Every Bomb is a Capitalist Bomb

The invasion of Ukraine   provides strong evidence that the world has entered a new period of great power competition—which is to say, a world of simmering tensions between nuclear-armed states. The immediate victims, however, are likely to be states like Ukraine that neither have nuclear weapons nor fall under the umbrella of a nuclear-armed power.

So far, Russia has refrained from attacking NATO, and the US has resolved not to send troops to Ukraine. The optimists see this as evidence that nuclear deterrence works, and perhaps it does in some circumstances and under certain conditions. But a succession of flash points will mean a parade of new risks of nuclear confrontation.

During the Cold War, there were clear economic differences between the blocs. The East-West divide even extended to specific weapons—like the neutron bomb, which Soviet leaders and others characterised as a capitalist weapon since it would impact people more than property. The story is silly but illustrative: the power of the Soviet Union cast a long shadow over the period’s nuclear politics. The Left was generally pro-disarmament, but while some groups criticised both blocs for bringing the world to the nuclear brink, others were sympathetic to the idea that Communist states needed a deterrent to prevent capitalist aggression.

No such divisions need exist today. The nuclear-armed countries may represent different forms of capitalism, but they are all capitalist states. (North Korea, the exception that proves the rule, hardly represents a desirable alternative.)

In response to this economic convergence, one should expect all sides to play up ideological distinctions, even as they become increasingly dubious. Russia, for instance, is using the existence of far-right Ukrainian nationalists to dress up its invasion as an anti-fascist action. In the United States, great-power competition is already being cast as democracy vs autocracy; even though the country is not a functional democracy. The great powers may not be identical, but, increasingly, they aren’t so different.

A renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament means work—a lot of it. It means educating each other and the broader working class about the role ordinary people played in ending the Cold War arms race. It means reinvigorating legacy disarmament organisations and potentially forming new ones. It means organising against the industries that profit from the production of catastrophic arms. It means recognising that nuclear weapons are killing people right now, even as deterrence holds.

At the international level, the Left should push for more countries to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force last year and whose states-parties will hold their first meeting this month. People should insist that the nuclear-armed states uphold Article VI of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which requires them to make a good-faith effort toward disarmament, something they clearly are not doing. International work will be particularly important in NATO states as well as in places like Belarus, which may soon host Russian nuclear weapons.

At the national level, the Left should not shy away from legislative fights over specific policies and weapons programmes. These efforts are incremental and sometimes arcane, but they have a real impact and are far more likely to succeed than shouting demands for disarmament into the void.  



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Vol 55, No. 1, Jul 3 - 9, 2022