ON BEING AN 89-ER
Some years have the edge on others - and then there is 1989. Where to begin with that?
The collapse of repressive communist rule in eastern Europe was foremost. The ending of Soviet hegemony had not been predicted and yet happened with the speed of dominos toppling. The favoured image is of jubilant – bewildered – crowds sitting on top of Berlin’s wall. The sight of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel addressing a packed Wenceslas Square in Prague, in a country that suffered so heavily, will never be far behind.
There was a deep sense of something ending. But what was beginning? Poor Francis Fukuyama will be always tainted with his claim that history was ending with the final triumph of liberal capitalism. But he was not alone in thinking the evolution of politics was halting.
We rarely ‘see’ what is happening around us in the heady moments of political change. At the time, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall appeared much more significant that the brutal repression of Chinese activists in Tiananmen Square earlier in the year, which seemed a cruel and despairing relic of twentieth century authoritarianism. Thirty years later, this is much less clear.
There were several well-intentioned strategic moves by the West that backfired badly in the aftermath. Among these, the economic shock therapy applied to post-communist Russia ranks highly. Stringent policies impoverished millions of already struggling Russians, while allowing well-positioned elites to claim the spoils of a centralised state. This plutocracy is key to understanding Russia’s new chauvinism, for policy is largely driven by the need to protect their gains.
The hubris of the west in the nineties was to be punctured in the new century as weaknesses in the system were exposed. The economic crash of 2007-8 showed how often growth is built on sand. That the resultant pain was felt by economically vulnerable people while the authors of the crash seemed to emerge unscathed did little to commend western models of capitalism.
Prior to this, the invasion of an Arab nation on the basis of faulty intelligence and implacable neo-conservative doctrine lost the US and its allies much of the goodwill stored by winning the Cold War. The election of an isolationist, insecure President in 2016 with little grasp of geo-politics suggests an abdication of global leadership at a critical moment.
In football-speak, some of those who celebrated in 1989 have seen their side concede a 3-0 winning lead.
Thankfully the match is not finished.
Whether the so-called Beijing consensus of state capitalism and authoritarian society will win lasting admirers across the world remains to be seen. In 2018, the World Democracy Index downgraded 89 countries – three times more than were upgraded. If this is a bad moment to be a democrat, 1989 reminds us that human beings cherish freedom and will do what they can to recover it.
Those who disagree over religion can usually agree on one thing. If God exists, then he must prize human freedom very greatly to allow us our space. It is this God-given sense that many of us believe drives the aspiration for liberty.
The global quest for freedom has stalled, but it will be re-started. Those of us who value it might reflect on our own systems to government, for there is much that we have each got wrong. But this does not invalidate the quest. And why, in my own heart, I will always be an 89-er.
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