Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization (Part 1)
In the 1980s, E.P. Thompson dedicated much of his intellectual and political labor to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other anti-nuke causes. First published in New Left Review in 1980, "Notes on Exterminism" was Thompson's thoroughgoing effort to account for the challenges to socialist politics posed by the peace movement and the Second Cold War, and occasioned Exterminism and Cold War, which collected it alongside responses from Mike Davis, Noam Chomsky, Raymond Williams, and others.
US President elect Donald Trump's recent invitation of a renewed arms race, and the belligerent nationalism that animated his campaign (not to mention Democrats' desperate efforts to revive anti-Russian hysteria), make it worth revisiting Thompson's conception of "exterminism" today.
Comrades, we need a cogent theoretical and class analysis of the present war crisis.* Yes. But to structure an analysis in a consecutive rational manner may be, at the same time, to impose a consequential rationality upon the object of analysis. What if the object is irrational? What if events are being willed by no single causative historical logic ("the increasingly aggressive military posture of world imperialism," etc.) — a logic which then may be analysed in terms of origins, intentions or goals, contradictions or conjunctures — but are simply the product of a messy inertia? This inertia may have drifted down to us as a collocation of fragmented forces (political and military formations, ideological imperatives, weapons technologies): or, rather, as two antagonistic collocations of such fragments, interlocked by their oppositions? What we endure in the present is historically formed, and to that degree subject to rational analysis: but it exists now as a critical mass on the point of irrational detonation. Detonation might be triggered by accident, miscalculation, by the implacable upwards creep of weapons technology, or by a sudden hot flush of ideological passion. If we drill all this in too tidy a logical formation we will be unprepared for the irrationality of the event. Twenty-one years ago, in the forerunner to this journal, Peter Sedgwick (addressing the arguments of a different moment) alerted us to this irrationality: A conspiracy theory was implicit in all analysis produced from within the Stalinist orbit. "The ruling circles of the United States" were "bending all their efforts to prepare a new war," "fresh plans of aggression" being constantly prepared by these very circles. A criminal foresight was thus ascribed to the enemy, in a manner both implausible and alien to Marxist categories. What Wright Mills calls "the drift and thrust towards World War Three" is indeed to be ascribed to the existence of oligarchic and military ruling classes (whose distribution over the continents of the globe is, incidentally, somewhat more widespread than the Partisans of Peace ever hinted). But the danger of war arises, not from conscious planning on the part of the elites . . . If this were so, we could all sleep safely, for the "ruling circles" would hardly be likely to plot their own annihilation . . . War is possible as the outcome of policies initiated by these irresponsible minorities, as the final unforeseen link in a causal chain forged at each stage by the previous choice of some ruling class. World War Three could burst out as "something that no one willed"; the resultant of competing configurations of social forces . . . If Man is ever obliterated from the earth by means of his own armaments, there will be no simple answer to the question: Did he fall, or was he pushed?'
Twenty-one years on, and the immediacy of this question, as well as the political demands of the moment, break up the mind. I can offer no more than notes, fragments of an argument. Some fragments must take the form of questions, addressed to the immobilism of the Marxist left.
The Deep Structure of the Cold War
A swift caricature of whatever theory underlies this immobilism would run like this. It is in stance a priori: the increasingly expert literature on weaponry, militarism, and peace research remains unread. It is informed by a subliminal teleology: history must move through its pre-programmed stages, do what men will, and we may refuse, with religiose optimism, Marx's grimmer option: "the mutual ruin of the contending classes." It confuses origins with consequences. And it confides in an anthropomorphic interpretation of political, economic and military formations, to which are attributed intentions and goals. Since the "cause" of the Cold War is commonly ascribed solely to the evil will of "imperialism," it then becomes possible to analyse events in terms of imperialism's supposed rationality (however malevolent these reasons) rather than in terms of the irrational outcome of colliding formations and wills.
In its storyline it goes something like this. The original, and also the replicating, cause of Cold War lies in the drives of world imperialism. These drives are then analysed, with attention to Africa, South-East Asia, Latin America, and with a peroration about the Middle East and oil. China is invoked as part of the revolutionary heritage: its inconvenient diplomatic and military postures are then forgotten. Europe is passed over without analysis, except in its accessory role in world imperialism. State socialism, however "deformed" (and here Marxists of different persuasions offer different grade-marks for deformity), has a military posture which is "overwhelmingly defensive." This can be confirmed by an a priori exercise, through a brief attention to differing modes of production and social systems: the capitalist mode is motivated by the drive for profit and for new fields of exploitation, whereas the arms race imposes an unwelcome burden upon socialist states (however deformed) by diverting resources from socialist construction.
As for the Bomb, that is a Thing, and a Thing cannot be a historical agent. Preoccupation with the horrors of an imaginary nuclear war is diversionary (did not the Vietcong call that bluff?), and it leads to hideous heresies, such as "neutralism," "pacifism," and to utter confusion in the class struggle. CND exemplified such capitulations to moralism and pacifism, which is why it "failed." Meanwhile, the anti-imperialist struggle prospers in the Third World (Vietnam, Angola, Iran, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe), and eventually it will be carried thence to the "barbarians" in the capitalist heartlands. The best that these barbarians can do, while they wait, is to engage in frontal class confrontation until the capitalist economies begin to buckle.
