The end of the Cold War was a seminal moment. An era defined by two contested visions of social and economic organisation had throughout the western world been replaced by one absolute truth. For decades, it was considered infantile or irrelevant to question the merit of the one, remaining, truth.
Exhausted and repudiated, it appeared that socialism would forever be condemned to history. Wolfgang Becker’s celebrated film Good Bye, Lenin!, showed how easily and quickly one reality can be replaced and another consensually adopted. The film, set in East Berlin, tells the story of an ardent socialist who suffers a heart attack in October 1989. When she awakens from her coma some months later, the reunification of Germany is under way.
Her family, warned that any shock might cause another heart attack, try to maintain the illusion of the German Democratic Republic. New Western products were repackaged in old East German jars. Old tapes of the East German news broadcasts were doctored to explain new realities, while remaining within the socialist paradigm. One report portrayed Sigmund Jähn, a famous cosmonaut, as East Germany’s new leader. In a fictional address, Jähn asserted: “Socialism doesn’t mean walling yourself in. Socialism means reaching out to others, and living with others. Not just to dream about a better world, but to make that a better world.”
In reality, the dream a better world could be achieved through socialism had been rejected, condemned to history. As author Thomas Friedman proclaimed: “The historical debate is over. The answer is free-market capitalism.” A discursive vacuum had been left by the apparent and absolute victory of one of two competing ideologies.
Academic Francis Fukuyama suggested in an essay released in 1989 that the victory of Western liberal democracy would result in the “end of history”. The essay was followed with a book, in which Fukuyama asserted that the final stage of sociocultural evolution had been reached. Free markets and democratic governments would settle as the only systems acceptable to human society.
Dissatisfied with present circumstances, however, the historical debate has been renewed. It is now commonplace to question whether free-market capitalism is the answer. Insecure jobs, stagnant real wages, rising inequality, and less leisure time to spend with family and friends have left many Australians asking whether reforms adopted over the past decades have not improved, but diminished, our lives.
In the final passages of his book, Fukuyama lamented that the end of history
would be “a very sad time”. “The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth the daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation.” The fire of imagination and idealism was extinguished by the overwhelming sentiment that free markets and small governments were antidotes to all our problems.
It has taken a quarter of a century to realise that this thinking was deeply flawed. Economic calculation, devoid of social conscience or not underpinned by moral judgement, will never suffice. It took some time for this to become apparent, so overwhelming was the message promoted by mainstream political parties and the media: there is no alternative to free markets and small governments. Evidence and the experience of the people has caught up with those actors whose power has been won by political calculation, and whose beliefs have been defined by a calculation of an economic kind.
We live in an era in which the possibilities open to human kind have increased considerably. It is possible to accumulate wealth that had been hitherto considered unimaginable. Increases to our productive capacity have accelerated significantly. The intelligence, human and artificial, within our grasp is extraordinary and will continue to grow. Yet we do not spend enough time asking how best to use these incredible potentialities.
More than ever, there is a need for philosophy: the need to ask ‘why’. Fukuyama predicted that “there will be neither art nor philosophy” in the post-historical period. The need to question and interrogate whether our current reality reflects what is best for society, for our families, for each person, is as great as ever. Philosophy should be intrinsic to our education. Art also assists us to understand and interpret. It was prescient of Fukuyama to predict these important areas would diminish in importance. They should drive our imagination of what is possible, now that our assumptions of 25 years are in retreat.
Recently, Paul Kelly, the editor-at-large of The Australian, wrote a piece with the headline Elites failures risk the return of socialism. It has always been the case that a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of too few has invited a response from a body of people committed to the idea of sharing. Whether this response takes the form of socialism — and all the better if it is — or something different matters little.
What matters most is that a clearly defined alternative; one that gives the mass of people a chance to share in the wealth, security and freedom they help create, is promoted. It remains possible, as the fictional Sigmund Jähn suggested, to “not just to dream about a better world, but to make a better world”. But how? It is time to write another page in our history of competing ideas.