Skip to comments.How a Great Power Falls Apart Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Posted on 07/03/2020 1:31:32 AM PDT by robowombat
How a Great Power Falls Apart Decline Is Invisible From the Inside By Charles King June 30, 2020
On November 11, 1980, a car filled with writers was making its way along a rain-slick highway to a conference in Madrid. The subject of the meeting was the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, and in the vehicle were some of the movements long-suffering activists: Vladimir Borisov and Viktor Fainberg, both of whom had endured horrific abuse in a Leningrad psychiatric hospital; the Tatar artist Gyuzel Makudinova, who had spent years in internal exile in Siberia; and her husband, the writer Andrei Amalrik, who had escaped to Western Europe after periods of arrest, rearrest, and confinement.
Amalrik was at the wheel. Around 40 miles from the Spanish capital, the car swerved out of its lane and collided with an oncoming truck. Everyone survived except Amalrik, his throat pierced by a piece of metal, probably from the steering column. At the time of his death at the age of 42, Amalrik was certainly not the best-known Soviet dissident. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had published The Gulag Archipelago, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and immigrated to the United States. Andrei Sakharov had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was forced to accept in absentia because the Soviet government denied him an exit visa. But in the pantheon of the investigated, the imprisoned, and the exiled, Amalrik occupied a special place.
Starting in the mid-1960s, a series of high-profile prosecutions of writers, historians, and other intellectuals under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had galvanized the countrys dissidents. To many observers in the West, this nascent democratic movement seemed to offer a path toward de-escalating the Cold War. In the summer of 1968, just weeks before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, The New York Times set aside three pages for an essay by Sakharov on progress, peaceful coexistence, and intellectual freedom. In the era of nuclear weapons, Sakharov said, the West and the Soviet Union had no choice but to cooperate to ensure the survival of humankind. The two systems were already witnessing a convergence, as he put it. They would have to learn to live together, leveling out national distinctions and taking steps toward planetwide governance.
To all of this, Amalrik showed up with a bucket of cold water. In the fall of 1970, he managed to smuggle his own short manuscript out of the Soviet Union. It soon appeared in the London-based journal Survey. Global capitalism and Soviet-style communism were not converging, Amalrik argued, but were in fact growing further apart. Even the communist world itself was in danger of splitting up. The Soviet Union and China were increasingly mistrustful of each other and seemed on a clear course toward a cataclysmic war. (A year earlier, in 1969, the two countries had skirmished along their common border, with significant casualties.) But the real problem with Sakharov, Amalrik wrote, was that he failed to recognize that the Soviet state and the Soviet systemboth the country and communism as a political and economic orderwere headed for self-destruction. To make his point, he titled his essay Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?
The piece was a persecuted dissenters struggle to diagnose early Brezhnev-era malaise, but Amalrik ended up identifying a more general political syndrome: the process through which a great power succumbs to self-delusion. By the 1960s, the Soviet government had hammered into existence a country that citizens under Lenin or Stalin would have thought impossible. Consumer goods, single-family apartments, a space program, international sports heroes, a globe-spanning airlinethe successes of Soviet society were on full display. Yet more than any other thinker at the time, Amalrik grasped the fact that countries decay only in retrospect. Powerful states, as well as their inhabitants, tend to be congenital conservatives when it comes to their own futures. The comfort cult, as he called itthe tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe that Reason will prevail and that Everything will be all rightis seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing, and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this.
Amalrik also provided a kind of blueprint for analytic alienation. It is actually possible, he suggested, to think your way through the end of days. The method is to practice living with the most unlikely outcome you can fathom and then to work backward, systematically and carefully, from the what-if to the heres-why. The point isnt to pick ones evidence to fit a particular conclusion. It is rather to jolt oneself out of the assumption of linear changeto consider, for a moment, how some future historian might recast implausible concerns as inevitable ones.
Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalriks work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crisesthe faltering of the institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes. His prophecy was time delimited, ending in 1984, but it isnt hard to hear its ghostly echo today. To know how great powers end, one could do worse than study the last one that actually did.
