Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The US and the Former USSR Compared

In 1959 C Wright Mills wrote of the basic trend then apparent that was making the US and USSR increasingly alike. He mentioned quite a long list of observations to support his claim:

-- "each had amalgamated on a continental domain great varieties of peoples and cultures";

-- "both had expanded their territory and power significantly;"

-- the political order is enlarged and centralised (becoming less political and more bureuacratic). In neither are there any "nationally responsible parties" that "debate openly and clearly the issues which the world now so rigidly confronts. The two-party state is without programmatic focus and without organisational basis for it." Neither nation has a civil service independent of corporate interest (US) or party dictation (USSR). "The classic conditions of democracy and democratic institutions do not flourish" in their power structures. "History-making decisions and lack of decisions are virtually monopolised by elites."

-- the power of both depended on technological developments that had ben made into a "cultural and social fetish";

-- the organisation of all life is increasingly adapted to industrial technologies. (As it turns out life hasn't adapted that well after all!)

-- work is alienated from people and consumption is culturally exploitative;

-- education and religion tends to be shaped by major economic, military and political forces. "They do not originate. They adapt." Mass eduction has evolved to "educated illiteracy".

-- the media is one of mass distraction. "they do not often communicate; they do not connect public issues with private troubles...they trivialise issues.."

-- the goal of the "self-cultivating" person has declined. "It is the specialist who is ascendant in both Russia and America."

The list goes on. Perhaps the most telling line in Mill's essay is when he asks "to what extent [is] the continuation of freedom [in the US] due to the fact that it is not being exercised?"

I think that was answered about 10 years later when peaceful civil protest resulted in students being shot dead, the US Army began (and probably continues to) spy on its citizens, news reporters began to be jailed for failing to reveal their sources and numerous assassinations occurred against civilian leaders.

Not that things are (or were) that much different in Australia.

'The Decline of the Left'. Lecture on the British Broadcasting Company. 1959. From 'Power, Politics and People - the collected essays of C Wright Mills'. Edited by Irving Louis Horowitz. Oxford University Press. 1963.

9 comments: said...


Yes, the late 1950s and through the 1960s was the heyday of the "convergence hypothesis" that had the US and the USSR coming to resemble each other. Regarding the envrionmental issue, old Sovietologist and now Russianaologist, Marshall Goldman, first made a splash in 1970 with an article on "The Converegence of Environmental Destruction," or some such title. He noted that both societies were doing little to save their environments and were stressing material output increase over quality of life.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Broadway, and it in fact does have to do with the US and Western Europe being genuinely more democratic than the old USSR and its satellites. People were able to bring more pressure to bear in the market capitalist west to do something about the environment, and the early 1970s saw the passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, with similar moves happening in western Europe (and Japan, and elsewhere). Although in theory a socialist planned economy ought to be able to do a better job of handling such things than a profit-oriented market capitalist one, no such entity was formed in the USSR or its satellites.

When the end came for them and their system at the end of the 1980s, among the leaders of the movement, especially in Eastern Europe, were environmentalists, and they had much to complain about. Whereas "social market" China now has the worst air pollution on earth, in 1989 it was the "dirty triangle" where Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic come together that did I just visited that area and will post on it, probably tomorrow, but for now will note that today the area is much more cleaned up.

And, indeed the US is still an enormous source of many environmental problems, especially fossil fuel emissions leading to global warming. But in many areas that the those policy changes in the early 1970s that responded to democratic political pressure were successful. SO2 emissions are steadily falling. Lead emissions have essentially gone to near zero. I remember seeing the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland in 1963 when it caught fire. It was sort of a brownish-pinkish color and stank horribly. Today it looks like regular water, and there all kinds of yuppie fern bars on the overlook next to it.

BTW, one of Goldman's prime examples of the "convergence" was precisely that both the US and the USSR had rivers that caught fire in almost the same year. While we still have a lot of water pollution problems in the US, we are now very far from having any rivers about to catch fire.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I'm not at all sure why the 1950s and 1960s were they heyday of the 'convergence hypothesis'. I would have thought that there exists far more evidence for this thesis now. What, with the dismantling of many Constitutional protections for US citizens, the extreme concentration of mass media, the building of detainment camps around the nation and the stepping up of surveillance of civilians. Not to forget to mention the vey, very strong evidence of the invalidity of the last two federal elections due to widespread fraud, especially from the Republican camp. (I could list a lot more than this). Is this general level of repression and corruption unprecedented in the US?

