Andrew Lichterman

“Immediately the spirit of exploitation is gone armaments will be felt as a positively unbearable burden. Real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit each other.” Gandhi, Harijan, November 12, 1938, quoted in Louis Fischer, ed., The Essential Gandhi, (Random House: New York, 1962), p.326.

Over the last couple of months I have had several conversations regarding conversion of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities to peaceful uses. Many disarmament advocates who live in communities that have nuclear weapons facilities, seeking to disarm some of the opposition to disarmament, push for conversion of their local plants or laboratories rather than their closure.

I do not believe that the institutions and facilities of the nuclear weapons complex can be converted to uses that are peaceable, ecologically sustainable, and that are part of an economy and society with a fair distribution of wealth and power. I do believe that the economy as a whole must be converted to a different path if humanity is going to survive much longer. I also wouldn’t hold out much hope for developing a plan for conversion that is compatible with a world that is both more peaceful and more fair that would be acceptable to the people in the upper echelons of the nuclear weapons establishment. These are very privileged people, and will not let go of their privileged place easily. There is no plan that is for the good of all that also preserves their privilege. This is a circle that simply cannot be squared.

There are some practical reasons why much of the nuclear weapons complex can not be converted for civilian uses. Many nuclear weapons research and production facilities are not much like World War Two weapons production plants, plants designed for assembly lines with infrastructure using general use industrial inputs (e.g. various kinds of rolled and cast metal) supported by arrays of people with generally applicable industrial skills (large numbers of assembly line workers, machine tool operators and manufacturers of machine tools, etc.) Much of the nuclear weapons complex physical infrastructure is designed for the demands of handling significant quantities of very dangerous materials little used in civilian activities, and hence have high fixed costs that could not be sustained with most forms of civilian enterprise. Many of the experimental facilities also are crafted to the particular demands of weapons research (or, in some cases, highly inflated versions of those demands), and also would not have useful roles in the civilian economy that could come close to justifying either the cost of the facilities or of the cadre of specialized people who conduct experiments, maintain the facilities, and analyze the data. Maintaining such facilities and the institutions around them (which are large enough to constitute significant concentrations of economic and political power) tends to generate demand for their services, which in turn can influence the path of technology development. I don’t see the suite of facilities and research capacities within the nuclear weapons establishment as having a very useful place on the (quite different) technology development path I believe we should be on. And I see the dangers presented by these institutions as economically and politically powerful organizations as outweighing whatever marginal usefulness they may have for technology development along a more ecologically sustainable, fair, and democratic path.

The issues around conversion of the nuclear weapons complex also are distorted, I believe, by the very successful efforts of the nuclear weapons establishment to portray themselves as all-purpose purveyors of Science, the “crown jewels” of the national science and technology establishment. This is compounded by a tendency across the political spectrum, even today, to view the development of science and technology as a politically neutral process. This has tended to suppress critical analysis even of the extent to which the very particular set of institutional capacities the institutions of the nuclear weapons complex possess would really be useful for civilian purposes, much less for an alternative development path that moves away from nuclear energy and in general towards forms of energy, transportation, and production infrastructure that are more decentralized and varied, adapted once more to ecological context rather than to the purposes of immense organizations with globalized supply chains driven by the goal of endless accumulation of wealth.

The main way that people in complex modern societies today extract a privileged wealth stream is through their positions in large, powerful organizations that deploy various combinations of advanced technology, bureaucratic technique, and ideology. The constellation of organizations that constitute the nuclear weapons complex sits close to the apex of global power and privilege, and the upper echelon inhabitants of those organizations are quite determined to hold on to what they have. Nuclear weapons establishments, in fact, are preeminent manifestations of how far those in power will go to preserve it–they will play dice with all humanity, even all life on earth. The nature of the institutions ultimately can not be separated from the purposes and practices that have shaped them since their inception. Born in secrecy and sequestered throughout their existence within the least accountable sector of American government, the nuclear weapons laboratories and the broader nuclear weapons complex have become powerful institutions in their own right. They have done so by using all the tools that the powerful have developed in this society for staving off democracy–control of information and technologies, propaganda, and alliances with other huge organizations in common strategies aimed at extracting a steady and expanding stream of wealth from the rest of the economy. There is no way to provide the upper level denizens of the nuclear weapons establishment–the scientists and engineers, the technocrats, bureaucrats, and propagandists–with some other pursuit that gives them a similarly “rewarding” position in society, unless we can come up with some other set of “missions” that can assure them of an equally comfortable, secure, and largely unaccountable place in the upper few percent of a national and global economy characterized by stark disparities in wealth. And why should we want to do that?