A COUNTRY ON THE PRECIPICE
Amalrik began his essay by setting out some of his qualifications for the task. As a history student, he had researched Kievan Rus, the medieval principality that gave rise to modern-day Russia and Ukraine, and suffered for some of his findings. He had been expelled from Moscow State University for suggesting that it was Norse traders and colonizers, not Slavs, who were the real founders of Russian statehooda claim now widely accepted by historians but that at the time ran counter to official Soviet history writing. As an intellectual and friend of writers and journalists, he had been closely associated with the democratic movement in the Soviet Union and knew its major players. For people in the West, he said, he was what a talking fish would represent to an ichthyologist: a miraculous communicator of the secrets of an alien world.
It was a great mistake, Amalrik continued, to believe that one could make political predictions about a country by surveying its main ideological currents. People might cleave themselves into rival camps or be sorted into them by outside experts: hard-line leftists, nationalists, liberals, and the like. But these groups are always amorphous. Their constituents display little real agreement among themselves about what constitutes orthodox belief or a coherent political program.
A better way to think about political cleavages was to observe which portions of society are most threatened by change and which ones seek to hasten itand then to imagine how states might manage the differences between the two. Bureaucrats and politicians want to keep their jobs. Workers want a better standard of living. Intellectuals question old verities of national identity. These divides can create a survival problem for the institutions of state power. Self-preservation is clearly the dominant drive, Amalrik wrote. The only thing [the government] wants is for everything to go on as before: authorities to be recognized, the intelligentsia to keep quiet, no rocking of the system by dangerous and unfamiliar reforms. But what happens in times of rapid disruption, when economic transition, social evolution, and generational shifts make it impossible for things to go on as before? Repression is always an option, but smart rulers will use their power selectivelyprosecuting a writer, say, or dismissing a senior official who has fallen afoul of the leadership. Even more enlightened authorities might ensure self-preservation through gradual changes and piecemeal reforms, as well as by replacing the old bureaucratic elite with a more intelligent and reasonable group.
Governments are good at recognizing the faults in other places and times but terrible judges of the injustices built into their own foundations.
But one should be skeptical about the degree to which leaders who trumpet reform are in fact committed to enacting it. Governments are good at recognizing the faults in other places and times, but they are terrible judges of the injustices built into their own foundations. This was especially the case for great powers such as the Soviet Union, Amalrik believed. If a country could sail the seas unrivaled and put humans into outer space, it had little incentive to look inward at what was rotten at the core. The regime considers itself the acme of perfection and therefore has no wish to change its ways either of its own free will or, still less, by making concessions to anyone or anything. Meanwhile, the old tools of repression (all-out Stalinism in the Soviet case) had been given up as backward and inhuman and were now too rusty to be functional. Society was becoming more complicated, more riven with difference, more demanding of the state but less convinced that the state could deliver. What was left was a political system far weaker than anyoneeven those committed to its renewalwas able to recognize.
Of course, no one ever thinks their society is on the precipice. When he talked to his comrades, Amalrik reported that they just wanted things to calm down a bit, without really knowing how that might be achieved. Citizens tended to take their government as a given, as if there were no real alternative to the institutions and processes they had always known. Public discontent, where it existed, was most often directed not against the government as such but merely against certain of its faults. Everybody is angered by the great inequalities in wealth, the low wages, the austere housing conditions, [and] the lack of essential consumer goods, Amalrik wrote. So long as people believed that, by and large, things were getting better, they were content to hold fast to the ideology of reformism and the hope of gradual, positive change.
