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Recent and Early Concerns for Banning the Bomb: Günther Anders and the Actuality of his Philosophical Anthropology

On July 7, 2017, the UN adopted the treaty to ban nuclear weapons. A majority of states has voted in favor of eliminating and banning those weapons because of their devastating effects on human health and the environment. Even though the pathway towards their actual abolition may be another arduous task, this development surely marks a significant step in delegitimizing nuclear arms. It thus highlights a long awaited result of continuous and concerted efforts undertaken by disarmament proponents. In this article, I will discuss the gaining importance of the term ‘human security’, which is usually dated to the end of the Cold War and often said to be too vague a concept for addressing security issues in politics effectively. Instead, I will argue that the concern for human security has accompanied nuclear history from its beginning. Not only have the development of nuclear weapons and the atrocious bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki initiated a new kind of peace movement, but also lastingly influenced reflection and debate on science and technology and thus also the philosophy of technology. I will provide insights in the works of an early representative and co-founder of the anti-nuclear movement: Austrian philosopher Günther Anders (1902-1992), who has dedicated large parts of his life and writings to the engagement of nuclear disarmament. By relating the human condition to technology and to nuclear arms in particular, he left us thoughtful scientific views on our ‘nuclear condition’, which proved to be still relevant today.

According to Matthew Bolton, the adoption of the treaty to ban nuclear weapons indicates the “most significant shift in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War and a policy victory to human security.” (Bolton, 2017) However, other scientists and experts have raised doubts and expressed various concerns about the treaty’s text, for example, about how safeguards problems are addressed (Carlson, 2017), or about the treaty’s relationship to other treaties. Also, suggestions have been made that the treaty’s final text should enhance its HS dimension and incorporate references to human rights and environmental law (Bolton, 2017).

After the end of the Cold War new security concepts have emerged and the field of security politics has widened its focus and gradually incorporated other topics than military ones as well as other objects of reference than the state like the economy, ecology, and humanity, juxtaposing and challenging the realist approach. On the one hand, these processes are to be understood as effect and as cause of political change and thus, history. On the other hand, a problem can only become a matter of security policy, if it is successfully established in security discourse (Daase, 2010). Hence, civil society plays a crucial role in exerting influence through repeatedly expressing concerns about the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humans (respectively living beings) and the environment. I will argue, that the beginning of the post-Cold War era allowed for a change in security discourse that gradually altered discursive formations and thus power relations ascribed to statements made. With respect to human security, this change opened a discursive space which also offers to shed new light on already existing knowledge referring to the relationship between the human condition and nuclear weapons.

An early and often cited statement of human security was given in the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called the Human Development Report in 1994. It argues: “The concept of security has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interest in foreign policy […] Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives” (HDR, S. 22). The report goes on to define two aspects of human security: “It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life” (S. 23). These also include freedom from unemployment, crime, social conflict, political repression and environmental hazards (S. 22). This definition is so broad that some have argued it has lost purchase by addressing virtually “any kind of unexpected or irregular discomfort” (Paris, 2001, 89). Nevertheless, it offers guiding traditional principles including of “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” (S. 3), and thus also freedom from violence, that reorient the search for human security toward development, not arms” (S. 1).

Reorienting security around development had an impact on other and older concepts like Humanitarian Arms Control or, used synonymously, humanitarian disarmament. Humanitarian arms control focusses on the mitigation of human suffering caused by different types of weapons. Its objective is to prohibit or to constrain use of weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and military personal, that create unnecessary suffering and that have lasting effects beyond the war.  The Legal Framework of humanitarian disarmament is humanitarian law which aims at preserving the maximum of humanity possible in times of war, limiting the choice of weapons, and legitimating only the weakening of the military of the enemy (Brehm, 2017). In political practice, the efforts of humanitarian arms control have met some notable successes like the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which both reinforce the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Furthermore, especially Canada and Norway have tried to incorporate the humanitarian approach in their foreign policy initiatives that have led to the Ottawa Process, culminating in the adoption of the 1997 Anti-personnel Mine Ban Treaty and the Oslo Process, culminating in the adoption of the 2008 Convention of Cluster Munitions. It also applies to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which refers explicitly to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons” and states that existence and any use of nuclear weapons, either inadvertently or on purpose, pose “risks [that, AR] concern the security of all humanity” (TPNW, Preamble). Subsequently, aspects are listed that were already mentioned in the Human Development Report: “human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.” What is also referred to in the preamble is the “the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha) as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons” (Ibd.). The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was preceded by three conferences in Oslo (2010), Nayarit (2013) and Vienna (2014) culminating in the Austrian or Humanitarian Pledge “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” (2014) which led to opening negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Humanitarian arms control changes the security discourse of arms control away from stability and towards human security. It has been argued that this change affects the politics of multilateral arms control: it empowers smaller powers like NNWS to build new coalitions and exert leadership, it reinforces the UN General Assembly to sanction new agendas, forward new negotiation formats, but also to adopt new treaties and, particularly significant, it enhances the role of civil society and NGOs that are more active and have more access to negotiations and hence, exert more influence. (Brehm, 2017)

