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From Independent Left November 15, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Two very interesting posts. One on Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘Sorry We Missed You’ which sounds both timely and important. The other on the situation in Bolivia this week.

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1. Alibaba - November 15, 2019

It’s good to see this review and so timely of Loach to cover the gig economy. I saw the film and was surprised and delighted in equal measure that it ‘ends on a note of such despair’ because it would be weakened with a sentimental finish. Loach has the courage to cinematically show the reality of how the lives of people are affected.

As an aside, I went to see ‘Meeting Gorbachev’ and it is somewhat marred by the adulation of Gorbachev by its director Herzog. However it has interesting insights and also Gorbachev was asked what he wanted on his tombstone and he replied that wasn’t for him to say but he went on to mention the tombstone of a friend which stated this: We tried. Beautiful.

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alanmyler - November 15, 2019

I saw Gorbachev in the IFI last Sunday afternoon. I quite liked it. I’d be a fan of sorts, I do believe he was well intentioned. His memoir is well worth reading if you haven’t already done so. Yes I thought Herzog was a bit much, but then the clips of the two of them were the least interesting part of the film. It’s a decent testament to him anyway,he can’t be long for this world now unfortunately. About the showing in the IFI, not too many at it, it didn’t exactly pack out screen 1.

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about 89-91 the last while (natch!) and he comes across as a very very complicated person who fundamentally wanted a more humane version of socialism, and he was very very far left right up I’d think until the coup in 91. After that the exigencies of the situation kind of caught up with him. Now? I’d say he’s a left social democrat. He certainly saw a fair bit of what had been achieved during the Soviet period as worth retaining, whatever about the rest.

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alanmyler - November 16, 2019

Definitely a very intelligent and committed communist, well the latter at the time at least. Completely tragic how things worked out in 91 and thereafter, for him of course but more importantly for the peoples of the USSR and the eastern European people’s democracies, but also tragic for the whole project. I know you’ve been making the case that the project had ossified and stagnated, which I wouldn’t disagree with substantially, but was it compromised beyond salvation? Gorbachev didn’t think so. But you’d have to wonder whether, in the absence of outside forces, it could have been redeemed? I’d have to guess that would have been possible, why wouldn’t it. What a different world we’d be living in now in that case, eh.

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

What’s fascinating is how sclerotic the system was at an everyday level – not just politically, but in terms of access to basic commodities for citizens and how long that had been the case. In a way what is amazing is how little rupture there was on the ground prior to that though the system was very tightly constrained. Then there’s the fact that Yeltsin et al were also all convinced communists (Yeltsin possibly as late as 1989) too. I think part of the problem was the command control model was going to run into problems one way or another – externally, internally, etc. Possibly a looser Yugoslav approach might have worked (or even a China model though I’m no fan of that). But in a way part of the problem was that it wasn’t just one issue – reform of the USSR as the USSR but also the international structure in relation to other states, ie the Warsaw Pact. And then tensions within the USSR ie Ukraine, Russia, etc. So change one element and there were ripples across the whole. Gorbachev couldn’t see Eastern Europe cut loose and not Lithuania etc. Or Ukraine. It just wasn’t possible. And then as those states headed straight to the exit that built up expectations within the USSR. So I think that twenty years earlier a Gorbachev like figure could have succeeded, but in the 80s it was probably too late (I always look at Dubcek et al and there was another convicted Communist!).

Other problems of course were the ineptness of the conservatives within the CPUSSR who had literally no alternative but the nostrums of the past, and even then didn’t really believe them as evidenced by the uselessness of the coup and an unwillingness (thankfully) to use force. In part, I’d suspect, because they knew that force wasn’t a viable option, that there was no popular enthusiasm for the project. If the conservatives had had a broader vision above and beyond keeping their jobs and been willing to moderate and reform but retain aspects of the overall situation I think there’s a possibility the outcome might have been different.

Have you read Conor O’Clery’s December 25th 1991? It’s pretty good.

