If The System Isn’t Fair, Build a New One

Americans can’t continue allowing hypernormalisation to prevent us from imagining, and creating, a new system

A man in gray looks down in a darkened room.
Photo by Gianfranco Grenar via Unsplash.

“…the plan had run out of control. But rather than reveal this, the technocrats had decided to pretend that everything was going according to plan, and what emerged inside was a fake version of society. The Soviet Union became a society where everybody knew what their leaders said wasn’t real because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart, but everybody had to play along and pretend that it was real because no one could imagine any alternative—one Soviet writer called it hypernormalisation.”

—Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation

This was the first I ever heard of Alexi Yurchak. Like a lot of us, I spent a lot of time watching TV in early 2020. I didn’t know why at first, but I found myself gravitating to stories from or about the Soviet Union. I re-watched HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, somehow comforted by their depictions of real and imagined collective disaster and eerie zones abandoned by civilization. I watched long documentaries about the last days of Soviet socialism. In my now home-bound weekends I began to revisit the films of cult British director Adam Curtis as much for their hypnotic found-footage visuals and ambient soundtracks as their ruminations on the slow collapse of the 20th century order.

HyperNormalisation was the title of Curtis’s rambling 2016 smash hit which tackled post-truth and institutional rot in rich democracies. The documentary was eerily prescient and it turned out that Curtis had lifted its title from a 2005 book of academic anthropology called Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. The quote from the book’s author, who trained as a physicist in the USSR before becoming an anthropologist in the US, made me jolt up in my chair. A fake society. Years of playing along pretending like what you saw wasn’t real: Hypernormalisation. A writer born in the Soviet Union had, in precise and clear language, articulated something I had felt as less than an itch, something like a boil under the skin. A recurring vague thought had a name now.

So this is it. I had kept thinking that to myself, over and over, as the summer of 2020 got hotter. This is it. I sat in my improvised home office, littered with my landlord’s mother’s things. I kept the windows open more often as the days grew longer. The whirring air of  ambulance helicopters ferrying Covid patients to nearby hospitals was now drowned out by the throatier sounds of the military helicopters which had begun to patrol Washington DC’s skies. 

This is it. 

I didn’t know if the phrase was resignation or prediction, or if I had been using it to label big or small finalities. I thought about it a lot at the end of my work days. The telework screens I spent my day staring at in my track pants were especially incongruous with the heavy floral prints and antique furniture of a room which, when I had moved in a few months ago at the end of 2019, I had agreed to never use. The user interface I used was all in heavy beige and navy blue and in astoundingly low resolution. There were two things that were omnipresent; the flag and eagle of the official seal of the U.S. Department of State, which was a transparent background on almost every interface, and the loading pinwheel of our cobbled together telework software which spun without end literally any time I tried to do something. 

A fake society. Years of playing along pretending like what you saw wasn’t real: Hypernormalisation.

Since March 2020 I had spent my days in this room, listening to the ambulances and helicopters, waiting for .pdfs to load. I was assigned to the Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa unit, a group within the State Department which pre-screened Afghan nationals who claimed that they’d worked for the U.S. government to determine if they qualified for recommendation to begin the screening process to apply for an immigration visa. For the various Afghans who had worked for the American occupation forces as truck drivers, girl’s school teachers, security guards, and interpreters, the visa was their ticket out of a country that would eventually fall to the Taliban. I waded through grainy .pdfs of employment records from various American defense contractors, many of whom no longer existed, waiting for them to slowly load as I spent my days verifying the stories laid out in the Afghans’ desperate letters. I was a bureaucrat with no office, no stamps. A diplomat in an adidas tracksuit.  I am not going to save anyone. We do not actually issue visas in this visa unit. We give qualified access to a byzantine and years-long application process to some of those that apply. I know, really everyone in the unit knows, that this isn’t going to work. I no longer believe in any of this.

This is it. 

I didn’t know what I meant but it recurred more and more through the summer. Not that this was the apocalypse or the end of the world or even a final anything, but that the mass death in hospitals, the uprising in the streets, the abandonment of people by their government was the breach and rupture that I guess I had somehow been expecting. This wasn’t clairvoyance and I’ve never been a sage, nor somebody who predicted the future. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t scared and angry. It just means that I wasn’t un-done, I wasn’t shocked by what was happening around me. The feeling was eerie. It was a feeling that had a name now. 

