History did not come to an "end," as Francis Fukuyama grandiloquently predicted in the early 1990s, because of the dramatic collapse of Soviet communism, and with it, the most savoury spread of the liberal family of ideas (private enterprise and democracy). Yet liberalism, in its latest format, still ticks powerfully one generation later. Neo-liberalism not just opened the floodgates of capitalism while stultifying socialist thinking more trenchantly than ever before, but it also reaped plenty of harvests from other secular developments. One of those developments, and perhaps the most salient one at this age and stage of human development, may be technological innovations diving off the deep-end: communications revolutions reduced whatever was "global" into a "village"-sized playground, and with it sharply widened the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots," even as the latter keep moving far above the margin, with artificial intelligence (AI) threatening to impose even more social havoc.
Quite a healthy time, this, to revisit the Cold War capitalist-socialist divide, a war fought more over geo-strategic interests than ideological: after all, China's "defection" to the capitalist US side from the 1970s, more fundamentally than the 1989 Berlin Wall collapse, drove the critical nail into the communist coffin. Exporting socialism/capitalism from within the chief protagonist country (either the Soviet Union or the United States), the rest of the world flowed in a way not possible during the previous imperial age: just as US capitalism proved crucial to the post-World War II growth of many ravaged or undeveloped countries (Marshall Plan facilitated this in West Europe, a similar plan elevated Japan, while in between many Third World dictators, such as in Pakistan, the Philippines, and across South America, also took their "baby" developmental steps with US "foreign aid"), so too did Soviet communism feed the newly-liberated colonies with fire (and lots of blood), as in Cuba, Middle East Baath regimes, and spotted places in Far-east Asia, like North Korea and North Vietnam.
By hindsight we can more or less confirm neither ideological approach worked. Capitalism was trimmed even in the United States: the New Deal introduced governmental controls as early as in the 1930s, an institutionalised revolution that rippled for at least half a century in its strident form; and even subsequent deregulation efforts have been hard pressed to not let governmental reins not remain, what with environmental pressure-points building and security threats spiking. West European countries, especially across Scandinavia, gave socialism a more congenial face than the one projected from Moscow or Beijing, indicating how half-way houses were stealing the show from the underlying capitalist-socialist black-and-white dichotomy. Capping them all off were political parties preaching for one side or the other, yet still drifting to centrist positions along the spectrum: Republicans touted the capitalist position in the United States, as did many Christian Democrat or Conservative Party followers across West Europe, with Democrats likewise the banner-waving governmental interventionists within the United States, and the Socialist or Labour parties across the Atlantic. Others fitted in between. Neither could steal the show since centric tendencies became the long-term winner. In the final analysis governments could not but alternate ideologically under a democratic mandate.
Communism also found itself splintering. It was not just the industrial proletariat represented a different breed than peasants in the Soviet Union and China, respectively, but a "national" revolutionary brand also vied for salience elsewhere. Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara in the Americas or Ho Chi Minh half-way across the world, exemplified this branch. India practised its own socialism under the Congress Party, while the Middle East Baath parties, championing a formal militaristic regime (as opposed to guerrillas), illustrated how hollow the "workers of the world unite" slogan really was. One only had to hold one's breath for a generation or so: revolutionary and fiery tones and spirals rarely last longer. They rally as much behind the government largely for largesse, just as capitalists to the stock-market for (manipulated) profits.
Though the Cold War was characterised by a nuclear arms race, it ended not because of weapons, but neo-liberalism. True Soviet eyes blinked when the United States threatened to embrace the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars) in the early 1980s; but it was long headed towards financial bankruptcy in any case, long before the neo-liberalism term became fashionable in the 1980s (1989 is seen as some sort of a starting point, given John Williamson's Washington Consensus treatise). The Soviet Union could have jumped to any other model after it dissolved into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the early 1990s, but that it chose neo-liberalism (evident in the huge number of billionaires that sprung up overnight), tells us much about instincts (as opposed to ideologies). China was already traversing that pathway without abandoning communism, while European economic integration necessitated that after the 1986 Single European Act and 1992 Maastricht institutionalised regionalism.
India turned that way, as too Bangladesh and many other countries world-wide, for quite different and more local reasons: leadership had changed, with new leaders being younger, more civilian, and better educated; and, besides, they wanted to make and consume their own pie rather than the national pie. Parties lost coherence: many on the left-of-centre shifted to the centre, as Bill Clinton's Democrats in the United States, Jean Chretien's Liberals in Canada (tip-toed by Justin Trudeau's flock today), Tony Blair's Labour in Britain, and so forth. As they hijacked right-of-centre positions, the right-of-centre advocates also shifted right, though along another plane: from protectionism towards a free-trade embrace. Republicans did that in the United States from the mid-1980s with the GATT's (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade's) Uruguay Round, Europe's Christian Democrat were more flexible from before, and Margaret Thatcher's Tories began that in the 1980s too.
By the 1990s, these sagging parties faced new threats: Greens had come out challenging both, then the #MeToo type of social movements obscured typical party positions of a generation earlier (on pension, government intervention, trade policy orientation, and so forth). As this same strand now emerges in populist fashion, politics may have come full circle: from national policy priorities independent of global influences to externally influenced policy-making and orientation, before returning to a nationalism depicting endogenous dynamics.
Even as the world changes in terms of people identifying their policy preferences, old mindsets remain. A June 2019 Pew research indicated how 55 per cent of US citizens still hold very negative mindsets about socialism (and 42 per cent very positive), just as 33 per cent still hold very negative views about capitalism (and 65 per cent very positive). Paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur, old mindsets never die, embarrassingly exposing believers how out-of-tune they have become amid growing convergences.
Neo-liberalism has brought the right kind of materialism that the previous hardware-based industrial revolutions could not: the poor could not buy a car previously, but carrying a cellular/mobile contraption today, seems to be the stepping stone to a world of expanding material needs, often at the expense of shedding assets and netting debts. A communicator platform, such as the Internet, comes across as that wand ready to deliver one's every need. Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith sensed this outcome, but drew different conclusions: the latter constructed the proverbial infinitely escalating ladder for any market-believer to ascend, the former exposed how uncontrolled capitalism sets in motion the laws of diminishing returns.
Ironically, both can smile at contemporary developments. We have all the tools to sustainable growth, but also a self-help bug deliberately dubbed ideology, retarding its attainment. Neo-liberalism portrays one since of that malaise, but as the next article will posit, its platform has been a facilitative government.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.