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Good News Is Not Bad News

Social scientists, historians, and political observers in general agree on one point about the Eastern European revolutions of 1989: no one foresaw them. The collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the implosions in the Soviet Union—the end of the cold war, in short—all these developments unfolded in a remarkably short time and as a huge surprise to “experts” and ordinary television viewers alike. But the lesson—that the utmost modesty is in order when it comes to pronouncements about the future of human societies—does not seem to have sunk in. As soon as those astounding changes in the world’s political and economic map took place, numerous voices were heard uttering self-assured opinions about the implications of those changes for this or that country or group of countries. It does not seem to have occurred to these people that if the events, which are the point of departure for their speculations, were so hard to predict, considerable caution is surely in order when it comes to appraising their impact.

The Neglect Effect

Particularly with respect to the less developed countries of the so-called third world—the phrase makes less sense than ever, since there is hardly any political and ideological identity left of what was the “second world,” that is, the Soviet sphere—the tendency to make strong predictions remains. To the most obvious question: Are these events good or bad for the third world? the immediate answer, on the part of most observers, is that they are surely bad. This answer is dictated by a primitive zero-sum model of the social world: anything “good” must have a “bad” equivalent somewhere else. Thus we hear that the third world will suffer from the “revolutions of 1989” because a larger share of supposedly limited amounts of Western capital, entrepreneurship, and, more generally, attention will now flow to the newly opened and newly attractive countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This may be called the “neglect effect” of the European revolutions of 1989 on other regions. In Latin America, and probably elsewhere in the third world as well, the neglect effect is much talked about today. According to many, the period of neglect that is in store for the Latin American continent will inflict further damage on economies that are said to be already burdened by the “lost decade” of the 1980s.

This verdict is surely myopic. In the first place, should the neglect effect to some extent occur, is that all bad? The question makes one think of the “wise and salutary neglect” by the imperial power which, according to Burke, made an important contribution to the economic and political development of England’s American colonies in the eighteenth century. As has occasionally been pointed out, a similar argument can be applied to the relations between the United States and Latin America. During the forty-five years of the cold war, the United States has been intensely, almost obsessively, concerned that social and political policies and experiments in Latin America might cause this or that country to “fall” into the expansionist Soviet orbit. The consequences of this fear were displayed in a variety of places, from Guatemala in the Fifties to Brazil and the Dominican Republic in the Sixties and Chile in the Seventies. With the end of the cold war, with the disintegration of the Soviet “bloc” and the failure of whatever appeal it had, the North American propensity to intervene should be considerably reduced and Latin America should enjoy correspondingly more room for maneuver for social experiments.

The end of the cold war should have an even more important and similarly positive effect on domestic politics in Latin America, where politics were acted out against the background of the cold war and molded by the belief, on the part of all domestic political forces, that a “socialist alternative” was available, and that there was something to be gained by playing off one superpower against the other. As a result, domestic politics became polarized. Reformers became radicals, while the traditional ruling groups and owners of capital resorted readily to repression and flight of capital. Under these conditions, domestic politics came to be characterized by a tendency to intransigence and for opposing sides to become more and more extreme. The new international situation is more favorable to the processes of democratic deliberation and reform.

Finally, the end of the cold war should have a beneficial effect on the rhetoric of Latin America, on the way in which the continent presents itself both to itself and to world opinion. There are two contrasting strategies for promoting interest in a given country or region: one, directed to capitalists and entrepreneurs both domestic and foreign, consists in pointing to the exceptional opportunities that are waiting to be tapped; the other, directed primarily to foreign providers of public funds or “aid,” emphasizes, to the contrary, that the country is in a desperate predicament and may therefore become an increasingly dangerous neighbor to have around. Under cold war conditions there was a permanent incentive for a region like Latin America to adopt the second, alarmist strategy. By emphasizing its misery, and the failure of its development, the region was not just awakening the distinctly limited compassion of the richer countries, but was feeding their considerable worry that Latin America might “defect” in one way or another to the Soviet camp.

With the end of the cold war, it now becomes more attractive to be attractive, to emphasize the positive, and to discover that one is doing better than anyone had thought. An interesting hint of such a shift can be found in a recent report of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or, in Spanish, CEPAL).1 In addition to the usual survey of large trends, the report contains a great many “exhibits,” or “boxes,” with fairly detailed accounts of successful ventures in higher education, modernization of agriculture, industrial restructuring, promotion of new exports, etc. Since CEPAL has a long tradition of painting a somber picture of the continent’s situation, this is a notable change and may even point to a new direction. In fact, the strategy of stressing the negative had long produced decreasing and even negative returns. The “action-arousing gloomy vision,” as I once called it, had come to spread gloom rather than to incite action. Designed as a stimulant, it became a depressant for both Latin Americans and foreign observers.

In contributing to a change in the way Latin Americans present themselves, the end of the cold war could help reduce a self-inflicted handicap from which Latin Americans have suffered, making the region more rather than less attractive to investors, domestic and foreign.