But there might be other ways to situate our analysis. We would examine, less origins, than the consequences of consequences. We would attend with care to military technology, strategy and formations. We would confront the possibility of war with a controlled pessimism of the intellect. We would read the immediate past as the irrational outcome of a collision of wills, and we would expect the immediate future to enlarge that irrationality.
I can only glimpse the storyline that this might give us. But it would, I think, replace Europe, and, at a short remove, China, at the centre of the story. It would start from the US-USSR polarization, and, by extension, the USSR-China-US triangle. What is known as the "Cold War" is the central human fracture, the absolute pole of power, the fulcrum upon which power turns, in the world. This is the field-of-force which engenders armies, diplomacies and ideologies, which imposes client relationships upon lesser powers and exports arms and militarisms to the periphery.
On the periphery there is still political mobility, and the storyline already given is acceptable enough, although more distorted (and distorted into militarist forms) by the dull enforcement of the central poles than the story usually allows. In exceptional cases, where the polar antagonism is so acute that conventional military intervention would bring the immediate probability of US-USSR confrontation, the space for political mobility is actually enlarged: Iran and the Middle East are the obvious examples. But along the central fracture, political mobility has been, for thirty years, congealed: at worst, it assumes degenerative forms. And here we must acknowledge not one but two imperial formations, however different their origin and character. For the Soviet Union, which extends from the Baltic states to Mongolia, includes within its strategic imperatives all that inflammable human material in Eastern Europe which must be held perpetually under political, military and ideological controls.
It must become clear already that "imperialism" is an inadequate category to encompass more than a part of this situation of global contradiction and collision. It is a situation without precedent, and it becomes lost to view when we try to stuff it into inapposite categories. It is a situation both of antagonism and of reciprocity, for the increment of weaponry on both sides takes place in part according to a reciprocal logic, and is even regulated by elaborate agreed rules. The MX missile is a clever device to stretch to the limits without rupturing the games-plan of SALT II: each missile will chunter on tracks between a number of concealed firing-points, but inspection-covers will periodically be thrown open to Soviet satellite observation to reassure "the enemy" that there is only one missile in each track-system.
In this games-plan it matters less than may be supposed to define the military posture of the Soviet Union (or of "the West") as "basically defensive." That is no more than a moralistic attribution of supposed intention. Both superpowers are mounted and armed for instant annihilating attack. Barbed wire, pillboxes, trenches, anti-tank guns-the accessories of a Maginot Line-might be categorized as "defensive" weapons, but ICBMs may not.
The Bomb is, after all, something more than an inert Thing. First, it is, in its destructive yield and its programmed trajectory, a thing of menace. Second, it is a component in a weapons system: and producing, manning and supporting that system is a correspondent social system — a distinct organization of labour, research and operation, with distinctive hierarchies of command, rules of secrecy, prior access to resources and skills, and high levels of policing and discipline: a distinctive organization of production, which, while militarist in character, employs and is supported by great numbers of civilians (civil servants, scientists, academics) who are subordinated to its discipline and rules.
It means rather little to peer into the entrails of two differing modes of production, searching for auguries as to the future, if we are so inattentive as to overlook what these modes produce. For, increasingly, what is being produced by both the United States and the USSR is the means of war, just as, increasingly, what is being exported, with competitive rivalry, by both powers to the Third World are war materials and attendant militarist systems, infrastructures and technologies.
There is an internal dynamic and reciprocal logic here which requires a new category for its analysis. If "the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist," what are we given by those Satanic mills which are now at work, grinding out the means of human extermination? I have reached this point of thought more than once before, but have turned my head away in despair. Now, when I look at it directly, I know that the category which we need is that of "exterminism."
The Logic of Nuclear Weapons Systems
Originism and anthropomorphism have no need to examine weaponry and strategy. Weapons are things, and strategies are instrumental plans for implementing policies which originate elsewhere. Thus what we must do is examine the ruling elites and their political intentions. All the rest can be taken as given.
This sounds like commonsense. But it is wrong. It is to foreclose analysis of self-generating independent variables before it has even commenced. Nuclear weapons (all weapons) are things: yet they, and their attendant support-systems, seem to grow of their own accord, as if possessed by an independent will. Here at least we should reach for that talisman, "relative autonomy."
This increment in the means of extermination is, of course, the outcome of someone's choice. But where do such choices originate? Are they political or technological choices? The answer is complex. One part of the answer is that, given the defences of official secrecy — defences almost impermeable in the Soviet Union — we do not know.
The rival arsenals of the USA and USSR stood at 6,500 substantial nuclear weapons in 1960: at 14,200 in 1979; and, even within the games-plan of SALT II, will arrive at some 24,000 strategic weapons by 1985. Analysts used to explain this steady, and accelerating, increment according to a simple action-reaction model: "Implicit in this view were the ideas that the decisions of leaders actually determined force structure and that leaders' orders were carried out by the military bureaucracy. . . . It implied that the leaders of each side reacted rationally to the behaviour of the other side."
