Material Life

Clive James is also one of very VERY few Westerners who understood what the Soviet Union was about:

Except in periods of deliberately induced famine, nobody starved in the Soviet Union, or died of thirst or went unclothed. But they ate, drank and dressed at a level too low to leave them untouched by a desolate envy of the capitalism they were supposed to despise, and finally it was that corrosive spiritual deprivation that brought socialism down. The deprivation was comparative, not absolute: but the comparison was real. Thoughts of it filled the day, the week, the month, the year and the whole wasted life. In the West, someone obsessed with material things is correctly thought to be a fool. In the East, everyone was obsessed with material things from daylight to dusk.

Absolutely, 100% true. A lifetime of constantly thinking about stuff, stuff, stuff, how to get stuff, nothing else but stuff. This kind of life is intolerable. Only the most primitive human beings can be satisfied with it. Life of the stomach instead of life of the mind is degrading.

Another thing that people don’t get is that all of this didn’t end the second the USSR was dissolved. I described earlier how there were still no stores, cafes, or restaurants in my large city almost a decade after the USSR had fallen apart. In the same way, there was still no life of the mind (after a brief but happy explosion of interest in reading in 1987-89) all throughout the 1990s. And it’s not like there’s been much since then, to be honest. I mean, there’s some stuff going on. There’s also a sushi restaurant in Kharkiv now. But the quality of both is… yeah.

Once you kill the human spirit, it takes a very, very long time to sprout back to life.

9 thoughts on “Material Life”

  1. “it takes a very, very long time to sprout back to life”

    I’m reminded of a quote, supposedly by Lech Wałęsa though I can’t find the original.
    Paraphrasing: “It’s easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup but turning fish soup into an aquarium, democracy, that’s like turning the fish soup back into an aquarium. A little more skill is required”

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    1. the quote should be (paraphrasing) “Socialism is easy, like turning an aquarium into fish soup, but democracy is like trying to turn the fish soup back into an aquarium. A little more skill is required”

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  2. And, it’s not just the USSR, it’s all poor countries where you have to spend a huge amount of time getting the basic stuff you need (even if you have the money for it). I don’t mean having to travel to get it, or wait for it, etc., I mean not knowing how you’ll get it, having to make precarious grey market arrangements to get it, etc. It’s very stressful and just being able to go to the store seems like a real luxury.

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    1. This is a very hurtful comparison because we weren’t “a poor country.” We were the largest country on Earth that had infinite resources to meddle in the affairs of half the globe. We were a totalitarian regime. It’s a very, very particular kind of experience.

      And, honestly, this is precisely why I say that it’s extremely rare to see a Westerner understand how it was.

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      1. So, the psychic atmosphere of knowing the material situation (or lack thereof) is purely ideological and kind of – punitive – ? As if to say “You’re not full people, so policy is not to even aspire to a level of comfort above the basic scramble?”

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        1. “knowing the material situation”

          You’re thinking in rational terms, but the thing about the socio-economic system of Eastern Europe (1944-89) is that it was deeply and fundamentally a-rational (not so much as irrational, it was more that rationality was not a factor that entered into the economy at all). Third world economics can be depressing, but they make a kind of sense – Eastern Bloc economics were a surreal landscape (with everyone trying to pretend it was normal).

          If you weren’t constantly obsessed with your material needs (both at the moment and weeks, months or even years in advance) in ways that people in the west (or even in the third world) aren’t accustomed to you wouldn’t be dressed or fed or have the basic household necessities. And a secondary effect of all this constant thinking and planning and scheming was to highlight the poor quality of the clothes and household goods you could find and the extreme monotony of the food you stood in line for an hour to buy.

          I started a longer answer here but I’ll post it at my blog in a day or so…

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          1. I’ve been to poor countries and the only one where I’d say that people have no life of the mind or the spirit is Cuba.

            The Dominican Republic, for instance, is a very poor, third world country, but it has no lack of cultural, spiritual or intellectual life. I’ve talked to people from the worst slums in the DR and they didn’t strike me as either spiritually or intellectually impoverished. In contrast, in the USSR I went to school with kids of some very wealthy people. And they were completely dead to anything that wasn’t strictly materialistic.

            Poverty in itself doesn’t cause spiritual or cultural impoverishment. If this were true, the richest countries would produce the best art and we all know it’s not the case.

            What produced this intellectual death in the USSR was the entire structure of life. Human beings need to aspire to something because that’s how we function. If all that you are allowed to aspire is stuff, then you aspire to stuff.

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