Comparing the U.S. with Russia

There is a darkness, a foreboding in the air. People are doing something that is new in recent history: instead of stoic faces and fortitude they now bare their emotions in public. But only at staged events, protected by others of like mind. Or posted at a safe distance via the Internet. Performance artists pop up, record a video guerrilla-style and vanish again. One plants a flag in a hidden rural location bearing the legend, He Will Not Divide Us, watched over by a web cam broadcasting 24-hours a day to a page somewhere on the Internet.

Protests by artists and intellectuals against U.S. President Donald Trump, speak for a much larger, silent population. We are told that this population is silenced by fear or stirred by anger. But we don’t see this population. What we see are public statements by concerned celebrities and defiant acts by identically-clad, black-hooded individuals who look like extras on the set of a television program. They are protest artists, even if the show is occasionally violent.

Sometimes the police appear as if from nowhere and disrupt the protest with numerous arrests, as at the Occupy Protests in the U.S. Other times the police stand back, as if the protests have been sanctioned from higher up. It is important to note that it is still often possible to protest in the U.S. without obtaining a permit, under the First Amendment.

The mainstream news media claim to speak for the population, as if for an amorphous mass. Both the protest-artists and the mainstream news claim to know the people’s mind. They do not distinguish between reflecting and telling. To a by-stander it seems equally plausible that the mainstream news may be telling the people what to think, just as they set the agenda, decide who gets interviewed and determine what topics may be discussed. The media publishes polls that claim to show what the people feel. At the same time the media discusses openly how these polls are handicapped to favor particular segments of popular opinion.

As someone who has spent the past six months between the U.S. and Europe, what follows is a distillation of what American and Russian friends have observed.


The all-American onlooker is confused.  Can she trust her eyes and ears? Is she witnessing protest by a large swathe of the population or just being led to believe it?

She is told that Russia has intervened in domestic affairs, influenced the vote and that Russia somehow hacked the election, causing the victory of President Donald Trump. The newspapers are afire with people from competing parts of the “intelligence community” suggesting the new president has done something bad. This coincides with more televised events at which celebrities say the president was not legitimately elected. The president and his opponents have swapped positions on voter fraud, according to what the other is saying. The arguments of Trump and his Democrat opponents make less and less sense.

The all-American onlooker rises above the tennis match of lobbed allegation and counter-allegation. “Why is this happening? Who exactly is protesting and what exactly do they want? How will I ever find out?”

She tells herself that it simply does not look like a spontaneous protest coming from the people. It looks more like a controlled opposition coordinated from somewhere higher up. The media seems to be too unified and coordinated, reflecting powerful interest groups rather than the disparate views of the people.

She closes the lid of her computer and tries to clarify her thoughts. “What does this information tell me about where I live? About what we are fighting for?”

She has a friend of Russian origin who has worked abroad in many countries. She calls and they talk, swapping information back and forth and playing a thought game, called Which Country Am I Describing? These are her notes:

It may be one of the largest if not the largest country on earth. If not by wealth then by geography. If not by land mass, then by living standards. Blessed by large energy reserves, it is a country of cheap oil and a love of motor cars. Its history has been one of expanding frontiers and seemingly limitless resources. This has created a culture of consumption. Not so much of products but of resources, used to expand the state, without much care for the environment. The efficient use of energy and careful avoidance of waste is something foreign, left to the Germans, the Dutch or the British.

The land bears the scars of industrial pollution, the people paying the price of contaminated water and buried waste, even nuclear waste. This is partly because of the corrupt collusion of politicians and corporations and partly because of frontier culture. There is always more.

Raw materials are limitless but so are people. Humans have always been expendable. Whether they were the original inhabitants or workers in the inhumane factories of robber baron industrialists. Heck, we even fired them on rockets into space. There are large populations, eager immigrants and masses more across the border. They are for the state to use. The constitution may guarantee individual rights but the state has never had to pay much heed to the cost of replacing humans.

The state can displace huge populations with large scale projects for dams or reservoirs. It can sustain a level of warfare that would drain and demoralize other countries. It can openly discuss the prospect of winning a nuclear war.

It has a taste for political theater but decisions are taken at state level by a caste of executives who are equally at home in government and politics. Academics say this is not democracy but oligarchy. Sometimes companies are so powerful it can be said that a handful of corporations make the laws – in energy and defense, finance and pharmaceuticals.

There are laws against corruption but corruption comes in different flavors. It can be brutal in politics or business. It doesn’t always result in unfortunate accidents for the victims. There are lobbies and business associations, unions and closed shops, for lawyers and accountants as well as teamsters. Money buys advancement, especially if endowed to prestigious universities. There is no reason to use brute force when greased palms and favors can achieve the same result.

Unity or compliance – they are the same thing – can be enforced in social ways. The threat of social exclusion in the upper class or the nomenclatura can be as powerful as any physical threat. In states where capitalism is younger and the law not fully independent the same aims may be achieved more brutally – businessmen may bribe judges to put their rivals in prison or hire goons to lock them out of their offices – but as emerging markets advance, money and patronage will soon take the place of hoodlums.

