The media is a buzz with criticism against modern Russia and its fearless leader Vladmir Putin. The New York Times book review this morning devoted virtually every page to works on the life of Stalin, the intellectual degradation of literary works in Soviet Russia, and the corrupt, nigh fascist, policies of Putin’s oligarchic Russia. This is all well and good. It does, however, leave one with the impression that Russia is intended – much as it was in the Cold War – as a foil for American political and social life. This is particularly evident when one examines the subject nations’ respective propaganda outlets – RT and Fox News – which paint very different pictures of Russian and American life. (I presume as I proceed that we can all agree that neither are factually accurate in their portrayal of global affairs). Both entities attempt to portray the other nation as overreaching violators of human rights with inept economic systems that depend upon coercion and militarism for sustenance. I would posit that both propaganda machines are moderately accurate when examined in the aggregate.
Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 was a reactionary assault upon the outmoded monarchy and centuries of serfdom. Naturally, it met the classical Marxist revolutionary paradigm – a class division predicated upon the sense of exploitation experienced by a predominantly agrarian economy on the verge of industrialization. Approximations of this historical narrative materialized in places as diverse as 18th Century France and 20th Century Mexico, Spain, Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Using Marxist terminology, we can assess the relative successes and failures of these revolutions by measuring the abundance or dearth of surplus resources (Mexico, for example, retained a socialist party, but failed utterly to implement meaningful Marxist reform because its pending “industrialization” faltered when its newly minted national oil industry failed to secure adequate production; France in the immediate aftermath of its revolution remained an agrarian society, and communism cannot cure drought or famine).
The United States, of course, experienced a similar transition from agrarian to industrial life, but Marxism never saw a revolutionary presence in the United States. Why? Certainly, Marxist principles were espoused in the United States, often in violent expressions. These outbursts, however, were suppressed. The very right to speak of communist ideology was seriously disputed before the intercession of the United States Supreme Court. Political and Popular Culture figures were blacklisted, and Hoover’s FBI conducted intrusive surveillance of suspected communists, often attempting to publicly (or privately, in the case of the recently unredacted Martin Luther King “suicide letter”) discredit them. These tactics, eerily similar to the modern approach taken by the federal government in suppressing anti-government rhetoric in the NSA – Snowden scandal, worked to effectively vaccinate the United States from the introduction of communist ideology into the mainstream public dialogue. This approach stifled a full and complete political discourse on the subject and instead purported to crush out communism in the name of “democracy.” This strategy more closely resembles fascism than classical liberalism.
Of course, political Marxism has proven a failure in each of its real world applications. As the economic theorist F. A. Hayek aptly noted:
The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised.
In short, the communist’s obsession with preventing a surplus of resources from enriching the bourgeois at the expense of the proletariat does not cure the problem of the surplus, but rather redirects that surplus to waste and wither under bureaucratic mismanagement. Rather than heed Hayek’s admonishments, however, America adopted a more traditional, conservative, fascist model of quelling proletariat unrest – appeasement in certain delicate economic sectors:
That the conservative opposition to too much government control is not a matter of principle but is concerned with the particular aims of government is clearly shown in the economic sphere. Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field, and here the liberals will often find allies in them. But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture. Indeed, though the restrictions which exist today in industry and commerce are mainly the result of socialist views, the equally important restrictions in agriculture were usually introduced by conservatives at an even earlier date.
It is thus that you will find a staunchly Republican farmer or cattle man who cannot tolerate the Democratic party, but simultaneously decries the cutting of a farm subsidy bill. America is fully of such contradictions in ideology. The nation who most proudly wears the banner of capitalism is the very same country that created protectionist tarrifs, protectionist legislation for the railroads and oil companies, income security for those demographics most likely to preserve their power (i.e. AARP re social security), and “income destabilization” or welfare incentive programs to suppress monetary and political power amongst those demographics most threatening to their power.
By choosing to stifle communist rhetoric, America never enjoyed a true competition of economic philosophy in the market. Instead, America followed in the footsteps of figures like Adolf Hitler, picking and choosing the most intoxicating aspects of collectivist ideology to better cement and increase political power.
This is the inheritance of post-Soviet Russia. The fall of the iron curtain was praised as a victory of capitalism, but in my mind this account does not tell the full story. In the 1980’s Russia’s economy was hobbled by Brezhnev’s systemic poor allocation of resources. The dissolution of the USSR that followed was certainly motivated by a collective desire to better allocate those resources and reconcile the supply and demand of consumer goods. It was also motivated, I would submit, by the gradual recognition that the political power of the politburo could not be guaranteed without some way of deluding the citizenry into believing they had regained control of the economic direction of the country. The democratization of the soviet block countries countenances this position. However, as we ourselves have learned in our failed attempts to spread democracy in the middle east, the power of the vote (which I have discussed in a previous post) does not a free society make. The truth of the matter is that the collective planing of the Soviet Union had generated a powerful black market of goods, a wealth of untapped resources, and fifty years of under-utilized labor. The institutions of power held within the crumbling Kremlin saw these opportunities, recognized their facile exploitation, and gave the people a more active role in the selective processes of government as a form of distraction so that those in power could retain power by a new means of controlling these resources. Naturally, they were able to model much of this new method of exploitation from the United States.
The modern Russia differs very little from the United States in terms of objective. Both nations have adopted a very conservative approach to governance that depends upon a suppression of ideology, an opiate in the form of fictionalized “choice,” and militarized propaganda. If anything Putin and his oligarchic administration have merely learned the lessons forged from America’s 20th century experience and applied them to greater effect, unencumbered by the same traditional distaste for open, public, fascist rule we have in the United States.
Admittedly, I am not an expert on Russian history, politics, or language. My opinions are strictly the product of casual observation and armchair historical browsing. I am writing in this fashion mostly as a challenge for anyone out there to refute my thin little thesis. As I examine the rhetoric of our media and Russia’s I get the constant feeling that our grievances against Russia are really an act of self-loathing; this post is my own weak attempt at rationalizing these similarities and understanding them on a historical level.
That being said, I will grind my own political axe for a paragraph or so. True political freedom depends upon the absolute choice of the individual in his economic and personal decisions. We have only experienced that kind of freedom fleetingly in the United States, and largely as the product of accident. Government, however organized or motivated, will trend toward oppression if it is permitted to do so. The tale of the 20th century has largely turned upon the exploitation of individuals attempting to approximate this freedom. Whether an indigenous agrarian in Mexico, a tobacco farmer in Virginia, or a surf liberated by a humanistic aristocrat in Russia, the human desire to better their own predicament is tragically exploitable under a myriad of economic and political ideologies. It is my deeply held belief that the historical trend of our world is to appeal to this urgency of the human condition under the auspices of democracy in an attempt to foment power covertly. In the past, power was seized (to borrow from Nietzsche) under the “master morality” theory of “might makes right.” The 20th century operated to reject this theory and render it morally repugnant, but the heroes and victors of those movements ultimately ruled under the same paradigm, albeit more discretely. If true liberty exists at all within a civilized society, it must acknowledge that democratization is not a counterpoint to centralized communism, monarchy, or fascism; rather, standing alone, it is simply another manifestation of the same golem that has hunted down freedom since antiquity.