What If: Is a New American Civil War the Only Possible Future Insurrection?

Talk of civil war in the United States stretches the imagination, but only so far. After all, the United States already had a Civil War in the 19th century and the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights showed a very polarized and violent country. How far were our imaginations stretched in the 1960s? The 1968 movie if…. masterfully shows what happens when a group of boys stage a violent insurrection in an English private school. The film won several awards, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was named the 12th greatest British film of the 20th century. In 2017, a magazine poll of screen professionals ranked it the 9th best British film ever. It was also criticized for being “incendiary” and “subversive.”

But being “incendiary” and “subversive” was the whole point of the movie.

A similar “incendiary” and “subversive” film was the 1967 classic Japanese Rebellion in which Toshiro Mifune refuses to obey the local Lord and fights back for the honor of his family. It was often shown as part of a summer double feature with Casablanca on the Upper West Side of New York. The audience would rise with clenched fists to shout approval when Mifune refused the local shogun’s orders and the packed house also rose to sing La Marseillaise in Casablanca with Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) when he defiantly leads the band at Rick’s Café to sing the French anthem over the German occupiers singing Die Wacht am Rhein.

If proper British lads could turn against their school masters, and savagely so, if Mifune could go against years of Japanese vassals’ unquestioned obedience to their lords, if Victor Lazlo could defy German occupiers at the height of their power, what could be next? The three movies pose a question that deserves constant reflection. If the 1960s produced counterculture movements with political upheavals, how can we answer the question of if…., Rebellion and Casablanca today?

The obvious answer is a civil war in the United States pitting red-hat wearing MAGAS against Democrats, progressives, nihilists and traditional Republicans. And beyond superficial political groups, one should not count out militias such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. The 2022 mid-terms and/or 2024 presidential elections could turn to violence similar to the 1968 convention street riots in Chicago and Miami, if not worse. The January 6 attack on the Capitol could be the beginning of something much larger despite the arrests and convictions of many of the protest’s leaders.

But predicting riots, insurrections or civil war in the United States is more than obvious. There are many who argue that a civil war has been continuing within the United States since 1865, the argument being that slavery and Jim Crow have never really been abolished. Different confrontations have taken place, with the far right John Birch Society, Tea Party and more recently the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, but the underlining causes of differences mixed with a culture of violence have never subsided.

So where to look for other ifs…., rebellions and defiance? The end of the British monarchy? The death of Elizabeth combined with the weaknesses of the next generation(s) could give reason to pause. But, the thousands and thousands waiting on line to pay respects show the abiding faith the British have in their traditions.

My rebellious reflections turn to other places. Since most pundits are looking at the demise of democracies, what about rebellions in autocracies such as Russia or China? The Russian press has begun to call into question the official propaganda that the special military operation in Ukraine is going well. Body bags are returning. And at a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, President Putin did not get the kind of support he expected. Leaders of China as well as India expressed reservations about Russia’s Ukrainian adventure. With no great external support, Vladimir Putin’s hold on power will diminish as the war drags on with Ukrainian successful counterattacks. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost may not have been photo-brushed out of Russian’s memories. The genie was let out of the box, if only for a very short time.

And China? People assume that President Xi has a firm grip on power. But the Covid lockdowns combined with economic slowdown may hinder his bid for another term. The Chinese rely on economic progress overcoming limited civil and political rights. With slower growth, personal freedoms may become more and more important for the general population. The interdependence of civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural rights may threaten the domination of Xi and the Communist Party. Maybe Tiananmen Square was only a trial run. If, according to Lenin, you have to break eggs in order to make an omelette, what happens when there are no more eggs?

Speculation about rebellions in Russia and China may be nostalgic 1960s utopian musings. But the Berlin Wall did come down. And the riots in Tiananmen Square did take place. So while the United States continues to be on the edge of a follow-up to January 6, shouldn’t we imagine follow-ups to the Wall being torn down and people standing in front of tanks in Beijing? The three movies mentioned should never be far from our imaginations. That’s what change is all about.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.