Politics after a Nuclear Crisis
of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IX, No. 2 (Fall 1990),
Brian Martin's publications on nuclear war
Brian Martin's publications
Brian Martin's website
Contained in the legal systems of almost all modern liberal democratic states is the provision for extraordinary executive power to be exercised in emergencies. This power is variously called martial law, state of siege, constitutional emergency powers, and constitutional dictatorship. This power is designed for use both in the event of war and in the face of civil unrest, and many governments make extensive preparations for these contingencies.
Considering the scope and impact of constitutional emergency powers, remarkably little attention has been given to them by either supporters or critics of state power. One of the main reasons is that the problem seems remote in the lulls between emergencies, and also disturbing: Politicians certainly have nothing to gain by raising the issue.
The 1980s saw an enormous upsurge in attention to the problem of nuclear war. Yet while accounts of the physical effects of nuclear war have been innumerable, there has been little mention of the likely political aftermath of a nuclear crisis or war: the problem of constitutional dictatorship in the nuclear age. This topic is my concern here.
To justify the examination of politics during and after a nuclear crisis or war, it is first necessary to show the significant possibility that these can occur without total destruction of human society. That is my first task. After a mention of some of the connections between war and political economy, I focus on "war dictatorship," namely, the subordination of societies to authoritarian states, which is a likely political consequence of nuclear crisis. Finally, I spell out a few implications of the analysis for social action to avoid the worst political consequences of nuclear crisis and war.
Can the World Survive a Major Nuclear
in the past several years, an enormous amount of attention has been given to
the physical consequences of nuclear war, much of it emphasizing the
possibility of global annihilation. The impression given is that once any sort
of nuclear war occurs, there is really nothing further to consider.
argument here is simple. Whatever the likelihood that a major nuclear
confrontation will result in total annihilation of the earth's population, a
significant possibility remains that nuclear crisis or war will leave major
portions of the world's population alive and, for the most part, unaffected
physically. If this is the case, then it is worth considering post-crisis and
types of scenarios are worth noting: nuclear crisis, limited nuclear war, and
global nuclear war. First, nuclear crisis: It is possible to imagine the
development of a major nuclear confrontation short of nuclear war. This might
be an extended nuclear emergency, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, yet more
serious and prolonged. It could lead to declarations of martial law and changes
in political structures, as described below, that might well persist beyond the
nuclear crisis itself.
limited nuclear war: A nuclear war does not have to be global in extent. Such a
war might be limited geographically - for example, to the Middle East - or
restricted to the exchange of a few tactical or strategic nuclear weapons. Many
analysts argue that it would be difficult to keep a nuclear exchange limited,
but these arguments remain to be tested: There is no evidence of actual nuclear
wars to prove or disprove them. It is worth remembering that expert predictions
concerning wars (for example, that World War I would be over quickly) have
often been quite wrong.
is also possible to imagine a "successful" first strike, for example,
using a few high-altitude explosions over a country to disable electronics
through the electromagnetic pulse, thereby putting the enemy's command and
control systems out of commission. However unlikely the success of such a
tactic, it cannot be ruled out a priori.
global nuclear war: If a nuclear war does escalate to major exchanges, does
that mean that near or actual human extinction is certain? The available
evidence is by no means conclusive. Although since the 1950s many people have
believed that nuclear war will inevitably lead to the death of most or all the
people on earth, the scientific evidence to support this belief has been skimpy
and uncertain. The only mechanism currently considered to create a potential
threat to the survival of the human species is the global climatic effects of
smoke and dust from nuclear explosions, commonly called nuclear winter. Even
here, some scientists believe the effects will be much more moderate than
initially proclaimed. My assessment is that global nuclear war, while
containing the potential for exterminating much of the world's population,
might kill "only" some hundreds of millions of people - an
unprecedented disaster to be sure, but far short of global annihilation.
War and Political Economy
relationship of war to the political and economic power relations in a society
is not a simple or automatic one. For one thing, there is a mutual interaction
between social structure and the type of war and military organization involved.
For example, highly technological warfare fosters and is fostered by an
advanced industrial economy with highly trained personnel, usually full-time
professionals, to design and plan the manufacture and deployment of weapons
systems. While there are many connections between war and social relations, the
focus here will be on some broad relations between war and the modern state.
