Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Worst Film of the Year

Not being one to run out to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Mission: Impossible – Fallout slipped under my radar when it was released last summer. Recently, while travelling by plane, I started watching it on the in-plane movie service. Within 5 minutes I got the gist of it: a group of rogue secret agents, formerly professional killers for various states, have become “anarchists” intent on bringing down the existing world order by detonating nuclear bombs in the Himalayan watershed. The intended result is to contaminate the water supply for billions of people, which will somehow lead to the collapse of civilization and the emergence of a new kind of world order from out of the chaos. Reminds me of a fellow university student years ago who seriously asked my why I was opposed to nuclear arms when a nuclear war would destroy everything — isn’t that what anarchists want? One commentator has suggested that this marks a shift in Hollywood from Islamic bogeymen to anarchists as the new “bad guys.” Let’s hope not, but MI: Fallout was a big hit at the box office. As a belated and partial antidote to this patent nonsense, I reprint a piece written by Paul Goodman in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, in which he points out that it is mainstream culture that has become suicidal, a theme he also pursued in “A Public Dream of Universal Disaster,” which I included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Paul Goodman

In a disturbing study of the paralyzing effects of war spirit and war preparations, “The Arms Race as an Aspect of Popular Culture,” Professor Robert Engler of Columbia warns us of the dislocation of scientific and professional education; the dislocation of the normal pattern of economy and industry; the growing spirit of the garrison state: censorship, lying propaganda, the infiltration of the (retired) military into the industrial system; the crazy competitive goals in armaments and the space race; the astonishing distortion of community values in the private-shelter business. People accept the whittling away of civil liberties. There is distortion even in the play and dreams of children.

We must ask also the opposite question: Why are people susceptible? What in our society and culture makes such a development possible? What paralysis in the public allows these preparations to become so deadly? It is a useful question, because to the degree that we can answer it, we can try to withdraw energy from the conditions and feelings that lurk in the background of the present spirit.

The economic advantages of the Cold War (to some) must be mentioned first. And we may use economic policy as an unerring index of the secret position of the government in Washington. The government can protest as loudly as it wishes to the people of the world that it wants disarmament with inspection, etc.; but so long as there are no actual economic plans and preparations being made to reconvert industries to peacetime uses and to take up the slack of employment that disarmament would involve, we cannot believe the government. There are no such plans and preparations, though there is a Disarmament Agency and though Professor Melman has offered them a philosophy in The Peace Race.

John Ullmann of Hofstra has shown that even apart from the budget, our political structure itself predisposes us to the war spirit; for it combines prejudice and regimentation, self-righteousness and violence. And every study of the present regime in Washington shows that it has become largely a machine for waging Cold War. Even vested economic interests must succumb, for the government can make or ruin a firm by manipulating the contracts for armaments.

Let me now, however, go on to recall some psychological factors in the American cultural background that make the Cold War “advantageous.” Our modern times are affluent and disappointed, active and powerless, technical and purposeless. This clinch is the Cold War.

In America, the so-called high standard of living, urbanism, the sexual revolution only partly carried through, have notoriously resulted in excessive busyness with little reward in happiness, and in excessive stimulation with inadequate sexual or creative discharge. People are balked by the general inhibition of anger and physical aggression in our cities, offices, and streamlined industries and grievance committees. And since one cannot be angry, one cannot be affectionate.

At the same time, as part of the same urban-technological-economical-political complex, common people today are extraordinarily powerless. Few ever make, individually or in face-to-face associations, decisions about many of the most important matters. Labor decides about neither the product nor the process, the utility nor the distribution. Affairs are bureaucratized, with inevitable. petty delays and tensions. There is an almost total absence of real rather than formal democracy. A local meeting, e.g., a Parent-Teachers meeting, has no power to decide but can only exert pressure, which is usually cleverly evaded. Voters decide not issues or policies but the choice between equivalent Front personalities. The corporations dominate the economy and small enterprises are discouraged. The pattern, especially of middle-class life, is scheduled often down to the minute, and spontaneity is penalized. Even consumption goods are bought for emulation rather than final satisfaction. Police surveillance increases conformity and timidity. With increasing wealth, there is increasing insecurity.

