Creeping along the pavements, peering into our gardens, emptying our rubbish bins. Can you smell it? That stench of rotting cod and tuna it leaves on the grass… And then one day you catch, you see, as he turns the corner; just a glimpse: its Leonid Brezhnev! Amongst the rags and bags, those scraps of imperial decline.
A while ago I expressed the view that we were turning into the Soviet Union, middle era Brezhnev. It elicited some wild comment – a Texan, no doubt, exercising his personal liberty with a colt 45. Nevertheless, was I so wrong? When other people start having the same idea…
One is Tom Engelhardt, who, in an excellent article, compares the United States with the later Soviet Union; suggesting that in both states the bloated military expenditure, and the Afghanistan war, are indicators of future decline. Here he is on the Soviet Union, at the end of the Seventies:
The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while…. its sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained…
Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military -- and its military adventure in Afghanistan -- when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation. They mistook military power for power on this planet.
A good selection, emphasizing similarities with present day America. The rest of the article looks at this military machine, and the second superpower war in Afghanistan. It includes many telling details, for example:
Consider, for instance, the $2.2 billion Host Nation Trucking contract the Pentagon uses to pay protection money to Afghan security companies which, in turn, slip some part of those payments to the Taliban to let American supplies travel safely on Afghan roads. Or if you don’t want to think about how your tax dollar supports the Taliban, consider the $683,000 the Pentagon spent, according to the Washington Post, to “renovate a cafe that sells ice cream and Starbucks coffee” at its base/prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Or the $773,000 used there “to remodel a cinder-block building to house a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant,” or the $7.3 million spent on baseball and football fields, or the $60,000 batting cage, or a promised $20,000 soccer cage, all part of the approximately two billion dollars that have gone into the American base and prison complex that Barack Obama promised to, but can’t, close.
The size and number of American bases is of particular interest to this writer, who demonstrates, I think convincingly, just how militarized America has become: its economic power may be sucked into these huge military budgets, but the garrisoning of the planet underpins American global pre-dominance; though as he suggests above, military power alone is not enough to rule the planet.
It’s a fine article and rightly concentrates on the (extraordinary) facts. It does not develop the initial idea, which is worthy of greater treatment.
In his brilliant documentary series Pandora’s Box Adam Curtis looked twice at the Soviet Union. The series shows how science becomes distorted when it is turned into technology; that is, when science enters the real world and must negotiate with power and wealth. One programme was about the Soviet Engineer, the other about nuclear power (with a section on Chernobyl).
What Curtis showed in the first programme was how the ideology of Stalinism turned the scientist into an engineer; and how the engineer then became the symbol of that society. The free play of scientific thought, that can lead to new discoveries, was downplayed in favour of the limited horizons of the technician. In society at large this transposed into a view that the economy could be run like a machine, with demand and supply controlled by a central institution, GOSPLAN. The people who worked in this organisation were essentially engineers and mechanics; the economy their engine. It was a very rational system! That was the problem… It set quotas for steel production: it passed them easily. However, this resulted in too much steel. So chandeliers become heavier – to get rid of the oversupply. Likewise, trains were planned to carry raw materials and manufactured products. But there were times when there was no raw material, no product – still the trains ran, to meet the schedule. Life thus became subordinated to the Plan, or more correctly: to the rational procedures of the bureaucrat; which because they had little basis in reality became increasingly irrational.
The programme on Chernobyl ends powerfully, with a quote from a high Soviet scientist who blames the disaster on the lack of humanity of the new scientists – they are just technicians, without the wealth of learning and experience of the first generation; who lived on the shoulders of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. They were too narrowly focussed, too bureaucratic, too limited, and thus cut corners, worked for the organisation rather than the community; the state rather than the country.
