Anti-war Culture Election

Staring Into The Abyss: American Political Culture and the Calculus of Catastrophe


By Martin Traphagen

Our last two election cycles have been uniquely erratic and polarizing. A figure emerged who preyed on the very real fears and concerns of working class Americans, bucking conventional political niceties and declaring himself to be the antidote to a corrupt Washington elite. He has ingratiated himself to his followers through his coarse and freewheeling style. They cling to him with such rabid devotion that any challenge or criticism of the Dear Leader is met with immediate denunciation and denial. He has utilized the old populist facade to tear apart environmental regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy, and sow the seeds of future wars. The supposed Democratic “resistance” refuses to recognize their complicity in the destruction of the American working class. They instead hide behind virtuous outrage, stoking the same fanatical mindset they chastise their political opponents for. In all this madness, many reasonable and hard-working people are drawn into one or another form of extremism, or drop out of the discussion entirely. Social media has been effectively weaponized for disinformation and propaganda purposes by both parties, and a disturbing number of Americans rely on these platforms for their news, especially younger people. In this bizarre American alternate universe (where everyone is called “middle class”) the cultural identity and radical history of American workers is all but erased from history. Our country has an especially violent labor history, and a true socialist left has been excluded from the legitimate political arena in a manner unlike any other industrial nation.


The last few decades of neoliberal assault have eroded the public’s faith in their elected representatives and shown just how little the attitudes of the general population matter when it comes to the formulation of policy. The revolving door between government and concentrated wealth continues to revolve quite openly, and notwithstanding capitalism’s egregious failures to serve the needs of working people, we have yet to form a viable third party, or to truly shift the Democratic Party to the left in a meaningful way. The Sanders campaign inspired many, and its aims were admirable, but in the end Bernie was sidelined brazenly by party machinery. So the Democratic Party continues fulfilling its historic role, co-opting popular movements and blunting any radicalism that remains. They have embraced identity politics yet class issues are still largely ignored. When it is beneficial politically they will feign overtures to the left, but when push comes to shove they will fight tooth and nail to keep neoliberal orthodoxy intact. They are content to back a candidate who appears ‘presidential’ in contrast to the hated incumbent, one ready to move toward ‘civility’ and to ‘heal the soul of this nation’ — or one who is, in my favorite Orwellian term, ‘pragmatic’ — i.e. devoid of any political principles whatsoever. The Democratic Party has fallen into a new sort of hysteria as of late. Pelosi has made a fool of herself on television, frantically refusing to compromise on any front regarding coronavirus aid packages, and showing that her true allegiance lies with her class cohorts who remain unaffected by the economic shutdown. In a system where most of our members of Congress are millionaires (and the rest aren’t far behind), should we be surprised? 


Approximately half of the voting-age population does not vote, and this figure has been quite stable for the last few election cycles. Less than half of these non-voters (47%) have an attachment to a particular party (64% of voters do), and nearly half identify as independent (45%) as opposed to less than a third of voters (30%). More revealing, nearly half of non-voters (46%) have family incomes of less than $30,000, while the same is true for only 20% of those who vote. 


It’s no wonder that European voters who share the socioeconomic profile of non-voting Americans, tend to vote for Labour/Social Democrat-style parties. Surely those EU parties have their own issues, and they are infected with similar ills as any other political party, but at least their reformist goals try to address things like income inequality, labor rights, and  maintaining social programs that are under attack. Their goals for a milder, gentler style of capitalism may help keep at bay some of the worst excesses of the system, and given the chance, many Americans would vote for this kind of agenda– this was demonstrated powerfully by the Sanders campaign. 


The last forty years under the acclaimed ‘bipartisan consensus’ have decimated the purchasing power of working people, and increased inequality at a rate never seen before in American history. Indeed, these were the objectives of those programs (financialization of the economy, deregulation, privatization) designed to funnel wealth created by workers into the pockets of owners and managers, taking advantage of emerging technologies and the newly global scope of capital. The form of ‘globalization’ that has taken hold in this period is a globalization of a particular sort, where through ‘free trade’ agreements the rights of the rich to plunder unimpeded are codified into law, superseding the nation-state for all intents and purposes. Their monopoly on the term ‘globalization’ makes all who oppose it ‘anti-globalization’ — as if we are provincial Luddites wishing to bury our heads in the sand and flee from the modern world into isolation. However, true internationalism is rooted deep in our history as anarcho-syndicalists. We seek a different kind of globalization: one in which technology empowers the population instead of impoverishes it, where drudgery can be eliminated and all the creative and intellectual powers of human beings can be potentiated.


