The Jaruzelski Moment
In 1981, reeling from deadly blows to two of the core elements of their post-totalitarian order – fear and bogus unions – the Soviets violated one of the core principles of Marxism-Leninism: they handed dictatorial power to a military man, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, in Poland. The long-term consequences became obvious only in November 1989, but by then the predictable demise was well underway.
In 1979-1981, the leaders of the Soviet Union had to deal with an unprecedented situation in their largest client state, Poland. Discontent and even open unrest had regularly surfaced throughout East Central Europe in the 1970s. Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, often arrested for his activities, had published a stirring call to action in his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” In June 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Poland, to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław, patron saint of Poland. Stanisław had been murdered at the orders of King Bolesław: he remained a symbol of Church independence from the State, an obvious message to the Communist Party in Poland. Moreover, the Pope took as the theological theme of his visit the phrase, spoken by Christ, “Do not be afraid.” This theme put paid to one of the key practical pillars of Soviet Bloc states: fear. That the Soviets understood this point seems obvious in the KGB’s attempt to assassinate John Paul II in 1982, to re-establish the fear principle. He not only survived, but returned to Poland in 1983, showing that he personally would not bend to the knout.
Havel’s essay argued that the Soviet Bloc states of the 1970s had ceased to be totalitarian – built mainly on fear and violent repression – and had become post-totalitarian, drawing their main justification from ideology. He suggested that by “living the truth,” the lies at the core of the ideology would be revealed and the system would gradually unravel. Workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, among others, took Pope John Paul II at his word, and consciously applied Havel’s principle of the power of the powerless. In 1980, they went on strike, initially to protest the dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz [for those unfamiliar with her name, she was one of the driving forces of Solidarity; she died in the plane crash with Pres Kaczynski].
The workers thus demolished one of the fundamental pillars of the Soviet ideological system: they formed an independent union, Solidarity. Soviet Bloc states had long had unions, but they existed within the state system itself. In a workers’ state, the logic went, why would workers need a union to protect themselves, from themselves?
The Soviet leaders themselves took the next step: in 1981, they backed the imposition of martial law in Poland, and turned power over to Gen. Jaruzelski. In so doing, they violated a cardinal principle of Leninism: never give power to the military. Lenin believed the Communist Party had to maintain supreme power; for example, the most important official in a Soviet Bloc state was not the holder of a given government office, such as prime minister, but the First Secretary of the Communist Party. Lenin drew from the historical example of the French Revolution the conclusion that a military man initially allied with the revolutionaries posed the greatest threat to revolution: for him, Napoleon was the “destroyer” of the French Revolution.
What does it mean when an ideological system abandons one of its foundational principles, as the Soviets did in 1981? In a speech in the 1920s, Stalin claimed that Lenin’s bedrock principle was that: “A policy based on principle is the only correct policy.” (Stalin often created new “principles” in order to justify policy changes.) This supposed theory of Lenin does contain a core truth: abandoning core principles means the system has collapsed, has exhausted itself as a coherent intellectual construct. To the extent that the system in question relies on ideology for the justification of key actions, those actions will no longer be justified.
The imposition of martial law, and the elevation of Gen. Jaruzelski to quasi-dictatorial powers in Poland in 1981, therefore spelled the approaching end of a Soviet-style political system, not simply in Poland, but throughout the Soviet world. So I first argued to my European Civilization students at Georgetown in May 1987, in the final lecture of the class, on the theme of whither Europe. In that lecture, I thus accepted Havel’s description of Soviet Bloc states in the 1970s and 1980s as post-totalitarian, relying more on ideology and less on terror (although of course still using repression). I coined the term “Jaruzelski Moment” to define the turn away from a core principle and predicted that Soviet rule in East Central Europe would not last another decade. [I did not predict the imminent demise of the Soviet Union itself.]
In spring 2010, I argued to them that Liberal Capitalism has been facing its Jaruzelski Moment during the current financial crisis, dating back obviously to 2007-08 in strictly financial terms, but even earlier in other ways, such as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, not simply as a military action, but as a financial one. The pro-invasion forces of 2002-03 claimed the “war” would cost $50-80 billion; as my students of October 2002 can attest, I argued, based on a broad range of historical examples of invasion-occupations, that the actual cost would be close to $1 trillion (a figure we exceed today). Some of them may recall that I called the President and the Senate a group of liars; I have never believed they were stupid enough to accept the cost estimate. As I said then, how many Senators would vote for the invasion of Iraq if they knew it would cost $1 trillion and probably entail the presence of tens of thousands of American troops for five years or more?
In the course of that adventure, the US has regularly violated core principles of liberal democracies; its own ambassador to the United Nations openly ridiculed the very notion of binding international agreements. The US has thus regularly been in the position of arguing that such agreements can apply to others (such as Milosevic or Karadžić, in the dock at The Hague), but not to the USA or to Americans. That kind of “living a lie,” to borrow Havel’s phrase, should tell us that the core values of a given system have collapsed, have become just as meaningless as the “people’s democracies” phrase was in Czechoslovakia or Poland in 1978.
