Sunday, March 07, 2010

Reinventing Collapse

For Christmas, one of the books I got was Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov. The premise is that the author was "born in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in the mid seventies". He was "an eyewitness to the Soviet collapse over several extended visits to his Russian homeland between the late eighties and mid-nineties". From the platform of this experience he compares the former Soviet Union and today's United States. Noting similarities and differences between the two—in culture, infrastructure, religion, economy, industry, government, education, housing, and so on—he extrapolates a narrative of the impending collapse of the US via some thoughtful analogies with the fall of the SU.

Dmitry is brilliantly perceptive and wonderfully witty, and Reinventing Collapse is a wickedly cynical book. I had many favorite passages but here's one in particular which I enjoyed:

The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power. The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. In either case, there is, or was, a single governing elite, but in the United States it organizes itself into opposing teams to make its stranglehold on power seem more sportsmanlike. It is certainly more sporting to have two capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party pre-purchases exactly 50 percent of the vote through largely symmetrical allocation of campaign resources and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat. It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote.

On a very few occasions the hyperbole was just too much and the propositions arising became farcical or facile. The vast majority of Dmitry's "intentionally provocative thought experiments", though, were fascinating, wise, cogent, intelligent, and delivered with a delightfully dark sense of humor.

Reinventing Collapse is an enjoyable and worthwhile read; I couldn't put it down once I'd started. As one reviewer comments inside the front cover: "be prepared to have your window shoved open and feel the fresh air shake you up".

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