In the current political uncertainty and ideological chaos surrounding the question of Trump's departure from the White House, it is necessary to put our feet back on the ground and try to investigate the reasons for the ongoing conflict from a materialist point of view, beyond the personalisms and personalities (Trump vs. Biden) that seem so far to have dominated discussion in the US and, perhaps even more, in Italy and Europe. There has been much talk before, during, and after the campaign about the possibility that a new civil war could upset the political and social strictures of the North American country as a consequence of the election results and, to be sure, the obstinacy with which the outgoing president refused to accept his defeat (now widely certified) could suggest that this hypothesis is far from being wrong.
After all, the Civil War is a specter that continues to stir the American soul precisely because this historical event, which took place between April 12, 1861 and June 23, 1865 and which caused 620,000 to 750,000 deaths among soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian deaths,1 was the founding act of the modern United States, perhaps much more than the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the ensuing war with the British crown. It was a moment of great economic and social transformation, for which the liberation of enslaved Black people was only the ultimate reason; the main one was certainly the transformation of the United States from a country exporting raw materials to the British Empire and English industry into an industrial country destined, in the space of a few decades, to exceed the productivity of many previously industrialized European countries. Only this industrialization made possible, in the following years, the development of the railroads that would speed up the transport of goods and people, definitively unifying a country that lay between the two great oceans, almost 5,000 kilometers from each other. It is important to remind the reader of all this because even the current clash has to do with transformations that, before being political and cultural—as high-toned intellectuals prefer—are economic and technological. But let's proceed, as always, one step at a time.
The North, at the time of secession, was headed, along with the rest of the country, by Abraham Lincoln, who was also the first president of a newly-born party the Republicans; while the Confederate states were represented by a Democratic party, which in that era, and for some time afterwards, represented the interests of the large landowners who owned slaves and of small landowners who, though their use of slave labor was modest compared to that of the large plantations, also lived on the export of cotton and tobacco to industries across the Atlantic. Indeed, as Marx had already noted in 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, the slavery of the US South had little or nothing to do with ancient slavery but constituted a modern system of exploitation, indispensable for the development of British and European manufacturing capitalism.
But if, on the one hand, it was the small landowners who supplied the Confederacy with the bulk of the army, on the other hand it was often the workers of the North who supplied the main contingents of the Union Army. This was wholly approved of by Marx and Engels, who at the time sided openly with Lincoln and the cause of the Union, in the name of the battle against British imperialism and the emancipation of the working class, at a time when the slave system represented an impediment to its enlargement. It is no accident that Joseph Weydemeyer, a German from Westphalia and member of the Communist League since 1846 who after moving to the United States in 1851 continued to collaborate closely with Marx and Engels, joined the Union Army as an officer, fighting in Missouri for four years.
We should also mention another collaborator of the two German communists, who moved to the United States in 1852: Friedrich Adolph Sorge. In 1890–91, retracing the history of the American labor movement, he wrote in the Die Neue Zeit:2
The agitation over the issue of slavery had led in 1854 to the founding of the Republican Party which, despite the defeat suffered in the presidential election of 1856, was to have a lot of influence in the following years. Without a clear agenda, without a direct attack on the institution of slavery, this party did not seek to prevent the slave South from expanding into new territories and to hinder the entry of new slave states into the Union … until in1860, after a combative campaign, the Republicans obtained a majority across the North and their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected president of the United States. … The influence of these struggles on the labor movement in the United States is indisputable, both for the disadvantages and the advantages they have brought. Both these struggles and the war negatively affected the workers’ movement because they removed the people’s attention … from economic issues and gave politicians, always ready to fish in troubled waters, a pretext to oppose the demands of the workers in the name of “higher interests.” Another negative effect was a sharp change in the composition of the working population, as American workers, who had either enrolled as volunteers or were called up,3 were replaced by immigrants, who naturally needed more time to get to know the situation and start making demands. Another disadvantage was the worsening of the living conditions of the working class due to the deep devaluation of paper money, which was not offset by wage increases obtained by the workers. On the other hand, there was no unemployment during the war years. Let’s look at the benefits: The huge and growing demand for war materials and equipment, food and boots and uniforms, made the workforce a commodity much in demand. The workers were thus more easily able to force better working conditions on the employers. At the same time, protectionist tariffs were imposed. Finally, a great advantage lay in the fact that the war, by resolving the question of slavery, paved the way for the labor question.4
This long quotation is important because it contains at once the vision of the workers’ movement typical of the Second International and the elements that have typically governed the choices of a large part of the American workers and the political managers of the nation up to now. Don’t forget them!
