2015/03/06

Commucapitalism in Cold War Plutopia

Commucapitalism:
The Sovietization of Capitalism and the Merger of American and Soviet Ideals in Cold War Plutopia

On a recent episode of The Keiser Report (2nd. half of episode 723),[1] anthropologist David Graeber talked about his new book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. He discussed the way government and corporate entities have merged into a seamless bureaucracy in which it is impossible to make distinctions between the two. For example, corporations might apologize to their customers for the “red tape” of government regulation imposed on them, but the regulations are written by corporate lobbyists.
Graeber explained, “At this point the free market… and the government are so completely fused together that you can’t even tell them apart.” A prime example, one he discussed elsewhere in an interview in Salon.com,[2] was Obamacare: “You can’t tell if it’s public or private; and it’s partly government regulated profit-taking, forcing you into a profit-making enterprise [whether you like it] or not. And it creates completely unnecessarily complicated layers of bureaucracy.”
During the Keiser Report interview, Max Keiser commented, “It sounds like the Soviet Union back in the day when people were saying this is completely choked with this bureaucracy, this communism. There’s no entrepreneurism. There’s no growth.”
David Graeber agreed, adding, “I would call it the Sovietization of capitalism.”
By this he meant that there was a utopian ideal in communism, and whenever it failed, the system punished people who couldn’t live up to the ideals by stifling them with rules and bureaucracy. In much the same way, the utopian ideal of capitalism produces the same effect. He cites the example of banks that now need fees and penalties imposed on their depositors, not profitable lending, in order to make a profit. This is no different than a government charging a fee for a license plate. He drove home the point by saying further, “Someone figured out that they’re printing enough [euros] to give every individual in Europe 763 euros a month for a year. Well, why not give everybody in Europe 763 euros a month for a year?... How could that not be a better stimulus for the economy?” The answer was that if they adopted such a bottom up solution, there would be no fees to collect for the mandarins at the top.
In the Salon interview he said,

There was this liberal fantasy in the 19th century that government would dissolve away and be replaced by contractual market relationships; that government itself is just a feudal holdover that would eventually wither away. In fact, exactly the opposite happened. [Government has] kept growing and growing with more and more bureaucrats. The more free-market we get, the more bureaucrats we end up with, too… It always goes up. It went up under Reagan.

This ironic Sovietization of capitalism, has a parallel, and perhaps a cause, in the Cold War factory towns where the two superpowers built their atomic weapons. It turns out there is an extra reason why this new social structure is called a plutocracy. In Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,[3] Kate Brown highlighted the remarkable hybridization of the American and Soviet systems that occurred in these towns, which were an entirely new form of social organization created out of the existential dread of nuclear war. The differences between the ideals of the two systems can be seen in Table 1:

Table 1
Ideals of American Capitalism and Soviet Communism



American Capitalism
Soviet Communism
1
Property
private
state-owned
2
Individual Outcomes
unequal
equal
3
Economy
free market
directed by the state
4
Speech
free
state-controlled
5
Individual Motivation
enlightened self-interest
enlightened self-sacrifice
6
Value of the Individual
primary
secondary to the collective

Table 2
The actual values adopted in both of the superpowers’ plutonium cities: Richland, USA and Ozersk, USSR




Ozersk-Richland Hybrid Economic and Social Order
1
Property
state-owned
2
Individual Outcomes
unequal
3
Economy
directed by the state, licensed monopolies
4
Speech
state-controlled
5
Individual Motivation
enlightened self-interest
6
Value of the Individual
secondary to the collective




About Table 2

1. Property

The city of Richland, Washington emerged out of the desert for no reason other than the production of plutonium. There was a need to have high quality housing built fast for an elite of scientists and engineers, and it is believed that this gave rise to prefab housing and modern suburbia. However, the difference in Richland was that private home ownership was banned. The federal government had to give security clearance to every resident, and monitor their health for radioactive contamination. This would have been impossible if employees of the plutonium factory had been allowed to buy their own homes and sell them on the market to someone who lacked security clearance and an approved reason to be in Richland. Score a point for the Soviet system.

2. Individual Outcomes

For the first few years of the Cold War, the USSR was in a panicked rush to catch up to America in the nuclear arms race. It relied on soldiers and prison labor to build a plutonium factory, but it soon learned what the Americans had learned during the Manhattan Project. The best way to maintain security, quality of the product, and loyalty was to lavish scientists, engineers, tradesmen and even the rank and file workers with a quality of life they could not get elsewhere. In both atomic cities, the perks were so good that many refused to leave even when they knew they were being contaminated with radionuclides. Score a point for good old American inequality of outcomes.

