Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization (Part 2)


Continued from "Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization" part one.

Annihilation and Security

Let us attempt to assemble these fragments.

I am offering, in full seriousness, the category of "exterminism." By "exterminism" I do not indicate an intention or criminal foresight in the prime actors. And I certainly do not claim to have discovered a new "exterminist" mode of production. Exterminism designates those 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. The outcome will be extermination, but this will not happen accidentally (even if the final trigger is "accidental") but as the direct consequence of prior acts of policy, of the accumulation and perfection of the means of extermination, and of the structuring of whole societies so that these are directed towards that end. Exterminism requires, of course, at least two agents for its consummation, which are brought into collision. But such collision cannot be ascribed to accident if it has long been foreseen, and if both agents have, by deliberate policy, directed themselves upon an accelerating collision-course. As Wright Mills told us long ago, "the immediate cause of World War III is the preparation of it."

The clearest analogies are with militarism or imperialism (of whose characteristics exterminism partakes). These may be found to characterize societies with different modes of production: they are something less than social formations, and something a good deal more than cultural or ideological attributes. They designate something of the character of a society: of its drive and the direction of that drive. Militarism and imperialism are founded upon actual institutional bases (the military, the navy, the chartered trading companies and slavers, the arms manufacturers, etc.), from which they extend influence into other areas of life. In mature forms they appear as whole configurations (institutional, political, economic, ideological), and each portion reflects and reinforces the other. Exterminism is a configuration of this order, whose institutional base is the weapons system, and the entire economic, scientific, political and ideological support-system to that weapons system — the social system which researches it, "chooses" it, produces it, polices it, justifies it, and maintains it in being.

Imperialism helps us both by analogy, and also by revealing the point at which analogy breaks down. Imperialism normally predicates an active agent and a subjected victim: an exploiter and an exploited. Vulgar imperialist theory tended to become enmeshed in an argument from origins: the drive for markets, raw materials, new fields for exploitation — if the originating "motive" could be identified, this was held to explain all. Yet this failed to explain, not only many episodes — strategic and ideological imperatives, the expectation of rewards, the reciprocal influence of the subjected upon the imperial power — but also the irrationality (in terms of the pursuit of self-interest) of climactic imperial moments: in imperial rivalries, in the First World War, in fiercely irrational ideologies which contributed to fascism. It becomes necessary, then, to see Western imperialism as a force which originated in a rational institutional and economic matrix, but which, at a certain point, assumed an autonomous self-generating thrust in its own right, which can no longer be reduced by analysis to the pursuit of rational interests — which indeed acted so irrationally as to threaten the very empires of its origin and to pull them down.

So far, the analogy is helpful. This gives us the character of exterminism in the 1980s. No doubt we will have one day a comprehensive analysis of the origins of the Cold War, in which the motives of the agents appear as rational. But that Cold War passed, long ago, into a self-generating condition of Cold War-ism (exterminism), in which the originating drives, reactions and intentions are still at play, but within a general inertial condition: which condition (but I am now asking a question which will, I hope, be refuted) is becoming irreversible as a direction.

This is not because of the irrationality of political leaders (although this often helps). It is because the inertial thrust towards war (or collision) arises from bases deeply enstructured within the opposed powers. We tend to evade this conclusion by employing concepts which delimit the problem: we speak (as I have done) of the "military-industrial complex," or of the military "sector" or "interest" or the arms "lobby." This suggests that the evil is confined in a known and limited place: it may threaten to push forward, but it can be restrained: contamination does not extend through the whole societal body.

But the more apposite concept, which is employed by some peace researchers, is that of isomorphism: "the property of crystallizing in the same or closely related forms," or "identity of form and of operations as  between two or more groups." Viewed in this way, the USA and the USSR do not have military-industrial complexes: they are such complexes. The "leading sector" (weapons systems and their supports) does not occupy a vast societal space, and official secrecy encourages low visibility; but it stamps its priorities on the society as a whole. It also inflects the direction of growth. In the US 1981 budget $16.5 billion is allocated to "research, development, test and evaluation" (RDTE) of weaponry. Of this less than 10 per cent (a mere $1.5 billion) is allocated to MX research. But — "This is more than the combined RD budgets for the Department of Labour, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control; over 140 per cent of the RD budget of the National Science Foundation." Given the technology gap between the two powers, and yet the extraordinary sophistication of Soviet weaponry, the inflection of the direction of Soviet research must be even greater.

