By Umair Haque,
If I was to tell you there was a society in which longevity, real incomes, savings — not to mention, happiness, meaning, trust, and democracy itself — were all shrinking at record pace, what would you say? I’d say it was collapsing — whether or not its people knew it, or wanted to know it. Yesterday, that society was the Soviet Union. Today, it’s America. And it strikes me that these two collapses are eerily similar in many ways. Now, I’m not crying: “America is the Soviet Union, dude!!!111” — but I’ll come to that. First, the parallels.The first is what I’ll call forced apathy. You can’t exactly spend much time changing the system when you’re stuck on the breadline — hence, Soviet collapse was a self-perpetuating force. But you can’t spend much time changing the system when you’re working 80 hours a week…for declining income, either. 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck — translation: nobody much has the time or energy to change much of anything: they’re too busy just struggling desperately to make ends meet. Hence, nothing much changes.
Friends across the world often ask me: “why don’t Americans do more to fix their crumbling society?” They’re aghast, astonished. I tell them the reality of American life: Americans would, if they could, but they can’t, mostly. Apathy is forced on them by a predatory kind of capitalism that forces them to live something like poor people in a rich country. Breadlines — insulin lines — what’s the difference, really? Americans are forced into being apathetic, weary, drained of energy and ideas and time, by a fatally broken political economy which makes them more and more of them live at the edge of ruin, more and more so every day — but that forced apathy, my friends, is the kind of trap that has led societies throughout history to collapse, whether the USSR or Rome.
What happens if you do try to change the system, though? Well — how exactly are you going to do it? The second way American collapse resembles Soviet collapse is through one party rule. I mean this in a subtle way. It’s true that one party controls most of America’s government — and its society, too — and that party has imploded into the kind of extremism that makes dictators proud. Still, think about the opposition for a moment. What do you notice? They don’t oppose.
The Republicans and Democrats don’t differ very much, do they? The Dems don’t offer any of the following, for example — retirement, healthcare, affordable education, childcare, safety nets, and so on. Instead, both parties seem to believe in more or less the same things — markets as the solution to every problem a society has, populated by greedy, self-interested, profit-maximizing “consumers” on the one side, and corporate “people” on the other. Witness Obamacare — and its legacy of ruin (life expectancy’s falling, my friends.) So the Democrats don’t oppose. Americans are offered a set of false choices — between implosion, the Republican way, or collapse, the Democrat way. Neither of these, though, amounts to progress. The result is the functional equivalent of one-party rule.
Sure, there are Democrats — like Elizabeth Warren — who really do have bold and brave plans to truly fix America’s Big Problems. But the strange thing is that they’re systematically ignored — when they’re not openly demonized. Why is that? That brings me to my third parallel between Soviet collapse and American collapse. I’ll call this one structural corruption, or more simply, power-seeking.
The reason that you don’t hear your daily pundit or columnist or intellectual telling you — “hey, wait! Elizabeth Warren’s ideas are awesome!!” — but instead, either shouting hysterically about Trump’s tweets or trying to big up some male candidate with lesser ideas is as simple as it is ruinous. They’re in it for themselves. They want to amass power, too — in the form of followers, fans, influence, control. So why bother telling people what works best — when you can pick a fight, start a tussle…point to someone who’s already the picture perfect portrait of a golden boy?
Power seeking of this kind has corroded the American public sphere wholesale. It consists of absolutely no discussion of substance at all, anymore, whatsoever, anywhere. How often have you turned on CNN or MSNBC and they’ve taught you how healthcare works, say, in Canada, Switzerland, or France? Never. And that’s because their corporate overlords won’t let them. There’s no profit in it — there’s the opposite of profit. But that also means that the Chris Hayeses and Ezra Kleins of the world are more interested in their own bottom lines, platforms, stature, influence, than in genuinely fixing anything, really, in society. Of course, they’re still the good guys, we think. And they are — but that’s only because corrosive levels of power-seeking are so transparent that lobbyists literally write many Congressional bills…right out in the open. Power-seeking, my friends.
