A Day in the Life: Everyday Life for The Americans vs Soviets
Looking back at photographs of everyday life in the USSR compared to the US, differences emerge, but lying dormant beneath both is the potential for new forms of everyday life to be created.
Author: Taylor Dorrell
Date: May 14, 2021
Date: May 14, 2021
Pre-pandemic, I went to a sale at Dashwood Books where I found the perfect photo book pair: A Day in the life of America and A Day in the life of the Soviet Union. I’d been fixated on an idea centered around the maxim: everything is propaganda, nothing is propaganda. I was curious about the disdain Americans feel towards state crimes in China, Russia or Cuba. What happens if this disdain is flipped onto America itself? How is this flipping successfully blocked? Most important, to me, was the role propaganda - or what some would consider postmodern propaganda - played in suppressing a consciousness of state and private suppression of America and the world’s citizens.
My initial plan was to compare Soviet photojournalism, which was explicitly filtered through the state, to American photojournalism, which was/is also explicitly filtered through the state, but in addition to private forces. The idea being that both used photojournalism and culture more generally as a form of propaganda. So if all culture is propaganda, it’s natural that when one is living within it, it appears as though nothing is propaganda. It all seems ‘natural’: culture is just culture. As the paralyzing American saying goes, ‘it is what it is.’ Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman once wrote that ‘all known means of expression are going to converge in a general movement of propaganda that must encompass all the perpetually interacting aspects of social reality.’ The book duo was perfect for starting this project, so I spent what little money I had on the $10 pair.
Surprisingly, the books aren’t too starkly different. Both show daily life in their respective countries on a single day in the late 1980s, the differences almost seem to be limited to cultural and aesthetic ones (the school children in the USSR wear red scarfs, Americans don’t; the politicians in the USSR wear military uniforms, the Americans don’t, etc.). The only more obvious difference is the larger number of very wealthy people in the American book paired with our homeless population, whereas the Soviet book showed a more evenly distributed lower-middle class population with no homelessness (maybe the party officials make a significant amount more, but they might not compare to even the famous magician shown in the American book). But I never wrote anything on the topic. Instead, I’ve become more interested in the importance that daily life plays in political and economic projects and the photobook pair is just as, if not more, important from this angle.
A Day in the Life of Everyday Life
If one wanted to understand the centralized Soviet bureaucratic state then simply look at the daily lives of its citizens. For neoliberal capitalism, do the same. This involves the contrasts between daily life experienced by different classes, which is illuminated in A Day in the life of America and A Day in the life of the Soviet Union. Most of the debates about happiness under communism vs capitalism are more so a debate about the qualitative gains in everyday life for a country’s poorest and working class citizens. As the famous Thomas Paine quote goes:
When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government.1
It seems like common sense to emphasize the importance of daily life in judging governments and economic systems, but the 20th century French philosopher Henri Lefebvre wrote three volumes of books on the topic. Critique of Everyday Life is dedicated to the importance of daily life to Marxist theory and practice and therefore the importance of critiquing daily life under capitalism.
Since the book mostly concerns daily life in capitalist countries, one of the first topics in the Forward to Critique of Everyday Life addressed the Soviet Union of that time and the everyday life of socialist countries. Lefebvre asked, ‘is alienation disappearing in socialist society? In the USSR or the countries which are constructing socialism, are there not contradictions indicative of new – or renewed – forms of economic, ideological and political alienation?’2
In a conversation I had in Havana with a Cuban close to my age, he told me about his monotonous factory job and how it felt as though he’d been stript of his individuality; like he was just a cog in a machine. It’s as though the same alienation is experienced in both capitalist and socialist countries where industrial and post-industrial production fill daily life. Lefebvre continues, ‘We ask ourselves: ‘What is socialism exactly? How does it intervene in everyday life? What does it change?’ And the answer is unclear.’3
USSR (for Vitamin D deficiency)
This is of course the contradiction which exists for pre/under-industrialized countries that implement socialist policies: in order to evolve past capitalism, one has to go through it first. This contradiction was highlighted in the Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky’s visit to America (Mexico, Cuba and the United States). Mayakovsky was a futurist who welcomed industrialization and was a Bolshevik since infancy, but when he went to America and saw everyday life in New York, it became clear that industrialization for the USSR, although done in the name of socialism, might involve the same kind of alienation and misery that he witnessed in his trip. As a political artist, this was something he had to confront. Mayakovsky wrote on his ship ride home that Soviet art shouldn’t ‘eulogize technology’, but should instead ‘harness it in the name of humanity’s interests. Not aesthetic slobbering over iron fire escapes on skyscrapers, but the straightforward organization of living space.’4
It’s not saying much that Cuba can’t tout an alienation-free island considering an embargo blocks their economy from evolving past a 1950s level economy (other than their medical industry, which continues to develop drugs like their own covid vaccine and cancer medications that even America hasn’t been able to make). But nonetheless, looking at the two photo books of daily life in the USSR and America, they both offer different experiences for me. I feel as though I’m nonetheless rooting for the potentials of communism looking at the daily struggles of everyday life in the USSR. America simply tells me, ‘hey, it is what it is’. When I look at the two books, I ask myself what is America striving for when it comes to addressing the failures of capitalism other than more capitalism?
