Andrew Lichterman

(based on a talk given at a protest outside Vandenberg Air Force Base, June 5, 2010).

We are now several years in to a deep global economic and political crisis that shows no sign of abating. Those in command of the world’s political systems seem capable of doing little beyond protecting the immediate interests of privileged elements in their societies. At the same time, the familiar forms of oppositional activity seem spent, unable to pose a coherent and convincing alternative to the current order of things. Movements for peace and for a society that is more fair economically and sustainable ecologically can be found everywhere, but often are fragmented by specialization or particularized grievances and mired in habitual forms of thought and action. It is essential that all of us in these movements try to develop a broader understanding of this time and its challenges, starting from our particular work and location in the world and sketching the connections, however tentatively, to the larger whole. This will be one such sketch, with its starting point in disarmament work in the heartland of the U.S. aerospace-military-industrial complex in California.

Disarmament “progress” in the United States: rhetoric vs. reality

Last month in New York, the states that are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty met to review the status of the treaty and the performance of its parties, a review that occurs every five years. After opening the conference with general endorsements of the concept of nuclear disarmament, the United States (together with other nuclear weapons states) spent the remainder of the month doing its best to weaken or eliminate language in drafts of the Review Conference final document that would impose any substantive disarmament obligations on the nuclear weapons states, such as time limits or definite commitments to negotiate a convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile in Washington D.C., the Obama administration proposals for increases in nuclear weapons spending were moving through Congress, the only significant opposition coming from those who claim that the budget increases are too small.We now have a flurry of elite rhetorical enthusiasm for disarmament, and much celebration of a U.S.-Russia treaty that will have little effect on the thousands of nuclear weapons they currently deploy, and even those requirements aren’t mandatory until 2017. But a few hundred nuclear weapons can destroy any country on earth, and a thousand are more could have effects that destroy much of the world’s civilization, killing a significant portion of its inhabitants.

And in this year’s budget request, the Obama administration, if anything, seems determined to outflank its Congressional critics from the right, proposing a 10% increase in nuclear warhead research and production funding and further increases for future years. And that’s just the Department of Energy budget. The Defense Department budget also has sizable increases for nuclear weapons and delivery systems. In evaluating the level of commitment to disarmament of this administration, it might be wise to remember the observation repeated by several economists of the last century, that “the budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.”

In early June I spoke at a protest at the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base, a vast installation sprawling for miles along the southern California coast. Unlike the rest of the U.S. economy, Vandenberg is thriving, playing key roles in both the present and the future of this country’s war cycle, fighting endless wars in the present while striving endlessly for dominance in all imaginable wars to come. Vandenberg represents a kind of microcosm both of the gigantic U.S. military machine and of the upper echelons of U.S. society, tending ever more towards a perpetual exercise in maintaining power over others through violence while hiding behind layers of gates, guards, and guns.

The United States is continuing a broad effort aimed at developing new generations of strategic weapons and refining the techniques for using them, spending far more on high-tech weapons than any other country. This effort today includes upgrading existing intercontinental ballistic missiles and planning for work on next generation long-range missiles. For decades, Vandenberg Air Force Base has tested new generations of long range missiles, and continues to flight test those now operational.

Vandenberg is both a test range and one of the first two deployment sites for mid-course ballistic missile defense interceptors. And just a few weeks ago, the Air Force launched a Hypersonic Technology Vehicle from Vandenberg aimed at a target area at Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific. That test was part of a program to develop a new generation of maneuverable gliding delivery vehicles that will be able to hit targets anywhere on earth within an hour or two. If deployed, these systems are intended to carry highly accurate non-nuclear payloads, permitting destruction by missile at global ranges with non-nuclear weapons for the first time. And one of the sites being considered for deployment is Vandenberg Air Force Base, supposedly to avoid confusion with the launch of nuclear-armed missiles from their bases in the Midwest.

Vandenberg is where the present and future of U.S. war making comes together. Many of the military satellites used for surveillance, to target weapons and to provide communications for current U.S. wars are launched here. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg does day to day planning of missions for the positioning and use of military satellites in those ongoing wars.

According to a Vandenberg Air Force Base fact sheet,

“The Joint Space Operations Center… is a synergistic command and control weapon system focused on planning and executing USSTRATCOM’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space… mission. The purpose of the JSpOC is to provide a focal point for the operational employment of worldwide joint space forces, and enables the Commander, [Joint Functional Component Command for Space] to integrate space power into global military operations.”

It is this globe-girdling network of command centers and satellites that allows young Americans sitting at an air force base in Nevada, looking at a screen and manipulating buttons and joy sticks, to use pilotless drone aircraft to kill people on the other side of the world with no more risk, and little more existential engagement, than if they were playing a video game.

The Obama military budget also includes a ramp up of funding over the next five years for the “prompt global strike” weapons recently tested at Vandenberg. It should be noted that there are nothing but paper policy restrictions preventing the United States from using these new delivery systems technologies for nuclear weapons. Even in its conventional version, global strike underscores the aggressive global stance of the US military and its determination to maintain global military dominance, further complicating arms control efforts. It is also noteworthy that the launch vehicle used for the test was made from parts of MX missiles, nuclear-armed ICBMs decommissioned as a result of a prior round of arms agreements, another illustration of the ambiguities of current approaches to arms control.

