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Editorial: Testing times

North Korea is trying to blast its way into becoming a de facto member of the “nuclear club”. The club’s five officially recognized members are up in arms, so to speak, by the nuclear test this state-capitalist regime conducted. “A provocative act!” says the head of the club’s senior member-nation, while another leader, not to be outdone, denounces the nuclear test as “a flagrant and brazen violation of international opinion”. Like “old-money” members of an exclusive golf club, the nuclear powers have hurled abuse on the tacky upstart who dares to seek membership, overlooking how much the two sides have in common.

The “responsible” nations, so appalled by the militarism of Kim Jong-il, have stockpiles of nuclear weapons that the pot-bellied dictator can only dream of obtaining. Lest we think these weapons are in safe hands, consider how US leaders have talked openly in recent years of employing nuclear “bunker busters”. And the widespread use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan means, in a sense, that the line between “conventional” and nuclear war has already been crossed. Now the US and its nuke-wielding brethren, posing as the “international community”, have taken a break from their armed conflicts to warn us of a grave threat to civilization. Are we supposed to laugh or cry?

But don’t imagine that we should back the nuclear upstart. Just as we have no reason to prefer a first-generation capitalist to a third-generation one, as both exploit us, backing North Korea is simply a different path to the same disaster. Apparently we are meant to choose between leaving nuclear weapons in the hands of a few powerful nations, hoping they will not abuse this privilege, or allowing more nations to have access to such weapons, at the risk of letting a thousand mushroom clouds bloom.

This is madness but there is method to it. Under capitalism, accumulating deadly weapons, and occasionally using them, is perfectly rational behavior. Each nation-state, representing the collective interests of its capitalists (who still keep on fighting each other tooth and nail), is in a state of perpetual conflict, at some level or another, with other nation-states, especially those on its borders. These disagreements tend to revolve around access to resources, trade routes, national boundaries, and the like. In such disputes, obtaining an abundance of military hardware tends to bolster a nation’s powers of persuasion, although draining its wealth and resources.

Being aware of the logic behind the arms race is hardly reassuring, however, Once armed to the teeth, there is always a temptation to take the next step and use military force to “resolve” an issue. Trigger fingers get itchy. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?”. In addition to such hubristic curiosity, wars are sparked for any number of reasons. A weak country might launch a war out of desperation or a leader with a tenuous hold on power might gamble on a military adventure. Or in many cases, each side will show off its military hardware in the hope of intimidating the other, but neither will back down. Boom!

Our fate is in the hands of people who have no real concern for our lives. And the horrors resulting from their calculations and miscalculations are magnified by megatons if nuclear weapons are involved. We need to free ourselves from this death spiral. The problem we face is not simply this or that “dangerous” country, or an “irresponsible” leader, but a lethal capitalist system that has long outlived its usefulness.