NEW YORK – Twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall was breached and the Soviet empire was collapsing, only die-hard believers in a communist utopia felt unhappy. A few people, of course, clung to the possibility of what was once called “actually existing socialism.” Others criticized the triumphalism of the “new world order” promised by George H.W. Bush. And the way West Germany rolled over the wreckage of its East German neighbor seemed almost like an act of cruelty.
Still, 1989 was a good time to be alive (except in China, where the democrats were put down). Many of us felt that we were seeing the dawn of a new liberal age, in which freedom and justice would spread, like fresh flowers, across the globe. Twenty years on, we know this was not to be.
Xenophobic populism is stalking democracies in Europe. Social-democratic parties are shrinking, while right-wing demagogues promise to protect “Western values” from the Islamic hordes. And the economic debacles of the last few years seem to bear out Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent warning that “Western capitalism, too, deprived of its old adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading Western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley.”
The way it looks now, liberals, in the “progressive” American sense of the word, may actually have been among the losers of 1989. Social democrats were always despised by communists, and vice versa. But many social-democratic ideals, rooted in Marxist notions of social justice and equality, were thrown out, like the proverbial baby, with the bathwater of communism.
This process was already underway before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the free-market radicalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era. Society, Margaret Thatcher once famously declared, doesn’t exist. Only individuals and families counted. It was everyone for themselves.
For many people, this had the ring of liberation – from overregulated markets, overbearing trade unions, and class privilege. That is why it was called neo-liberalism. But free-market radicalism undermined the role of the state in building a better, more just, and more equal society. Neo-liberals are not so much interested in justice as in greater efficiency, more productivity, the bottom line.
At the same time that neo-liberals were slashing and burning their way through old social-democratic arrangements, the left was dissipating its energies on cultural politics, “identity,” and ideological multiculturalism. Democratic idealism was once the domain of the left, including social democrats and liberals. In the United States, it was Democrats, such as John F. Kennedy, who promoted freedom around the world.
But, in the late twentieth century, it became more important to many leftists to save “Third World” culture, no matter how barbaric, from “neo-colonialism,” than to support equality and democracy. People on the left would defend brutal dictators (Castro, Mao, Pol Pot, Khomeini, et al.) simply because they opposed “Western imperialism.”
As a result, all politics that were derived, no matter how loosely, from Marxism, lost credibility, and finally died in 1989. This was naturally a disaster for communists and socialists, but also for social democrats, for they had lost an ideological basis for their idealism. And, without idealism, politics becomes a form of accounting, a management of purely material interests.
This explains why Italians, and later Thais, chose business tycoons to lead their countries. They hoped that men who managed to accumulate so much personal wealth could do the same for their voters.
Yet the rhetoric of idealism has not quite disappeared. It merely shifted from left to right. This, too, began with Reagan and Thatcher. They took up Kennedy’s promotion of democracy in the world. Once the left abandoned the language of internationalism – democratic revolution, national liberation, and so forth – it was taken up by neo-conservatives. Their promotion of American military force as the strong arm of democracy may have been misguided, crude, arrogant, ignorant, naïve, and deeply dangerous, but it was indisputably idealistic.
The allure of revolutionary élan has drawn some former leftists to the neo-conservative side. But most liberals were deeply alarmed by the neo-cons, without being able to find a coherent answer.
Having lost their own zest for internationalism, a common response among liberals to neo-con radicalism has been a call for “realism,” non-interference in others’ affairs, and withdrawal from the world. This may be the wiser course in many cases, but it is hardly inspiring. So it is no wonder that a left-wing internationalist, such as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, has found a kind of home for his idealism in Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government.
For the first time since the Kennedy administration, the US is one of the only liberal democracies in the world with a center-left government. Can President Obama lead the way to a new era of social and political idealism? It seems unlikely. His efforts to provide better healthcare for Americans, for example, is not so much an innovation, as an attempt to catch up with arrangements which most Europeans and Japanese have long taken for granted. And for this he is already being called a “socialist” by his enemies.
Obama is neither a socialist, nor a mere political accountant. He has some modest ideals, and may yet be an excellent president. But what is needed to revive liberal idealism is a set of new ideas on how to promote justice, equality and freedom in the world. Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev, assisted in the end of an ideology, which once offered hope, and inspired real progress, but resulted in slavery and mass murder. We are still waiting for a new vision, which will lead to progress, but this time, we hope, without tyranny.