Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Who won the Cold War

I sometimes wonder, who the real winner of the Cold War was. Traditional wisdom is that capitalism won over communism, right ? The Western world over the Soviet bloc. Freedom and liberty over authoritarianism and government control. Etc Etc. But I wonder if this is really true ?

Take the capitalism versus state enterprise debate. Today capitalism is a four letter word to much of the world. The fastest growing economy in the world and the second largest, China,  is significantly  state enterprise driven. Government expenditure as a % of GDP is 53% in France (surprise surprise), 47% in the UK, 43% in Germany and in supposedly the bastion of free market capitalism, the United states, 39%. Government spending has propped up the global economy for five years now and bailed out financial institutions when they were mired in the quicksand.

What about freedom and liberty. After the revelations over the last couple of days from a certain Edward Snowden, we may have to redefine the word liberty. If I told you that the government listened to your every word, read every e mail and tracked every movement of yours, you would naturally think that the government in question would be Russia or North Korea. Instead we now know that it is the US of A and that their snooping is not not just restricted to US nationals, but literally everybody in the world (the fact that there are howls of protest in the US about snooping on US citizens , but perfect acceptability of snooping on an Indian citizen like me is an interesting definition of the word liberty in America). That this revelation is met with a big yawn in China, where this is just routine practice further annotates my point.

Force feeding prisoners in Guantanamo, keeping them in detention forever without a trial is not very different from what the gulags did in the Soviet Union.  Even at the height of its powers the Soviet Union did not kill citizens of another country from the air with impunity as the US does today with drones. If the Soviet Union brutalised Afghanistan invading it needlessly and tyrannically, you could perhaps make the same point with the US and Iraq.

The citizens of the Soviet Union could never get out and go elsewhere. Those in the  West were blissfully free to go where they pleased. Is that really true now ? Anybody from any country who has to get a visa to go to another country , just to visit (forget emigrating), might have a different point of view with regard to freedom of movement.

What about the West over the Communist bloc ? Well, if you define the communist bloc widely enough to include China, the verdict might be closer to a draw than a clear cut victory. 

Of course, this post stretches the facts, but only to make a point. The scale of what happened in the Communist Bloc during the Cold War may have been beyond anything you see today. But then, although the Soviet Union collapsed, aspects of its ideology are thriving in many places around the world.Perhaps they lost the battle, but haven't yet been defeated in the war. 

Yes, they may never be a winner in the capitalism versus communism debate.  As indeed in the democracy versus totalitarian debate. Alas, what a pity, at least in the case of the former.


Sriram Khé said...

Shachi is blogging about the falling rupee ...
You are blogging about capitalism and communism ...

Am I trapped in some parallel universe? ;)

Two decades ago, when the Soviet Bloc collapsed, I don't think I ever imagined the kinds of things that are unfolding now, some of which you have written about here. I suppose this is also why life is so bloody fascinating, with all the unexpected twists and turns. At least, the intellectual life is ... ;)

To the NSA reading this, you suck. You suck big time.

Now, back to the commenting :)

Some of us are consistent, Ramesh, in how upset we are with how the US violates individual rights--whether here in the US or somewhere in Yemen, and whether or not the individual is an American citizen ... but, yes, I agree with you that most of the protesters worry less about the non-American population ...

To the NSA reading this, you suck. You suck big time.

Apparently in the old days--the "good old days" it now seems like--when Hoover's FBI used to tap phone lines, people would routinely insert curse words about the FBI and Hoover in their conversations. I am merely following in that grand old tradition when I write, for the third time:

To the NSA reading this, you suck. You suck big time.

Ramesh said...

@sriram - Nice idea.

NSA - you are a sicko and a weirdo. Keith Alexander - you are a moron

Sriram Khé said...

More along these lines ... a helpful (!) Public Service Announcement ;)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: Your post perfectly captures the confusion that reigns today in everyone's mind about what exactly do our societies stand for. Let us first remember that just because you and I live in this age does not mean that these concerns have not been felt or have not been aired before. Having said that, in the period between 1945 and 1990, an increasingly ECE (electronics and communications engineering) driven world was able to draw comfort from perceived contrasts, between a liberal West and an illiberal Communist world. The division driven by ideologies rather than race or religion made it easier to decide where you wanted to be.