This rationality is now challenged. Weapons innovation is self-generating. The impulse to "modernize" and to experiment takes place independently of the ebb and flow of international diplomacy, although it is given an upward thrust by each crisis or by each innovation by "the enemy." Weapons research evolves according to long waves of planning, and the weapons for the year 2000 are now at the R & D (research and development) stage. Deborah Shapley defines this incremental pressure as "technology creep," owing to its "gradual, inconspicuous, bureaucratic character." Its modes differ: US weapons increment is more active and innovative, USSR increment more reactive, imitative, and in the form of “follow-on” modifications.
But in both powers there is a steady incremental pressure more inexorable than can be explained by recourse to notions of an "arms lobby" or a military "interest." Shapley lists as factors, in the United States, "the enthusiasm of scientists for advertising the potential of their work, the interest of program managers and design bureaus in testing improvements, and the armed services" wish to have the most up-to-date versions of their systems. Alva Myrdal adds "the interservice competition for shares of the military budgets, leading to an arms race within the arms race" — a competition evident in Britain now as service chiefs compete around the "successor" to Polaris — and the "mental virus" of the "technological imperative." Zuckerman identifies similar forces: "the men in the laboratories," the "alchemists of our times," who "have succeeded in creating a world with an irrational foundation, on which a new set of political realities has in turn had to be built." He implies ("working in secret ways which cannot be divulged") that official secrecy prevents him from further revealing their mode of operation and political impingement.
This does not seem a sufficient explanation for a thrust which is absorbing a significant proportion of the world's GNP, and which is manifestly irrational even in military terms (weaponry for adequate mutual "deterrence," or mutual assured destruction (MAD) already existed, in the absence of any effective anti-ballistic missile defences, some twenty years ago). What Shapley and Zuckerman do not emphasize, and what any socialist would insert into the argument, is the competitive drive of capitalist arms producers, a drive which has become more intense within the shadow of recession. We will return to this important component of exterminism in a moment.
Yet it is not clear to me that we have found a simple explanation for this incremental thrust in profit-taking (in the West) and in action-reaction (in the East). Weapons research, in both blocs, originates in bureaucratic decisions rather than out of the play of market forces. The state is always the customer: and, in market economies, the state guarantees the high — even arbitrary — profit return, which is passed on (often in hidden allocations) to the taxpayer. Arms manufacture may take place in the public or the private "sector," but even where, as in the United States, there is acute competition between private enterprises for the state's tender, the number of competitors is diminishing, and covert agreements are normal between the great competitors to ensure a "fair" division of the spoils. We do not need the profit motive to bring us to extermination, although it helps. Ideology and a general bureaucratic inertial thrust help more.
There is no profit motive in the Soviet Union: ergo, the "fault" for the arms race lies only with "the West." How do we know this? Can states and bureaucracies not have motives for arming? The briefest survey of historical, as well as contemporary, evidence will tell us that they can. The decisive point for Soviet armament increment appears to date from around the time of the fall of Khruschev: from the mid-1960s, there has been a steady growth in nuclear weaponry, as well as development and modernization of the armed forces. In terms of differential growth, the pace of the Soviet armourers seemed to accelerate in the 1970s, during the "quiet" years of detente; by a stupendous concentration of resources and scarce scientific skills, the Soviet armourers reached forward until nuclear weapons "parity" with the United States seemed within their grasp. At the same time, the Soviet navy was deployed as an active world presence. Similar economic and technological decisions as in "the West" (economies of scale, long production runs) have underwritten the entry of Soviet armourers as major salesmen in the markets of the Third World. Figures for all these matters are ideologically contaminated and in dispute: but socialists who refuse them any credence (as figments of CIA propaganda) are sadly ill-informed. The facts are of this order.
Obviously, political decisions influenced this increment. The political elite in the Soviet Union "decided" to pursue that infinitely receding objective of nuclear weapons "parity," and at the same time to signal its world presence as a military and naval power. But then, how did the elite arrive at this decision? Under what pressures were its policies and ideology militarized
Weapons, to be sure, are things. Their increment is not independent of political decisions. But politics itself may be militarized: and decisions about weaponry now impose the political choices of tomorrow. Weapons, it turns out, are political agents also.
Weapons, and weapons systems, are never politically neutral. When European settlers with muskets encountered Red Indian tribes with bows and arrows, the politics of the matter were determined by the barrels of their guns. If the settlers had only had bows and arrows, this would have imposed upon them the politics of the peace-pipe and the parley. As to "the Bomb," the refinement of nuclear weaponry has been steadily eroding the interval in which any "political" option might be made. The replacement of liquid by solid fuel means that rockets may now stand in their silos, instantly ready. The time of delivery has contracted: in the mid-1970s the time required for the interhemispheric delivery of nuclear bombs had shrunk to about ten minutes, and it is now perhaps less. This hair-trigger situation, combined with the increasing accuracy of missiles and automated electronic reaction-systems, has encouraged fantasies that a war might actually be launched with advantage to the aggressor ("taking out" every one of the enemy's ICBMs in their case-hardened silos), or that a "limited" war might be fought in which only selected targets were "taken out."
