Capitalism prevails

I’m reading Homelands: A personal history of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash. The book is organized by decades, and the decade of 1980-89 was a historically significant one for Central Europe. By the end of the decade, the “communist” dictatorships in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia had collapsed.

Real history resists simplification, but to simplify, the seemingly permanent division of communist East and capitalist West succumbed to the reality that the economic regime of the East was fanciful. It simply couldn’t compete in delivering material goods and innovation. The physical and regulatory barriers separating the two systems were too porous.

I’ve thought for years that the reason Castro survived for so long in Cuba was that US governments, both Republican and Democratic, imposed severe economic isolation on the island. We should have offered trade and cultural exchanges. In Central Europe, the West decided to make the best of the situation by accommodation, which meant that Western goods, art, etc. were available in the East (at a price), and many of the residents behind the “iron curtain” could travel to the West (briefly and at a price). Eventually, capitalism seduced the East and the “communist” regimes mostly collapsed of their own hollowness. Their system just couldn’t deliver the goods.

The process of collapse was slow, punctuated by brief periods of acceleration (Hungary in 1956, Prague Spring in 1968) and reversal, but the vector was clear, certainly in retrospect. In a world where serious provocation threatens nuclear holocaust, years or decades of suffering and oppression can yield, with patience, to greater freedom without global extermination. Something to think about in Ukraine today. Putin is 71. He won’t live forever, and there appears to be no succession plan in place. I realize that patience is a luxury for this old White American male, but history teaches me to trust the power of capitalism and democracy over their alternatives.