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alanmyler - November 16, 2019

I haven’t read that one, I’ll look it up. I take your point about the sclerosis and the internal and external tensions, but I’m not sure you’re correct in viewing any of that as being insurmountable. What I mean is that if you look at life here now in the west, under capitalism, one could make very convincing arguments that the economic system is in crisis, witness the financial crisis, the extreme measures to breath life into the global banking system, a generation that have grown up knowing nothing but austerity, the homelessness crisis, opoid crisis, etc etc etc, and yet the mainstream view (equivalent to the mainstream view in 89s SU) is that this is just business as usual, that the system isn’t perfect, that we’ll muddle through, that good times will return. Normality of expectations. I mean if our system now should collapse and in 30 years a blog somewhere should point out these sclerotic aspects of the polity and economy, well who could argue otherwise. I don’t view the collapse of our present system as inevitable now, nor the Soviet one then. Certainly there were huge negatives, but about the consumer goods one, that in particular is something that from an eco perspective that was a lot closer to optimal than what we have now globally imo. As for the suppression of nationalist antagonism, again a positive. As you suggest perhaps Gorbachev was just 15 years too late, but it’s not just that, I think maybe there’s an undervaluation of the importance of countering western imperialist aggression, giving too much in terms of liberalising the satellites without getting anything significant in the other direction in return.

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

I don’t think that life in the west is worse than life in the Soviets was. Indeed I’d think and the general consensus from those living in that system is that it was fundamentally worse despite some positive aspects. Everything I have read about life in that context suggests to me that it would present enormous constraints on how ones life was lived in ways that would be anathema to us here – constraints on expression, thought, activity, travel, initiative, work and all that before we get to consumer goods. If our society imposed a tenth of that we’d rightly be at the barricades. Indeed we are, and rightly so where we feel such constraints cut across rights.

This isn’t to say that life under capitalism is nirvana, but it is preferable I suspect to most than life in a sort of ‘barracks socialism’ context. Nor is it impossible we see a sort of barracks capitalism emerging from the current set up, in fact I’d see that as one of the very real dangers of the present set up. Though that’s a different discussion!

I’m not really sure about the imperialism argument. For a start I’m dubious all imperialism is ‘western’ (though in fairness you’re not making that argument) and I’m very uneasy about the line that one group of people have to somehow be corralled into a situation they don’t want to be in to check another group or entity (for example there’s the argument that the existence of the Soviets led in part to welfarism in the west post-war. Possible, but not an argument in support of the former). I do think that living in a period without the ever present threat of nuclear war is better than the situation in the 1980s.

And re the satellites, isn’t it the right of all states to go their own way? Again, why should Eastern European states have to cleave to a certain road? But that said I agree there were opportunities that were missed. I also think the system could have muddled along under a sort of sub-Chernenko leadership for decades to come, but to what point? Who would benefit? There seems to me from what I’ve read so far that there was a huge appetite for change of one sort or another by the late 1970s. Have your read Sheehans book? It’s particularly good on that.

Thing is for all the rhetoric one of the most curious aspects of the Soviet period was how little actual experimentation in social/economic situations took place. Here was a chance to try out a number of different paths, say in individuals regions of the USSR, or between the different states of the Warsaw Pact, and yet, nope, it was largely one very suffocating approach that was adopted across a vast range of states – command economies, vanguard party turned state government centre, totalising control of most aspects of economic, social and political areas. Etc. What a wasted opportunity.

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alanmyler - November 16, 2019

I don’t but the argument about judging standards of freedom of expression etc by the norms to which we’re familiar here and now, of course we’d find them restrictive, much as we’d find Ireland restrictive if we were parachuted back to the 80s. Not to suggest comparisons in an absolute sense between 80s Ireland and the socialist Bloc, simply to point out that expectations of freedom and normality are relative and form over periods of time.