The Jennings family
But this illuminates a problem for us looking back at the USSR, which, like America, used quantitative growth as a measure for the development of a society. Lefebvre asked if ‘continuing to identify socialist revolution and growth, without even clearly distinguishing between quantitative growth and the qualitative development of society – did this not lead to a crisis of the idea of revolution?’ He adds, ‘Did theory and practice not stand in need of redefinition?’5 This is echoed by Jameson in An American Utopia when he argues that the left needs to reject ‘efficiency’ as measurement for societal development. He argues that, ‘[e]fficiency as a “value” is one of the forms taken by the logic of capitalism,’ which effectively ‘fans out into a rationale for austerity as a politico-economic program and a belief in progress as a mode of temporality.’6 Could the same not be said for Cuba, which although it’s been stripped of all capacity to trade by the 60 year US embargo (limited to very little quantitative growth), has retained a publicly funded healthcare system, education and radical policies like keeping rent at 10% of one's income (maintaining a high qualitative existence relative to the economic constrictions and compared to their Latin American counterparts like the debt-ridden American territory Puerto Rico, for example). And is this not the quarrel many viewers had with Robert Frank’s The Americans, which exposed the qualitative shortfalls of everyday life in a quantitatively booming post-war capitalist America?
But even with the failure of the USSR to effectively address alienation or quantitative shortages, I nonetheless feel as though I’m rooting for an ideology that at least attempts to imagine a future past capitalism when I look at A Day in the Life of the USSR. And this is the same thing that is taking place in The Americans. It might be the first Western show that centers Soviets as the ‘good guys’ who the audience is most invested in. It does so slowly, at first flirting with defecting to the almighty US, but only to break down our Cold War barriers to sympathize with the characters. Contrast this to films like The Trial of the Chicago Seven which gave the state prosecutor (played by Joseph Gorden Levitt) almost a main character’s agency and Judas And The Messiah which explicitly focuses on the informant who got Fred Hampton killed as the main character. The FBI agent in The Americans however, is sympathized with, but not over the KGB. If anything, we want him to become a double agent for the KGB.
Photo Illustration by Mike McQuade.
This is what Mark Fisher talks about in his piece ‘Rooting for the Enemy: The Americans’, saying that ‘the Soviets are transformed into our likeness.’7 He goes on to argue that part of the appeal is not just aesthetic or formal through the show’s story telling, but also the central theme of what the KGB characters refer to as ‘the cause’. What could maybe be called communism, but isn’t - whether it be for practical reasons (in case the FBI is listening) or intentionally from the show’s creators to keep it distanced enough from trigger words like communism and Marxism - the reality is that any ‘cause’ is appealing to the Americans of today who are devoid of any purpose past a failing capitalism.
It’s perhaps this American show available on Amazon Prime that is the first to respond to Lefebvre’s question, ‘[i]s it surprising that, apart from a few short stories and novels which broach the theme [of alienation], there is no equivalent critical analysis to inform us of the specific alienations in the socialist countries? Such is the fate of Marxist thought in the twentieth century…’8
In the two books A Day in the Life of America and A Day in the Life of the USSR, the show The Americans, and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America, I find myself cheering for the other side. The side which had a project for the future, a cause, even if it failed. As Mark Fisher put it:
In conditions where capitalism dominates without opposition, the very idea of a Cause has disappeared. Who fights and dies for capitalism? Whose life is made meaningful by the struggle for a capitalist society? (Perhaps it is this devotion to the Cause that gives the Soviet characters in The Americans their glamour.)9
Everyday life in America in its current context is, as Jodi Dean put it, just ‘another way of saying capitalist social relations’10. But looking at the potentials of everyday life in both the United States and the USSR, new futures can be imagined. The communist horizon lies dormant in A Day in the life of America and A Day in the life of the Soviet Union. ‘Rather than remaining stuck in the ruins of communism, we can scavenge the ruins for past hopes and old lessons and put these remnants to use as we organize and build.’11
1. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791.
2. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life one-volume edition, (New York: Verso, 2014), 27.
3. Lefebvre, Critique, 69.
4. Vladimir Mayakovsky, My Discovery of America, (London: Hesperus Press, 2005), 103.
5. Lefebvre, Critique, 706.
6. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, (New York: Verso, 2016), 48.
7. Mark Fisher, K-Punk, (London: Repeater Books, 2018), 240.
8. Lefebvre, Critique, 507.
9. Fisher, K-Punk, 241.
10. Jodi Dean, Comrade, (New York: Verso, 2019), 22.
11. Dean, Comrade, 25.