Glasnost and perestroika
"You had unfortunately not understood what kind of a jungle you lived in."
For anyone born in the early ‘70s, the fall of the Soviet Union was the news event of a lifetime. It so happened that as the August Coup went down I was in Providence, RI, which was being hit by Hurricane Bob. Being a teenager, I went outside in the remains of the storm. Somehow it felt as if the whole order of the world was being blown away. I know it sounds corny, but all teenagers are corny—I decided to never forget that such a thing was possible.
That was in 1991—six years into Chairman Gorbachev’s revolution from above. Maybe we could get to the same place in the same way? We time-battered children of the ‘80s remember his slogans—glasnost and perestroika—meaning, openness and restructuring.
These are good words. Let us not dwell too much on their exact meanings in the late Soviet Union, an alien world no more (or less) relevant to us than Khufu’s Egypt. What would they mean, in America, in the 2020s?
In the end, the monarchical structure of the Soviet Union was its salvation. One man could undo the whole Imperium; and one man did. None of us can even imagine how easily there could still be a Soviet Union in 2021.
While the differences between a President and a General Secretary are enormous, and while I neither know nor particularly care where Comrade Gorbachev got his plans—not that the result of his plans was anything he planned—only monarchical energy can create a revolution that sweeps away a bureaucracy; and only with plans and ideas. In 2021, we cannot create the President; we can create the plans and the ideas.
And the brands. These words, glasnost and perestroika—openness and restructuring—are excellent ones. What do they mean for us now? Whatever we need them to mean—so long as no one can fairly accuse us of torturing the noble English language. What do we need them to mean?
We need them to mean the peacetime of ideas and the springtime of accountability. Maybe these brands are too corny—but the world has a place for corny.
The peacetime of ideas
Glasnost means openness. Glasnost is a right and a responsibility. When you exercise the right while observing the responsibility, you are contributing to glasnost. When you exercise the right while ignoring the responsibility, you are undermining glasnost.
Gorbachev’s fundamental idea was that transparency is not treason. When you express the truth as if it was an attack on the regime, you are supporting the regime—because you are reinforcing the idea that transparency is treason. Actually, as a dissident, you are just saying how it is—so you should say it as if you were just saying how it is.
How it is is how it is, and the regime is perfectly secure however it is. The idea that telling the truth is an attempt to recruit anti-Soviet resistance is a typically Soviet idea. Doesn’t the KGB have a paramilitary force of 40,000 ninjas? How can they be worried about a bunch of fat nerds in the library?
As a dissident, you are not a traitor. Never fall into the trap of defining yourself as a traitor. Never imagine that you are trying to recruit an anti-Soviet resistance network. While we may have no Gorbachev to set us free, at least not yet, we are not mice; and we know in what direction freedom lies. It is not the direction of Conrad’s Secret Agent.
(A dissident is always the ultimate patriot. If he is lucky, when his body is rotting like a fish and his dick is a noodle, a bunch of kids who don’t know shit from Shinola will heap him with worthless medals. Then he will go to his dialysis date. Thanks, kids.)
The best thing about glasnost is that glasnost is boolean. The idea of glasnost is that no idea is dangerous. We reject entirely the concept of harmful thoughts. We promise not to pay any respect to this idea in our words or actions. This is a boolean commitment.
Statements of fact may be true or false. When we hear false statements, we may and should refute them. If they insult our manners, or injure our aesthetics, or are so imprudent that they invite power’s action, we can and must filter them; but we may and must not excommunicate the statement or the speaker.
Glasnost is utterly inconsistent with the concept of blasphemy or thoughtcrime. We cannot take these ideas seriously—not even to accuse our enemies of them. Also: all 21st-century political ideas are “linked” to 20th-century crimes against humanity. Humanity has been committing crimes against humanity since Cain was a little boy. And in this passion we have always used the most devilish devices that come to hand.
But in the world peace of a rotting world empire, there is no war and can be none; and a word is just a word, an idea is just an idea. Even a logo is just a logo. Scott Alexander puts a hammer and sickle in his banner; this “links” him to Lenin and Stalin. But what liberal icon of the ‘30s did not “collaborate” with Stalin?
All ideologies are guilty—which makes them all innocent. The truth is that it is the war that develops the ideology of killing. At war, every religion starts growing fangs. “The unity of Zen and war extends to the farthest reaches of our holy struggle.”
