“Do we have to suffer through this transparently manipulative pseudo-reality again?” – Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory, Series 2. 
Yes Dr. Cooper, apparently we do.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the decline of the Soviet Union is being mirrored by a parallel decline of the United States. What passes as reality on the pages and screens of the financial media today is so far removed from ground realities as to suggest a renewed version of the Pravda economy that the Soviet Union tried to build and failed. A “then and now” comparison isn’t just stark but also quite scary for anyone with common sense (that excludes today’s stock market investors right away).
Then (or, a long time ago in the Soviet Union):
- The Soviet Union controlled a vast array of vassal states using far-flung military bases that were all steadily declining.
- The army was mired in Afghanistan, 10 years after the beginning of a “just” liberation that proved anything but.
- The government owned car companies that made sub-standard products no one really wanted.
- There were long queues for bread and vodka across the nation.
- A deep recession was in place, caused by the decline in demand from poorer countries and falling oil prices.
- The actions of president Mikhail Gorbachev, a political reformer, were characteristic of those of a person who wanted change to ensure his place in history.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall fatally weakened Soviet authority across the satellites.
- Poor distribution led to massive food waste.
- The rouble became worthless after the pseudo-reality holding it up (namely parity with the US dollar) was exposed as a cruel hoax. Now (or, as things stand in the new Soviet Union):
- America’s allies are in dangerous decline – be it Turkey, Egypt or worst of all, Pakistan.
- The military is mired in Afghanistan – almost eight years of incessant activity haven’t yielded the simple result of finding Osama Bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Omar. (For good measure, America is also mired in another Islamic country, Iraq … just in case the challenge of getting one’s behind spanked in one country wasn’t enough).
- The American government is the proud owner of General Motors, a car company that apparently doesn’t know how to make cars and, even less, profitable cars; Citibank, a bank that apparently doesn’t know how to make loans and, even less, profitable loans; Fannie Mae … okay, you get the picture.
- The US economy is in recession, and will permanently remain in this state.
- There are long queues for dole payments, food stamps and the like. Prescription drugs, mainly antidepressants, are the new normal for the country.
- President Barack Obama is increasingly being seen as a politician who would do pretty much anything – ranging from limitless economic intervention to throwing Israel to the Arab wolves – to ensure his place in history.
- Mainly thanks to the continued American fascination with burgers and other fast food – that deliver calories without the nutrients – the level of food waste in the US today exceeds the total food production of many European countries.
- The US dollar is, well, worth less (that’s two words – for now at least) with respect to its purchasing power; and is being held up by the pseudo-reality of a consumer economy.
Creating the pseudo-reality: Ignore the important and the obvious
Ignoring abject reality is the key process of governance. In the Soviet Union, this was achieved through the simple medium of a complete news blackout for citizens, other than state-sponsored propaganda through various channels. In the case of the US, much the same has been achieved, but by using the opposite tactic of selective reinterpretation of news that helps cast it in much better light.
For example, consider what is going on in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union denied to its citizens that the occupation was going badly, and indeed did not publish any figures for personnel losses. Right up to the day that Soviet troops pulled out of the country, bled dry by the insurgents who had been sponsored by the Americans, citizens of the USSR did not even know how bad the situation was.
When the then-Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah was stripped and hanged in public by the Taliban in 1996, the news media finally should have taken cognizance of the monster that had been unleashed in the form of militants whose answer to a “higher calling” was to do some pretty awful things in their temporal existence. Instead, the American and European media extolled the “freedom fighters” while quietly praying that the chaps would turn in their unused Stinger missiles. Well, we all know how that went.
Fast forward to now, and the steady erosion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) authority across Afghanistan isn’t fully understood by viewers of American television, nor perhaps by the average newspaper reader. To wit, the rapid increase in the deaths of British soldiers that could well spiral into their complete withdrawal from the country at the drop of a terrorist hat (the British will only be following the course of the Spanish, who left Iraq in response to the terrorist bombing of trains in Madrid in 2004), a course of action that will soon be adopted by all other components of NATO in Afghanistan.
Where that will leave the US, I do not know. However, the trend is quite clear and Obama’s addition of a few thousand troops will prove about as significant as throwing a water balloon at a California wildfire.
Now, most readers of this publication will already be familiar with all of this. The point to note is that the Afghan situation hasn’t been seriously discussed on US networks because of fear of where the conversation will lead. The point isn’t so much whether the country is Obama’s Vietnam (technically speaking, it will have to be characterized as that of president George W. Bush), but what the actual end game is that’s being played out here.
Does the US think that staying in the country for the next 20 years is feasible? Would Americans expect a reduction or an increase in the production of opium? Is there an ethnic allocation plan in place (think Iraq, but with real bloodthirst and guns) – because the notion of a single country is quite laughable? How are the terrorists and the Taliban to be dealt with – through education and modernization as per the NATO dream or through continued bombings as per the current plan?
Most of all, what is the actual definition of success in Afghanistan for NATO and the US?
For the Soviet Union, there were no real answers to the questions I pose above. It actually wouldn’t really have known even if victory had passed it on the high road to Kabul a couple of times, mainly because there was no actual definition of victory. It was basically occupation for its own sake.
You might ask why any of this is relevant to the broader issues raised at the beginning of the article. From my viewpoint, Afghanistan is an important issue because understanding the end game may well offer a vignette of the thinking on all other radical measures being planned and executed by the US government – ranging from the Keynesian economy of zombie companies and individuals to the next steps on medical services reform.
Drugs and reality
In the Soviet Union, there was an appropriate saying, “The government pretends to pay the workers, and workers pretend to work.” The downside of that trade-off was that Russians (and other nationalities contained within the Soviet Union) did not believe in the possibility of any improvements in their life quality and behaved with the nihilism appropriate to that observation.
This seemingly harsh statement has within it the notion of truth wrought by the idea of what separated a successful Russia from an unsuccessful one in that era: getting ahead in the ration queue, or getting to drive the plush version of the Lada. Gee, what an improvement over being a few places behind in the same queue for stale bread and spoilt meat; or driving a smaller Lada.
No surprise then that Russians took to vodka. As a society, Russians looked at the queues as unfairness of the system towards them as individuals (because some people were able to leapfrog the system), rather than recognize that they were victims of an unsustainable economic system.
Being unable to distinguish between secular and cyclical decline is the actual problem for developed nations today – Americans and Europeans think of equity market declines and the house-price falls of 2006-08 as the key issue, rather than as a necessary correction after years of excess. So now traditions and social mores are sacrificed at the altar of recovering wealth lost over the past two years.
How intelligent people reconcile the obvious areas of cognitive dissonance – many people you know are not only bankrupt but also unemployed and unlikely to rebound any time soon, yet you are asked to believe that the “economy is growing again” – is a matter not so much of anthropological interest but one that determines the course of global developments.
It’s interesting to me then that pretty much no one appears bothered that the rising scourge of prescription drugs, particularly antidepressants, could well prove to be the key problem for these societies down the road; if anything, some in the media appear to believe that drugs are helping to “contain” social problems. Much like alcoholism cured Russian violence, I’m sure.
History may choose not to repeat itself. But if it does, watch for results that aren’t vastly dissimilar to the declines that we saw in the case of the Soviet Union. In the interim, the number of people who do not want to hear the truth will likely rise, as denial becomes one of the cornerstones of happiness.
Eat a burger, drink some beer and pop some pills, dude. Then switch on the telly and have the cable news ladies tell you how good things are going to be.
Note 1.Big Bang Theory is a CBS television series in which fictional character Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons, is a theoretical physicist.