[Caveat: Liberal Capitalism, like most other large systems, was riddled with contradictions. I am well aware of those contradictions, and of its many failings. Liberal Capitalist states carried out many evil deeds, whether in foreign or domestic policy; those deeds often violated stated principles of either liberalism or capitalism. That said, the Liberal Capitalist states did share their wealth across a much broader spectrum of the population than had been the case prior to WWII. The Gini index of most of these states dropped sharply from 1950 to 1980: in France, for example, it dropped from over 50 to just over 30. For the US, the statistics say that we were a far more equitable society in 1980 than we are now.]
Thinking about it more clearly, with a bit of distance, I would now argue that Liberal Capitalism abandoned its two parts at different times: Liberalism in 1982; Capitalism in 2008. Capitalism has truly gone mad. Everywhere, capitalists do everything they can to destroy unions and to make the workers as vulnerable as possible. Capitalists seek to “reform” education by destroying teachers unions. They seek to balance state budgets by making public sector unions essentially illegal: they remain nominally legal, but cannot bargain collectively on key issues. The Republicans propose budget cuts aimed overwhelmingly at the poor and the middle class. In a time of massive unemployment (far worse than the 9.5% official rate), they seek to lay off hundreds of thousands of government employees: most of those who will be laid off, I would predict, will be state, municipal, and county workers. We just saw a great example of how it works at the Federal level: after the last shuttle landed, NASA laid off 4,000 the next day.
In Europe, the EU and the IMF team up to demand ruthless cuts of services and jobs for Greeks, the Portuguese, and the Irish; soon, we will hear cries of cutting public employment in Spain, which already has an unemployment rate of about 20%. The UK is laying off thousands of public employees, gutting its universities, and soon will be rationing public services. Fiscal discipline means screwing working people, especially the working poor, and protecting the property of the richest members of society: Capitalism in its most naked, pre-liberal form.
In truth, Liberal Capitalism has been building up to its Jaruzelski Moment for a generation, just as what Vaclav Havel described as the “post-totalitarian” system heated to the boiling point between 1968 and 1981. In the USA, Liberal Capitalism’s crisis dates back surely to the massive changes of the Reagan era: the broad-based attack on unions and the tax “cuts” that enabled the richest 1% of Americans to increase their share of net national assets to just over 42%. The core countries of the European Union (France, Germany, Italy, Benelux, UK, Spain), with their quaint adherence to Liberal Capitalism, still have Gini inequality coefficients in the low 30s, but the Big Three of Brutal Capitalism – the US, China, and Russia – are into the 40s: given the changes in the US economy since 2007, the last year for an official Gini figure, our inequality index has surely risen sharply. Why? Unemployment has doubled, while the stock market has risen about 80%: given that the richest 5% of Americans own 69% of the stocks in individual hands, the Gini index has surely risen since 2007 – in all likelihood, in 2011, Mexico has a lower Gini index than the US.
The bedrock economies of liberal capitalism – the United States, the European Union, and Japan – are all in various states of systemic economic collapse. Deep indicators, like ratios of public debt to GDP, are everywhere at levels only previously reached due to World War II (US) or the combination of the two World Wars (UK). The decade 2000-2010 has been a catastrophe on this level. Economically, the core regions of international capital markets, the US and the UK, are violating their basic principles, yet insisting others follow them. Some places, like Japan and Italy, are demographic disaster zones: their dependency ratios cannot be sustained.
Politically, we have just seen the farce of the debt limit. Orwell’s Newspeak is everywhere: politicians answer all questions with the party line. Journalists think ill manners make them “tough” questioners; no, effective research and intelligent analysis make a journalist a tough questioner. Big Brother watches you in countless places, either on camera, or on the phone, or the Internet. Public spaces, like airports, have more and more television screens, on which commercials get interrupted every few minutes by “information,” usually in the form of security warnings. They all play the same message: buy, Buy, BUY! Every airport in the world plays an endless PA tape about abandoned luggage and the need to inform on our fellow travelers. Highway signs everywhere in the US ask us to report “suspicious activity” to the police and provide the cell phone number. If an American of 1980 awoke from a 30-year slumber, the first thing they would notice is that we now live in a police state. Alas, for many Americans, that’s literally true: compared to 1980, four times as many people are in prison and on probation. An astounding 1.34% of all adult men in the US are incarcerated. The rate among African-American men is a national scandal.
How bad has it gotten? Take the example of the Supreme Court denying that habeas corpus applies to non-citizens. Are they familiar with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two of whose main authors (Eleanor Roosevelt and Ralph Bunche), were Americans? Article 2 states that “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs”; article 6 says “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”; and article 7 forbids discrimination “to equal protection of the law.” Article 9 specifically states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Under those rules, if habeas corpus applies to a US citizen, as the Court ruled it did, then it must apply to a non-US citizen.
The Justices might have thought back to their childhood, to the Pledge of Allegiance, with its promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Our kids still recite that line every morning. When you lie to your own children about core values, your system is in big trouble.