War as State-Building
Modern war has been closely connected
with the building of modern states. The modern state is built on a
centralization of power once held by local entities, such as feudal estates. As
trade broke down the local and regional economic independence several hundred
years ago in Europe, the political basis for feudal rule was likewise
undermined since the estates could no longer support adequate expenditures for
defense. One of the early functions and motivations for development of state
bureaucracies was establishing and administering military forces. In short, as
local economic self-reliance declined, defense against external military
threats passed to the developing states, whose powers were expanded to maintain
major social revolutions have been associated with war or the threat of it.
For example, one factor in the development of the French Revolution was the
burden of military spending carried by the Old Regime, which faced military
competition both on sea and land. Finances for this burden could not be raised
in the context of the prerevolutionary social relations. The Revolution itself
led to a powerful new state apparatus that enabled mass mobilization of the
population for making war, and the military successes of the new French state
played a major role in the creation and strengthening of other states
Russian Revolution was made possible by the exhaustion of the Tsarist state and
military forces in World War I. The Provisional government sealed its doom by
continuing to fight in this war. The pattern of centralization of power by the
Bolsheviks was greatly hastened by the civil war of 1918-1920.
the past fifty years, numerous new states have gained their independence in
wars fought against colonial powers. The methods of guerrilla warfare, which involve
mobilizing peasants for both war-making and smashing traditional social
relationships, have played an important role in shaping the political and
economic institutions of these new states.
are fought by armies on behalf of states. Modem wars, especially those wars
requiring total mobilization of a society's resources, have required a
centralization of power by the state. As Randolph Bourne said during World War
I, "War is the health of the state".
It has often been noted that capitalist
economies are transformed into command economies in times of major war.
transformation occurs because the market breaks down. Not everyone wants to do
precisely what is needed to support the war effort. For example, conscription
is a non-market means for building an army: There are too many people for whom
no payment would be sufficient to induce them to become soldiers. In place of
financial inducements and inevitable inflation, state coercion is used to
manipulate or control the pattern of investment and distribution.
wartime, power passes from capitalists to state bureaucracies. The experiences
of wartime can have a lasting impact on capitalist economics by providing
experiences and models for peacetime government involvement in the economy.
Since World War II, military expenditures have remained at a higher level than
after previous wars, providing a permanent avenue for government intervention
in the economy.
This process has been accompanied by the expansion of state bureaucracies
in areas such as medical care, education, and social welfare services. In the
Third World, the penetration of Western economic systems is promoted by the
military forces, which serve as models for state bureaucratization.
forces and military mobilization play a central role in the creation and
survival of communist states. One reason that communist economies are so geared
for war is that they are built on a military model, as well as being forged in
the Communist state is threatened by revolts from below, the army may step in
to maintain existing social relations and, in particular, to preserve state
power. This intervention has been most apparent in China during the Cultural
Revolution and again in 1989, and in Poland after martial law was declared in
1981. Of course, direct military intervention in Third World countries has
become more the rule than the exception. Military takeovers in developed
capitalist states also occur, as in Portugal and Greece.
warfare has become highly technological. More important than commitment and
loyalty by soldiers is state research and development and implementation of new
technologies. The keys to modem war are technical expertise and bureaucratic
management of the technological process. In earlier eras, technologies for
fighting were simple - for example, the rifle and bayonet. Workers and peasants
could fight using the weapons of their rulers, and with a reasonable chance of
success. This is no longer true. The expert knowledge and professional training
utilized by modern military forces is not available to opposition groups.
Modern weapons are so lethal that the chances of success in urban guerrilla
warfare are minimal.
The social relations embodied in modern technology favor
the continued dominance of state elites. Nuclear weapons are the epitome of
technology created and deployed by states that cannot be readily used by
opponents of the state.