There is no simple electoral solution to the problems facing our society. Addressing them will require its radical reconstruction. Most of my readers will agree that the foremost objective on the road to a new world must be the organization of workers outside the confines of the bureaucratic unionism that the New Deal Coalition deemed tolerable. Since WWII, organized labor has essentially restricted their activities to pursuing better wages, conditions etc. for those in their ranks while avoiding broader issues of social concern. Radical labor sentiments in a recognized union could be redirected into elections, contract negotiations, meetings, minimizing strikes and allowing labor leaders to occupy positions of influence. The spontaneity of the early 20th century was gone, and with it went the fear that labor could once strike in the hearts of rulers. 


Factory workers had their greatest influence, and were able to exact their most substantial concessions from government, during the Great Depression, in the years before they were organized into unions. Their power during the Great Depression was not rooted in organization, but disruption.” (“Poor People’s Movements” – Richard Cloward & Francis Piven) 


Without a cantankerous labor movement to contend with, private power has seemed able to implement it’s agenda largely unopposed. But the state-corporate onslaught of this period has had effects other than simply economic. Twin existential threats are looming – namely the spectre of nuclear conflict, and catastrophic climate change.


At the beginning of the nuclear age, when it was still unclear what effect these weapons would have on international relations and popular movements, Orwell wrote:


“..ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.” (‘You and the Atomic Bomb’ – Orwell)


The UN Security Council and the Non-Proliferation Treaty enshrined the rights of The United States, Russia, The U.K., France, and China to possess nuclear weapons. This is in itself a type of victor’s justice, following from the balance of power in the postwar world, although the international non-proliferation regime mandates that the recognized nuclear weapons states work to halt the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states, and move toward complete disarmament themselves. Discussion and activism surrounding nuclear weapons has largely disappeared from American public consciousness since the end of the Cold War, and yet the risk has only increased from the days of the fabled Cuban missile crisis when it was fresh in our collective mind. Even William Perry, a former Secretary Of Defense, and a hawkish one, has said, “Our nuclear weapons policy is obsolete and dangerous. I know, because I helped to design it.” 

Talk of non-proliferation only appears at the highest levels of decision-making when it’s a convenient cudgel to use against official enemies like Iran and North Korea. Cold War propaganda tended to keep the issue of nuclear weapons on the table, but in a post superpower world, where threats could not belaid at the Kremlin’s door” it has evaporated. As arms reduction treaties with Russia expire, the Trump administration continues ignoring their overtures to renew. With Russia actively engaging militarily in the Middle East, and communication between these forces deteriorating (especially in the air), the chance for a miscommunication or accident setting off a conflagration is more and more likely. Recently there have been incidents (largely unreported) of Russian jets intercepting B-52 bombers and allegedly “violating NATO’s airspace.”


This illustrates that tensions are at an all-time high, and from the perspective of Russian planners, their fear is not without justification. Nukes notwithstanding, the Russian Federation is surrounded on all sides by American/NATO military installations with overwhelming conventional military superiority, and provocations covert and overt are always coming from the US military establishment. A month after the US pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the USS Tennessee ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) left Naval Submarine Base King’s Bay in Georgia carrying a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead in late 2019. The designation ‘low-yield’ is incredibly misleading– this warhead in particular was about ⅓ the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (“Little Boy”), and could easily vaporize 20 square blocks of Manhattan. These low-yield weapons are supposed to be options for limited nuclear use that could avoid an all-out nuclear-winter inducing war, but their deployment sends a clear message to official enemies. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said about the deployment: 


“This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming.”


The Trump administration Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) contains countless allusions to this new nuclear doctrine. Words like “options”,”flexibility”, working toward a “tailored” array of nuclear armaments for the: 


..unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent nonstate actors.” 