Because I am married to an anthropologist, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More was an incredibly easy book to find—she already owned a copy. Alexi Yurchak, the “Soviet writer” mentioned by Adam Curtis, is a successful and well-regarded academic and while not canonical, his work is referenced when discussing the inner worlds of Soviet life. I did not pick up the book to read it like an academic, however. I wanted answers, truth. He had named an eerie unplaceable feeling, and I assumed there would be more prophetic nuggets inside. I’m sure I couldn’t have been the only person to start reading Yurchak’s work after watching HyperNormalisation.

It didn’t mean that I wasn’t scared and angry. It just means that I wasn’t un-done.

I didn’t find prophecy, or answers. While hypernormalisation is Yurchak’s animating academic concept he deploys the concept sparingly, no more than a dozen times throughout the book. His writing is measured and clear, but at times very dry. I cycled home from protests, from the church basements where I’d gingerly stay six feet away from a few masked anarchists as we’d all bag up and deliver the donated groceries that the government couldn’t or wouldn’t provide, and I’d read another chapter of Yurchak. The hope was always for an aha moment, another revelation like the cliff notes summary I heard in the documentary but that never came. I fancied myself a rebel, somehow apart from my colleagues in my disgust with the system I was maintaining. I didn’t find any epiphanies spurring me to action. Putting down the book never crossed my mind, though. I kept reading because while I never saw any other revelations, in every chapter, I saw myself. 

The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, better known by its Russian-language abbreviation Komsomol, was the communist party’s youth organization for young people under age 28. From elementary school well into university and postgraduate and working life, its functionaries—normal people who were ambitious or well spoken or capable enough to be offered the position of ideological worker—were the presence of Soviet communism in the lives of everyday people. Yurchak spends most of the pages with these people or people like them. University professors, administrators, party functionaries and those who in the 1980’s composed the striving middle class of an ostensibly classless society. The reality they inhabited seems initially to be a different and rabidly ideological universe. Red banners and hammers and sickles and colossal statues of Lenin abound, constantly reminding the young officials of socialist internationalism and vigilance against bourgeois ideology as they strive to build the Marxist-Leninist thought in hopes of developing socialism within the USSR. This would be, of course, on the way to the achievement of full communism, to world revolution, to the abolition of class society and all forms of exploitation.

I had met people like them at every professional development happy hour I’d ever gone to in Washington, DC. I was one of them.

I had met people like them at every professional development happy hour I’d ever gone to in Washington, DC. I was one of them. Beneath the window dressing of a different system and different words I saw the same general wish to climb the ladder and the same excitement about Making Things Happen and Getting Involved. Andrei, a young Komsomol secretary at an engineering institute who appears several times in the book, could have been any of a half-dozen young guys I knew who owned one suit and moved to DC to make it in government after finishing a master’s degree. 

They do political and ideological work but they aren’t politicians or ideologues, at least not further than they need to be. Andrei even sees the flags and the slogans and Lenin statues as alienating because he considers himself to be fundamentally a normal guy doing good things—not a stuffed shirt yelling slogans. Yurchak calls this self-professed normalness and distance from ideology “being vnye”, which literally means “outside”—an idea more powerful and applicable to the lives of American bureaucrats today than hypernormalisation. Considering oneself normal and a bit outside the system, like Andrei does, is something that allows him to participate in the work of obviously creaking and failing Soviet institutions, while reserving the freedom to interpret them and his activities in them as he sees fit. 

Andrei is apologetic about his party work in the same way diplomats upholding especially embarrassing or odious U.S. policies abroad are, the way I was when my job was Muslim-banning Iranian grandmothers all day. Look, it’s not great, but I’m a good guy, I don’t actually believe in any of this stuff, and I think I can do good where I’m at. You repudiate what you find distasteful in the system without repudiating the system, and very importantly, without ceasing your outward support for it. You find a way to let yourself off the hook for being there. Andrei may have given up, but he still shows up.

The form of the system is upheld, no matter what, even as everybody involved gives up on the ideals.

When he has to write his first big speech for the 1982 annual Komsomol convention, Andrei realizes he doesn’t actually have any understanding of Marxist-Leninist conceptual rhetoric. In a panic, but desperate to do his job well, he asks his old friend Sasha—who has moved on from the youth organization—for help. “Listen, don’t break your neck over it” says Sasha “take my old speech in the committee files…you may simply copy most of it.” Andrei delivers Sasha’s old 1978 speech with a few modifications and everyone is satisfied that the process of all-Union Leninist Komsomol revolutionary political education is moving forward. The form of the system is upheld, no matter what, even as everybody involved gives up on the ideals.