Science-intensive weapons systems civilianize the military: but in the same moment more and more civilians are militarized. The diplomacy of "posture" and bluff, together with the drive to steal some technological advantage, generate covert intelligence operations and the policing of information. The need to impose assent on the public (the US taxpayer, the Soviet consumer whose rising expectations remain unsatisfied) generates new resources to manage opinion. At a certain point, the ruling groups come to need perpetual war crisis, to legitimate their rule, their privileges and their priorities; to silence dissent; to exercise social discipline; and to divert attention from the manifest irrationality of the operation. They have become so habituated to this mode that they know no other way to govern.

Isomorphic replication is evident at every level: in cultural, political, but, above all, in ideological life. In a notable letter addressed last year to the California Board of Regents, Gregory Bateson, the social scientist, employed an analogy from biological systems: "The short-time deterrent effect is achieved at the expense of long-time cumulative change. The actions which today postpone disaster result in an increase in strength on both sides of the competitive system to ensure a greater instability and greater destruction if and when the explosion occurs. It is this fact of cumulative change from one act of threat to the next that gives the system the quality of addiction. Frustrated aggression "backs up" until it permeates whole cultures.

It is within ideology that addictionto exterminism is distilled. The confrontation of the superpowers has, from its origin, always had the highest ideological content: ideology, as much as profit-making and bureaucratic growth, has motored the increment of weaponry, indicated the collision course, and even (on occasion) sheltered some victims. In both camps ideology performs a triple function: that of motivating war preparations, of legitimating the privileged status of the armourers, and of policing internal dissent. Over more than thirty years, anti-communism has been the means of ideological control over the American working class and intelligentsia; over the same period communist orthodoxy has imposed ideological controls by a simple "Stalinist" reversal.

The two camps are united ideologically in only one matter: in mutual hostility to any genuine non-alignment, "neutralism," or "third way." For if such a way were to be possible, it would strike directly at exterminism's legitimacy. Dubcek and Allende must be overthrown, because they have trespassed upon the most sensitive territory of ideology: their success would have challenged the very premises of the mutual ideological field-of-force. The contagion might have spread, not only through Eastern Europe and Latin America, but to the heartlands of exterminism themselves.

The concept of isomorphism provides a clue to developments in the past decade in Britain. In this client state of NATO with its faltering economy, crystallization proceeds with unusual rapidity: Official Secrets trials, burgeoning security and surveillance, the management of Official Information and of "consensual" ideology, the positive vetting of civil servants, the rising profile of the police, jury vetting, the demotion of parliamentary and other democratic process, the oiling of the machinery of "national emergency," the contingency planning of the Cabinet Office, the futilities of Protect and Survive. While industries wither on the vine, and while public expenditure' is hacked at with a Friedmanite axe, new weapons systems are planned and public money is flushed down the exterminist sluice.

Britain, as it enters the 1980s, offers itself as a caricature of an exterminist formation. The imperatives of "defence" poison the nation's economy; the imperatives of ideology deflect even profitable weapons manufacture into the hands of United States contractors. The subordinate inertial thrust of the national weapons-system complex augments the imposts of NATO: a motive for the £1,000 million "Chevaline" programme, we learn, was "finding something for the large scientific establishment at Aldermaston . . . to do." The politicians who initiated these weapons systems have now left the scene; their successors are now no more than a reflexive part of the support-system for these systems, along with the civil servants, the scientists, the Treasury officials, the television controllers and the defence correspondents who afford these systems logistic supply and protection.

Even here where I write, in the rural West Midlands, I can sense the presence of neighbours; at Cheltenham, the headquarters of GCHQ signals interception; at Hereford, the base of the SAS; at Kidderminster, the manufacture of propellant for "Sea-Slug" missiles (which came to public notice only after fatalities in an explosion), at Malvern, research into radar, but also into officially secret things.

It is a cumulative process, crystallization in culture accelerating crystallization in the economy, and thence to politics, and thence back again once more. Security operations impinge upon politicians; job security in weapons industries impinges upon trade unions; expansion in military research, usually in the "public sector," generates bureaucratic pressures in Britain much the same as the bureaucratic thrust of the Soviet managers; the minister of defence and the foreign secretary carry in their portfolios (to China, Oman, Pakistan) the briefs of arms salesmen; and at home, academics are funded to prepare these briefs. Since all these pressures accumulate in the direction of extermination, it is proper to designate them as exterminist.