This is a distinct reorientation of American nuclear policy from the Obama NPR and a shift toward development and deployment of these low-yield weapons. The justification? 


“To varying degrees, Russia and China have made clear they seek to substantially revise the post-Cold War international order and norms of behavior.”


This is an admission of American insecurity in a post-unipolar world–  where American moral and economic examples have declined, and overwhelming military superiority is clung to tightly.


The Nuclear Posture Review also pre-emptively addressed the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister’s concern with a true piece of American exceptionalist claptrap: 


“In no way does this approach lower the nuclear threshold. Rather, by convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate, it in fact raises that threshold.”


Comment should be superfluous here. And, while lip-service is paid to non-proliferation efforts and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), our guardians at the Pentagon assure us that it’s not meant for us:


“Although the United States will not seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, it will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Committee as well as the International Monitoring System and the International Data Center. The United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and calls on all states possessing nuclear weapons to declare or maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing. Arms control can contribute to U.S. security by helping to manage strategic competition among states. It can foster transparency, understanding, and predictability in adversary relations, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation. (My emphasis)

The merits of arms control are acknowledged, but we will continue to do as we please. Iran, one of Trump’s favorite targets of ridicule, is constantly vilified for allegedly seeking nuclear weapons, although they seem to essentially be abiding by IAEA/NPT guidelines for peaceful enrichment of uranium. But from the perspective of their rulers, a look at the recent history of Libya, Iraq, and North Korea would seem to suggest that the only viable deterrent against US/Israeli aggression is the acquisition of nuclear weapons– in this way militarism and even threats of military force (both considered illegitimate under the UN Charter) encourage proliferation around the globe. 

Ever since 1967, when Israel demonstrated to the world its military prowess, the United States has viewed them as a major strategic ally (in Nixon’s words, “cops on the beat”).We have refrained from pressuring them to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, maintaining a policy of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ about their nuclear arsenal. This undoubtedly influences regional affairs in a major way, and contributes to the U.S. and Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region. On June 7th, 1981 Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor, under construction just south of Baghdad, killing ten Iraqis and one French civilian. Far from discouraging his ambitions, this only increased Sadaam Hussein’s desire to develop nuclear weapons. They carried out a similar raid on a suspected Syrian nuclear site in Deir Ez-Zour in 2007, after the Bush administration declined to bomb it themselves. This kind of activity only makes an unstable region more volatile, and under the “Begin Doctrine” this kind of pre-emptive strike has been enshrined in Israeli military strategy. Encouraging these kinds of actions from our allies contributes to the security of no one, and is just one example of how American tentacles entangle the globe.

 International institutions and organs like the UN, the ICC, the World Court, the Non Proliferation Treaty, are far from perfect. They are most often instruments of the powerful– hailed as important when they suit the needs of the geopolitical moment, and blatantly ignored when they interfere with their goals. But they do (in theory) embody certain principles that are worthwhile, like the resort to diplomacy instead of force. As anarchists, I think our justified skepticism of these bodies can allow us to forget how important a little diplomacy could be, when the stakes are as high as they are with regard to nuclear war. The logic of deterrence is fundamentally a doomed one based on brinkmanship– a playground bully mentality– forcing adversaries to make decisions under duress, while incrementally elevating the level of risk, and bargaining that they will capitulate before we do. Diplomatic engagement can at least bring a modicum of regularity to international relations.

The other existential threat we face as a species, anthropogenic climate change, gets much more fanfare and media attention than nuclear weapons. Indeed it’s a fashionable cause for the Enlightened Liberal. Every day we are reminded of the overwhelming scientific consensus and the very limited amount of time we have to rectify it, before the process becomes autocatalytic and we have no chance of countering it. Glacial retreat, rising sea levels, and the melting of permafrost loaded with CO2 will all have disastrous consequences for humanity if their root cause is not addressed. That cause of course is our reliance on fossil fuels and the gigantic amount of power those who profit from them wield in our society and the world, and by extension, an economic system that prioritizes capital accumulation at any cost. 

