Pictured – “The Absinthe Drinker” by Edgar Degas.
Like the Soviet Union, the US is dying from despair
Thirty years ago this month, the Cold War ended with a failed coup in Moscow. As was remarked by many at the time, Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself as farce proved true for the Soviet Union, the state that had defined itself by his ideology.
In August 1991, while the USSR’s reforming General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev holidayed in his Ukrainian dacha, a group of hard-liners seized power. Gorbachev, under house arrest, turned to the BBC to find out what was going on, since in the Soviet Union nothing the media said was true unless the party said so. He learned that, in the centre of Moscow, Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin courageously stood in front of the city’s White House in defiance of the plotters, surrounded by supporters brandishing the old Russian flag.
Perhaps what wasn’t clear to everyone was that Yeltsin was drunk for much of it. The true extent of his alcoholism became more apparent in the years after he dissolved the communist state a few months later and became president of an independent Russia, although he already had a colourful reputation for drink-related antics.
The plotters, it turned out, were also mostly legless. Having began a cack-handed coup that they weren’t prepared to kill for, the ringleaders appeared on television looking ashen-faced, some shaking nervously, their insides rotting from vodka. Most of all, though, they just appeared old, old and old beyond their years, the face of a fading empire based on a faith no one really believed in anymore.
By this stage, the Soviet Union was itself dying of alcohol, and attempts to treat it proved fruitless. One of the biggest mistakes made by Gorbachev — a very moderate drinker, which is why he’s alive and his rival Yeltsin is long dead — was to raise the tax on vodka, as part of a drive to tackle the country’s catastrophic problem with drink. Russian humour is famously bleak and sharp, and this led to a joke in which a boy asks, “Papa, and this means that you shall drink less?” “No, son, this means that you shall eat less”.
This new way of thinking — progressivism is probably the fairest term — is far less tolerant than liberalism. Indeed, in its hostility to freedom of speech, its Manichean worldview, its suspicion that its opponents are fascists, and the belief that politics should be inserted into everything — from science to children’s books — it is closer to the totalitarian tradition. American progressivism is not communism, obviously, anymore than its opponents are Nazis; the market is perfectly capable of achieving most progressive goals, and America has become more culturally Left-wing as Right-wing economic policies have dominated, globalisation being the common theme that links the two.
But globalisation came with a price, with millions of jobs lost after the 2001 trade deal with China, made two months after George W. Bush had followed the Soviet example by invading Afghanistan. It was in those former industrial heartlands where people first began to notice an epidemic of drug-related deaths that now constitutes one of the greatest social disasters in history.
Four decades on from its superpower rival, the United States had now become a country in which people were dying younger, driven by overdoses and suicides. That this epidemic took so long to register may have been the solitary and often legal nature of the drug problem; unlike Aids, it did not affect too many celebrities, Prince being the exception. But it could also be who the victims were — predominantly rural white Americans, neither powerful themselves nor championed by powerful supporters.
Like the Soviet Union, the United States has developed a system in which some social classes and races are officially favoured, and some are disfavoured, reflected in post-war legal innovations like affirmative action.