Towards the end of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the US began to focus more on its social geography and less on its military capabilities (which if formidable were not keeping pace with US technological advancements). This came about because, unlike the Kreminologist bean-counters, more astute analysts saw in that technological stagnation fundamental signs of a society in decline. The simplest of the observations made during those years was this: the problem of productivity in the USSR “worker’s paradise” was in large part due to the fact that work only got done in the mornings. After a (liquid) lunch, workers simply were too drunk to put in more hours of hard graft. The problem was apparently pervasive, to include inside the Soviet military. This led to scrutiny of data on alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, deaths and other pathologies (street fighting, domestic violence) which, even if incomplete given the nature of Soviet rule, allowed the US intelligence community insight into the causes of what turned out to be a terminal malaise of the Soviet social economy.
Technological innovation is hard to come by, much less put into practice, when many of productive age prefer distilled spirits over spiritual or societal improvement. The “Socialist Man” was no more.
I say this because the US is starting to increasingly look like the Soviet Union in decline. The president just announced his 2020 budget proposal that includes US$714 billion on “defense” but cuts US$1.7 trillion from public health, education, welfare and social security allocations while decentralising and privatising nearly as much through the use of bloc grants to states and profit-oriented entities.
This is important to understand because the US is a nation with increasing numbers of elderly, fixed income residents who depend on social services to live out their twilight years with some measure of dignity and grace. It is in the midst of an opioid crisis of unparalleled dimensions, to the point that a US resident is more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash. The Trump budget does nothing to address that.
Income inequality continues to grow, with nearly 40 percent of US residents (140 million) living near or in poverty. Health indicators remain largely stagnant. While some areas improved, other declined, with geographic dispersion and income being major factors in health indicator scores nation-wide. Likewise, education statistics show a levelling off of the number of people graduating from both high school and tertiary institutions, while literacy rates are showing signs of slipping.
The point of these data source linkages is to show that while the US continues to devote huge amount of resources to its military, it is under-resourcing and therefore underachieving on major social indicators that are the backbone of a healthy, robust nation (both characteristics of the USSR in decline). With Trump in office the hollowing out process has accelerated to the point that the US has begun to cede ground to rivals when it comes to technological innovation: witness PRC advances in space exploration, Russian hypersonic weapons development and the myriad high tech incubators sprouting up everywhere from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.
This is not to say the the end is nigh, but it does indicate that if not Rome before the Fall, the US is starting to look more and more like the USSR before perestroika and glasnost.
The trouble for the US is that all of its ills are compounded by the crisis of its political system, which is not just embodied in the persona of Donald Trump and his entourage of grifters, incompetents and venal opportunists. It is also enshrined in the Republican Party, which abandoned any pretence of adhering to principle in pursuit of partisan gain and personal enrichment. That in large part is due to the profound corruption of the political system, now dominated by corporate lobbies and insider deal-making that are oblivious to the popular will. This extends to the judiciary, which far from being independent in many instances has deep ties to the private and public agencies that it is responsible for adjudicating (for example, via the appointment of corporate lawyers to state-level and federal district benches).
The USSR was fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev as its eighth and final leader. He knew that the pathologies mentioned at the start of this essay were irreversible under the system as given and that the USSR could not respond to, much less sustain the pace of the competitive pressures of strategic rivals pressing ahead with socio-economic and military advancements. He knew that the system was broken and had to change, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. As much as we may look back at his days as tinted with too much idealism and too little understanding of the deeply rooted authoritarian ethos embedded in Russian culture, he was able to resurrect Russia out of the ashes of the former USSR and set the stage for its return to great nation status under subsequent (and much less enlightened) leadership.
The US has no such saviour. What it has is the political equivalent of a drunken sailor lurching about after a night on the terps. In fact, to continue the analogy, the US political system is a bit like the drunk who finds himself lying in a gutter, bruised and covered in his own secretions. At that moment, he has two options: realise that he has hit rock bottom and get up and seek help; or roll over, sleep it off and continue on a bender once he can stand again. The US–or at least the Republican Party and the MAGA masses–has chosen the second option.
For Soviet workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the turn to liquid lunches represented a quiet, passive protest against the failures of the worker’s State. It was a weapon of the weak used against uncaring bureaucrats and apparatchiks who no longer related to the everyday struggles of the Soviet Man. Used as a form of collective action, it slowly ground the Soviet productive apparatus to a near halt, thereby making it vulnerable to the pressures of its external rivals at the same time that it no longer had the internal vigor, will or stability that allowed it to defeat the Germans in WW2 and grow into a super-power. It was just a shell of its old self, a mostly declawed paper tiger that while dangerous if cornered, was in need of rejuvenation based on fundamental social, economic and political change.
In a sense the US is in the same predicament, except that it does not know it yet. Its form of capitalism has gone from cowboy (they would say “entrepreneurial”) to rapacious. It is no longer a meritocracy for all (if it ever truly was), at least if the recent university admissions pay-to-pay scandal is any indication. It still has leading edge sectors of the economy, but the bulk of GDP is located in provision of services rather than production of tangible assets. It has a political class that is decadent, venal and corrupt. And it has an alcoholic’s blindness to its own flaws and failures, instead hiding behind short-sleeve patriotism and nationalistic bluster.
Robert Mueller will not be the US’s Gorbachev. Even when Trump is removed, the systemic problems that have caused the US decline will remain. The crisis, in a word, is organic. US politics is broken, society is fractured and the economy is more brittle that it appears at first blush. Maybe the Democrats will stage an intervention in 2020 and remove the addled-minded bully from the White House along with his congressional enablers. Perhaps a new social contract can emerge from the MAGA mess that rejects its core tenets of chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and greed. It is possible that the era of short-sighted economic opportunism rooted in finance capital, the military-industrial complex, social media tech and fossil fuels will finally come to an end. But if that does not happen, then the Hollow Giant will plod along like Nero in a stupor or the USSR under Brezhnev until it, too, ultimately falls.