How the Soviet Union Won the Cold War

I don’t know when this column will see print, but as I write it people all over the world are celebrating — with rightful enthusiasm — the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago. During the Spanish-American War, William Graham Sumner gave a speech on “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” in which he argued that despite having lost on the battlefield, Spain had actually triumphed because in the course of fighting that war the United States had remade itself as an imperialistic power in Spain’s image. The parallels to the fall of the Iron Curtain and Communism should be obvious.

Although the post-Soviet thaw in former Eastern Bloc countries was warped and perverted by neoliberal “disaster capitalism,” by the corporate enclosure of the former state economies, and by the incorporation of those countries into the global corporate system, the events of 1989-91 were still on the whole a great victory for the people of the Soviet Bloc. For the rest of the world, not so much.

However bloody and authoritarian the Soviet system of power was within the USSR and its Warsaw Pact satellites — and it was very much so — when it came to external military aggression and subversion it was entirely in the shadow of the United States and the American bloc. As Noam Chomsky once said, the Cold War — as a first approximation — amounted to a war by the USSR against its satellites and by the US against the Third World.

There was also a direct superpower dynamic at work, but it was comparatively weak. The general outlines of the post-war order — the IMF and World Bank integrating national economies under the control of American corporate capital, and the US armed forces (under UN Security Council figleaf) operating as enforcer against any national defection from global corporate rule — functioned exactly as they had been designed to in US planning circles from 1944 on, as if the USSR had never existed.

The Soviet Union did indeed sometimes act as a spoiler outside its bloc, when it could aid a national liberation movement at relatively low risk to itself and increase the costs of Empire to the United States. And even the outside possibility of direct military confrontation with a nuclear superpower probably deterred some American actions on the margin (like an invasion of Iran or the introduction of ground troops in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War).

But on the whole the USSR was only a lacuna or blank space — labelled “Here Be Commies” — on the map of the neoliberal Pax Americana. Outside that encapsulated regional system of domination, America acted as the largest and most aggressive imperial power in human history, directly invading or subverting and overthrowing more governments than any empire that came before it. The “Black Book of Communism” is a bloody track record indeed. But the Black Book of American Imperialism would include the millions of deaths inflicted on Indochina after the US took over France’s role maintaining a landed oligarchy in power in Saigon, the hundreds of thousands (conservative estimate) killed by Suharto after the US-sponsored coup in Indonesia and the much larger death toll from Mobutu after the assassination of Lumumba, the countless deaths in Indonesia’s genocidal assault on East Timor, the hundreds of thousands or millions killed by Central American death squads since the overthrow of Arbenz, the victims tortured by military dictators in Brazil, Chile, and the other South American countries swept by Operation Condor, and the millions starved or bombed to death in Iraq since 1990.

The fall of the USSR as even a partial counterweight resulted in totally unrivalled and unchecked US domination in the quarter century since. In that time, not only has the US-backed global system of power consolidated and increased in authoritarianism, but American domestic authoritarianism has ratcheted upwards with it.

But even more important than the scale and aggressiveness of the American empire, compared to the Soviet one, is the nature of the society it serves. As with the Soviet Union and its satellites, the foreign policy of the US and its major allies serves the interests of a domestic system of class power.

The American corporate-state system of power, like the old Soviet bureaucratic state socialist, hinges on the control of information. In the Soviet bloc, this meant censoring the press and licensing the use of photocopiers to prevent the free flow of information that would challenge the regime’s framing of events or undermine its claims to legitimacy. In the American bloc, this means corporate control of the replication and distribution of information in order to extract profit from it.

Globally, this means that so-called “intellectual property” is central to the profit models of all the dominant sectors of the world corporate economy. Some of the most profitable sectors — entertainment and software — depend on the direct sale of proprietary information that could reproduced virtually free of charge. Others — drugs, electronics, genetically modified seeds — depend on patents on product designs or production processes. Others — virtually all offshored manufacturing — depends on the use of patents and trademarks to offshore actual production to Third World sweatshops while retaining a legal monopoly on the sole right to purchase and dispose of the product. These global corporate sectors would probably collapse without the draconian “intellectual property” standards being exported by the US in the form of “Free Trade Agreements” (which are obviously nothing of the kind).

Since the fall of the USSR the United States has acted aggressively not only to punish challenges to its status as hegemon (in Iraq and the Balkans), but has created a legal framework of treaties and statutes (NAFTA, the Uruguay Round of GATT, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and assorted “Free Trade Agreements” that essentially integrate most of the planet into its model of corporate capitalism).