Beyond single issue politics: understanding the connections

After decades in disarmament work, I have come to believe that disarmament initiatives unaccompanied by strong social movements for democracy, global economic equity, and a more ecologically sustainable way of life are highly unlikely to create the political conditions in which significant progress towards disarmament can occur. For those of us who work on disarmament, our goal must be to better understand what part disarmament work can play in these broader movements for fundamental social change.

We need a way of looking at the world as it now is. Our approach must acknowledge the obstacles as well as the opportunities involved in transforming the global economy and our societies if they are to become ecologically sustainable, democratic, and peaceful.

A significant part of this approach is a better understanding of the political nature of technology choices. We live in a world dominated by immense organizations that deploy particular combinations of advanced technology, bureaucratic technique, and ideology. These organizations are instrumentally rationalized both within and without. They are largely authoritarian in internal structure, and deal with the world around them instrumentally–as an environment to be controlled to the maximum extent possible in order to achieve their goals.

The main goal of these organizations is to extract a privileged wealth stream for their upper echelon inhabitants from the rest of an increasingly globalized economy. They also form alliances, many of them long–running, to do so. The “military industrial complex” was only the first of these to be recognized.

The legal character of these organizations varies from place to place, with the public/private boundary and the powers of large private organizations defined differently in different countries. But similar kinds of organizations–by which I mean organizations deploying similar sets of technology, bureaucratic technique, and ideology–in significant ways behave alike whether defined as “public” or “private.”

Technologies are not chosen solely because they “work” better in some abstract sense, or even because they are somehow “cheaper” in some fundamental sense related to the organization of the physical world, for example in terms of their thermodynamic efficiency. They are chosen because they work well in combination with other aspects of modern large organization techniques to gain and sustain wealth and power for those in the upper echelons of the immense organizations that dominate every aspect of global economic and political life today.

The upper level inhabitants of these organizations constitute roughly a fifth of the world’s population, and the divide between them and the rest is growing, as that top fifth and its predatory organizations insatiably seize, consume, and degrade the land, resources, and ecosystems that all depend on.

This split, I believe, is the defining political fact of our time. It limits society’s potential for adaptation to resource and ecological limits and drives the growing chaos and conflict that the dominant constellations of large organizations meet only with more militarized high–tech “security.” And providing this security at every level from executive protection to high performance strike aircraft to ever more accurate long range missiles has become one of the most dependable strategies for organizational growth and profit everywhere.

It is all of this we must understand and confront. Nuclear weapons are only a leading instance, their vivid irrationality both exemplar and metaphor for the whole.

Beyond balance sheet economics and politics: neither we nor the world are for sale

In August of 1967 Martin Luther King said,

“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them–make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.”[1]

King understood that slavery was an expression of the social system that was and is the Western style of modernity. And he was telling us that one of its fundamental characteristics–the treating of human beings as objects, as things to be bought, sold, and profited from–was deeply rooted, and is with us still. Equally important is the same system’s reduction of the natural world to an array of things to be manipulated and controlled, seen as nothing more than a source of resource inputs and profit.

Ultimately, it is these two fundamental characteristics of the economic and political system that has come to dominate the planet that we must overcome.

These goals may seem huge and abstract, and also utterly impractical where the immense institutions of power and profit-seeking instrumentalism dominate every aspect of the political, economic, and cultural landscape. Yet we must do what we can to seek real change, even when what we can do seems awfully small.But at the same time, we are told over and over by political and NGO professionals that we must seek only incremental change, only what is “practical” and “achievable.”

So what are our guideposts? How can we tell if the incremental steps offered us by our professional and political classes even are moving in the right direction?

In that same address, King also said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

I believe that this was, and is, less a description than a prescription. Only we can be the vehicle of that justice, only we can bend that arc.

The measure of the incremental steps we are offered by our political classes today must be how much they move us in the direction of a more just world.

Unfortunately we’re not seeing much movement towards fairness and justice, on disarmament or climate change or anything else. Instead we see the further entrenchment of a political and economic order that treats both people and nature like things, as profit centers to be exploited. We are seeing what should be opportunities for reform used to mask the further consolidation of power by the most powerful institutions.

Here in the United States, an opportunity for health care reform turned into a mandate that will force Americans to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to a health insurance industry whose financial interests are served by providing as little health care as possible. The clear need for an energy system transformed to prevent catastrophic climate change and to replace diminishing fossil fuels has instead been turned into a veritable Christmas tree for existing energy interests, from coal to oil to nuclear power, with a small fig leaf of subsidies for renewable energy alternatives thrown in.

As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico from a well drilled by an industry that has successfully socialized much of its risks through liability limits for the damage it causes, the administration pushes forward with an energy plan that will encourage more offshore drilling, and that will subsidize a nuclear energy industry that also enjoys limits on its liability that are a tiny fraction of the damage that a serious accident would cause. But of course we are told that serious nuclear accidents, like massive deep sea oil blowouts, are far too unlikely to worry about.