Yet glasnost is anything but the freedom to shitpost. The spirit of glasnost—at least, 21st-century American glasnost—is a responsibility as well as a right. If glasnost cannot be done at the highest level of taste and quality, it must not be done at all.
No idea is dangerous. Many ideas offend power. It always turns out that the ideas which are illegal, because they are dangerous, are the ideas which offend power. But since power is powerful, to offend it is not to endanger it. Nothing can endanger it.
Therefore, when in the spirit of glasnost we state these ideas, we have a special duty not to state them as if they threatened power—for truth is not treason. Glasnost is the right to express any idea—and the duty to express it in the coziest, most harmless way. Actually, when you suggest that your idea is dangerous—you are a collaborator, for this is exactly the official thinking of the regime.
There is no information war. If there was, it is over. The regime won. It always does. The end of war is peace; and in peacetime, no idea is a bullet. When I have ideas that remind me of the bullets of the late war, I go out of my way not to cast them in brass. In particular, I never advocate anything at all.
This is the spirit and strategy of glasnost: not one of tension, but of relaxation. We are entering the peacetime of ideas. But how can we have peace, when some d00d stole Nancy Pelosi’s podium? Surely Belzec is just around the next bend in the tracks… the peacetime of ideas is when nothing matters. We cannot avoid this fate; it is already here.
Suppose we learn that the Salvation Army killed JFK. (It wasn’t actually the Salvation Army—but an undercover radical offshoot, the Salvation Corps—apparently some kind of a morals thing—different time, man.) Is that an amazing historical fact? It is. Does it tell us anything useful about America today—the Presidency or the Salvation Army?
Nah. It just tells us that 1963 was wack. Which we already knew. It’s still cool, though. This and only this is the true spirit of glasnost. Alas, I have no evidence for this false, but incendiary, charge. But plenty of other wack things happened in 1963—and all the people that did them, and all the people they did them to, are dead or in a home. For the purpose of some Ciceronian prosecution, 1963 might as well be 1963 BC.
Many ideas do offend power. No ideas threaten the powerful—because the powerful, having power, have nothing to worry about. The closest ideas to being dangerous are ideas that the strong should abuse the weak. Power can do nothing about these ideas, because by definition the strong have power.
How does glasnost actually happen? Glasnost is a praxis. It happens because we do it. You are participating in it now, of course. Every dissident is practicing glasnost before glasnost. It is as safe as possible—I would not call it safe.
Christopher Caldwell has done good work in tracing the legal roots of the American total state. It turns out that once power can make words illegal, ideas will eventually become illegal as well. While the idea of using power to regulate the public mind has been a thing since World War I, always going under the name “democracy”—a word more properly applied to the opposite causality—
What this means is that glasnost must remain a dangerous game until the old freedoms, and the old pre-1960s legal regime of de minimis non curat lex, can be restored: another regime-complete problem. Unless you are a natural liar, silence is the only safer thing.
But glasnost as a legal reform—glasnost in power, as in Gorbachev’s day—is impossible until the spirit of glasnost is alive in the land. Only dissidents can spread that spirit. No, it is not completely safe—but what is?
The springtime of accountability
But what about my idea of regime change? Isn’t that a dangerous idea? Nah. We are just talking about a little restructuring.
Gorbachev brought down the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev was still a sovok. When Gorbachev talked about restructuring, he meant that the Krasnoyarsk Lumber Factory should report to the Siberian Regional Authority, or something. Little did he know how much restructuring was about to happen!
American perestroika is a simple idea. America has an unaccountable government—to be exact, an unaccountable civil service. You can call it the “Deep State” if you’re a boomer, or the “administrative state” if you’re a law professor.
Perestroika is any restructuring that renders the whole American government accountable.
My view, because I’m an idiot, is that the obvious way to make this large organization accountable is the way all other large organizations in the world are held accountable—at least, all the functional ones.
This is by putting one person in charge of it—and making that person accountable. If you know some other way, I’m all ears—and so are a lot of other people. But for my fellow idiots: all American perestroika means, to me, is giving the Deep State a boss.
The real meaning of perestroika is that the American government will never serve the American people until it becomes a top-down organization managed by someone who is responsible to the American people—not a bottom-up, process-driven organization responsible to no one at all.
And if the boss doesn’t have the power to fire the whole company, he isn’t the boss. (My old cofounder used to threaten to do this about every six months.)
