As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, James Folwer looks at Anton Oleinik’s “On Negative Convergence: The Metaphor of Vodka-Cola Reconsidered” from Telos 145 (Winter 2008).
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990 there has been an accelerated process of negative convergence between the United States and Russia, encompassing transfers of knowledge, technologies, and institutions. The issue that Anton Oleinik tackles in “On Negative Convergence: The Metaphor of Vodka-Cola Reconsidered” is whether or not this process has helped us move toward a better, more inhabitant-friendly world. As Oleinik explains: “Change is bilateral: from the United States as well as to the United States. These transfers do not always contribute to improving the situation at either end of exchange. On the contrary, mechanisms of negative learning and mimicry operate that support a hypothesis of ‘negative convergence’: globalization in its current form produces a convergence of participating countries toward a constellation of common problems instead of moving toward a better world.”
Oleinik notes that given recent developments, the idea of negative convergence as initially put forward by Charles Levinson in 1977 has become worthy of consideration. He proceeds to examine the effects—whether they are social, political, or economic—that globalization is having on the two countries that represent the poles of the formerly bipolar world. Whereas the United States was often regarded as the epitome of an open and free society, Russia was much the opposite in the social, political, and economic spheres. Oleinik shows keen insight into the ways in which negative convergence impacts society in both these countries.
For example, in considering the effects of negative convergence in the social sphere, Oleinik observes that one effect is an increasing crime rate in Russia and a declining crime rate in the United States. While at first glance this may appear to refute the hypothesis of negative convergence, Oleinik notes that these trends must be viewed as two dimensions of negative convergence. Although the two countries had comparable crime rates during the 1980s, the early 1990s witnessed negative convergence take a hold of the forms of social control in both countries. While the United States previously adopted policies of social control that were more liberal in terms of punishment, Russia’s penal system was far harsher. As the two methods of social control began to converge, Russia began to relax and liberalize its penal system, thus inducing higher murder rates, while the United States tightened its social control and saw a decline in the number of murders.
Moreover, there are negative similarities to be viewed in the political spheres of both countries. One particularly interesting example is the use and abuse of political technologies in order to gain office—a phenomenon that has recently come to characterize mainstream politics in America, thus degrading the purity of its democracy.
The repertoire of political technologies includes “black PR” campaigns, i.e., the conscious destruction of political opponents’ reputations by means of provocations, the publication of compromising materials in the mass media, the staging of internal conflicts, and so on. The position of Russia in the market for political technologies is so strong that it has started to export the know how in this field to other countries, such as Ukraine in the late 1990s (up to the period of the contested presidential elections in November 2004, when Russian political technologists worked for President Kuchma’s nominee, Viktor Yanukovich). According to Wilson, the political technologies spreading in Russia are commonly used in the United States as well, although the scope of abuses of political technologies differs significantly. Nevertheless, political technologies do play an increasingly important role in the United States, a country once considered a model of full-fledged democracy.
The implications of negative convergence with respect to the United States and Russia are detrimental to the effect that power elites from either country are able to share their most successful social and political techniques to “outwit the crowd.” Globalization without accepted principles and rules of behavior allows participants to act in this way and the future processes of negative convergence may point toward an ever-increasing set of common problems among states. Given this state of affairs, Oleinik claims that “The existing institutions need rebuilding and redesigning, and an extra layer at the global level ought to appear. In spite of Fukuyama’s claim that, since the end of the Cold War, the former antagonists have positively converged toward Western liberal democracy and a free market, we are far from the end of history—not just in Russia, but in the West, too.”
Overall, Oleinik presents a rather bleak picture of the way the world is developing and uses carefully selected examples to illustrate the ways in which negative convergence is affecting American and Russian societies. The article is very much reducible to an analysis of Russia and the United States, and the inclusion of examples to show how negative convergence is impacting other societies would lend greater weight to the hypothesis. Nonetheless the author presents a clear case that negative convergence proves detrimental to Russian and American society, and duly attempts to raise awareness that solutions to these common problems may only be achieved by common efforts.
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