Part One of this blog series looked briefly at Dmitry Orlov’s proposition in his book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, that the US is in the process of following a similar collapse trajectory as its now-defunct superpower rival, the Soviet Union. The book is great value in dozens of different ways, even if you don’t buy into the idea that there is anything inevitable about the demise of America.
Below, for example, is Orlov on the fact that superpowers need to motivate the “masses” with an all-inclusive idea, since those with the top jobs aren’t interested in doing the grunt work.
The Soviet Union’s big myth to engage and motivate its citizens was the classless society – a really deep, black joke, given the power of the apparatchiks and the powerlessness of the average joe citizen. The US equivalent is the myth of the middle class. Orlov points out that as the only functioning industrial power after the end of World War II America lucked out big time. It used the economic momentum given to it by this position, as the writer puts it, to:
“...put every American within striking distance of achieving a cheap simulacrum of landed gentry, symbolised by a detached house surrounded by a patch of land big enough to accommodate private parking, a patch of grass and some shrubbery, and adorned, as an absolute necessity, by one’s own private automobile ... The wonderful thing about the American middle class concept is its malleability, because it is almost entirely symbolic...”
The concept, “middle class”, covers the banker in his ancestral mansion and the trailer park guy with a pickup truck. What both have in common is the automobile, and the route to the collapse will see this linchpin wobbling then falling.
“The universal right to drive a car is the linchpin of the American communal myth. Once a significant proportion of the population finds that cars have become inaccessible to them (with fuel priced beyond their means), the effect on the national psyche may be so profound as to make the country ungovernable... [the car] is propelling the American communal myth towards a flaming crash with the reality of permanent fuel shortage, compared to which the gradual fading away of the Soviet communal myth (of the classless society) will have been gentle and benign.”
While much of Orlov’s book is a thought experiment musing on how best to survive the coming collapse of the American system, there are three areas in particular where his acerbic vision lights up the US landscape in a way that should be required reading in the US. These are his view of the US justice, medical and educational systems as they are today, never mind post any collapse.
The education system in the US does not survive comparison with the Soviet system:
"The Soviet education system was generally quite excellent. It produced an overwhelmingly literate population and many great specialists. Education was free at all levels, but higher education sometimes paid a stipend and often provided room and board … Alien inventions such as standardized tests, grading on a curve, varsity sports or the prom, were, obviously, unheard of. School was about learning … Public primary and secondary education in the US fails to achieve in twelve years what Soviet schools generally achieved in eight … American schools fail to educate because that is not their function. Their function is to institutionalise children at an early age … there is a reason why jails, hospitals and schools are often architecturally indistinguishable (in the US): they are but parts of the same system, representing different phases of the institutionalization life cycle.”
On the justice system, neither society scores points with him. The Soviet Union had the Gulag, the US has its prisons. Both systems jailed more people than any other country in the world and the US is still at it:
“The jails race once showed the Soviets with a decisive lead, thanks to their innovative Gulag program … In the end (though) the jails race was won by the Americans, who are currently holding the world record for the percentage of population held in jail. Here, the judiciary meat grinder relies less on secrecy than on obscurity, gorging itself on the poor and the defenceless, while being careful around the moneyed and the privileged … It would seem that almost any legal entanglement can be resolved (by the rich) through the judicious application of money, while almost any tussle with the law can result in financial penalties and even imprisonment for those who are forced to rely on public defenders…”
On the medical dimension, Orlov points out that, since in the US medicine is for profit, pure and simple, if the US economy crashes, killing off the profit motive, the US medical system will be without the force (money) that drives its every movement. “The result [will be] instantly sky-high rates of morbidity and mortality and a die-off among the most vulnerable: the chronically ill, the elderly and children.”
“For-profit medicine is an institution of highly questionable merit. The additional nonsensical twist of health insurance which is only available to those who have a permanent, full-time job, makes it a powerful tool of social tyranny. Those without health insurance are a single accident away from losing their savings, their possessions and being saddled with debt they will never be able to repay no matter how hard they work. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US. The fear of this nightmare scenario keeps people securely bound to their jobs. This means that Americans are either in a job they are not at liberty to quit, which is a form of indentured servitude, or are one accident away from becoming slaves to their medical debt…”
The problem of the future
What Orlov seeks to achieve with this book is to get people thinking about what viable options might look like in a post-collapse scenario, as well as imparting some understanding of what appalls and depresses him about the present US system. I will end with a throwaway point that he makes early in the book. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the state had the problem of pulling back all its troops from far-flung bases around the world. Their loyalty was to the Red Army, which no longer existed. This was a huge problem since you can’t just dump men trained to kill back into society without jobs and housing without creating a disaster for yourself. In fact, there is now a growing body of literature about ex Soviet special forces types providing the shock troops for the Russian Mafia. If the US goes into a terminal decline it will, in the process, have to close and recall its troops from a thousand or more overseas bases, assuming anyone in charge remembers where they are. The results will not be pretty.
I am far from convinced by disaster scenarios. But, then again, there has to be a non-zero possibility of the future playing out pretty much as they describe. That being so, taking in the odd “idiot’s guide to surviving the coming collapse” is no bad thing to do in your spare time, and Dmitry Orlov has put a good deal of thought into the problem...
You can buy Dmitry Orlov's Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects from the New Society Publishers site.
Further reading on global risk and risk management:
- Understanding Global Risks for the Corporate by Thierry Malleret
- The Global Risk Map and the Current Credit Crunch by Peter, Lord Levene
- The Problem with Derivatives, Quants, and Risk Management Today by Paul Wilmott
Tags: America , American troops , army , classless society , Dmitry Orlov , education , energy crisis , for-profit medicine , fuel shortages , global collapse , Gulag , ideology , medical care , middle classes , Red Army , Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects , Russian mafia , Soviet Union , special forces , US debt , US deficit , US economy , US justice system , US medical system , World War II