All over the world, landscapes both urban and rural are littered with military artifacts from bygone times. These artifacts have completed their lifecycle as objects of power, force and control, and have either been repurposed or forgotten.
Repurposed artifacts gain new meaning in the world, as they take on new roles. The former military base of Christiania in Copenhagen became a self-organizing free town. In Keflavík, a former US Navy base was converted into a university. In Florence, a former juvenile prison was turned into a safe haven for human rights defenders. In many places, former strongholds with relatively little public value have become tourist attractions, such as the tunnels inside the rock of Gibraltar, the castle in Ljubljana and the fortress of Komárom.
Some of these military artifacts don’t need to be explicitly repurposed to retain public value. In Europe, roads built by and for Roman armies up to two thousand years ago still form many of the transportation backbones of the continent. Without roads, there could be no trade.
But as time has gone on, military artifacts have become less amenable to public repurposing. While we might find some potentially beneficial use for the odd warship, the NORAD facility in Cheyenne Mountain isn’t going to become a theme park anytime soon, and despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s suggestions, thermonuclear devices cannot be turned into snow cone makers. And while it is also conceivable that some guy might come along one day and convert an ICBM into a spaceship for faster-than-light travel, I’m not going to hold my breath.
Nuclear weapons are interesting artifacts. It is a matter of public record that almost ten thousand Nuclear weapons have been constructed. How many were constructed outside of the public record is anyone’s guess. Where they are is also an open question. A Nuclear device belonging to the US military was found in the sea off the coast of Greenland a couple of years ago, and nobody could publicly explain how it got there. And that’s the US – a country that at appears to have at least a vaguely competent military and relatively stable political atmosphere. Consider the artifacts left behind from the USSR. Not all visually accounted for, I’d venture to guess.
It has been said that the Nuclear bomb is a fundamentally undemocratic device: It has widespread impact, it is unspecific as to which humans it harms, it is expensive to source materials for and complicated to build. While an Ulam-style trigger mechanism is really just a question of getting enough dynamite in the right place, plutonium isn’t something you can pick up at the next convenience store.
Contrast these to rifles: Easy to build, easy to use, limited range and action, fairly focused on a particular target, unless you’re using an AK-47, in which case the only serviceable objective is chaos. As such, they are a much more democratic form of military artifact. Although they cannot directly be repurposed beyond a certain degree, there may be legitimate use for them outside of warfare.
What unites all of the artifacts I’ve mentioned so far is that they are physical. They can be visually accounted for. They exist in a scarcity-based economy. There is an upper limit to how many nukes can be built here on Earth, there is a way of counting them.
And as determined by the START treaty, there is a way to dismantle them. Nuclear disarmament was a hotly contested and highly useful goal near the end of the Cold War, although the topic has somewhat fallen out of fashion today. It’s as if people have come to terms with the idea of certain people having the ability to wipe out all of humanity at the blink of an eye. After Obama first took office, he went and had a conversation with Putin about disarmament, but there hasn’t been much media followup since then. Are there fewer nukes now than there were five years ago? I doubt it.
But an ICBM is a relatively hard thing to hide. This we know in part because if Scotland gets independence from the UK, the net number of Nuclear powers in the world remains constant, although the identity of one of them changes: the UK’s Nuclear stockpile is for the most part poorly hidden in the highlands. So if we did at some point get serious about disarmament, we’d know where to go, modulo some degree of military ingenuity and political madness.
With nukes, there is an exit strategy. In recent weeks, we have been granted some rather disturbing insights into the world of surveillance. We have heard of Prism, Boundless Informant, Tempora, and other things, the goal of which is not to spy on enemies of the state, but to spy on everybody on the assumption that we are all enemies of the state.
Let us indulge in a utopian form of escapism for a moment and posit the possibility that US President Barack Obama were to appear live on all the networks tonight, terrestrial and satellite, and declare that these catch-all surveillance programs would be abandoned forthwith, that all of the collected information – several hundred billion database entries – and all of the surveillance equipment would be destroyed.