The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the clean water and air acts were window dressing. The evidence is that most of the dirty production methods were, in fact, stepped up. Hidden from many Americans because it went offshore to India, China, Australia and many southern hemisphere nations. The rivers now catch fire in the Niger Delta and in Ecuador instead. Only recently mentioned in the monopolised corporate press. But causing absolutely alarming and permanent consequences for the global environment.

2008 – May 16th. An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth. The extinction rate is up to 10,000 times faster than that considered as normal.

2008 – May 19th. Prince Charles: “18 months to stop climate change.”

2008 – May 16th. Researchers warn of nitrogen hazard to environment

2008 – May 31st. Australia assisted other countries in blocking the moratorium on the release of GM trees at the UN Biodiversity Convention in Bonn. Brazil used a representative from Arborgen to lobby other groups.

2008 – June 19th. Since March 2003 the war in Iraq has pumped over 141 million metric tons of CO2 and its equivalents into the atmosphere. The emissions generated by the war to date are equivalent to putting 25 million more cars on the road.

2008 – June 19th. Papua New Guinea is losing 362, 400ha of rainforest every year, one of the highest rates of deforestation and the worst scale of land-clearing as a percentage of the country size (1.4per cent of its land area). Farming and logging are the main industries leading to this depletion, which without being curtailed will result in more than 80 percent of the entire rainforest disappearing within 13 years. A rate "~considerably faster' than ever before predicted.

2008 – July 30th. Three senators call for EPA chief to resign

…[Nixon’s] policy preferences also indicated a conflicted eagerness to please opinion-making elites. They praised his establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, launched with an inspiring speech: "the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never." But he shared his true opinion of the issue in an Oval Office meeting auto executives: that environmentalists wanted to "go back and live like a bunch of damned animals." Throwing conservationists a bone also suited another political purpose: the issue was popular among the same young people who were enraged at him for continuing the Vietnam War. In the end, the EPA was a sort of confidence game. The new agency represented not a single new penny in federal spending for the environment. It did, however, newly concentrate bureaucracies previously scattered through vast federal bureaucracy under a single administrator loyal to the White House—the better to control them…

The Father of the EPA on Environmentalists: "a bunch of damned animals"
Rick Perlstein's picture
By Rick Perlstein, July 28th, 2008 - 12:02pm ET

Anonymous said...

Hello Brenda, Your passion for a cleaner environment and better politics is sympathetic but it would be a mistake to try to realise it using any degree of exaggeration supposed to help to better understand a problem. You (and the guy you cited) sound like “today's Western problems and the responsible monsters are so extreme that there is nothing worse anywhere”. There is, Brenda, you can be sure, even though in order to see it better, one would rather need to have one's direct experience in those “other” countries supposed to be “not really much worse”. Not that things are OK in US or Australia, but there is still a greater hell on this planet (and I'm afraid even their whole hierarchy!), and if you could try one of them, you would easily understand that your world is close to a relative paradise, in all aspects of life. In the old bad USA, there is a known film director, Michael Moore who had safely created, in the heart of the “oppressive Bush regime”, a film with a very strong, close to abusive critics of this “totalitarian” president and his “regime”, then he calmly won the Cannes Festival Prize, became super-popular in the world and now continues his “anti-regime” activity of any kind, without the slightest personal danger for him. Even a trace of a real threat from the “state power” or “corporations” he criticises would rather be impossible, even in such relatively “extreme” political climate. Now, even in today's “democratic” Russia, if a film director only has an idea of such a film about Putin, he disappears without trace and any justice possible. (Actually, “comprehensible” film directors in Russia make grotesquely pro-Putin/regime films, after all Chechnyas and other unlimited power abuses!) When some “activists” in Russia just tried to criticise ecological (not military!) abuses by Russian Army, they were immediately put into prison, quite legally and “democratically”, for actions against the state security. And so on, the list of comparisons revealing infinitely big differences will be long... On that background, you look a bit like a spoiled paradise child that wants yet a better life (which is good and justified by itself) and superficially ignores that yours is already not that bad, really, both with respect to other places and previous times in now “developed” countries.

