Notes on the American Impasse: Politics as Trench Warfare

A decade before the Great War, Ivan Bloch, a Russian rail mogul and military expert, had predicted the deadlock of the Western Front. Dramatic developments in the range, accuracy, and the rapidity-of-fire of firearms in the decades after the American Civil War, he argued, had made fortified positions essentially impregnable to infantry assault. Bloch predicted the extensive use of barbed wire, spades and the coming of deadly trench warfare. A ‘zone of fire’, he wrote, would separate the adversaries from each other:

There will be a belt 1100 yards wide, for both sides equally inaccessible, limited by human bodies over which will fly thousands of bullets and shells, a belt over which no living being will be able to pass to decide battle with the bayonet.

Ivan Bloch, The Future of War, 1899.

Bloch foresaw the trench deadlock on the Western front that would witness the slaughter of an entire generation of young men from Britain, France, and Germany. At Ypres, Verdun, Somme and other battles that live in infamy, the great powers threw tens of thousands of their youngest and bravest men to gain a few hundred yards. “The Cult of the Offensive” (Van Evera) exercised such a hold on the minds of the generals and the military men, that it would take four years of unremitting slaughter before the armies began to learn how to fight under the storm of steel. The solution that was discovered in 1918 has been described by Stephen Biddle as the Modern System.

[World War I] introduced the central problem of modern warfare: how to conduct meaningful military operations in the face of radical firepower. And by the end of the war, an answer appeared that has remained central to great power military doctrines through more than eighty years of subsequent warfare. I argue that by 1918, a process of convergent evolution under harsh wartime selection pressures had produced a stable and essentially transnational body of ideas on the methods needed to operate effectively in the face of radically lethal modern weapons. These new methods focused on reducing exposure to hostile fire and enabling friendly movement while slowing the enemy’s. Taken together, they broke the trench stalemate in 1918 and defined the standard for successful military operations throughout the post-1918 era.

Stephen Biddle, Military Power, 2004, p. 28.

The articulation of the modern system in 1918 and the rapid decision this allowed after the American intervention, attests to the competitive learning theory of war. Unfortunately, what has been revealed this week is that we are not in 1918 in the clock of the American impasse; we’re in 1916.

Professional class Democrats splurged $7 billion in the 2020 cycle; Republicans $4 billion. They poured money up and down the ballot. In some Senate races, Dems spent upwards of $100m. Many millions more were thrown in the hat to enhance the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Despite the massive spending and all-out mobilization, despite the incompetence of the sitting president, particularly his handling of the pandemic, despite water-tight control of the agenda-setting media and the surveillance platforms, despite the landslide predicted by virtually all serious pollsters, Democrats are on track to gain just one seat in the Senate and actually lose four in the House. Not to speak of the razor-thin margins by which Biden is set to defeat Trump in the half-dozen or so actually contested states. How is this even possible?

The prospects for the Harris-Biden administration are not looking pretty at all. As Adam Tooze wrote on the pages of the Guardian, 2020 ‘has not delivered a comprehensive repudiation of Donald Trump’. Pelosi played a ‘dangerous game’ by holding out for a gigantic stimulus package after the much anticipated “blue wave” that never materialized. Now, ‘any package that McConnell will agree to is more or less guaranteed not to meet the social crisis’ facing the nation in the midst of the pandemic. In fact, ‘any deal with McConnell should be regarded as a poison pill’. The ambitious Biden-Sanders agenda — that had given George Packer hope for a physical solution to America’s problems without a solution to the political problem of elite-mass relations — ‘would be on the block’ for any deal at all. Indeed, Packerian optimism turns out to have been entirely misplaced. There is ‘no chance whatsoever’, Tooze writes, ‘that the Senate would grant Biden the formal ratification of the Paris agreement’ and ‘any talk of a Green New Deal would likely be cut off at the knees’. Beyond the GOP-controlled Senate, the Harris-Biden administration would face a court system packed with ‘pro-business, anti-regulation judges’, a quarter of whom have been appointed by Trump. The Fed will continue to shepherd the economy, but it cannot fix America’s crumbling infrastructure or parasitical healthcare system, nor provide childcare services. ‘Far from closing the book on the last four years’, Tooze concludes, ‘this election threatens to confirm and entrench the poisonous status quo’.

