structures. He compares pre-revolutionary Russia to nations in the “West,” and argues that the same military strategy would be unlikely to succeed in nations with liberal democracies that have variegated, interlocking, and multilayered systems of governance and social control. In the West, when there is a blow to the government, there are still many organized institutions that can help to maintain the dominant social order. Evaluating attempts at revolutions in Western Europe, Gramsci explained, “when the State trembled, a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed” (p. 238).

Gramsci is not suggesting that the war of manoeuvre is no longer an important political strategy for “developed nations”; we know that the United States often uses military aggression against other nations. It is just less likely to happen within such countries in the form of a civil war or a coup d’état. Within politically developed countries, “winning” is much more contingent on gaining control over critical social institutions. In these countries, it’s “the superstructures of civil society [that] are like the trench-systems of modern warfare” (p. 235). What matters here is not just the military might, but the whole structure of society — the institutions, the economy, and the ideologies, which taken together shape social life. Whoever can control the most consumed media outlets has a much better shot at becoming the leader than the party with the most armed civilians.

How to Win the “War” Today

Gramsci’s observations teach us two important lessons for today’s political moment. The first is that despite the deepening political divides, the United States is far from a second civil war. Our state apparatus is too developed and too intertwined in all of our social, economic, and civic institutions to allow for the possibility of internal disintegration. With controls of every kind (e.g. political, legal, military, surveillance, etc.) it would be nearly impossible for a subordinate group to influence and gain support from enough of society to effectively overthrow the state or challenge it in any meaningful way.

What is far more likely is the type of revolution that occurs from the protracted war of position in which different alliances fight for control over a nation’s important social institutions (e.g. public education, higher education, mass media, think tanks, organized religions, foundations, financial communities, etc.). Once they win these civilian sites of struggle, they are better able to consolidate power throughout the political system.

This means that if we want to understand who is currently winning the war, we need to study everything from who has control over our education systems, to what corporations own the most housing stock, to who has the biggest following on social media. Undertaking such a multifaceted analysis is not easy and needs a robust theoretical framework, as I pointed out in my last article. Additionally, as our social institutions become more complex and increase in number, so do the number of battles that need to be won, and so do the number of sites that need to be studied.

It’s important that we take this analytical task seriously and don’t fall for incendiary rhetoric that blinds us from seeing the real forces that are shaping our world. As Lenin warned in Letters from Afar, “There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history…unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that appears miraculous.” While there are certain unexpected twists and turns in history, looking at the social forces in the U.S. today should show few indications that a civil war will be one of them.

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