There is also a more practical aspect in that apparently “positive” desire to exaggerate real development problems in “developed” countries that appears a bit too often today. “The planet is dying!”, “the sky is falling!”, etc., those emotional cries evolve a bit too quickly from an “inconvenient truth” to a “premeditated lie”, which is strangely “convenient” for some of us. As if after we cry it all, “we've done our best”, things will get better (because “people will become aware”, etc.) and we can continue ... to abuse nature and have our pleasures. It's not true and we have already the terrible opposite result, in the form of inefficiently wasted trillions of all populist “Kyoto protocols” that change nothing for better in ecological situation but essentially aggravate it by additional economical problems. We should evolve to a greater, deeper understanding and higher reasonability, rather than greater, ever more misleading emotional disbalance. Let's not exaggerate, Nature remains stronger in any case, everything including. We just want to avoid catastrophes for ourselves but Nature will win anyway: if we abuse, we'll be washed out, like particularly annoying parasites, and Nature's adventure and evolution will continue. There were several mass extinctions before on this planet, without our “help”, and you see, the planet is still there (though now without dinosaurs whose bad ecological habits are well known, but what do you want from dinosaurs?!). So don't panic, most probably we still can survive, especially the happy few of you out there, in our cherished earthly paradise. Actually, this is the problem: what do we do in the case of survival, in ever greater paradise, how can we progress and avoid another, “mental” degradation of our “internal environment” (already quite visible everywhere)? Today's superficial “activism” of either “left” or “right” political flavour is not a solution: it's already the past. In fact, it's the state of these “internal dimensions” of our intelligence that will determine everything else, the “natural” ecosystem state including (even though they will never be truly “natural”, man-independent any more, but is it really the purpose?). See my solution here and I hope yours and ours can also emerge, in these terrible, terrible judgement days... said...


Andrei makes some serious points. However, I will grant that both Russia and the US have become more authoritarian recently, although I am not sure I would call it convergence. The latter term says they are moving towards each other. This is more like a parallel movement in a bad direction, with Russia much further down the path.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s there was convergence, at least economically, and even a bit politically while Khrushchev allowed his "thaw." The command socialist USSR engaged in a "reform" movement that involved decentralization and quasi-market oriented approaches, sort of a Kornai market socialism lite. The US moved towards greater government involvement in the economy with Johnson's Great Society. By the end of the 1960s, these movements had more or less stopped, with each drifting back into the other directions to be less like each other.

Shag from Brookline said...

I became aware of C. Wright Mills in my retirement just a few years ago auditing (as a senior citizen) a Political Science course at a local university. His "The Power Elite" published in 1956 was a great read. I had finished law school in 1954. As I read this book I thought of how valuable it would have been to my legal career if I had been aware of it early in my career. I look forward to this Mills book you discuss. The shame is the loss of Mills' wisdom by his early demise.

Fungus the Photo! said...

There may be good reasons for convergence. I am sure Mills et al were aware of the A-Bomb.

Then we got the H-Bomb. And then......

Well let's just say that if CSIRO can recreate Smallpox based on published DNA info.....

We have had world government for a long while in very rudimentary form. Once bi-laterals and multi-laterals agree on a defusing of a situation, then an adjustment is made. The UN is in NY after all....location location.... after the adjustment then there is a war crimes tribunal etc. But it is all agreed and controlled. The economics of theft of Russian economic assets has been addressed and continues to be internal issue. As is Georgia. The US agreed to find out when trouble would occur and control it. Best time to lance a boil? 8-8-8. Lucky for some. Iran war? Unh uh!
But there are external threats. Not climate change. That is merely renewal and motivation of the slaves. Look at the Sun occasionally for inspiration. And yes, the science from NASA is even more suspect than the Econ from Chicago.

So yes, chatter about invasions and why it doesn't affect the price of oil....

Just remember, you are there to help the mob accept abrupt changes in wealth profiles. Just like a whiskey distiller!

Myrtle Blackwood said...

When you say I'm exaggerating could you tell me exactly where I did?

...The 'Living Planet Index' out today shows the devastating impact of humanity as biodiversity has plummeted by almost a third in the 35 years to 2005. The report, produced by WWF, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network, says land species have declined by 25 per cent, marine life by 28 per cent, and freshwater species by 29 per cent. Jonathan Loh, editor of the report, said that such a sharp fall was "completely unprecedented in terms of human history". "You'd have to go back to the extinction of the dinosaurs to see a decline as rapid as this," he added. "In terms of human lifespan we may be seeing things change relatively slowly, but in terms of the world's history this is very rapid." And "rapid" is putting it mildly. Scientists say the current extinction rate is now up to 10,000 times faster than what has historically been recorded as normal...

