How you can eat others, or eat yourself
For those too young and too indolent to know about history, after World War II there followed decades of what was called The Cold War. During this period of time, two monolithic blocs competed for global dominance. One was the USA plus a handful of small European nations; the other was the Soviet Union plus the enforced vassal states comprising the Warsaw Pact.
Each side attempted to use propaganda to convince its own people, and to a lesser degree people in the developing world, that it was The Good Guy and the other side was The Bad Guy. But there were no Good Guys. Both were corrupt systems that didn’t hesitate to use power to enforce their authority over those who couldn’t fight back.
There was, however, one fundamental difference between the USA and the USSR: the former imposed most of its horrors on other people; the latter stupidly imposed most of its horrors on its own people.
The USA was (and continues to be) endemically racist. During the Cold War, black people were routinely and unjustly abused, imprisoned, shot, and suppressed. The USSR, on the other hand, embraced all those within its domain because it relied on all nationalities to keep the system going. The USA only relied on white people, plus poorly-paid Hispanics working in slave-like conditions who could be safely exploited and ignored.
But aside from these two exceptions the USA did a great job of mostly imposing pain and horror on people far, far away. The CIA routinely removed democratically elected leaders from developing nations and imposed far-right thugs who proceeded to impoverish their countries and brutalize their people. This was all done under the infantile notion that the USA had to “save” the world from communism by ensuring that only right-wing dictators were allowed to exercise power. So hundreds of millions were impoverished, tortured, beaten, and “disappeared” across the globe while US corporations asset-stripped those nations with impunity.
At this point the typical US citizen, knowing nothing but the Disneyesque fantasy of history they learned in High School, will object strenuously: “But we’re the good guys! You know, the folk in white hats!”
To which the response is: read. At the end of this article will be a short list of books that tell the factual history of the Cold War period, not the make-believe version handed out in school. All the books I’ll cite use publicly available uncontested facts to make their case.
Returning to the theme of this article, we turn now to the USSR.
While the USA was imposing dictatorship on third-world nations the USSR was imposing it on its own people. While nations conquered by the USA suffered shortages of material goods and food, not to mention massive injustice, people within the Soviet Union began to face those same problems courtesy of a centrally-planned economy that was reliably unreliable.
Basic items like toilet paper, underwear, shoes, and food, were frequently unavailable and when they did appear in the State-run shops they were of such shoddy quality that it is literally impossible for Westerners to comprehend. And the USSR turned itself into the ultimate surveillance society by having everyone spy and inform on everyone else, including members of one’s own family.
A quick anecdote to illustrate the quality of Soviet outputs: after the end of the Cold War, a historian on the payroll of the CIA went to visit the archives of the former KGB (now renamed the FSB and continuing its proud tradition of suppressing internal dissent with unremorseful brutality). The historian wanted to know how the KGB always picked up its operatives despite everything the CIA could do to create the illusion of authenticity. After all, its agents learned to speak (nearly) accent-free Russian, knew the metro map of Moscow & Saint Petersburg, dressed like Russians… what kept going wrong?
The Russian archivist smiled and pulled out a pair of seemingly-identical Identity Documents, the internal passport every citizen of the USSR had to keep on them at all times and which would be routinely checked by all manner of officials during the course of a normal working week, including when buying food and clothing at the State-run shops. One of the pair was genuine, the other was a CIA forgery.
The paper used in each was identical, as was the ink. But as the CIA historian stared at the two documents, enlightenment dawned: the staples used to hold the genuine article together were rusty whereas the staples used to hold the CIA forgery together were shiny. All any Soviet official had to do to catch a CIA spy was to glance at the paper-clips.
Meanwhile, as the USA incarcerated an ever-larger proportion of its black people and poor people, the Soviet Union was focused primarily on locking up dissidents. This meant that over time the best and brightest tended to disappear into the gulag archipelago, robbing the USSR of its talent and vitality.
This unfortunate tendency exacerbated another fundamental Russian trait: when something goes wrong the goal is to find someone to blame, not focus on fixing the problem. Russians have an old proverb: кто-то должен бит виноват (someone must be to blame!) that encapsulates this mentality perfectly. This is, among other reasons, why although the USSR began with an enormous technical lead over the USA, the USSR ultimately lost the race to put someone on the surface of the moon. While NASA focused on fixing problems as they arose, the Soviets focused on finding people to blame for the mishaps inevitable in such an endeavor.
So what has all of this to do with contemporary society?
Well, we can characterize the USA as a far-right society and the USSR as an archetypal far-left society. Fast-forward to today and the parallels are striking: the right is busy imposing its harms on other people, while the left is imposing its harms on itself.
All around the world, repellent and morally vacuous right-wing politicians are trampling over basic human rights and imposing their medieval ideologies on the powerless and the vulnerable while pampering the rich and the powerful. Meanwhile on the left an orgy of self-destruction continues unabated as people scream at each other for insufficient virtue-signaling, insufficient political correctness, and insufficient pandering to the most extreme and absurd transiently fashionable nonsense.
Watching the Democratic Party primaries one can’t help but think of a group of squabbling old women in a knitting circle arguing furiously over what kind of finger-sandwiches to serve at the next book club meeting while a M1 Abrams tank smashes though the wall, blasting away at everything in sight and crushing everyone under its metal treads.
The USA didn’t “win” the Cold War, but the USSR definitively lost because it ate itself. It’s not difficult to see that the ultra-right won’t “win” today’s culture and political battles but the left will definitively lose because it’s eating itself.
Meanwhile the intellectually disadvantaged stand around self-soothing by parroting sound-bites they’ve been fed (“Fake news!” “OK Boomer.” “I’m a patriot!” “I’m woke!”) while life rolls over them.
History is full of lessons if you know where to look for them.
Sadly, the only lesson we learn from history is that no one learns anything from history.
Welcome to the closing phase of Western civilization.
Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner
Sideshow by William Shawcross
Beneath the United States by Lars Schoultz
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks
Mountain of Crumbs by Yelena Gorokhova
The Coup by Ervand Abrahamian