That brings me to my fourth parallel between Soviet and American collapse — self-referentialism. In the USSR, nobody much discussed anything that happened outside the USSR. Nobody said: “hey, maybe we should build an economy like Germany’s…a healthcare system like France…a retirement system like Spain.” And that’s exactly the case in America. It’s Sunday today — the “political talk shows” are on. And what really makes them strange, bizarre, special, is that on them, the world is never, ever discussed. Except in the context of war, of blowing it up. But learning from it? Understanding it? Knowing it? Forget it — nobody on an American talk show has ever once said, “maybe we should have a healthcare system like France”…not to mention a column or article.
The world didn’t exist to the USSR — there was an Iron Curtain in place, as was famously said in those days — and that Iron Curtain trapped it in self referentialism. In Soviet days, you might have heard endless discussion of the Politburo or the Five Year Plan. In America, it’s endless discussion of which GOP dummy said what about largely meaningless statistics like “GDP” and “the stock market.” What’s the difference, really? How is Chris Hayes discussing some GOP rube about GDP — as if it were some legitimate perspective, especially instead of saying, “hey, we have to learn from the world, guys” — any different from Soviet apparatchik discussing the Politburo’s Five Year Plan? It isn’t, really.
America has an Iron Curtain, too. Nothing can ever be discussed except American political celebrities, American ideas, American institutions. But these are all backwards today — America doesn’t lead the world anymore, it lags it, by a long way. And so discussing what’s backwards, my friends, leads to no progress. Yet there the American public sphere is — Iron Curtain fully in place — only ever discussing ideas, people, institutions, from inside. Just as the Soviets thought they were a grand empire, above history, that had nothing to learn from the world — and trapped in self-referentialism, then, it collapsed — so too today America is retelling just that tale. Self-referentialism, which is a product of exceptionalism, dooms it to never be able to learn from the world — hence, its public sphere is one big echo chamber of the same old ideas, profit, advantage, power, control, reiterated by the same old types, brutish, foolish, violent men, who’ve never learned anything about the world, and those who aspire to be like them.
But how did the pursuit of profit, power, control, come to be so…well…normal? Adulated, prized, applauded? That brings me to my fourth parallel between Soviet and American collapse: “ideological rigidity”, as academics call it. In plain English, though, we might simply call it brainwashing.
One set of ideas is allowed in public discourse, and just one. Predatory capitalism. Everything else is “socialism.” The answer to everything is markets, profits, advantage — and self-interested “consumers” and corporate “people.” But these answers have failed catastrophically — just the same way that Soviet communism did. They have left people astoundingly worse off, especially compared to their peers in any other rich country. They have created a broken nation of powerless, impoverished people.
And yet, still, nothing else is really allowed. Sure, AOC is famous for being a “socialist.” But how often are any of her ideas actually discussed — which aren’t hers at all, really, like the Green New Deal, but old European ones? Never. The most discussion that happens around these ideas is their “costs” — in other words, the capitalist perspective on public and social institutions (hey, what about the benefits?)
American life is completely controlled by this set of idea — markets, profit, self-interest, advantage — to a degree that the rest of the world finds scary, funny, grotesque, and bizarre. Nobody else in any other rich country — probably even in any poor one — is so constantly encouraged to, told to, be so relentlessly individualistic, selfish, and greedy, no matter what, superficially pretty, empty on the inside. The result is that people elsewhere are more generous, kind, and gentle, and happier, richer, and closer as a result. But they are clearer thinkers, too. They haven’t been brainwashed by predatory capitalism, into being predatory capitalists, but Americans have, at least enough of them — because that’s all that is allowed in American society.
If you don’t believe me, let me make it a little clearer. Imagine that you’re a vocal supporter of AOC, and you go to apply for jobs. You’ll be turned down by many, especially at large corporations, for your politics, your social media being monitored…and they’ll never tell you why. You’ll wonder and shake your head in frustration. You’ve been blackballed — but you don’t know it. Yet this is the precise equivalent of Russians being unable to find work through the party because they supported the idea that people should be able to open businesses and buy property, instead of living in communal apartments and working at government owned factories. See it yet?
