by Andreas Stadler

The politics of commemoration revolving around the annus mirabilis 1989 made their way to the USA as well. Although the United States are not as connected with the democratic revolutions as are Germany, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and my home country, Austria, they associate the year 1989 with other events. The suppression of student protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the beginning of the end of the military dictatorships in Latin America, and the emergence of the Internet made particularly strong impressions on the collective memory.

In contrast to Europe, the commemoration and historical interpretation of communism and its demise in Eastern Europe is for the most part relegated to experts – historians, political scientists, and academics. Debated issues include authoritarian censorship, the violation of human rights, the desolate state of communist command economy, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and the Gulag.

Naturally, the evaluation of the reasons for the end of Central European communism is somewhat different. Europe appreciates Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the policy of détente and the process initiated 1975 by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ushering in the establishment of Helsinki Committees for Human Rights everywhere. Even the peace movement receives plenty of posthumous praise. American opinion leaders, on the other hand, tend to focus on Ronald Reagan’s robust anticommunism and Star Wars initiative during his tenure from 1981 to 1989, on the Pope, and on Polish Solidarnosć as the heroes of the revolution together with the German Democratic Republic demonstrators.

And yet, unlike us Europeans, the Americans have not exactly been in the mood for celebrating. The Ukraine, Moldavia, and the Caucasus are far from turning the (democratic) corner, and the examples of Belarus and North Korea demonstrate how strong authoritarian structures can be. While railing against China is on the decline since the country has become the USA’s most important source of credit, there are still a few tough nuts to crack: Burma, Zimbabwe, and above all, Iran under Islamic rule since 1979.

But the situation in the US itself is what is really dampening the celebratory mood. For years, the European model of peace and social harmony has been held in esteem by the “liberal” (i.e., “leftist”) Americans who have had a say since November 4, 2008. Intellectuals like Jeremy Rifkin, the late Tony Judt, and Paul Krugman adamantly refer to the incomprehensible fact that Europe has already caught up with the States and even surpassed it when it comes to public healthcare, pensions, mobile phone networks that really work, high-speed trains, and, last but not least, the strong Euro.

Nobody is talking about the “end of history” anymore. Without glorifying communism, Karl Marx is back on the academic agenda. University libraries are stocking up on Marxist philosophy and political economics, and the most important primary and secondary Marxist literature is now readily available in ebook format for free download or purchase.

The political vocabulary is rapidly changing. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are losing the hegemonic grip on the global ideological discourse that has become so dominant since Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush. Privatization, outsourcing, casino capitalism, and the global proliferation of this brand of freedom have lost their two-decade-long status of unchallenged creeds and dogmas, also in the US. The cinematic polemic of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story rubbed salt in this wound. The film has been a rousing success, especially with young audiences in the US, who months after its premiere were still applauding when the credits rolled.

The US has changed from the ground up since the election of President Barack Obama and the outbreak of the economic and financial crisis. Today, the pressure on Obama seems to be as strong from the left and “below” as from the Republicans and “above.” The election summoned spirits that plague his leading political strategists. Millions of ordinary people who financed Obama’s campaign with micro-donations of 10, 20, or 50 dollars and put their hope in him are now demanding deeds instead of words. As if it weren’t enough that many banks and General Motors have been nationalized, public health became a dominant debate issue for the first time in decades. This in itself represents nothing less than an axiomatic change – an ideological taboo which has been broken. In March 2010 Congress passed the health care reform bill, which mandates health insurance for all. Health care became a public good and was legitimized in the US.

And the discussion of legalizing 12 million illegal immigrants is already mushrooming. The debates over the Axis of Evil, War on Terror, Homeland Security, and the privatization of prisons seem to be passeÅL. Today, leading New York Times columnist and bestselling author (The World Is Flat) Thomas Friedmann regularly pushes for an increase in gasoline prices and a gradual transition to alternative energies.

Considering that it took more than two decades for neoliberalism and neoconservatism to turn into hegemonic ideologies, it is entirely possible that the year 2009 will become a new turning point for reformulating new social and political thought. The interest in and commemoration of communism make us aware that we are still searching for better models of society. Reality remains a social construction, and dogmas do change.

November 2009


ANDREAS STADLER  Political scientist, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York since 2007; prior to that he was the science and culture advisor to the Austrian President and served as a diplomat in Poland and Croatia.