It should not be forgotten that we essentially had this conversation about conversion with the weapons labs during the nineties, when they believed their budgets and position to be under considerably more of a threat, and the power balance arguably was far more propitious for some kind of real change. From where I was sitting (which was fairly close and paying attention), it appeared that the upper echelons of the nuclear weapons complex hierarchy made a self-conscious decision to re-commit themselves to the nuclear weapons road, which they believed (quite likely correctly) represented the only way that they could assure anything like the institutional position–and the steady stream of tax-funded wealth–that they long had grown used to, and that they considered their due.

Consider the following thought experiment: What would your response be if someone suggested that conversion of Goldman Sachs should be high up on our agenda? Strip away the institutional goals of endless accumulation of wealth and power, and all you have left is some computers, a bunch of really fancy office furniture, and maybe some people who are pretty good at math. From the viewpoint of the vast majority of the inhabitants of planet Earth, the breakup productive value of Goldman Sachs is close to zero. But its social impact on most of us as a going concern is far in the negative and growing. When you read in the paper that an investment bank has imploded and that hundreds or thousands have lost their jobs, do you feel it an imperative, high priority part of a political program you would support to find a new mission for the dead bank, or to find exciting, high–paying work for unemployed brokers before their bonuses run out so they can sustain their current lifestyles? Now try thinking about the nuclear weapons establishment from this perspective. What result do you reach?

So I think phase out and closure is the truly realistic way to go. Approaches like “diversifying the weapons labs” so far have resulted in a green fig leaf or two for the status quo, and I see little reason to believe they can accomplish much more than that–while helping the labs in the near term cross-subsidize expensive facilities mainly devoted to weapons work by drawing funds from civilian science and technology budget lines. The upper echelon employees of the nuclear weapons establishment have enough skills to get by one way or another. Rather than trying to figure out how to preserve their privileged income stream, we should be devoting our efforts to assuring the basics of life–food, housing, education, health care, and meaningful work–for all those denied it due to the privilege of those who work at places like Goldman Sachs–and places like the nuclear weapons complex. Buyouts and benefits for those at the bottom of the hierarchy who really might be in need if their nuclear weapons jobs end makes more sense to me, but ultimately they deserve the same access to the minimum requisites of a dignified life as the rest of us–no more, no less.

I sympathize with those who live in communities with operating military nuclear facilities. It means that it is harder politically on a day to day basis to make the arguments that need to be made–but it doesn’t change the nature of the necessary arguments. The nuclear weapons complex, and the larger military-industrial complex, are constellations of organizations high up in the structure of privilege in this country, and even more so globally. Moving away from an economy and society in which these organizations hold great economic and political power unavoidably will result in painful transitions. This may mean that some communities need external help in moving to a different, more sustainable and fair development path. But no one should ask for more than that the risks and burden of these transitions be fairly shared across society–which may mean that some communities that depend on privileged institutions will have to adjust their expectations downward, because they have been deriving the benefits of great privilege, directly or indirectly, for a very long time. I would note, however, that those benefits seldom have been equitably distributed, and regions with high concentrations of military spending also often have very sharp disparities of wealth and general level of social well-being. Hence I suspect that even in such areas the problem is more the disproportionate political power and influence of the inhabitants of the top tiers of the economy who benefit most than the shared interests of the population as a whole. If supposedly progressive groups in communities with nuclear weapons facilities say “yes, a peaceful and ecologically sustainable path is what we want, but not until we find a way to continue the existing local structures of income and privilege generated by our local weapons plant,” we will get nowhere–in fact worse than nowhere, we will continue on the path to the abyss. And the disarmament movement, such as it is, will fail to attract people who really favor a more economically fair, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful world, and who one way or another understand this to be true.