Up to this point in his argument, Amalrik was following an analytic line that would have been familiar to Sakharov and other dissidents. Stability and internal reform were always in tension. But he then made a leap by asking a simple question: Where is the breaking point? How long can a political system seek to remake itself before triggering one of two reactionsa devastating backlash from those most threatened by change or a realization by the change makers that their goals can no longer be realized within the institutions and ideologies of the present order? Here, Amalrik warned, great powers proclivity for self-delusion and self-isolation puts them at a particular disadvantage. They set themselves apart from the world, learning little from the accumulated stock of human experience. They imagine themselves immune to the ills affecting other places and systems. This same predisposition might trickle down through society. The various social strata could come to feel isolated from their regime and separated from one another. This isolation has created for allfrom the bureaucratic elite to the lowest social levelsan almost surrealistic picture of the world and of their place in it, Amalrik concluded. Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable.
Amalrik with his wife, artist Gyuzel Makudinova, at a press conference in the Netherlands, 1976 Amalrik with his wife, artist Gyuzel Makudinova, at a press conference in the Netherlands, 1976 Dutch National Archives / Wikimedia Commons There was no reason to believe such a reckoning would threaten only a particular set of elites. Given the right circumstances, the country as a whole could be its ultimate casualty. In his own society, Amalrik identified four drivers of this process. One was the moral weariness engendered by an expansionist, interventionist foreign policy and the never-ending warfare that ensued. Another was the economic hardship that a prolonged military conflictin Amalriks imagination, a coming Soviet-Chinese warwould produce. A third was the fact that the government would grow increasingly intolerant of public expressions of discontent and violently suppress sporadic eruptions of popular dissatisfaction, or local riots. These crackdowns were likely to be especially brutal, he argued, when the suppressorspolice or internal security troopswere of a nationality other than that of the population that is rioting, which would in turn sharpen enmities among the nationalities.
It was a fourth tendency, however, that would spell the real end of the Soviet Union: the calculation, by some significant portion of the political elite, that it could best guarantee its own future by jettisoning its relationship to the national capital. Amalrik supposed that this might occur among Soviet ethnic minorities, first in the Baltic area, the Caucasus and the Ukraine, then in Central Asia and along the Volgaa sequence that turned out to be exactly correct. His more general point was that in times of severe crisis, institutional elites face a decision point. Do they cling to the system that gives them power or recast themselves as visionaries who understand that the ship is sinking? Especially if the regime is seen to be losing control over the country and even contact with reality, canny leaders on the periphery have an incentive to preserve themselves and, in the process, simply ignore the directives of the higher-ups. In such an unstable moment, Amalrik said, some sort of major defeatfor example, a serious eruption of popular discontent in the capital, such as strikes or an armed clashwould be enough to topple the regime. In the Soviet Union, he concluded, this will occur sometime between 1980 and 1985.
ALL COUNTRIES END
Amalrik missed the precise date of his countrys disintegration by seven years. Mikhail Gorbachevs attempt to liberalize and democratize the state unleashed a set of forces that caused the Soviet Union to disappear, piecewise, over the course of 1991. At the end of that year, Gorbachev stepped down as president of a country that had faded away beneath him. Still, in the annals of political prognoses of world-historical events, Amalriks accuracy probably deserves a prize. He was certainly right about the big picture. In the Soviet case, reform was ultimately incompatible with the continuation of the state itself.
Amalrik was dead by the time Western academics and policy experts began to write their own late-century big histories: Paul Kennedys warning of the perils of imperial overstretch, Francis Fukuyamas millenarian paean to liberal democracy, and Samuel Huntingtons neo-racist clash of civilizations. But in the early 1990s, Amalriks work finally came into its own. He turned out to be especially insightful on what would emerge after the Soviet demise: a congeries of independent countries, a new quasi commonwealth dominated by Russia, the entry of the Baltic republics into a Pan-European federation, and, in Central Asia, a renewed version of the old system, combining bits of Soviet-style ritual with local despotism. American conservatives came to cite him as a kind of Cassandra of the steppe. While globalists and antinuclear campaigners were stroking Sakharov and feeding their own fantasies of coexistence with a tyrannical empire, the argument went, they should have heeded Amalrik. Doing so might have forced an earlier confrontation with the teetering Soviet stateMr. Brezhnev, tear down this wall!and hastened the collapse of communism.
