I was asked by a friend to write an unconventional piece for a publication put out by non-profit organizations taking part in the United Nation's preparatory committee on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ("prepcom").
For a little background, the prepcom is a big pre-conference gathering of state parties to the treaty. NGOs have increasingly been taking part in the prepcom in order to influence the proceedings. I actually went to the prepcom back in 2004 in New York and gave a little presentation entitled "The Social Contract of Nuclear Weapons."
I'm very critical of professional activism across the board, no matter what we're fighting for. My insights into the antinuclear movement are based off my long-time efforts to change institutions I'm a part of - to de-nuclearize them. Anyhow, read away:
Where is the Movement?
Nuclear Abolition Requires More Than Civil Society and States
The rise of the modern democratic nation state, first in the United States, France, and Haiti was paralleled by the growth of a complex social order called civil society. Civil society simply refers to the combined sum of all voluntary organizations and associations whose emphasis is upon shaping the social world and influencing government policies. Alexis de Tocqueville envisioned it as a thriving realm of cooperative and mutual interaction between individuals and groups and wrote of an America filled with civil interaction and association, a model of a republican future.
Today, civil society is often proclaimed to be a third power, a sphere of social action beside the state and market capable of putting the latter two in check. Civil society is envisioned by many as the possible savior for all of the planet's ills, from global warming and poverty to nuclear proliferation and the small arms trade. The term is most often equated with the countless non-profit and non-governmental organizations, the vast majority of them based in the United States and Europe, that focus in on issue specific problems, or upon particular proactive missions: genocide in Darfur, water rights, women's rights, forest protection, capping carbon emissions, etc. Civil society has a highly specialized division of labor.
Civil society has become such a legitimate concept that most nation states now recognize non-profit corporations and NGOs within their corporate tax laws, and the United Nations has increasingly begun recognizing the presence and role of civil society in shaping the proceedings of the UN. Those reading the News In Review are obviously aware that within the NPT framework civil society organizations have gained a considerable degree of legitimacy and access. At the global level scholars, activists and state functionaries now speak of a transnational civil society network. Nuclear abolitionist have created one of the more transnational of these networks in pursuing their goal of disarmament.
Consider the UN's own description of the modern political order. According to the UN's Department of Public Information:
“The United Nations system has significant informal and formal arrangements with civil society organizations [CSOs], collectively known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). More and more, NGOs are UN system partners and valuable UN links to civil society. NGOs are consulted on UN policy and programme matters. CSOs play a key role at major United Nations Conferences and as indispensable partners for UN efforts at the country level. At the same time, the UN is helping to promote the emergence of Civil Society Organizations in the developing countries.”
The primary role of civil society organizations as it is understood by the professional activists who staff them, particularly those organizations preoccupied with issues of violence, war and peace, and especially nuclear weapons, is to influence state power. Most civil society representatives from Europe, Japan, the United States, and other regions with a significant presence in UN disarmament proceedings such as the Preparatory Committee on the NPT, understand their position and power as emanating from expertise and solidarity that transcends national governments. Most of the work carried out by disarmament oriented NGOs and activists involves strategic attempts to critique the behavior of states and to influence the eventual treaties and agreements that state functionaries might adopt.
This, in a nutshell, describes the position that civil society has within the UN, especially around issues related to what is euphemistically referred to as “security.” Although it is a marginal position, civil society is fully incorporated into the global political order.
The Abolition of “Civil Society”
Since the end of the Cold War the abolition of nuclear weapons has become almost entirely a matter of interests to states and NGOs. In a complex fashion this is both the cause and effect of our stymied times. It was not always this way. Past periods have seen enormous groundswells of community resistance to nuclear weapons, waste, and energy. Weapons have been opposed in profound ways since their first production and use by the United States. Waste, and the environmental racism/toxic imperialism it involves has been effectively resisted for decades. Nuclear energy, the irresponsible and ecologically corrosive quest of states to produce limitless power (and a weapons production capacity) has been undermined by environmentally informed people's movements for just as long.
