Sunday was the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching this TV broadcast of a young Peter Jennings in Berlin like it was yesterday. Aside from 9/11, which I/we remember for how awful it was, this is one of the only things in my life that I remember in the kind of excruciating detail that comes with the awareness of being witness to at a significant moment.
At the time, the evening stood out for me as the first time – I had just turned 11 – that my bedtime was unconditionally waived. Even on cable, which we had, there still just wasn't much news on TV in 1989. CNN was in its infancy and the major networks didn't preempt regular programming. But everything that was available, we watched. I made it to about one in the morning.
It also stood out because my dad cried. All four of my grandparents are from Poland. My dad, like most Americans of Eastern European stock, was fiercely anti-communist. The lack of freedom in Poland and the rest of the Eastern Bloc was a regular topic of conversation. He cried because for so long people had suffered and now they would not have to. When the symbol of restricted movement between the East and West fell, we all knew that the world was about to become a very different place.
It is indeed very different, but not in the way that the commentary of that time imagined. For Americans, life changed inasmuch as the Cold War was no longer the framework in which we understood economics, politics, international affairs, and our own society. For the people living in the soon-to-be-post-Soviet parts of Europe and Asia, they may have expected that their lives would improve. In time, both groups would be disappointed.
Now that American-style free market democracy has established itself as, to paraphrase The End of History, the final form of human social organization the world finds itself in a persistent malaise. When no alternative exists – in fact, when no alternative can even be imagined or proposed – what are dissatisfied people supposed to do? Our society encourages them to work within the existing institutions to reform the system to their liking, a process with a tendency to protect the status quo and weed out any real reform about 100% of the time. When people cannot believe, even if it constitutes wishful thinking, that the Other Way is better, what else is there to do but feel powerless and aimless? This is It. This is the system. This is how we all must govern ourselves from now on. These are the rules under which we will live and with which our interactions with one another will be defined. Is it any wonder that so many people here and around the world look at politics with such overwhelming apathy?
For the ex-communists, the rude awakening was discovering that the Soviet-style communist system, which they believed to suck, was being replaced with another system that sucks. In fact, it might suck more. There is and has been a tendency for Americans, and westerners in general, to paint an overly optimistic picture of the glories of capitalism and democracy. The peoples of the Eastern Bloc might well have imagined that they were about to tear down their ossified system and replace it with a far superior one. Twenty-four years later, precious little has changed. Sure, there is more shit to buy; Moscow has American fast food restaurants and Russians can waste their money on all the same gadgets and consumer goods on which Americans waste money. But places that were grim, underdeveloped, and poor under communism remain grim, underdeveloped, and poor after two-plus decades of capitalism. Russians and Poles and East Germans learned quickly that capitalism shares an important feature with their communist systems: it has a small number of Winners and the overwhelming majority of the population gets the shaft.
If they were expecting otherwise when they threw off the shackles of the Evil Empire, surely they must be disappointed. A little truth-in-advertising could have prepared them for the fact that capitalism would do very little to improve their lives, and that the transition to it would mostly serve to replace one system that exploits people with a different one. The big difference is that now there is no alternative, no mysterious border to gaze across and think, "Surely their way must be better." We are left as nations and as a planet to wonder: If our way of life is so self-evidently great that no alternatives exist or need to exist, then why is everyone so unhappy? Why does everything, for lack of a more sophisticated description, still suck?
Old-school anticommunists would answer that it does not suck; that the system has worked as intended and rewarded those whose talents and achievements deserve to be rewarded. That group of people is small, of course. Our system is one of staggering inequality. It replaces the control of centralized bureaucracy with the control of banks and debt. We are told that our lives are better because we have cars and 30000 channels and 60" TVs, and that even the poorer members of the working class can afford these things (on credit). But that persistent feeling that everything is not quite right, that capitalism simply privatizes the job of making your life dreary, never goes away for long. While we are encouraged to make ourselves fat and stupid with beer and Pizza Hut and nine hours of football on Saturday and Sunday, none of that is able to drown out completely the nagging question, "Is this it?"
The answer is yes, and it has been for more than twenty years. This is it. The fall of communism replaced six with a half dozen. All of the same inefficiencies, inequalities, and indignities remain; only the names and titles of the people and institutions who make it so have really changed. They will not change again anytime soon.