Certainly the easiest way to turn a bottom-up, unaccountable organization into a top-down one is to fire the former and hire the latter. This is not always the best way, but it is often the best way. It is especially likely to be the best way after a prolonged period of unaccountability. If it’s not an option—perestroika isn’t real.
Also, “whole” means not just the formal government, but all power centers—essentially, all nonprofits and monopolies. It is not just the Federal government, or the American government, that needs to be restructured; it is America as a whole. The most important decisions in American governance are taken outside of the government proper. If we commit to only restructuring the formal government, we miss most of the problem.
The 20th century believed it had a solution to the ancient problem of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. It had created all sorts of self-watching watchmen. It was okay that they were unaccountable—or, in 1930s parlance, “independent.” In fact, that was the whole point.
If mathematics could be accountable only to mathematicians, and chemistry only to chemists, why should not journalism be accountable only to journalists? Education, only to professors of education? The CDC, only to the WHO? Harvard, only to Yale? Banking, only to bankers?
Looking backward at the regime, seeing it as we expect to see it in the future, we will find all these towers of unaccountable, self-referential prestige absurd. But of course, the smartest people never stopped ending up at the most prestigious institutions. Most of which were somewhat real; some of which were mostly real; all of which were quite unaccountable. Math, at least, was probably fine. (Math in the Soviet Union was fine.)
So the concept of restructuring, here as in Russia, can be quite far-reaching. It should not be frightening, though—because it is not a weapon.
Perestroika cannot work, and cannot even happen, as a way for one side in America’s class war to dominate the other. It can only happen as a peace measure. Its purpose is to end the cold war by installing an authority that is dedicated to serving all classes. This can only happen if both sides consent to giving up their real or apparent power.
One of the most deeply-held beliefs of Americans is that unless they hold power, they will be oppressed. This is like a cokehead believing that unless he has cocaine, he will be depressed. While it is not evidence of reasonable thinking, nor is it necessarily untrue. And our thinker can marshal plenty of empirical experience to make his case.
You would think that a good rebuttal would start with the objective observation that Americans have essentially no power at all over their government. Think again! They are also pretty oppressed. So this does not refute the hypothesis, but confirms it.
How do you tell the addict that his malaise, which his only desire is to treat, is in fact the consequence of his desire—that accepting and embracing his powerlessness, to the point of unconditionally and irrevocably giving up all his power, just flushing the whole stash down the toilet, is the only real (though imperfect) cure for his depression?
In our cold civil war we have the curious phenomenon of two sides, both of which are hopelessly addicted to power or its semblance, and each of which is convinced that the purpose of power is to prevent the other side from oppressing it. (On one side, it does not work; on the other side, it is not necessary.) How do you tell both sides to—cut it out?
For example, it is very important to Americans that women be able to vote. You would think the rational justification for this was that the addition of feminine insight would improve the already formidable decision-making capacities of Washington, DC. Mais non—while the argument could be made, nobody actually thinks that way.
Instead, Americans think that women need the vote to defend themselves in the cold war of the sexes. If men have this weapon but women do not, the female forces will be quickly overrun, like Chiang Kai-shek after George Marshall cut off his ammo supply. In the end, the defeated women must escape by helicopter from the Swedish Embassy—or submit to full Margaret Atwood America, color-coded robes and all.
This idea of republican institutions as a battlefield of interests was considered a bug by the Founders—who called it “faction,” and did not expect to see political parties at all. Arguably, it was Marx who first theorized that the bug is a feature; that the purpose of democracy is the victory of the righteous class over the wicked class—the former, after all, being more numerous than the latter.
For anyone who has internalized this perspective, taking the battle of the sexes as a real thing becomes a straightforward transformation. Yet it is one of many features of the present that most historical periods would regard as straight-up bonkers. But don’t we regard them as bonkers?
Yet in a world in which everything you see on TV, even if it is a physically real event, is designed to affect your opinions in a predictable way, we can be sure that exactly the same media channels could give you exactly the opposite beliefs. If the TV wanted you to believe that women should be about “children, kitchen, church,” it would show you a nonstop diet of career girls and other hussies who came to a shocking, sordid end. Meanwhile, taking God’s name in vain would end your career, like using the N-word.