In such a hair-trigger situation, the very notion of "political" options becomes increasingly incredible. The persons who decide will not be a harrassed President or First Secretary (perhaps not available at the moment of emergency) but a small group of military technicians, whose whole training and rationale is that of war, and who can, by no conceivable argument, be said to represent the rational interests of any economic or political formation. Very probably they will act without any "political" mediation: already, in the Cuban missile crisis, American naval commanders engaged in the exceedingly hazardous tactic of forcing Soviet submarines to surface, in pursuance of standard operating procedures during a red alert and without the knowledge of the US President.
Today's hair-trigger military technology annihilates the very moment of "politics." One exterminist system confronts another, and the act will follow the logic of advantage within the parameters of exterminism.
The "Theatre" of Apocalypse
In extremity this may be so. But, surely, there is a long political terrain to be travelled first, before we reach an unlikely extremity (from which it is best to avert our eyes)? And surely strategic decisions are no more than the projections upon the global map of prior political choices?
This is wrong again, or half-wrong. Military strategy is not politically non-aligned. NATO "modernization" with Cruise missiles and Pershing IIs is a case in point.
Strategy imploded upon West European political life at Brussels on 12 December 1979, in a supposedly technological-strategic decision to "modernize” NATO nuclear armoury. Ground-launched cruise missiles on European territory are the hardware designated by US strategists for a "limited" or "theatre" war. They are commended for their extreme accuracy, even if the claims for CEPs (Circular Error Probable) of only a few hundred feet may be empty brags.
They implode upon politics for two reasons. First, they translate the notion of "theatre" war from fantasy to actuality. ICBMs carry such colossal destructive power that they do, in fact, deter. Even military strategists, while multiplying warheads, can see the irrationality of ICBM warfare. The militarists have unprecedented resources, which, however, they can never put to use. Hence extreme impatience builds up, most notably in the Pentagon, to design some new games-plan, which would advantage the power superior in nuclear technology. In this re-writing, Soviet strategists are unaccountably uncooperative: "Recent moves in NATO have encouraged plans for selective, discrete strikes rather than all-out exchanges. . . . Unfortunately, the Soviet Union has shown little interest in Western ideas on limited nuclear war."
Even so, the Soviet hand might be forced: faced with a fait accompli — limited "theatre" war ("taking out" selected targets in Russia as well as "taking out" most of Europe) might be imposed upon the Soviet Union if the clear alternative was ICBM obliteration. This would then be a victory for "the free West."
The pressure rises upwards from the laboratories and the strategic war-games simulation rooms to NATO planning committees (co-opting on the way the compliant cowboys who inhabit the Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal Institute of International Affairs) to the United States Secretary for Defence and to the President's national security adviser (the prime architect of the Iranian helicopter fiasco), Zbigniew Brzezinski:
Brzezinski: I think you see already the beginning of a serious review manifesting itself in the Secretary of Defence's defence posture statement, in being able to respond to nuclear threats in a flexible manner, in the serious thought being given to our nuclear targeting plans, in the much higher emphasis being placed on command and control capabilities.
All of these reviews are designed to enhance our ability to bargain in the context of severe crisis, to avoid a situation in which the President would be put under irresistable pressure to preempt, to avoid leaving the United States only the options of yielding or engaging in a spasmodic and apocalyptic nuclear exchange.
Question: Are you saying that you want the United States to be able to fight a "limited" nuclear war?
Brzezinski: I am saying that the United States, in order to maintain effective deterrence, has to have choices which give us a wider range of options than either a spasmodic nuclear exchange or a limited conventional war.
The only unaccountable element in this whole operation is the fact that NATO politicians have eagerly endorsed a "choice," by United States strategists, to designate their territories as the "theatre" of apocalypse. What has happened is that an option of astonishing political dimensions has been imposed upon West Europe in the anodyne vocabulary of strategy and technology. In fact, in this case the strategy was invented long before the weapons. The embodiment of "flexible-response" strategy was endorsed by NATO as early as 1967; was enforced by Schlesinger; and was a matter of open discussion among experts in the early 1970s. It was in 1975 that the American analyst, Herbert York, wrote with admirable candour: "Today's Western Europeans have chosen to buy current political stability by placing awful risks . . . over their lives and their future. Perhaps their choice was inadvertent; perhaps they did not and even today still do not realize what they have done."
US strategy by then had already adopted the imperative that the United States should be the Sanctuary, and that nuclear war should be limited to external "theatres": West Europe was designated (without the knowledge of its peoples) as the sacrificial proxy. That the peoples of West Europe did not know of this new designation was the effect of official secrecy and the management of information; that intellectuals (and socialist intellectuals) did not know merits less excuse — Herbert York and Alva Myrdal were there for us to read. The new generation of missiles to match this strategy was in advanced development by the mid-1970s. What has been presented in the West European media, and in debates in West European parliaments, in the last few months as a regrettable but necessary "response" to the Soviet SS-20s was set in motion before the SS-20 had been heard of. It is difficult to know whether these politicians are plain liars, illiterates, or the victims of polluted civil service briefs.