So what does Andrei’s plagiarized speech have to do with me, with us? What does late-Soviet cynicism mean about America that summer, when hospital hallways were full of the dying and the President suggested that we drink fish tank cleaner? The country where city governments painted Black Lives Matter logos on public plazas only after protesters were violently cleared away, and the country that two years later seems dead set on pretending that none of this ever happened? 

It matters for us because what emerges from Yurchak’s book, from Andrei and dozens of other people he interviews, is that nobody living in the late USSR considered themselves to be a cynic. No subject of his ever expressed a feeling that their way of life was coming to an end. The double consciousness of being vnye, the resigned box-ticking of party formalities, the actual lived cynicism of never caring about the things you profess to believe and the denial inherent to a hypernormalized life; none if it was actually considered to be cynicism by the people doing it. When we live in a failing system we all act like cynics even if we aren’t. Andrei loved American rock and roll and phoned in his official duties, but he still thought himself a devoted communist even if that was only because the prospect of the Soviet Union’s socialist system disintegrating was unimaginable for him.

I don’t want to try to draw a direct one to one parallel between the United States and the USSR here; this isn’t a simple A=B about two large global superpowers who share uniformly geriatric and frequently senile leadership, declining standards of living, vast and cruel systems of mass incarceration, lost wars in Afghanistan, and essential workers sent into COVID wards or the roof of Chernobyl reactor no.4, respectively, with little more than some plastic sheeting and a round of applause for protection. The close comparison between our two systems and the uncannily familiar emotions from 1980’s Russia underscore a final and glaring difference.

Six years before I read Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, when I reported for duty at the Foreign Service Institute to begin my diplomatic training, I was absolutely as idealistic as Andrei. Eerily so. I had passed the extremely selective exam to become a U.S. diplomat, but I told myself that I wasn’t bought in. I had read Hardt and Negri’s Empire in graduate school, I was suspicious of U.S. Foreign policy and was acutely aware that the country I was called to represent had deep and serious problems. I promised myself that I would find my little corner in the institution and as much as I could, I’d do things right. I’d be fair. I was vnye and I was an ideological worker ready to be trained. 

It is not a conceit to say that we have ideological workers in the United States. That is what diplomats are, trained professionals to communicate American values to the world, our own Komsomol cadres. My instructor for media training in 2014 was a former Embassy spokesperson. They made it crystal clear what we were about. “If you get an uncomfortable question about the US, about what just happened in Ferguson or a mass shooting, you pivot to process.” They punctuated the lesson with a turning hand motion. “You explain that we have a system to resolve differences and problems. We have courts, we have democracy, we have civil society, and no matter how bad the accusation is, you say that we are dealing with it openly.” 

Understood deeply, this is a more utopian statement than any of Andrei’s paeans to the future classless paradise of full Communism. Any challenge to our American system can be met by the circular statement that the system exists, and is working. The perfect society isn’t some time off in the future—it has essentially arrived, it is the process that we currently have in America. Sure, we may need to tweak it. The cops will just need to wear body cameras so their murders can be adequately reviewed by courts. Government officials should put pronouns in our signatures when we send emails authorizing the separation of families. It could be a little better, but we are getting there. Just like the Afghans whose files I read every day, whom I knew were doomed, the best we can hope for is not a just outcome, but to give them fair access to the process. 

Any challenge to our American system can be met by the circular statement that the system exists, and is working.

I’d make sure my part of the system was fair was the most idealistic thing I’d ever allowed myself to believe. The United States of America has never bothered to promise what the USSR did, for the perfection of human life and human beings and an end to the exploitation that has plagued humankind throughout history. We nevertheless insist that we live in a kind of utopia.

Alexi Yurchak’s interviewees were not so existentially bound as we are to the process. They maintained it, diligently, because they had other things to let go of, other big and noble ideals to lose faith in. The last chapter of  Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More is about ease and grace. It is about the lack of surprise anybody felt when the Soviet Union suddenly was no more. They were ready for the end but they didn’t know it.

Over the summer of 2020 I had something like that feeling as I saw things beginning to deeply fray around me. In the two years since, American society has clearly chosen a hypernormalised denial. More police, a pandemic that has only ended in name, no help for the struggling and no reckoning with any of what has transpired. Power still maintains that an alternative is impossible. We are asked to play along and just like Andrei, we are doing so, however unhappily. I don’t know if I can fully imagine any alternative to this system and the way we live now. I know that we, together, need to start. 

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