I don’t speak Russian so I’ll have to wait until November when the Brookings Institute is finished translating ‘Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia’ into English. This book, by economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, chronicles the end of the Soviet Empire, but I guess you got that from the title. Did you catch that part about the author being an economist? Good because that comes up later. Now as I said, I don’t speak Russian so you might be asking yourself, “What’s this guy going to do, try and review a book he can’t even read?” To which my response is No. Well, sort of.
The Christian Science Monitor is currently carrying an article by columnist David R. Francis that talks a bit about the book and offers some views by other notables about the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. I thought I’d share some ideas about this discussion of alternative viewpoints concerning the end of Soviet system. I want to state up front that I am not and don’t claim to be an expert on the Soviet Union, its politics or prevoius system of government. I think though that this ‘fresh eyes’ approach at examining some of the factors that contributed to its collapse might allow me to offer an insight. Or maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. In any case I share the following about how this yet-to-be translated book and its review might point towards something we here in America should pay much more attention to.
Mr. Francis sets the stage for us by summarizing the author’s suggestions about the run up to the Soviet collapse.
What happened, states Mr. Gaidar, is that Soviet grain production stagnated between 1966 and 1990. Meanwhile, 80 million people moved from farms to cities. New Soviet output of oil and gas was not sufficiently expanded to provide the hard currency needed to buy grain abroad. Eventually, the Soviets had to borrow foreign money to buy grain.It seems that Mr. Gaidar is basically saying that the collapse happened because a large portion of the population of the Soviet Union moved from the country to the city and stopped growing their own grain. But what is even more interesting to me is that that the author of the article himself seems not to make the connection or just skips over it in a bit of conditioning and goes on to blame the collapse on economics- on the inability of the Soviets to feed themselves not because there weren't enough people growing grain in that country but because of their inability to *buy* enough grain from other people to feed themselves because of decreasing oil and natural gas revenues. The idea that the Soviet collapse was due in part to the fact that the Soviet Union gave up on its capacity for food self sufficiency (food sovereignty) in an effort to pursue industrialization seems to elude the article’s author. And then from there implications for the continuation of the American empire and parallels about our own situation regarding food sovereignty started to pour out into my mind.
Here in the United States about 40% of our population farmed for a living around the turn of the 20th century. By 1950 that number had dropped to about 12%. Today fewer than 2% provide all our food. The other 98% of us work at a job which provides us money which allows us to buy food. We have given up our own food sovereignty as a people and instead rely almost entirely on an economic system to provide us with meals. To put it another way we have given up on growing our own food locally in order to have time to make money so that we can buy all our food from a shrinking number of people who grow it far away. And that is all well and good and our economic system is very different from that of Soviet Russia. We have capitalism and they had communism. I get that. But is our capitalist economy impervious to trouble? We’ve had our share of recessions, depressions and economic bubbles. We’re in the midst of one of the latter right now. Some argue it is beginning to burst so I’d say that at least the idea that our economic system is unsinkable would sound silly to anyone who’s heard of the Titanic. No ship sails forever unimpeded.
So should we be pleased that the USSR shifted from a rural populace towards a more urban population who were unable to feed themselves amidst economic hard times and therefore left their leaders no choice but to consent to revolution in the face of a starving population and no way to pay for food? Maybe. But that is an oversimplification of the history of another country I am unwilling to make. And it really isn’t one of the questions I am especially interested in answering anyway. Here’s another question, if the economic system in the United States of America, an economic system based on endless growth, runs up against a depletion of resources that physically slows or stops its ability to grow, will the U.S. face a similar collapse because our people, like those in the Soviet Union, have given up the capacity to feed ourselves directly (fewer jobs = less food)? Is that a possible road of revolution? I’m not talking about a failure based on some sort of conceptual schism between capitalism and communism. I’m talking about a failure due to an increasing resource scarcity that chokes the life out of growth economics. This has always been my beef with most economists. They seem not to recognize the limits- the physical limits of the natural world. I understand that in era of unprecedented growth and materialist prosperity, many people have been made to feel as if any and all is possible, but there is only so much of everything. Natural resources are limited. That means natural resources aren’t infinitely available. That means limits. That means infinite growth in our finite system is impossible even if short term growth seems to suggest that it is inevitable. Sorry to wander off on such a rant- let me put it this way. There are limits to growth. Those who fail to recognize this fact do so at the peril of us all.
