governments toppled across eastern Europe,
used to be considered among the continent’s
most agreeable. The left praised them as an
expression of people power and the victory of
civil society against the state. The right celebrated
them as a triumph of the free market and the free
world. But the combination of the global economic crisis and
the rise of political populism in eastern Europe is challenging
long-held assumptions. The financial crisis has put neoliberal
capitalism on trial and the claim that democracy is best at
delivering growth has been shaken by the success of China.
The geopolitical gains from the end of the cold war now
also look uncertain. Writing in the Observer in September
2008, the philosopher John Gray prophesied that “the
upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis.”
He argued that “the era of American global leadership,
reaching back to the second world war, is over… a change as
far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet
Union.” And the EU’s declining global relevance is acknowledged
even by Brussels. The revisionists’ hour has arrived.
The revolutions have always been celebrated for setting people
free. But an alternative interpretation of the events of 20
years ago is gaining ground: that in 1989, the elites broke free.
It is easy to dismiss this as a conspiracy theory. It is not, however,
easy to ignore its political followers. In eastern Europe,
populism—a political doctrine that represents the interests of
“ordinary people” as opposed to “elites”—is on the rise. Populists
have held power in Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria. But
why should people be angry at their ruling elite, when these
rulers have made them freer, wealthier and citizens of the EU?
Václav Havel wrote about the ordinary eastern bloc citizen
in a 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel imagined
a greengrocer who places a sign in the window of the shop
where he works. The sign reads “Workers of the world, unite!”
Yet, Havel says, the greengrocer doesn’t care about the proletariat
and its unity. The slogan was a declaration of loyalty to
those in power, and a plea to be left alone by them. Since
1989, of course, the greengrocer has been free to take down
the sign. But how else did he fare during the past 20 years?
1. This contribution was first published in Prospect, Issue 163, October 2009, pp. 58-60.
Copyright © 2009 by the author & Prospect.