It is these trends, I suggest, that give the flavour of the Soviet Union to our present times.Tom Hind reviews the public relations industry in 20th century America:
Bernays saw the social system as a machine that could and should be run by specialists. Human desires were ‘the steam which makes the social machine work’ and, properly controlled, the public would act ‘as if actuated by the pressure of a button’. This coordination by technicians was necessary because the public is incapable of rational thought, and therefore of self-government. ‘The Herd’ likes to follow the advice of a trusted authority figure. Failing that, it relies on ‘clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences’. It is pointless to present the facts to the public and expect them to make a reasonable assessment. They must be stampeded in the required direction. And the rational experts in the new fields of public relations constituted as new, if self-effacing elite: ‘Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country…
Edward Bernays, a relative of Sigmund Freud, was one of the most important men in America public relations; and although he was writing before the Second World War his ideas still describe the situation today (only the metaphors have changed). With the growth of monopoly and centralisation, and increasing cultural conformity, the influence of this ‘self-effacing’ elite is greater than ever. Though, as with all egoists and self-publicists, we must take a critical look at their own assumptions and self- images. In this case, the attributes of cool rationality must be questioned – the evidence suggests otherwise; that they too are infected with the same herd like instincts, the same emotions and limited horizons as the people they patronise. Here’s Jenny Diski’s review of Alistair Campbell’s first novel (a barely disguised confessional):
I don’t doubt that Campbell drew deeply on what he found when he had his breakdown, both personally and in the psychiatric community, but suffering and even observation don’t necessarily make a person think and write with more subtlety (‘as she was forced onto the sofa, she felt physically and psychologically powerless’). Subtlety may not be an essential quality in a self-help book, but it goes a long way to making a good novel. Still, All in the Mind functions well enough as one of those books for children called ‘Milly Has Two Daddies’ or ‘Dickon’s Mummy and Daddy Get Divorced’. It seems to be designed to explain mental illness and how it is treated to people who have never thought much about it before.
And here’s Jonathan Rabin on what the MPs actually did with their expenses:
The stuff they bought holds up a faithful mirror to middle and upper-middle class Britain in the high-rolling years: Möben kitchens; appliances by Siemens, Bosch and Miele; granite countertops; Nigella Lawson mezzaluna herb choppers; Panasonic TVs; Bose iPod docking stations; Roman blinds; Corby trouser presses; Jacuzzis; Montblanc pens. As consumers, parliamentarians are a socially conformist bunch: they shopped for furniture and fabrics at John Lewis, Harrods, Laura Ashley, Heal’s, the House of Fraser, Debenhams, Habitat, IKEA, BoConcept and OKA; when looking for deals they went to Argos, Currys, Comet, Marks & Sparks, B&Q and Woolworths, until it closed. They love their gardens, and spent liberally on plants, flower boxes, lawnmowers (both human and mechanical) and pea shingle. When they spent the night in hotels (the Savoy, Le Méridien in Piccadilly, the Zetter in Clerkenwell, the Bentley in Kensington), they were prone to hit the minibar, like Alistair Burt, member for North-East Bedfordshire, whose late-night snacking on Pringles, mixed nuts, Coca-Cola, mineral water, gin and tonic, Heineken and lemonade is gleefully reported by the Telegraph in exhaustive detail over a period of nine months.
We live a bureaucratic world, where the large bureaucracies of the state cooperate with those of the multi-national corporation. Sharing a similar ideology they look to promote their own success, by growth and influence. Highly rational internally they promote irrationality in the culture:
The task of advertising is to undermine the free markets we are taught to admire: mythical entities which informed consumers make rational choices. In such systems, businesses would simply provide information about their products: cheap, easy, simple. But it is hardly a secret they do nothing of the sort. On the contrary, business spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year projecting imagery to delude customers…. Furthermore, as Veblen pointed out long ago, one of the primary tasks of business propaganda is the “fabrication of consumers,” a device that helps induce “all the classic symptoms of state-based totalitarianism: atomization, political apathy and irrationality, the hollowing out and banalization of purportedly democratic political processes, mounting popular frustration, and so forth.” (Noam Chomsky)
Thus we live in a society governed by institutions who follow they own narrowly focussed, and highly rational, aims. We’re often employed in them. They exist independently and for themselves, protected by strong hierarchical structures that dis-empower the staff and the community, though they pretend to serve us, just like the Communist Party or the Politburo. Dan Hind suggests an answer – we have to reclaim the public realm, to put the community’s interest above that of the institutions; of truly enlightened opinion, of critical insight and reason, above those of the narrow rationality of the bureaucrat. We must resist! We must fight against the bureaucrat inside us all; for he is everywhere, not just in Whitehall or in the County Council:
The idea that the bureau activities of the state are intrinsically different in character from the management of private economic offices is a continental European notion and, by way of contrast, is totally foreign to the American way.(Max Weber)
It will be hard of course, and getting harder – maybe this is why it feels like Brezhnev’s Russia -, as the corporations and the franchises grow, making employees of us all.