Again I would like to stress, that a reframing of the nuclear order was initiated by switching the reference object from the state to the individual, which in turn was made possible by the changing political situation after the Cold War. Thus, security discourse has changed and with it the rules of its discursive formations of what can be said and what is accepted as truth, as norm or else as deviation. In the history of nuclear technology, concerns about the unparalleled destructive force of nuclear weapons have been voiced from the beginning by physicists, scientists, the anti-nuclear movement and the public, but with state-centered security as dominant security concept could easily be overheard and dismissed as left-wing weirdness. With the transformation of security thinking towards humanitarian approaches, things change, and accumulated expertise can now develop new momentum.

Thus it is worth revisiting the work of philosopher Günther Stern alias Anders (1902-1992), who dedicated large parts of his own life and writings to disarmament and to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

In Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Outdatedness of Human Beings), published in 1956, he relates his philosophical anthropology to the conditions, human life is exposed to in the nuclear age. His thought on the human condition can thus be seen as the thematic basis and central issue for his later work, which he defines as “philosophical anthropology in the age of technocracy” (Anders, 2002, Preface). The second volume of The Outdatedness of Human Beings was published as late as in 1980 and in the preface he excuses that delay with his activities for the anti-nuclear movement. “Indeed, the late publishing of the second volume is caused by the fact, that I found it inappropriate to deal with the apocalyptic threat only academically” (Anders, 1985, VII).

The effects nuclear weapons have on human life and how they changed the relation between humans and technology kept him occupied. In 1958 he visited Japan – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and he participated in the Fourth International Congress against A- and H-Bombs and for Disarmament in Tokio in August 1958 what he perceived as very encouraging. In 1959 he published The Man on the Bridge which is a philosophical diary of this journey. In 1959 he started a correspondence with the former Major of the US Air Forces Claude Eatherly, who was a pilot in the Hiroshima squadron. This very interesting and widely known correspondence was published in Germany in 1961 titled Off limits für das Gewissen. Der Briefwechsel Claude Eatherly Günther Anders and 1962 in English as Burning Conscience. Eatherly had shown conspicuous behavioral changes after the Hiroshima bombing and committed crimes of bizarre nature. For Anders that was the evidence that Eatherly failed to handle his participation in the Hiroshima bombing and so Eatherly came to symbolize Anders’ philosophical thesis of the so called Promethean Disparity, which means that we are able to produce weapons with effects, which neither can be imagined nor handled by us any longer and also the thesis of the Promethean Shame, which means that there is a mental disorder regarding the identification of the self when related to the always superior efficiency of machines, apparatuses and objects. (Anders, 1985, 23ff.)

Following Dries’ explanations on Anders’ anthropology, the human condition is characterized by a fundamental distance between the individual and the outside world. This distance becomes manifest in indeterminacy on the one hand and dependency on the other. But exactly this gap offers a space for possible action to create ethically acceptable living conditions which may help to improve human security. Instead of positing that the human individual has at his or her disposition experiences a priori because of his or her cognitive predisposition, Anders claims that the individual is dependent upon experience that he or she can only make retrospectively by creating the relationship between him- or herself and the opposite world (Dries, 2009, 24f.).

And of Anders’ utmost concern is the kind of position the individual must have in the world to be able to make these experiences. In contrast to animals which are naturally wholly in the world, human beings are ontologically within the world, but at the same time they maintain a distance to it. This condition is called “Weltfremdheit” (unworldliness). Human beings are part of the world, but also strangers in the world. Human Identity is thus not always the same but its essential nature is its lack of determinability. However, this condition also generates “Weltoffenheit” (openmindedness) or else “Freiheit” (freedom, liberty) because it opens up various options of making experiences that help overcome the distance retrospectively. We are creating a world according to our demands. To live in the world, he writes, “we have to make a world of our own, a second world. A >superstructure<” (Anders, cited in Dries, 2009, 26).