And the much touted new START treaty, advertised as the first step on the path towards disarmament, will have a still–unknown cost, equal to whatever the powerful advocates of the nuclear weapons complex can extort. The Obama administration already has made a down payment that will postpone meaningful movement towards disarmament for a decade or more, promising to spend at least $180 billion over the next ten years to sustain and modernize US nuclear forces and the vast array of laboratories and factories that build and maintain them.

In early March, I joined thousands of people in California and around the United States, protesting rising tuitions at public universities and colleges and cuts in services at all levels of public education. Professors and students, school teachers, parents, and bus drivers organized rallies and marches large and small all across the state.The day was full of a sense that people are ready for greater change, and to take more action to get it.

Speaker after speaker called for ending California’s undemocratic supermajority requirements for budget and tax legislation, and for progressive taxation of corporations and the wealthy to reverse the steady flow of wealth upward that has been a defining feature of US economic and political life for the last three decades. There were signs everywhere with messages like “Fund Schools, Not War!”

Whether or not it will develop into one, the wave of actions rippling out from the public university protests have some of the makings of a social movement. There was a sense of urgency, grounded in an understanding of how the issues affected each of us–and all of us–directly. People from different segments of society–not only students but relatively privileged university professors and the people who maintain the classrooms and laboratories they depend on, public school teachers and parents who both are burdened by a regressive tax system and need public institutions to educate their children–were starting to have a conversation directly with each other, and coming to realize that the growing crisis in institutions they all depend on in different ways has deeper causes, and may require significant social change if there are to be solutions that work for all.

Nuclear disarmament work today stands in sharp contrast to energetic new movements brimming with potential–and also stands largely apart from them. Most people don’t think about nuclear weapons from one end of the year to another, and don’t perceive nuclear weapons as constituting a concrete threat to themselves or the people and places they love. Most of the grassroots disarmament organizations are gone. For most arms control and disarmament professionals, the notion of building a social movement, and beyond that a movement that addresses not only the causes of war and entrenched militarism, but that builds a common understanding of the causes of the injustices that afflict most of humanity, has largely receded into the past. Yet if nuclear disarmament work is to avoid irrelevance, much less make genuine progress in these turbulent times, the first priority must be helping to build movements looking for new ways towards justice, and by doing so saving our world.

Beyond expert rationales for the current order of things: restoring our divided consciousness

In 1930, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Robert Millikan wrote that “One may sleep in peace with the consciousness that the Creator has put some foolproof elements into his handiwork, and that man is powerless to do it any titanic damage.”

This statement, by one who was a leading “expert” in his time, has been proven false not only by nuclear weapons, but by the devastating ecological effects of endless accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and today by the growing ability of human beings to manipulate the most basic building blocks of the natural world itself.These threats to our future are manifestations of a global society in which most resources and most of the earth itself is controlled by a tiny minority, with the choices which affect us all dressed up as inevitable and necessary by experts who work in their service.

A common theme in all of these issues is that decisions are made at a great remove, both socially and geographically, from the places where the human and ecological impacts are felt. One of the great paradoxes of our time is that in a society that depends on the systematic analysis of cause and effect in order to control both nature and human beings, one of the main strategies for maintaining wealth and power is avoiding responsibility, whether moral or financial, for the effects of one’s actions. From the limits on liability for the BP blowout to the socialization of wealthy bankers and investors’ risk by the bank bailout to the endless PR spin employed to absolve every act of malfeasance by the powerful to the soldier fighting a push–button war, killing people he will never truly see, we have created a world that has systematically separated cause and effect. By doing so we have largely destroyed our collective moral consciousness.

It is this same eliding of consequences that allows us, through our most powerful institutions, to prepare every day for our own annihilation, an end that becomes more likely the longer we allow it to go on.

This separation of cause and effect also intensifies a phenomenon which is central to the modern order of things: the way people who work in large organizations split their consciousness, focusing only on the task at hand and on the use of their technical or professional skills, leaving at the door all other pieces of their humanity, the fact that they are mothers or fathers or sons or daughters or creatures with living bodies in a living world.

This state of affairs constitutes both a challenge and an opportunity for nonviolent thought and political action. We need to find creative ways to bring this splitting to light, and make it difficult to sustain. By doing so, we may transform not only our opponents in a particular conflict, but ourselves as well. We too have been raised in this system, and fall back easily into our own ingrained training and habits, even if we are doing what we think of as work for social change.

Our task is to build a politics that can give voice and decision making power to all those who affected by the decisions of the huge organizations that now dominate our lives, and by doing so democratize the economy, and with it decisions about technology choice. We need to build a social movement that brings these themes together, starting with people where they live, from the bottom up.


1. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., The Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, August 16, 1967

2. Robert Millikan (Nobel 1923), “Alleged Sins of Science,” in Scribner’s Magazine, 87(2), 1930, pp. 119-30, quoted in Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 534.