Thirty years ago this month, the Cold War ended with a failed coup in Moscow. As was remarked by many at the time, Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself as farce proved true for the Soviet Union, the state that had defined itself by his ideology.
In August 1991, while the USSR’s reforming General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev holidayed in his Ukrainian dacha, a group of hard-liners seized power. Gorbachev, under house arrest, turned to the BBC to find out what was going on, since in the Soviet Union nothing the media said was true unless the party said so. He learned that, in the centre of Moscow, Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin courageously stood in front of the city’s White House in defiance of the plotters, surrounded by supporters brandishing the old Russian flag.
Perhaps what wasn’t clear to everyone was that Yeltsin was drunk for much of it. The true extent of his alcoholism became more apparent in the years after he dissolved the communist state a few months later and became president of an independent Russia, although he already had a colourful reputation for drink-related antics.
The plotters, it turned out, were also mostly legless. Having began a cack-handed coup that they weren’t prepared to kill for, the ringleaders appeared on television looking ashen-faced, some shaking nervously, their insides rotting from vodka. Most of all, though, they just appeared old, old and old beyond their years, the face of a fading empire based on a faith no one really believed in anymore.
By this stage, the Soviet Union was itself dying of alcohol, and attempts to treat it proved fruitless. One of the biggest mistakes made by Gorbachev — a very moderate drinker, which is why he’s alive and his rival Yeltsin is long dead — was to raise the tax on vodka, as part of a drive to tackle the country’s catastrophic problem with drink. Russian humour is famously bleak and sharp, and this led to a joke in which a boy asks, “Papa, and this means that you shall drink less?” “No, son, this means that you shall eat less”.
Alcohol played a central part in the demographic collapse that pre-empted the political fall of the USSR. It was back in the Seventies that people first noticed that in the Soviet Union people were starting to die younger. The decline in life expectancy affected not only the old, but the middle-aged. There was no famine, no foreign invasion, no natural disaster; instead people were drinking themselves to death out of despair. A country in which life is getting shorter — and worse — for its citizens has no future.
Russia’s birth rate had long collapsed, too. Two things drive higher fertility in wealthy countries — religion and affordability. All the major religions promote childbearing, give prestige and status to women who have children, and men who stick around; on top of that, attending a church, mosque or synagogue is associated with a number of measures of wellbeing that breed optimism.
The second factor is money. If both partners in a couple must work in order to survive, fertility is going to be severely depressed. The Soviet Union had extensive day care provision for mothers, but it was nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall caused by mediocre wages. Back in the 1970s, Russian women marvelled at how their American equivalents could afford to leave work while they had children. As the New York Times reported, they “express astonishment when they learn that an American father can support a family of two, three or four children without his wife’s working. Many are also surprised that American women would willingly have more than one child.” For them, it was a huge struggle to raise just one.
The Soviet Union’s main adversary in the Cold War was also defined by ideology, to some extent. Many western nations had embraced liberalism, but no other was created with the words of John Locke enshrined in its foundation. Yet liberalism, too, faced its challenges in the late 20th century, not from the obviously failing Soviet Communism, but from rival ideas within the democratic tradition. Starting in the 1960s, a new way of thinking began to predominate in the US that was not really liberal, although its opponents confusingly still referred to it as such.
This new way of thinking was more hostile to freedom of speech, and its adherents began the process of chasing deviant thinkers out of academia that began in the late 1960s and would massively reduce political diversity by the 21st century; it supported not just personal sexual freedom, as did liberalism, but radical ideas about sex, including hostility to the family; it was anti-religion and would become more so when religion clashed with sexual rights. As for freedom of association, the “master freedom” in Christopher Caldwell’s words, this was also incompatible with a worldview that prioritised equality over liberty.
This new way of thinking — progressivism is probably the fairest term — is far less tolerant than liberalism. Indeed, in its hostility to freedom of speech, its Manichean worldview, its suspicion that its opponents are fascists, and the belief that politics should be inserted into everything — from science to children’s books — it is closer to the totalitarian tradition. American progressivism is not communism, obviously, anymore than its opponents are Nazis; the market is perfectly capable of achieving most progressive goals, and America has become more culturally Left-wing as Right-wing economic policies have dominated, globalisation being the common theme that links the two.
But globalisation came with a price, with millions of jobs lost after the 2001 trade deal with China, made two months after George W. Bush had followed the Soviet example by invading Afghanistan. It was in those former industrial heartlands where people first began to notice an epidemic of drug-related deaths that now constitutes one of the greatest social disasters in history.