An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth

You said (in your pdf file that you linked to):

"........It is not surprising that civilisation infrastructure at the unitary level of development,
including the dynamical structure of settlements, production and communications, reflects major features of the Unitary System, such as high centralisation,
rigidity, development rather by destruction, pronounced tendency
towards mechanistic simplification, and the resulting urban decadence in the phase of “developed” unitarity. Indeed, there is the evident degradation to over-simplified, “squared” and “smooth” configurations and operation modes in modern infrastructures, despite much greater practical possibilities for their diversity in the developed industrial technology....

This is interesting. Because it is very similar to what I am saying but in different words. In this excerpt you appear to speak as an urban dweller. You refer to 'urban decadence'. I write as a rural resident whose natural environment has been degraded to the extreme. In the short space of 10 years the significant stands of native forest/rainforest have been decimated and replaced with, what you would refer to as "over-simplified, “squared” and “smooth” configurations". Strict military lines of industrial monoculture non-native trees. With the possiblity of genetic-engineering and with many tonnes of toxins sprayed over them (and us) each year. This is way beyond 'decadent'. Now multiply this same disaster many, many times over. In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El-Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uraguay, Venezuela. then add other Australian states, Indonesia, New Guinea, China, Malaysia, African nations, West Papua, Vietnam, Southern US states...I simply can't list them all.

The comparison made by C Wright Mills of the USA with the USSR is one that highlights the 'rigidity' and 'centralisation' you refer to. Inherent in an over-simplified and failing (unadaptable) social and political system. George Soros, in his book 'The Crisis of Global Capitalism' expresses similar observations to Mills. That the US has become a 'closed society'. "In a closed society, society is dominated by the state, and the state is in the service of a dogma that claims to embody the ultimate truth. In such a society there is no freedom. Open society is a sophisticated, abstract idea. How can it compete with simpler, more concrete ideas such as "my family", "my tribe", "my country, right or wrong"...

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Richard Parker (in his biography of John Kenneth Galbraith) had this to say about Johnson's 'war on poverty' in the early/mid 1960s:

...The government’s economists quickly turned to the Defense Department as their model for planning and analysis, this being a politically safe alternative to the messy rough-and-tumble of political organizing and social mobilization of the poor and middle classes that Galbraith thought essential for the War on Poverty’s success. The Office of Economic Opportunity’s planners early on imported wholesale the systems analysis and operations research methods that McNamara had brought to the Pentagon in 1961 and that in turn dated back through the RAND Corporation’s work in the 1950s to the Army Air Force’s strategic bombing plans in World War II. Using these models gave the OEO planners a measure of analytic clarity, but it concealed from them “life on the ground” for the American poor and the effects of the roiling debates that the War on Poverty, like the Vietnam War, provoked in the American public and among politicians. Historians have since argued that this beguiling analytic clarity, and the bureaucratic rationality it helped to impose on government programs, indirectly contributed to the effective stabilisation of poverty rates for the next three decades.

From: Richard Parker’s biography of John Kenneth Galbraith. Hardcover version. Page 482.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

shag from brookline said: " I look forward to this Mills book you discuss. The shame is the loss of Mills' wisdom by his early demise..."

C Wright Mills is an extraordinary writer. He's often come up in conversations I have with my husband over the last 31 years. (Robert majored in politics at Sydney University in the mid 1970s). I guess that's why I assumed that 'everybody' had heard of him ;-)

I'm very glad that you have discovered him. Are you ordering this book? ('Power, Politics and People') I would highly recommend it. Along with 'The Power Elite', I have a copy of this book also.

As for Fungus Fitzjuggler, well I don't know what to make of your words "But there are external threats. Not climate change. That is merely renewal and motivation of the slaves. Look at the Sun occasionally for inspiration. And yes, the science from NASA is even more suspect than the Econ from Chicago...

The thing is, we may not know or understand all the influences behind climate change. It is clear, however, that a group of rich people have acted in a way that ensures there will be no tomorrow for many of us.

BTW, I'm not here to tell people that they must pay a much higher price for food and shelter so that industrialists will desist from emitting too much CO2.

Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world...