The traditional textbook story about the end of the Cold War and its effect on the international system completely misses the most important and extraordinary changes taking place at that time. The debate between realists and neoliberal institutionalists is a red herring. The most important transformation wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union has nothing to do with the power of states vs. the power of international institutions. This debate in international relations theory completely distracts from what are very clearly the most world-historical changes taking place at that time, changes which actually have huge relevance to the lives of students and the global masses more generally.
In brief, the most important changes wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in my view, are the following. These are not original insights, they have been well documented and highlighted by others but I bring them together here for my students and others who might be interested. I’m writing this off-the-cuff right after a seminar, but if I get a chance I’ll come back and add some citations.
First, during the Cold War, there was a huge global alternative to capitalism (no matter how bad that alternative failed, the point is simply that capitalism was not the only game in town). Because of this, the U.S. and the other capitalist states had to at least pretend that they cared about people, they had to actually convince people that capitalism was a good system, they had to win the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.
What students today don’t realise is that between the end of WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union, poor people around the world were overthrowing their bosses, overthrowing their governments, and black and brown people of the global south were waging wars against their Western colonial rulers. These uprisings were NOT inherently authoritarian or Stalinesque projects: most of them were just radically democratic- and anti-capitalist uprisings where people were basically just saying “take the land, resources, and political power back from the elites who have stolen from us; redistribute the land, cancel the debts, and let’s make sure everyone has access to a decent life.” And when these anti-colonial and essentially anti-capitalist uprisings would occur, the Soviet Union would give them money, recognition, and often implicit military backing. In this kind of global environment, the U.S. and other western capitalist states HAD to constrain their greed. Almost everything humane achieved within capitalist states since the end of WWII was in part because capitalist elites in the West were terrified that their own citizens would hang them and redistribute their wealth, power, and privileges.1 That was a real threat, and no matter how much we disagree with Stalin or Mao, they’re global power gave huge inspiration and real military power to democratic and anti-capitalist uprisings (however badly they would also oppress these projects while supporting them).
So there’s that: because the USSR was a threat, the capitalist elites of the West had to actually give their people some resources to at least make it look like capitalism was worth believing in. Or else the poor countries would go with the USSR and the US (and US capitalism) would be finished.
Second, though, is the other side of this coin. During the Cold War, the capitalist elites of the world had to worry about many things other than making money. Trade relations were obviously fraught around the world. Democratic uprisings in the global south were always threatening to expropriate foreign investment capital, whether it was explicitly colonial or not; the U.S. saw extraordinary wildcat strikes at the end of WWII; all kinds of anti-capitalist resistance made it very hard for the rich to get much richer! But it’s not just that making money was inhibited by political antagonisms, it’s that if anyone within a country got too rich, it would have instigated revolutionary uprisings to cut them down to size!
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of a powerful global counterweight to the rule of capitalist elites, there was no longer anything to prevent the wealthiest and most powerful people in each country from becoming even wealthier and more powerful! Thus, one of the most extraordinary transformations at the end of the Cold War, which is often omitted or neglected from IR textbooks, is that formerly Communist elites quickly converted to capitalist elites in the single largest transfer of wealth the world has ever seen. In Russia and its Eastern European satellites, the whole economy which was previously owned by the state was simply handed over (often at extremely low prices) to Communist elites who would then simply become capitalist business people. The privatisation of state-owned enterprises after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the single largest transfer of wealth that’s ever taken place in world history.
In countries such as Russia, China, India, and many smaller countries as well, the end of the Cold War meant the sudden appearance of the shadiest figure alive today: the billionaire. It is only after the collapse of the USSR, the disappearance of any moral, political, or military check on the power of national capitalist elites, that it is even conceivable for a country such as Mexico to generate one of the wealthiest billionaires in the world, Carlos Slim. Globalisation after the collapse of the USSR is simply the global unleashing of national capitalist elites, the complete global freedom of millionaires to become billionaires and to do whatever they want while politically crushing the masses of the world into more and more helpless, low-wage workers.
When an IR textbook asks us to debate whether states or markets are more powerful, we should be extremely skeptical. States and markets are quickly becoming the same thing, and the old debates of IR appear increasingly dubious. In my opinion, we should always follow the money: find out who is winning, who is losing, and formulate our own questions based on what we’re actually observing. To do anything less runs the huge risk of being trapped in a perspective which is itself so narrow in part because of the very transformations we’re only beginning to understand.
The prime example in the UK is, of course, the National Health Service. Such broad-based social provision was a concession which the wealthy made to the masses because they were terrified that the British Communist Party would simply take what they saw as belonging to them. In the U.S., an interesting example is the limited success of the civil rights movement. So long as U.S. capitalism meant the domination and subjugation of its own racial minorities, that didn’t look so good to the black and brown people of the world! If the U.S. was going to convince the black and brown people of the world to go the way of capitalism, it had to at least pretend that it supported the freedom of its own black people. Now that every single person born into the UK and US since 1985 is told from birth that there is no alternative to capitalism, is it any wonder that welfare spending is on the decline and the rich white people of the world don’t give a shit about racism? ↩
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Murphy, Justin. 2013. "What really changed after the Cold War?," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2013/12/13/what-really-changed-after-the-cold-war/ (July 10, 2018).