The final act of "decision" was registered, at Brussels, in a non-elective, quasi-political, quasi-military assembly: NATO. The fantasy was translated into fact in a series of elaborate bureaucratic planning steps, inscribed with runic acronyms: NATO's LTDP (Long-Term Defence Programme), NPG (Nuclear Planning Group), and HLG (High Level Group). From 1977 to 1979 the NPG and HLG scurried through secretive meetings at Los Alamos, Brussels, Fredrikshaven, Colorado Springs, Homestead Air Force Base (Florida), etc. NATO then "requests" the US government, in its generosity, to send this can of rattlesnakes across to the designated theatre, and, in the same instant, notifies European governments that they are to receive them.
One watches, spellbound, the bureaucratic forms of exterminism. I do not mean that "strategy" or "bureaucracy" did all this unaided. No one could have been more abject in their complicity than Mrs Thatcher and Mr Pym. I mean only to note that a prior condition for the extermination of European peoples is the extermination of open democratic process. And I am inviting readers to admire the style of the thing.
The second reason why this military hardware implodes upon our political life is this. Cruise missiles are, with finality, committing. Ground-launched, operated solely by US personnel (whatever evasive parliamentary provisos are made about "consultation"), they commit this nation absolutely to strategic imperatives imposed by Sanctuary USA. In every crisis, someone else's finger will be upon "our" trigger.
Cruise missiles are committing: strategically, but also politically. They place us, with finality, in the games-plan of the Pentagon. True, F-111s which, during the Iranian helicopter fiasco (and we know what "consultation" went on then) were placed at Lakenheath on nuclear alert, are committing also. But the Cruise missiles have a new kind of political visibility, a manifest symbolism of subjection. That is why they must be repelled.
This is not — need one say this? — to urge a reversion to the old sloganry of "national independence" — "Yankees Out!" The cause of European Nuclear Disarmament (END) is only one point of engagement in the international struggle for peace. The alert, generous and growing North American peace movements will understand this and will give us their support, just as (in quieter and more complex ways) opinion will bring its own pressures to bear in the Soviet Union also. For no "theatre" war which reaches the point of nuclear exchanges will ever be contained within its theatre; it will be, at the most, a matter of days before the ICBMs launch off, and Washington and Moscow, Utah and West Siberia, are brought within the "theatre." END will provide a shield, just as other shields must be formed in the Pacific and the Middle East.
It is not the Yankees' but the exterminists who must be called out — and, first of all, our own. Two vignettes: returning through the US base at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, after the march against cruise missiles on 17 May 1979, one over-enthusiastic marcher was shouting abuse at the American personnel: he was promptly taken in custody, by the British police. One North American marcher politely engaged in conversation a black American airman who was on his way out of the base. Was it true, she asked, that this was a British base, or was it really an American one? The airman commenced to offer a courteous reply: he was promptly interrupted and taken off in custody, by the American military security police.
The Scope for Self-determination
There is a contradiction in the logic we have traced above. The diplomacy of ICBM annihilation increasingly polarizes the world into absolute antagonism. Yet, since the launching of these missiles is the final act, the room for the deployment of the lesser means of war becomes, except at the periphery, increasingly restricted and hazardous. The client states of each grand alliance are reduced to impotence: they surrender their fate into the keeping of the Great Stockpile.
Examine the possible sequence of events in Iran, if the helicopter operation had not providentially aborted. (1) US troops, with miscellaneous CIA auxiliaries, arrive in Tehran. (2) Bloody fighting, the release of a few hostages, and the slaughter of the rest. (3) The USA bombs Iranian installations or mounts a punitive expeditionary force, in revenge for the slaughter of hostages, and to save the Presidential face. (4) The Iranian government appeals to the Soviet Union for military aid. (5) Confrontation. The point is that, at each stage of this sequence, the client states of NATO would have remained wholly captive and without "consultation."
It is in the face of such sequences that Britain and France make their pitiful and expensive gestures at maintaining an "independent deterrent." Polaris and the French S3 are aimed, not at the Warsaw powers, but at the White House. If they can commit us, we must maintain at least a mini-bluff that we can commit them. Trident will be purchased for £5,000 million or more to buy a modicum of influence upon the Pentagon. As a "deterrent" against the Soviet Union, Polaris, Trident and S3 are absurd: they are no more than our own pistols, and the right to determine the moment at which we will blow out our own brains.
But within this contradiction, little opportunities sometimes appear. The nations which resume mobility are those which detach themselves from either pole. Non-alignment brings an increment in real diplomatic influence. The superpowers must court stubborn Yugoslavia: captive Britain need not be noticed at all. European Nuclear Disarmament — the expulsion of weapons and bases, and detachment from bloc diplomacies — will be an act of self-determination, striking at the most sensitive points of power.
The Thrust of Exterminism
But that is a utopian vision. Let us return to the deep structure of the Cold War, or the thrust of exterminism.
Figures gesture only at process. Global figures are slippery digits. But by some calculations, the percentage of the world's GNP expended upon armaments has run, at any time since World War II, at between 6 per cent and 8 per cent, whereas in the run-up to the previous two world wars it was never higher than 3 per cent. The current United States and NATO powers commitment to an annual increment, in real terms, of 3 per cent plus in arms budgeting (an increment which, no doubt, will be matched by the Warsaw powers, and also by China) may well push this towards 10 per cent in the next few years.
