On April 26th, 1986 a power surge in the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine led to explosions that spewed radioactive material throughout the USSR and neighboring countries. Some scientists blame this for an epidemic of thyroid cancers in the region, impacting my mother-in-law who lives in Istanbul.
This disaster was interpreted widely as precipitating the collapse of “existing socialism” in the USSR, including Mikhail Gorbachev who wrote 10 years afterwards:
THE nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.
(The Australian, Apr. 19, 2006)
Just two weeks after Chernobyl, the Soviet Union was implementing a “fight and talk” strategy in Afghanistan that does not sound much different than attempts being made today to reform the country, admittedly along a different ideological axis:
AFTER more than six years of inconclusive warfare in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union appears to have adopted a contradictory strategy: seeming to move toward a diplomatic solution while simultaneously deepening its involvement in the country.
On one hand, Soviet leaders have begun to talk publicly about a political settlement and a troop withdrawal, and they seem ready to have the subject discussed at a new round of indirect negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to begin in Geneva under United Nations mediation.
On the other, the Russians have indicated a commitment to longterm control of the impoverished, mountainous nation on their southern border. These include the education and indoctrination of Afghan children with methods similar to those Moscow used during other annexations -after World War II, when the Baltic states were taken over, and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the new Government was able to ”Sovietize” portions of Central Asia that had been seized by the Tsarist Russian Empire.
(NY Times, May 4, 1986)
Just four years later the executive director of Tecnica, a leftist technical aid group I worked with, would visit Afghanistan to discuss joint projects with Soviet economists—his counterparts. As a sometimes entrepreneur, despite his 60s radical past, he made sure to buy some rugs when he was there at bargain basement prices. I remember the phone conversation I had with him after he arrived back in Berkeley. He told me that the Soviet officials could not stop talking about the “monster” they had created. With their own entrepreneurial appetites lurking beneath the surface, they would eagerly join Yeltsin and other repentant Stalinists in retooling the system along Milton Friedman lines.
Of course these efforts reflected personal ambition to lead the good life as well as a deeply entrenched conviction that the system was not working on its own terms. The Soviet economy, after a long post-WWII expansion, was in what appeared to be a permanent crisis.
Unlike our own crisis, which in superficial terms is all about an unregulated economy, pundits blamed too much planning for the Soviet morass:
The centralized pricing system is so askew that meat costing the state $4 a pound to produce sells for 80 cents a pound. Spare parts are all but impossible to find; pricing policy is that spare parts must cost the same as parts actually installed in manufactured equipment, making it entirely uneconomical to maintain stocks around the country.
Inefficiency is glaring, as are absenteeism, drunkenness and sloth. When contracting with Western suppliers to bring in heavy machinery, the Russians have taken to having Westerners build the housing, too, so the expensive imports would not rust in the open while Soviet workers got around to finishing enclosures.
An Austrian company that built a steel mill near Zhlobin in Byelorussia brought in Yugoslav and Austrian laborers, and built everything down to barracks for the workers.
(NY Times, March 15, 1985)
While people like Francis Fukuyama tended to blame the Soviet Union’s problems on “Communism”, a more informed analysis would associate it more with the modus operandi in the West, despite the obvious absence of a profit motive.
What our rulers and the Soviet-era Kremlin have in common is a tendency to regard working people as beasts of burden solely responsible for meeting quarterly earnings expectations and quotas respectively. Chernobyl blew up because inadequate safety measures were in place. This was a function of a bureaucratic mindset that made society’s interests secondary. A report by the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group sounds eerily like what we have heard about BP:
The developers of the reactor plant considered this combination of events to be impossible and therefore did not allow for the creation of emergency protection systems capable of preventing the combination of events that led to the crisis, namely the intentional disabling of emergency protection equipment plus the violation of operating procedures. Thus the primary cause of the accident was the extremely improbable combination of rule infringement plus the operational routine allowed by the power station staff.
In contrast to the United States, the elites in the USSR were all too eager to dismantle a planned economy in favor of what exists today. The reason for this should be obvious. Despite all the lip service paid to Karl Marx under Stalin and his successors, the system was run strictly on a self-serving basis. People climbed the apparatchik ladder in the same way they climb the corporate ladder in the USA. Someone like Tony Hayward was not all that different from a Soviet plant manager, who after all became just like him after Yeltsin took power.
Our misfortune is that association with the Soviet era taints our socialist beliefs despite our best efforts to return to the original meaning of Karl Marx. Any attempts on our part to not make that distinction clear will only make our efforts to reach working people more difficult.
In a very real sense, the fundamental crisis of our age is an ecological one in the broadest sense. Unlike the USSR, capitalism remains relatively dynamic. But the costs have yet to be determined. The PBS news hour reported:
Some experts on the issue are striking a concerned tone. Monitoring will be crucial in the coming months and years said Edward Trapido, the Wendell Gauthier Chair of Cancer Epidemiology at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, because the long-term health effects of a spill like this remain an unknown.
No one has ever done a longitudinal study of health impacts on workers or residents after previous oil spills, he said…
Trapido, who testified Thursday for a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on the spill, is heading a research group at LSU that will look at a range of health effects, including psychiatric and behavioral effects, chronic diseases and cancers.
“Oil contains benzene … arsenic and other heavy metals, all of which are classified as class one carcinogens to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer,” said Trapido.
With inherited susceptibility and under certain conditions, Trapido said “these exposures could hasten the onset of cancer,” but that further long-term research is needed. The dispersants being used do not contain known carcinogens, Trapido said.
While much is made about the American addiction to the automobile and cheap gas, one wonders if that addiction would be so easy to come by if the environmental and epidemiological costs were well known. Unfortunately, the oil companies, the government and the media have a vested interest in masking these connections, including the PBS news hour that has been the beneficiary of oil company handouts.
My first introduction to ecology was a talk by Joel Kovel at the Brecht Forum in NY where he likened uncontrolled capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. We have now reached the stage in the history of capitalism when this is no longer a metaphor but a reality.