The Problem of War Dictatorship
of the first casualties of war is political freedom. This fact is seen most
clearly in the liberal democracies, where these freedoms are widely touted,
although institutional realities often restrict their applicability. In
wartime, it is common for martial law (in common law countries) or a
"state of siege" (in civil law countries) to be introduced. Police
and other public officials are given arbitrary powers to arrest and punish
people without trial, to undertake searches and seizures without warrant, to
forbid public meetings, to set curfews, to suppress freedom of speech and the
press and to institute courts-martial for the summary trial of crimes against
wartime state power dramatically increases, and in particular the power of the
executive increases, typically that of the cabinet in parliamentary systems and
of the president in presidential systems. The methods by which "constitutional dictatorship" are introduced vary from country to
country and situation to situation. In some countries, such as France, the
provisions for a state of siege are written into the constitution, whereas
elsewhere, in the United States, for example, ad hoc measures have been taken
by the executive and usually legitimized later by the legislature.
has often been remarked that the past century has seen a gradual increase in
the power of the central governments. The relatively short periods of emergency
rule in wartime, with dramatic increases in state powers over political and
economic life, are usually followed by a return to "normalcy," but
with some more lasting transfer of power to the state executive. In the United
States for example, the Civil War and the two world wars each led to increased
power for the president, and each of these wars is associated (usually
favorably) with a "strong" president. These wars also led to a much wider
role of the government in the economy.
often seen solely as an indictment of Communism, captures an
important truth about wider political trends in this century: the close association
of war with political repression. The rise (or manufacture) of the cold war in
the late 1940s allowed a continuing mobilization of military force and spending
that is historically quite atypical of "interwar" periods. The
military has obtained a more permanent stake in national economies, and this
seems to be associated with a number of other indicators of the potential for
state repression, most notably the increased role of secret police.
has not gone unnoticed that the dictatorial powers taken on by governments in
wartime are precisely the same powers that are needed to defend property and
privilege against demands from the working class and other oppressed groups:
"Every device of constitutional dictatorship is in its nature ideally suited
to be employed as a weapon of reaction and class struggle."
Historically, emergency powers have been used in three types of situations:
war, economic collapse, and an emergency threatening state power. The powers
given to the United States government during the New Deal illustrate the use of
emergency powers to deal with economic collapse. The British Emergency Powers
Act of 1920, designed to deal with strikes, illustrates the use of emergency
powers to deal with a threat to the state that was also a challenge from the
working class against capital. During most of the period of the Weimar Republic
in Germany, 1919-1933, Article 48 in the constitution, an emergency powers
provision, was used regularly to govern the country. But because the German
army was reactionary, Article 48 could be invoked only against challenges from
the point of view of liberal democratic theory, constitutional dictatorship is
a necessary evil: Occasionally it is necessary to suspend liberal democracy in
order to protect it in the long run. In practice this is what has happened on a
number of occasions. After the ends of wars, such as the world wars, emergency
powers have been relinquished by governments. But this procedure does not
always work. In the words of Carl J. Friedrich, "there are no ultimate
institutional safeguards available for insuring that emergency powers be used
for the purpose of preserving the constitution."
The number of military
dictatorships imposed by invoking emergency powers designed to protect
democracy is too great to enumerate. Various constitutional guarantees can be
developed to limit the use of martial law and to contain the abuses that tend
to develop under it, and no doubt much remains to be done in this direction.
But as I will argue below, it is less the formal limitations on emergency rule
that contain it than popular resistance to its extension beyond clear emergency
preparations have states made for political control in a nuclear emergency? It
is not possible to provide a comprehensive answer since much of the relevant
information is kept secret. But the available evidence shows a variety of
degrees and methods of preparation.
and Switzerland have made the most comprehensive preparations for survival of
both the population and the state. Civil defense systems in these two countries
are extensive, with the capability of protecting most of the population from
fallout, if not direct attack. In Switzerland, the bulk of the armed forces
comes from the militia rather than a standing army. In Sweden, a strong
conventional military system is supplemented by protection and dispersal of
economic production, psychological preparation of the population, and some
training in civilian resistance to aggression. In both these countries these
preparations are largely supported by the population.
government preparations for nuclear war provide a strong contrast. British
civil defense plans provide little protection for the population but include
numerous citadels and shelters to ensure the survival of government functions.
The basic thrust of planning seems to be to maintain government control over
the population rather than maximum survival or protection. For example,
simulations organized to train civil defense personnel and postwar executives
are often aimed more at internal dissent than at "enemy" attackers.
