Is America truly unravelling? Or is this just another of its periodic episodes of violence which eventually flames out?

I think what we’re seeing is a country coming apart for real.

This past weekend saw protests and clashes with police across 140 cities in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Now Trump is threatening to send in the army to quell the unrest.

In the nearly two-and-a-half-century history of the country we’ve seen this movie too many times before.

"We expect a fight every moment," Confederate private during the American Civil War reported from Virginia where New York's 8th militia, pictured, camped. Photo from Library of Congress

Realistically, the U.S. was most at peril during its bloody four-year civil war from 1861 to 1865, triggered when 11 southern states broke away from the union to try and form their own country. The south wanted to preserve slavery, which was critical to their plantation economy. The war resulted in 620,000 dead — or about two per cent of the entire U.S. population at the time.

A few years later, the U.S. was roiled by the great labour wars of the Gilded Age as America industrialized and workers tried to unionize. There were the Homestead and Pullman strikes that pitted workers against armed strikebreakers. The murder of strikers was commonplace. In 1892 alone, 1,298 strikes involving some 164,000 workers occurred across the nation. The labour wars continued on right up until the Second World War.

The next big spasm of protests began in the late 1950s and into the 1970s over civil rights, the Vietnam War and the emerging women’s and gay rights movements. Race riots tore through Birmingham, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and numerous other cities, burning down whole city sections.

America has a long history of bloody, civil strife

In Los Angeles, the racist LAPD waged a brutal war of suppression against the African-American population, culminating in the 1965 Watts riots, which lasted six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totalling US$40 million in damages.

Soldiers of the California's 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from an area of South Central Los Angeles burning during the Watts riot. Photo from Wikipedia.

In 1968, the police rioted in Chicago against demonstrators during the Democratic convention, which led to 11 dead and the police shooting another 48 people.

Racism is a by-product of a system that pits worker against worker, designed to keep them from becoming united against their common enemy - an economic system that no longer has much need for them. 

Throughout the 1970s, left-wing urban guerilla groups set off a wave of bombings, kidnappings and hijackings.

Then there was the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, which lasted six days and left 63 people dead, 2,383 injured, more than 12,000 arrested, and property damage over US$1 billion.

Fast forward to 2014, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of a whole new series of outrages committed against African-Americans, especially the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

In short, America is not new to violent clashes between enraged citizens and the state.

So are these new protests any different?

Now is different - America has deep structural problems

That’s difficult to say, but I would argue that unlike the protests of the 1960s, or of even six years ago, America’s current situation reveals its deep structural problems.

Empires tend to decline over decades, and then often very rapidly. While the U.S. remains the world’s preeminent economic and military power, internally it’s bedevilled by a host of problems that just keep getting worse. And the two most significant are the abandonment of its working class, and the corruption of its political system.

Going back to the Civil War, that conflict was rooted in economics — the industrializing north versus the agrarian south. Capitalism has no use for slave labour. But it does need cheap labour. And the Civil War was really about freeing up African-American slaves so they could be exploited as workers in the new factories of the north.

Even the labour wars that began in the late 1800s were about workers getting a bigger share of America’s burgeoning new wealth. And I would argue the race riots of the 1960s were the final spasm over the end of slavery, reflected in segregation and the Jim Crow laws.

But beginning in the 1980s, America’s business class decided that the American working class — white, black or Latino — was expendable. They embraced neoliberalism, and went to war against workers with the goal of taking away the post-war gains unions had won. “Neoliberalism is an attack on working class expectations and working class strength,” explains Sam Gindin, the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers union (now called Unifor). “And the most important thing was how to weaken (organized labour) and weakening it actually required changing labour laws making it harder to organize. But it especially meant letting unemployment rise.”

In 1981, Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers during a bitter strike, which opened the door to union-busting across the U.S.

But the 1980s also marked another threat to American workers — the arrival of free trade. In 1988, the U.S. and Canada signed a free trade agreement. Six years later, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada put NAFTA into effect, which made free trade continent-wide. Other free trade agreements soon followed.

The result was American workers found themselves competing for jobs with cheap labour in other parts of the world, especially Latin America, China and India. And they lost: Well-paying, unionized blue collars jobs vanished. Now only nine per cent of the American workforce toils in manufacturing. Wages stagnated and debt levels rose, as did permanent economic uncertainty.

Both parties abandoned average workers

Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans were turning their backs on workers. The Democrats were once the party of labour. But beginning in the 1970s, the party tapped into Wall Street money and marginalized organized labour. Democrats embraced free trade and globalization.

“You find that there was a transition in the Democratic Party in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s where they convinced themselves that they needed to abandon working people in order to serve a different constituency: a constituency essentially of white-collar professionals,” remarked journalist Thomas Frank in an 2016 interview for his book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

That’s the most important group in their coalition. That’s who they won over in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s who they serve, and that’s where they draw from. The leaders of the Democratic Party are always from this particular stratum of society.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans became the party of big business — and increasingly racist as their hold on the American south grew. Together the Democrats and Republicans ignored the growing problems of working class Americans for decades while beholden to the money of the wealthy.

So how does this pertain to the murder of George Floyd?

Racism is dividing workers

Racism is a by-product of a system that pits worker against worker so they don’t become united against their common enemy - capitalism, which no longer has as much need for them.

Indeed, one of the symptoms of working class alienation and frustration is the enflaming of racial tensions. White workers who’ve lost good jobs are encouraged by business leaders, political elites and the right-wing media to blame minorities — African-Americans, Mexicans, women, LBGQT people — for their growing economic and political disenfranchisement. This has been the overt agenda of Trump and the alt-right.

Lay on top an American justice system and police forces which are institutionally racist and militarized and voilà, you have the mess Americans find themselves in.

