An American Civil War
Rinse and repeat?
The release of a trailer for a film portraying a new US Civil War has increased discussion of such a possibility. The possibility of a new American Civil War1 was already the subject of speculation, due to the increasing polarisation of US politics.
Such speculation had prompted Richard Hanania to point out that studies suggests strongly that societies above a certain level of income and state capacity do not collapse into civil war. One can see the logic of this.
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So, there would have to be a significant decay of US state capacity for a new civil war to be an appreciable risk. Alas, there is an increasingly plausible scenario for precisely such decay in US state capacity. Especially as we can already see a certain amount of decay in state capacity in various cities and, most notably, California.
Mass migration and the US Civil War
Before going there, the scholarship of Robert Fogel and Keri Leigh Merritt provides a very clear picture of how the US lurched into the Civil War of 1861-1865.
It starts with the 1820s to 1860s mass migration, enabled by railways and steamships. The flood of migrants to the more economically vibrant free States ensured their increasing dominance of the House of Representatives and so the Electoral College.
The lower, but still significant, increase in the population of the “masterless men” in the South — those of European origin who were not well integrated into the plantation system — was also politically disruptive. The “masterless men” were actively disadvantaged by the slave system, as it degraded the status of manual labour and raised the price of land.
The “masterless men” came to be systematically repressed by the Southern System: an evolved structure of under-policing, under-schooling, use of public order offences and poll taxes to disenfranchise felons and non-payers, plus periodic lynchings. (There was no need to evolve a special system to repress those of African descent, slavery already did that.)
After the end of postwar Reconstruction, this structure of repression was racialised against the ex-slaves and their descendants as the Jim Crow system. The “poor white trash” targets of the previous iteration of the Southern system were recruited into the new Southern order by racial flattery and preferences — supported by the Lost Cause myth — and by pro-family evangelism. That many of said “masterless men” had either failed to support, or had violently opposed, the Confederacy was ignored or glossed over.
Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the two groups most disadvantaged — to put it mildly — by slavery were the “masterless men” and the slaves. They also tended to socialise together.
The rising number of “masterless men” that steamship-and-railway migration delivered to the South, sharpened the existential threat to the plantation elite from them making common cause with the slaves. The election of the first Republican President in 1860 accentuated this threat.
That Lincoln was anti-slavery was not the crucial thing: there had been earlier anti-slavery US Presidents. It was the addition of Republican tariff and homesteading policies which was crucial, as that threatened to create precisely the “masterless men”-slave alliance the plantation elite so feared. Hence the secession of Slave States after Lincoln won the Presidency.
The Republican policy platform of tariffs, homesteading and anti-slavery appealed to a Northern working class that was systematically disadvantaged by mass migration — Fogel documents the falling height of native-born American men over the period as crowding, congestion and competition reduced their living standards — without trapping the new Republican Party into the electoral dead-end of nativism.
So, mass migration + slavery => Civil War. Which is to say, mass migration — and the responses to it — fractured the American Republic along its fault line of slavery.
And now …
Fast forward from the mid C19th to the early C21st. It is clear that mass migration is currently creating a deepening provincial/metropole divide in the US.
The culture of the elite universities — and its attendant media — is creating an arrogant, incredibly insular, elite that treats much of the citizenry with open contempt, and is corroding basic institutions.
This corrosion extends to the American Project itself: most obviously, with the 1619 Project of the New York Times. The American Project that is the keystone that keeps such a diverse country together.
History repeating itself seems an increasing possibility. Yet the evidence strongly suggests that wealth, and especially state capacity, militate strongly against civil war breaking out. So, can we identity anything that might dangerously degrade US state capacity?
Yes, we can. Affirmative action aka Diversity multiplying the appointment of people by category — rather than competence — is such a mechanism of degradation of state capacity. A pattern whose corrosive effects are worsened when holding individuals to account for lack of competence, or poor character, is construed as attacking their category. Especially as it is generating increasing numbers of angry, yet talented, men shut out by the new allocation-by-category dispensation that systematically corrupts the signals of competence.
Diversity-driven cascading collapse of complex systems may yet so degrade US state capacity as to make civil war more and more of a possibility, given the increasing intensity of the political divisions.
Using lawfare to block the former President from appearing on the ballot is not a good sign. The question becomes, how self-destructive can this arrogant, insular, self-referential elite prove to be?
Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, W.W.Norton, , 1994.
Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America, Basic Books, 1999.
This would be a third civil war, counting the War of Independence as the first.