Economics and authoritarianism

After a two-week reading fest on holiday in the Italian countryside, I’m back with a fistful of reviews. As it was a holiday, the books I took with me were not as directly economics-related as my everyday reading, but of course there’s economics in everything.

The first two I happened to read were [amazon_link id=”0713998687″ target=”_blank” ]Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56[/amazon_link] by Anne Applebaum and [amazon_link id=”0857208861″ target=”_blank” ]The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime[/amazon_link] by Jeremy Bowen.

[amazon_image id=”0713998687″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0857208861″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime[/amazon_image]

The latter is reportage by the BBC’s distinguished Middle East editor, and it combines his clearly extensive knowledge of the region with the edge-of-seat quality of reportage from the extraordinary events that started in Tunisia – it already seems a long time ago. The subtitle is a slogan that has appeared frequently in the countries where uprisings have occurred. However, the hope of the early ‘Arab Spring’ has given way to the horror of civil war in Syria and increasing violence in Egypt; of course, no book can keep up to the minute. I can’t say it left me feeling optimistic.

On the face of it, Anne Applebaum’s detailed and authoritative work on the descent of the Iron Curtain on Europe in the post-World War 2 years is entirely different. But one commonality struck me between the two books, namely the way that apparently endless and powerful authoritarian regimes are hollowed out by economic stagnation, no matter how violent they are. One day, it seems nothing can ever change, and the next day the whole edifice has collapsed. Sometimes, when it’s the secret police versus the economy, the economic forces win. This brought to mind Ben Friedman’s powerful arguments in [amazon_link id=”1400095719″ target=”_blank” ]The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth[/amazon_link].

The main part of Applebaum’s superb book is not, though, the collapse of Soviet-dominated Communism but rather its construction in the first place. It is going to be a standard reference on this time and place in history, a companion volume to Tony Judt’s [amazon_link id=”009954203X” target=”_blank” ]Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945[/amazon_link]. She details the methods by which communist parties –  assisted by Soviet military dominion in the post-war years, and by the collapse of order after the Nazi defeat – systematically destroyed all institutions and aspects of society that were not part of the state apparatus, even extending into family life as the years went by.

The violence and inhumanity documented are simply horrifying. So is the ‘total’ in totalitarianism: “No-one could be apolitical: the system demanded that all citizens sing its praises, however reluctantly. And so the vast majority of East Europeans did not make a pact with the devil or sell their souls to become informers, but rather succumbed to constant, all-encompassing everyday psychological and economic pressure. The Stalinist system excelled at creating large groups of people who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it.” The idea of there being no private space even inside one’s own mind is intolerable.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that there isn’t more of it: Applebaum has spent years interviewing people around Eastern Europe and I would have liked to hear more from those interviews. Although the book does not cover the post-1956 or post-1989 periods, it is an essential read for anybody interested in the shadows East European history continue to cast.