All this madness would stem from the same cause: power’s need to control the public mind. Power needs to control the public mind, or some other power will. The goal of this Nazi TV (the Nazis had no TV, but they had movies—which were kind of like this) is to control the public mind, so that godless Jewish Bolshevism does not infiltrate it. Naturally, our journalism and entertainment industry is thinking exactly the reverse.
The irony of this constitution was that it was designed for just the opposite purpose: for the public mind to control power. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem possible at all. It might be prudent to accept reality on this point. If all the major 20th-century regimes had anything in common, it was that their power controlled the public mind.
If both sides of the public mind can realize that their quarrel is the consequence of a political structure that gives each of them a good reason to fear each other; that they have little or no substantive conflict; and that they have the same principal interest, an effective and accountable government that treats all groups and classes fairly—they have at least the abstract basis for a mutual and stable peace.
Wouldn’t that be nice? And in such a peace, glasnost is possible. Once the public mind does not matter, anyone can think whatever they want. The freedom of the public mind is not correlated, as most think, with the power of the public voice. It is the opposite.
Since America has a Presidential system, the structure of accountable government is extremely clear. Rather than thinking about “issues” and “policies,” rather than acting like a collective CEO who makes management decisions, the electorate becomes a board of directors—and appoints an individual CEO. Who makes all the decisions.
This does not require any constitutional breach. As FDR said in his First Inaugural:
Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form.
There are two kinds of Presidency: ceremonial and constitutional. A ceremonial President, like Trump or Biden, is a guy who reads speeches on TV. A constitutional President, like FDR or Washington, is the chief executive of the executive branch.
This is a completely binary choice. If the executive branch is the captive of the judicial and legislative branches, and must unconditionally obey the zillion-page bills of the latter as interpreted by the former—the executive branch is not an equal branch of government, but a subordinate branch; and the President is a ceremonial head of state, whose most important role is really the legislative role of the veto. And there is really no point in voting at all.
But if the executive branch is an equal branch, a difference of opinion between it and the other two branches is—a difference of opinion. The correct audience to which to submit this difference of opinion is the electorate—to whom the President reports. The executive branch is the government; and this constitutional President is in charge of it. Otherwise, why did anyone vote for him? Did they think it was a game show?
The voters have a simple way to make the government accountable: elect a candidate who promises to be a constitutional President. If he wins—who is going to stop him? FDR didn’t even have a mandate for his monarchy—he ran on a platform of limited government. As a Machiavellian, I wouldn’t recommend being that Machiavellian. Just tell people what you’re going to do—and, if they don’t like it, not to vote for you.
As for the other branches—the electorate may take their opinions seriously, if they are seriously reasoned. The President’s opinion is that all their codes, judgments and budgets are illegal and preposterous, and that their actual function in the old regime violated not just the Constitution, but also both common sense and common decency. In the next election, the voters will have to weigh this serious difference of opinions. And if the country is not a different place by that next election—perestroika has failed.
Even with figures like Trump and Biden—who may even be our candidates in 2024, an absolutely appalling Groundhog Day moment—perestroika is possible. While neither of these individuals is personally competent to manage a gas station, either could pick a capable young CEO, totally stoked for history’s biggest turnaround job, as their VP—and spend the next four years playing golf and doing photo-ops, as is the holy custom.
In this design, the President is the chairman (and sole member) of the board; the VP is the CEO, who is accountable to the chairman, who is accountable to the voteholders. FDR probably wasn’t competent enough to manage a gas station either. But FDR knew how to delegate. (FDR was a lot like Trump—but with real breeding, never insecure.)
It does matter which side the perestroika comes from. But it doesn’t matter a lot. While Trump’s CEO has a huge wave of anti-elite sentiment at his back, he has another huge wave of elite resistance in front of him. Our elites are not violent, of course—but they can still be quite a pain.
Biden’s CEO is more like Gorbachev—since he is a legitimate figure, the sea is calm before and behind him. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. You might object that he’s a lib. It doesn’t matter—the job creates the man. Lee Kuan Yew was a lib. While the lib inherently has more to learn, what he learns is inherently fresher and more thorough.
And either we restructure our government to be accountable, or we don’t. And if we do, either we use the same design that every effective organization in history has used, or we experiment with something cool and clever and new.
But it doesn’t really feel like the moment for another experiment, does it? So there’s really nothing to think about: perestroika is one obvious thing. The only question you have to ask yourself is whether you’ve had enough.