by Kai Weiss

Read other contributions to our series on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and today’s challenges to liberalism:

30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Empire had begun to crumble in previous years already. Michael Gorbachev instituted first (quasi-)liberalization efforts. Karol Wojtyla, elected as Pope John Paul II in 1978, initiated a “revolution of conscience” in Poland, which Solidarnosc continued. In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan demanded in Berlin that the Soviets should “tear down this wall.” In 1989, the first free elections took place in Poland. And on that November night three decades ago, the end had finally come: the final nail in the coffin was hit, as East Germans climbed over the wall, tore it down, and embraced West Germans, finally united again.

What happened behind the Iron Curtain for many decades is still shocking after so many years have passed. The horrors of Communism led to almost one hundred million deaths in the twentieth century, and while a significant number of these deaths occurred in Maoist China, the main front was still the Soviet Union. Of course, the killings had begun decades before the Wall itself was built in 1961. For instance, the Holodomor, the intentional starving of Ukrainian farmers, led to seven million deaths alone. The Gulags, courageously described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were a particularly pervasive image of the Soviet horror.

Yet, the abomination of Soviet Communism extended far beyond deaths. Abject poverty and starvation were prevalent throughout the Empire’s existence – all while the other side of the Iron Curtain prospered as never before. Essential freedoms, such as choice of employment, freedom of speech, faith, movement, were heavily constrained, if not non-existent. The dehumanizing effects of socialism became clearly evident under Stalinism – they are still evident when one visits the Victims of Communism Memorial in Prague. Pope John Paul II put it aptly when he hoped for a Europe in which both lungs could finally breath again. But the Wall prevented that, separating the continent, and damning one lung to despotism.

The atmosphere after the Wall’s fall was naturally euphoric. Families and friends, separated for decades by the Wall, finally came together again. But even more so, a much grander family – Europe and Western Civilization at large – was united again. Socialism was finally defeated – or so one thought back then. The “end of history” was reached, as one (admittedly often misunderstood) commentator infamously put it. The world was ready for a liberal age that, just maybe, could continue eternally. Freedom had conquered totalitarianism.

The 1990s and early 2000s followed this first rush of enthusiasm. Many Eastern European countries instituted reforms that put them on the path of genuine market economies and liberal democratic political regimes. The newly liberated people east of the fallen Iron Curtain enjoyed their new freedoms. And boy, did these economies grow! Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and others quickly became poster boys of liberalism. With a fully liberal, capitalist Europe in sight, some even turned their eyes to new regions in the world to “spread liberalism” there as well. Indeed, even Communist China seemed to continue its liberalization efforts.

In many regards, everything changed with the Financial Crisis of 2008. The age of endless economic prosperity seemed over, as, according to many, the market had failed (though it was rather central banks and government interventionism that were at fault). In the following years, many new crises arose, most notably the euro crisis on the one hand, which put (tens of) millions of workers in southern Europe out of a job and created a “lost generation” of young people not finding one in the first place, and, on the other hand, the refugee crisis, the first major sign that things might change fast.

Today, the euphoria of 1989 is largely gone. Governments in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and to a lesser extent, in many other Eastern European countries, have been attacking the rule of law, freedom of the press, free speech, freedom of association, and many other foundational liberal principles for many years – to say nothing of the steady slides toward authoritarianism in Turkey and Russia. Indeed, in countries like Poland a clear disillusionment with the liberal project seems to have taken hold. As recently as October 13, the Polish people handed the illiberal Law & Justice Party an absolute majority. One should also not forget the same phenomenon in Eastern Germany, now long unified with the West and yet still clamoring on to their socialist past which they had successfully escaped on November 9.

These disturbing signs are prevalent not only in the East. Free-market capitalism and certain purportedly liberal principles have experienced a significant drop in popularity in general. In the U.S., Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. The American Right, traditionally pro-market, is opting for nationalist protectionism instead. In the same year, the UK decided to leave the European Union – and while the liberal vision of a “Global Britain” certainly was an important part of that vote, a significant amount of Brexiteers also voted against openness, free immigration, and are not particularly keen on free trade – not intending to follow in the footsteps of Adam Smith, so to speak. In continental Europe as well, from France to Italy to Germany, “populist” parties skeptical of liberalism have made inroads, in Italy gaining a majority and forming a government for a while.

