Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall was forced open by excited East Berliners taking advantage of a mistaken order given by Socialist Unity Party official Günter Schabowski.
The wall, which had stood as a symbol of the Cold War and had physically divided Berlin since 1961, could no longer hold back the forces of change that had been spreading across the Eastern Bloc and the wider world in the 1980s. The political demands of the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who had been demonstrating for weeks across the GDR were now met by an under-pressure Schabowski. At a press conference, he declared:
We have decided today to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave East Germany through any of the border crossings.
He announced that this new rule would begin immediately, although officially the order stipulated that it would start at 4am the next day. As the news spread, thousands headed to checkpoints to test the new regulation. By the end of the night, some East Berliners were in the western half of the city, crowds were dancing on the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe took another step closer to its demise.
The GDR was following Hungary’s lead after it had opened its borders with Austria in June, and Poland, which had elected its first non-communist prime minister since 1946 that August. After the wall opened, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia saw playwright and human rights campaigner Václav Havel become president, Bulgaria and Romania join the democratic wave, and Lech Wałęsa become the first democratically elected president of Poland.
The end of history
All of this seemed to confirm the thoughts of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who, in an article in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, had pronounced that history had ended. He wrote that the “flow of events over the past decade or so” had made it difficult to “avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history”. This was:
Not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Liberalism was victorious “in the realm of ideas” and 1989 saw “the triumph of the West” and “the Western idea”. There had been the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” and there would now be “the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture” across the globe.
Fukuyama’s argument had a certain relevance at the time. Organised labour was in retreat in countries such as Britain after the miners’ strike, socialism was being rejected by half of Europe and democratic socialist parties were undergoing great changes as they embraced the free market in various ways.
And the particular forces of history that pushed the wall over confirmed their strength when globalisation arrived in Moscow with the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in January 1990. Later that year, the GDR ceased to exist when Germany was reunified, and Mikhail Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union to a quiet end in December 1991.
Even some of the West’s Cold War friends embraced the new era and moved towards liberal democracy. Chile removed dictator Augusto Pinochet from power in 1988 and a year later Patricio Aylwin of the Concert of Parties for Democracy was elected president. And in South Africa, Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, apartheid ended and he became president in 1994.
All in all, it looked like Fukuyama’s assertion that ideological differences were over. Capitalism had won the century’s economic argument, liberal democracy claimed the political prize and by the end of the 1990s there were nearly as many democratic states as there were non-democracies across the world.
Yet despite the triumphalism of Fukuyama’s argument, there was to be no “golden age” of liberal democracy.
But the 1990s certainly had a liberal democratic mood. Communism had given way to consumerism and East European countries voted in democratic elections for the first time in decades. In the West, Bill Clinton’s New Democrats won two elections, Tony Blair’s New Labour won the first of three victories, Paul Keating’s Labor Party governed until 1996 in Australia and in Germany Gerhard Schröder’s SPD formed an alliance with the Greens.
There was, as my colleague Richard Carr argued, a march of the moderates in this decade, as Blair and Clinton searched for a “third way” between the free-market capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher, and the state-led ideal of the USSR.
Although the third way was not an ideology, it was based on a specific set of ideas and ideals, formulated by thinkers like the sociologist Anthony Giddens, who advocated introducing a “different framework” that avoided “the bureaucratic, top-down government favoured by the old left and the aspiration of the right to dismantle government altogether”. This was a short-lived hiatus between the march of neoliberalism that characterised the 1980s and the 2000s, but it showed that ideas still mattered as moderate politicians sought to theorise their pragmatism.
Despite this, the global victory of liberal democracy assumed by Fukuyama did not happen. He suggested that in China, “the pull of the liberal idea continues to be very strong as economic power devolves and the economy becomes more open to the outside world”. But the Chinese Communist Party continued to refuse the democratic demand. This was despite Fukuyama’s belief that:
The student demonstrations in Beijing that broke out first in December 1986 and recurred recently … were only the beginning of what will inevitably be mounting pressure for change in the political system as well.
Yes, China has continued with its market-based reforms and 850m people have been lifted out of poverty. But there has been nothing to suggest that it will reform politically. Liberal democracy is as far away today as it was in 1989.
And in Russia, Boris Yeltsin – Gorbachev’s successor – was more concerned with establishing the free market than democracy. There was a belief in the 1990s that Russia’s transition to a free-market liberal democracy would be smooth, but the bombing of parliament in 1993, the terrible consequence of economic shock therapy, and the reliance on oligarchs to keep Yeltsin in power, undermined any claim that Russia could move towards anything but a managed democracy.
A bleak reality
Fukuyama’s conclusion – that the end of the “worldwide ideological struggle” would be “replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer goods” – was proving to be wrong.
Anti-globalisers challenged the new world order in the late 1990s and anarchists, socialists, anti-poverty campaigners and religious groups came together to reject the emerging global order that put profit before people. From Birmingham in Britain to Seattle in the US, the WTO-vision of the world inspired protest and new thinking amongst liberal and social democrats. Even though no coherent idea emerged to unite the various groups, the post-1989 environment helped bring people together to discuss shaping the world along different socio-economic and political lines.
So rather than taking 1989 as the point when history ended, we can see it as the point when it moved into a new stage. The “victory of liberalism” lasted far less time than Fukuyama predicted. He was right to state that “the struggle between two opposing systems is no longer a determining tendency of the present-day era”, but was wrong to see a future where “material wealth” was built up and distributed fairly, or where “the resources necessary for mankind’s survival” were protected.
Instead, in the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a rapacious capitalism emerged from the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider.
And then the crash …
The weakness of the neoliberal economic model that had developed in the 1980s became evident in 2008, with the most serious global financial crisis since the Great Depression. This inspired new thinking about globalisation and gave currency to concerns about inequality and a deregulated financial sector.
But as yet, there is no consensus as to which way liberalism, democracy and capitalism will go. After the global crash, there was a renewed interest in both Keynesianism and Marxism. Electoral victories for politicians on the left like Jacinda Arden in New Zealand and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US suggests a wider disillusionment with neoliberalism.
Discussions about a Green New Deal also ties new thinking about capitalism to the most serious problem the world faces. The prevailing wind in global politics may be with the right, but there is no agreement over the future shape of global capitalism among supporters of open economies and borders and advocates of economic nationalism.
Fukuyama’s assumption that the forward march of liberalism was inevitable proved to be incorrect, and we should note with caution the problems that such an expectation created. Liberalism has come to be seen as “the god that failed” in the former Eastern Bloc. A new opinion poll also finds that many citizens from these countries feel that democracy is being threatened.
Fukuyama spoke too soon. Liberal democracy offered a framework for the discussions about 21st-century politics, but it is now just one option and may not even be the chosen one. A different, less liberal, strand of capitalism based on surveillance capitalism or the neoliberal assault on democracy may yet define the future. Or progressive politicians may once again find a collective voice and reshape the world along different democratic lines.
But 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell and history supposedly ended, we can see a new battleground for alternative visions of the future being laid. And with that being the case, 1989 should be seen as the point when history started again.
Jonathan Davis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.