he is the man who arranges the blocks…

August 28, 2010

Tetris is one of the most popular and beloved games of all time. Created by a programmer in Moscow at the twilight of the USSR, it spread across the globe in countless variations and styles, still delighting players to this day. I remember playing it obsessively as a kid and even as an adult, I’m still a huge fan. And I promise it has nothing to do with my birth in the former USSR either. But both my love for Tetris and my background just blended together into a mix of bizarre emotions when I saw the following tribute to the game and the history of Russia in this video featuring Dan Woods of the UK neo-folk band Pig With The Face Of a Boy, summarizing the wild ups and downs of those who lived and still live in the playgrounds of oligarchs and authoritarians. As the tune continues, its pace speeds up, just like the game, for that added touch of respect to its inspiration.

While this gem of a music video is masterfully done, there are a few small quibbles I should raise. Today, the notion of free enterprise isn’t rejected in Russia or any of the other Soviet territories. However, because those who ended up holding the best assets from an empire that collapsed after decades of incompetence and an out of control kleptocracy at every level of society, prompted by constant shortages of just about everything, are frequently either close friends, relatives, and allies of those who gave away these assets, the benefits of free trade were concentrated at the very top of the social hierarchy. So while former Party officials and their friends schmoozed international corporations, importing and exporting just about everything from sugar and candy, to exotic fruits and assault rifles from the Red Army surplus, most people were mired in poverty and those who tried to start their own businesses better make some friends up high, or face mafia-style shakedowns for the right to keep operating their business, and fraudulent investigations into their personal affairs. And if they got tough with their intimidators, they might come home and find themselves face to face with a hitman.

So yes, there is free enterprise in Russia for those who are well armed, well connected, and on friendly terms with the government. They’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, whether it be to have themselves appointed as governors, buy a soccer team in the UK, or trash hotel rooms all over the world while partying in the most decadent ways they can imagine on their private planes. And hilariously enough, while some highly hyped and popular pundits wail about the United States turning into the Soviet Union, or Russia in a bit to stir up the good, old Cold War propaganda and Red Scare fever with which their primary audience of 40 to 60 year olds grew up, what they don’t understand is just how far away the U.S. is from anything even remotely trying to resemble Russia back in its USSR days, or today. Imagine if when the Democrats came to power, they rigged elections to whittle down the number of Republicans in the Senate down to 10 or so, and to less than 70 in the House, then proceeded to pass anything and everything they wanted in rapid succession while ignoring every single Republican lawmaker, making sure that state sponsored news networks never even talked to them.

Instead, what we have is a media world ran by huge, private corporations, one of which gives a million dollar donation to the Republican Party and employs a cadre of pundits to scream Red-baiting gloom and doom at the soothing volume of 90 decibels day in, day out, and a political process ran by a party which saw one of the biggest majorities it ever had, and yet allowed it to whittle away while it was single-handadley focused on its monster healthcare bill that managed to span more than 2,000 pages and address almost none of the basic causes for soaring healthcare costs rather than seeking transparency, accountability, and truly studying why the nation has such a dysfunctional medical system. The U.S. is nowhere close to what Russia was then or is today, neither politically, not financially. There are alarming decreases in upward mobility and a substantial discrepancy in income between managers and rank and file employees that simply aren’t sustainable in the long run, but these phenomena are nowhere near those far too many pundits fear and far too many partisans love to chant. Likewise, as long as there’s real competition in politics and new presidents aren’t nominated by the outgoing one, the U.S.’ political system is far from heading down the Russian road.

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    … those who ended up holding the best assets … are frequently either close friends, relatives, and allies of those who gave away these assets, the benefits of free trade were concentrated at the very top of the social hierarchy.

    Thereby leapfrogging the US, where the transition to complete crony capitalism is at least a decade or two away from completion.

    … just how far away the U.S. is from anything even remotely trying to resemble Russia back in its USSR days …

    US political discourse suffers from the lack of a concise vocabulary to indicate how a system can tend partially towards the pattern of another system, while not necessarily being or becoming that other system. This deficiency has not only kneecapped the right (howling about “communism” in the ’50s and since) and the left (decrying “fascism”, mostly in the ’60s), but the body politic as a whole, which is generally blind to its own trends because ignorant of its own history.

    That said, certain soviet-ish tendencies have grown in the last few decades, notably a hegemonic and cynical media structure supporting the power structure with an increasingly narrow focus, and an ever-more-thorough domestic spying apparatus.

