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John Feffer: Why the World is Becoming Un-Sweden

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Today, TomDispatch regular John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, offers a cunning bow to the convergence theorists of the Cold War era, a crew of thinkers who imagined that someday the two superpowers would merge into one conglomerate creature in strangely upbeat ways. In reality, as he points out, "convergence" (even in an era that lacks the Soviet Union) has turned out to be a dismally downbeat process. He does, however, skip the earliest convergence theorist of them all, who happened to be a novelist rather than an economist or a philosopher. I'm talking about George Orwell who, in his novel 1984 (published in 1948 just as the Cold War was ramping up to a low burn), imagined the convergence of the worst of West and East, of capitalist America and communist Russia, in a state so memorably malign that, almost seven decades later, everyone, including Edward Snowden, still remembers Big Brother.

The NSA's global surveillance state, revealed by Snowden, managed to put even the dreams of the totalitarian states of the previous century in the shade (and caused sales of 1984 to spike) -- and it's but one reminder of Orwell's foresight. So many other details of our moment from black sites and kidnapping schemes to torture and assassination programs remind us that, despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union, convergence of a sort still seems to be in the cards. Here's the strange thing, though: if a kind of eerie version of convergence is indeed underway, as Feffer so memorably suggests, in the organized precincts of what used to be called the First and Second Worlds -- the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China -- in the former Third World, or at least across vast stretches of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, a process that might be called divergence seems to be gaining strength. The power of states is weakening, fragmenting, or simply dissolving amid the growth of extremist organizations, sectarian or sectional militias, and terror groups.

As miraculous as Orwell was -- and in the earliest days of the television age he managed to conjure up a future world in which the screen would be omnipresent and everyone could be surveilled, tracked, and controlled through it -- he had no way of imagining such a strange form of divergence. Its origins seem to lie, at least in part, in a twenty-first-century American urge to take its much-ballyhooed role as the planet's last remaining superpower to heart and essentially try to rule the world. This desire to create a planetary Pax Americana (and an American Pax Republicana) led the Bush administration to punch a devastating hole in the oil heartlands of the planet, setting off a storm of sectarian chaos within which old systems of control, already frayed, began to collapse and whose endpoint is, at present, beyond our ken.

Convergence and divergence, centralization and fragmentation: it's a vision of a planet that's not exactly Orwellian, but certainly represents a nightmare worthy of some still-to-be-discovered Orwell of our moment. In the meantime, while we await the novel 2051, let John Feffer tell you about the dark, converging world of 2015. Tom

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Worst of All Possible Worlds
Did Market Leninism Win the Cold War?
By John Feffer

Imagine an alternative universe in which the two major Cold War superpowers evolved into the United Soviet Socialist States. The conjoined entity, linked perhaps by a new Bering Straits land bridge, combines the optimal features of capitalism and collectivism. From Siberia to Sioux City, we'd all be living in one giant Sweden.

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It sounds like either the paranoid nightmare of a John Bircher or the wildly optimistic dream of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, however, this was a rather conventional view, at least among influential thinkers like economist John Kenneth Galbraith who predicted that the United States and the Soviet Union would converge at some point in the future with the market tempered by planning and planning invigorated by the market. Like many an academic notion, it didn't come to pass. The United States veered off in the direction of Reaganomics. And the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. So much for "convergence theory," which like EST or cold fusion went the way of most crackpot ideas.

Or did it? Take another look at our world in 2015 and tell me if, somehow we haven't backed our way through the looking glass into that very alternative universe -- with a twist. The planet currently seems to be on the cusp of a decidedly unharmonic convergence.

Consider what's happening in Russia, where an elected autocrat presides over a free market shaped by a powerful state apparatus. Similarly, China's mash-up of market Leninism offers a one-from-column-A-and-one-from-Column-B combination platter. Both countries are also rife with crime, corruption, growing inequality, and militarism. Think of them as the un-Swedens.

Nor do such hybrids live only in the East. Hungary, a member of the European Union and a key post-Communist adherent to liberalism, has been heading off in an altogether different direction since its ruling Fidesz party took over in 2010. Last July, its prime minister, Viktor Orban, declared that he no longer looks to the West for guidance. To survive in an ever more competitive global economy, Orban is seeking inspiration from various hybrid powers, the other un-Swedens of our planet: Turkey, Singapore, and both Russia and China. Touting the renationalization of former state assets and stricter controls on foreign investment, he has promised to remake Hungary into an "illiberal state" that both challenges laissez-faire principles and concentrates power in the leader and his party.

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The United States is not exactly immune from such trends. The state has also become quite illiberal here as its reach and power have been expanded in striking ways. As it happens, however, America's Gosplan, our state planning committee, comes with a different name: the military-industrial-homeland-security complex. Washington presides over a planet-spanning surveillance system that would have been the envy of the Communist apparatchiks of the previous century, even as it has imposed a global economic template on other countries that enables enormous corporate entities to elbow aside local competition. If the American tradition of liberalism and democracy was once all about "the little guy" -- the rights of the individual, the success of small business -- the United States has gone big in the worst possible way.

The convergence theorists imagined that the better aspects of capitalism and communism would emerge from the Darwinian competition of the Cold War and that the result would be a more adaptable and humane hybrid. It was a typically Panglossian error. Instead of the best of all possible worlds, the international community now faces an unholy trinity of authoritarian politics, cutthroat economics, and Big Brother surveillance. Even though we might all be eating off IKEA tableware, listening to Spotify, and reading the latest Girl With the Dragon Tattoo knock-off, we are not living in a giant Sweden. Our world is converging in a far more dystopian way. After two successive conservative governments and with a surging far-right party pounding its anti-immigrant drumbeat, even Sweden seems to be heading in the same dismal direction.

Indeed, if you squint at the history of the last 70 years, you might be persuaded to believe that the convergence theorists were right after all. For all the excitement the fall of the Berlin Wall generated and the paradigm shifts it inspired, the annus mirabilis of 1989 may not have been the end of one system and the victory of the other, but an odd interlude in a much longer evolution of the two.

Bats Do It, Whales Do It

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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