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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30 Responses to “Capitalism really did win when the wall fell”

  1. guidofawkes

    Writing off debt isn’t in any sense “socialism”, it is altruism.

  2. Foullaini

    Writing off debt, or bankruptcy, is an essential part of capitalism.

  3. Carl Robert Packman

    Selling debt is the essential part of capitalism, it’s socialistic since it recognises there is no social value in its existence. I recognise I’m being broad, but it’s about seeing what in socialism is being used to correct the excesses of capitalism.

  4. guidofawkes


  5. guidofawkes

    I can’t make head nor tale of what you are saying. Sounds like nonsense.

  6. David Stringer

    If it’s inspired by the deeper belief that the particular form of debt is immoral and bad for the fabric of society, then that altruism is socialist.

  7. Foullaini

    In that case eating cornflakes is socialist…

    “If it’s inspired by the deeper belief that the particular form of not eating cornflakes is immoral and bad for the fabric of society”.

  8. guidofawkes


  9. David Stringer

    The motivations behind an action are meaningless?

  10. David Stringer

    If not eating cornflakes is in some way an act of solidarity, then yes. Basically that’s what a boycott is – if a person decides to boycott a particular brand of cornflakes, phone or t-shirt because of some immoral act in the production process, they’re sticking up for their fellow man – socialism being one possible motivation for this.

  11. Foullaini

    What, like wearing a t-shirt saying “this is what a feminist looks like” produced by slave labour on poverty wages, that kind of thing?

    The road to hell etc…

  12. Foullaini

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  13. guidofawkes

    Your position is basically “If I think it is good it is socialist.” Rendering socialism redundant as a useful term.

  14. David Stringer

    Yes, that would be a good example. Are we agreed that buying debt to write it off, or boycotting cornflakes can be a socialist action?

    If you’re really interested, the story behind the ‘sweatshop’ is more complicated than the Daily Mail made out, with the workers being paid well above the minimum wage in their country, certainly not “poverty wages”. Not nice, but better than the simplistic solution the Mail made out for point-scoring.

  15. David Stringer

    No, it’s not. You’re arguing that those who bought the debt to write it off simply did it to be nice.

    I’m arguing that they were motivated by a sense of injustice and outrage at corporate behaviour, and sought to mitigate the worst and cruellest aspects of the free market.

  16. Foullaini

    “Are we agreed that buying debt to write it off, or boycotting cornflakes can be a socialist action?” No, we’re agreed that you have rendered the term meaningless, as by your definition helping an old lady across the street could be a Nazi action. I suspect this is a similar mindset to those who thought that confronting mass child rape might “upset the multicultural boat”.

  17. guidofawkes

    Nice or motivated by a sense of injustice blah blah blah – either way it is not socialism.

  18. Sparky

    No, I can’t understand you either. Sounds like something you’d say at the Student Union bar.

  19. Carl Robert Packman

    Simply put: buying debt and writing it off is sabotaging something worthless that the capitalists were only going to sell. A small radical blow, but the system carries on as usual.

  20. guidofawkes

    So you strike a blow against the capitalists by paying them?

    Have you thought this through?

  21. greg

    “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.”

    They won’t Russia’s economy is in the tank and the current oil price is showing just how poor it is. China has huge economic problems that will explode sooner or later.

    That’s sort of what’s happening with their blustering, they are trying to show strength as their growth and economic clout begins to drag (or in Russia’s case collapse). It’s loud but will not win against the international clout of the developed nations who will emerge stronger and better off through liberal democracy and capitalism.

    Russia and China will reform or collapse in on themselves. You can’t have capitalism in any real sense without political freedoms and reforms away from autocracy. It’s never worked before and there is no reason to think it will work now.

    Don’t forget China’s rise has been so meteoric because of just how low it started at and how many people it has (and dodgy gdp reporting and insane government funded growth that looks likely to collapse) and not because they’ve found a system that is better at economic development. China’s system is already showing how problematic it is.

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Uh…no party is really interested in the left, so I’m not sure I can share your optimism.

    And please don’t tar left-wingers in general with a Socialist brush. I for example, am a Mutualist – while many others simply dislike the label, not least thanks to the SWP.

  23. Guest

    You are, and?

  24. Guest

    Ah yes, those evil Anglo-Saxons, as you call for more crime and disorder.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, of course, how else can rich people wipe away their failures at taxpayer expense, and move on to the next company?

  26. robertcp

    Communism was an attempt to impose socialism through violence and dictatorship. This attempt collapsed in 1989 and, quite frankly, this had no effect whatsoever on my social democratic views.

  27. David Stringer

    Socialism and Nazism are philosophies, abstract not physically, residing entirely in people’s minds. As a result, it’s what motivates the individual that defines an action as socialist, Nazi, or whatever else.

    Theoretically, if a person helped an old lady across the street, it could be that he decided to help her because she looked like a good Aryan, so theoretically, yes, it could be a Nazi action.

    Obviously, if a philosophy needs to be bent out of shape to justify an action, there is a point where it requires the construction of a new philosophy for this to work (religious fundamentalism tends to fit into this category).

    Getting back to the original point, I can’t see why you take offence with the idea that people helping each other out could be socialist.

  28. David Stringer

    Can you rephrase that in the form of an argument – you seem to have missed out the important bit in the middle.

  29. Theduckman

    This is a stupid article- you gave no argument to why we should have any hope in Socialism and yet you still say don’t despair. But why? Are we seeing a massive return to Socialism? Are we seeing the end of capitalism? There is no argument other than begging the question of why we shouldn’t despair “we shouldn’t despair because we shouldn’t”. A much better article was written by Simon Heffer in the New Statesman

  30. Peter Martin

    Germany used to be quite happy to lend back money to its Eurozone customers when they used a different currency, but that abruptly stopped when they all started using the Euro.
    Google {The Euro could work so why doesn’t it?}

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