    As for the situation with US political parties… where to begin? Your description of how the Democrats might have seized power reminds me all too closely of what Newt Gingrich and Co. were working on when they held Congress during the Clinton years – do some searches for “K Street Project”, then tell me that wasn’t an early rehearsal for the same type of scenario. And the Dems’ utter failures at the major nominal effort(s) of the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be purely a matter of ineptitude: there are major elements in the US power structure which want such initiatives not only to fail, but to be widely perceived as failures so as to inoculate the system against further attempts.

    The Democrats are much greater obstacles to serious progressive initiatives in this country than the Republicans could ever manage to be. Awareness of the Dems’ funding, and of the history of manipulation of the US public, casts severe doubt on the old maxim of never attributing to malice what could be explained by incompetence. Read Chomsky (not just summaries of Chomsky; start with Manufacture of Consent), and remember that he is more Jeffersonian than “leftist” per se.

    The future of the US looks to me more like Latin America of the ’50s-’80s (oligarchic rule, sharp class divide, military/police-dominated government, politics of personality & distraction) than any part of Soviet history, at least in terms of internal dynamics – the primary difference being that the sunny south was under firm control of a single foreign hegemony, whereas in the 21st century we’ll see a variety of major external influences and environmental crises.

  • badbass9

    Both parties in the US political system have failed us miserably. These days, it seems, their only agenda is to play the gotcha’ game. Who cares? One is as bad as the other. Ramming laws and regulations down our throats nobody wants( read “Obamacare”) , playing like ,oh, we’re offended, then doing nothing about it. No wonder the Tea Party has garnered the interest it has. One side accuses them of racism. The other dismisses them as malcontents with no idea of how government works. Obviously, the Tea Partyers have struck a nerve. Is your power structure in jeopardy, gentlemen? As to our failing medical system, I believe, is the fault of for profit medical care. Not the providers. The medical insurers. With help from their Washington buddies. Anyone remember when the Medicaid Prescription Act (before the howls, I dont remember exactly what is was called) entered our lives? How the cost of medicines went up. If you can’t pay for it, the government will help you. What happened? Prices rose, with the pharmacutical companies charging what they wanted, knowing full well, if you didn’t pay, someone else (government) will. This WILL happen when Obamacare goes into full effect. But hey, maybe in 2012 we”ll experience the technological singularity (sly nod to yesterday’s post), making it all a moot point. No. This country will never be Russia. Not enough people are that tough. We’ll just let our government legislate us into being a Third World country. gfish, where is the “real competition” in politics when votes are bought? Not overtly, but with fund donations. And circumventing campaign laws? Think Buddhist nuns. The only competition I’ve seen is the competition for dollars. I, personally, couldn’t run for office. I don’t have the funds. Nor do my friends to support me. And now, due to the Supreme Court’s decision on free speech and campaign funds, noone but the richest and their friends can run. I really don’t think the founding fathers had our current system in mind as the result. Maybe that’s why we have the Second Amendment. And those in power trying to gut it. I don’t quite get this transhumanism thing, but sadly, I find myself hoping for the singularity.

  • Greg Fish

    “do some searches for “K Street Project”, then tell me that wasn’t an early rehearsal for the same type of scenario.”

    Sure. It wasn’t. It was a bid to secure campaign cash among partisan lines and so that the GOP was a financial powerhouse that could ensure a perpetual majority. Keep in mind that not all lobbyists on K street wanted to play by their rules and threatened to report them to the FEC.

    Read Chomsky (not just summaries of Chomsky; start with Manufacture of Consent)

    I’m not a fan of Chomsky by any stretch of the imagination. Not only does he borrow his theories from old conspiracies, he also commits the same fallacy I’ve recently written about: weaving short term greed and short sighted policies, combined with people’s carelessness and inattentiveness, into some grand conspiracy to brainwash citizenry. All he’s missing is an invocation to the New World Order. The work to which you refer is a prime example of this negative evidence fallacy in action.

    By the way, his big thesis about the U.S./Israel oil tag team in the Middle East? It was first created by a duo of Saudi adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Awakening Sheiks, then distributed on audio tapes for years across Asia, and reaching all the way to Pakistan by the late 1970s. The Saudis let it travel out of the country because they’d rather their Wahhabi radicals start problems outside the kingdom’s borders than on the inside, and the U.S. let it slip because Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton simply didn’t pay attention to it and thought it would just go away on its own. And over all these years, Chomsky hasn’t even bothered to add anything new to the conspiracy be borrowed…

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … “K Street Project”… was a bid to secure campaign cash among partisan lines and so that the GOP was a financial powerhouse that could ensure a perpetual majority. Keep in mind that not all lobbyists on K street wanted to play by their rules and threatened to report them to the FEC.

    The aspect I had in mind was where the Repubs tried to get the major lobbying firms to fire all their Democrats. The plan didn’t work, but the clear intention was to move toward a one-party government.

