Learning from history - More than the economy at stake

Today, May 1, was, for those of us old enough to remember, one of the great set pieces of the Cold War’s propaganda battles.

Each year Moscow’s Red Square was the stage and the armies of the Soviet Union goose-stepped by saluting the USSR’s venerable leadership. These men were usually ageing despots, many wearing campaign medals marking Russia’s absolutely pivotal role — 30m plus dead — in the defeat of one of the greatest evils this world has known.

The apex males wore no medals. Stalin, Molotov or Zhukov did not need to flaunt their authority. It was absolute, unquestioned and, as the YouTube clip of the 1950 parade reminds us, seemingly unchallengeable. Yet that entire construct has vanished. Many of the huge and diverse population of the former Soviet Union live in some of the most corrupt, reactionary, violent and unmanageable countries in the world. Those vast populations are slipping back into a kind of dark age, where the tyranny of the Communist Party and, earlier, the tsars, has been replaced by something more local but just as inhuman. The oligarchs and warlords have replaced the Politburo and the Romanov aristocracy but the consequences for ordinary people are just the same.

China may outstrip America to become the most powerful economy in the world within years. The successors of Mao’s Revolutionary Guards, the murderous zealots of the Cultural Revolution and enforcers of policies that led to the famine of 1960 when an estimated 45 million people died, have embraced capitalism. It is an indication of Mao’s absolute power that not even one photograph of that very modern famine, less than a lifetime ago, exists.

In what has been a remarkable transformation the Chinese, just as those who once seized this country became more Irish than the Irish themselves, are more capitalist that the capitalists. In a display of honesty a Chinese leader recently acknowledged that revolution has become evolution — “if it works,” he said, “we call it socialism”. They have decided to succeed by changing in a way that seems unimaginable here.

Western orthodoxy has always asserted the superiority of capitalism over those systems and the collapse of communism vindicates that argument. However, the position of western capitalism is so very precarious that we should look at what brought an end to the communist experiment. It fell in the face of human ambition and corruption, but social division, inequity and autocracy were its ultimate undoing.

Yesterday the campaign on the EU fiscal compact was officially launched and the Government parties — and Fianna Fáil — advocate a “yes” vote. Despite everything it seems endorsement remains the better option.

Nevertheless, after four years of extraordinary measures and a return to the kind of austerity we imagined banished to history’s darkness, the euro’s future remains an open question. Despite the concerted efforts of Europe’s leaders unemployment is soaring — an almost apocalyptic 23.6% in Spain; 14.4% here. Growth forecasts are grim and it is a daily challenge to retain faith in a tottering system that has cheated millions of Europeans of their financial security they had managed to provide for themselves and the old-age comfort promised by pensions built up over a lifetime’s work. Those dependent on welfare seem even more vulnerable. Social and economic stability are threatened.

Governments — national and super national — have focussed on resurrecting the western economy through a renewed capitalism but there has been little or no focus on what kind of society we want to emerge from the ashes of this collapse. There has not been enough questioning of the protections afforded to capital — untouchable Anglo Irish senior bondholders as we know them — and the equally valid rights and hopes of individuals. There has been little or no assertion of the primacy of the common good over commerce. There certainly has been no real, game-changing discussion about how much profit is enough profit.

The changes needed to rebuild the EU’s struggling economies seem so great as to be almost impossible without popular support. That can only be achieved if the needs of the ordinary people bearing the brunt of capitalism’s failure are met — however that is achieved.

Unless this democratic, humane and ultimately Christian process informs the rebuilding of our economy our much-anticipated 2016 centenary celebrations may seem as hollow as any marking the achievements of Stalin or Mao would today. And, as Mao and Stalin would confirm if they could, ignoring the needs and rights of ordinary people can only lead to collapse.


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