America lost the Cold War: Russia, China and the new autocratic world order

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Imagine an alternative universe in which the two major Cold War superpowers evolved into the United Soviet Socialist States. The conjoined entity, linked perhaps by a new Bering Straits land bridge, combines the optimal features of capitalism and collectivism. From Siberia to Sioux City, we’d all be living in one giant Sweden.

Cold War

It sounds like either the paranoid nightmare of a John Bircher or the wildly optimistic dream of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, however, this was a rather conventional view, at least among influential thinkers like economist John Kenneth Galbraith who predicted that the United States and the Soviet Union would converge at some point in the future with the market tempered by planning and planning invigorated by the market. Like many an academic notion, it didn’t come to pass. The United States veered off in the direction of Reaganomics. And the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. So much for “convergence theory,” which like EST or cold fusion went the way of most crackpot ideas.

Or did it? Take another look at our world in 2015 and tell me if, somehow we haven’t backed our way through the looking glass into that very alternative universe — with a twist. The planet currently seems to be on the cusp of a decidedly unharmonic convergence.

Consider what’s happening in Russia, where an elected autocrat presides over a free market shaped by a powerful state apparatus. Similarly, China’s mash-up of market Leninism offers a one-from-column-A-and-one-from-Column-B combination platter. Both countries are also rife with crime, corruption, growing inequality, and militarism. Think of them as the un-Swedens.

Nor do such hybrids live only in the East. Hungary, a member of the European Union and a key post-Communist adherent to liberalism, has been heading off in an altogether different direction since its ruling Fidesz party took over in 2010. Last July, its prime minister, Viktor Orban, declared that he no longer looks to the West for guidance. To survive in an ever more competitive global economy, Orban is seeking inspiration from various hybrid powers, the other un-Swedens of our planet: Turkey, Singapore, and both Russia and China. Touting the renationalization of former state assets and stricter controls on foreign investment, he has promised to remake Hungary into an “illiberal state” that both challenges laissez-faire principles and concentrates power in the leader and his party.

The United States is not exactly immune from such trends. The state has also become quite illiberal here as its reach and power have been expanded in striking ways. As it happens, however, America’s Gosplan, our state planning committee, comes with a different name: the military-industrial-homeland-security complex. Washington presides over a planet-spanning surveillance system that would have been the envy of the Communist apparatchiks of the previous century, even as it has imposed a global economic template on other countries that enables enormous corporate entities to elbow aside local competition. If the American tradition of liberalism and democracy was once all about “the little guy” — the rights of the individual, the success of small business — the United States has gone big in the worst possible way.

The convergence theorists imagined that the better aspects of capitalism and communism would emerge from the Darwinian competition of the Cold War and that the result would be a more adaptable and humane hybrid. It was a typically Panglossian error. Instead of the best of all possible worlds, the international community now faces an unholy trinity of authoritarian politics, cutthroat economics, and Big Brother surveillance. Even though we might all be eating off IKEA tableware, listening to Spotify, and reading the latest Girl With the Dragon Tattoo knock-off, we are not living in a giant Sweden. Our world is converging in a far more dystopian way. After two successive conservative governments and with a surging far-right party pounding its anti-immigrant drumbeat, even Sweden seems to be heading in the same dismal direction.

Indeed, if you squint at the history of the last 70 years, you might be persuaded to believe that the convergence theorists were right after all. For all the excitement the fall of the Berlin Wall generated and the paradigm shifts it inspired, the annus mirabilis of 1989 may not have been the end of one system and the victory of the other, but an odd interlude in a much longer evolution of the two.

Bats Do It, Whales Do It

Bats and whales don’t look at all alike. But they both operate in similarly dark environments. Bats hunt at night, while whales navigate the murk of the ocean. Because neither animal can rely on visual clues, they have developed the ability to echolocate, to use, that is, sound waves to find their way around. This clever strategy is an example of convergent evolution: adaptation by different creatures to similar environmental conditions.

Some social scientists in the Cold War period looked at Communism and capitalism in much the same way that evolutionary biologists view the bat and the whale. Both systems, while structurally different, were struggling to adapt to the same environmental factors. The forces of modernity — of technological development, of growing bureaucratization — would, it was then believed, push both systems in the same evolutionary direction. To achieve more optimal economic results, the Communists would increasingly rely on market mechanisms, while the capitalists would turn to planning. Democracy would take a backseat to bureaucracy as technocrats with no particular ideology ran the countries in both blocs in that now-distant two-superpower world. What would be lost in participation would be gained, it was claimed, in efficiency. The resulting hybrid structures, like echolocation, would represent the most effective ways to operate in a challenging global environment.

Convergence theory officially debuted in 1961 with a short but influential article by Jan Tinbergen. Communism and capitalism, the Dutch economist argued, would learn to overcome internal problems by borrowing from each other. More contact between the two foes would lead to a virtuous circle of more sharing and greater convergence. Further exposure came with John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1967 bestseller, The New Industrial State. From there, the concept spread beyond the economics profession and the transatlantic alliance.  It even found adherents, among them nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, the coming of détente between the two superpowers suggested that these theorists had been on the mark. Policies emphasizing “coexistence,” adopted by each of the previously implacable enemies and facilitated by scientific exchanges and arms control treaties, seemed to herald a narrowing of differences. In the United States, even Republicans like Richard Nixon began to embrace wage and price controls in an effort to tame the market, while the rise of cybernetics suggested that computers might overcome the technical difficulties that socialist countries faced in creating efficient planned economies. In fact, with Project Cybersyn, an early 1970s effort to harness the power of semiconductors to regulate supply and demand, the government of Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende planned to usher in just such a technotopia.

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