Wasted, Like All My Potential: The real link between Brexit and post-Communist Russia

Last night, after the England game, I finally polished off the last episode of TraumaZone, the BBC’s excellent, almost elegiac, documentary about the collapse of Communism and then of capitalism in Russia in the late 80s and 90s. As the show depicted everything unravelling in Moscow and Yeltsin hitting the bottle the rise of Putin and everything that has followed made more and more sense. And I began to think about the links and parallels between that time and what we are facing now in the UK.

This is not going to be a Remainer rant about Brexit encouraging Putin to invade Ukraine; it seems more probable to me that this happened for other reasons, most obviously Putin’s domestic political weaknesses rather than Europe’s divisions. But what’s really striking about TraumaZone is that it recounts how an entire country was treated as a test lab for neoliberal economics, rather as we have experienced since 2016.

In Russia, right-wing ideologues descended en masse after 1989 and argued for ‘shock therapy’, with overnight privatisations and the rapid introduction of free market reforms. A similar brand of thinkers in the mid-2010s took hold of the Conservative Party and advocated for ‘freedom’ and economic deregulation via the UK leaving the European Union. In both cases we were promised that the entrepreneurial spirits of nations that had been under the heavy yolk of central control would be unleashed, bringing about a new, dynamic, era of powerful growth and free trade – accompanied by political liberation and a national rebirth.

The ideologues pushing these changes took a similar view of any opposition. If elites resisted it was because they were corruptly benefitting from the old regime. If the people didn’t want to change it was because they were weak and nervous, and the bracing impact of being ‘free’ would soon stiffen their spines. Stop complaining! We know what you need, and you will love it in the end.

But that, of course, we don’t actually love it. In both cases it turns out that the economics was flawed, and the politics not much better: a sugar rush of thumbing noses at the existing political classes was followed by a realisation that governing is complicated and hard, and that freedom doesn’t taste so great when food prices go up. In Russia the proponents of the ideological experiment melted away, and the collapse led to a new generation of cynical hardmen coming into power. In the UK we may escape that fate, but considerable economic and political damage has been done already and will continue to be inflicted into the future.

We’ve seen in Russia and in the UK – and in Iraq and other places – what happens when right-wing theorists are given the chance to act on their deepest beliefs: it doesn’t end well. In the UK we can be relieved that the big believers in Brexit are now out of power, leaving a more managerial class of politician to clean up the mess and pursue sensible ideas about closer alignment with our nearest and biggest trading partner. So let’s put the ideologues back in their box and hope that the British TraumaZone is less, well, traumatic than the Russian one.

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