Capitalism triumphed in the Cold War, but not by improving the lot of people

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Many accounts blame Mikhail Gorbachev for much of the economic suffering of the countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Some see him as a courageous reformer committed to a more democratic socialist vision, while others portray him as a toad that has needlessly compromised the livelihoods of millions of people by subjecting them to a traumatic economic transition. But Bartel does not place Gorbachev at the center of his account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, reminding readers that Gorbachev was not the first to advocate reforms to his economy and political culture. The difference in his time was that the world was facing a new tax paradigm. “Contrary to the historical memory that prevails today,” he writes, the rising tide of popular disaffection in the Eastern bloc “had its origins not in the socialist world with perestroika but rather in the economy world with the 1973 oil crisis and sovereign debt”. which resulted from it. If Moscow had once considered itself insulated from the volatility of international capital flows, in the mid-1980s it saw a wave of “economic adjustment” mount to “completely erase the division of Europe”.

Growing popular discontent fueled Gorbachev’s liberal turn. “Indeed,” writes Bartel, “the primary reason democracy and freedom of expression emerged in the Soviet Union was their potential to constrain.” Faced with growing budget deficits, inflation and shortages resulting from the world oil crisis and a disastrous adventure in Afghanistan, Soviet leaders recognized that “the burden of the economy demanded a new form of political “, one in which the state did less for -and at— its citizens. If the people had even a nominal say in the direction of the country, they might feel more invested in the survival of the existing order; a degree of popular participation could give the state enough credibility to implement an austere economic program. Alexander Yakovlev, the man sometimes called the godfather of glasnost, made this point to his Politburo friends: discipline. ” Gorbachev in 1987 openly declared that the Soviet Union had embarked on “the path of democracy” because “it offers the strongest grip on power”. It was hope, anyway.

But implementing the basic elements of a cost-cutting economic adjustment proved “politically impossible”, argues Bartel, especially when it came to restructuring the fixed price system. Concretely, the prices of everything had to increase. It had always been difficult for Soviet leaders to reconcile a decline in living standards with the march of progress enshrined in so much official Communist Party rhetoric. Ronald Reagan too, of course, was faced with a growing national debt and his own deficits, but he could count on Paul Volcker at the Fed to raise interest rates to astronomical heights, dragging the country into successive recessions and crowding out American manufacturing. “Gorbachev”, notes Bartel, “had no equivalent savior”.

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