Notes on Late Exterminism, the Trump Stage of Civilization

This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Cultural Studies Association, Georgetown University, May 26th 2017

September 2016 test launch of a Trident II D5 missile. 

On Thursday, the UN General Assembly resumed negotiations toward a global ban on nuclear weapons. This “ban treaty,” expected to pass in a matter of weeks, is a monumental achievement for international security that is supported by more than 130 nations. The nuclear-armed states, however, have refused to participate in the treaty process and are indeed doubling-down on refurbishing their arsenals. In the United States, the full cost of nuclear weapons “modernization” is now expected to top $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years, a stunning total — especially in light of President Trump’s desire for deep cuts to non-military spending. The divide between the priorities of the nine nuclear-armed states and the rest of the world has rarely been starker.

Trump’s election has raised the specter of nuclear war in a way unseen since the 1980s, the last time a global mass movement pushed back against the threat of nuclear catastrophe. One of the major intellectual forces behind that mass movement was E.P. Thompson. With the utopian hopes surrounding the ban treaty now meeting the actually existing dystopia of US policy, it is high time for an update to Thompson’s seminal concept of “exterminism.” Although nuclear weapons remain critical to the analysis that follows, in the Trump era Thompson’s concept applies to a much wider set of objects and policies — an unnerving expansion that is, thankfully, not without some openings for political progress.

Thompson’s 1980 essay “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization” described the nuclear arms race as an autonomous, self-reproducing, irrational force fed in equal parts by the United States and the Soviet Union. As Thompson defined it, this force — exterminism — “designates [the] characteristics of a society — expressed, in differing degrees within its economy, its polity and its ideology — which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.” Meant as a unifying call to action against a phenomenon that was pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, “Notes on Exterminism” was widely read and hugely influential, not least on the European disarmament movement that Thompson would soon help lead.

As a concept, exterminism is thus indelibly linked to the social and political conditions of the early 1980s: Reagan’s arms buildup, the conservative counterrevolution, a geopolitical environment split between two rival superpowers, the omnipresent threat of nuclear war. Because of this historical specificity, the concept lay dormant for much of the 1990s and 2000s, seen by many as little more than a quaint relic of a particularly bleak period of the Cold War. The nuclear threat appeared to be receding, so there was little reason to revisit Thompson’s dire portrait of impending doom.

The election of Donald Trump, however, has brought the risk of nuclear annihilation back into public consciousness. Erratic, vindictive, and apparently ignorant of basic nuclear weapons policy, Trump has made alarming comments about expanding the nuclear arsenal and appears unbothered by the prospect of a new arms race. In the United States, we have what Elaine Scarry calls a “thermonuclear monarchy,” meaning that there are no legal constraints on Trump’s exclusive ability to launch a nuclear strike at a moment’s notice. Trump’s ascendance to the top of our autocratic nuclear weapons apparatus comes at the same time as rapidly declining relations with Russia, increased risk of war on the Korean peninsula, hugely expensive modernizations of arsenals in major nuclear-armed states, proxy conflicts between nuclear powers in the Middle East, and rising anti-immigrant nationalism in the US, Europe, and beyond. If ever there was a time to revisit the concept of “exterminism,” it would seem to be today.

Late exterminism, however, is not identical to the phenomenon that Thompson described, and if anything the Trump moment calls for a more expansive — but at the same time less abstract and structuralist — conception of exterminism. This was no doubt part of the motivation behind Peter Frase’s adoption of the term for the bleakest of the “four futures” described in his recent book of the same name. But Frase’s use of “exterminism” explicitly downplays the nuclear angle, asserting that the “nuclear terror that hung over Thompson’s head” is mostly absent today, replaced by an asymmetrical warfare that corresponds, as he rightly notes, with genocidal flirtations among the global rich.

Great power conflict, however, appears to be back with a vengeance in the Trump era, along with “nuclear deterrence,” the talisman that supposedly keeps total war at bay. What follows, then, is a theoretical sketch of exterminism today that retains the original concept’s nuclear dimensions while also drawing linkages between the abstract if real threat of nuclear war and the much more visceral, lived threats against life and limb posed by Trump to immigrants, people of color, the working class, and other marginalized communities. I have organized my thoughts into four brief notes.


1. Exterminism today remains structural, but its modality is anthropomorphic. 


Thompson’s original argument is framed in part against an “anthropomorphic interpretation” of the arms race that ascribes a nefarious rationality to the process — sometimes in a highly conspiratorial manner — when in fact exterminism is an “irrational outcome of colliding formations and wills.” Thompson is clear that intention still plays a primary role at the individual, institutional, or national level, but argues that in aggregate a world-endangering irrationality emerges out of the various competing rationalities that make up the social totality. Exterminism, for Thompson, is the “deep structure” of the Cold War. Although it unquestionably stems from conscious individual decisions, specific national defense strategies, the profit motive, and other factors, ultimately exterminism is something autonomous, with a momentum and character of its own. Brezhnev may arm against US imperialism and Reagan against Soviet tyranny, but intent and justification (earnest or otherwise) are less important to Thompson than outcome. And in his view, the result of these disparate rationalities, intentions, and personalities is the same: an irrational momentum toward collective annihilation.