These >modern superstructures<, influences and changes individuals are faced with, mark the basis for his views on technology. And the question he raises in this context is, if humans are at all able to keep up with the superstructures, they have built up. In negating the answer he develops the above mentioned concepts of the Promethean Disparity and the Promethean Shame. The Promethean Shame, that is the failure of the self-identification, is increasing tremendously with the atomic bomb. With the atomic bomb, we are entering a new era, the nuclear age. In a kind of negative theology he stresses the destructive omnipotence of the bomb, the capacity of a “reduction ad nihil” (total annihilation) of mankind. And incapable of annulling the knowledge of its construction, we are forever at its mercy. For Anders, the bomb is an object “suis generis”. It is a monstrosity, which resists any positive definition. It is not a “mean” because its least effect exceeds any political or military end. It poses a threat not only to a constructed enemy but also to those who possess them.

With nuclear testing the atomic bomb becomes a monstrous pseudo-mean: until testing of nuclear weapons, experiments were conducted in laboratories. Now, the difference between preparation and application is annulled in that the whole world is coextensively turned into a laboratory. It becomes an irreversible historical event: what is thought of as experiment may turn into a biological emergency for current and future generations. (Anders, 1985,  258ff.) Radioactivity does not respect national boarders, milestones or curtains. (Anders, 1981,  95)

It has been suggested by Christian Dries, to take Anders’ anthropology as starting point of an ethic for the technological civilization which includes the shaping of our relationship to the environment as habitat of plants, animals, and humans. (Dries, 2009, 100) Anders’ writings may serve as elaborate and norm setting reflections, and even though some aspects may clearly be considered documents of their time, others proved to be clairvoyant to this day. Against the backdrop of human security his anthropology could serve as an obligation to take over responsibility and participate in creating conditions which serve the common good and help improve the quality of life of everybody.


Anders, G. (2002[1980]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band II. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1985[1956]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band I. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1981). Die atomare Drohung. Radikale Überlegungen. München: Beck.

Austrian Pledge (2014). Retrieved from Visited on July 2, 2017.

Bolton, M. (2017). The Nuclear Weapons Ban and Human Security for All. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Brehm, M. (2017). Humanitarian Arms Control. HSFK eLearning course EU, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Learning Unit 09. Retrieved from Visited on July 14.

Carlson, J. (2017). Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty – Serious Safeguards Problems. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Daase, C. (2010). Der erweiterte Sicherheitsbegriff. Working Paper 1|2010. Retrieved from Visited on July 11, 2017.

Dries, C. (2009). Günther Anders. Paderborn: Fink.

Paris, R. (2001). Human Security. Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? In International Security, Vol. 26. No. 2, pp. 87-102.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved from Visited on July 12, 2017.

United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report (1994). Oxford: University Press.


Annette Ripper





Policy Relevance 101: Know your audience


Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Eilene Gottemoeller

Policy relevance is a term that is thrown around in academic communities that thrive on soft money. It is what you have to figure out how to be in order to receive funding–something that fewer and fewer of us who once aspired to the Ivory Tower lifestyle can afford to ignore as even those with tenure-track jobs are asked to bring in grant money. However, what exactly being policy relevant means is not always readily apparently if you believe, as I did, that it is primarily about arguing the merits of different policy options.

When I first arrived in Washington DC a couple years ago, I had my first real conversation about what it meant to be policy relevant. As I recall, I sat down across from Jeffrey Lewis in his cramped office on K Street not sure what we would talk about. Being unsure of what you want out of a conversation in Washington can go very wrong, but with the right person it can quickly turn into a revelatory experience. At the time, Jeffrey and I were working for the same organization, but lived in very different intellectual worlds. I had only recently graduated from the University of Chicago and was still in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Jeffrey had already built his very successful blog,, where the nuke policy community debates the finer points of what the US should do about the topic du jour and the validity of the intelligence on which those decisions are being made.

