—from The Story of the Lost Child by Elena FerranteMost Americans, even the ones who work every day to earn crappy wages, don't consider themselves locked in an eternal struggle against the one percent. But times change. In Italy during the mid-20th century, class warfare was a fact of life. It was normal—expected, even—for average Joe Six Packs to be communists, and for there to be clashes between fascists and what we now like to call "Antifa." Only much later, as the Cold War came to a close and the neoliberal world order set in, did capitalism come to be more universally regarded as the fundamental building block for a modern democratic society. Still, vast changes in societal attitudes about wealth and work can happen quickly: In America, robust communist flirtations among the working class in the 1930s and 40s gave way fairly quickly to the Red Scare of Joe McCarthy—and that was just the more famous of two major national freak-outs over communism.
Despite what Republicans seem to be marketing as a crisis of "uncivil" Democrats, the fact is that even under Donald Trump, the opposition continues to work relatively closely with the GOP, and leftist "mobs" are rare. These days, you do occasionally see fists getting thrown around by anti-fascist demonstrators at far-right demonstrations. Some artists are using guillotines as imagery. And yes, some commentators on the left have increasingly taken to calling for all-out class war, though they don't usually mean a violent one.But even with an undercurrent of roiling class resentment, the occasional outburst of angry words or droplets of chocolate milk maliciously hurled at a Republican, and no fewer than two neo-Nazis being cold-cocked inside the span of two calendar years, things are pretty stable and subdued here in the USA.Still, to find out just how far from a class-based civil war we really are, I spoke to some experts: Anna Geifman, a Russian-born American scholar of Bolshevism and political extremism and professor emerita at Boston University; Charles Post, a sociologist and historian of class conflict in the US at Manhattan Community College; and Marc Scarcelli, a political scientist at Cal Poly-Pomona whose research focuses on modern civil wars and matters of extreme poverty. With their help, I broke down the steps that would be necessary to get us from today's "extreme" red-faced finger-wagging to an actual working-class uprising.
1: The return of "working class" as an identity
2: That united working class tries to change stuff
But political engagement is about more than voting, and class struggle is becoming less one-sided all the time. "What we haven't seen, until I'd say very recently, is a sustained response by working people," Post told me. By 2015, the labor movement seemed to be in free-fall. But it looks at least somewhat rejuvenated these days. In addition to a very unusual run of sometimes illegal teacher's strikes, 2018 has seen an equally unusual vote by UPS workers to reject a conciliatory contract (it was ratified anyway), along with an ongoing Marriott workers' strike that has spread to other hotels—as well as a vote to reject anti-union policies in deep-red Missouri. "I think what's driving this at the present moment is 40 years of declining real incomes, growing inequality, and 40 years of austerity to the public sector, which has essentially gutted most public services," Post said.
…most workers wouldn't suddenly clock out from their jobs at Target and march into the streets to overthrow capitalism.
3: The left becomes militant
4. The US starts looking like a much poorer country
5. Escalating conflict between the haves and have-nots
6. Two militaries form
On the other hand, anti-Communist paranoia is deeply-rooted in US culture, and law enforcement has a history of taking action against leftists, whether by surveilling Martin Luther King and trying to blackmail him into killing himself, or simply killing Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. In short, here in the US, the effort by the establishment to quash a lower-class movement has sometimes played out with hails of bullets, but it's also taken much more subtle and sophisticated forms.We're pretty far through the looking glass by this point, so imagine for a moment that a coup is at least partially successful, and competing claims of legitimacy carry over into the civilian world, after which people form gangs and militias under two main flags. They might fight one another, and even carry out atrocities. Scarcelli pointed out that such death squads aren't physically impossible "given that the United States has as many guns as people." Nonetheless, this would probably pit poorer members of the present day political right against members of the upperclass right. From our vantage point here in the present, this does not compute, because it would mean (to speak in stereotypes for a moment) pitting people who wear MAGA hats to their country clubs against people who wear MAGA hats to their NASCAR tailgate parties.
"It's almost certain to be an asymmetric conflict. And that means either guerrilla warfare terrorism or some combination of the two."—Marc Scarcelli