Wednesday, 9 November 2011
THE BERLIN WALL'S LEGACY IN THE WEST
In the evening of 9 November 1989, people with sledgehammers began to pound on the Berlin Wall that had bee the symbol of East-West division for three decades (1961-1989). Communism was falling rapidly 22 years ago and the West was celebrating the 'end of history', an era when the triumph of capitalism would also mark the triumph of 'democracy' for the entire world. It was a euphoric time for the West, and especially for the US and its Western allies that tried to convince their citizens and the world that capitalism and democracy prevailed because it was in every sense superior and the true expression of the people. It was a time of celebrations that the East-West rivalry meant the end of the dangerous escalating arms race and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust if one or the other side decided to launch nuclear weapons first. From corporations that saw market opportunities in the Communist bloc to average people who believed that somehow their lives would be improved, there was jubilation.
Twenty-two years later we need to look back and reflect what the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant not for the Communist bloc where there have been some material improvements and greater freedom of expression, although at the cost of greater socioeconomic polarization, but what has this meant for the West that was so euphoric about the fall of the Wall? Let us consider that in the US the economy remains the world's number one, but not for long according to the IMF, as China is barking on America's doorstep. Let us consider that the US economy is based on a mountain of debt that must be paid down and that means weakening the broader middle class and workers' living standards.
Just this week, the US announced that 49 million people are now below poverty levels, official unemployment is at 9%, living standards have dropped considerably since the fall of the Berlin Wall, except for the top 10% of the people, social welfare in the past 22 years is rapidly replaced by corporate welfare, the prospects for upward social mobility are limited, and many people believe that democracy is inexorably linked to the income pyramid - the more money one has the greater the freedom and democracy one enjoys. Why should the average American believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall has improved her life when she is worse off than her parents, and when she fears that her children may be worse off than she is today?
Let us also consider Europe that was after all closer to the dreaded Berlin Wall. Germany and a few northwest EU members enjoy relative economic stability and do not suffer from balance of payments disequilibrium as do the rest of the EU members. However, the monetary union that worked so well during the expansionary cycle of the past two decades is now suffering a crisis that could mark the end of the common currency. One could argue that is the fault of Greece with just 2% of the eurozone GDP, or that it is the fault of the periphery - Portugal, Ireland, Spain. Now that Italy is in the eye of the public debt storm, and France is close behind, the 'periphery' argument does not hold water. What has the end of the Berlin Wall meant for Europe, considering that its unity is in doubt, that divisions are greater now than in 1990, that unemployment is hovering around 10%, that poverty levels are about the same as the US, that the middle class is shrinking and the prospects for upward mobility limited by the reality of a state operating as the servant of finance capital? Did the Berlim Wall come down so that finance capital can impose its hegemony on society? Did the Wall come down so that democracy can evolve into plutocracy?
Does this mean that the Wall of 'un-freedom' should not have come down? Actually, it should have never been erected and Germany should have never been divided, but the issue before us is what exactly is there to celebrate when the expectations of ending Communism were so great, but the reality so dreadful for so many? What does the end of the Berlin Wall and Communism mean to the West in 2011?