Will America tear itself apart?

When you have so many people who corporations feel they don’t need anymore — and a political system that doesn’t respond to workers’ problems — then there’s a very high probability it will.

Indeed, while these protests may eventually dissipate, the underlying reasons that gave rise to the tensions are not going away any time soon — even if Trump loses the White House this fall.

In short, the abyss beckons.

Thank you for this analysis. As someone who grew up in the US and came to Canada in 1973, I am deeply saddened about the current situation in the States right now. I think the author is correct that these trends started way back in the early 80's when neo-liberalism took hold. I especially appreciate Livesay's comments about the Democratic party, that they too abandoned the Labour movement long ago. And now corruption is rampant within the Republican Party and the Federal Government-and elsewhere.

Beware Canada. Neo-liberalism is a driving force here as well, only to a lesser degree it seems.

Yes, a masterful re-capitulation of all the disfunctions of the "Great Republic". Well, the truth is its actual creation and continiued existence has been a sort of miracle of "muddling" through. What we seem now to be experiencing is the final failure of muddling. "Muddling" implies the willingness to compromise and for whatever reasons, the art of compromise, or perhaps the "skill" of compromise is no longer available to American citizens.

This is clearly not just an American problem Abysses are opening up all around the globe, in liberal democracies and kleptocratic autocracies alike. Some more visible than others.

Since this is a global phenomenon, it can only be a response to universal global issues - like overpopulation, over exploitation of resources and, concommitant degradation of existential global natural systems.

The only symptom susceptible to immediate intervention/disruption is the gross inequity in the distribution of resources.

I think that part of this I didn't see mentioned in the article is that the news sources have been taken over by the extremely wealthy. Newspapers making public various kinds of corruption had a lot to do with improving things in the US at one time.
And rich investors gave industry, once the strength of North America, to China. They wanted to get it made cheap and sell it for a high price to people who had the money to buy it. Now China is coming to have the industry, and America is running out of money to buy it. You can't pay high prices if you just work in MacDonald's.
Here is something my brother sent me a few weeks ago:

“I have felt for several weeks now that this is a general world correction that will result in the world being very different after this has run its course.  I believe it will have a positive end result, not only for lessening global warming's trend, but for a correction in the evil of capitalism and self-centered greed.  I see it as part of the end of the Piscean era and the beginning of the Aquarian epoch where intuition will play a larger part in how things are done.  The Cayce readings predict that there will be a "thousand years of peace" where unenlightened or selfish people will not be allowed to incarnate on earth, allowing normal people to build up better styles of living and cooperation so that when the unenlightened souls are again allowed to return, there will be better ways of handling them (loving them) so that they too will be guided into better relations with others.  I think that because Trump and his cronies are doing such a bad job of controlling the pandemic in our country, we may have the worst death count (percentage) on earth, which might be for the best in the long run.  Our country has lost its right to be the most influential country on earth, and this change will come to pass quickly.  I think these may be the days when "His light will be seen again in the sky" or Quakerly, the inner voice might be heard a little louder? I don't expect this transformation to be easy (time to plant our gardens!) but the effort will be worth it.
                I think I caught the covid 19 early on, only realizing it long after the fact when fatigue was listed as one of the side effects, and that one could have it and almost not know it.  I had 3 days of extreme fatigue, that I think was my experience of the virus.  Since no testing is available, I may never know.  Also no one knows if having it gives you immunity, so I may or may not be able to catch it at this point. When talking to neighbors today, they think they got it early on too, with very bad sore throats, and cough.
                I dreamed that Donald Trump was Caligula in a past life and he is an unwitting participant in this unusual change.  He is trying to do all the evil things he did as Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus:  bankrupt the Roman treasury, build big things (aquaducts=the wall), have sex with everything in sight, kill his enemies, be mentally unfit, (have a wife named Melonia), not listen to any advice, etc.  He is assisting in the speedy destruction of many things that will result in the ending of our country as we know it. Sooo, welcome to interesting times” Mitchel
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I'd advise Americans to build local communities that can support themselves and eachother. They won't get much help from a national economy or a government that comes apart.

I think this crisis resulted from an electoral system which denies any real power to small parties. As Livesy states, the two main parties fail to represent the interests of the working class. And racialized minorities have no shot at the brass ring. A well functioning democracy would allow for the channelling of the current unrest into the formation of a third party, and allow that party a number of seats in Congress proportional to the number of votes it has received. First Past The Post has made democracy an empty dream for many Americans. Canadians should be paying close attention. Are we headed down the same road?

I'm glad somebody brought this up. America's 2-party system is an important part of what's tearing the country apart. The author doesn't deal with this directly, but he brushes up against it when he mentions that the Democratic Party abandoned blue-collar workers and became the party of white-collar elites.

Because Americans believe that there are only two parties that they can vote for, the Democrat betrayal left labour with no party whatsoever. For the abandoned blue-collar workers bereft of their good-paying jobs and status, racism was the only road left to go down. If they had representation, they wouldn't need racism.

It's going to be difficult if not impossible for Americans to break out of this trap. To do so, they need either electoral reform or a willingness to risk splitting the vote in order to elect alternative candidates.

I had hope that the Green Party got itself a viable candidate when Chris Hedges announced he was running for Congress as a Green. He's since reversed that decision due to FCC rules. https://www.insidernj.com/hedges-ends-short-lived-cd12-green-party-candi...

Strategic Plan. Love everyone. Hate no-one. Move to the edge. (Infinite Power, Ekstasis 2016)

Humanity has destroyed its bond with humanity from the worship of power over others and needs to use its power to heal one another. To support that emotional part of us that turns to violence out of trauma. It will take enormous psychological and physical strength to get through the next year.