Old Riga from a Bridge over the Daugava, February, 2005
I was out last night with Zinta, my daughter's mother, for a walk in Vecriga (Old Riga), the part of town that was more or less built in Medieval times. Old Riga has undergone some dramatic changes in the past 14 or 15 years of Latvian independence of course, just as it has in many other periods of its history, of course. We chatted about that last night. I turned to Zinta and said, while we emerged from a narrow street that no car could have driven down onto a wider one, something like, "Imagine what all of this looked like without all the neon signs in the Middle Ages." She cleverly responded, "You don't have to go back to the Middle Ages to see what Old Riga looked like without signs, you just need to go back to Soviet times." Of course she was right, duh, but then I thought more and said, "Well, not really, because I imagine that in the Middle Ages, there would have at least been signs hanging on rods jutting out from the buildings, just not neon ones; and there probably were many more shops than in Soviet times." Zinta then said, "Yeah, most of these stores were empty but for a few, and when you went in, the shelves were bare but for the 7 or 8 items that you could get everywhere else, depending on the type of store. There was no advertising. You couldn't even see in through the windows into most shops. You were not supposed to want to buy anything. You were supposed to only have needs to be fulfilled." To want was decadent and capitalist, I suppose; or that was the case, ideologically speaking, since the best communists had the right to entertain wants like no one else could. . .
Riga is much--incomparably--more vibrant than that now, of course; but I am merely adding all of this here for the sake of any reader of my site who may think that, given my clear left wing politics, I am nostalgic for Soviet times or am a willy-nilly anti-capitalist. Not at all. But it is also stupid to assume, willy-nilly, that because the Soviet system collapsed, the system that was its dialectical other is the best and only way. Capitalism is a wild beast that, untamed, will devour the majority of human beings while producing a great deal of wealth for just a few. A deregulated market is just an ideological way of talking about a market regulated for top-up accumulation, while the notion of a trickle-down effect that off-sets that accumulation is just a way of adding a salve to smooth over the bad conscience one gets (or should get) from telling the less wealthy, and especially the poor, "Screw it, y'all are on your own!" Capitalism, tamed and humanized, or in some way socialized, is a powerful tool for producing a decent life. What matters is what one considers to be a decent standard of living. The American one is, to my mind, beyond excessive. For example, feet and public transit for everyone, not cars for all. . .