About imperialism what I was trying to get at was that we need to take account of the pressure placed on the socialist system externally by capitalist imperialism. For one it caused huge resources to be channelled into military spending which could have more beneficially been used elsewhere to improve society and the economy. But also the propaganda war based on illusions of freedom and consumer plenty. Not illusions in the sense of lies but an undermining of collective solidarity in society and the false promises of happiness through individual consumption. False because the immediate impact following the collapse was to strip that half if the continent of its economic infrastructure, turning it into a rust belt of unemployment and deprivation. None of that was inevitable, it was the final triumphalist phase of the Cold war. In those circumstances what choice was really being offered to the newly independent states, it was the lure of Capitalist Utopia with a very definite stirring of nationalist sentiment, a toxic brew. We’re currently seeing how that’s working out across the eastern European states. I’m certainly inclined to see the socialist project as a positive in that respect.

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

Absolutely, norms are relative, but I don’t think a political project today will work if it seeks to restrict rather than to expand. That I think is a substantive change in matters and also that had an effect on the trajectory of the Soviets etc.

I wonder about whether collective solidarity was undermined in quite that way. The gap between the reality in the bloc and that experienced elsewhere outside it was so vast (for example food shortages the week that the USSR was finally dissolved in Moscow) that it’s not just a lack of consumer goods but actual basic necessities. That’s not simply down to militarisation due to the Cold War when one is talking about a continental power. That’s down to fundamental flaws in the actual system if one has bread basket agricultural regions, etc, etc. And the flip side of this is the US wasn’t bankrupted. Anything but, and yet it was able at least in the basic aspects of life to provide and continue to provide those basic necessities and much much more and have very large expenditures without so much as breaking a sweat. So I wonder if it was the sheer reality of lack of even the basics that ultimately undermined th system completely. If people had to queue for those necessities then it wasn’t so much capitalism was a lure so much as anything being better. Again, the fact Gorbachev, Yeltsin etc, weren’t anti-Communist or remained Communists until the very late 1980s suggests that it was that basic reality that was the problem, not some starry eyed capitalist sentiment. But there’s another aspect, the post-fall situation was a disaster, but no surprise given that the space for a left that was, as it were right of the CPs had been systemically stomped on by the regimes themselves so things flipped to an extreme position where ultra liberals (economically) were the ones who took over in no small part because there was no one else with a plan, and certainly not the CPs or former CPs who should have been best positioned. That said there were other aspects, the fall occurred at a time when Reaganism and Thatcherism were at their height. The current situation doesn’t hugely surprise me in regard to far right parties in the Eastern European states because the very concept of the left was delegitimised to a greater or lesser extent in those states by the Soviet period. People are averse t o going left so their radicalism tends to be expressed to the right and far right and so on.

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alanmyler - November 16, 2019

I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare the productive capacity of the SU and US when you consider the history of those economies in the 20th century as a while but more specifically from 1945 onwards, given that the US economy boomed during the war while the SU was faced with reconstruction on a massive scale. Given that starting point it’s a minor miracle that the SU was able to catch up militarily while still creating the beginnings of a consumer sector. If you look at the percentage investment in military spending by the two you can see how much of a burden it was in relative terms on an ongoing basis. As for all the rest of it, the short version is that you’re just wrong but I don’t want to spend the day debating it here so we’ll just have to pick it up face to face some Friday over a lunch / pint. 🙂

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

Haha, yes, two very different worldviews I think (though I would have been closer to yours at one point). Though I do think a continental power should after thirty odd years following a conflict, where the western parts were directly affected but the eastern not, been in a fair bit better nick to take on the various challenges economically and militarily. And in some ways it was able to, as we can see from aerospace technology, the fact that there were no famines during the post-war period, etc.

The idea of continuing this discussion does sound promising as you outline it!

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2. Lamentreat - November 16, 2019

Great piece on Bolivia, v. interesting thanks. It’s right to emphasize the wider context. That includes hemispheric politics: in the medium term any one Latin American country can be picked off by US influence, international capital and local elites, who are always prepared to use brutal violence to maintain inequality and the “clasiracismo” hierarchy. It’s not a coincidence that the crackdown in Bolivia was greenlighted at a time of political upheaval and/or left success in neighboring countries. Seems like a bloc of mutually-supporting left governments is a prerequisite for any serious change.

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WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2019

As in the EU!

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