According to the theory of masochism of Wilhelm Reich, which has become fairly standard, the result of such excessive stimulation and inadequate discharge is a need to “explode,” be pierced, beaten, etc., in order to release the feelings that have been pent up. Of course, it is people themselves who are imprisoning themselves; they could release themselves if it were not for the totality of their fearfulness and ineffectuality. That is to say, they cannot release themselves. Instead, they feel that release must come from outside agents or events. More healthily, this is felt as excitement in destruction and danger; in the lure of daring and dangerous sports; in the innocent joy in watching a house burn down and living through hurricanes and earthquakes (and discussing them endlessly.) And characteristically of poor mankind, once they been given the cosmical permission of Necessity, people act with the community and heroism that is in them from the beginning. The case is darker, more painful and sadistic when, avidly but generally more privately, people read up the air disasters. Likewise, the nuclear phobia of many patients is a projection of their own self-destructive and destructive wishes, and it vanishes when so analyzed, that is, when the patient can reconnect the images of disaster to the actual things that he wants to explode, burn, poison, annihilate.

Similar are fantasies of destructive Enemies, who will do the job for us. And it does not help if two opposed Enemies cooperate in their projections, so that each one recognizes a threat in the other and arms accordingly and so provides more tangible proof of the threat. (This phenomenon of mirror-image projections has been somewhat studied by Professor Osgood.)

A less familiar factor, but to my mind a very important one, is the inhibited response to the insulting and nauseating tone of our commercialized popular culture and advertising. People experience a self-disgust and a wish to annihilate, vomit up, this way of life; but they hold their nausea down, they feel powerless to give up this culture — it is all there is — they cannot even shut off the TV.

On these grounds, we can speak of War Spirit as an epidemic wish to commit suicide en masse, as one community. To have the frustration over with! to get rid of all that junk at once! Thus, an important explanation of the paralysis of the public in safeguarding against, or simply dismissing, the obvious irrationality and danger of war policies, is that people are inwardly betrayed by a wish for the catastrophe that they rationally oppose.

So far negatively. But there is a positive side. Powerless and uninventive in decisive affairs of everyday life, people increasingly find excitement in the doings of the Great on far-off stages and in the Big News in the newspapers. This occurs everywhere as spectatoritis and TV-watching. An event might be happening outside the window, but people will watch it on the TV screen instead; for there, it is purified, magnified, and legitimized by the national medium. What is sponsored by a national network is Reality. And, of course, of this Big News the most important is the drama of the Warring Powers, that toys with, and continually threatens to satisfy, every man’s orgastic-destructive urges. Brinkmanship and Playing Chicken and the Testing of bigger firecrackers — however stupid and immediately rejectable by common reason — are nevertheless taken as most serious maneuvers. The powerlessness of the small gets solace by identification with power Elites, and people eagerly say “We” and “They,” meaning one bloc or the other.

The outpouring of dammed-up hostility is channeled antiseptically and guiltlessly through pugnacious diplomacy, interest in impersonal technology, and the excitement of war-games theory. Push-button and aerial war is especially like a dream. It is forbiddingly satisfactory in its effects, yet one is hardly responsible for it, one has hardly even touched a weapon. Games-theory has the mechanical innocence of a computer.

My guess is that in the contemporary conditions of technology and standard of living, the Americans suffer somewhat more from the above psychological pressures than the Russians, who are still starved for consumer’s goods and hope naively to get important satisfaction from them. The Americans have more need for the Cold War than the Russians. They can afford it more and, for the same reason, need it more. Since the Russians can afford it less, they also need it less. (I am told, however, that in Russia the big arms-production has gone so far that they too have an industrial-military complex that now goes by itself.) On the other hand — again this is my guess — in dictatorships there is more underlying animal fear, fear because acquaintances have suddenly vanished, fear of speaking out; therefore their War Spirit might involve more desperate adventurousness, more need for little proving victories, because people feel more inwardly unsafe. Also — this is said to be true of the Chinese — when there is famine and utter misery of life, it is only extreme actions that can weld people together at all. (The remedy for this is rather simple, to feed them.)