In the first few moments of our conversation, it became readily apparent that what I considered policy relevant was painfully naive to a Washington insider. Jeffrey asked me to name the officials who implement US arms control and nonproliferation policy and I couldn’t name a single one. I was still holding onto the mistaken notion that being policy relevant actually meant saying something meaningful about policy. In my case that meant arguing about whether and how the system of deterrence and nonproliferation works. What I learned from Jeffrey is that the process of becoming policy relevant begins with knowing your audience.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the nominations for the top three arms control and nonproliferation positions:

The Honorable Rose Eilene Gottemoeller of Virginia, to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

Mr. Frank A. Rose of Massachusetts, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance

Mr. Adam M. Scheinman of Virginia, to be Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the Rank of Ambassador

These nominations, and the nomination for the top official, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, in particular have been tied up in partisan politics for some time. As Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, Rose Gottemoeller negotiated the New Start treaty with Russia. Not surprisingly, today she was questioned repeatedly about whether or not the Obama administration had any intention of obviating the treaty process and reducing the nuclear stockpile either in concert with the Russian, but without a formal treaty, or unilaterally. Ms. Gottemoeller repeatedly stated that the US intended to move forward with negotiating a treaty with the Russians, but that further reductions outside the treaty process were “not currently on the table.”

You can watch the hearing and read the testimony here:

There was a lot more to my conversation with Jeffrey that I will save for another post; He was in no way reducing policy relevance to the idea of influencing individual policymakers. Really his question about who holds what position was simply a rhetorical device to prove a larger point about the relationship between policy and politics. I’m still collecting answers to what it means to be policy relevant (or politically relevant, maybe?) from others in Washington. I think this is an important question for the project of nuclear philosophy and am curious what you have to say on this topic.

Is there a traumatic kernel to deterrence?

Preparing a paper for the ISA conference in San Francisco on Cyber-Deterrence, I wondered what happened to the “terror” of deterrence. Today deterrence is a merely theoretical shell expressing a rational calculus.


On Cyberdeterrence

Since the beginning of the atomic age it was immediately clear that access to this force allowed for a direct connection – a shortcut – to power. The paradox to be solved was, how nuclear weapons can be “used” and not be “used”, how they will never explode but still be useful. The answer was deterrence theory

2nd Wave Deterrence.

Deterrence theory laid out the rules how states can “use” the destructive force of the atom to play a rational game that allows them to participate in the power struggles of the new, the nuclear world order.

By representing the dilemma of nuclear deterrence with new game theoretical methods and rational choice theory which rationalized and mathematized social processes, deterrence theorists were able to fabricate a new texture of meaning for the thing, which has the capacity to disrupt this web of meaning itself, to destroy the symbolic order itself. They took seriously that the new strategy was not to use the bomb ever (explode it), and redefined the “use” of a weapon to be a threat to others.

This made nuclear weapons useful items, powerful items in the sense that their destructive force had to be translated, transferred, displaced to be useful and be used in power relationships and negotiations between states. Such, a new language – the language of nuclear deterrence – was developed and invented. Today the system of nuclear deterrence is in place allowing states to hedge the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way while still engaging in power politics.

3rd Wave.

The third wave of nuclear deterrence theory in the 1970s expressed critique on some of the assumptions of deterrence theory. The superficial question asked by third wave deterrence theory is how perception, culture and norms influence the values of a quadrant in a payoff matrix or if a utilitarian rational actor without internal dynamics and differences can be reasonably assumed. The third wave of deterrence theory laid open all the flaws in the second wave. But to consider all accessible psychological and circumstantial and norm based factors etc. also stabilized the “rational choice approach to understand actor’s strategic decision-making”. Although it “did not resolve the deficiencies it identified” and did “not replace rational deterrence theory” below the surface nuclear deterrence was made fit on an operational level to address new challenges, while still reaffirming the nuclear order.

During that process the core of what constitutes nuclear deterrence was subtly altered. Deterrence was genereralized, abstracted, augmented to apply in a topological sense to examples beyond the nuclear realm.

But nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of individual denial of benefits or a threat of punishment, a microeconomic rationalization of calculus or bargain with a payoff matrix.

The disturbing fact which has to be actively displaced, concealed, obfuscated, hidden, occluded is that nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of mass murder on an exorbitant scale but the threat to be responsible to literally destroy the world, the threat of absolute death. It is second order death, the death of the network of meaning itself.