In the Soviet case, reform was ultimately incompatible with the continuation of the state itself. There was also much that Amalrik got wrong. He misjudged the likelihood of a Soviet-Chinese war, which was one of the pillars of his analysis (although one might say the Soviet-Afghan conflict was a good stand-in: a drawn-out, exhausting war, prosecuted by decrepit leaders, which drained the Soviet government of resources and legitimacy). He overstated the violence associated with the Soviet collapse. It was far more peaceful than anyone might have expected, especially given the panoply of border disputes, clashing nationalisms, and elite rivalries churning through the worlds largest country. Within three decades, one of its successors, Russia, had even reconstituted itself as a great power with the ability to do something the Soviets never managed: to understand and exploit the principal social divisions of its rivals, from the United States to the United Kingdom, with significant political and strategic effect. Amalrik also failed to foresee the possibility of East-West convergence of a different kind: toward capitalist oligarchies that were surveillance obsessed, deeply unequal, selectively observant of human rights, dependent on global supply chains, and structurally vulnerable to both markets and microbes. He might have been surprised to learn that this was the form that Sakharovs peaceful coexistence eventually took, at least for a while.
Soviet rockets have reached Venus, Amalrik wrote toward the end of his 1970 essay, while in the village where I live potatoes are still dug by hand. His country had invested in catching up to its rivals. It had worked hard to compete as a global superpower. But fundamental things had gone unattended. Its citizens were stuck at different way stations along the path of economic development, poorly understood by one another and by their rulers. In such a situation, a future of gradual democratization and fruitful cooperation with the West was a chimera, Amalrik felt. Faced with a series of external shocks and internal crises, and pursued by more dynamic and adaptable competitors abroad, his country had far less life in it than anyone at the time could see.
All countries end. Every society has its own rock bottom, obscured by darkness until impact is imminent. Already in the sixth century, Amalrik wrote, goats were grazing in the Roman Forum. As a theorist of his own condition, he was in many ways a fatalist. He believed that the Soviet Union lacked the nimbleness to engage in system-shaking reform and still survive, and he was correct. But his broader contribution was to show the citizens of other, differently structured countries how to worry well. He offered a technique for suspending ones deepest political mythologies and posing questions that might seem, here and now, to lie at the frontier of crankery.
This method wont reveal the secret of political immortality. (Remember those goats in the Forum.) But in working systematically through the potential causes of the worst outcome imaginable, one might get smarter about the difficult, power-altering choices that need to be made nowthose that will make politics more responsive to social change and ones country more worthy of its time on the historical stage. The powerful arent accustomed to thinking this way. But in the lesser places, among the dissidents and the displaced, people have had to be skilled in the art of self-inquiry. How much longer should we stay? What do we put in the suitcase? Here or there, how can I be of use? In life, as in politics, the antidote to hopelessness isnt hope. Its planning.
CHARLES KING is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University and the author of Gods of the Upper Air.
Is our decline and fall inevitable? We have "leaders" like Pelosi and wannabe leaders like Sanders and Biden demanding that President Trump "tear down that wall!". If Biden wins, more than the border wall with Mexico will fall - our institutions will all burn, sooner than anyone thinks.
I attended an event which I believe may have led to the rapid loss of power in Moscow.
Soviet propagandist Georgi Arbatov was, as communists go, an urbane, not thoroughly detestable, middle-aged bureaucrat in charge of something called the North American Institute in Moscow. The purpose of this group was to influence public opinion in North America in favor of the USSR.
I don’t need to tell this group of readers what general concepts that entailed. This was at the time when Gorbachev had brought out perestroika and glasnost.
Arbatov thought he would be speaking to a mixed but mostly liberal crowd in Toronto at a large auditorium on the university campus. He droned on about the wonders of glasnost and perstroika for some time, before segments of the crowd got restless and started chanting in east European languages.
It turned out that 95% of the people who attended this lecture were not gullible liberal students and bourgeoisie types, but hard-line anti-communists (that is essentially why I had gone out of my way to attend, my attitude was, Gorbachev is better than most communists, but his reforms would very likely destabilize the country and lead to a counter-revolution, so I wanted to see for myself what kind of people were running the show).
