Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The unmentionable downsides

Sticking with the Berlin Wall theme, I've just noticed an article published on the Guardian website a couple of days ago lamenting the collapse of communist East Germany. The author takes a predictable roasting for her efforts in the comments section, which I'm not entirely comfortable about. Of course her conclusion is wrong - the upsides of German reunification far outweighed the downsides. And more pertinently, it was the East German electorate themselves who freely chose that path - right or wrong - in the election of 1990, the first time they had been given the chance to choose their own destiny in decades. But it nevertheless shouldn't become unsayable to point out that the downsides existed. Indeed, there were horrors right across the former eastern bloc countries as a result of the end of communism - economic collapse, the abrupt withdrawal of familiar social safety-nets, a nosedive in Russian male life expectancy, and perhaps worst of all, the unimaginably brutal Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The film Goodbye Lenin concludes by offering a fairytale reconciliation between the west and east - an alternative reality in which the Berlin Wall is opened to allow refugees from the west to escape the capitalist rat-race. The point being that the reality of the oppressive socialist state was a grotesque parody of the ideals it had supposedly been founded on - but that those ideals on their own merits nevertheless remained inspiring. The trouble with the 'post-ideological world' that the aftermath of 1989 has bequeathed us (in truth that simply means a world in which most politicians are camped in the same narrow ideological space) is that there appears to be no ideals left at all - our leaders believe in nothing other than competitive managerialism. It was deliciously encapsulated in that moment when Tony Blair (as recently as 1994 an avowed socialist himself) was asked by one of his own backbenchers to provide a brief summary of his political philosophy. Blair responded by wittering on about investing in new equipment for the health service.

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