This may not appear as a fearsome figure until we appreciate three things. First, this production is concentrated in the economies of the advanced powers. The "European-oriented alliances" (NATO and Warsaw powers) were responsible, in the mid-1970s, "for about four-fifths of the total world military expenditure." This affects in radical ways the structuring of advanced economies. Second, such figures (derived from declared budgets) give only a partial view, since various support-systems for militarism (scientific, ideological) are civilian in character and their cost is masked.
Finally, this small figure (8 per cent) indicates the allocation of a surplus withdrawn from circulation, services and consumption. It is this surplus which we often take to be indicative of the priorities, the embodied symbols of temporal authority or of spiritual aspiration, which mark the character of a civilization. That surplus, worked up into artefacts, indicates what holds men and women in thrall and what they worship: the great tumuli, the megalithic circles, the temples, the pyramids, the great medieval cathedrals, the giant rockets in their silos, the MX missile system.
The MX missile project is noble in scope, greatly exceeding the prospects of any prior civilization in its grandeur. It will occupy a 6,000-square-miles complex in Nevada and Utah; require 10,000 miles of roadway; the missile-tracks will move, on 200 individual loops, between 4,600 case-hardened shelters. Security extensions and approach roads, with ancillary installations, may increase the total occupied area to 20,000 square miles. It is a greater, and far more expensive, project than the Panama Canal or the whole Alaskan pipeline system.
Undoubtedly, the MX missile-system will be the greatest single artefact of any civilization. It will be the ultimate serpentine temple of exterminism. The rockets in their shelters, like giant menhirs pointing to the sky, will perform for "the free West" not a military but a spiritual function. They will keep evil spirits at bay, and summon worshippers to the phallic rites of money. Within the aura of those gigantic nuclear circles, the high priests of ideology will perform ritual sacrifices of taxes. In distant outposts of the faith, at Westminster, Brussels, and the Hague, druidical servitors will bow low to the West and incant missilic runes.
Many millennia afterwards, visiting archaeologists from another planet will dig among the still radioactive embers and debate the function of the great temple. The debate will be in vain. For the temple will be erected to celebrate the ultimate dysfunction of humanity: self-destruct.
What both modes of production are now, increasingly, producing are nuclear weapons, tanks, submarines, small arms, nerve gas, etc. Of course, some of this production is consumed: that is the privilege of the Third World, whose military expenditure has increased four-fold in the past two decades: from 10 per cent of the global total in 1960 to 24 per cent in 1978. The rate is accelerating. Over the same period Third World GNP was calculated to increase by a factor of 2.7, but military expenditure by 4.2. The major competitors in the Third World's arms market were, in 1978, the USA (47 per cent), the USSR (27 per cent), France (11 per cent), and Italy and the UK with 4 per cent each. But non-aligned Austria and the nation of the Good Soldier Schweik are pushing for their share in the killing.
This is not contingency. It is process. The long waves of the armourers do not move in phase with the waves of diplomatic confrontation. Each international crisis legitimates the process, and strengthens the upswing. But in quiet periods of "detente" there is an autonomous incremental logic. In the post-war years, the arms race has been like a rocket with three successive stages of thrust: the first Cold War, the Vietnam war, and, then, after a levelling off, the third upward thrust in the mid-1970s, in the midst of "detente." The French S3 which came into operation in May 1980 was commenced in 1974. The "Chevaline" modernization of the Polaris warhead, at a cost of £1,000 millions, was devised in the early 1970s, authorized by Mr Heath in 1973, bequeathed to Sir Harold Wilson, carried forward secretively by Mr Callaghan, and announced triumphantly to a startled parliament in January 1980, by Mr Pym. We have seen that current NATO missile "modernization" was prepared in the mid-1970s. The upswing in US military expenditure commenced at the same time: US defence procurement increased from $45.8 billion in 1976 to $55.6 billion in 1977 and $69.0 billion in 1979. The US defence budget for 1981-85 is projected at $1 trillion. The increment in Soviet armaments appears to have taken off in the late 1960s and to have been more steady, a product of fewer political variables and of central allocations of plan, although certain surges can be attributed to an action-reaction model. Paradoxically, the SALT I agreement (1972), purporting to establish ceilings for numbers of strategic weapons, provides an example. US strategists assented to these clauses in the foreknowledge that they could make nonsense of them by placing several MIRVs (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles) on each missile. In response Soviet armourers successfully developed their own MIRVs by 1975.
It may comfort socialists to see a "cause" for this primarily in Western imperialism, and only secondarily in Soviet reaction. This is now beside the point. To argue from origins, to nominate goodies or baddies, is to take refuge from reality in moralism. Nations which have been exposed to unremitting destructive attack, famine, and civil war (Cambodia), or which liberate themselves by a prolonged and total sacrificial military self-organization (Vietnam), do not emerge unchanged, to choose between policy options according to theoretical persuasion or moral intention. Superpowers which have been locked, for thirty years, in the postures of military confrontation increasingly adopt militaristic characteristics in their economies, their polity and their culture. What may have originated in reaction becomes direction. What is justified as rational self-interest by one power or the other becomes, in the collision of the two, irrational. We are confronting an accumulating logic of process.