Domestically, corporate power’s central reliance on information control has meant the use of DRM to make movies, music, and software uncopyable, the legal prohibition of developing or disseminating techniques for breaking DRM, and the increased use of lawless, extrajudicial powers like direct executive seizure of websites without charge or trial based on allegations of hosting “pirated” content. Joe Biden personally supervised — from Disney Headquarters! — a Justice Department task force that took down dozens of such websites in violation, in total violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Internet Service Providers have assumed the role of policing their own paying customers on behalf of the movie and music industry, discontinuing service based on uninvestigated complaints of infringement. The global trade agreements mentioned above are pushing worldwide adoption of the US’s harsh new “intellectual property” law.

Meanwhile, the domestic security state in the US — already mushrooming out of control with Drug War-related militarization of SWAT teams and Clinton’s 1996 Counter-Terrorism law — grew by further leaps and bounds after 9/11. The TSA airport screening infrastructure and its industrial contractors, NSA’s illegal telephone and Internet surveillance and the ISPs and social networks that cooperate with it, and the intersection with increasing police militarization with military-style suppression of protests like Occupy and Ferguson, have coalesced into a Security-Industrial Complex worth tens of billions of dollars and a law enforcement establishment operating almost totally outside the bounds of law.

So Western-style corporate capitalism, and the global economy legally integrated into it (with the ultimate backing of the US armed forces), amounts to a DRM Curtain.

Of course IP isn’t the only form of state authoritarianism involved in maintaining corporate rule. Another central purpose of US foreign policy is to uphold neocolonial control of land and natural resources throughout the Third World by transnational corporations. Western capital, in alliance with domestic ruling elites, perpetuates the original theft of those resources by European colonial empires. Going back to the Spanish and English in the New World and Warren Hastings in Bengal, these empires enclosed land and evicted peasants by the millions, converting their former holdings to cash crop agriculture. They seized mineral deposits and worked them with slave labor. The heirs to this robbery — the transnational mining and oil corporations, and native landed oligarchies in collusion with global agribusiness companies — continue to loot hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth from the Global South. And they rely on the US military and CIA to intervene when the people of those countries try to take back what is rightfully theirs (as with the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala).

Between the Drug War and the War on Terror (which are really a war on the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments), and the current expansion of their enforcement and surveillance into the War on IP Piracy, the US has a brutal gulag system with a larger share of its population imprisoned than any other country except North Korea.

Perhaps most ironic, the American corporate economy is even challenging the old Soviet system in the one area that was its pride and joy — central planning and bureaucratic ossification. Since the rise of a stable corporate economy a century ago, with major manufacturing industries dominated by a handful of oligopoly firms, the large American corporation has been a centrally planned bureaucracy much like the old Soviet industrial ministries. They ignore or punish the people on the spot with actual knowledge of the situation, recklessly interfere with their judgement by diktat, irrationally misallocate billions in capital investment, and use an internal transfer pricing system about as divorced from reality as that of Gosplan. And since the neoliberal revolution and the rise of Cowboy Capitalism in the 80s, corporations have been taken over internally by a self-perpetuating oligarchy of self-dealing MBAs virtually indistinguishable from the Soviet nomenklatura. They are able to survive despite their gross inefficiency and corruption for the same reason the Soviet planned economy did for so long: they exist within a larger, statist system of power that protects them from outside competition.

So in place of the world of 25 years ago, with a really bad global superpower partially constrained by a really bad regional superpower enforcing centrally planned bureaucratic oligarchy on a portion of the Eurasian landmass, what we have today is a single, unconstrained really horrible global superpower enforcing centrally planned monopoly finance capitalism on the entire planet. In the place of an Iron Curtain across central Europe and the Korean peninsula policed by barbed wire and machine gun towers, we have a global Empire with a DRM Curtain policed by drones and carrier groups. The USSR is dead. Long live the USSR.

But I can’t leave it at that. This new system of power is no more inevitable, or even sustainable, than the one that collapsed twenty-five years ago. It does an even poorer job, in actual practice, of controlling information than the Soviet regime did. The Soviets learned that locking up photocopiers couldn’t stop the circulation of Samizdat literature, but their efforts to do so were a resounding success compared to how their American successors have fared against The Pirate Bay, Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks, Anonymous and Edward Snowden. The enforcement technologies that “intellectual property” depends on are being — have been — rapidly undermined by libertarian technologies of circumvention. Area denial technologies for challenging American military power projection are many times cheaper, and have an innovation cycle far more rapid, than American technologies for military aggression. The days of this Evil Empire, like the earlier one, are numbered.


Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory