Life in the nuclear age: Classical realism, critical theory and the technopolitics of the nuclear condition

Columba Peoples*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
318 Downloads (Pure)


Classical realist thought provides a diagnosis of the significance nuclear weapons that calls into question the very possibility of politics in the nuclear age. While sharing similarities with this outlook, critical theoretic reflections suggest a more expansive consideration of the nuclear condition as underpinned by combinations of dystopian fears of nuclear destruction and utopian visions of nuclear futures. Most prominently Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory intimates an understanding of the nuclear condition as one that is rendered tolerable so long as nuclear technologies are associated with and related to innovation, progress and modernity. The study of the technopolitics of the nuclear condition might thus look not only to classical realists’ concern with ‘Death in the Nuclear Age’ but also incorporate corresponding critical awareness of claims to the life-sustaining applications of nuclear technologies in areas such as energy production, industry and medicine. Applying an ‘aporetic’ form of immanent critique, and to exemplify how the international politics of the nuclear age has often been predicated on efforts to distinguish and relate different kinds of nuclear technologies, the article revisits the United States–led post-war vision of ‘Atoms for Peace’ and compares it to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s contemporary ‘How the Atom Benefits Life’ campaign.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-296
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of International Political Theory
Issue number3
Early online date1 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019


  • Classical realism
  • critical theory
  • immanent critique
  • nuclear power
  • technopolitics


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