The mentality of the officials who would be in control of martial law in the
event of a nuclear crisis is shown by their characterization of
"pacifism" as a cover for subversion.
plans would be virtually unknown if it were not for the efforts of a few
meticulous investigators like Peter Laurie and Duncan Campbell.
It is not
known to what extent similar preparations have been made in other European
countries. Campbell mentions that some of them have plans to suppress public
dissent and the movement of refugees. In the United States, preparations seem
to be less developed, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency seems to
have been making a bid for increased power both in executive rule in
emergencies and in current "counterterrorism."
Australian government, by contrast, seems to have made almost no preparations
for a nuclear crisis or the aftermath of nuclear war. The Australian Defence
Department has carried out no substantial studies of the effect of nuclear war
on Australia, and there is no active civil defense program. The War Book, a
government guide for official action in the event of war, has not been updated
since the 1950s.
different degrees and types of preparations by governments for their own
survival and the survival of their populations grow out of their own political
and institutional histories, including the degree of government centralization
and secrecy, the interactive dynamics of government bureaucracies,
relationships with nuclear weapons states, and the saliency of nuclear threats.
These issues are not my main concern here. Rather, the point is that
post-nuclear war planning has been carried out by some governments, and in some
cases a key focus in this planning is more on maintaining internal political
control than defending against external enemies or protecting the population.
we examine earlier experiences of war dictatorship, an intriguing question
arises: What is it that prevents the continuation of the dictatorship after the
removal of the justifying emergency, namely the war? In a state of martial law
the executive has ultimate power over both the political and economic system,
and the police and military are the agents of the executive to enforce its
will, by force if necessary. Certainly there is no countervailing force backed
by violence that could terminate these dictatorships in countries such as
Britain, France, and the United States.
liberal answer to this question seems to be that respect for constitutional
requirements by the executive prevents the extension of the dictatorship.
even for liberals the problem is a difficult one. Lasswell, in an essay on
balancing the need to prevent aggression from "totalitarian
dictatorships" against the need to protect freedoms endangered by rise of
a police state in the United States, argued that vigilance to protect freedoms
was needed from the executive, Congress, the courts, and the public.
close look at the termination of executive powers after wars gives a better
picture of what actually happens. In some cases a voluntary termination of the
powers does occur, but the driving force in other cases is widespread public
refusal to accept continuation of repressive executive power. For example,
British prime minister Lloyd George continued with the administrative
innovation of the war cabinet for some time after the end of World War I, but
finally was induced to give it up in October 1919 in the face of public
criticism. After the end of World War II, demands by soldiers from Allied
countries to come home were so insistent that Western governments could not
ignore them. Remobilization became possible only after the Soviet Union had
been turned from an ally into an enemy in the eyes of the public. This sort of
popular opposition to government emergency powers can occur during wartime as
well. In both Britain and France at the beginning of World War I, plans were
made for a complete system of military courts to deal with infractions of
executive orders. After the immediate threat of German victory receded, popular
pressure (given expression, for example, in the legislature) against the
harshness and abuses of these courts resulted in a significant reduction in
experiences of the moderation or elimination of wartime dictatorial powers by
popular opposition can be seen as examples of the power of nonviolent action.
Nonviolent action includes actions such as demonstrations, fraternization,
social ostracism, strikes, work-to-rule, boycotts, sit-ins and parallel
government, among a host of other actions. There are many historical examples
in which nonviolent action has been the main force bringing down repressive
regimes, including in recent years the Greek, Iranian, Argentine, and
Philippine governments. Although the Ebert government invoked Article 48
against left-wing threats to the Weimar Republic, it could not rely on its own
military to oppose the right-wing Kapp putsch in 1920. Instead, the German
population spontaneously used mass nonviolent action to topple Kapp and restore
democratic political theory, with its focus on representative institutions in a
pluralist and constitutional system, has not been very useful in understanding
these events, which involve mass action and non-cooperation to undermine the
loyalty of troops and functionaries to the political and military elites.