This logic, while reciprocal, is not identical. In the United States a strong contributory thrust to exterminism comes from the normal dynamics of gigantic capitalist enterprise. Moreover, one can observe a collective capitalist General Will for survival or expansion, whether as counter-revolutionary reaction to indigenous anti-imperialist movements in the Third World or whether in pursuit of interests and resources (notably oil) of the most old-fashioned imperialist kind.
Emma Rothschild, in a cogent journalistic essay, has recently re-stated (and updated) the argument that in the post-war decades the military industries have functioned in the United States, just as cotton did in the industrial revolution in Britain, as the "leading sector": not as a "single or multiple industrial sector . . . but rather as a cluster of industries joined by a common objective and a common customer." Given an expanding market, and an assured, high, rate of profit, this leading sector has in turn stimulated the boom in electronics, civil aerospace, etc., as well as in secure enclaves of civilian research and development. She suggests that it is this leading sector which has both paced the long wave of growth and determined the national economic structure, in conformity with Schumpeter's criteria of "breaking up old and creating new positions of power, civilizations, valuations, beliefs and policies."
Rothschild argues also that this boom is entering upon cyclical decline. It is a sector which carries its own contradictions. It generates both inflationary pressures and unemployment, since the manufacture of advanced weaponry is capital-intensive. It has its own forms of technological obsolescence, as innovation becomes harder to achieve.
But a business boom on the edge of a bust is a snarling, irrational beast. It might even appear that as American hegemony faltered, in the aftermath of Vietnam defeat, and as arms expenditure levelled off, efforts to re-invigorate the leading sector became more deliberate, more highly conscious, and more highly ideological and political in character. What had been "unconscious" process began to become, when threatened, conscious of itself: impulsive exterminism began to grow an exterminist mind and will. The immense security operations, the organs of political manipulation and information control, revealed by Watergate were not the product of Nixon: they were the natural civilian and ideological support-system for the military-industrial complex. Nixon's blunders exposed them to view, but they have long been resurgent.
Now, in 1980, crisis arrives — Afghanistan, Iran — and is eagerly welcomed. Ageing, overweight arms industries recollect the vigours of their youth. Huge injections of public money are brought to their rejuvenation. "Defence Stocks Lead Market Up" is the response of the Wall Street Journalto Brown's latest budget. Lobbyists (who are often former Pentagon personnel hired by arms contractors) descend on the Pentagon: McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, General Dynamics, Grumman, Lockheed, General Electric, Westinghouse, Chrysler, ATT. Congressmen are approached with promises of investment in their districts. Bribes and excessive commissions oil the procedures. Lobbying extends to regional and local military and air force units, and also to the defence ministries and assemblies of NATO powers. The regular chime of contracts is announced, like the gazetting of top appointments, in the press. A random example —
Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. unit received an $18.2 million Navy contract for engineering service for ballistic missiles.
Grumman Aerospace Corp. was awarded an $8.7 million Air Force contract for horizontal tail stabilizers for F-111 fighter bombers.
GK Technologies Inc. said its Automation Industries Inc. subsidiary has received a $9.6 million contract from the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation of weapons systems.
Southland Oil Co. got a $4.2 million contract from the Defense Logistics Agency for jet fuel.
The MX missile system is not yet put to contract. In June 1979 it was costed at $33 billion. By early 1980 it was costed at $5.6 billion. By mid-April of this year estimates had risen to over $100 billion. The best plum to be landed so far this year has been the $4 billion deal for 3,418 Cruise missiles for the US air force. (Europe's ground-launched missiles have not, at the time of writing, been contracted.) Although Boeing is the winner, some part of the killing will, by quiet pre-agreement, be divided with its rivals.
I cannot, as is well known, understand economics. I leave all this to more competent minds to evaluate. But somewhere within these matters lies one part of the thrust towards extermination.
The Inertial Push of Soviet Policy
We look in vain for comparable thrusts within the placid, plannified features of Soviet bureaucracy. Indeed, if one is not a specialist in Soviet affairs, one looks in vain for anything (NATO propaganda apart), since the press opens up few inspection-covers, and no Watergate scandal affords us a momentary glimpse of the exterminists about their humdrum daily chores of power.
In trying to envisage the nature of Soviet process, I find an analogy with an ill-run, security-conscious university with a huge and overmighty engineering department, so powerful that it can nominate the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar, dominate the Senate, nobble most of the research funds, attract all the gifted graduates, and pack every committee. The engineering department is of course the military-industrial "interest." We are examining, not the self-reproduction and invasive properties of capital, but the self-reproduction and imperative pressures of a bureaucracy.
The Soviet state was born in military struggle: consolidated a ramshackle empire into a Union by military struggle. In the 1930s the priority upon heavy industry had a heavy military accent: militarism was built, not only into the superstructure, but into the base. And militarism inevitably found a huge (and popular) extension in the Great Patriotic War. In a significant sense, the Soviet has always been a "war economy."