So the contours of the American impasse have suddenly become crystal clear. What has been articulated this week is the rigidity of the class-partisan confrontation — we are facing the equivalent of the stalemate of the Western Front. Far from a resolution of any sort, we are looking at an intensification of the class war that is dismissed as merely a “culture war.” The dismissal offers us one clue for the etiology of the American impasse: the articulate class seems to have no idea that the culture war is primary and the partisan conflict secondary — the former conditions the latter, so that battles fought for the electoral map are never decisive; electoral contests being particularly unlikely mechanisms to resolve the confrontation between the two nations over American culture and values.

In order to understand the deadlock, we have to examine the micro-local reality of the battlefront. As I mentioned in an earlier note, the geographic battlefront runs through the suburbs and exurbs of American Metropolis where culture and way of life of the Metropolitan professional class confronts the folkways of the suburban middle class and the working class; although the latter predominates further afield, in the rural heartland. This is why all maps looks like blotches of blue around cities, surrounded by a sea of red.

But this is merely the geographic representation of the class war. The real battlefront runs through the American imaginary. Sometimes class geography is (often inadvertently) used as a literary device to frame the antagonism. This is the framing we find, for instance, in the film Revolutionary Road (2008), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The young couple, the Wheelers, have Bohemian fantasies of moving to Paris and ‘really experience the world’. But they find themselves living the suburban dream in what looks like 1950s Westchester, a rich New York suburb. Frank, played by DiCaprio, commutes to a white collar job in the city and April, played by Winslet, plays homemaker. As they plan to leave the American suburban dream for Paris, Frank gets a promotion and April gets pregnant. Frank is seduced by the promise of upward mobility. April, representing the Metropolitan ego, goes into depression, cheats on Frank, and tries to induce an abortion; succumbing, when it goes badly wrong. The most interesting part of the drama is the sequence of interviews with other suburbanites in the area about the case of the Wheelers in the aftermath of the affair. Everyone ‘knew’ something was ‘not quite right’ with the couple — this is the middle class ego speaking.

The film offers a professional class representation of the “tragedy” of the suburban way of life. It is notable that the film appears in 2008, twenty years after The Wonder Years (1988), also based in the suburbs, where the same period is described as ‘a golden age for kids’. So professional class perceptions of its suburban childhood went from nostalgic to contemptuous in a single generation, as the professional class emerged as the hegemonic class.

However, even though it is jaundiced, you do get a representation of the suburban middle class. Conspicuous by its absence is the working class. Gerbner and Gross (1976) called such absences a form of symbolic annihilation — a universal in the American imaginary. When the working class man is represented at all in modern film and television, it is in the figure of the buffoon. In his documentation of decades of American sitcoms, Richard Butsch found a striking consistency in the representation of working class men.

In almost all working-class sitcoms, however, comedy centers on a Fool, and he is almost always the male breadwinner. He is a buffoon or bungler, often well-meaning and warm-hearted, but incompetent, immature, ignorant, irresponsible. They are the opposites of models for their children to emulate. He is played against his wife and children, who typically are more sensible, competent, mature, and intelligent. The children will not follow his footsteps into a manual labor job, but will go to college and rise into the professional/managerial upper-middle class. The comedy of these shows is based on laughing at the man. These patterns shift over time and in some cases characterizations become more three dimensional and less stereotypic. But the stock characters of the working-class male buffoon and the middle-class super-parents continued for the most part unaltered. The overall effect is a consistent and unfavorable contrast between working-class men and their wives and children, and between them and middle-class men.

Richard Butsch (2007).

Because all of symbolic production is monopolized by the professional class, the representations that emerge reflect its perceptions and biases. Cultural symbols, produced and manufactured by coastal elites, are pumped out over the airwaves to Flyover Country. Since this is a one-way traffic, you have this deep structure where the working-class watches, from its redoubts in the countryside and distant exurbs, its culture ridiculed in sullen, enforced silence. This is the constantly churning motor that has reliably reproduced, indeed enhanced, class resentment; especially since the rise of the hegemonic class in the 1990s.

The gap in understanding that has opened up in elite-mass relations has widened to a chasm. This gap is responsible for the diagnostic error of the New American Left, which identified the financial elites as the folk-devils, boundary work against whom was supposed to deliver a progressive-working class alliance. The bid failed for the obvious reason that the hated enemy of the working class is not the class of Metropolitan financial elites, but the professional class as a whole; which is hated not just for cornering all the skilled work and money, not just for undermining the economic foundations of the reproduction of the working class family, but above all, for the contempt for it that is pumped out from the million strong points of the professional class.

These are the contours of the American impasse. How do we get out of this impasse? How long will we be stuck in the attrition warfare of 1916? How do we get to 1918? How can we learn to fight under the storm of steel? Is there any faction of the articulate class that understands the contours of the American impasse?

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