One could of course argue that this apocalyptic dimension can be represented again in a payoff matrix, were the costs are almost infinitely high. I want to argue that absolute death is not representable in a rational game and nuclear deterrence is since its invention secretly participating at this ethical dimension. In political science literature such an ethical dimension of nuclear deterrence is sometimes partly captured by emphasizing the influence of norms on the practice of deterrence, based on the amorality of nuclear weapons – a nuclear taboo. But despite the fact that norms “channel constrain, and constitute action” this does not capture what in a slight alteration of Nietzsches aphorism would be: if you are gazing long into the nuclear abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

So, the question is: Is the theory of deterrence structured around this ethical dimension and does it change the theory of deterrence substantially if it is translated or applied to other fields like cyberdeterrence? Is each application of “a” deterrence theory unique, and do these other fields of application impose their own unique norms, changing the metric of deterrence itself?

I am not going to say much about cyberdeterrence here.

But to develop the grammar or metric of cyberdeterrence it is common to compare it to nuclear deterrence. Most authors agree that cyberdeterrence and nuclear deterrence have only few similarities, but that the nuclear example in general can give important lessons.

The main difference though between both is that nuclear deterrence is deterrence by punishment and threatens large scale destruction.

Cyberdeterrence operates in an environment unsuited to traditional models of deterrence. It will be most effective in deterrence by denial strategies and will probably not have a strong deterrence by punishment element. The obvious question is, what these substantive/topological differences in the logic of deterrence mean for cyberdeterrence and for attempts to produce the deterrence effect.

Can cyberdeterrence go beyond a mere cost/benefit calculation and is the metric of deterrence going to work effectively? For the strategic role cyberdetereence could play it will be decisive, if cyberdeterrence is an effective language that allows an actor to participate in power relationships like with nuclear weapons



By displacing the ethical dimension, the traumatic kernel in nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence theory allowed to solve the deterrence paradox of nuclear use/non use and made nuclear weapons useful. While hedging their destructive force nuclear deterrence allowed nuclear armed states to engage in power politics and provided a common language. In the last decades the concept of deterrence subsequently diffused by applying the deterrence “skeleton”, the empty frame of rational calculation of costs and benefits, to non-nuclear fields. But the principal difficulties of the deterrence calculus remained. How do we measure goals and values, how do we quantify credibility, how do we treat epistemological and ontological uncertainty about the perspectives of the other? Deterrence is a blunt tool, it worked with nuclear weapons while survival was at stake.

Even if there is a clear declaratory policy for cyber deterrence strategies and an integration of deterrence with other policy tools, the question remains, if deterrence without large scale destruction is operationally/causally working or if deterrence is a theoretical shell to capture aspects of the metastructure of antagonistic adversarial relationships, but in the end it is quite unpredictable if the imagined deterrence calculus will work in the real world.


In that sense I am using  deterrence by denial or punishment on a day by day basis, to deter my daughter not to take unwanted action. (But even there I sometimes deter her e.g. from eating berries or mushrooms by claiming they are poisonous and deadly, which they are not – most of the time.)

Pathways to the Bomb

A contact in the Pentagon asked for a cheat sheet on nuclear technology. Putting something together that is technically correct and concise, while introducing all the policy-relevant terminology is a challenge. Matthias, John, any suggestions/corrections?

There are two “pathways” to the bomb: uranium enrichment and plutonium.

Diagram from:

1. Uranium enrichment
Natural uranium is plentiful in nature, but to be weaponized it must be converted into a form that can be used to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, the physical process that releases energy. This 15 minute video from the 1950’s is my favorite explanation of nuclear fission: A is for Atom

Natural uranium is made up almost entirely of two isotopes, one of which is the slightest bit heavier than the other. Only the lighter isotope, U-235, is useful for sustaining a chain reaction. Fortunately, at least from a nonproliferation perspective, natural uranium is 99.3% U-238, so in order to be weapons usable it must be “enriched” to separate out the desirable U-235 from the undesirable U-238–or fed into a Heavy Water Reactor, which I will come back to when I explain the plutonium pathway.

The process of enrichment is mechanical. Natural uranium in its gaseous form (UF6) is fed into a centrifuge:

Image from:

Because U-235 is lighter than U-238, when you spin UF6 the heavier U-238 flies toward the outside wall and collects in the bottom of the centrifuge. The “depleted” stream of U-238 can then be funneled out. The enriched uranium, U-235 along with the remaining U-238, is siphoned off and into another centrifuge. The process is repeated thousands and thousands of times until the desired level of enrichment is achieved.