The mass of population is not always well fed. The cheese is bad, made with fillers and little milk. It is labelled with names stolen from real product, French, Dutch or English. (String cheese is much better in Russia, so is butter and cream) The meat at the mass market level is tough and processed. Don’t even mention the sausages. It is as if the vast majority of the population should not be thinking about food.

This is a state where the political police keep files on the politicians, where intelligence agencies infiltrate companies and use offices abroad to station their spies. There is a state where police keep files on activists, writers, unionists, artists, and religious and community leaders on a district-by-district level.

The secret services have a history of monitoring writers and artists. They go further and try to influence popular culture. They promote abstract art that gives the impression of being modern or avant garde but that is unthreatening and politically sterile. As Frances Stonor Saunders has argued, modernists were promoted internationally as a sign that the state was open to freethinking and new ideas. Domestically, however, the political police followed and harassed radical writers, especially those who might ignite unrest among racial minorities.

Historically troublesome writers and artists were controlled by various means. In some cases writers were monitored and blacklisted by their own unions and professional associations. In other cases publishers and movie producers were helped and encouraged to produce narratives that resonated with a patriotic, pro-state line. State agencies financed journals of current affairs which, in turn, gave a platform to favored writers.

Dissidents are defined on Wikipedia as those who challenge the dominant narrative but many Russians or Chinese would say dissidents are those who are persecuted for their views. Having more of the former is a good thing, more of the latter is bad.

The press and the television are not directly controlled by the state but they are owned by its proxies. By oligarchs or corporate giants whose interests are closely aligned with those of the state. Up to the present day, the intelligence services work with newspapers and television – their owners, managers, editors and reporters – to neutralize troublesome journalists who investigated government, corporations or vested interests.

As with business, it helps to have a rich network of professional associations, and a fine mesh of grants and jobs with non-profits. It becomes easier to influence and promote ideas without the need to use force or suppression. Journalists, activists and even politicians may continue to die in accidents that raise suspicion but money and patronage makes sure that most of them toe the line.

This country – these countries, rather – are Russia and the United States of America. Neither a Russian nor an American is likely to agree with all or any of this. Each has been trained over generations to see the other as a polar opposite.

This is not a competition for who is worst. In the 20th century the U.S. has no equivalent of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. On the other hand, who wants to debate the merits of slave labor camps versus slave labor? Or gulag versus privatized prisons when the U.S. imprisons far more people than Russia? Or the record of inciting regime change? Or of provoking and sustaining foreign wars? History is written by the victors. There is much that is not taught in U.S. or Russian universities, let alone schools.

So much for progress. We weren’t as bad as the other guy! Not much of an argument. Surely what matters is the humane quality of the political process. The most barbaric phrase in politics is the ends justify the means.

So it is valid to compare the U.S. and Russia. We should and we must. But honestly and in a spirit of doing better not worse.

Rulers compete for the loyalty of their own people. For a while, as the writer and journalist John Lanchester explains in Whoops!, corporations and politicians in the west had an interest in promoting higher living standards to minimize any competition from communism. This produced a golden age of higher wages, pensions and welfare in the decades after World War Two.

By the 1960s the need for brute force and suppression had lessened: Stalin had died in 1953. Britain abolished formal censorship in 1968. The purges of Hollywood had drawn to a close, the House Un-American Activities Committee was renamed (though not abolished until 1975).

Yet throughout this bounteous age the state’s political policemen never stopped watching and taking notes. The FBI’s CoIntelPro program kept watch on the entire population of the United States, or on any tall poppy who might stand out. It was exposed in 1971 and was supposedly abandoned although the Echelon project from the 1980s and Edward Snowden’s revelations in the 2000s suggest that programs similar to CoIntelPro continued under various names and agencies up to the present day.

Over in Russia the tall poppies were also targeted from school to the workplace and monitored by the Russian political police but the people had been trained to do the job. A popular saying went: the best is the enemy of the good.

And now that the Soviet Union is gone, all those benefits that American’s thought were their birthright – the job for life, increasing wages and pensions – are deteriorating. It is as if they have been withdrawn. And we are left with the surveillance and the militarized police. Just in case we protest.

Isn’t Russia much closer to a one-party state with a single ruler?
Doesn’t the opposition to Trump, from inside government, the security services, the media, as well as both Democrat and Republican politicians, sound kind of united, rather like a one-party state? The deep state is a common phrase now. Should we heed the warning?

Like all leaders Putin is secure so long as he meets the needs of vested interests and limits the role of corporations looking to expand their influence with the help of foreign powers. For Putin, protecting the state comes first. In contrast, the Clintons’ corporate financial backers and the Chinese come to mind.

The real issue is not the U.S. vs Russia. Rather it is the choice between rule by corporations and rule by the nation state.

The all-American observer and her friend agreed that they had said enough by phone.

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