A Dual Catastrophe: Mass Culture and Nuclear Terror During the Transition to Neoliberalism

John C. Baker

Advisor: Alison Landsberg, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Hugh Gusterson, Denise Albanese

Johnson Center, Gold Room, G19
November 05, 2015, 11:30 AM to 08:30 AM


This dissertation argues that the nuclear freeze movement played a significant role in the construction of neoliberalism in the United States. Depicting the early 1980s as a moment of historical convergence between two major crises—economic restructuring and the threat of nuclear apocalypse—it proposes that the freeze movement’s strategy to mobilize opposition to the arms race unwittingly helped smooth over the material contradictions of the transition to neoliberalism. As I demonstrate, this strategy rested upon a “zoological mode of activism” that portrayed nuclear war as an existential threat to the human species. Disseminated through various forms of mass culture, including TV movies, bestselling books, and protest slogans, the zoological mode interpellated its subjects as members of an endangered species facing imminent extinction. It presented the struggle against nuclear war as a universal cause, asserting that since all of humanity had a stake in the species’ survival, the freeze existed beyond the realm of politics. While successful at broadening the ranks of the movement, this mode of activism also stressed the need for human unity in the midst of protracted recession, high unemployment, and widening social stratification. I argue that by papering over class conflict at a moment of painful restructuring, the freeze movement aided the neoliberalization of the U.S. economy, even as it brought the country back from the brink of catastrophe. This dissertation places political economic research in conversation with social movement scholarship to illuminate the affinities and tensions between the nuclear freeze movement and ascendant neoliberalism. Its methodological framework is informed by the historical cultural studies of Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson as well as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Chapters explore the cultural production of the zoological mode, the movement’s relationship to Reagan-era economic debates, the zoological qualities of the notorious telefilm The Day After (1983), and the mode’s influence on post-Cold War imaginaries of globalization and technological progress. My findings complicate existing scholarly narratives by suggesting that the threat of nuclear war—and the form of the mass movement opposed to it—were important factors in the construction of U.S. neoliberalism.