On Civil War

David Theo GoldbergRacial Justice

Politics today is nothing short of civil war.

The driving question is no longer so much whether this or that conflict is a civil war1 but what political work the notion of “civil war” is being exercised to do. States descend into civil wars when contrasting conceptions of life within them are deemed irreconcilable. Living, for a considerable proportion of the state’s inhabitants, is made unbearable. Those at least nominally controlling the state apparatus insist on obedience and deference to its way of being, on pain of erasure. Civil wars are struggles over competing ways of being in the world, over their underlying conceptions, over control of the state and its apparatuses to materialize and advance these commitments.

Civil wars are not foremost about resorting to arms, even as they may quickly gear up to blows. For the struggle to be considered blow-worthy the contrast between the contending ways of being must be palpable and pressing. The commitments animating civil war today accordingly are forced appeals to contrasting sets of commitments. These competing conceptions are conflicts in the making, largely between commitments to closed and open worlds, to homogeneous and heterogeneous social ecologies, to purity and mestizaje; to spiraling inequalities or regulated fairness; to securitizing and convivial states. The tensions manifest in other dimensions of the social and political too: assertions of authority over accountability, command over constitutionality, fabrication or make-believe over appeals to evidence. They include recourse to contempt and violence rather than appeals to respect, dignity, interactive engagement, and responsibility. And assertions of solipsistic, self-promoting power, and petty authoritarianisms over cohabitation. The bald contrast is between demanding conversion to one’s singular way of being, doing, and living, on pain ultimately of excommunication or death if resisting, and co-habiting—whether itchily, indifferently, or intoxicatingly—with dissimilitude, divergence, and distinction. The insistence, in short, is on a securitizing state over a relatively caretaking one, on the slow violence of barely perceptible conflicts. Civil wars are social saturations, warring without war, conflictual engagements without full realization.

There are obviously more nuanced lived and negotiated states between these bald contrasts. But the balder and more fixed the contrast, the more uncompromising the commitment to a single side, and the more readily one can characterize this as “civil” social warring. Civil war accordingly offers an analytic for the contemporary social condition.

Civil war’s force is one sided. It forces one side’s commitments onto those uninterested in (even indifferent to) disagreeing with, and especially resisting, them. But one-sided even more pressingly in that the force is almost invariably the product of fixating on a homogenizing commitment: on authority, the compulsion to make-believe, command, contempt, and fixity. And on their conditions of reproduction.

The struggle comes down to one between manipulated control, at any and all cost, and co-constitutive, interactive engagement. Civil struggles that blow up into full-fledged wars (whether conceptually or materially, culturally or politico-economically) require that people declare their commitments, take sides as the economy is reconfigured, social relations are reordered, and inequalities spiral. This is demanded both of members of the society and of distant observers. Neutrality in the face of impending death and destruction, in the final analysis, is itself side-taking.

Racialities mark all the warring contrasts. They help both to shape and to sharpen them. Race reflects and animates, and at least partly constitutes and exacerbates, these conditions. Race is a prompt to and product of social warring, its medium and outcome. It represents violence in the waiting, in the making, offense and defense, embodied and enacted.

A civil war, then, immediately draws a sharp line in the sand. On one side are those claiming to assume the side of the state as status quo, of law and order no matter how unjust. On the other are those for whom the powers and social arrangements the state represents fall critically short and in defense of which the state resorts to repressive violence. Those outside the territorial line, the globally segregated, are marked for and by preclusion, characterized as unbelonging and undeserving. They will be cast out as outsiders within. They are tarred with the brush of racial difference. J. M. Coetzee suggests that the modern state is white and Christian by design, descent, and legacy.2 Even secularized states embed the history, the defining features, traditions, commitments, the ways of being and seeing assumed from Christian whiteness. Reinventions of religiosities. First elaborations, then remainders of race.

Race, in short, is the secularization of the religious. Religious wars, historically marking the European landscape, today are nothing short of race wars, internalized: about self-proclaimed origin narratives; about make-believe kinship (not so long ago explicitly called “blood”); about the landscape and its ownership; about access and privilege, control over resources and decision-making, truth claims, facts and evidence; about cultural legacy and its parental provenance. Which is to say about its heritage. But also about its “proper” inheritance, its rightful heirs in whose name the culture will supposedly live on as defining traces, even while being remade. At their core, race wars concern the right to be, to belong, the interacting epistemological and ontological powers of (self-)determination.

