Capitalism really did win when the wall fell

But the left shouldn't despair.

But the left shouldn’t despair

The days after November 9 are surely some of the most crucial in the world’s history. On the 11th we commemorate the contribution British and Commonwealth servicemen and women gave in the two World Wars and beyond, and from 1938 we remember Reichskristallnacht, or the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, the series of coordinated attacks on the Jews of Germany, which many historians view as the beginning of the Final Solution.

Of course this year we also remember the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, beginning on the evening of November 9, 1989, and followed on throughout the week with Germans either side using Mauerspechte, or wall woodpeckers, to make lasting damage to the wall, and also to retrieve parts as souvenirs.

Since the fall, many an eager thinker has interpreted what it meant for Germany, for Europe, for the world and for the world of ideas and political ideologies.

For some it was the beginning of a glorious and productive capitalist future. We might think for example of Francis Fukuyama who in 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, opined that this event was proof that liberal democracy ruled the day, and that no other totalising economic situation could ever come close to its dominance.

Not everybody was quite so optimistic. You may be surprised to learn that Margaret Thatcher herself was less than overjoyed at the prospect of unification of Germany. For her, as well as French President François Mitterrand, a united Germany would, in Thatcher’s words, “undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security”.

They both dressed it up in anti-Hitler rhetoric, essentially in my view to hide what they really meant: a unified Germany is a dominant Germany, and this worried them to their core.

25 years on and they were right: Germany, within Europe, is a powerhouse. Countries like Greece, within the EU, who exist at the fag-end of the European project, are as scared by the hostility and dominance of Germany, as they are the bureaucrats within the European Commission who oblige their citizens to live under the catastrophic failed experiment of austerity.

This is what has spurred on recent heat between Germany and Greece, which has resulted in the latter claiming that the former, in the words of one article, “owes them $211.5 billion, including interest, for being complete assholes during WWII.”

But our current qualms are the obvious outcome of the neoliberal variant of capitalism which draws back the welfare state to the benefit of the financial system, the result of which includes overindebted populations, and overindebted countries, which exist almost solely to fulfill the credit-debtor purpose of a form of capitalism notable for having too few capitalists.

The question we must ask, though, is whether this is our lot? Democracy according to Churchill is the worst system – except for all the others. Of capitalism, Churchill also felt that it has the inherent vice of the unequal sharing of blessings (socialism, he added, had the inherent virtue of the equal sharing of miseries). So is this all we get to ask for in our so-called capitalist democracies: the best of a bunch of system’s that are inherently unequal?

The sad answer is probably yes. Years after Fukuyama said it was capitalism all round after the fall of the wall, he remembered a few other things that might pose a threat: key to liberal democracies, for example, are free autonomous individuals; but what if systems that were gaining prosperity off the back of curtailing freedoms outdid liberal democracies on an international stage? Think capitalism with authoritarian values like China and Russia.

I’m a socialist, but I’ve long felt socialism to be dead. Socialism, that is, as a totalising economic system. Where socialism does exist, however, is in the margins; what others have felt to be examples of the interstitial (in the interstices of the overall capitalist world). Just look, for example, at Occupy.

When Occupy Strike Debt in the US bought the debts of impoverished Americans from the booming secondary debt market and wrote it all off that was an act of socialism, but the economic conditions under which dangerous debt can grow is left unscathed.

It is cynical, for sure, but capitalism won when the wall fell down. And looking at the alternatives from North Korea to China and from Russia to Iran, Churchill could not have been more correct. What we cannot do, however, is despair. Things might be bad, but within it, to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we can but try.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor for Left Foot Forward

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