By and large, the panicky craze of the Americans for private, family bomb shelters seems best explicable in these terms. Because of the threat of poisoning and fire, public policy has come into an obvious clash with elementary biological safety. Yet it is impossible to change the public policy, and get rid of the industrial-military complex, for the war is wished for, and the identification with the Powerful is necessary for each powerless individual’s conceit. The private bomb shelter is the way out of the clinch: It allows the war to happen, yet it withdraws from reliance on the Public Policy which is evidently too dangerous to trust. It is a Do-It-Yourself. It even somewhat satisfies the biological instinct for safety — if one reads Life rather than scrupulous scientists. Naturally all the better if the Shelters can then be harmonized with business as usual and become an emulative luxury, a part of the high standard of living.

The entire argument of this essay is summed up in the official bulletin of the Office of Civil Defense, when it says, “Fallout is merely a physical fact of this nuclear age. It can be faced like any other fact.” Here we have the full-blown hallucination: dropping the bombs is — thought of as a physical fact rather than a social fact. And also this outrageous and moronic proposition is swallowed like everything else.

But as Margaret Mead has recently pointed out, this private flight of the Americans into their shelters has aroused shock and horror in the Europeans who are equally endangered. They cannot identify with the Powers; and many of them — British, Dutch, Russians — know what it is to be bombed and suffer in the war. (The Germans seem to be eager to assume the Bully role again themselves.) Naturally, Professor Mead’s solution is international bomb shelters for the fertile and academically talented!

Historically, the theorists of militarism have profited by the above analysis. From the time of Frederick William, the gait and posture of the warrior has been designed, by competent teachers of gymnastics, to cut off full sexual feeling and tenderness: the pelvis retracted, the anus tightened, the belly hardened, the exhalation impeded by squaring the shoulders. Marriage and other civilian ties are discouraged (but not the economic and political connections of retired generals). A soldier or sailor on the town must not become emotionally involved with the woman he picks up. And the Marine, balked in his manliness and insulted in his independence by spirit-breaking discipline and the chain of command, lives by a conceit of toughness and power, with slavish griping to let off steam. All are in a state of muscular hyper-toms, to snap unthinkingly to a command. The jaw is in a position of watchfulness. The public glorification of this mindless power is the complement of the public masochism; it is experienced as the terrible sublimity of war.

What then? How under modern conditions can we wage peace instead of war? We need a vast increase in the opportunities for initiative and making important decisions. This involves considerable decentralization of management, in industry, in government, in urban affairs like housing and schooling. (I do not think that this necessarily implies less efficiency, but that is another story.) It involves the use of our productivity to insure minimum subsistence, but otherwise the encouragement of individual enterprises. We must forthrightly carry through the sexual revolution, encourage the sexuality of children and adolescents, get rid of the sex laws and other moral laws. Many people might be offended by this policy, it might have disadvantages, but our present condition of stimulation and inadequate discharge is simply too dangerous in its irrational effects; we cannot continue it. We must revive individual worth and self-respect, by jobs of useful work that employ more of each person’s capacities, and an education that makes the culture and technology comprehensible and appropriable, so that people may be at home with it and possibly inventive and creative in it. We need a genuine folk-culture to enliven community, and a lofty public culture to give us meaning, and loyalty to a greater self. And paradoxically, if there were less false politeness, conformity, and civil peace — more energetic confrontation, loud quarrels, and fist fights — there would be less ultimate and catastrophic explosiveness. These things comprise, in my opinion, the modern moral equivalent of war that William James was after. They are entirely practical; and if, as the Americans are, they are utopian — there it is.

An occasional fist fight, a better orgasm, friendly games, a job of useful work, initiating enterprises, deciding real issues in manageable meetings, and being moved by things that are beautiful, curious, or wonderful — these diminish the spirit of war because they attach people to life. They should not be postponed while we “buy time” with deterrence and negotiations. On the contrary, if people began to insist on more life, the Front Page would carry very different news.

Let me add a postscript. I read these remarks to a conference of learned men, experts in the social sciences, in engineering, and in politics, discussing the deadly danger of the Cold War and the need to get out of it. The great majority of them found what I said to be entirely irrelevant. They were, predictably, hilarious about the references to sexuality. We are faced with an unexampled situation, a matter of life and death, publicly apparent to all the people and to which people hardly respond. Yet these experts believe that the concrete facts of people’s lives are not involved at all. Being superstitious as only modern scientists can be, they believe that something comes from nothing. Presumably, none of these facts of a life worth living are existent facts for them — not when they are “thinking.” They are “practical”: they face the issues as presented. Presented by whom? why?