The line keeping outsiders out works in terms of the racial determination of immigration and the technologies of bordering. For Europe, these racial determinations reach across historical and contemporary lines: Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Blacks, Roma, Asians and South Asians. In the U.S. today, these determinations are leveled at Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants generally, and Jews. The line marking insiders as not fully belonging is inscribed in terms of differentiations in blood, bones, and behavior, culture and character, projected incapacity and lack of intelligence. The preclusions are enacted in the name of maintaining historical homogeneity in the face of its undoing. But the maintenance—first of the fantasy of differentiated being and capacity, then of its enactment—is possible only by the compulsions of make-believe. This conservation requires force—the forced constraint of thought and deed, of compelled movement and sedentarism (temporary encampments perhaps collapse the two).

This forced preservation-producing homogeneity has always necessitated the use of technologies. The border, once a line in the sand, was first made cartographic and then required barbed wire. Today it resurrects the border wall. The wall invariably requires more than cement to maintain its political aims. It always requires, in reiterative and ever enlarging ways, supplementation: more wall (higher, longer, wider, deeper); surveillance and policing, human and technological; over-sight and sub-sensored. A more cemented politics. Political walls are extended endlessly, irresolute technologies of civil warring, not their resolution. They are in fact a land grab. A form of imperial state-imposition, they colonize not just the land on which they are erected, nor only the land on either side or at either end. They are in effect colonizations of the landscape. They order the contours of the visible, of the lived, of ontic community and the denials marking its constituting being and way of life. Fortress Europe. Walled America. Moated Australia. Political walls are racial by conception, design, and implementation. In being about “the lives of others” they are inevitably about “ourselves” too. The homogeneity effected with political walling is purchased at the cost of lives interrupted and disrupted.

Racial consideration, indeed determination, is at work here. Race provides the brush painting the line between belonging and unbelonging. Racial characterization—or more forcefully determination—color codes the constitutively belonging from those made not to belong. It baptizes the (legitimately) born within from those coming from without, the pure from the polluting, the nominally trusted from the projected threat. For racial states, enemies, like poverty, are always racially defined.

Recent expressions of this racial politics of civil warring proliferate: the insistence, across the continent, of Europe for “Europeans,” that Britain is “full up,” on America as the land of “white power,” and the increasing need to assert it indicative of its fragility. The emergence in France and Italy of Generation Identitaire insisting on “Muslim-free” and Catholic- and “Caucasian”-committed countries similarly evidences the cracks in the homogenizing cement.

There is a demonstrable correlation between those fearing demographic and cultural heterogeneity and votes for a politics of (and politicians representing) repression. This fear is of what diversity stands for, represents, or imaginarily entails as lived condition and social future. Hardly “natural,” the fear is drummed up, helped along, shaped, and exacerbated by the techno-forces of globalization: Russian bots, British analytics firms, American hedge fund managers, and fear-generating politicians everywhere. This racial fear-mongering has been quite common in the postcolonial era (Enoch Powell, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Andrzej Duda, Donald Trump…).

Postraciality is not the end of race, let alone racism. The force of the postracial today lies not in the aspirational claim to be beyond race. Rather, it is the subterfuge of after-thought in the name of which the most violent and vile forms of racism are being recharged. The postracial is but the contemporary modality of racisms’ renewal and virality. License is given for the self-entitled to express themselves publicly in blatantly racist ways with far less consequence than in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights era. These expressions can take the form of words and deeds, sometimes with physical and invariably with expressive violence. They obviously debilitate those at whom these expressions of violence are aimed, usually those in more vulnerable positions than the perpetrators. But in doing so they debilitate and delimit the society at large.

Racial fabrication never quite fits the facts on the ground. Heterogeneities are messy, uncontainable. It’s what makes them so attractive, as well as open to attack by those threatened by their promiscuity. The imperative of a politics of homogenization is fueled by a fear of the proverbial black-brown planet. It is the defense of whiteworld, its privileges and powers, against the invading barbarians supposedly out to decivilize society. In announcing the bombing of the Syrian air force base in April 2017, in the wake of the chemical attack by al-Assad, Trump did so explicitly in the name of “calling on all civilized nations” of the world. Marine Le Pen characterized her French presidential run against Macron in 2017 as “the choice about civilization.”