At the time, there were 20 states federated in the Union, including those that entered during the conflict: District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas,5 Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Nevada (after 1864). At the time the northern states had 801,000 factory workers against 79,000 in the South, with an invested capital of $858 million (of which 445 million dollars in industry, with a product value of $861 million) against $237 million (of which $55 million in industry, with a product value of $79 million) invested in the 11 southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, in addition to the Indian Territory and the Confederate Territory of Arizona. In addition there were five buffer states, formally suspended between the two factions: Delaware, Kentucky (the largest slave state in the Union), Maryland (slave state), Missouri (slave state), West Virginia (separated from Virginia as a pro-Unionist albeit slaveholder territory, officially admitted to the Union in 1863). It should be noted that in the Union or pro-Union states there were about 443,000 enslaved people, in contrast to the 3,522,000 in the Confederate states.
To return from history to the present (more or less):
It seems quite clear that the 19th-century conflict was not only an economic one but also a conflict between modes of production. It must be said the current conflict is the same. We can leave the vulgate that opposes fascism and racism to democracy and freedom to the empty chatter of television and journalism, if we really want to understand the depth of the fault that crosses American society as the San Andreas Fault crosses California, ready to set in motion an earthquake whose warning shocks have been felt for some time.
Despite his defeat, Trump’s votes increased by six million over the 2016 elections which he won, effectively maintaining dominance in 25 states out of 50. Joe Biden, on the other hand, did not win the avalanche of Black votes that everyone expected, but indeed experienced a significant loss of appeal among that segment of the population, winning 75 percent of the Black vote against Clinton's 81 percent and Barack Obama's 87 percent. This is why many commentators have spoken of a “blue trickle” rather than a “blue wave.” At the same time, Donald Trump improved his position among non-white voters, and not only among the anti-Castro Latinx of Cuban origin in Florida (where unsurprisingly he won again). We can either imagine that COVID-19 has brought a wave of madness to a large part of the American electorate, irreparably damaging their brains (as the usual pundits might opine) or try to understand this state of affairs. As a materialist, and out of old habit, I choose the second path.
If the map of the United States during the Civil War colored the Union states blue and the Confederate states red (leaving the buffer states blue or gray), today these colors indicate the states with the largest influence of Trump and the Republican Party (red) or of Biden and the Democratic Party (blue). If during the 19th-century war the color fault line clearly distinguished two types of economy (for example, the 96,000 industrial plants in the North from the 17,000 in the South), today the two colors also distinguish two different economic perspectives: One—the blue one—currently winning and the other destined to be defeated, and probably not only electorally. This does not mean that the blue areas are the ones where people are better off; the New York Times, in an article of last October 30, stressed that the blue areas were more seriously affected from an economic point of view than the red ones.6 According to the newspaper, in fact, the recession following the pandemic was more severe in states such as California or Massachusetts, which experienced greater job losses and consequently a higher rate of unemployment, than in others such as Utah or Missouri.
This is due to a different mix of jobs in "Democratic" and "Republican" states. In the former, employment fell more during the first two months of the pandemic, and then continued a significant decline from June 2020. There is not a direct link between the spread of the virus and job losses, since initially the number of infections and deaths was higher in blue areas such as New York, but after June infections increased in the red areas and deaths after July. In essence, the magnitude of job losses is related to fundamental differences between types of jobs, with a record loss of jobs in the entertainment, hospitality, and travel and recreation sectors, especially in places like Honolulu, Las Vegas, and New Orleans (the last, however, belonging to a state where the Republicans still won). It was above all metropolitan areas that suffered the greatest decline in employment, on average by 10 percent or more, such as Springfield (Mass.) with -12.9 percent , Las Vegas -12.4 percent , New York -11.4 percent , San Francisco -11.2 percent , New Orleans -11 percent , Los Angeles -10.5 percent , Detroit -10.5 percent, and Boston -10.1 percent (the list could be extended). Among the sectors most affected by the pandemic crisis, 59 percent of workers employed in hospitality and catering, 63 percent of those in art and entertainment, 66 percent of those employed in information—advertising, cinema, and telecommunications—live in areas where the Democrats had established themselves in the 2016 elections. In contrast, most of the economic sectors least affected by the "economic" pandemic, like manufacturing and construction, to which I would add the agricultural sector, are situated in the areas where Trump won in 2016 and where he is still well established today.
