20 Years Later, 'I Can't Get No... Satisfaction'
Is there anyone who is not aware of this week's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?
The West viewed it as a potent symbol of the fall of Communism, a victory for capitalism; in the East, the event led to political coups and revolution and the so-called "transitions".
In Bulgaria, the very next day after the Wall came down, the ruling communists were ousted, either by overwhelming mass action by the people, or by manipulating political insiders – democracy or plot, according to whether one enjoys conspiracy theories!
So, it was strange to notice, on the very anniversary of the fall, the publication of a survey commissioned by the BBC which dramatically showed that, around the world, people are thoroughly dissatisfied with – of all things – free market capitalism.
The Globescan report polled citizens in 27 countries around the globe, asking a few simple questions, such as:
"Which of these three statements best reflects your view of free market capitalism? Free market capitalism is fatally flawed, and a different economic system is needed; or, Free market capitalism has some problems, but these can be addressed through more regulation and reform; or, Free market capitalism works well and efforts to increase regulation will make it much less efficient."
and "Would you say that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a mainly good thing, or a mainly bad thing?"
The responses showed that only 11%, internationally, thought the free market system works well. On the other hand, 23% considered it fatally flawed. In two countries only (USA and Pakistan), was more than one person in five happy with the free market system.
As for the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 54% of those polled thought it was a "mainly good thing", but this was the majority view in only 15 of the 27 countries surveyed. Almost a quarter replied that they "didn’t know".
Results from former Warsaw Pact countries were, as one might expect, more extreme. Russia and Ukraine were firmly of the opinion that the breakup was "mainly bad", while Poland and the Czech Republic definitely thought it was "mainly good'.
Surprising answers, in general. But there was another oddity – the report itself. Globescan chose their 27 target countries – but how, on what basis, given their question about the USSR, and given that they introduced their questionnaire with this statement:
"As you may know, it has been almost 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall."
So, one might wonder why the countries polled did not include some of those states most directly affected by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The European list includes: the Czech Republic; Italy; Poland; Russia; Spain; (Turkey); and the United Kingdom.
Bulgaria? No. Romania? No. Germany? No.
Would the results have been different, if the poll had operated in such countries? What would Bulgarians have said, in reply to the survey questions?
In her recent editorial, Milena Hristova pondered these questions from a Bulgarian point of view. She wondered about the mixed but muted reactions of her fellow-citizens to the day, 20 years ago, when Todor Zhivkov was deposed. She wondered where Bulgaria was headed, how much longer the "transition" would have to last.
The new Bulgarian party GERB swept into power in the summer elections, on a pro-Europe ticket. As a new member of the EU, and with the ousting of the former, socialist government, Bulgaria’s official stance is firmly pro-democracy.
But, one wonders, what’s the point? What’s the target? What’s the goal?
If the quoted survey is anything to go by, the triumph of so-called democracy over socialism and communism is hollow, empty. If only the USA and Pakistan show more than 20% support for the free market style of governance, out of 27 random countries, what has gone wrong with the system?
Even in the US, public dissatisfaction is growing month on month. More people state the country is generally heading in the wrong direction, disapproving of the way the economy is being handled, citing the Iraq war, the healthcare issue, and with unemployment, with their general confidence being rapidly eroded (source: AP-GfK November 2009 poll report). Even their love affair with Obama is cooling. His approval ratings, at a high in January following his election, have dropped from 74% to 54%. Only one third approve of the work of Congress.
One can blame the global crisis for some of these attitudes. But, on the other hand, which was the system that, everyone by now admits, caused it in the first place? Free market capitalism; there’s no escape from that.
And back in Bulgaria, there’s a similar situation. For now, the approval ratings of the new government and its Prime Minister are actually growing, from 40% at the time of the July election to 52% in October.
But, the Bulgarian economy is in crisis. Unemployment is on the rise. The cost of living creeps up. Wages and pensions are among the lowest in Europe. The largest steel-maker in Bulgaria - Kremikovztki – is bankrupt, with 3 000 or more jobs already lost. The railways are broke – financially and operationally.
So, what is this new Bulgarian government to do? How can they convince their people that liberalization on free market terms really works? How do they open up the private sector, cut down on state institutions, when it seems the basic political ideology doesn’t please anybody, wherever they live on our little democratic planet?
We shall have to read future approval ratings very carefully here, hoping the US trend is not a precedent.
So, where are we all, 20 years on from the fall of the Wall? Apart from the immediate fallout in countries such as Bulgaria and its neighbors, what has happened since to improve our lives, our freedoms?
Is there any alternative to what we are now offered? Does it – did it – have to be a stark choice between communism and socialism, and western flavors of free-range market economy?
If no-one is happy, either with the past, or with the present, what can we expect in future? In our “pursuit of happiness”, what political and social system should we design, what can we create?
The answer might well lie here in Bulgaria, in the opening words of my colleague’s editorial: "Democracy, socialist style". I wonder.... Meantime, back to that classic Rolling Stones song, the anthem that said it all for a complete generation - and for how many more?
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