    … Chomsky … borrows his theories from old conspiracies…

    This is why I urged reading his own words, not those of his critics – which it really doesn’t look like you’ve done. He denounces conspiracy theories with much the same vehemence as you do, and with parallel arguments in many cases. If anything, his analysis, relying heavily on class interests, is somewhere between Marxian (not Marxist) and Whiggish. And he’s quite consistent, and consistently does his homework: once you’ve grasped his general framework, the only reason to continue reading/hearing him is the wealth of specific and apropos quotations and historical examples with which he illustrates his points.

  • Greg Fish

    [It] didn’t work, but the clear intention was to move toward a one-party government.

    They knew full well that they would not be able to get a complete one-party government. The goal was to have a perpetual majority, or better yet, a perpetual super-majority. And besides, you can’t use one failed attempt at something as evidence of sinister things in store. This is, again, firmly in the territory of negative evidence.

    This is why I urged reading his own words, not those of his critics which it really doesn’t look like you’ve done.

    Pierce, of all people you should know that the “well you obviously didn’t get it” gambit doesn’t work on me. I hear it way too many times. I haven’t properly appreciated Ayn Rand, I haven’t really gave proper consideration to the Reptilian menace, I haven’t read the words of New World Order turncoats, the list goes on and on.

    Just like any other person, I have a right to my opinion on a subject and to say that the reason why I disagree with someone must be because I didn’t read or appreciate the theses is not only disingenuous, but seems to say that you respect my conclusions only when and if they happen to match up with yours.

    “He denounces conspiracy theories with much the same vehemence as you do…”

    And yet he adopts the ones he likes. Just so you know, I very rarely read anything by his critics and made the connection between his premiere theory and the Saudi conspiracy when reading a chapter from Ghost Wars.

    And he’s quite consistent, and consistently does his homework…

    I hear that all the time about Ray Kurzweil. Homework can be done badly and agreed with based primarily on ideological grounds.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … you can’t use one failed attempt at something as evidence of sinister things in store.

    You can use it as evidence of motivation. Or would you say that one unsuccessful attempted burglary is no reason to expect further break-ins by the same miscreants?

    … to say that the reason why I disagree with someone must be because I didn’t read or appreciate the theses is not only disingenuous, but seems to say that you respect my conclusions only when and if they happen to match up with yours.

    Re-read my comment. I was saying that you attribute to Chomsky a position he specifically abjures, which implies you have not gone to the source – just as if someone were to walk around claiming “Fish is a Singulitarian!”

    … I very rarely read anything by his critics and made the connection between his premiere theory and the Saudi conspiracy when reading a chapter from Ghost Wars.

    Which was written by Steve Coll, not by Noam Chomsky. And as for the meme that US support for Israel is related to the imperial need for an outpost near the oilfields, that’s more geopolitics than conspiracy, and hardly lacking in evidence. (Likewise the fact that Israel has made itself militarily useful to the US in African and Latin American theaters as well.)

    Nor does the assertion that Chomsky’s take on Israel is his “premiere theory” indicate you’ve understood his analysis. He looks at the power dynamics of international and intranational politics with an eye to discrepancies and alignments with what is said externally and internally, with the Middle East as one case study among many.

    Homework can be done badly…

    You mean as in reading Coll and drawing conclusions about Chomsky because some Saudis make similar claims? I repeat (with a correction): start with Manufacturing Consent – or maybe Understanding Power.

  • Greg Fish

    “You can use it as evidence of motivation.”

    I can be motivated to take over the world. I have no resources to do this, no idea how to make it work, or a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere close to it, but I could be very, very motivated. Doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    “I was saying that you attribute to Chomsky a position he specifically abjures…”

    No. You were saying he doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories. I said that while he may say so, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do it. After all, a lot of anti-vaxers say that they are not anti-vaccine, but at the same time, they take every, single, possible chance to present vaccines as nothing more than poisonous toxic sludge in stark contrast to their previous words.

    “Which was written by Steve Coll, not by Noam Chomsky.”

    And if you’ve ever read Coll, you know he doesn’t even mention Chomsky or the notion of anyone in the United States ever even hearing of the Awakening Sheiks’ tapes. Looking at Chosky’s own words, then thinking, “wait a second, haven’t I seen this before?” is a perfectly legitimate way to make a connection.

    “He looks at the power dynamics of international and intranational politics with an eye to discrepancies and alignments with what is said externally and internally…”

    And so what? Everyone who indulges in conspiracies says the same thing. That’s the same thing you can find in defense of David Icke, Mike Adams, or Richard Hoagland. Just as there’s proof that the U.S. does indeed have vital interest in Middle Eastern oil fields, so is there more than enough evidence to show that many of the decisions and statements Chomsky waves into deliberate, decade-long, subtle machinations are actually the product of short-sightedness and/or greed.

