Coronavirus, Empty Shelves and Socialism

This blog post is an adaptation of a Facebook discussion between myself, an American Facebook friend (whom I do not know outside of social media) and a couple of my ex-Soviet immigrant friends. As names were removed to preserve anonymity, let's call our discussion participants "The American" and "Friend 1" and "Friend 2".

While this blog does not deal with Zionophobia in academia directly, I feel that it has instructional value in the current political climate that is also responsible for much of anti-Israelism on campus.

Minor edits were made for clarity and to smooth some of the edges, but meaning of all remarks was carefully preserved.

The Facebook Post

The Facebook post that started the discussion consisted of one sentence and two photos:

Here is your chance, Americans, to familiarize yourselves with what Socialism is like. I remember this from the Soviet Union.

Empty shelves at Trader Joe on the Upper West Side

Empty shelves at Whole Foods on the Upper West Side

The Discussion

The American:

I’m puzzled about your reference to socialism as it applies to empty grocery store shelves when people are being whipped into a frenzy by conflicting reports of an epidemic and the government’s clear failure to give a rational response.

Friend 1:

What you see in these pictures is a result of difficult situation and conflicting reports indeed. However, that is how store shelves looked in the USSR under totally normal conditions.

The American:

One can hardly look at what’s happening in American cities right now and think it’s normal. The mixed messaging we’re getting from the what we’re hearing from moron in the WH and genuine medical experts and the Media has people behaving differently. You might just as easily look at store shelves when we have a snowstorm predicted, or a tornado. And frankly, I don’t much care about the USSR. I don’t think I’m alone, either.

Friend 1 responded and the discussion quickly spiraled off topic and out of control as often happens on social media so I had to step into the conversation.


Dear American, my Friend 1 attempted to explain one aspect of my post, which you did not seem to get because you took what I wrote too literally and associated it entirely with the USSR instead of thinking deeper. But this is understandable, because unlike Friend 1 and I, you probably did not experience Socialism and it may be difficult for you to see the connection. Your #TDS further interferes with your clear thinking or perhaps it is your I-don't-care attitude. But if the latter is the case, you should refrain from wasting our time on my page when good people try to explain something to you.

Let me try to explain it to you from a different angle. Here goes:

The United States is probably the richest country in the world. We have one of the best economies (relax, I am talking in general, this has nothing to do with Trump), the best distribution networks, the best food supplies. We even bail out and sell food to other countries around the world. This is due to Capitalism that produced untold riches for millions of people.

And yet relatively minor stresses on our society--be that superstorm Sandy during Obama, which made people empty shelves in supermarkets in NJ when I lived there or the uncertainty due to this virus during Trump--create shortages in the richest country in the world in the largest and possibly best-supplied region/city in the world. Thanks to capitalism I trust these shortages will be temporary and producers and suppliers will quickly react and increase production or divert goods to where people are willing to pay for them. This is the power of Capitalism.

In a Socialist society like the USSR, for which I understand you don't care, but the same applies to government-run Medicare for All, for example (and whose advocates are the real intended audience for my post), things are planned from the top. That is Socialism. And given that various stresses cannot be foreseen by mortal folks, whether they are as saintly and brilliant as Obama or as devilish and obtuse as Trump, whenever stresses occur it causes economic imbalances and resulting shortages.

Now there are plenty of stresses--big and small--especially in large countries with complex economies like the US or the former Soviet Union. In a capitalist society, the market usually makes quick adjustments in production and distribution, because nobody requires that anyone sticks to some global plan. The only global plan is making money but how to go about it is decided and implemented on a local, individual or company level. This is why most minor stresses are virtually invisible under Capitalism.

Under Socialism every little stress produces imbalances. The global plan (in the Soviet Union those were five-year plans) does not account for it and the situation does not self correct. When it does not self correct quickly stresses in one place produce stresses in another place and eventually the whole socialist country (or the socialist part of the economy) turns to shit and, as Trump colorfully but accurately put it, the whole country becomes a shithole.

And this is why there are empty store shelves under Socialism. If you don't care about USSR, perhaps you care about Cuba, Venezuela or any other socialist country you chose.

My Friend 1 and I came from such a shithole and we are trying to teach you something.

Now if you want to know what Socialism is really like, try to buy hand sanitizer of face masks in NYC!

Furthermore, I highly recommend reading a masterpiece of Russian Literature called "Master and Margarita" by Bulgakhov (English translation). In the first few pages there is a fascinating philosophical discussion between the Soviet intellectuals and the Devil (as you take things literally you will have to bear with me). Here is the relevant to our conversation part of the dialog:

'But this is the question that disturbs me--if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?'

'Man rules himself,' said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.

'I beg your pardon,' retorted the stranger quietly,' but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?'

'In fact,' here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ' imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organising others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it--then suddenly you got. . . he, he ... a slight heart attack . . . ' at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ' Yes, a heart attack,' he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ' and that's the end of you as an organiser! No one's fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

Now, I will give you a hint (because the work was written in the Soviet times one had to be allegorical): substitute "Socialism" for "Man" and "Capitalism" for "God" in this conversation. :)

Friend 2:

Let me add two allegorical cents of my own. Once, while still a Soviet subject, I happened to spend about a month in the southern Russian city of Armavir. I remember a grocery store I found there. It was rather a small store, not a supermarket. Its name was proudly displayed above the door: "The Dream". On the two sides of the door were listed things the Armavirians dreamed about: "Beef, veal, lamb, fowl" on the left, and "Sausages, hams, smoked meats" on the right. Hoping to buy something for supper, I stepped inside. There were no customers besides myself. I saw a counter along the wall opposite the door. Behind the counter, I saw two middle-aged women in dirty, formerly white coats, who were so bored they almost appeared comatose. And behind them were the shelves. The shelves were empty. Well, almost empty. On the middle one, to the right of the center, I saw a dark, shapeless mass whose presence could easily explain why the smell inside the store reminded that of a morgue during a week-long blackout. "What is it?" I asked the semi-comatose ladies. "Beef lung" replied one of them. Needless to say, I went to bed hungry that night. Trust me folks, you don't want to live in a Socialist country.


Good one, Friend 2! I will raise you an anecdote of my own, which will surely sound familiar to you and to almost every ex-Soviet citizen.

Published initially in 1939 and then re-published in 1952, at the height of the Stalin's era, there was a book called "О вкусной и здоровой пище" ("A Book About Delicious and Healthy Food"), known to every Soviet family as "The Book". As just about everything in the Soviet Union, it was part propaganda: feast your eyes on this cornucopia of the workers' paradize, you decadent Western pigs! And also must've been part of some absurd five year plan directive because so many millions of copies were produced that just about every family in the Soviet Union had one.

My parents refer to it as the Soviet Science Fiction. The book offered recipes fit for the Czar's table when the selection in the stores open to a common Soviet citizen (the Communist Party apparatchiks had their own stores and sources) barely had daily staples. And that was given that we lived in Moscow--a privilege an luxury in itself--that was the only city well supplied (at least by the Soviet standards). In much of the rest of the country you were lucky to get a "beef lung."

Apparently an edition in English is available on Amazon. However, the English edition is missing the all important quotation by Stalin that is featured prominently in the Soviet Russian version and without which no book could have been published in such huge numbers. Here is what Comrade Stalin said (in my translation):

The characteristic feature of our revolution is that it gave people not only freedom, but also material blessings and the opportunity for prosperous and cultured life.

This quote beats anything Bernie Sanders could come up with! Bernie is an amature by comparison who can't even match the inspirational rhetoric of Stalin's cookbook quote.

This also may be of interest:

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