Sunday, March 21, 2010

Master of Disaster:

Reinventing Collapse” – Dmitry Orlov, 2008

Dmitry Orlov is a Russian-born peak-oil theorist who also visited the Soviet Union / Russian Federation several times after the collapse of the Soviet workers state in December 1991. These visits gave him an insight into how a society reacts after its economy is destroyed. In this case the destruction was intentional – due to the violent introduction of ‘free enterprise’ by European & US bankers and Jeffrey Sachs, which enabled Boris Yeltsin and his kleptocracy of primitive accumulators to loot the commons. It took 10 years for the Russian economy to get back to pre-collapse levels – at least statistically. Many workers, elderly and poor people have never ‘recovered,’ of course.

Like many former Russians and Eastern Europeans, Orlov is no simplistic fan of capitalism. He is keenly aware of the benefits of the planned economy, and also of its deficits as practiced by the Soviet bureaucracy. Because of peak oil, global warming and bourgeois economic failure, Orlov is predicting a collapse of American society in the close future – it seems around 10 years. Orlov thinks this collapse mirrors what happened in the USSR, though it will be much worse, because of various safeguards built into the Soviet economy but not the US. Those safeguards were:

1. Commissaries at workplaces. Even after people stopped getting paid, they could still eat at work for free. Nothing like this exists in the US. According to Orlov, there was no starvation and little malnutrition in the ex-USSR.
2. Socialized health care continued to function for years, as it was a right that only slowly got whittled away. The US still has privatized health care, though now Obama’s plan will make it compulsory. That still does not remove the cash/profit nexus from health care, of course.
3. Mass transit. It also continued to function in the ex-USSR, and was built with basic technology. Housing was built around the transit, so being without a car was not such a hardship. Nothing like this exists in the US, except in some big cities.
4. A national rail system existed. See #3.
5. ‘Kitchen gardens’ in many of the Soviet big cities had already grown up to cope with food shortages in the degenerated workers’ state. So when the food system really collapsed, there was already a pre-existing support system.
6. Lack of a monetary attitude. After the collapse, the ruble became worthless. Barter predominated. Since the USSR was never a society based primarily on money, the lack of it was not so traumatic. Soviets had always used personal relationships, skills and connections to get goods – not simply a credit card.
7. Housing was not based on bank ownership, but was a right. So when the economy collapsed, people retained their apartments and houses, as there was no bank to ‘foreclose’ on them. According to Orlov, homelessness in the USSR did not make it into the double-digits, unlike the possibility in the US.
8. Heat was supplied centrally in each neighborhood, by large, centralized boiler systems, which reduced the chances of individuals freezing to death. Not so in Minnesota. You are on your own.
9. State enterprises were not based on ‘just in time’ manufacturing, but instead had large inventories. As 'ineffcient' as this is, the enterprise and employees themselves then had goods on hand for barter. In the US, enterprise goods are not the property of the workers who work at a location, nor is there much inventory, so this is not as possible.
10. Goods were manufactured in the USSR or the workers states surrounding it. Goods did not have to travel large distances by ship to be delivered. This involved less oil reliance. The USSR was also an economy that was based on the production of ‘things,’ not services or intellectual property. And ‘things’ are more valuable after an economic collapse. You cannot sell legal services when the legal system itself is breaking down, for instance. Certain frivolous 'services' and 'intellectual property' will die a quiet death.
11. The USSR was self-sufficient in skilled labor. In the US many skilled workers from other countries will head home in the event of serious economic collapse.
12. Russians for the most part knew their neighbors, as they lived where they were born. A support system was far easier to construct. Not so in the US, where people move every 6 years, at least until the recent real-estate collapse. Even many families in the US are split-up geographically.
13. Many Soviet goods were built to last. The concept of “planned obsolescence” is peculiar to a commodity-based economy, as is the concept of buying something new instead of repairing it.
14. Soviet education was based on teaching general skills, so that students could solve specific problems. US education is based on passing tests, unconnected to problem-solving or thinking. Which creates issues when there are real problems to be solved.

Orlov sees many parallels between the two countries. High military spending is common to both societies. Invading Afghanistan has now happened to both nations. It was Bin Laden’s plan from the beginning to pull the US into Afghanistan. The US is now the leading jailer in the world, with 2 million behind bars as we operate our own gulags. US state illegality, ala Guantanamo, secret rendition, torture, enemy combatants without any rights, warrantless searches, no-fly lists, warrantless eavesdropping, a massive internal security apparatus, police-state conditions applied to protests – all parallel the Soviet security approach. Both societies use oil-based farming, pesticides and chemical-based fertilizers to grow crops and deplete the soil. (see review below on “The Ecological Revolution.”) He compares Chernobyl to Katrina as events which de-legitimized the rulers. Orlov, who is familiar with software, even points to the increasing corporate bureaucratization of software and ‘intellectual property’ in the US as evidence of stagnation in the high tech areas that mirrors the Soviet approach. To Orlov, at bottom, the leaderships of both societies lost or are losing any claim to legitimacy, based on their failures.

As such, the United States is extremely vulnerable to an economic collapse based on oil shortages, a massive debt crisis and global climate change. He understands the US is bankrupt financially . He thinks a revolution of some sort is needed to prevent collapse from happening, but he doubts this will occur, so he wrote this to prepare people for severe economic dislocations.

So what should you do? Orlov calls his book an ‘exercise’ in thinking about the future. Here are his predictions and suggestions:

1. Get used to discomfort, both physically and mentally.
2. Money/investments will become increasingly useless, based on hyper-inflation. Barter of goods and services will replace it.
3. He suggests hoarding certain items – razors, soap, shampoo, liquor, marijuana, hand tools, condoms, medical drugs, bicycle tires, etc. He does not mention solar/crank flashlights and radios, or water purifiers.
4. Bicycles will become a major form of transport. Bike trailers will become useful for hauling items.
5. He thinks ‘protection’ will arise in various ways. He does not suggest buying guns, but only finding, or being in, an organization that will protect you.
6. Keep moving. He mentions shopping carts as something of value. This will make all the fans of “The Road” happy. (See review below) He thinks a sailboat you can live on will be safe. (!)
7. Environments that are too hot, or cold, or dry, or crowded with different ethnicities might be problematic. He thinks small towns might be best.
8. Figure out a way to grow much of your own food. Orlov said that Russians survived on garden plots of 1075 sq feet, or 50 feet by 22 feet.
9. Alcoholism, mental breakdowns and suicide will grow, especially among white middle-class, middle-aged males.
10. Life will slow down immensely. Which means more time for creative activity, talk, reading – if you survive.

I have some quarrels with Orlov's approach. He blames US consumer goods for the breakdown of the Soviet system, while admitting the Soviets never made money off their 'empire' - but ran it at a loss. What he does not notice is that the US DID make money off of their empire - which can show up in the world of consumer goods. And he swings between faith in family, small groups of people and organizations to combat collapse, and none at all. He does not believe that political action is possible. Basically he is some kind of an isolated anarchist at heart.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog – 3/21/2010


AA said...

Orlov is a favorite among the survivalist brigade and I've known of his blog for a couple of years:

And this is also a must-read, from the same blog:

I don't find anything to quibble with in Orlov's analysis. The question is when, and not if.

Dresden Scott said...

Very interesting! Although the presence of right-wing militias and other survivalists here in the US might change the post-collapse landscape considerably....