If the US government had any credibility left, there would be instant jubilation. Peace would break out and victory would be declared, of some kind. But this is not the case. The US government was already running on the fumes of its credibility by the time Chelsea Manning exposed a shocking number of war crimes perpetrated in full knowledge of the upper echelons of the US government, and in terms of credibility it sputtered to an unceremonious halt when it was exposed that they had for at least seven years been conducting massive pervasive intrusions into the privacy of hundreds of millions of people around the world, violations against the trade secrecy afforded to companies globally, and quite literal invasions into the sovereignty of possibly every country on the planet.
This is not to say that all parts of the US government are rotten – not at all. On the contrary, many people within the US government or working for it are decent people with good intentions: The existence of people such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake and Bill Binney is proof of this. The problem is not with the people, as such, it is with the structures and the behavior those structures breed.
If we return to our indulgence, the onus on the US government in this situation is to prove that they have dismantled their surveillance systems. But how could this be accomplished? There is no easy answer.
One of the fundamental challenges is that the US has ratcheted up their security apparatus to a point where any loosening would be construed by some as backing down. There are countries which might conceivably wish to take advantage of any weaknesses. There aren’t a lot of avenues for reduction.
One might argue that there is a possibility for the governments – and let’s remember that it isn’t just the US government, there’s the UK, Germany, France and many others – to back out of this surveillance quietly without alerting their enemies. But that would be moot – the public would not know, and thus public opinion would not be mended, and therefore little real benefit would come of it.
The understanding here is that any action taken by any of these governments now that does not lead to a better informed public on the one hand, and better protected rights to privacy on the other, are not going to be sufficient. So what are governments to do? There aren’t a lot of options.
The Death of the Republic
We have reached an impasse. On the one hand, the actions of the governments of these countries have rendered them entirely untrustworthy. On the other hand, their only avenue to regaining trust is to dismantle military artifacts that are not physical, cannot be visually accounted for, that exist in a post-scarcity economy, with no meaningful limit to how many surveillance systems can be in place and no way of counting them.
This is a catch-22. But we have seen this kind of stalemate arise before, numerous times in numerous empires, and they always had the same result. Some issue of contention comes up, ratcheting to the point where there is no feasible outcome. Politics be damned, military action is sometimes taken. Sometimes, it’s not country-on-country action. It’s the public using all of those repurposed artifacts to their own ends.
I am deeply worried by this possibility. While the little anarchist in me would be happy to see these governments replaced, I very much prefer soft landings. The republic as we know it needs an exit strategy. This means a few different things.
A Motion for Rebirth
First, we need some new way of creating structural transparency on the protocol level. This is to say that the institutions which service us must be capable of exposing their activities directly to the public through a complete analytical mechanism. In practice this would mean that people are granted the capacity to be as well informed as they see fit.
Second, we need some new way of aggregating political will. This essentially means better collective decision making mechanisms, systems of direct democracy that allow everybody to express their social choices in a way that does not disempower them. Most direct democracy systems fulfill the requirement of allowing everybody to participate, but few fulfill the requirement of giving everybody a say. This needs to change, and until it does, there is no reasonable expectation that people will wish to participate.
The third thing is slightly more cumbersome, and more related to this discussion of military artifacts. The world’s political economy has been constructed over many centuries, imbued the logic of empire. If you take any artifact from the economy, physical or electronic, military or civilian, the chances of its creation having involved the exploitation of humans somewhere are near certainty.
We need to figure out – and here I have no boilerplate solution – new organizational structures that don’t require exploitation. I know, I know. Slightly slipping back into Utopia here.
New Logic, New Artifacts
The hard problems are kind of obvious. We’re all here because we know that they need solving. Some look to the people standing on this deck for guidance and leadership in these issues. The reality is, nobody has the answers.
What we do know is that the logic of our current societies does not lead to equality, democracy and civility. It leads to Prism, Tempora and Boundless Informant. It leads to GCHQ, NSA, and BND. It leads to Tito, Obama and Lukaschenko.
We need a new logic. This logic will only come about by the elimination of the existing states, the states that have rendered themselves untrustworthy by their actions against us. But as assuredly as the current system has generated the military artifacts of our time, the new logic will produce new artifacts, both military and civilian, and it is up to us to repurpose them to the benefit of everybody.