    Take Pakistan’s feeding of al-Queda and the Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s. Their only cencern was to use the CIA’s strategy on India. Or the failed Unocal investment in Afgahnistan which was embraced only to try and pry the door open to doing business with recently independent central Asian states of the former USSR, with little regard for how the pipelines would actually be built or how they would be seen by those outisde of the U.S. oil and gas industry.

    You mean as in reading Coll and drawing conclusions about Chomsky because some Saudis make similar claims?

    I noted that Chomsky recycled a conspiracy. Whether he did it knowingly, or just ended up in the same place as the Sheiks, I really don’t know and can’t comment. I have seen nothing original or compelling from Chomsky, and pretty much all the connections he tries to weave tend to fall into the same camp as many conspiracy theorists looking to connect the dots to confirm their initial conclusions. He may get to a vaguely plausible premise, than tries to wave it into something much grander that it actually is.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    I can be motivated to take over the world.

    Hey! I got dibs!

    Doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    Non sequiturs don’t, as a rule. You aren’t half of the US partisan duopoly.

    … while he may say so, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do it.

    While saying his analysis is a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it is one.

    QUESTION: Are you suggesting that there’s a conspiracy — that there are people who gather and decide we’re going to eliminate unions, we’re going to eliminate popular participation in political parties, we’re going to do this and that?

    CHOMSKY: My point is exactly the opposite. For example, there’s no conspiracy in a board of managers that it tries to raise profits. In fact, if the managers didn’t pursue that program, they wouldn’t be in business any longer. It’s part of the structure of the social system and the way in which the institutions function within it, that they will be trying to maximize profit, market share, decision-making capacity, and so on.

    … more than enough evidence to show that many of the decisions and statements Chomsky waves into deliberate, decade-long, subtle machinations are actually the product of short-sightedness and/or greed.

    [Insert boilerplate about "confirmation bias" here] Are you suggesting that the remarkable consistency of US foreign policy is not (in large part) the result of strategic planning? Note, for examples, the policy of “containment” against the USSR from Truman through Bush I, or the way Clinton & Obama both followed the Iraq policies of their respective predecessor Bushes to the letter.

    Take Pakistan’s feeding of al-Queda and the Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s. Their only cencern was to use the CIA’s strategy on India.

    If viewed through the lens of pure national interests, yes. If you consider the hardcore-madrassa faction within the ISI to be working for its own agenda, there is at least a different element of “short-sightedness and/or greed” to calculate.

    Or the failed Unocal investment in Afgahnistan which was embraced only to try and pry the door open to doing business with recently independent central Asian states of the former USSR, with little regard for how the pipelines would actually be built or how they would be seen by those outisde of the U.S. oil and gas industry.

    Raw and (so far) unsuccessful opportunism, indeed. Or, a minor gambit within the continuing Great Game. Either perspective works – read a blow-by-blow history of the Raj – but one takes account of more context.

    I have seen nothing original or compelling from Chomsky.

    I don’t recall him making much claim for originality (except perhaps in linguistics, where it’s arguably justified). “Compelling” is too vague a term to critique, though the size of his following rebuts it on at least one level (not one I find decisive either, of course).

    His analysis is not the be-all and end-all that some fans try to make of it, but he does present a picture consistent both within itself and with the known facts of history and politics, one much more realistic than what is given by US media and public education. His critics either resort to grand hand-waving dismissals without addressing his case in depth (as here, so far), or nibble to death the same few minor missteps (his alleged endorsement of Pol Pot is a case study in propaganda in itself). Systematic rebuttals are [understatement alert!] rare.

    Just what have you read of Chomsky’s work?

  • Greg Fish

    “Non sequiturs don’t, as a rule. You aren’t half of the US partisan duopoly.”

    That’s true, I’m not. But you seemed to have missed the point that I was trying to make. Vague things like one’s motivation, and an example of a failure, are not evidence of evil things looming on the horizon. Watergate was proof of a partisan conspiracy because it provided direct evidence of ongoing wrongdoing. The K Street project? Not so much.

    “While saying his analysis is a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it is one.”

    So you link to a quote in which he simply says that conspiracies don’t need to be called such since they’re pretty much natural in a given context? Again, he’s pretty good at getting a plausible start, but usually after that start is when he tends of go off the rails.