The Moment of Greatest Danger

The analogy with imperalism takes us a long way, but in the end it breaks down. Imperialism calls into being its own antagonist in the movement for self-determination of the people of the subjected country. Exterminism does not. Exterminism simply confronts itself. It does not exploit a victim: it confronts an equal. With each effort to dominate the other, it calls into being an equivalent counter-force. It is a non-dialectical contradiction, a state of absolute antagonism, in which both powers grow through confrontation, and which can only be resolved by mutual extermination.

Yet exterminism does generate its own internal contradictions. In the West, a science-intensive war economy produces not only weapons systems but inflation, unemployment, and deteriorating services. In the East, a war economy slows down and distorts the direction of growth, and generates shortages of resources and skills. The strains are felt most acutely in the client states of both alliances, where resentment grows against their captive state. As anxiety and dissatisfaction mount, there can be glimpsed, as an intolerable threat to exterminist ideology, the possibility of a truly internationalist movement against the armourers of both blocs.

This brings us closer to the point of crisis. An accelerating thrust has set the superpowers upon collision course, and the collision is to be expected within the next two decades. Yet the economies and ideologies of either side could buckle under this acceleration. The injections of public money, even the MX missile, may not stave off US recession: they might even aggravate its form, in the disjunction between an advancing and a recessive economy. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe it is ideological crisis which is most manifest: how long will those old controls work? The official description of reality induces only tedium; ideology is no longer internalized — it becomes a mask or a patter learned by rote, whose enforcement is a matter for the police.

As we know from history, this conjuncture of crisis and opportunity is the most dangerous moment of all. The ruling groups, habituated to the old modes and controls, sense the ground moving beneath them. The hawks and doves form factions. Actions are precipitate and impulsive. Neutralism, internationalism — democratic impulses in the East, socialist impulses in the West — appear as hideous threats to established power, challenging the very raison d'être of exterminist elites. In that situation of impending superpower collision and of ideological instability, it is not likely that "we" — with our poor resources, our slight political preparation, our wholly inadequate internationalist communications — can succeed. It is probable that exterminism will reach its historical destination.

The Direction of Hell

I have been reading Arguments within English Marxism, and, leaving aside local disagreements and assents, have been puzzling over an ulterior difference of stance which neither I nor Perry Anderson have exactly defined. Which difference I will try to identify, in response to Anderson's invitation "to explore new problems together" — even though this problem is an old one. It is, absurdly, one of generational experience.

My generation were witnesses, and petty actors, in the actual moment of the congealment of the Cold War, and the fracture of power across Europe. That fracture (enlarging the fracture of the 1920s and 1930s) has always seemed to me to be the locus of the field-of-force whose polar antagonisms generate exterminism.

The second generation of the New Left, who have conducted the NLR so long and so tenaciously, arrived on the scene when the Cold War had already congealed, and its ideological imperative had become a habit. At some point around 1960, Khruschev's erratic pursuit of detente together (I would argue) with the growth of CND-type peace movements in the West had offered a check to the exterminist thrust, had forced it to disguise its operations and to modify its aggressive vocabulary. Nuclear war (it was agreed on all sides) was "unthinkable."

But at the same time, on the periphery (and South-East Asia was then still on the periphery) a new mobility of national liberation and revolutionary movements was in evidence, which met with a savage Western response. The new generation of the Left was quick to identify this whole opening field of struggle: expert in attention to it, and eloquent in theoretical solidarity with anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In all this they were right. But in the same moment preoccupation faded with the central emplacements of power: and it came to seem (wrongly) that confrontation between the two blocs originated at the periphery, and was carried only thence to the centre, so that its thrust and dynamics could be simply explained with the categories of imperialist thrust and anti-imperialist resistance. The role of western socialists became, more and more, to be that of observers and analysts of that external confrontation.

To my generation, which had witnessed the first annunciation of exterminist technology at Hiroshima, its perfection in the hydrogen bomb, and the inconceivably absolute ideological fracture of the first Cold War (the Rajk and Rosenberg trials, the Cominform anathema upon Yugoslavia, McCarthyism and the advocacy of "preventive war," the Berlin air-lift and the Berlin wall), this never seemed so. We had become, at a deep place in our consciousness, habituated to the expectation that the very continuation of civilization was problematic.