Four decades on from its superpower rival, the United States had now become a country in which people were dying younger, driven by overdoses and suicides. That this epidemic took so long to register may have been the solitary and often legal nature of the drug problem; unlike Aids, it did not affect too many celebrities, Prince being the exception. But it could also be who the victims were — predominantly rural white Americans, neither powerful themselves nor championed by powerful supporters.
Like the Soviet Union, the United States has developed a system in which some social classes and races are officially favoured, and some are disfavoured, reflected in post-war legal innovations like affirmative action.
Affirmative action was originally introduced as a counter-measure to segregation, either of the official or unofficial variety, but as with many things its purpose evolved as bureaucracies grew. Today, government interference in private institutions is aimed at the goal of equality — not the liberal concept of equality of opportunity, but the more ambitious equality of outcomes, or “equity”.
Under this theory, each racial group should have equal representation in elite institutions, which means that, depending on their race, Americans must achieve different scores to attend certain colleges. Equality is achieved through inequality. If this sounds illiberal, indeed un-American, that is because it is not unlike the “nationalities policies” created by communist revolutionaries, and under which the Russian majority were officially discriminated against in certain positions.
The Soviet nationalities policies allowed minority groups a certain degree of self-rule and recognition, while also ensuring that their elites remained utterly under the control of the party. Sometimes other nationalities would be disfavoured because they were seen as too anti-communist or otherwise disloyal, as happened to Ukrainians, Tartars and Jews at different times, but only Russian identity was actively discouraged. Stalin condemned the “Great Russian chauvinist spirit” and the Soviet Union saw majority nationalism as by far the greater evil.
This did not lead to a brotherhood of man, amazingly. The ethnic spoils system benefited the party, and minority members within it especially, but it is also a zero-sum game. The benefits of diversity, like the benefits of liberalism and capitalism, are supposed to be non-zero-sum, and often are: migrants benefit from moving to a richer or safer country, but the host population gains from their skills or cultural niches. When your migrant neighbour gets rich — and even richer than you — not only will it not harm you but you may well benefit.
Equity is similarly a zero-sum game: someone has to lose, and if one group is feted, in some cases even sacrilised, then others have to suffer, whether with tangible matters like college places or simply status and prestige.
Today America’s thought-leaders are obsessed with white nationalism and regularly denounce white supremacy as a lethal danger to the nation, in what is probably history’s least ever white supremacist country; a country in which the majority is officially discriminated against by certain institutions, and where membership of the group is considered so tainted and wicked that the media has regular denunciations of whiteness, and where numerous people avoid this taint by faking their ethnic origins.
There are other resemblances to the older empire. At the heart of Soviet thinking was the blank slate, the idea that life outcomes are determined entirely, or almost entirely, by social forces rather than genes. As Mao said of the peasantry, “a clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it”.
Likewise, American progressivism today is entirely built on the blank slate, and as in the USSR, where belief in Mendelian genetics led to internal exile, American social scientists offering any sort of genetic explanation for outcomes face ostracism. Privately, lots of people will agree, but they’ll lose their job if they speak out, or their publisher will drop them, or it will only embolden the party’s enemies and harm the noble goals of progressivism.
Communists saw their political beliefs as so all-encompassing that even science was political: if science contradicted the goals of communism, it wasn’t science. In today’s United States the slow death of liberalism has resulted in the blatant politicisation of science, to the extent that as in Russia, scientists teach things which are obviously untrue because it supports the prevailing ideology. Then there is the media, much of which parrots the party line with almost embarrassing, “Comrade Stalin has driven pig iron to record production” levels of conformity. Once again, if you want to hear the truth, go to the BBC (until the young people who run the website take over).
America, once the most trusting of societies, is heading in the direction of Russia, one of the least trusting. Most disturbing of all is that, formerly the most demographically vibrant of western countries, today the United States has suffered a spectacular collapse in fertility. This is mostly down to stagnant wages among the middle class, who can no longer afford a family with one breadwinner, and a rapid decline of religious faith. But maybe people have also lost belief in themselves, and the ideals of their country.
The Soviet Union broke into 15 different pieces, and the transition was, as CNN might put it, mostly peaceful — although Gorbachev’s old dacha is now in Russia once again after some local unpleasantness.
Today it is the United States where people talk of secession, escaping a crumbling superpower ruled by geriatrics. This seems very unlikely to happen, more clickbait than reality, because why would you leave what has been for more than two centuries the richest, most impressive state on earth? But then a generation ago few would have foreseen the Soviet Union crumbling in a haze of alcoholic despair.