Arbatov eventually panicked, and retreated from the stage to some safe room guarded by burly KGB agents. The crowd were not particularly violent, but very agitated. At the moment he gave up trying, somebody was proclaiming very loudly in religious tones. I don’t speak east European languages but a friend of mine said he thought it was a curse from God being hurled at the Soviet representative on behalf of millions of persecuted Christians.
It was only a year later that the Berlin wall fell and the process of disintegration of the USSR began.
My belief is that Arbatov, a confident and probably within the politburo a persuasive figure, was broken by this experience and it must have become known back in Moscow when he returned (possibly before that).
I have always hoped to see a similar event destroy the confidence of this new form of communism we have in our own countries today. God knows we have all yelled at somebody, out of sheer frustration that nobody seems to get what is happening, but so far it hasn’t been as effective as the night in Toronto when they shouted down Soviet communism at its finest hour (which is not saying much, but if every Soviet leader had been as reasonable and capable as Gorbachev, the USSR might still be ticking along — and I know, it is, under Putin — that part remains a bit of a mystery but I accept that basically the communists are back just under a new branding, and irony of ironies, their biggest enemies seem to be western leftist politicians.)
Pray for that same voice to be heard again in the land.
“The New York Times set aside three pages for an essay by Sakharov...They would have to learn to live together, leveling out national distinctions and taking steps toward planetwide governance.”
I guess the second half of the above explains why the NY Times would allow a story to be written by someone critical of Communism.
Post #2 is well worth the time to read!
“These crackdowns were likely to be especially brutal, he argued, when the suppressorspolice or internal security troopswere of a nationality other than that of the population that is rioting, which would in turn sharpen enmities among the nationalities. “
This is DEFINITELY something to worry about here. The people who intend to oppress our side are NOT our neighbors, who likely could never do that - it is people from other cultures, who have been brainwashed to hate us. Even if you have friendly police and local government, they’ll be quickly replaced by those willing to carry out those types of orders (and there is no shortage of them, as we’ve seen for the past month).
...and yet there are still people ON THIS SITE that are willing to hand the keys of the country to Biden/Sheumer/Pelosi to get this process started, and all because they didn’t like the wayRoberts ruled on abortion.
“Within three decades, one of its successors, Russia, had even reconstituted itself as a great power with the ability to do something the Soviets never managed: to understand and exploit the principal social divisions of its rivals, from the United States to the United Kingdom, with significant political and strategic effect.”
I guess he never heard of the ‘anti-war’ protests in the 1960s through the ‘anti-nuke’ protests in the 1980s. It’s NOT a secret anymore as to who was funding it and getting a great bang for their buck...it all came out in the 1990s, just after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Freepers! Post #3 is well worth the time to read.
Thank you, Peter ODonnell for you post.
This is eerie- and we learn again about cycles. Usually we are able to view them from a far point across our ponds, but this time we are in the midst of it. It’s real and it’s happening.
Excellent piece- thank you for posting.
An exec summary:
“A nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly against the city.
But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through all alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.
For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in the accents familiar to his victim, and he wears their face and their garments and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.
He rots the soul of a nation; he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared. The traitor is the plague.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero might possibly, maybe, could have said this?
The quote is from a fictional biography of Circeo,’A PILLAR OF IRON” By Taylor Caldwell.
I guess we are not falling apart because the Decline is glaringly visible internally.
The liberals will keep trying to achieve the Decline. If not 2020, then in 2024.
In my town, the liberals did a protest march from City Hall to our local police station about 4 blocks from my home. That was a few weeks ago, and they barely got 200 people to show. They tried again a week ago. Now they've scheduled another protest for tomorrow at the police station. Their goal is to defund the police and force the city council to do so. Young idiots keep trying to make society fall apart.
The Decline is ongoing. The collapse is what it leads to and what the Leftocrats are trying to achieve.
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