17 July 2009

Nothing To Offer: A Bad Novelist And An Ageing Stripper

When the Soviet Union fell it did so with a whimper. The union republics experienced tumultuous years, but for countries which had been within the Soviet sphere of dominance the fall was fairly uneventful. It passed by uneventfully because it turned out Soviet power had largely been a mirage. The Soviet Union had a massive army but increasingly lacked the means to finance it.

A key point then that even empires must earn their keep. An economy is needed to fuel military might. But in economics no cheating is possible and force will get you nowhere. As in the markets nobody owes anybody anything you are only as worth as much as you can offer. Have a world to offer, and you can gain the world. Have nothing to offer, and you can have nothing from anybody else. The problem for the Soviet Union was it had nothing to offer. As that Nicholas Cage character from Lord of War said; "Nobody was lining up to buy their cars."

You could not fault the Soviets for a lack of effort. There were giant factories churning out smoke, long lines of rail were always being laid down, massive amounts of coal being mined... But at the end of this nothing really useful was coming out. Nothing anybody would want to buy. Nobody outside the Soviet Union was lining up to buy Soviet Lada automobiles, Ekran television sets or Karl Marx hardcovers. (And after a while even inside the Soviet Union nobody was lining up to buy Karl Marx hardcovers.)

The Soviet Union had been akin to a devoted novelist writing bad prose. A justifiably unappreciated writer, writing psychological realism. Hard-working, ascetic. Lived in an attic, with no electricity, secluded, working on his novels 16 hours a day. Died at 35 from a bad liver, dirt poor, unpublished and bitter. It was not that there was no effort. There was plenty of effort. It was just that he had nothing to offer. No one would voluntarily buy his novels. In the first place it was psychological realism and in the second place it was not very good.

But the other empire of the Cold War, The Empire of today is it any different? Is anybody lining up to buy their cars? The answer is increasingly no. US exports are increasingly lagging behind US imports, increasingly the Empire and its military might is being funded by debt. The US empire is to a dramatic extent only propped up by an arrangement where productive and viable economies send the United States useful products that you would want to buy and the US sends back newly printed paper money the rest of the world then holds into infinity. The US, once an industrial powerhouse with a bright future ahead now has seemingly nothing to offer to the world but its paper currency.

If the USSR was akin to a bad novelist then America is an ageing stripper. Her story is that of a pretty college grad turned erotic dancer. In the beginning she had much going for herself. A useful degree, the looks and a good albeit stressful starter job at a mayor company. But after a few months she got bored and realised she could actually earn more while working less by performing in a nudie bar three nights a week.

She switched over to the brass pole. And it was great. Not a demanding job, plenty of free time, good money. If she needed more, she could always just book more nights. With money came the good life. Cocaine, a housemaid, Mercedes-Benz, a holiday house in Aspen. Sure over the years she had to do a job or two on herself, a plastic surgery here and there. But it was no problem, there were plenty of bankers - hardworking but somewhat geeky Asian fellows - among her regular customers in over their ears for her. They were happy to hook her up with a loan for the surgeries. After that she had not actually paid off those loans, but it did not matter because she was earning so much she could repay them anytime she wanted to. She would just have to cut on her spending a bit. But she never did. There was never the right time.

Now she is pushing 40, she finds it is much harder to negotiate a good pay or get large tips and the loans are coming due. Maybe she could repay them, but she would have to fire the housemaid, sell the Mercedes-Benz and the holiday house in Aspen, kick the coke habit. But what would she do then? No job skills, her looks largely gone, her degree since made worthless. She would have to take up waitressing at a truck stop. Naturally instead of repaying the loans she takes out another loan and decide to worry about the future later.

It is not a sustainable situation. It is only a matter of time before the US power is revealed as a mirage. If the history is a guide when the US falls down from its imperial heights while the colonial metropole itself is likely to experience turmoil, the fall is unlikely to be a very eventful for the rest of the world. It is more likely to be something to be shrugged off than lamented. The US already has nothing to offer to the rest of the world. There is no reason for the world to do anything else but to go on with its business.

There is irony to all of this. The same way as we can in retrospect always see that rather than spending money to gaze at firm breasts we would have been better served reading psychological realist novels, no matter how bad. The same way the world would have been better off had it hoarded Lada cars and Ekran TVs rather than giant reserves of fiat Dollars. At least they had some value. Jet it would have sounded so ridiculous at the time... Call it the revenge of a bad novelist. Or of the Soviet Union.

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