Fundamentally, the most job losses have come in metropolitan areas or technological hubs where a considerable number of people can work from home. In this sector, and in particular in finance and professional services, the decline in employment has been the slowest, but just because the high number of workers employed in other sectors in the same areas, like New York or San Francisco, were most affected. For example, the number of employees in restaurants and retail has dropped dramatically. Only a year earlier, however, also in the New York Times, the author quoted earlier wrote that in the blue metropolitan areas more residents have university degrees: the 10 principal metropolitan areas with the highest level of education all voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of at least 10 points. Median household incomes are higher in blue metropolitan areas even though the cost of living is higher in those areas. The "Democratic" metropolitan areas could be expected to have a more favorable mix of jobs for the future, with fewer jobs in the manufacturing sector, a greater share of "non-routine" jobs that are difficult to automate, and a greater share of jobs in sectors expected to grow faster. These measures—education, household income, cost of living, overtime, and expected employment growth—are strongly correlated with each other and with voting Democratic. In addition, the same metropolitan areas normally had less volatility in employment growth, partly because commodity-related sectors such as manufacturing and mining are more volatile and clustered in Republican-leaning areas. But while household incomes compared to the cost of living are higher in bluer metropolitan areas, wages compared to the cost of living for a given occupation are higher in redder metropolitan areas.7
Let's stop here for a moment, even if it is clear that something in the Democratic narrative has gone wrong. It appears that the difference in colors on the presidential-election map, beyond the deep-rooted Republicanism of several states in the Midwest and the West, basically follows a fault line between the new and old economies. The first involves globalized and globalizing finance, high tech, information technology, the digitization of every kind of work and the distribution of services and goods, “smart working” and the atomization of every kind of work, with the consequent loss of any community dimension or class identity. In addition there is film production, increasingly producing series for digital channels or video games. This is a virtual economy, in which even the majority of jobs become virtual and precarious. And within which the development of Big Pharma research seeking financial rather than scientific profits and of technologies aimed at spreading Green Capitalism will play an increasingly important role.
The other economy is that of manufacturing industries, extractive industries, traditional construction, and agriculture (even if a significant number of small farmers in the western states are destined to more and more conflict with extractive industry because of the damage caused by fracking)—traditional sectors in which jobs are (or were) relatively guaranteed, along with the average income. This is an economy with high costs and low profits for financial capital, because the United States is now barely competitive with other nations, younger and more aggressive and with much lower wages, which operate in the same sectors. If the United States, according to this hypothesis, wants to maintain world dominance or at least challenge China for it, and not just militarily, it will surely have to shift its economic center more and more towards the new economy. Trump has been an advocate of tariffs, walls, and military withdrawals (soon to be completed in Afghanistan and Iraq) to save the national product, cut costs, and pass the costs of military operations on to allies/competitors in order to save an economy in crisis. But if this pleases his supporters, it is not enough to satisfy the hunger for new profits for capital, an implacable machine, even in relation to its highest-ranking servants. In the same way the industrialists of the North of 1860 were not satisfied with 87 million dollars worth of products exported, against the 229 million dollars exported by the South and its slave economy.