Arms-related industries have always received the first priority for scarce resources, including skilled manpower; the good conditions of work and pay attract "the most highly skilled cadres." In 1970, when arms expenditure had levelled off, in the United States one-quarter of all physicists, one-fifth of all mathematicians and engineers, were engaged in arms-related employment. Today's proportions are probably higher. No comparable figures can be cited for the USSR, but there are strong grounds for supposing that, in a less highly developed economy which has, by a remarkable concentration of resources, developed its weapons-systems close to the point of parity with the United States in force and in sophistication, a significantly higher proportion of the nation's most skilled physicists, engineers, chemists, mathematicians, experts in electronics and cybernetics, are concentrated in this sector.
The arms complex is as clearly the leading sector of Soviet industry as it is in the United States, but this is expressed within bureaucratic modes of operation. There is some spin-off from military technology into civilian industry: civil aircraft, nuclear energy. But Soviet weapons technology, which is paced by its sophisticated American competitor, has opened up a gap between itself and its civilian compatriots: "recent military technology has become too sophisticated for . . . cooperation to be possible." The military complex and its successes are upheld as a model of organization and of management techniques, and these are exported to other sectors. Moreover, the needs of the military complex — in particular, the imperatives placed upon centralized planning, priority in access to resources, and direction of scientific skills — affect the structure of the economy as a whole, and colour the decisions of the political managers. It is the threat which might be afforded to the stability and interests of this complex which inhibits any introduction of "market" mechanisms into the economy as a whole.
At the same time there is a greater direct exposure of the Soviet population to patriotic state propaganda than in most Western democracies: that is, what is (or is attempted to be) accomplished in "the West" by the "free" operation of the media is directly inculcated in Russia by such "voluntary" organizations as DOSAAF: the Voluntary Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and the Navy, with a membership of 80 millions, and with clubs, sports facilities, and military-patriotic or civil defence education organized around factories, farms and schools. Alongside and supporting all this there are the huge, quasi-autonomous operations of the Security Services, inheriting historic traditions of despotism, supporting military-patriotic ideology, and exerting an independent inertia of their own.
In David Holloway's view, such military-patriotic manifestations are now "a pervasive feature of Soviet life." “The Armed Forces and the defence industry occupy an entrenched position in the Party-state apparatus. The high priority which the Party leadership has given to military power has thus become institutionalized."
But while military officers are awarded high status and privilege, and their influence can be seen at the highest level of political life, that influence (as in 1953, 1955 and 1964) has not been decisive. The interest has been mediated by the Party, and it would be mistaken to view the military — yet— as an autonomous interest. Brezhnev, who emerged with close experience of the military-industrial sector and with its backing, has satisfied its aspirations.
In this view, the incremental thrust in the Soviet Union towards extermination is not aggressive and invasive, but is ideological and bureaucratic. Yet it has, in Holloway's view, acquired an autonomous inertia, embedded in the structure of Soviet society, and can no longer be ascribed to reaction in the face of Western exterminism:
Foreign influences are refracted through the Soviet policy-making process, in which Soviet perceptions, military doctrine, foreign policy objectives and domestic influences and constraints come into play. The effect of foreign actions on Soviet policy is complex and not at all automatic. In many cases the foreign influences combine with domestic factors to speed up the internal dynamic of Soviet arms policies. The very existence of large armed forces, a powerful defence industry and an extensive network of military R & D establishments generates internal pressures for weapons development and production . . . As a system progresses from conception to development, military and design bureau interests become attached to it, building up pressure for production. If it passes into production . . . enterprise managers are likely to favour long production runs.
It does not look, under this analysis, like an aggressive thrust. Yet it is a dangerous inertial push, with its own hawkish imperatives of ideology and strategy (Czechoslovakia, 1968: Afghanistan, 1980), and which could afford nourishment to a popular culture of chauvinism, xenophobia, and even (when confronting China) racism. It is the more dangerous in that it is unchallenged by democratic exposure: no one may ask, in public, why — after the first ICBMs were in place — the absurd yet decisive decision to match each weapon and to attain to parity was ever taken? Only for a brief period, under the impetuous and contradictory Khruschev, does an erratic challenge appear to have been offered to the process, and this challenge was offered by the first secretary himself a distinct fall-back in the rate of weapons increment, an explosive speech about "the metal-eaters," even (as in generous non-military aid to the Third World and as in the long personal exchanges between Russell and Khruschev) a glimpse of an alternative, internationalistic strategy, summoning up a non-aligned movement for peace.
Thereafter inertia assumed the helm: ideological paranoia, fear of dissent, the null orthodoxy of official Soviet intellectual life, terror at Eastern European deviation, hostility at authentic non-alignment or even at Eurocommunist autonomy — all this going along with the games-play of top persons' "detente,” with SALT this and SALT that, with increasingly military injections of "aid" to the Third World, and with the emplacement of the foul and totally unnecessary SS-20 on Europe's margins: a weapon which beckoned on, like a cue in the common script of exterminism, the entry of NATO's waiting Cruise missle. The Soviet inertial thrust may be as humdrum as the cooked minutes of a captive Senate, but, when in collision with the hectic thrust of capital, it will do for us all.
Continue to part two of "Notes on Exterminism."