History and the bomb

PHOTO: Left to right — U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H.P. Blandy, his wife, and Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry cut a cake made in the shape of a mushroom cloud at a reception for Operation Crossroads (November 6, 1946). More information about the “atom cake” scandal can be found here. An extract from the Washington Post a week later details reactions to the photo in the Soviet press can be accessed by clicking here.

It should probably be said that I am personally in favor of nuclear energy, though I’m fully aware of the risks or dangers involved. Nuclear waste is a major problem, one for which no adequate solution has yet been found. Obviously, if any safer and more efficient energy source were to be discovered that might replace nuclear power, I would be in favor of that instead.

The following passages are excerpted from two texts by the German sociologist and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and pertain to the problematic fact of atomic warfare in a philosophy of history envisioned as the progress of human freedom.

Bikini atoll copy


No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.

— Theodor Adorno, Negative
(1966), pg. 320

It is not my task…to enter into the detail of the way in which history is constructed. Even so, I believe that, if we are to treat certain fundamental questions of the philosophy of history, we cannot ignore such matters entirely; and I believe further that the knowledge of historical matters is in the first instance a question of distance. If we approach details too closely and fail to open them up to critical inspection, we will indeed find ourselves in the proverbial situation of not seeing the wood for the trees. On the other hand, if we distance ourselves too much, we shall be unable to grasp history because the categories we use themselves become excessively magnified to the point where they become problematic and fail to do justice to their material. I have in mind concepts such as the progress of freedom, about which I [have] offered some critical comments…

So I would say that we need to keep a certain distance. This will enable us both to dissociate ourselves from a total theory of history and equally to resist the cult of the facts which, as I have explained, have their own conceptual difficulties. We can illustrate this by saying, for example, that we cannot really speak of something like progress in general, as indeed I have already argued. Incidentally we shall take a closer look at this concept towards the end of the section in which we discuss the philosophy of history.
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On the Crisis

Some questions


Do we live in a crisis today? If so, what sort of crisis — political? economic? social?

If several simultaneously, how do these crises interrelate?

In other words, what effect does the present global economic downturn have on prospects for politicization? If it results in political radicalization, does it tend toward the Right or toward the Left?

Oppositely, does the absence of a viable leftist alternative today change the character of the social or economic crisis?

What sort of social consequences has the economic crisis generated, in terms of classes? Why the discourse (ideology) of “the disappearing middle class”? At a political level, has this social upheaval led to anything in the way of a renewed “class consciousness”? Is class still even important?

How does the present crisis operate (unfold) in terms of time and space?

How does the present crisis relate to past crises of capital? How is it the same? How is it different?

What is the duration of the present crisis? Is recovery on the horizon? Is there an end in sight? Or are we witnessing, as Marxian economists like Bertell Ollman and Immanuel Wallerstein have contended, the “terminal crisis” of capitalism? If not the end of capitalism as such, does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism? If so, what is the character of the transition? Does neoliberalism (post-Fordism) revert to a neo-Fordist configuration, or something else? Can the outcome of the this crisis be understood to entail “progress” or “regress”?

How does the crisis in North America since the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 relate to the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone since 2010? Are these crises at all related to the wave of political revolutions of the Arab Spring?

What is the extent of the present crisis? How has it been distributed spatially? Unevenly? What does globalization look like during a time of prolonged crisis? Is the era of US hegemony at a close? If so, to where does the locus of geopolitical power now shift? (China? Russia? India?)

Do different interpretations of the crisis really recommend different political strategies?

What are the political stakes of the perennial Marxist debates about crisis or the trajectory of capitalist development? What are the ramifications of disputes over the immiseration thesis, the falling rate of profit, the validity of the labor theory of value, and overproduction vs. underconsumption as the underlying catalyst of capitalist crisis?

Do different methods and analyses of social/economic crisis imply different modes of political organization and mobilization? If so, what sorts of differences?

If not, what is the significance of this fact? What would it mean to say that two interpreters of the crisis might disagree substantially over its root causes and ultimate effects but offer identical political solutions? What would it take to make these disagreements meaningful at a political level again?

What does it mean to interpret the world without being able to change it?

Why do the most sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice?

Can society — the capitalist social formation — be understood as an entirely objective phenomenon, without ever producing a subject capable of intervening in its processes? Does capitalism still make sense as a pure “structure” or system devoid of human agency?

Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Does it continue to exist as simply one “lens” or “perspective” amongst others? Should the intractability of the current social, political, and economic crisis not result in a crisis within Marxian economics or social theory as a discipline?