But back to the question at hand, when (not if) the American economy of growth falters, as all such economies are bound to do, how will the 98% of non-farmers be able to buy bread? Are we in for the rough ride of revolution when we are unable to buy food? Another question- Will we be more willing to overthrow our corporate masters when they are unable to feed us? And another- Do we really need to wait for that to happen?
What would happen if the people of the United States of America made a preemptive strike not against another nation but against the choke hold of industrial agriculture and perilous position in which it places us? Perhaps we have already given up our freedom of choice, real choice over how we live our lives and have settled on the offered option of crappy supermarket tomatoes for which we pay the price of working from behind a desk! We grow fewer than 10% of the tomato varieties cultivated in the United States in the year 1900. 70% of the food in our grocery stores is processed; much of it heavily laden with fat or refined sugar or both. In a country where most of our congressional representatives support- are about to pass right now- a farm bill that rewards the makers of cheap junk food to the detriment of those whole grow our fruits and our vegetables, can we really say that we have a choice in what we eat? How it’s grown? What chemicals are sprayed on it? Would such a revolution not also give us back real choice?
Of course we have an alternative. We can, as a nation, turn away voluntarily from the industrialization of agriculture by rejecting a culture of consumption and promoting a culture of creation- not factory farming but local food needs met locally. We can reject the greed of materialism in favor of the freedom and stability of agricultural self sufficiency and local interdependency- the battle cry can be Food Sovereignty! And we can do it in advance of any possible economic troubles because of speculation, liquidation, inflation, or any other pseudoscientific notions about how wealth changes hands. We can begin again to base our society on providing our own needs and the needs of our communities.
This sort of democratization of support systems could lead in turn to a stronger democratic system of governance with the population ruling over themselves not being provided for by a few agribizness corporations. While writing this essay I shared the rough draft with a few friends, several of whom said something to the effect of, “The Soviet government gave the people their food but here in the U.S. we get our own.” To which I responded with strong disagreement. We do not get our own food in this country. It is shelved for us by grocery store stock boys. Transported to us by truckers. Grown a thousand and half miles away. Harvested by migrant workers who are paid poverty level wages or worse- much of it is grown under contract by corporations whose practices destroy local communities in other countries and leads to the devastation of our global environment and the further destabilization of more folks angry with America. Just because we *buy* our food at the grocery store doesn’t mean we have any real control over how we fed our families. What we have is the illusion of control and in this regard we might be worse off than the Soviets in terms of susceptibility.
A population that can feed itself can express power over a ruling minority not through violence but by withdrawing their dependency from the system of inadvertent indentured servitude by which corporatization and globalization have enslaved all of us who depend on far away others for what we can grow in our own front yards or buy from the besieged family farmer down the road.
Any way you slice it, our ability to feed ourselves is important in establishing any attempt at addressing the crises current facing humankind. Rapid resource depletion, population migration, global climate change, peak energy, a pandemic illness or any combination of these converging calamities could lead to more conflict and the possible collapse of our current system of civilization. Facing these issues can best be handled through a collaborative effort involving real education and a democratic approach towards problem solving. Personally I think a re-ruralization and a swift move towards self sufficiency, along with a return to local interdependency, could go a long way towards mitigating our problems and stabilizing our democratic goals and aims. We could learn something from the Soviets. Not the notion that institutional communism is a bad idea- we already know that- but the idea that giving up our ability to grow local food makes us more susceptible to the falling debris likely during any economic collapse. Can we use this insight to regain control over our food and our governing institutions before the real want of limits sets in? That is of course a question I can not answer but I hope so. I really do.
Refocus our eating habits. Adopt The Bullseye Diet.
For more insight on lessons to be learn from Post-Soviet Russia I highly recommend a marvelous read on the subject, Dimitri Orlov’s ‘Post-Soviet Lesson For A Post-American Century.’
The article I referenced from The Christian Science Monitor, by David R. Francis, is here.
Preorder ‘Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia’
Author's Note: From the time I started this essay until the time I posted it, the Dow Jones Industrial average dropped 450 points. Why work to buy it when we can grow it? Why run that risk?