Forty years ago this day my family (and I with them) left the Soviet Union on our way to America. Our first stop was in Vienna, where, by a curious coincidence, I am today (visiting at the Complexity Science Hub).
From the cliodynamic point of view, four decades is not a lot of time. Still, these particular decades saw quite a dramatic change of the world’s geopolitical landscape. In this post I take a quick look back at how the world changed since 1977. I focus on the two superpowers of 1977.
USSR – Russia
I left Russia because my father was one of the dissidents calling for reforms that would make the Soviet Union more democratic and market-oriented. In the mid-1970s the Brezhnev regime had consolidated its power over the USSR and decided to do away with the last remnants of dissidents, even though they had zero influence on what was happening in the country. Some dissidents were forced to immigrate, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and my father. Others ended up in prisons. By 1980 the Soviet Union looked like a monolith that was immune to both external and internal challenges.
Now, in retrospect, we know that this appearance was deceptive – the disintegrative trend had already set in. When the new generation of leaders replaced the Brezhnev cohort in 1985, they rapidly drove the Soviet empire into collapse and disintegration. The first time I went back to Moscow after emigrating was in winter 1992. I saw what a social collapse looks like. Massive immiseration of the population, passed-out drunks everywhere, collapsing infrastructure, collapsing law and order. For example, we saw several charred car wrecks that were left after some businessman or a mafia lord (actually, there was no difference between the two) was assassinated. In the produce market, ethnic Mafiosi were collecting protection money in the broad daylight. Shouldering aside the buyers, they walked down the stalls with thick wads of cash, the vendors handing them bills with shaking hands.
However, the reversal of the disintegrative trend occurred quite rapidly, by historical standards. The onset of the new integrative trend coincided with the shift from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Putin is, of course, currently demonized in the Western press, but the Russians have a different view, because his rule was associated with rapid growth of personal incomes (mainly between 1999 and 2007), and return of Russia to the circle of Great Powers. Of course Russia today is nothing like a superpower that the USSR was—rather it’s a weak and shambolic great power (sort of like Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century).
The integrative trend has faltered somewhat in the last few years, and it’s difficult to predict whether it will be sustained into the next four decades. In any case, the history of the past 40 years has seen two dramatic trend reversals. Predictions based on linear extrapolation, whether made in 1980 or 1995, turned out to be completely wrong. History is dynamic and nonlinear.
The United States
It’s hard to remember now, but back in 1977 it was the US that looked like an ailing superpower. The defeat in the Vietnam War was only two years in the past. Across the world, insurrections aided by the Soviet Union were seemed to be in ascendance. Within the country, the social turbulence of the late 1960s and the 1970s was just coming to an end. In fact, the Black Liberation Army was still active in the US until the Brinks truck robbery in 1981. The 1970s economy was in disarray, with one recession after another, and the Bear Market contributing to (or reflecting) the feeling of social pessimism.
But the subsequent four decades, again, showed that linear trend extrapolation is a really bad way of making geopolitical predictions. When the USSR collapsed in early 1990s, the US became the only standing superpower in the world, the status that it retains today. There was a lot of giddy prophesizing concerning how the 21st Century would be the American Century. That looks increasingly unlikely, especially given the outcome of the presidential elections of 2016. We have clearly just entered our own Age of Discord.
When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978 (this is described in detail in Part IV Ages of Discord, see in particular, the significance of Douglas Fraser’s resignation letter from the Labor Management Group written in 1978, p. 195).
In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.