Berlin Wall, History, Democracy, Capitalism

Berlin Wall, History

Commentary: History was supposed to end after the Berlin Wall fell – 30 years on, it hasn’t

Commentary: History was supposed to end after the Berlin Wall fell – 30 years on, it hasn’t

11.11.2019

Commentary: History was supposed to end after the Berlin Wall fell – 30 years on, it hasn’t

Despite the triumph that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall , there was to be no golden age of liberal democracy, says a historian.

The wall, which had stood as a symbol of the Cold War and had physically divided Berlin since 1961, could no longer hold back the forces of change that had been spreading across the Eastern Bloc and the wider world in the 1980s.

The political demands of the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who had been demonstrating for weeks across the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were now met by an under-pressure Schabowski. At a press conference, he declared:

The GDR was following Hungary’s lead after it had opened its borders with Austria in June, and Poland, which had elected its first non-communist prime minister since 1946 that August.

All of this seemed to confirm the thoughts of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who, in an article in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, had pronounced that history had ended.

Liberalism was victorious “in the realm of ideas” and 1989 saw “the triumph of the West” and “the Western idea”. There had been the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” and there would now be “the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture” across the globe.

And the particular forces of history that pushed the wall over confirmed their strength when globalisation arrived in Moscow with the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in January 1990. Later that year, the GDR ceased to exist when Germany was reunified, and Mikhail Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union to a quiet end in December 1991.

All in all, it looked like Fukuyama’s assertion that ideological differences were over. Capitalism had won the century’s economic argument, liberal democracy claimed the political prize and by the end of the 1990s there were nearly as many democratic states as there were non-democracies across the world.

But the 1990s certainly had a liberal democratic mood. Communism had given way to consumerism and East European countries voted in democratic elections for the first time in decades.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1985, cementing their 'special relationship' AFP/MIKE SARGENT

Despite this, the global victory of liberal democracy assumed by Fukuyama did not happen. He suggested that in China, “the pull of the liberal idea continues to be very strong as economic power devolves and the economy becomes more open to the outside world”. But the Chinese Communist Party continued to refuse the democratic demand. This was despite Fukuyama’s belief that:

READ: Commentary: The ghost of Tiananmen Square hovers over a 'fragile superpower' even after 30 years

From Birmingham in Britain to Seattle in the US, the WTO-vision of the world inspired protest and new thinking. Even though no coherent idea emerged to unite the various groups, the post-1989 environment helped bring people together to discuss shaping the world along different socio-economic and political lines.

He was right to state that “the struggle between two opposing systems is no longer a determining tendency of the present-day era”, but was wrong to see a future where “material wealth” was built up and distributed fairly, or where “the resources necessary for mankind’s survival” were protected.

The weakness of the neoliberal economic model that had developed in the 1980s became evident in 2008, with the most serious global financial crisis since the Great Depression. This inspired new thinking about globalisation and gave currency to concerns about inequality and a deregulated financial sector.

Discussions about a Green New Deal also ties new thinking about capitalism to the most serious problem the world faces. There is no agreement over the future shape of global capitalism among supporters of open economies and borders and advocates of economic nationalism.

Fukuyama spoke too soon. Liberal democracy offered a framework for the discussions about 21st century politics, but it is now just one option and may not even be the chosen one.

And with that being the case, 1989 should be seen as the point when history started again.

Read more: CNA

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