All of this opposition was, at its zenith, not at all the product of NGOs working through this thing we have been calling civil society. These high-tide uprisings against nuclear weapons have been more culturally based than political. The greatest moments of transformation and refusal have occurred because of the presence of a culturally fecund opposition. NGOs have had their role in these massive mobilizations, but their role has been supportive and augmentative, not foundational nor consolidating. Today we are missing this cultural and community based opposition to nuclear weapons, and in its stead we have sought out “power” in the halls of governments and international organizations like the UN. In doing so we have abandoned our one real means to nuclear abolition: mass movements that disrupt the militaristic goals of nation states while building parallel futures based on alternative notions of security and prosperity.
At their best NGOs should be thought of as abeyance structures for social movements. An abeyance structure, according to historians Verta Taylor and Lila Rupp, is any political organization that can keep a flame alive during the doldrums, the periods when societal conditions make social movements more or less impossible. Today we are in the doldrums. We abolitionist have been in the doldrums since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union when we realized the nuclear weapons state signatories of the NPT, the United States foremost among them, had not genuine interest in taking steps toward implementing Article VI. While the nuclear weapons states have held onto their arsenals and re-articulated their rationales for possessing these weapons, those of us in the opposition have been unable to articulate a compelling need and possibility for disarmament. Perhaps our greatest mistake has been in our embrace of civil society organizations – of the non-profit industrial complex – as the means to the changes we seek. It is altogether possible that civil society is not only incapable of leading the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, but that in fact it will help to create the new geopolitical conditions under which state parties explain their needs for possessing and possibly using nuclear arms.
In these war times of state terrorism and al Qaeda's brand of civil society terrorism, through the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, through imperial over-reach by the United States, through two genocides in Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and so much other wrenching conflict, we nuclear abolitionists have found ourselves fighting a rearguard battle to keep the dream of global nuclear disarmament alive. In doing so most of us have taken part in organizing the antiwar movements that have rocked the world, or we have found ourselves mixing through other mass movements for social justice, all the while holding our knowledge and dream of nuclear abolition, in abeyance.
Movements of people are what make history. Movements against nuclearism are best thought of as collective shifts whereby regular folks step out of line to resist and refuse the institutions of the state and market that in their daily life produce the conditions and politics that make nuclear weapons and war possible. To do this, to make history, people need profound ideals driving them, and they need new culturally based ways of living and relating to others. Shallow politics and NGO (re)forms of influence are never going to be enough to create movements, nor to lead them.
The antinuclear movement has gone through waves in the past. These waves have broken upon every continent at different times catalyzed by local and regional contexts. The problem with how we scholars, activists, and lawyers – “civil society representatives,” as the UN state parties call us – think about the movement to abolish nuclear weapons is that we are so fixated on ourselves and our organizations as agents of change that we cannot see nor appreciate the reality that change of such a profound level as that which we seek can only occur through a real social movement, not a merely political campaign.
Thus we need to think seriously about the abolition of civil society as a means toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. It would certainly be foolish to disband our NGOs and pack up our campaigns or research projects aimed at critiquing and influences state signatories of the NPT. It is necessary that we put at much pressure as we can on all states, if not to adopt a politics of disarmament, at least to make it as difficult as possible for non-nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapons and for weapons states such as the US to develop new weapons such as the RRW. Horizontal and vertical proliferation can effectively be combatted through NGO action. But in doings so we risk losing sight not only of the real goal, but also of the final and necessary means to attain that goal: nuclear abolition through mass movement.
The work of civil society NGOs will only be effective with the rising of a fourth power, the disruptive and creative capacity of people acting within their daily lives to oppose institutions, corporations and states that benefit from nuclearism. Only under these bottom pressures from a more culturally based movement to reject nuclearism – such as we saw during the early 1980s in the United States – will we see opportunities to influence and steer state decisions toward disarmament within the NPT regime. Without locally based peoples movements the best we can hope for is decades more of conference hopping, “speaking truth to power,” frustration, and the occasional arms control victory to limit the damage that's being done.