The most powerful office on Earth– President of The United States– is occupied by an ignorant billionaire who, although devoid of any principles of his own, has courted the votes and affections of the Evangelical Christian right-wing, who disregard the relevant science entirely and believe it is their God-given prerogative to plunder the planet of its natural resources. The current and former heads of the EPA, both nominated by Trump, disregard the scientific consensus and have long been advocates for fossil fuel interests. Obama’s nomination, by contrast, was a health and air-quality expert with a career spent working on environmental issues at the local and state level. This is no great credit to Obama– at the very least, someone tasked with leading an agency like the EPA should actually have a commitment to environmentalism and effective regulation. 

The famed Paris Accords, often invoked to show just how saintly Obama was, set goals that were insufficient, and since their adoption the amount of impassioned rhetoric far outweighs any concrete actions taken toward CO2 reduction. But this is yet another area where recognition of the problem, and a seat at the table, is far better than blatant disregard– especially when we consider the outsize influence US policy has on other countries. The next few years may well be crucial in countering the aggravation of the climate problem unleashed by Trump’s policies:

“The most lasting domestic damage of a Trump Administration may be in the erosion of institutions – both regulatory (e.g. the US EPA under Scott Pruitt) and those supporting climate science (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)), with funding to climate-change-related programmes cut. These actions could damage US institutions and capacity on climate policy and regulation for a long time to come….They estimate that near-term emissions trends will remain flat, no matter what the current US Administration does or does not do, and that President Trump’s impact on cumulative US emissions will be small if a subsequent administration gets back onto a trajectory towards an 80% reduction… As pointed out by several authors, the negative impact of one term of a Trump Presidency may be manageable and reversible, but two terms would be far more damaging.”  (My emphasis)

I am someone who believes the ballot-box is intrinsically insufficient as a means for the transformation of society. Obama’s presidency is just the most recent example of a candidate who promised a lot, inspired people momentarily, yet ended up accelerating the worst tendencies of his predecessor. Jimmy Carter comes to mind as well as, JFK, Clinton, and the list goes on. But the issues I have addressed above, issues of human survival, have compelled me to at least question whether a vote for Biden would be a worthwhile one, considering the alternative. I disagree with the inflammatory use of the word ‘fascist’ when it comes to Trump– mostly I don’t think that kind of language is helpful when it comes to winning over his supporters and changing their minds, and it’s inaccurate. Trump is essentially neoliberalism on steroids, without the conventional human rights rhetoric and gestures of international collaboration (always hollow anyhow). In a sense it gives him too much credit– fascism is at least an internally consistent ideology, a concept he cannot comprehend. This kind of rhetoric reinforces the idea that Trump is dismantling and destroying something that is sacrosanct, that he represents a unique evil– and if we could just get back to business as usual, we could absolve ourselves of him. The fanatical focus on Trump has allowed the Republican Senate to implement its agenda quietly in the background, while Americans compete over who can be most eloquently outraged about his most recent episode of stupidity while longing for benevolent Obama and his “presidential” characteristics. However, Trump does exhibit highly troubling tendencies, and sometimes it seems like a miracle that we aren’t embroiled in a major war already. 

 As much as the unquestioning faith in electoralism troubles me, I am also bothered by the rigid abstentionism of the radical left. I attended a meeting weeks ago of a prominent Trotskyist group with an international presence, which I will not name. Activists and writers of this persuasion will usually have something of substance to offer on history and analysis of popular struggles. Their publications are often informative, and put together in a sophisticated manner and style. Although I expected to disagree on theoretical and tactical points, I was interested in what major socialist organizations were saying about the choices we face. As I was listening to their opening remarks, I was unsurprised– they offered an essentially coherent analysis of current conditions, even if it was a little reliant on Marxist jargon. Eventually, when the floor was opened up for the 30 plus people attending, I posed a careful question about whether the dangers of nuclear war and climate change altered the calculus of lesser-evilism at all, touching on points I have laid out above. Their reversion back to arguments about a “worker’s party” was instantaneous. When I tried to deepen the discussion a little and discuss the underlying logic of lesser-evil politics under current conditions, I was met with simplistic socialist catchphrases about having to “make a revolution anyway” (verbatim). They were rightly distrustful of the two major capitalist parties, yet they self-assuredly talk of the electoral triumph of a party composed of “workers” that will somehow be immune to the intoxication that newfound political power brings. They fail to acknowledge that if they attained political power, the moment they became party functionaries they would cease to truly be workers any more– simply becoming a new elite class atop the hierarchy, with all the trappings and privileges of power, different only in name from those they have deposed. The widespread belief seemed to be that if one did not choose to abstain, a protest vote for a socialist party would be the only morally upright choice. This I cannot understand. 