One scientist, from Washington, spoke up and said: “You say that the Americans have a neurotic feeling of powerlessness. You don’t realize that those in power are equally frustrated.”

Paul Goodman (1962)

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Laurens Otter: Nuclear Weapons and the Permanent War Economy

Laurens Otter 2016

Laurens Otter 2016

Laurens Otter, born in 1930, has been active in anarchist and pacifist movements since the 1950s. I heard him speak (briefly) at a History Workshop conference in 1986, where he recounted that during the French conflicts in Algeria, French anarchists fire bombed troop trains to stop the soldiers from reaching Algeria, a militant form of direct action that he, as a pacifist, did not endorse, advocating instead non-violent direct action. Recently, his memoir, The Accidental Making of an Anarchist, has been posted online. The memoir covers a period from his youth to the 1960s. While it is sometimes difficult to follow, particularly the changing relationships between various leftist and anarchist groups and their members, the memoir covers a period when anarchism emerged from its ideological exile during the era of Soviet and social democratic domination of the left, to yet again take its place at the forefront of campaigns against nuclear weapons, imperialist wars, and the “military-industrial” complex. This excerpt deals with the attitude of the non-Stalinist left to nuclear weapons during the 1950s. The reemergence of anarchism during the 1950s and 60s is documented in Volume Two of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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The Left and Nuclear Weapons

Attitudes of the Traditional Left to nuclear weapons need outlining. I hope I don’t need to say that I don’t consider Stalinism part of the Left, traditional or otherwise.

Given that most of the Left had been resisters for a long time, the reaction that ‘though this was a particularly nasty weapon, it was after all just that, one weapon, only worse than others as a matter of degree, not one of kind’, was understandable.

A minority, however, had decided in the past that a war might be the lesser of two evils, particularly an anti-imperialist war or a war to stop the spread of a tyranny like fascism, and were now confronted with a new evil, an evil that seemed to be the moral equivalent of the gas chambers. By its nature nuclear weaponry could not be selective to use it to counter tyranny. Inevitably the victims of the tyranny as well as the tyrant would be made the targets – indeed the tyrant might be able to build him/herself an adequate shelter, while the victim never could.

But it was not merely a question of the nature of the Bomb itself. It may have been understandable, for those who felt war against Hitler was a lesser evil, that the American uranium bombs were made in secret. The buildings where the designs were wrought unknown, the costs not mentioned in national budgets. But when this similarly happened in Britain after the war, when [Emanuel] Shinwell (who had been [Labour Party] Secretary of State for War) showed that he had not known that the Bomb was being made under his authority and he was made to look a fool in Parliament for not knowing; when no one had a chance to vote on the matter; when it became apparent that Government must have spent many millions on building research facilities, on buying and processing uranium and manufacturing bombs, at all times hiding the costs. (Did some of the money said to have been spent on the Health Service or on education, go to make nuclear weapons? Certainly, since the then major world source of uranium was in Rwanda and Burundi, the then Soviet allegation that the East African ground nut scheme was just a cover for transporting the ore had verisimilitude.)

This was why, right back in 1950, Common Wealth [an independent socialist group] argued that the [atomic] Bomb symbolised new class divisions, what [Alfred] Rosmer and [Pierre] Monatte had christened the permanent arms economy (a term taken up by, vulgarised and then hurriedly discarded by the International Socialists), that it was essential to the neo-Colonialism exercised by both Moscow and Washington, as also the remnants of traditional Imperialism. It was a weapon held exclusively by Whites, though uranium was primarily mined in Africa. It was thus not merely just another new weapon, not merely a symptom of new class society, but the symbol of it. Obviously such an analysis gave rise to divisions as to just how important the issue was in everyday politics.

The Bomb was not only a major manifestation of violence, it symbolized the lack of democracy; not even the supposedly relevant member of the Cabinet [Shinwell] knew it was being made, so Parliament (let alone the country) was never consulted; therefore nothing appeared in the budgets – none of the costs of the enormous factory-complexes (Aldermaston, Foulness) ever figured in government building costs. Some may have gone in under a cover-all of Defence, but not in itemized Defence Ministry accounts.