This expectation did not arise instantaneously with the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. But I can, in my own case, document it fairly exactly. In 1950 I wrote a long poem, "The Place Called Choice," which turned upon this expectation. The central section of the poem concluded thus:

. . . Spawn of that fungus settling on every city, On the walls, the cathedrals, climbing the keening smoke-stacks, Drifting on every still, waiting there to germinate: To hollow our house as white as an abstract skull.

Already the windows are shut, the children hailed indoors. We wait together in the unnatural darkness While that god forms outside in the shape of a mushroom With vast blood-wrinkled spoor on the windswept snow.

And now it leans over us, misting the panes with its breath, Sucking our house back into vacuous matter, Helmeted and beaked, clashing its great scales, Claws scratching on the slates, looking in with bleak stone eyes.

Such an apocalyptic expectation, which has never left me, is no doubt discreditable. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whom I greatly respect, has recently chided the futurologists of doom, the "negative utopians"; "the world has certainly not come to an end . . . and so far no conclusive proof has reached me that an event of this kind is going to take place at any clearly ascertainable point in time." And, of course, it would be worse, far worse, than an apocalypse for one to make oneself intellectually ridiculous. I would only too gladly read the arguments which show, conclusively, that my analysis of the gathering determinism of exterminist process is wrong.

Yet the arguments have substance, and the technology of the apocalypse exists. Nor have all apocalyptic visions in this century always been wrong. Few of those who prophesied World War I prophesied the devastating sum of the actual event; no one envisaged the full ferocity of World War II. And the apocalyptic prophets of World War III do not match the kind of persons we encounter in our social history: eccentric vicars, zealous artisan sectarians conning Revelation, trance-struck serving-maids. Some emerge, with strategic war-plans in their hands, from the weapons-system complex itself. Sakharov, Mountbatten, Admiral la Rocque, Zuckerman. It was not Joanna Southcott who summoned the first Pugwash Conference, but Einstein and Russell. It was not Thomas Tany but Robert Oppenheimer who said, in 1947, "the world is moving in the direction of hell with a high velocity, a positive acceleration and probably a positive rate of change of acceleration."

We should, even in the matter of apocalypse, be a little exact. An exterminist climax might be aborted by a "limited" local nuclear war (China, Africa, the Persian Gulf) whose consequences were so terrible that these frightened even the exterminists, and called up a new global wave of resistance. And even outright exterminist collision, with the full repertory of ICBMs, in the Northern hemisphere would not necessarily extinguish all mammalian life, unless the globe's ozone layer was irreparably punctured.

What this would destroy would be Northern civilization and its economic and societal life-support systems. The survivors (one might suppose) would then be exposed to waves of plague and famine; great cities would be abandoned to rats and to rattish genetic mutants. People would scatter to uncontaminated lands, attempting to re-invent a sparse economy of subsistence, carrying with them a heavy inheritance of genetic damage. There would be banditry: fortified farmsteads, fortified monasteries, fortified communes; and a proliferation of strange cults. Eventually there might be the re-emergence of petty city states, nudging towards new trade and new wars. Or this scenario could be all wrong. Advanced economies might survive, relatively undamaged, in the Southern hemisphere: Australia, Argentina, South Africa. After an interval for stench and plague to die down, these might come back, with their muskets, to colonize the European tribes: perhaps to fight over the spoils: perhaps to establish one superpower's world dominion.

I do not mean the extermination of all life. I mean only the extermination of our civilization. A balance-sheet of the last two millennia would be drawn, in every field of endeavour and of culture, and a minus sign be placed before each total.

Our Opportunity

If one has come to live with this expectation, then it must modify, in profound and subtle ways, one's whole political stance. Class struggle continues, in many forms, across the globe. But exterminism itself is not a "class issue": it is a human issue. Certain kinds of "revolutionary" posturing and rhetoric, which inflame exterminist ideology and which carry divisions into the necessary alliances of human resistance, are luxuries which we can do without.

There are contradictions within this gathering determinism, and countervailing forces in both blocs, as to which I have said, in these notes, very little. It remains to indicate what an anti-extremist configuration of forces might look like, and what its strategy might be, if it were to stand any hope of success.

First, it would have to mobilize itself with great rapidity, since we are already within the shadow of collision. Prophecies are arbitrary: but the successful emplacement of cruise missiles on West European territories in 1983 might signal a point-of-no-return.