At first the enrichment process goes very slowly. Getting from the .7% U-235 found in natural uranium to 3-4.5%–the minimum amount necessary to fuel a light water reactor–requires 70% of the time and effort it would take to produce weapons-grade material (90% U-235). By the time uranium is enriched to 20% U-235, you are already 85-90% of the way there. This is why the cut-off for what counts as low enriched uranium (LEU) is set just below 20%. There are no reactors that require more than 20% enrichment and if you go any higher you basically already have what you need to create a bomb. (Jeffrey Lewis has a nice post about this on Arms Control Wonk.)

So, to summarize:
Natural Uranium = .7% U-235
Low Enriched Uranium = < 20% U-235
High Enriched Uranium = 20-90% U-235 (90% of the way to weapons grade)
Weapons Grade Uranium = >90% U-235

2. Plutonium
Plutonium, in theory, could appear in nature. However, in practice, it must be generated through a nuclear chain reaction. All nuclear reactors produce plutonium, but there are many kinds of reactors and some are better for plutonium production than others. If a country wants to build a nuclear explosive device without having to enrich uranium, it can use a heavy water reactor. Unlike light water reactors, which are cooled with regular old H2O, heavy water reactors are cooled with water that has an extra isotope of hydrogen (D20), which enables natural uranium to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. The plutonium necessary for a bomb can then be separated out from the spent fuel. This is what North Korea did.

Iran has uranium enrichment facilities, a heavy water research reactor and another under construction, and light water reactors for training purposes and energy production. For more information than you will possibly need on Iran’s nuclear sites visit ISIS’s page on Nuclear Iran.

Gregory on Chamayou’s “Theory of the Drone”

Derek Gregory has been reading Chamayou’s text “Theory of the Drone” and posting an excellent series of accompanying comments. What I like about these posts so far is that they highlight the role of the drone in the shift from total war as nuclear war to total war as a never-ending manhunt. Nuclear weapons were the ultimate fetish object in the drive to maximize indiscriminate destruction. The drone is poised to become the technological fetish object for the ultimate form of discriminate war.

Jackson Lears on the Surveillance State

Over on his blog Corey Robin posted a link to an editor’s note by Jackson Lears in the journal Raritan. Robin takes issue with Lears political analysis, but is in agreement with Lears on the “fundamental question of the surveillance state,” as I am. In his note, Lears argues that the apathetic public response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is too often justified through a narrative of technological determinism. Basically, the public has already accepted that “freedom” (read: keeping services free) on the Internet comes at the expense of privacy, and anyone who takes extreme measures to insist it should be otherwise is mentally imbalanced. Lears pushes back on that explanation, arguing that authoritarian politics are not an outgrowth of technology. The problem is not the technology, it is whether or not the government uses the technology at its disposal to create a police state. Ok, fine up until now. However, in elaborating his argument he makes the following comparison to what he anachronistically refers to as “Atomic Energy”:

New technology does not negate the fundamental necessity of protecting the citizenry from an intrusive government. If the genie is out of the bottle, then there has to be away to regulate and oversee its power. Atomic energy, for example, has always posed enormous difficulties of regulation and oversight. However inadequately those problems have been addressed, at least they have periodically been the subject of public debate. There has been general agreement that the destructive power of atomic energy must be contained by vigorous oversight. The framers of the constitution could not anticipate the Internet or the myriad technologies of surveillance developed by the national security state, any more than they could anticipate nuclear weapons. But they did anticipate the abuse of government power, and they institutionalized restrictions on it in the founding document of our nation.

This analogy is puzzling. While it is true that the mandate of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to “ensure the safe use of nuclear energy while protecting people and the environment,” the better analogy is to the nuclear weapons complex. The need to protect information about the nuclear weapons technology was used to justify the secrecy of the Cold War security state. In fact, there was a complete lack of oversight of nuclear programs and how they were funded, and the techno-scientific discourse of nuclear deterrence theory replaced public debate about the size of the nuclear arsenal with expert judgements. In that sense, what is happening today with the creation of the surveillance state is an extension and deepening of the secrecy and security culture that was already built on a technologically deterministic narrative about nuclear technology during the Cold War.

The problem with flipping Lears’ example is that it places me uncomfortably on the side of the technological determinists against whom he is arguing, where I most decidedly do not want to be.