In 1980, Thompson felt compelled to illuminate the fundamentally irrational quality of exterminism, against, in particular, the notion of imperialism as a rational lens through which to view the nuclear arms race. Today, though, the “deep structure” of the arms race is most evident anthropomorphically: it inheres in the figure of Trump, whose unapologetic irrationality is on display for the world to see. In this respect, Trump has done us a great service in providing a personal crystallization of exterminism. With his narcissism, his impulsivity, his disregard for popular legitimacy, and his contempt for the oppressed, Trump is a living, breathing embodiment of the irrationality of exterminism and the way the large-scale terror of the nuclear weapons regime parallels the brutality of the state both domestically and abroad. Racist police murders, family-splitting ICE raids, air strikes without regard for civilian casualties, “healthcare” that rips coverage from millions and condemns innocents to death: what are all of these practices if not forms of exterminism? Just as Thompson argues that the US and USSR do not have military industrial complexes, they are military industrial complexes, Trump is not just indicative of exterminism, he is exterminism personified, its irrationality and bloodthirstiness given consciousness and form.


2. Late exterminism is the return of the repressed of the Obama era. 


Trump may anthropomorphize the dangers of late exterminism, but he is not solely, or even mainly, responsible for it. Trump poses a legitimate challenge for mainstream analysts because his reign is both exceptional and contiguous with what came before. There are ways in which Trump threatens a significant departure from the recent past, but these pivots are only possible because he inherited a repressive apparatus that was built up by previous presidents. Obama came into office on a wave of popular enthusiasm in part because he seemed like such a rebuke of the George W. Bush years. He condemned the use of torture, promised to close Guantanamo Bay, assured Americans of the restoration of civil liberties, and criticized the military interventionist policies of the Bush administration. Yet once in office, Obama largely maintained the tools of the Global War on Terror, limiting some of its more abhorrent elements while accelerating others (drone strikes, for instance) in the name of a more efficient military policy. Obama, in other words, did not do away with the exterminist elements of the Bush administration, but sought to bring them under rational control, applying them only when “necessary” and only after thoughtful deliberation. Good governance, however, is hardly eternal.

Other examples could be included here. To pick just one, the Obama administration, despite its immigration-friendly veneer, deported 2.5 million people during its 8 years in office. ICE agents may have been frustrated by the minor constraints placed on some of their actions by the chief executive, but ultimately his policies maintained and even expanded a massive deportation apparatus that is now in the hands of an unrepentant nativist. Obama was publicly supportive of immigrants and made some effort to blunt ICE’s sharper edges, but these were technocratic — and ultimately temporary — tweaks of a repressive system. One could even make the case to include the Affordable Care Act here, since it did not fundamentally challenge the commodification of healthcare, but basically affirmed it.

This is not to say there were not real world, positive impacts of Obama administration policies. But while these moderations of the superstructure took center stage in public consciousness, the repressed exterminist base bubbled under the surface — and now, with Trump, it has come to the fore. Trump’s unapologetic embrace of exterminist policies may be a genuine departure from recent trends, but exterminism itself has been a constant presence in US history. No mere repression can contain it for long.


3. The nuclear dimensions of late exterminism are non-binary and qualitative, but still reciprocal.   


Thompson writes that exterminism “ least two agents for its consummation” and while he does acknowledge (for instance) the role of China as a wild card in Cold War geopolitics, in general his analysis is, understandably for the times, a relatively binary one. Obviously there are multiple countries at play in the geopolitical environment of the Cold War, but effectively they are slotted into particular sides of the US/USSR divide, or, as in the case of China, discussed in terms of their potential impact on that binary division. In Thompson’s depiction, reciprocity between the blocs is one of the factors driving the global rush toward extermination, as the US responds to Soviet actions with nuclear weapons production and vice versa, building momentum toward the regressive telos of nuclear war.

The binary arrangement Thompson described has largely fallen away, but the reciprocal character of exterminism remains evident today. The actions of perceived international rivals still serve to justify improvements to arsenals, regardless of which nuclear-armed state is making them. In the case of the US, Russia continues to play the role of bogeyman, but is by no means alone or even dominant in this regard: China and North Korea are regularly invoked as reasons for modernizing the US arsenal, despite the latter’s overwhelming quantitative advantage. (For reference, China has approximately 260 nuclear warheads and North Korea has enough fissile material to make 20 at most. The US has 4,000 — if you don’t count the warheads marked for dismantlement.) And of course this relationship goes both ways: suspicion of US military activity and worldwide hegemony becomes the ideological coating for nuclear hawkishness in other states. Indeed, US interventionism is one of the factors driving proliferation in places like North Korea: no one wants to end up like Iraq or Libya, after all.