Huge housing estates were built for workers and this would have appeared in Budgets as normal housing. Many workers who didn’t want to work at Aldermaston told us that they’d lived in London and asked to go on the housing lists and been refused, and then they had been told that there were houses at Aldermaston for workers there. The Groundnut Scheme in Tanzania paid for two major harbours and two major railway lines from the coast to the Rwanda-Burundi border (Rwanda-Burundi was then the largest source of uranium), so probably a large part of what was meant to be Colonial Development and Third World Aid was spent as part of the hidden nuclear weaponry budget.

There was an enormous body of horrifying facts to be learnt that would only be revealed to people who asked questions and they only asked them when alerted by the ‘symptoms’ connected to the Bomb.

Laurens Otter

Copyright in this document as that of Laurens Otter and his family, though you may quote them freely in the spirit of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International.

Not just an armchair anarchist

Not just an armchair anarchist

Anarchism and Non-Violent Revolution

war resisters logoIn this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the Gandhi inspired Indian Sarvodaya movement and its relationship with the anarchist pacifist currents that emerged after the Second World War.

anarchy-peace

Non-Violent Revolution

In post-independence India, the Gandhian Sarvodaya movement provided an example of a non-violent movement for social change which aspired to a stateless society. Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982), one of the movement’s spiritual leaders, noted that “sarvodaya does not mean good government or majority rule, it means freedom from government,” with decisions being made at the village level by consensus, for self-government “means ruling you own self,” without “any outside power.”

What seemed wrong to Bhave was not that the Indian people were governed by this or that government, but that “we should allow ourselves to be governed at all, even by a good government” (Volume Two, Selection 32). He looked forward to the creation of a stateless society through the decentralization of political power, production, distribution, defence and education to village communities.

indian anarchism

Bhave’s associate, Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979), drew the connections between their approach, which emphasized that a “harmonious blending of nature and culture is possible only in comparatively smaller communities,” and Aldous Huxley’s anarchist tinged vision of a future in which each person “has a fair measure of personal independence and personal responsibility within and toward a self-governing group,” in which “work possesses a certain aesthetic value and human significance,” and each person “is related to his natural environment in some organic, rooted and symbiotic way” (Volume Two, Selection 32).

The Sarvodaya movement’s tactics of Gandhian non-violence influenced the growing anarchist and peace movements in Europe and North America (Volume Two, Selection 34), while the Sarvodayans shared the antipathy of many anarchists toward the centralization, bureaucratic organization, technological domination, alienation and estrangement from nature found in modern industrial societies.

Paul Goodman summed up the malaise affecting people in advanced industrial societies during the 1950s in his essay, “A Public Dream of Universal Disaster” (Volume Two, Selection 37), in which he noted that despite technological advances and economic growth, “everywhere people are disappointed. Even so far, then, there is evident reason to smash things, to destroy not this or that part of the system (e.g., the upper class), but the whole system en bloc; for it offers no promise, but only more of the same.”

With people paralyzed by the threat of nuclear annihilation, seeking release from their pent up hostility, frustration, disappointment and anger through acquiescence to “mass suicide, an outcome that solves most problems without personal guilt,” only “adventurous revolutionary social and psychological action” can have any prospect of success (Volume Two, Selection 38).

The-Black-Flag

As Goodman’s contemporary, Julian Beck, put it, we need to “storm the barricades,” whether military, political, social or psychological, for “we want to get rid of all barricades, even our own and any that we might ever setup” (Volume Two, Selection 24). What is necessary, according to Dwight Macdonald, is “to encourage attitudes of disrespect, skepticism [and] ridicule towards the State and all authority” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

This challenge to conventional mores, fear and apathy came to fruition in the 1960s as anarchists staged various actions and “happenings,” often in conjunction with other counter-cultural and dissident political groups, from the Yippies showering the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, causing chaos among the stock traders, to the Provos leaving white bicycles around Amsterdam to combat “automobilism” and to challenge public acceptance of private property (Volume Two, Selection 50).

Macdonald thought that the “totalization of State power today means that only something on a different plane can cope with it, something which fights the State from a vantage point which the State’s weapons can reach only with difficulty,” such as “non-violence, which… confuses [the state’s] human agents, all the more so because it appeals to traitorous elements in their own hearts” (Volume Two, Selection 13). As Richard Gregg described it, non-violent resistance is a kind of “moral ju-jitsu” which causes “the attacker to lose his moral balance” by taking away “the moral support which the usual violent resistance… would render him” (Volume Two, Selection 34).

Robert Graham

anarcho-pacifism