The US and social war

At time of writing there’s still no further information on either the Boston marathon bombing, or the Texas fertiliser plant explosion (yet another C and W song title in waiting) and it would be foolish to build a firm case on ‘what-ifs’. Over at Crikey I’ve got an overview of the events and the spiralling debate surrounding it – not least the further self-discrediting of the rightwing media in reporting a ‘Saudi’ man running from the scene (of multiple, ongoing, explosions). But if bombs going off in Boston on Patriots’ Day and a fertiliser factory in Texas going up on the anniversary of the Waco ATF massacre and of the Oklahoma City bombing (itself an event staged on the anniversary of Waco) are all coincidence, then it’s a pretty amazing one. Top it all off with a gun-control vote, and a same-sex marriage Supreme Court decision pending, and becomes worth speculating about what might be happening: a loosely co-ordinated ‘rebellion’ by independent hard-right US nativist groups, communicating through highly informal networks – ie offline and unsurveilled – or through encrypted chat.

The dominant trope in the media will be one of lost innocence. It is practically the sole trope in the trope box these days. It accounts for the now-practised American habit of ceremonial mourning, whether for high-school massacre, jihad strike or redneck revenge: there is no event so atrocious it does not get white bicycles, stuffed animals, a coloured ribbon and a Green Day song. The ceremonies are adhoc, post-religious, but they are passivity aestheticised, a deliberate desire to not think about social processes. After the Newtown massacre, even Occupy Hartford (the capital of Connecticut) staged a twilight floating lantern release, rather than a demonstration at any of the gun advocacy groups that have their HQs in Connecticut.

Such incidents, should they prove to be thematic rightwing events, are better understood through the exact opposite of an idea of innocence. More than most countries, the US is in a state of perpetual social war. It began in the revolution itself, an event with multiple social/political forces, some of whom – poor farmers, black slaves, native Americans – fought on the side of the British. The Civil War was its most violent and literal expression – as the now-classic work The Republic of Suffering noted 600,000 were killed, the equivalent of six million by today’s US population. The conflict was the first modern war, with mass use of machine guns, concentration camps, scorched earth and systemic civilian massacre. Faced with extremely violent repression, sections of its labour movement resorted to lethal reprisal. After that, the Civil War simply recommenced with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Martin Luther King’s political and strategic success came because he understood that social war was the common state of the country, and non-violence was an innovative response to it – a strategy that spread to the wider penumbra of social movements. Even the more vigorous acts of civil disobedience and outright radical violence – from Earth First! to The Weather Underground – focused on property attacks and a strict minimisation of human. The violence has been overwhelmingly from the Right.

The founders of the Republic – revolutionary warriors all – tried to translate this social war, upwards, to permanently destabilised political institutions, Congress and the Supreme Court. But from 1803, the Louisiana Purchase onwards, the US was in the business of projecting power, of Empire. With that, and the passing of living witnesses to the Revolution, the desire to re-found the country in a unitary myth became dominant. The dual character of the Revolution – as both a struggle with universal meaning, and a particular White, propertied cause – collapsed into the latter, more concrete and particular myth (best portrayed, in its current incarnation in Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes). Anything that disturbs that process – the New Deal, the 60s, the mild domestic social liberalism of the Obama-era – creates a crisis because it re-exposes the nature of the Republic as contested. Where liberalism/progressivism now wages social war overwhelmingly by legal means – phalanxes of legislation and court cases – the Right is increasingly tempted to social war as a way of showing that there is no social war. It is aimed as a blow against usurpers who would undermine the country’s unitary myth. Quite possibly for many the 2012 election – the re-election of ‘Barack Obamacare’ and a whole host of progressive social measures passed by popular vote – has been one step too far. If so, this marks not loss of innocence but a return to business as usual, and no amount of stuffed animals will ward it off. We shall watch with interest how the Republic responds.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. How many times can you lose your innocence before that innocence is gone, completely? Seemed to happen to the US long ago on my count.

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