3. Economy

During the Cold War, American conservatism developed its rhetoric lauding free enterprise and deriding government interference, but this movement thrived during the time of greatest state intervention in the economy. Of course, this was the time when great corporations like Boeing, Dupont, and Rockwell emerged, but these existed only because of the massive government programs to build nuclear weapons and missiles, which in turn necessitated the interstate highway system (for evacuation of big cities) and the internet (to maintain communications after a nuclear attack). Score a point for Soviet-style state management of the economy.

4. Speech

Richland had a newspaper, but it was heavily censored and never ran stories that helped citizens question how the Hanford reactors were being operated. Score another point for the Soviet way.

5. Individual Motivation

We could say that the people who built the atom bombs were making a sacrifice for their country, but both nations had to shower their workers with extra privileges that they couldn’t get outside of their gilded cages. There was an element of sacrifice in the work, but success depended on knighting the workers with elite status. Score a point for the American way of better outcomes for all through enlightened self-interest.

6. Value of the Individual

Both plutonium cities left a legacy of the worst environmental contamination known to mankind. There were horrific accidents, deliberate massive releases of radiation, and reckless contamination of workers and residents in surrounding communities. The cleanup is an unresolved nightmare that stretches out to the crack of doom. In both places it was implicitly understood by management that this was war, and in this war lives would be sacrificed for the “greater good.” The ideals of the Enlightenment and of the American constitution say that the protection of individual rights must be the basis of the state’s legitimacy, but in the atomic cities of the USA and the USSR, it was individual sacrifice for the state that was required. Score 1 point again for the values of the USSR that emphasized the honor in dying for the motherland.

Cold War Scorecard: America 2, Soviets 4

Though it is common wisdom to say the America won the Cold War, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over. And how will we know when it’s over? The transformation of both nations in the early Cold War suggests that the two systems converged in ways that were seldom acknowledged. In fact, if we want to keep score by the categories of Table 2, the Soviet system had a clear victory. Perhaps this is why now, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, academics are taking note of a phenomenon called the Sovietization of capitalism.


I think [the situation of these plutonium factory towns] epitomizes a lot of shifts we find in American society in the post-war years. So making these kinds of exchange, of... rights over one’s body, and civil rights and freedoms for consumer rights and financial security, and national security made sense to a lot of Americans, not just people in Richland…

I hope that people will look at this tandem history and see that there are some striking similarities between how easy it was to deny radioactive contamination and public health effects in both the socialist Soviet Union and in American democracy, and that despite the vast differences in these two countries and these two political systems, there was something overarching about the nuclear umbrella that created very similar kinds of cultures and social systems, and systems of knowledge. We need to take a really close look at how the demands of nuclear technology and nuclear secrecy and security create systems and communities that are extremely undemocratic and hierarchical, and also create these plutonium disasters, the full impact of which we’ve yet to really fully digest. 

     The mixing of communism and capitalism that I have described above is actually an old theory about east-west relations that was referred to as convergence theory. John Feffer discussed it in an article in Truthout, saying "...economist John Kenneth Galbraith... predicted that the United States and the Soviet Union would converge at some point in the future with the market tempered by planning and planning invigorated by the market." Instead, this best-of-both-worlds blend didn't come to pass, and he asks whether it is now the worst of both that exists in China, Russia, the United States:

The convergence theorists imagined that the better aspects of capitalism and communism would emerge from the Darwinian competition of the Cold War and that the result would be a more adaptable and humane hybrid. It was a typically Panglossian error. Instead of the best of all possible worlds, the international community now faces an unholy trinity of authoritarian politics, cutthroat economics, and Big Brother surveillance. Even though we might all be eating off IKEA tableware, listening to Spotify, and reading the latest Girl With the Dragon Tattoo knock-off, we are not living in a giant Sweden. Our world is converging in a far more dystopian way. After two successive conservative governments and with a surging far-right party pounding its anti-immigrant drumbeat, even Sweden seems to be heading in the same dismal direction.[4]

Notes

[1] “The Keiser Report,” Episode 723, Russia Today, February 24, 2015.

[2] Elias Isquith, “David Graeber explains the life-sapping reality of bureaucratic life,” Salon, March 5, 2015.

[3] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] John Feffer, "The Worst of All Possible Worlds: Did Market Leninism Win the Cold War?" Truthout, May 26, 2015. http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30974-the-worst-of-all-possible-worlds-did-market-leninism-win-the-cold-war

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