The Totalitarian Streak In The US
Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy was among the very few of his speeches that have attracted world attention. Putin attacked the West, mostly the United States, and the strength of his speech led a number of Russian and Western observers to believe that Russia and the US have engaged in a new cold war. But a close analysis indicates that neither Russia nor the US actually has such plans.
The hedonistic and corrupt Russian elite who keep their capital in US dollars and euros - and who would gladly discard friendly Belarus because it demands cheaper oil - hardly are in a confrontational mood. But while this point is too apparent to be discussed, the possibility of the US engaging in a new cold war requires further scrutiny.
The Cold War has been studied for a long time, and quite a few pundits have promulgated it as a mortal struggle between "communists" and "capitalists", with ideology the key. This explanation does not account for the actual US-communist military alliance in China, starting with US president Richard Nixon's 1972 visit.
Another approach notes the small difference between the US and the USSR in geopolitical posture, suggesting that the Cold War was not so much an ideological conflict as a traditional power struggle between two empires. But the similarities, usually ignored, between the US and the USSR go much deeper and are related to socioeconomic and political practices. It is the US totalitarian streak that made it possible for the US to stand against the Soviet Union.
The Cold War evolved not just from World War II but from the entire socioeconomic culture of the 20th century. Modern war is a long exercise that puts pressure on all aspects of society and requires massive government engagement in both political and economic life. It requires emphasis on the "real" economy - production of goods, not profitability (mostly the interests of private shareholders), and even less what is called "service", the foundation of the economic "bubbles" of today.
It requires a socioeconomic discipline where the state's interests are paramount but there is a broad social-security net. The rudiments of this system emerged in various European states during World War I, with no Marxist or Bolshevik influence after 1917. The Great Depression reactivated the trend and led to the rise of states with many similarities with totalitarian regimes; Franklin D Roosevelt's USA was one of them.
Especially in the left and liberal American mind, there were two Roosevelts. One was the benign president who started a policy that would be developed by liberals and the left: regulation of financial institutions, subsidies for agriculture, the minimum wage, Social Security. The other was a madman who made "mistakes" such as sending hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans of Japanese descent to camps.
But this was one Roosevelt, and his policy was similar to that of other totalitarian rulers of the era. Indeed, the Nazis had a centralized economy, discarded profits for "real" production, and engaged in long-term planning for permanent war. They also combined repression, not just for outsiders but for insiders - ethnic Germans - with an increasing safety net for a majority of the people.
The vast majority of Western pundits would proclaim that the masses demonstrate special vigor fighting for regimes that guarantee "liberties". But the opposite is true. It is not regimes of Western liberal "liberties" - the policemen of property that have little or no interest in the well-being of the majority - but regimes that play the role of a tough but protective parent who, regardless of abuses, would never abandon its "children". This feeling pushed the army of the Reich to the suburbs of Moscow; the same feeling pushed Russian and American soldiers to Berlin.
The basic socioeconomic arrangements of World War II survived during the Cold War era. In the US, the state continued to be actively engaged in economic arrangements. Business emphasis was on the "real" economy and continuous, actually planned, improvement of quality of goods. This continued to be combined with continuous state control and harsh repression; in fact, McCarthyism was not much different from Stalinist policies. The same "totalitarian" streaks in US political/economic culture provided the state with the support and dedication of the majority. This made it possible to sustain the bloody Korean War and a range of crises and plans for generations ahead to stand against Soviet pressure.
The very similarities between socioeconomic elements of the United States and the Soviet Union provided the US the strength to confront its major Cold War adversary. But the collapse of the USSR was seen not as a great lottery win with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev but as a legitimate reward for the differences between the US and the USSR, not the similarities.
So the aspects that made the US similar to the USSR and 1930s-1950s America were discarded or minimized. And this makes the repetition of the Cold War, the generation-old conflict that required the exertion of efforts of an entire nation, impossible.
Most clear is the virtual disappearance of long-term planning and often the ignoring of actual results. Energy self-sufficiency has been regarded as essential for geopolitical/economic viability. But practically nothing is done about it despite years of talk. Concern with "real" production has almost disappeared.
The struggling automobile industry, a cornerstone of America's "real" economy, tries design, promotion campaigns, reduction of workforce and, of course, pressure on the government to protect it from "unfair competition". No real effort is made toward mass production of cars whose "real" characteristics would make them competitive.
Nor has there been planning to improve the quality or quantity of goods in most other segments of the economy. The emphasis is not on production but on profit, which could rise even if production declined. The stress is not on long-term planning but on immediate gratification, a stockbroker mentality, and rewards or punishment for playing with stock "bubbles". In fact, the rise and fall of stock "bubbles" are often unrelated to actual production.
This emphasis has also produced a US society with group but not national interests, where concern for the majority of the poor is ignored not just by the Republican right but by the liberal left. In fact, the attempt to change "affirmative action" preferential treatment based on race and gender to a policy based on low income is constantly rejected by the left as well as the right. The reason is simple: "affirmative action" benefits mostly middle-to-upper-class blacks and females; a change would benefit the poor and lower-middle classes regardless of race.
The fragmentation of US society, the departure from the healthy "semi-totalitarian" arrangements of the 1930s-1950s, makes the country increasingly unable to withstand a prolonged "cold war" struggle, either in the economy - consider the precipitous decline of competitiveness of US industrial goods despite the decline of the dollar vis-a-vis major currencies or even the "wooden ruble" - or in military affairs.
National stamina for a long conflict continues to decline, from the World War II victory with 300,000 combat deaths; the Korean War, a stalemate with about 38,000 losses; the Vietnam War defeat, with about 50,000 losses; to the present Iraq war, clearly moving to defeat, with only 3,000 losses and a mercenary army increasingly absorbing in its ranks anyone it can attract, including ex-criminals.
Carl von Clausewitz rightly noted a strong correlation between internal and foreign policy. Indeed, US survival in the Cold War was possible only because it accepted the enemy's socioeconomic arrangements - state involvement in economic activity; concern with real production more than profit; combining toughness and repressiveness with a broad security net not for "minorities" but for the majority of the poor; and, above all, planning for a generations-long economic and military struggle. None of these elements can be found in the present US, which is based on social fragmentation and a "bubble" economy of financial speculation and stock-market games.
This does not mean that the enemies of the US should be pleased. The "bubble economy" has produced a "stock-market war" - a war of quick and reckless adventures in which all available "cash" can be used for the mirage of a quick geopolitical profit, even if this "cash" is nuclear weapons. In fact, in sharp contrast with the calculating foreign policy of the Cold War era, the present elite - like many on Wall Street - preach the motto "shoot first, think later".
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.
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