Civil wars are conflicts over the contours, coloring, quality, and character of civil and social life, and over the levers of state as their materialization. They are wars over the very fabric of being in the social world, over the conditions of state control and what counts as civility. Civility is the inheritance of normativized ways of social being and doing, sedimenting into set modes considered given, natural, common sense. These ways, the inheritance of modernizing state-making, are racially ordered all the way up and down. Violations or transgressions are taken as attacks on ways of life, on the life-world itself. These life-worlds are racially constituted and comprehended. The breached wall is to be cemented with the mud of reinvented racialities against invasion and the supposed pollution of the invented tradition. Make whatever great again.

Post-raciality’s homogenizing parochialism ranges over various contemporary instances, all exhibiting their own if related versions of race-making. Racial invention—as narrative of kinship, lineage, common biology—entails that the claim to seek out and live with those like you is driven by the fabrication too. What follows is invariably the self-license, the entitlement, to say and do almost anything about (and to) the projected non-belonging, no matter how offensive and violent. It underwrites the license to authoritarianisms, large and petty. The retreat into a walled-off solipsism and curtailment of curiosity can only materialize as violence generalized across the social condition writ large. The violence is as much hermeneutical as material. Homogenization—as process and politics—is possible in birth and beyond only with the force and the violence of repression.

Alongside the insistent imposition of technologies of identification, identity optimization is a racial governance project. Identities become civil war prompts and extensions. The dominant responses to the justice-pursuing insistence that, say, “Black or Palestinian lives matter” has been the restricting pronouncement that “All lives matter,” “Blue lives matter,” or Israel self-defense matters. The latter are parochial identitarianisms parading as universalism. Such responses heighten the danger of devolving into finger pointing, moralizing, extended violence against the perennially targeted. Equality means, relationally, that “all lives” won’t matter until Black and Palestinian lives—all Black and Palestinian lives, lives recognized in and for their blackness and Palestinianity—really do. For blue lives and Israeli security to matter Black and Palestinian lives must equally matter, and be recognized as such, not least by blue lives and Israelis, and more generally by all. Where optimality is not a racial operation but is instead dignified lives without walls or whimsical frisks, tear gas, tasers, and bullets. Where the thoughtless devolution into civil war is not just a strategic option, but rather unthinkable, inconceivable, no option at all. Only when the “all” no longer artificially reduces its universalism to the Chosen of one national deity or another by walling itself within the borders of this or that ethnoracially presupposed, self-segregating turf or territory, neighborhood or nation, will weaponizing give way to non-violence, militarization to demilitarizing the social, humiliation to humility and dignity. Only then will the intensities and suspicions of perpetual civil war make way for open civility, dignified sociality, interactive co-constitution, and politico-economic equality.

This in turn points to the necessity of working coalitions to undercut the possibility of civil wars. The most effective large-scale anti-racist movements—abolition, civil rights, anti-apartheid, now #BLM—have been cross-racial, multi-gendered, multi-generational, cross-class, local and global. They are interactive. The leadership has been mixed, ever mindful of the concerns of constituencies represented by other than their own. The politics of purification, of ethnoracial self-elevation and encirclement, is a politics of closure, of exclusion, even elimination. It is the waging of a purging civil war. By contrast, coalitional politics in the interests of promoting a constantly renewing commons are open, inviting, exciting—multiplicitous, heterogeneous—not shutting down by shutting up. This, in turn, creates the conditions for visible transformations of the commonplace to the greater equality and betterment of all.

About the Author

David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg directs the University of California Humanities Research Institute. He is a distinguished professor in comparative literature and anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Of the twenty books he has authored/coauthored and edited/coedited, the latest are Are We All Postracial Yet? (2015) and Between Humanities and the Digital (2015). His forthcoming book, Dread: The Politics of Our Time, will appear early in 2021.

  1. David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). []
  2. J.M. Coetzee, Summertime (New York: Viking, 2009), 12. []

Share this Post