How the U.S. also Lost the Cold War
I’m not saying the the Soviet Union won. Most of those countries are pretty much a mess now. The governments they have are not much better than the old ones. Some of them make sporadic attempts at reform, but their cultures are difficult to transform. But now, about twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s clear how much the U.S. lost by “winning.”
In my own simplistic view, the Cold War was basically a two-headed monster. It was a dangerous clash of two very different philosophies, very different in two different areas.
The differences were in both the kind of economic system that each of the rivals wanted to establish, and of the kinds of governments that each had.
The differences between the economic systems were obvious. The Soviet Union began with the hope of establishing a system of government in which the everyone worked together, and everyone shared equally in the benefits of that work. The idea was that there were no individual investors who would benefit from the labor of others; everyone in the country owned everything, and everyone would share in the profits. People all worked together on communes and collectives. Hence the name, “communism.”
The American system was one of free enterprise and capitalism. In America people were free to attempt to earn a living any way they chose, but it was up to them to make it happen. People could start their own business, or they could get a job working for someone else, or working for a big company. There were other institutions, mostly banks, but also some individuals who could provide the capital to help get a business started and keep it running. Those institutions, or individuals expected to reap some financial reward for the capital they invested. That is why it was called “capitalism.”
The two political systems were very different also. The Soviets decided that the best way to run a country that was dedicated to making everyone equal, was to have a small group of people who understood the philosophy the best run the country from the top down. They also decided that it was easier to kill or imprison the people who didn’t understand the philosophy as well as they did. This proved to be a very unwieldy and unpopular way of running a country. It didn’t work.
The U.S., at least theoretically, was a beacon of freedom to the world. Anyone could run for office. Everyone was expected to vote. Every individual was free do and say what they wanted about how well the government was doing. There was supposed to be a free and active press that keep an eye on what was happening and who was doing wrong. Theoretically, this system was run from the bottom up: “Of the people, by the people and for the people,” someone once said. He was a Republican.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people such as Francis Fukuyama were writing about “The End of History.” It had been almost a century of struggle but now liberal democracy had proved to be the stronger system. People expected this philosophy would endure, improve, and eventually bring peace and prosperity to the world. Except, probably, for the Middle East, but that represented lots of different kinds of problems.
During the decade that followed the end of history, things looked pretty good on the surface. Much of this was due to new technologies that were dramatically boosting productivity, communications, and making the entire world interconnected.
But underneath that cover of prosperity, some Americans felt that the victory over communism was not a victory for liberal democracy — a form of government — it was more a victory of hyper-capitalism, the extreme form of the economic system. What America’s freedom meant to them was the freedom to make money, as much of it as possible, and any way that was possible. They began to scream that any limitations of that freedom was “communism.”
At first, those people were a small group of people who began to make a lot of money, and the system began to get a bit out of whack due to some people benefitting much more than others. But then, these people began to add another layer to their idea of “freedom.” They began to use their money, and they were amassing huge amounts of it, to buy the government. They were hiring lobbyists, they were supporting candidates, they were setting up their own TV and radio networks, they were even writing legislation that the candidates they had financed had to vote for. This legislation made a lot of what they wanted to do, that had not been legal, was now legal. They found ways to keep the opposition from voting, or from their votes to count for much.
This is when America lost the Cold War. Americans lost it, not on a battlefield, not on economic matters, but due to apathy, distraction, and general laziness.
History did not end. There were many new challenges that needed to be faced, understood and solved. But people became distracted by the early prosperity that the new technologies created. Then they became distracted by the new technologies themselves.
They new environment included problems created by shifting demographics, as people moved all around the world, seeking peace and/or prosperity. There were problems from the changes in the climate. There were problems from the changes in the roles of women, the status of minorities, an the new skills that new jobs required. These were, and still are, big problems. They are still screaming out for solutions.
But America closed its eyes to those problems. They seemed too hard and too complex to get solved, especially by the people who had bought and now owned the government, All they wanted to do, and still want to do, is make more money. Most Americans were not paying attention. They were distracted by having a Black President who was actually born in America. They were distracted by immigrants, and by Black people who were upset that police killing them. They were distracted by Russian bots that were using all this new technology to distract them.
Learning new job skills is difficult. Americans didn’t work at it enough. Dealing with climate change takes cooperation and long-term planning — too difficult. Women in the workplace — too frightening to too many men. Critical thinking is also difficult if you’d rather watch Honey Boo Boo, don’t fund education, segregate the schools, and make college too expensive. Anyway, all those things might cut into short-term profits.
While China is working to improve Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, Robotics, and investing in Africa and South America, the American government is trying to sell “clean coal.” Whose future would you bet on.
What happened when U.S. lost the cold war is the same thing that made the Soviet Union lose the cold war: Income inequality, and corruption.
The very rich have bought our government while we slept, or were watching Fox News. They have used their money to allow themselves to keep more money. Profits over people. There is lots of “dark money” in politics. We are seeing that there is also a lot of Russian money in politics — right up to the top of our government. There is NRA money that is killing people; selling us guns, and then more guns to protect us from those guns. There is drug money, from big drug companies, as well as illegal drug cartels that are killing people. There is money from polluting industries that are spreading toxins and creating huge storms that are killing people. There is money that is keeping Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan from holding votes on key issues, and protecting our country from a corrupt madman and his family.
Twenty years after the end of the Cold War America is catching up to the Soviet Union, in inequality, lies, anxiety, addictions, and mostly corruption.
We will see if we have the energy, interest, focus and skill to take back our democracy, the ideal of real freedom, and liberal capitalism.
No better time than now.