Marxist theory has not had a lot to say either, because such mass action does
not result in any significant change in the organization of production, in many
cases, the class composition or orientation of rulers.
an organized counterweight to war dictatorship, perhaps most promising is
social defense, also called civilian defense, civilian-based defense, and
Social defense is nonviolent resistance to aggression as
an alternative to military defense, using methods such as strikes, boycotts,
noncooperation, demonstrations, and setting up alternative institutions. No
society has yet adopted social defense, but some examples of the spontaneous
use of nonviolent methods give a suggestion of its possibilities, such as the
Czechoslovak resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the toppling of the
dictatorship in Guatemala in 1944. Social defense relies on community
solidarity and widespread participation, and by its nature is suited for opposing
state military power. Preparations for social defense against an external enemy
would serve as well for opposing state or military repression in the event of
nuclear crisis or war.
organization plays a large role in social defense. Many of the methods of
nonviolent resistance are economic in nature, such as strikes, boycotts, and
work-ins. Factories and other economic resources can be designed so that they
can be shut down or redirected to resist use by an aggressor. For example,
large scale machinery can be designed with key components, hard to duplicate,
whose easy removal or destruction halts its operation. Replacements could be
kept in a safe place, perhaps even another country, so that even torture of
workers would not restore production.
the advantages of social defense as a defense system by itself or as a backup
to military defense, or in preventing the excesses of war dictatorship, it has
not been enthusiastically received by governments. Only a few governments,
including Sweden and the Netherlands, have even sponsored serious
investigations into the option. This is not surprising: Most governments are
loath to sponsor any initiative that might be used to undermine their own
the existence of nuclear weapons has stimulated vast amounts of political
theorizing, hardly anything has been done concerning the political consequences
of nuclear crisis or nuclear war. In my opinion, the prospect of a nuclear
crisis serious enough to cause severe political repression is real enough to
warrant some political preparation as an insurance policy. The goal should be
to make this preparation of a type that also reduces the risk of nuclear war in
the first place.
Mundell Watkins, The Failure of Constitutional Emergency Powers under the
German Republic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1939), 24, 137.
Ehrlich et al, The Cold and the Dark (New York:
L. Thompson and Stephen H. Schneider, "Nuclear winter reappraised", Foreign
Affairs 64 (Summer 1986): 981-1005.
4. Stanislav Andreski, Military
Organization and Society (London: Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1968).
5. Theda Skocpol, States and Social
Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Burnham, Total War: The Economic Theory of a War Economy (Boston: Meador, 1943); Lionel Robbins, The Economic Problem in
Peace and War (London: Macmillan, 1950).
Melman, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).
Oppenheimer, The Urban Guerilla (Chicago:
L. Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modem
Democracies (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (New York: M. Evans, 1980). That this is nothing new, see among
others, Arthur Selwyn Miller, Democratic Dictatorship: The Emergent
Constitution of Control (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood,
Constitutional Dictatorship, 173.
Failure of Constitutional Powers.
J. Friedrich, Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice
in Europe and America, 4th ed. (Waltham, Mass.:
Blaisdell, 1968), 570.
M. Watkins, "The Problem of Constitutional Dictatorship," Public
Policy 1 (1940): 324-379.
Roberts, Nations in Arms (New York: Praeger,
Laurie, Beneath the City Streets: A Private Investigation into Government
Preparations for National Emergency (Frogmore:
Granada, 1979); Duncan Campbell, War Plan UK: The Truth About Civil Defence
in Britain (London: Burnett, 1982).
Peck, "The Take-Charge Gang," Progressive, May 1985, 17-24; Diana Reynolds, "FEMA and the NSC: the rise
of the national security state," CovertAction Information Bulletin 33 (Winter 1990): 54-58; Edward Zuckerman, The Day After World
War III (New York: Viking, 1984).
Ball, "The Australian Defense Force and Mobilisation", in Desmond
Ball and J. O. Langtry, eds., Problems of Mobilisation of Defence of
Australia (Canberra: Phoenix Defence Publications,
D. Lasswell, National Security and Individual Freedom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950).
Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action
(Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).
Failure of Constitutional Powers, 37.
for example Adam Roberts, ed., The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-Violent
Resistance to Aggression (London: Faber and Faber,
1967); Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack, War Without Weapons (London: Frances Pinter, 1974); Gene Sharp, Making Europe
Unconquerable (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1985).
Martin, "How the Peace Movement Should be Preparing for Nuclear War,"Bulletin of Peace Proposals 13 (1982): 149-159.