Tuesday, September 09, 2008
  Orlov on surviving the collapse...

Dmitri Orlov, in this article, compares the collapse of the Soviet Empire to the already-visible collapse of the American Empire. Orlov lived through the first one, and offers us a clear view of the second one.

He lists the parallels:

1. Unwinnable wars
2. Declining oil production
3. Out of control military budgets
4. Unsustainable deficits
5. Balky, unresponsive, corrupt political system
6. Delusions of grandeur prevent honest discussion of reform

Orlov says that many aspects of the Soviet system made collapse easier on the people. He concentrates on the Soviet infrastructure and material goods. Because Soviet technology remained in the 1940's, it was sturdy. Soviet cities were built around mass transit, and the machinery was designed to be "infinitely maintainable". By contrast, American cities since 1960 have been built around automobiles, and modern autos are specifically designed to be non-maintainable.

We had "infinitely maintainable" systems in 1940. Our cars, radios, streetcars, trains and powerplants were heavy, understressed, inefficient, tolerant of wear, and repairable with minimal skills. We have lost all of those qualities. Our material universe is now designed for maximal efficiency when new, and disposal when slightly worn. This requires us to depend on cheap manufacturing, which has to be outsourced. There is no room for casual repair. (This is a point Polistra has made repeatedly, but without thinking in apocalyptic terms!)

Orlov:
Economic collapse tends to shut down both local production and imports, so it is vitally important that anything you own wears out slowly, and that you can fix it yourself if it breaks. Soviet-made stuff generally wore incredibly hard. The Chinese-made stuff you can get around here – much less so.
His most original observation:
To keep evil at bay, Americans require money. In an economic collapse, there is usually hyperinflation, which wipes out savings. There is also rampant unemployment, which wipes out incomes. The result is a population that is largely penniless.

In the Soviet Union, very little could be obtained for money. It was treated as tokens rather than as wealth, and was shared among friends. Many things – housing and transportation among them – were either free or almost free.
In other words, the Russians were accustomed to dealing with each other in a more local and personal way, accustomed to working for barter. They didn't depend on the continued goodwill of other countries.

Orlov's psychological advice is especially interesting:
If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.



Reminds me of something I read 40 years ago in an essay by the hippie philosopher Alan Watts. Most of Watts's writing was forgettable psychedelic ramblings, but one point stuck with me. Watts said that Euros often accuse Americans of being materialistic, but in fact Americans are the least materialistic people of all. A Frenchman will buy one Renault and treasure it; he will spend time maintaining it, and the car will enjoy his attention and reward his efforts. An American will buy a car and use it up, because he's confident that he will be able to afford a better one two years later. A French woman will buy groceries every day, spend time examining the vegetables and meat, spend time and art on cooking and preparing the food. Americans will eat at McDonalds. In short, we use a lot of stuff, but we really don't like our stuff very much. What do we like? Good question.
 


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