Back in the Golden Age of easy credit I’d walk around Britain wondering where all the money was coming from. This abundance of cash was especially baffling in Scotland, where nobody makes anything any more. Who was scoffing down truffles in the fancy restaurants? Who was shelling out a fortune for houses that had been built for miners in the 1930s? Of course, the high priests of money-voodoo insisted that there was nothing to worry about. Then the global economy crashed.
Since then, the high priests have prophesied several resurrections. I distinctly remember some juju men revealing that America’s recession had ended over a year ago, and yet millions of people still cannot find work. Last week, the long-term unemployed had their benefits turned off and then on again as Congress squabbled over how to fund their aid. Meanwhile, over in Europe the proud Irish have become supplicants seeking financial relief packages. And yet I recall that a year ago, following the Greek meltdown, the juju men performed some ritualistic “stress tests” on the banks and declared that the gods would be merciful. But now these same juju men fear that Spain and Portugal might join Ireland and Greece in the outer darkness.
I’m no economist. Nor are most economists, who, like the rest of us, project their desires onto a world indifferent to theory. How bad are things really? Well, I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, and if John Steinbeck is any guide, our economic woes bear little resemblance to those of the Great Depression. Perhaps we’ve even seen the worst of it.
Then again, systems can and do collapse, often unexpectedly. For instance, not long ago the USSR caved in, inspiring a memorable line from Andrei Makarevich: Everything was forever until it was no more. Not only pop stars were caught unawares, not one Western Sovietologist had noticed that the USSR was teetering on the brink of oblivion.
When the 2008 crisis began I was struck by the stark contrast between Western experts’ attitudes to their own threatened economies and the advice they had doled out to ex-communist states in the early 1990s. Buckets of taxpayer money was lavished upon American automakers and banks in order to keep them afloat, while the Russians (and Kazakhs and Romanians, etc.) had been instructed to let their industries die, on the basis that new economies would emerge like free market phoenixes from amid the wreckage and ruined lives. Shock treatment the juju men called it.
The result, of course, was massive social trauma. I wondered then and wonder now: How would people in the West cope if confronted by that epic scale of economic and societal breakdown? Badly, I think. We are used to comfort. Ex-soviets on the other hand knew what it meant to live in want and in fear, and had developed survival skills. On a simple, practical level, Russians still live close to the land; indeed, in the 1990s millions stayed alive by farming in their kitchen gardens, something that would be impossible in post-modern Western nations where the production of food has long since been sub-contracted out to unseen others.
Crises meanwhile can force people to discover abilities they never knew they had. I knew one physicist who had morphed into a CD pirate before mutating into the supreme overlord of vacuum cleaner sales for Daewoo in Russia. I knew ex-doctors who ran airports. And of course, Boris Berezovsky, the most hated man in the country, was a former mathematics professor who had acquired control of vast swathes of the economy and much of Yeltsin’s government.
I admire the capacity for reinvention in a crisis. It takes talent, imagination, and strong nerves. Everyone I knew who had pulled it off was extremely gifted; but they also had influential friends and relatives. Those who were less well connected, or who were simply unable to adapt were crushed by the collapse of soviet reality. There was no place for them in this new world, unless you count the perekhods where they’d go begging, or the square in front of the Historical Museum where angry grannies would rant about communism while peddling Limonka.
As I am an author by trade I contemplate the possibility of my own economic ruination quite often. Sometimes, late at night, as I lie there waiting for the Financial Grim Reaper to tickle me with his scythe I wonder if living alongside Russians during a devastating economic crisis taught me anything. If the worst was to happen to me and my culture, how would I fare? Would I be a survivor? Or would I be one of the nameless millions unable to adapt to a new world, forgotten by history, dismissed as collateral damage by the masters of the universe?
I hope I never find out.
First published 10/12/2010