And lest we forget, socialism is hardly gone. In unlikely countries like the U.S. and the UK, far-left voices have captured the Democratic and Labour Parties. Even worse, the world might be watching a successor of the Soviets arise in the far East. China has in many ways been turning their country into a police state dangerously similar to 1984 in recent years, as millions are sent into imprisonment camps. This is not even mentioning the clampdown on protests in Hong Kong. The horrors of totalitarianism, one can say at this point, have returned with a vengeance, and it most likely will only deteriorate in the coming years.

30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the decisive question then certainly is: why have so many people, especially in the supposedly liberal and capitalist West, turned against liberalism? Why are they so disillusioned? Why are people all around Europe and North America voting increasingly for illiberal parties? Why are they giving them, as has been the case in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Italy, ever increasing majorities and political dominance?

It is, after all, certainly not because liberalism hasn’t given Westerners enough prosperity. Eastern Europe has seen massive economic growth – and it still does. Sure, in the U.S. and Western Europe, wages have stagnated – or at least risen far less starkly – for lower parts of the income ladder in recent years. But all in all, liberal capitalism has led to massive material wealth for everyone, new technologies, which have made our lives easier, and new freedoms unknown before. So why do people want to get rid of the very system that has supposedly benefitted them so immensely?

The Institute of Economic Affairs’ Stephen Davies has seen a “Great Realignment” occur in Western politics over the last years, as, he argues, people today care more about cultural and social topics rather than economic ones. And, indeed, they care increasingly about the cultural effects that globalization and mass democracy have. They are rarely interested in concepts of “Global Citizenry” in which local identities are being replaced by one earthly whole, but instead care about the people in their proximity. They care about the destruction of communities and families, about how many of them are being left behind – effects that have occurred in some parts due to government interventionism, but certainly also due to the disruptive effects of globalization. As countless reports show, an unusually large number of people today feel lonely, alienated, left behind.

And yet, answers to these problems have been found wanting. Liberals, i.e. those who by and large believe in the market economy, free trade, free immigration, an open, globalized world, have instead resorted to not be bothered about all of this. They are blissfully unaware or even callous towards those for whom the promise of liberalism has been a disappointment. There is little need to listen to the “deplorables” in flyover country in the U.S., or Polish and Hungarians where majorities vote for illiberal reformers who want to get rid of the system that has, in material terms, profited them so much in the last three decades. Americans from rural areas without a job or healthy community are told to just finally move to cities.

Many supporters of the liberal order have, instead, decided to double down on the proclamation of the Liberal Gospel. We supposedly need to keep hammering on how this is clearly the best time ever to be alive – a recycled variation of Whig history that must sound ridiculous to anyone who busies himself with something other than economic statistics.

In some sense, when we look at why people are so disillusioned by the liberal project thirty years after the fall of the Wall, we may say that it is because liberalism has not provided answers to the challenges of today. Droning on about “Enlightenment Now” was needed thirty years ago – but today, it makes one seem more like a quasi-religious believer of a naturally imperfect political theory.

Today, we need answers to a whole new set of questions. For instance: How can we, in a globalized world, solve the innate human need for rootedness and belonging, the need to find a place that we can genuinely call “home?” How can liberalism solve problems of loneliness, drug and suicide epidemics? How can local communities, families, and intermediary institutions be revitalized? How can we prevent a societal split between urban and rural populations, between the “somewheres” and “anywheres?”

It is not that those who follow the liberal creed wouldn’t have any responses to these crises. They simply have ignored them so far, instead continuing to focus on the Gospel of Progress and Prosperity in the spirit of 1989.

2019 is an important year to commemorate the end of the Soviet Union and the freedom that it set forth. It is an important year to remind others of the immense advantages liberalism has brought about – and can continue to bring us if we hold on to principles of free trade, individual liberty, and decentralized communities. And yet, it is important not to let liberalism assume some of the worst faults of socialism: an ideology that cares more about itself and “humanity” than flesh-and-blood human beings.

My proposition for the anniversary is this: let the 30th year after the fall of the Berlin Wall also be the year in which we move on and propose free-market, liberal, communitarian solutions to today’s challenges, not to those that existed thirty years ago. Let’s make the moral, ethical, and cultural case for a free world. A liberalism which refuses to do so will eventually fall into irrelevance. Otherwise, in the worst case scenario, the strong gods of authoritarianism could return because we didn’t listen.

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Friedrich A. von Hayek Institute.

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