Even then, the liberal West was guilty of some huge crimes against their own citizens as well as those elsewhere - McCarthyism, Hoover and his wiretaps, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Katanga, Mossadegh, etc. The Soviet Union was guilty of much bigger crimes - the Gulags, East Germany 1952, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968, etc etc.

Overall, a relatively liberal and a relatively less (much less) inhuman system prevailed. I stood at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin recently - where the Sony Center now stands, full of cafes and restaurants and the wicked Legoland, used to be a clear field of fire for the National Volksarmee and where the station stands now was actually the Berlin Wall. One cannot help but feel that the better system won, no matter how imperfect it is. It at least has the ability to repair itself - however impaired that ability it is.

Today's revelations about the NSA and your own angst are no different. At least the system has the ability to be found out when doing something wrong. It is a public debate. You may decide to laud Snowden as a hero or excorciate him as a coward.

Quite possibly, just as fetters were put on the FBI, there will be more controls and safeguards on the NSA. In part, the fact that Hoover or the Soviet Union or the Stasi did not go as far as the NSA is only because the ability to process Big Data did not exist then. It does today, so it becomes easy to just bottom-trawl everything and then throw computing power at it.

Remember that the best of governments have been guilty of this. Emperor Ashoka also maintained an extremely effective system of spies and snoops all over his vast Empire. Had he the benefit of today's technologies, he would have done the same thing.

Be blessed that our system at least allows such abuse to be discovered and dealt with. What remedies do the poor Zhongguoren have?

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Of course, worse horrors have been inflicted on man right through history. There is no question that one side in the Cold War was far more illiberal and awful than the other, or for that matter than most of what we see today.

However, that does not mean we relax the vigil on liberty - economic or political anymore. My submission is that world over illiberalism is on the rise and hence this post.

Having said that, the jury is out on Zhongguoren. In matters political their system of governance can be seriously faulted. So is it in areas like the hukou system, the one child policy, the treatment of religion, etc. But in some other aspects of life, liberalism is actually as good there as anywhere else. And it is undoubted, that there is a huge improvement now than twenty years ago.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: I was making an argument that the right side won. Which is why Alan Rusbridger can expose the snooping without getting his legs broken by MI6. We should not relax - an Irish writer once wrote that "vigilance is the price you pay for liberty". Absolutely true, and if we relax and take our liberties for granted, then rulers will get away with anything.

I note what you say about what liberty actually means to people. Fareed Zakaria wrote a very good book on this subject called "Illiberal Democracies". Can you shout slogans against LKY in Singapore? And yet is not the average Singaporean much freer to do what he wants and live a full life than some labourer in Bihar who has to sell his children to pay the money lender?

The Chinese solution sometimes seems vastly more preferable to the morass that India has become. Lots of talk, no work and a sense of moral superiority that four years on, continues to gall. Thank God I am in 'Blighty on Monday.

J said...

My thoughts reading your post were - uncomfortable questions and disheartening answers :( But then maybe the reality is that while we should strive for the ideal and a complete victory for democracy, the reality is that the victories will never be clear cut. At least there is a conversation in the US about government's infringements on liberty - that is a victory - a small one, maybe. But democracy can never really win if, as in India, most people are reluctant to actively engage in the political process and then some other benign totalitarian regimes seem superior. But that is not a fair comparison. I ramble here but enjoyed the posts and comments.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Oh yeah ! Blighty - wet, miserable, gloom, deep decline, et al, is good ??? Pip Pip Toodle oo

@J - Yeah, this is an uncomfortable post for me to write too. I guess my grouse is that liberal societies have become far too much illiberal over the last 10 years

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Decent? Civilised? No corruption in daily life? No memory of its colonial past but am effort to be decent? Come on!

Vishal said...

This was quite a perspective, Ramesh! Honestly, I feel that a genuine display of liberty is just not possible in its true sense, given the diversities that surround the local societies across the globe. In so much of diversity, perhaps, the meaning itself changes as it passes through the continents. Having said that, a bit of differences don't matter as long as the humanity wins. Alas! that too has varied meaning by the same logic.

Ramesh said...

@Vishal - We have to redefine liberty Vishal. The old, definitions do not hold any good in a technologically wildly different world.

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