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The Ambiguous Legacy of 1989

“History is irony on the move,” European philosopher Emil Cioran wrote some half a century ago writes Ivan Krastev. And he has a point. Twenty-five years ago, East Europeans destroyed the Berlin Wall and opened their arms to the world beyond their borders. Today, with the similar enthusiasm, the same East Europeans are rebuilding the walls destroyed, then hoping to find protection from the misery and the dangers of the bigger world. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is not alone in blaming democracy and capitalism’s creative destruction for the current world disorder. Never before have the legacies of 1989 been more contested or looked more ambiguous.

In the first decade after the end of the Cold War, political observers focused on how the fall of Berlin Wall changed the former communist societies. The change was dramatic. People become freer, more prosperous, and mobile. European integration was an unqualified success and the European Union stood as a model of the world to come. But back in 1990, U.S. political scientist Ken Jowitt warned that to believe that the collapse of communist regimes will leave the rest of the world largely unaffected is political and intellectual denial. And this global impact of 1989 is the legacy we should grasp.

What we are starting to realize is that the spread of democracy and capitalism made possible by 1989 has also changed the very nature of democracy and capitalism. The democratic welfare states of Western Europe fell victim in the victory over communism. In the years of the Cold War, in order to keep the border with communism closed, Western democracies kept the borders between social classes open. In the days of national democracies, the citizen voter was powerful because that person was at the same time a citizen-soldier, citizen-worker, and citizen-consumer. The property of the rich depended on the readiness of the workers to defend the capitalist order. The defense of the country depended on the citizen-voter’s courage to stand against enemies. That person’s work was making the country rich and that person’s consumption was driving the economy.

To understand the feeling that democracy is in crisis today across the West, we need to look at how politicians’ dependence on citizens has been eroded. When drones and professional armies replace the citizen-soldier, a main motive of the elite’s interest in public welfare is substantially weakened. Flooding the labor market with low cost immigrants or outsourced production has also reduced elites’ willingness to cooperate. Over the course of the recent economic crisis, it has become evident that the performance of the U.S. stock market no longer depends on the consumer power of the Americans. This is one more reason why citizens are losing their leverage over the ruling groups. The citizen-soldier, citizen-consumer, and the citizen-worker’s loss of leverage explains voters’ loss of power. We are left with the bitter feeling that what was heralded in 1989 as the liberation of the people has turned into a liberation of the elites. And it is the voters’ loss of power that feeds the growing mistrust toward democratic institutions and rouses revolt against the elites.

The acceleration of globalization and its reconfiguration of the world is the most important legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1980, the world values survey found that economic wealth was unrelated to the levels of happiness in societies. Back then Nigerians were as happy as West Germans. Recent surveys show that Nigerians are as happy as their incomes would predict them to be. One of the reasons for the change is that in 1980, very few Nigerians had an idea how West Germans lived. This is not the case anymore. If there is a dictatorship that flourishes in the age of democratization, it is the “dictatorship of comparisons.” If three decades ago people compared themselves to Johnny next door, now comparisons have gone global. And the spread of Western ideas, institutions, and practices have failed to Westernize the world, but has led to a shift of power away from the West.

Today, as we struggle to find a way to manage, not globalization, but the backlash against it, how should we judge the legacies of 1989? Does 1989 fail to fulfill its promise? Should we be hopeful or should we be nostalgic for the days of the Cold War? My answer is that in the ambiguity of its legacy, 1989 is not much different than any great revolution. If we go back to history, we could see for example that the real greatness of the French Revolution is that it gave birth to Napoleon’s invincible army and, at the same time, to the nationalism of the Spanish partisans that defeated this army.

Ivan Krastev is a Bosch Public Policy fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. This article was first published by the German Marshal fund.

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