In some sense, yes, a Biden vote should sting for anyone with socialist convictions. But we all know that a protest vote is essentially futile. It’s simply a defiant gesture, a middle-finger to the system. This is an understandable sentiment, but my personal belief is that voting is no more than a tactic, and you are not bound somehow morally or metaphysically to the person you vote for, nor are you responsible as an individual for the consequences of what happens during their administration. You are exercising your very limited available means to try and affect decision-making in your society. The quadrennial public relations offensive rages on about our sacred duty and the ‘soul of our nation’, yet at this point in American history it’s been painstakingly documented just how little our votes matter, and just how much wealth matters. A vote for Biden wouldn’t mean you must abandon all radical organizing activity, surrender your copies of Marx, and donate your wages to the Brookings Institution. But it may mean that the US pays a little attention to decaying arms control treaties and attempts to actually regulate fossil fuel corporations. As long as it was entered into without illusions, I wouldn’t hold a Biden vote against any of my comrades in swing states. We’ll save the Electoral College for another day… 

I believe there was a time in American history where dedicated electoral work could truly change society. The struggles of all the women and black Americans who fought courageously for their rightful place at the ballot-box must be recognized. Their fight was not in vain. A radical organized working class, one fully aware of its power to bring the wheels of society to a halt, provided a counterweight to the corrupting influence of power and profit in the political arena, and allowed it to make meaningful steps in the creation of a better world for the toiling masses. In the end the only way to truly reach nuclear disarmament is to dismantle and displace archaic nation-state structures and military machines with directly-democratic federated groups of workers and communities– structures that truly embody democracy and will faithfully execute the popular will, which overwhelmingly supports peace and co-operation. The only beneficiaries of violence are those who seek power and the maintenance of power. The proponents of ethno-religious zealotry and nationalist chauvinism thrive on division and mistrust, as they always have. The only way to take control of the climate crisis is to wrest economic power from those who pollute and destroy, and in the short-term, to deal with the world as it is, and use the limited tools available to us with eyes toward the future. These goals are deeply intertwined and cannot happen in isolation. 

In April of 2018, seven Catholic activists broke into Naval Submarine Base King’s Bay, the home port of the USS Tennessee. They hung banners, destroyed signs, and spread human blood, calling for worldwide disarmament by ‘symbolically disarming’ the facility. Members of the Plowshares Movement, a Catholic radical pacifist group with an important history, they derive their name from the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“..they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – Isaiah 2:4

Father Daniel Berrigan, founding member of the movement, diagnosed the unique malady of us privileged citizens of empire succinctly:


“Georgetown Poems-The Trouble With Our State” – by Father Daniel Berrigan

The trouble with our state

was not civil disobedience

which in any case was hesitant and rare

Civil disobedience was as rare as kidney stone

No, rarer; it was disappearing like immigrants’ disease

You’ve heard of a war on cancer?

There is no war like the plague of media

There is no war like routine

There is no war like 3 square meals

There is no war like a prevailing wind

It blows softly; whispers

don’t rock the boat!

the sails obey, the ship of state rolls on.

The trouble with our state

–we learned it only afterward

when the dead resembled the living who resembled the dead

and civil virtue shone like paint on tin

and tin citizens and tin soldiers marched to the common whip

–our trouble

the trouble with our state

with our state of soul

our state of siege–was






Trump/Obama Administration Nuclear Posture Review – []

Climate Policy’ –vol. 18 2018 – “US and International Climate Policy Under President Trump”[]


‘Arms Control Today’ – “Nuclear Weapons: A Record That Falls Short of Lofty Ambitions” [ ]

George Orwell – “You and the Atomic Bomb”

Pew Research Center – [ ]

Bush National Security Strategy 1990 – [ ]

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