    “Note, for examples, the policy of ‘containment’ against the USSR from Truman through Bush I, or the way Clinton & Obama both followed the Iraq policies of their respective predecessor”

    And let’s note that they were unwilling, or unable to deviate form the course because they a) didn’t really know how, b) couldn’t really think of anything better, and c) many of the operations were often ran by those who carried their tactics from adminsitration to administration beind the scenes, as the 9/11 Commission very clearly demonstrated in its report.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    We seem to have slipped into talking at cross purposes again.

    Vague things like one’s motivation, and an example of a failure, are not evidence of evil things looming on the horizon.

    Are you saying there is an insufficiency of evidence regarding evil things on the Republican agenda?

    … he’s pretty good at getting a plausible start, but usually after that start is when he tends of go off the rails.

    Examples (& not those rebutted in my last link of previous comment), please. Ideally from Chomsky’s own writings.

    … they were unwilling, or unable to deviate form the course because they a) didn’t really know how, b) couldn’t really think of anything better, and c) many of the operations were often ran by those who carried their tactics from adminsitration to administration beind the scenes…

    Do you really think the largest empire in history has no strategic plan and operates entirely by “short-sightedness and/or greed”???

  • Greg Fish

    Are you saying there’s an insufficiency of evidence regarding evil things on the Republican agenda?

    And so the goalposts have moved. Now instead of talking about one specific case, we have to wade into partisan politics and analyze opinions about what’s good and what’s evil…

    Examples (& not those rebutted in my last link of previous comment), please. Ideally from Chomsky’s own writings.

    No, I’m not playing the game of semantic whack-a-mole. Believe it or not, I don’t have an indexed list of all Chomsky’s work with notes and references ready to go, and I don’t have the time to start dissecting about half a century worth of politics in a post’s thread, especially when it will simply be met with a series of nebulous counter quotes that can be endlessly debated. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

    And what exactly did you rebut? That Chomsky endorsed Pol Pot? I don’t remember ever making that claim or hearing about it so the rebuttal serves no purpose, especially considering that the rebuttal is coming from Chomsky himself rather than an impartial third party.

    Do you really think the largest empire in history has no strategic plan and operates entirely by “short-sightedness and/or greed”?

    The largest empire in history, i.e. Britain’s? It’s gone. So is Spain’s, France’s, and Russia’s. Also, think about this for a second. American presidents have a shelf life of four to eight years. To have any serious, far-reaching plans that last beyond that time span requires some sort of secretive cooperation. Or simply staying the course of one’s predecessor, listening to his adviser’s, and letting them have at it. Which is more plausible, i.e. doesn’t require clandestine relationships? And which is supported by document after document?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Now instead of talking about one specific case, we have to wade into partisan politics…

    These particular goalposts have stayed in the same place: The Republican Party has been bent on taking control of the US government by fair means or foul – mostly foul so far in this century, as exemplified by the machinations of Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, & numerous others. You asked for an example, I gave one and backed it up: returning to the larger context is not a goalpost shift.

    I’m not playing the game of semantic whack-a-mole.

    Nor the game of provide-evidence-for-accusations, it appears.

    … what exactly did you rebut?

    Nothing, personally. I just provided a link to a 1985 article in which Christopher Hitchens disassembled the leading slurs against Chomsky as of that time – to which, sfaik, very little in the way of specifics have been added over the last quarter-century.

    The largest empire in history, i.e. Britain’s? It’s gone. So is Spain’s, France’s, and Russia’s.

    (Don’t forget the Mongols!) None of those had the reach of the US over the last ~60 years.

    … four to eight years. To have any serious, far-reaching plans that last beyond that time span requires some sort of secretive cooperation.

    Or a general consensus of mindset among the upper reaches of government (including military & intelligence) and business elites, and a continuous campaign to keep boat-rockers either out of power or under control once in. As my earlier examples indicate, that consistency of approach has been quite successfully maintained for generations, despite its numerous crimes and failures. A hard look at the military-industrial complex, the energy industries, NAFTA interests, and – particularly in recent years – the financial sector tells most of the story; study the major “think tanks” & related intelligentsia for much of the rest (the media are definitely tail, not dog, at these levels).

    Try to imagine creating a coherent account of US power dynamics without those elements. Pretty difficult, no? It requires the full effort of our school textbooks and corporate media to weave such a tapestry – and the former have to do it without benefit of sex scandals.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Is this conspiracism?

    As a recent study by Swiss physicists has revealed, 10 financial entities have controlling interest in about 80% of stocks in 48 countries worldwide, but none of the Jewish banking firms traditionally cited in anti-Semitic literature, such as Rothschild financial entities, are on on the list. Seven are American firms and the rest are based in the UK, France, and Switzerland ( PDF of Science News article.)