During the 1980s, as Co-secretary of the European Greens I helped to support dissident groups in communist East European countries. Somewhat recklessly in retrospect, we did things like smuggle scientific papers and parts of photocopiers through to our clandestinely organising colleagues and made sure their governments knew we knew when a dissident was arrested – so making it harder for them to be ‘disappeared’.
Through conversations with these incredibly brave people, we understood, way ahead of organisations like NATO, that change was coming soon.
People were living increasingly difficult lives. Like democracy, fresh food was almost non-existent. Basic things like light bulbs meant queuing for days, flats were rancid with damp, pollution reducing life-expectancy and infrastructure dilapidated. Even the running joke “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” was running thin.
My friends told us they asked themselves “is all this happening because it is government policy that it should, or is it happening because they are powerless to stop it?” Well before the end of the decade they knew it was the latter.
So, when Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev visiting East Berlin in October 1989, moved into the crowd saying “if you want democracy, take it now, if you want democracy take it now” people heard this as a promise not to roll in the tanks if they did just that. Here, at last, was the opportunity to act! Shortly afterwards the candle-lit street demonstrations began and on 9th November the Berlin Wall was breached.
But look at this picture. That too is on the East Berlin side of the wall. Like the picture above, I took it in early February 1990. Within days of the wall being breached, SAATCHI and SAATCHI, the big West European advertising agency, had done a photo shoot. And as we now know, it was the world view and economic model epitomised by Saachi and Saachi which prevailed as the Soviet Union dismantled. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had become the default social arrangements for the whole world argued Francis Fukiyama in “The End of History and the Last Man”.
Subsequently Fukiyama edited his views. Because what happened next was a shocking high-speed transformation in the former communist state – from which clearly we learnt nothing.
Very quickly ‘the west’ set about opening ‘the east’ to free market economic systems, opening in 1991 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development with just that as one of its articles. Equally swiftly the inevitable happened – the more powerful market participants overwhelmed the weaker ones. As the first EBRD President Jacques Attelli lamented at the time, raw materials, icons and works of art and second-hand Kalashnikovs were hoovered out of the east. This unregulated everything-must-go shopping spree is what made the oligarchs. Five years later an International Monetary Fund economist confessed: “we made a big mistake, we may have to start again”.
Since then, the same inevitable dynamic, slowed a bit by regulation but still inexorably in favour of the most powerful actors, has engulfed us all. The gap between rich and poor widens and the slope to climb from bottom to top gets steeper. Which is why, in relatively prosperous Europe and the USA an awful lot of people have been asking the same question as did the dissidents in the former Communist bloc: “is it part of the plan that the rich get richer while my chances of owning a home, of getting a half-decent job or a sensible education diminish, that the banks do seem to have got off scot-free, that the environment is making me sick and compassion for refugees is impossible? Or is government powerless to do anything else? Or worse. Is government trying to preserve the gains of the already rich – maybe even colluding with them against the struggling?”
Just as NATO was not gathering intelligence in the right places in 1989, so politicians and commentators today have missed the extent and nature of disaffection with the way politics, economics and democracy is going in some of the richest and once considered ‘mature’ democracies in the world. There was no ‘overwhelming victory’ as claimed by EU ‘leavers and Trump supporters. A smallish minority of those eligible to vote (37% and 27% respectively) was sufficient to bring to power people furnished with slogans but no discernible plan for the next two weeks, never mind tackling the twin challenges of climate change and inequality. Both of which are direct consequences of an unfit-for-purpose economic logic.
This is not a pro-Hillary or pro-EU whinge. Climate change and inequality, never mind the root cause of both, did not headline in those campaigns either.
It is a howl of hope that a campaign for a better quality of democracy will come alight in Europe and America, like those candles in east Berlin in 1989. Because without the involvement and the consent of the majority no government can prevail for long – without limiting freedoms and using force that is.