Here then the fault lines and colors seem to become clearer and they are far from being purely ideological or the product of ignorance. A large part of the American electorate, even in those states where the urban centers contributed to Biden's victory while the peripheral areas remained red, has no wish to enter the cycle of precarious and underpaid work. In this regard, I find myself thinking of the words of Chicco Galmozzi, explaining the motivations of the workers who chose armed struggle in the 1970s:
My personal opinion is that the workers of Senza Tregua had a more realistic vision and were aware that what was immediately at stake was not the establishment of communism but a struggle for survival. People fight in order not to die, not to disappear as historical subjects. … The workers had a clear feeling of being in the midst of a major restructuring processes involving relocations and the closures of entire factories. On this point there is a divergence of views between the worker rank and file of Senza Tregua and Toni Negri and Rosso. For the latter, the generalized factory and the social worker represent a passage towards a more advanced phase and terrain for the transition to communism. For the workers of Senza Tregua, on the other hand, the risk visible on the horizon is the end of a world, of their world. On the other hand, it does not appear baseless to argue that if the armed struggle is born in the factory, it dies with the death of the factory. Or, better said, it survives them by becoming something else: the armed struggle will be artificially extended into a practice that no longer corresponds to its original reasons. The disappearance of the large concentrations of workers and of the historical subject arising from them will mark the end of a history.8
Some readers may find this comparison scandalous, and yet … the resistance of the "traditional" world of work to the advance of new technologies, new production techniques, and the socio-economic restructuring that ensues has been a constant in history since the advent of capitalism, from the tumult of the Ciompi to the desperate actions of Captain Swing and the Luddites against the mechanization of agriculture, to the large number of small southern landowners who rushed to shed their blood in the interests of the owners of large tobacco and cotton plantations, or the tribes of Native Americans who sided with the Confederate cause in the Indian Territory. Battles almost all lost from the start.
Should we as good progressives congratulate ourselves on the new advance and support it? What is certain is that, just as we had nothing to do with the old industrial world, we have no control over the anthropological, as well as economic and social, transformation underway. We should rather increasingly be able to observe, understand, denounce, and, where possible, organize the contradictions that this powerful transformation has already begun to develop. This is a slippery terrain, on which a melting pot including classes, semi-classes, and different racial identities, all undergoing increasing proletarianization, has yet to come into existence, especially in terms of political along with economic and social vision.
This is a terrain on which the question of rights plays an important role, especially on the plane of propaganda and imagination. The old American economy certainly favors whites, even if the question remains why a large number of Latinx and 25 percent of the Black electorate voted for Trump (but the answer is implicit in the question itself). On the other hand, the bourgeoisie and industrial capitalism triumphed in the past with the promise of rights for all: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite—that is, freedom for the majority to be exploited once the bonds of community have been dissolved, equality among the poor to accept the laws of capitalist rule and to compete with each other, and brotherhood of the oppressed in misery or of the bosses in the process of accumulation. Welcome once again to the free world!
Workers are free today to look online for jobs as delivery boys and shippers, to settle for digital communication on social media, and to consume what large retail chains, such as Amazon (whose stock value, as well as that of television channels such as Netflix, has more than doubled over the last year) source us from around the globalized world. Paradoxically, we are in a new world in which the Chinese model has already won, one that the West, the United States in the lead, is forced to copy.9
Why do thousands of girls come to Dongguan every day in response to campaigns waged around the country? The answer is simple: first of all, because they’re the most coveted in the Chinese job market, and then because a girl can realize her dream in a place like Dongguan—the only one apparently granted in China today: to make a career. Of course, the starting conditions are very hard: exhausting shifts, minimum wages, free time devoted to the compulsory learning of the rudiments of English, without which a career is impossible. But the girls of Dongguan … are willing to accept everything: incessant nomadism (if there is a factory with a place, there is always another with a better one, to which one must move as soon as possible); personal relationships that are fleeting but indispensable, if only for the information one might get from it; and a life built entirely around the possession of a single primary asset, the mobile phone (losing it, in a place like Dongguan, means instantly knowing an almost metaphysical solitude).10
As Giovanni Iozzoli makes this point:
ISIS advocates a radical re-foundation of the human, just like globalized and financialized capitalism. The world market treats previous identities—professional, territorial, social, community, linguistic—as ballast to be dumped, leftovers hindering the advent of the ultimate consumer, a new man without roots, without history, imprisoned in a wretched technolanguage, coming from nowhere, physiologically migrant—a flow of induced desires fatally destined to dissatisfaction. But this is precisely the ISIS formatting device: the model, for those who came voluntarily to the territories governed by the Caliph, was a radical stripping of identity; you were no longer a Bosnian or French or Indonesian Muslim, with your rich linguistic, family, ethnographic history. No, you are a “reborn” believer whose first act of fidelity is to take on a mental (and material) habitus that makes you indiscernible and resets your biography to zero.
