By Donella Meadows
–September 9, 1988–
“You know I write newspaper columns,” I said to my friend Alexei, who is a Soviet economist. “How about helping me with my next one? What would you like to say to the American people?”
His eyes lit up. He pulled me over to a park bench where no one was likely to overhear. Nowadays Soviet people can speak out, but there are still limits, and Alexei was apparently about to exceed them.
“I think Americans have many wrong impressions about us,” he said. “For example, they think our economy is like a military one, where we all follow commands — produce so much grain, manufacture so many tractors. That’s true in the Party and the KGB and the military itself. But for the rest of us it’s absolutely wrong. We don’t follow orders. We bargain.”
I must have looked puzzled, because he hastened to provide examples. “The Party tells the chairman of a collective farm to complete the harvest by a certain week. The chairman says he can’t do it without 10 more tractors. The Party postpones the harvest date one week. The farmer asks for three fewer tractors. So it goes.
“My chief in the Academy asks me to investigate a certain problem. I say I’m too busy. He says the work involves a trip to Paris or Vienna. And a new computer. If I don’t want or need those things, I don’t have to do the job. I’m perfectly free — to bargain.
“All of us know the price of everything. The price isn’t usually in roubles. The Party offers scarce products or promotions or privileges. The people offer their labor and their cooperation. They agree to participate in the Party’s campaigns so it looks like the Party is in control. But always for a price.”
His story sounded familiar to me. I pictured life in American corporations, universities, government offices. Bargains. Privileges and promotions as the price for letting the command structure command. Obligations and favors, never written down but remembered with unfailing accuracy and cashed in, but not for cash. “We bargain like that too,” I said. “You pretend that planners set prices, we pretend the market sets them. But those are only money prices, only a small part of the whole economy.”
“There’s something else,” Alexei said. “You Americans think we are ideological, that Marxism-Leninism means something to us. It means nothing. It’s just words, just a big game.
“Several years ago three young guys in our ideological institute decided to study Marx secretly. They published a paper listing the discrepancies between real Marxism and the Soviet regime. They were sentenced to four years in prison. That’s what happens to people who take Marx seriously.
“We aren’t Marxists, we aren’t Leninists. We just repeat whatever words our leaders use; we have to pretend respect for the leaders. We used to start our papers with quotes from Brezhnev — any quote would do. When Brezhnev died, our papers were sent back so we could put in quotes from Andropov. It was terrible. Andropov had only been in power one month. We didn’t know any quotes from him.”
As he spoke I was thinking about the words of American leaders — “liberal,” “conservative,” “soft on defense,” “executive privilege,” “strict construction” — words that people who want to rise in power have to say correctly. Words repeated so often that they lose all meaning except as crude symbols of in or out, good or bad, right or wrong.
“Sometimes we speak words we don’t understand or believe in, too, just to please leaders,” I told Alexei. “I think Americans can understand what you mean.”
Alexei wasn’t finished with his list of what we don’t understand. “There’s our paternalism. We are told that we have everything from the state. It’s nonsense, of course. But some people believe that legend. They want it to be true. They are satisfied with simple answers, undemanding jobs, cheap bread, cheap apartments. Like children they wait patiently in lines; scientists wait for someone to give them a research grant. We have no experience of competition, innovation, individualism. I think you Americans can’t understand that.”
“We have some people like that too, Alexei. But, more important, you have your entrepreneurs. I know what it takes to get along day by day in your country. I know how much ingenuity you use to get your car fixed or to find a copy of a book you want or to buy good Hungarian wine. You told me yourself about the bargaining. If you really think you’re uncompetitive and childlike, I wonder how well you understand yourselves!”
Alexei and I looked at each other, thoroughly confused. My country thinks of itself as anti-planning when it is full of planning; his country thinks of itself as anti-market, but it has a thriving non-cash market. Americans think of Soviets as ideological, not recognizing the shallowness of that ideology or the power of ideology in America. Soviets, most of them seasoned individualists, think of us as the individualists.
We got up off the park bench in silence, both of us realizing how little we have been taught to understand, not only about the other country, but about our own.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988