by Georgiana Constantin-Parke
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 After the Wall, It’s Time for a Rethink, by Kai Weiss
- Liberty and Its Discontents, by Scott Nelson
- The Fall of the Berlin Wall: Catastrophic Success, by Matthew Edwards
- Freedom Is Never Perfect – And That’s Fine, by Simon Sarevski
- November 9 – A Fateful Day in German History, by Rick Wendler
- 30 Years Later, Germany Remains Divided, by Katarina Kosmala-Dahlbeck
A little after lunch time on a Sunday, a man takes a stroll down the street, contemplating a hard week of work. He is tired but also content because this year he will be able to afford a vacation in Singapore. It will be his third Asian country to visit, after he has already seen most of Europe. He has a good job and a loving family, and he is one of the not so many people who still go to church on Sundays.
He stops from his walk for a few minutes to stare at a peculiarly placed piece of concrete right in the middle of the street. He knows its significance and has passed by it many times. But, just as always, he cannot look away. So, he stands there for a while… until serenity disappears. His gaze darkens. He remembers. How could he not? He lived through it. His whole family did.
Across the street, a few young people are taking pictures of that block of concrete and talking about the somber past it represents. The man does not need to take pictures. That period is carved in his memory with a cold iron rod. He sighs deeply, his heart heavy with memories. He looks around. How different everything is! But that block still keeps within itself the pain and fears of so many. Yet life goes on around it, prosperous and energetic. The man starts walking back towards his house, where his family waits for a day of rest and quality time. He looks back once more. He wants to make sure his memory has not escaped the trappings of time and come alive from the concrete structure behind him. It has not. He is safe. The dungeons of history are behind him. The Wall has fallen. Berlin endures.
But the shadows of the past are not done tormenting humankind yet. How long will it be until the strangely placed piece of the Berlin Wall will be substituted by something else from some other future’s past? Should people resign themselves to the thought that history inevitably repeats itself? Or it is time for us to truly learn from the past?
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a nail in the coffin of the Eastern European Socialist experiment which was meant to bring ‘humanity’s golden dream” to fruition. Instead, it brought persecution, poverty, sorrow and anguish. While this may be blamed solely on the socialist regime at the helm of many European countries decades ago, it is the story behind this experiment which is the true mark of danger. Willful ignorance, a misunderstanding of basic human nature, and pride are quite the unsafe combination. They represent a perilous lack of balance, a stranger to neither side of the political spectrum.
Free market capitalism has brought the world material prosperity and has made the countries which championed its cause desirable centers of well -being. In such an atmosphere of abundance, it is surprising for many that certain facets of society desire a socialist future. How can it be that from the depths of a free capitalist civilization, so many would rise to speak about the good that forced social equality brings?
The answer is, perhaps, less complicated than one would expect. Firstly, economics and history are not very well known or understood, therefore, many of the benefits of a free market and the dangers of big government are not clear to most. Secondly, the human spirit is not content with simply doing well materially. Recalling Maslow’s pyramid, philosophy and existential ponderings come only after basic needs are satisfied and one’s life is relatively secure. Therefore, a wealthy society is fertile ground for observing problems and attempting to create solutions. The issues arise when there is no framework on which to base intellectual exercises. For most in the developed world, there is a good material life to be lived. People are free to worship how they please and live in the way that they have envisioned. In short, life can be not just bearable but good. Yet many feel lost, and more still lose or never know faith or traditions. So, a well-off citizen of a capitalistic society, lacking in sufficient economic education and having lost a tradition and identity which might have helped with existential questions turns to the only feelings which make any sense, anger and guilt. They start to blame society and their own financial stability on greed and all manner of evil.
Thus emerges an answer to Kai Weiss’ question as to why affluence was not enough to keep people faithful to liberalism and its free market success. It was not enough because the free market is a tool. It is amoral and takes the shape man gives it. It is not a Bible. It does not provide one with an identity. It should not provide one with a religion. It only brings material fulfilment. And humans have always craved more. It is therefore precisely because liberalism and the free market have brought prosperity that people have turned against them. That is not to say that they should have brought them misery and suffering, but that, when living comfortably, people tend to fall into a sort of numbness of the senses which either persists for most of their lives or makes them crave something more than materials. To this, one can add the loneliness and identity issues which come with living in the modern cosmopolitan urban centers. Freedom with no purpose turns into despair. So, to stop the course of human development at material wellbeing would mean that we are leaving the cause of freedom unfinished and unguarded against the tempests of the future, and it seems, even the present.
We must try to work for the security of human development. People strive all their lives and over the course of generations to be free and financially secure. And after they are, then what? What happens when this goal is reached on an individual or societal level? If we are to judge by what is happening in Europe and the US, what happens is that people embrace extremes which threaten the delicately established order of prosperity. If wealth is a goal in itself, then it eventually becomes unfulfilling. Wealth must be a tool, a means to an end. Once humanity has reached a peak of physical comfort, it risks rapidly regressing if it starts treating tools as if they were goals. Human beings, and apparently even the systems they create, need a purpose, and without it, there is no fulfilment.
The lure of socialism is that it promises to work for the cause of the masses and do away with injustice. It promises equality and a chance for the poor to live better lives. This resonates with the poor and makes the rich feel guilty. Other ideas promise identity, a sense of belonging and a revival of national pride or dignity. This, in a century of loneliness and anxiety, soothes hearts and puts minds at ease. Again, the promise is purpose.
Weiss notes that “people today care more about cultural and social topics rather than economic ones”. This should come as no surprise. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon. People need identity, tradition and spirit. And if they do not have such things, they will search for them, at the risk of confusing other things for these necessities. The US founding fathers, who brought about the existence of one of the most powerful countries, made strong cases for morality and religion as essential to a free society. So, my colleague’s call to “make the moral, ethical, and cultural case for a free world” is spot on. Only with such foundations can freedom prevail. Otherwise, it will remain a goal of the oppressed, while the already free will start to look beyond it.
Society’s current frantic search for purpose will be answered. But, “Hannibal ad portas!” For, if the warning signs are not heeded, then the problems of the past become those of the future. Society is asking, “What is on the other side of freedom and prosperity?” The answer to this question will determine the future, and it is up to us to give it. So, what will it be? Will our Sunday promenader of a time not yet upon us go on his walk unhindered, or will he stop, burdened by lead-heavy recollections, in front of another monument to an oppressive past? Will he fondly remember his youth or a life lived in the shadow of freedom’s death? In the end, what will our society’s legacy be: liberty or trauma?