Along with the binary organization of the Cold War, the drive toward staggering quantitative increases in US and Russian arsenals has also ceased. Thompson was writing at a time when the number of nuclear weapons on earth was spiraling upward thanks to the arms race. This number eventually peaked at a stunning 70,000 warheads in the mid-1980s. Today there are thankfully far fewer: just under 15,000 worldwide. 93% of these are still owned by the US and Russia, which each keep more than 1600 deployed.

At one level, this is clearly an improvement over the massive arsenal expansions of Thompson’s day. On another, though, these reductions are plainly insufficient. The US and Russia still possess more than enough warheads to completely destroy human civilization, and there has been little progress on joint reductions since the New START Treaty in 2010. And while it’s true that arsenal numbers have not seen raw increases, today’s nuclear weapons are sleeker, smarter, and more efficient than in years past. They make up for numerical scarcity with qualitative improvements. You might say they bear the mark of the neoliberal austerity logic of our time: they make do with less, but like good entrepreneurs are still capable of unprecedented disruption. The “super-fuzed” W76-1 naval warhead, for instance, now has three times its earlier kill power, a shift so dramatic it liberates hundreds of warheads for other targets — and, according to a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, makes it look like the US is building a first strike capability. All this without increasing the actual number of weapons. Exterminism today values quality over quantity: it continues to thrive in an environment of drastically reduced numbers.


4. Internationalism, not universalism, is the way to combat exterminism today.


Noting that “The two camps are united ideologically in only one hostility to any genuine non-alignment, ‘neutralism’, or ‘third way’,” Thompson rightly called for “the regeneration of internationalism” as a response to the exterminist crisis. In his own work, he strove to carve out a collective European objection to the binary reinforcement of the arms race, theorizing that the rise of a powerful new non-aligned bloc — there was, of course, already one in the developing world — would undermine the reciprocal growth of exterminism. The specifically European character of Thompson’s strategizing may seem rather naive in an era of Brexit and resurgent ethno-nationalism, but the basic internationalist prescription retains relevance despite the binary Cold War system breaking up into our more complex, multipolar world. Indeed, Thompson’s basic recommendation has arguably already been taken up by the various activist groups, NGOs, and non-nuclear states behind the global humanitarian movement against nuclear weapons. This movement existed under the radar for the past several years (at least in the nuclear-armed states, which preferred to ignore it), but has recently exploded into prominence with the efforts to pass a global ban on nuclear weapons at the United Nations. This nuclear weapons “ban treaty,” which has the support of the vast majority of countries on earth, will almost certainly be adopted this summer despite near-universal condemnation from the nuclear-armed states and those under their nuclear umbrellas. Just as in Thompson’s time, the one thing uniting nominal enemies like the United States and Russia is a shared desire to keep their nuclear weapons.

The forces behind the ban treaty are evidence of a genuine democratic internationalism rising against the tyranny of the nuclear-armed states, whose refusal to disarm under their obligations in the Non-Proliferation Treaty endangers the entire world. Nuclear weapons, as ban treaty advocates often note, kill indiscriminately and thus should be prohibited on humanitarian grounds in much the same way as chemical weapons or land mines. But there is an extraordinarily thin line here, one that Thompson and much of the 1980s peace movement crossed in their desire to fight back against what they saw as an existential threat. Given the urgency of the danger and seemingly indiscriminate nature of the effects, they both proposed that all of humanity had a universal, indeed biological stake in preventing nuclear war. Thompson’s infamous contention that exterminism is “not a class issue; it is a human issue” was perhaps the most telling condensation of this view, which effectively positioned all other social struggles as secondary to the immediate and universal need to prevent nuclear war.

In the Trump era of social welfare cuts, punitive criminal justice policies, licensed anti-immigrant nativism, and other forms of state-led reaction, it will be critical to resist this domineering universalist impulse on the nuclear side and instead draw linkages between social struggles, all of which exist within the exterminist milieu that Trump so disturbingly personifies. Internationalism is perhaps the key element in establishing this chain of linked but distinct struggles, since it looks beyond the debased leadership of the powerful (typically nuclear-armed) states and fosters common interests among those subject to the global exterminist regime. This subjection is as evident in hyperlocal forms such as murders by militarized police as it is in the fact that the effects of a nuclear war will not halt at the belligerents’ national borders. These are two distinct objects, certainly, but the concept of late exterminism allows us to think of them as iterations of an overarching phenomenon — without necessarily privileging one or the other. The latter was arguably the 1980s disarmament movement’s greatest misstep given the large-scale rightist restructuring then underway, but today we have the opportunity to take a different path — and the figure of Trump perfectly illustrates the necessity of departing from the current exterminist trajectory.


John Carl Baker is a Mellon-ACLS Public Fellow. His works of commentary and analysis have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jacobin, and The National Interest


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