Paradise—which in the rough and childish Salafist version is a place of sensual pleasures to be consumed ad libitum—is presented as an enormous mass of delights waiting for you around the corner of obedience and martyrdom. Likewise the capitalist Paradise which is always a meter further, which always requires an extra effort, which always evokes fabulous expectations of enjoyment for which you are never ready, except in pathetic surrogate anticipations. Both are very “materialistic” approaches, based on the buying and selling of the Body and the expectation of Enjoyment, mediated by a purely mercantile logic. Give your all—to the Caliph or the Market—and in the end you will receive the rewards of dignity, of measuring up to the model, and even of the material satisfaction of the senses. Even a sincerely religious inspiration, or a breath of transcendence, is out of place in these patterns of exchange.
Membership in ISIS—at least in the West—is also the result of an individual choice, outside of community mechanisms or any collective debate. This is the typical approach of the contemporary consumer, an individual alone in his emptiness, who in front of his computer screen chooses which "product" is most suitable to fill the nihilistic void of his own existence. The "lone wolf" remains such from the beginning to the end of the journey—when he connects for the first time to a chat or Jihadist sites, until he chooses to kill and kill himself in the streets of a European metropolis.
[This is t]he virtual Umma of frustrated desires, of fictitious identities, of the equally fictitious attempt to reconstruct meaning—through massacre and suicide—using only a keyboard and the desperate self-destructive drive so much in vogue today.11
Here it is, the trap of modernity, of rights and of the progressing new economy: everyone equal before capital, everyone equally exploited and underpaid and everyone (for now) divided in the face of its increasingly invisible presence and its increasingly organized strength, but with the promise for everyone, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, of the opportunity to fulfill oneself in a fifteen minute career.
The American fault lines and colors are therefore also ours in Europe and elsewhere, and the common effort to overcome the daily horror of an existence that is nothing more than bare life, even though we already know that our place is elsewhere, perhaps only that of bringing together what is still divided and confused today. And enormously pissed off.
- According to one estimate, the war caused the death of 10 percent of men in the Northern states between the ages of 20 and 45 and 30 percent of the men in the South between 18 and 40, out of a total population of around 30 million; while the two armies numbered 2,100,000 soldiers on the Union side and 1,064,000 on the Confederate side. In this regard, it should be remembered that in 1860, a year before the conflict began, the states of the North had 22,100,000 inhabitants, against 9,1000,000 in the South.
- Die Neue Zeit was a political journal oriented toward Marxist socialism published in Germany from 1883 to 1923, founded and edited by Karl Kautsky, which in the course of its existence published articles by Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Wilhelm Liebknecht, among many others.
- We should remember the New York riots of 1863, magnificently reimagined in Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (2002), in the course of which the proletarians and sub-proletarians of the great city rebelled against the draft, from which the children of the richer classes could escape by paying a tax of around 300 dollars, something clearly impossible for the poorer sectors of the population.
- F.A. Rises, “The War of Secession Now,” in F.A. Rises, The Workers’ Movement in the United State3s of America, 1793–1882, cit. Correspondance d’Amerique du Nord (Milan: PantaRei, 2002), pp. 99–100.
- A state which had been for a long time, along with Missouri, the theatre of a cruel guerilla war between slave owners and abolitionists. A notable massacre was committed in Lawrence on August 21, 1863 by pro-slavery gangs of William Clark Quantrili. See: T.J. Stiles, Jesse James. Histoire du bandit rebelle (Milan: Assaillant, 2006).
- Jed Kolko, “Why Blue Places Have Been Hit Harder Economically Than Red Ones,” New York Times, October 30, 2020.
- J. Kolko, “Red and Blue Economies Are Heading in Sharply Different Directions,” New York Times, November 13, 2019.
- Chicco Galmozzi, De Lotta Continua a Prima Linea: le origini e la nascita (1973–1976), (Roma: 2019, Derive Approdi), p.136.
- An hypothesis far from being pulled out of thin air when we consider that the real war with China, for the moment, concerns Huawei’s 5G technology and social networks like TikTok.
- Editor’s introduction to Leslie T. Chang, Operaie (Milan: Adelphi, 2010).
- G. Iozzoli, “Modernite et guerre contre la guerre,” in S. Moiso (ed.), Global War (Rome: The Galleon, forthcoming).