Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Oldest Established—But Ever Changing...

Where’s the action? Where’s the game?
Gotta have the game
Or we’ll die from shame.
It’s the oldest established, permanent floating
Crap game in New York!

[Guys and Dolls]

I remember years ago reading—thus long before the U.S.S.R. came apart more or less voluntarily—all kinds of amusing tales about the Russian economy. One of these concerned a minor scandal. Evidently the largest Russian producer of chandeliers got in trouble. Sometimes days and sometimes weeks after its chandeliers were hung, the ceilings that they decorated came crashing down; the floors above became dangerously weakened. Why? Investigation revealed that the company, state-run like everything else, had to meet an annual output quota set by weight: so-and-so-many tons per annum. In order to meet its quota, the concern began adding extra weight to every chandelier it made, festooning each with hard-to-see clumps of lead. They juiced up the weight a little every year—until the ceilings came down.

Another story documented the hardest jobs in Russia. Those who labored against all odds were buyers engaged by enterprises. Why? Outputs were managed by quotas. The quota-setters never studied demand for raw materials. They set production quotas based on capacity. For this reason appropriate materials, parts, tools, and other components were never ever in line with demand. Buyers scoured the countryside bribing suppliers and gaming the system so that their enterprises would have the stuff to meet their quotas.

I read many more stories illustrating the system from within. Over time I reached the conclusion that the Russian economic system had to be in pretty bad shape. But the dominant message of the mainstream media was the awesome threat the U.S.S.R. represented—and the urgent need therefore to spend ever more billions on countering weapons system. When Perestroika removed the veil and the ideological threat was over, I was not very surprised to learn that Russia was, indeed, a basket case. But what remained in my mind was the big contrast between messages: the official line of our media and the scuttlebutt that reached me through the back channels of business.

The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind.

These days the same sense of unreality haunts me when I keep hearing the phrase “war on terror” or hear references to Al Qaida. I don’t minimize the dangers of terrorist acts such as the events of 911, but remind myself that 419 also claimed a lot of victims (168)—and that anarchist events punctuated nineteenth and early twentieth century history as well. We don’t recognize that number, 419, quite so readily because—well, because the terrorists were ordinary boys born in the U.S.A. The event was not quite as dramatic and could not be exploited for political gain. But apart from sober realism concerning dangerous elements that can do a lot of damage and kill a lot of people, I simply do not see Al Qaida or any other similar group, homegrown or not, representing the same kind of threat as a major power might represent. Therefore I see in the current chronic and sustained hype the same kind of symptom as I saw in the decades-long drum-beat of anti-communism.

This sort of thing appears to be a disease that attacks all large modern political aggregations where mass media are used to bend the minds of the masses. The Gang of Four in China comes to mind, a cabal of leaders during the Cultural Revolution of whom Jiang Qing, Mao Tse Tung’s wife, was a leading figure. The Gang of Four fell on hard times soon after Mao died; they were arrested, tried for treason, imprisoned, but later released. The Chinese government exploited this trial to such an extent that, later, all the evils of the Cultural Revolution were blamed on the Gang of Four. I once heard the story of a man who, having accidentally upset a pitcher of wine, pronounced, looking at the mess on the floor: “Gang of Four.” In the same way, these days, I feel like invoking Al Qaida when my lawnmower won’t start.

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