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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Facing the end of the world we have known


I’ve now had the chance to read Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; the Soviet Experience and American Prospects which I referred to a couple of weeks ago
It’s a long time since I’ve read such a provocative and uncompromising set of arguments – delivered with dry wit – about the situation which faces the US and its citizens and what they might learn from the Soviet collapse. There have been many critiques of the American system (most famously from people like Will Hutton and Chomsky) and many books about the peak-oil scenario – but Orlov’s is the first one which I’ve felt inclined to buy multiple copies of to pass on to friends and colleagues; and to go back immediately for a second read. And, unlike other books, he makes this impact with absoluetly no bibliographical references!
A couple of his earlier papers (on which his book is based) are actually available on the net – one on the parallels between the SU and the US ; the other on what individuals (although the book is aimed at Americans, it has implications for Europeans) should be doing to to prepare for the very different world in which we will be living sooner rather than later.
The Soviet Union and the United States are each either the winner or the first runner-up in the following categories: the space race, the arms race, the jails race, the hated evil empire race, the squandering of natural resources race, and the bankruptcy race. In some of these categories, the United States is, shall we say, a late bloomer, setting new records even after its rival was forced to forfeit. Both believed, with giddy zeal, in science, technology, and progress, right up until the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After that, there was only one true believer left.

They are the two post-World War II industrial empires that attempted to impose their ideologies on the rest of the world: democracy and capitalism versus socialism and central planning. Both had some successes: while the United States reveled in growth and prosperity, the Soviet Union achieved universal literacy, universal health care, far less social inequality, and a guaranteed - albeit lower - standard of living for all citizens. The state-controlled media took pains to make sure that most people didn't realize just how much lower it was: “Those happy Russians don't know how badly they live,” Simone Signoret said after a visit.

Both empires made a big mess of quite a few other countries, each one financing and directly taking part in bloody conflicts around the world in order to impose its ideology, and to thwart the other. Both made quite a big mess of their own country, setting world records for the percentage of population held in jails. In this last category, the U.S. is now a runaway success, supporting a burgeoning, partially privatized prison-industrial complex (a great source of near-slave wage labor).

The bankruptcy race is particularly interesting. Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union was taking on foreign debt at a rate that could not be sustained. The combination of low world oil prices and a peak in Soviet oil production sealed its fate. Later, the Russian Federation, which inherited the Soviet foreign debt, was forced to default on its obligations, precipitating a financial crisis. Russia's finances later improved, primarily due to rising oil prices, along with rising oil exports. At this point, Russia is eager to wipe out the remaining Soviet debt as quickly as possible, and over the past few years the Russian rouble has done just a bit better than the U.S. dollar.
The United States is now facing a current account deficit that cannot be sustained, a falling currency, and an energy crisis, all at once. It is now the world's largest debtor nation, and most people do not see how it can avoid defaulting on its debt. According to a lot of analysts, it is technically bankrupt, and is being propped up by foreign reserve banks, which hold a lot of dollar-denominated assets, and, for the time being, want to protect the value of their reserves. This game can only go on for so long. Thus, while the Soviet Union deserves honorable mention for going bankrupt first, the gold in this category (pun intended) will undoubtedly go to the United States, for the largest default ever.

There are many other similarities as well. Women received the right to education and a career in Russia earlier than in the U.S. Russian and American families are in similarly sad shape, with high divorce rates and many out-of-wedlock births, although the chronic shortage of housing in Russia did force many families to stick it out, with mixed results. Both countries have been experiencing chronic depopulation of farming districts. In Russia, family farms were decimated during collectivization, along with agricultural output; in the U.S., a variety of other forces produced a similar result with regard to rural population, but without any loss of production. Both countries replaced family farms with unsustainable, ecologically disastrous industrial agribusiness, addicted to fossil fuels. The American ones work better, as long as energy is cheap, and, after that, probably not at all.
The similarities are too numerous to mention. I hope that what I outlined above is enough to signal a key fact: that these are, or were, the antipodes of the same industrial, technological civilization
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His second paper is called Thriving in the age of collapse which you can read while listening to him deliver a lecture on the same topic. He may not be the most powerful orator (as distinct from writer), but his dry wit is very evident. Of course, his bleak message that our political and administrative systems are incapable of preventing the collapse and that we should simply adopt the strategem of survival is, at the end of the day, literally Voltairian (After experiencing the cruelty of the world, Candide decided that the most appropriate thing for him to do was to "cultiver son jardin"). It is also a bit difficult for a political creature such as myself to accept. But the section in Orlov's book which points out that governments nowadays only intensify problems through "bondoogles" is not only amusing - but borne out by experience and the critical literature.

John Harris is a british journalist who has developed a nice "Brechtian” camera style – by which I mean one which removes the mystique of both media and politics. He has been taking us in recent weeks behind the scenes of the British party Conferences – and this is a good episode which has the British voter talking about the (ir)relevance of politicians. We need more of this style of video.

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