Smashing the melon of American complacency with the mallet of Russian grit
Dmitry Orlov scares the crap out of me.
The relentlessly doomerish boss of ClubOrlov.com has become famous in peak oil circles for presiding over a kind of comedy club from hell where a rabid fan base celebrates the coming fall of the American Empire under the load of peak debt while devouring posts on such subjects as the future of sailing ships and ways for dead people to send text messages. The site's sidebar lists topic tags including cannibalism, ruins and Siberia.
Even Orlov's name is scary, suggesting to the Anglo-Saxon ear a marriage of Orwell and Karlov -- evoking George and Boris respectively, each in his own way a master of horror.
But while his online homies clearly relish Orlov's hard edge, it would be a shame if his intimidating reputation put off a wider audience from reading his brilliant book, recently re-released.
Here, I'd like to propose a different, hopefully more accessible way of seeing Orlov: as a foreign-born observer of American culture in the mold of Alexis de Tocqueville. But with a little bit of Gallagher thrown in -- yes, that Gallagher, the prop comic with the goofy hair and suspenders, popular in the 1980s for smashing watermelons on stage.
Hypocrisy in America
I'll start by admitting I think that Orlov's Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects is just as perceptive a read on the American mind and the American system as was de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
"As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" said de Tocqueville.
Compare Orlov on the American's "primitive idolization of money":
The only thing that makes an American good is the goodly quantity of dollars lining his pockets. This is what makes the ritualistic acts of humiliation heaped on the poor and the unfortunate so politically popular even with the very slightly well-to-do; just utter the fashionable term of abuse -- "welfare queen" or "illegal immigrant" -- and citizens line up in an orderly gamut, ready to dispense corporal punishment.
It may seem that Orlov is more provocative than de Tocqueville, but historians say that in its time, readers in both the US and the author's native France thought Democracy in America was pretty edgy too. It's easy to see why two centuries of scholars and pundits haven't stopped quoting a guy who says stuff like this: "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."
And though Orlov doesn't mention de Tocqueville, the two should be good friends. Presciently, in 1835 De Tocqueville predicted the superpower rivalry between the US and Russia that would become the backstory to Orlov's analysis.
The Frenchman also foresaw key threats to American democracy that ultimately led to the debased nation that Orlov finds today: the rise of a plutocracy, the dominance of mass culture over thinking for oneself, a preoccupation with material goods and the isolation and alienation of the individual.
The hammer and the sickle, and the hammer again
Orlov, who was born in Leningrad, emigrated to the US in the seventies and then made repeated trips back home, which enabled him to witness the collapse of the USSR and its aftermath from a perspective both Russian and American. No surprise that he's built a career out of making unflattering comparisons of the US to his home country.
Orlov has earned a fearsome reputation as a doomer who not only predicts, but even seems to relish, the collapse of American society, while he disdains political activism, celebrates apathy as a healthy coping strategy and warns that there's nothing anybody can do to fix things. Yet, in his book Orlov projects genuine goodwill, showing evident compassion for the "big, rowdy party that was this country, with its lavish, garish, oversized, dominating ways."
As the party winds down, Orlov reminds us that "people like to party together but they like to nurse their hangovers alone." So, he offers no one-size-fits-all plan for surviving the coming turmoil. But in classic American fashion, he urges each of us to come up with our own plan.
"You should figure out what it is you absolutely need to lead a healthy, happy, fulfilling existence. Then, figure out a way to continue getting it once the US economy collapses, taking a lot of society with it. (This is easier said than done; good luck!)"
For example, Orlov himself lives on a sailboat and says that today's economic downturn is probably a good time for readers to seek their own boat at a fire-sale price. At the same time, living on a boat is not for everybody, and Orlov gives lots of other ideas to prepare for a future economy that's basically beyond employment and beyond money.
On the way down
Of course, in his place in the cycle of American imperial rise and fall, Orlov differs from de Tocqueville. That could help explain the difference in tone between the two writers. Despite all his criticism of America's money-grubbing, crowd-worshipping character, the Frenchman often flattered our sensibilities and saw a bright future for our nascent democracy. By contrast, the Russian has little good to say about our character and even less good to say about our prospects.
Orlov starts by trying to re-write the history of the Cold War -- Did the US really win? Did the world like us any better than the Evil Empire? -- in a way that feels a bit heavy handed. I understand that he's trying to convince an American audience that the Soviet example is valid for us too. But sometimes he just sounds like a cranky Russian nationalist saying "I told you so."
More useful is when Orlov goes on to show how, by measure after measure, Americans are less prepared to deal with a Soviet-style collapse than his people were.
In Russia, for example, when the economy collapsed few people lost their homes, because the buildings were owned by the state and more-or-less permanently assigned to their occupants. By contrast, in the US, private landlords and mortgage-holders are unlikely to tolerate deadbeat tenants or defaulting homeowners for very long. In an economic collapse, evictions could dwarf the foreclosure crisis of the last few years.
The collapse party
At the same time, despite a few good qualities (our friendliness to strangers makes us excellent roommates, for example, which could come in handy during a housing crisis), Orlov thinks that Americans are pampered fools who are much less prepared to fend for ourselves than the wily Russians were.
Take food for instance. Many urban Russians had dachas outside of town where they could grow food for their own use and for barter. But in the US, not only do few besides the relatively wealthy own a second home -- even fewer of us bother to plant a kitchen garden. When grocery store shelves start to empty out, the dependent American food eater will be like a baby who's lost his bottle. And a nation raised on cheap eats and easy livin' could soon face the unimaginable: widespread hunger.
So, what Orlov is really doing is trying to show that the American system is hard and unforgiving but that the American people are ripe and soft, like a big watermelon.
And for me, that's where Orlov meets that other analyst of the American character, Gallagher. And I don't mean the racist clown that the un-funny old man has become today, "a hate-filled, right-wing loon," according to Salon. I mean classic Gallagher, the guy we cared about in the 1980s for only one reason: the Sledge-O-Matic.
This routine with the mallet and an unlucky piece of summer fruit, computer keyboard or other highly smashable item of everyday life clearly spoke to something deep in the American psyche. It wasn't just the adolescent fun of busting things up. Gallagher also connected to a pervasive if quiet discomfort among the public with our culture of material abundance and waste at the period of its very height.
I don't think Orlov takes a Sledge-O-Matic to America's national pride just as a Russian's revenge. Instead, I believe him when he says he wants to help Americans wake up from their own debilitating national myths in time to save themselves from disaster.
"Sledge-O-Matic removes unwanted fingerprints from walls," says Gallagher as pitchman. "Sledge-O-Matic also removes unwanted walls from fingerprints."
-- Erik Curren, Transition Voice