That brings me to my fitth and final parallel. American society has become a place where dissent isn’t really allowed. Sure, there’s more freedom of speech than in the USSR, and you won’t be shipped off to a gulag. But what has happened is that there is no room to express any ideas except the very ones which have failed — markets, self-interest, profit, advantage, greed, materialism, and so forth. You can’t do it in mainstream media (go ahead, have fun reading the NYT op-ed page). You can’t do it as a thinker (take my example, I can’t publish a book on it no matter how hard I try, because I get told “Americans are too dumb to read that!” by publishers.) You can’t do it as an individual — unless you’re willing to pay the price, which is being shunned and ostracized by all kinds of institutions, societies, clubs, organizations.
Saying “I’m a social democrat in America” is like saying “Look, maybe capitalism isn’t all bad” in Soviet Russia. You’re a what? A communist? What the hell is wrong with you? You’ll get questioned and hounded and shouted down everywhere you go, every time you say it, by wannabe Tucker Carlsons…except maybe amongst people like you, in little havens of reason here and there. But everybody in the rest of the rich world more or less, is some form of a social democrat by now. The extremists are us, my friends — just as Soviets were yesteryear.
America’s dissent against dissent doesn’t quite take the Soviet form yet — though I’d say give Trumpism a few more years and there won’t be any difference at all. But dissent against dissent is dissent against dissent. Americans pride themselves on their freedom of speech, thought, and expression, but the sad fact is they have some of the littlest of those things in the world. I can pick up a newspaper in Chile or Argentina or Pakistan or Spain and read more varied perspectives on capitalism, socialism, social democracy, politics, economics, society, life. In Soviet America, you can say anything you want — as long as it says one thing, capitalism best, comrades!
Please understand. I’m not saying that America is the USSR. I’m not saying Yankee Stalin’s sending people to Siberia. But I am saying there are eerie, haunting parallels between Soviet and American collapse — at the levels of institutions, structures, norms, expectations, ideologies. In both places, the possibilities of people to become their fullest selves were choked, suffocated, destroyed. Democracy itself was a sham, a masquerade, designed to placate — not to represent. The economy was a mirage — built upon fake indicators, to keep the wealthy powerful, and the people blind to their own growing poverty. And society itself had become something like a prison, built by everyone, for each person — thanks to norms, expectations, ideas of abuse, trauma, and suffering being good and noble.
In the USSR’s case, these norms were — everything for the party, everyone for the party’s goals, every instant and moment devoted to party ideology. Comrades! Be faithful and proud revolutionaries! Put party first! Yet in America’s case, these norms are individualism, selfishness, greed, profit, advantage — which are broadcast explicitly every night on CNN and MSNBC, not just Faux News, and implicitly in every Instagram selfie and reality TV spectacle. Let me translate that. Everyone for capitalism’s goals. Everything for capitalism. Every instant and moment devoted to capitalism’s failed, ruinous ideologies. Comrades — be faithful and proud revolutionaries!! Put party first!
Superficially, these norms appear to be very different. But they couldn’t be more precisely the same. Comrade! Hurt yourself enough — go without — and one day you will be true communist! Comrade! Hurt yourself enough — deny everyone healthcare, beginning with you — and one day you will be true capitalist! Greed, selfishness, so lionized in the American system, mean doing whatever it takes to emerge the winner, the predator, at the top of the heap, no matter how much it hurts anyone else, or how much it hurts. Yet in the Soviet system, where selfishness was a cardinal sin, selflessness, funnily enough, came to mean exactly the same thing: power-seeking, brutality, violence, dull stupidity, predation. Capitalism tells Americans to deny each other a decent life, to go without, to hurt and be hurt, in order to be true capitalists — but that is just what communism told Soviets, too.
America imagines that its love of selfishness, profit, advantage, power, pleasure makes it the polar opposite of the Soviet Union, but nothing could be less true. The Soviet pursuit of revolutionary selflessness produced a certain kind of omnipresent brutality, folly, and mean spiritedness, and the American pursuit of revolutionary selfishness and greed has produced much the same thing. That is because in both cases what is left behind is gentleness, goodness, decency, truth, beauty, respect, history.
If my life, if our society, if our thinking, is premised on trying to take from you — whether it’s the capitalist way, or the communist way — instead of to give to you, give back, lift up, rise up… what can we ever amount to you?
Do you see why I say American collapse resembles Soviet collapse now?