Second, the fracture through the heart of Europe remains the central locus of the opposed exterminist thrusts, although the second fracture in Asia (with the unpredictable presence of China) is growing in significance. Hence European Nuclear Disarmament is not a strategy for opting out of global confrontation. It strikes directly at that confrontation, by initiating a counter-thrust, a logic of process leading towards the dissolution of both blocs, the demystification of exterminism's ideological mythology, and thence permitting nations in both Eastern and Western Europe to resume autonomy and political mobility. Neutralism or non-alignment in any part of the globe are not, or are not necessarily, isolationist or "pacifist" options: they are active interventions against exterminism's determinist pressures.

Third, this configuration must, as a matter of course, forge alliances with existing anti-imperialist and national liberation movements in every part of the world. At the same time, by strengthening the politics of non-alignment, it will develop a counter-force to the increasing militarization, in Africa and Asia, of post-revolutionary states.

Fourth — and this may be the most critical and decisive point — it must engage in delicate and non-provocative work to form alliances between the peace movement in the West and constructive elements in the Communist world (in the Soviet Union and East Europe) which confront the exterminist structures and ideology of their own nations.

This is of necessity; and without such internationalist alliances which reach across the fracture we will not succeed. The exterminist thrust (we have seen) summons up and augments the thrust of its exterminist antagonist. The counter-thrust cannot come from the other, but only from within the resistance of peoples inside each bloc. But so long as this resistance is confined within its own bloc, it may inhibit the thrust to war but cannot finally impose alternative directions. So long as each bloc's resistance movement can be categorized as the "ally" of the other, exterminism (with its powerful bases in the weapons-systems-and-support-complex) will be able to police its own territory, reassert ideological control, and, eventually, resume its thrust.

Hence only the regeneration of internationalism can possibly summon up a force sufficient to the need. This internationalism must be consciously anti-exterminist: it must confront the ideological imperatives of both blocs: it must embody, in its thought, in its exchanges, in its gestures, and in its symbolic expressions, the imperatives of human ecological survival. Such a movement cannot be mediated by official or quasi-official spokespersons of either bloc. (This fact was signalled by those Eurocommunist parties which refused their attendance at the Paris conference in April.) The strategy of Stockholm Peace Appeals and of the World Peace Council is as dead as the strategy (prising open Soviet civil rights by means of US Senate resolutions) of the exile at Gorky.

Internationalism today demands unequivocal rejection of the ideology of both blocs. The rising movement in Western Europe against NATO "modernization" must exact a real price from the Soviet ideologists and military managers, in the opening of Eastern Europe to genuine exchanges and to participation in the common internationalist discourse. This must not be a hidden tactic but an open and principled strategy. This may be a most critical point in the dissolution of the exterminist field-of-force. It will be contested with equal ferocity by the ideologists of NATO and by the Communist bureaucracy and police. It will require symbolic manifestations and a stubborn internationalist morale. And it will bring friends into danger.

Finally, it should go without saying that exterminism can only be confronted by the broadest possible popular alliance: that is, by every affirmative resource in our culture. Secondary differences must be subordinated to the human ecological imperative. The immobilism sometimes found on the Marxist Left is founded on a great error: that theoretical rigour, or throwing oneself into a "revolutionary" posture, is the end of politics. The end of politics is to act, and to act with effect. Those voices which pipe, in shrill tones of militancy, that "the Bomb" (which they have not looked behind) is "a class question"; that we must get back to the dramas of confrontation and spurn the contamination of Christians, neutralists, pacifists and other class enemies-these voices are only a falsetto descant in the choir of exterminism. Only an alliance which takes in churches, EuroCommunists, Labourists, East European dissidents (and not only "dissidents"), Soviet citizens unmediated by Party structures, trade unionists, ecologists — only this can possibly muster the force and the internationalist elan to throw the cruise missiles and the SS-20s back.

Give us victory in this, and the world begins to move once more. Begin to break down that field-of-force, and the thirty-year-old impediments to European political mobility (East, South and West) begin to give way. Nothing will follow on easily and as a matter of course: but swing those blocs off collision-course, and the blocs themselves will begin to change. The armourers and the police will begin to lose their authority, the ideologists will lose their lines. A new space for politics will open up.

Within the threatening shadow of exterminist crisis, European Consciousness is alerted, and a moment of opportunity appears. These notes are rough, and readers will wish to amend them. I ask them also to act.


Related Books

Edited by New Left Review
$29.95$20.9630% off
376 pages / January 1987 / 9780860917465

Please allow an additional 10–12 days for this book to be dispatched. Please note that this book may ship after other items in your order.