There are several reasons, then, why the end of the cold war could bring benefits rather than problems to countries other than the ones that took part in the events of 1989, and why there need not be an exact equivalence of benefits reaped by some and costs sustained by others. The edifying phrase, “more liberty anywhere means more liberty everywhere,” half trite though it sounds, may nevertheless turn out to be true.

Substituting One Disaster for Another?

The proposition that the end of the cold war will lead to a diversion of limited resources that would otherwise have accrued to the third world does not exhaust the arguments of those who propose a pessimistic interpretation of seemingly fortunate events. The task of such Cassandras has been made simpler by the mindless celebration of the events of 1989 on the part of some self-satisfied partisans. Gloating with triumphalism, highly influential voices in the West, particularly in the United States, have proclaimed the “victory of the market,” even the “end of history.” It was inevitable that others would scrutinize the emerging situation for rather different portents, predicting unhappy consequences not so much for the third world as for the countries that have succeeded in putting an end both to political oppression and to economic arrangements that had become increasingly unworkable. The argument was once again of the zero-sum type: as one set of problems would be solved, new or quite old and perhaps more intractable problems would take the place of the ones just gotten rid of. In particular, ethnic, religious, and similar communal strife would now resume its position as the dominant form of domestic conflict.

This kind of strife has indeed reemerged in the newly liberated lands of Eastern Europe and also in the USSR itself. The case for its likely extension to the third world has been ably articulated by the Indian writer Radhakrishnan Nayar in The Times Literary Supplement.2 According to Nayar, the “idea of a socialist alternative,” which was current through the cold war period, brought constructive political pressures to bear: it led to “significant measures of social reform.” Nayar cites land reform in India and various unspecified cases of social reform in “Nasserite Egypt,” as well as in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines.

Once the social order as a whole is no longer challenged, social discontents, which in these countries are of a gravity unknown in the West, are likely to cease to be expressed in terms of pan-human ideals, and to take on communal traits.3

The article ends with a chilling prediction of sharper, more frequent, and more hopeless conflict, both domestic and international, in the years to come, with the cold war period being looked back on as a Golden Age of peace and prosperity. Nayar argues that the disasters of the cold war era will now be replaced by other disasters of possibly greater magnitude.

The argument may have its uses as a corrective to the indecent triumphalism in the West, but it has several weaknesses. First of all, it exaggerates the usefulness of the cold war in helping to bring about social reform in the third world. An interesting parallel can be drawn with the economic analyses that became common in Latin America at the time of the debt crises and the economic downturn in the early 1980s. That downturn was now contrasted with the preceding thirty-year-long period of steady and dynamic progress. But the progress had never been noted, much less dwelt on, when it was taking place—public opinion was informed about this good news only in retrospect, when it served to enhance by contrast the bad news of the current turn of events.4

Nayar’s claim that considerable social progress took place during the cold war has a similar quality. As long as the cold war persisted, opinion on the left was in general scathing in its judgments of land, tax, and other reforms introduced to reduce various social inequities in India, Latin America, and elsewhere in the third world. I distinctly recall an analysis of land-reform experiences in Latin America which opened with the famous phrase of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, “Everything must change here so that everything will remain the same.” Only now that the cold war has ended is it revealed to us that it had a marvelously stimulating effect on real reform. Actually many of the reforms that were made, partly no doubt to counteract revolutionary pressures, were less futile than they were made out to be by their critics, particularly during the Fifties and Sixties. (The Chilean land reform under the Frei regime is a conspicuous example.)

Nayar, however, now overstates the beneficial effects of the cold war on social reform, for from the later Sixties on, the situation shifted considerably, at least in Latin America. The conflict between the two superpowers eventually produced a situation that was destructive of social reform rather than helpful to it. As already noted, polarization and intransigence took the place of openness to reform. Left-wing militancy and resort to guerrilla warfare, on the one hand, had their counterparts, on the other, in military intervention and the extensive flight of capital. Members of the entrenched elites claimed that reform measures would begin a slide down the “slippery slope” to left-wing dictatorship; and, in truth, there was an increasing number of people among the “reformers” who meant the slope to be slippery.

It therefore seems to me that the passing of the cold war need not be mourned on the ground that it helped stimulate social reform in the third world. If it had any uses of the kind—or, in permitting the third world to extract funds from the superpowers by playing one off against the other—these were long past by the time the Berlin Wall came down.

But what about the more general and more worrisome point that with the passing of the “socialist alternative” destructive communal conflicts will now thrive? The proposition reminds me of the old joke that prediction is difficult especially when it comes to the future. The fact is that Nayar’s prophecy long ago came true. Violent religious, tribal, and other communal conflicts have been with us for several decades now, in a great number of countries, from Sri Lanka to Ireland, and from Nigeria to the Punjab, to mention just some of the more conspicuous ones, without waiting for the end of the cold war. In no way has the availability of the “socialist alternative” kept these numerous, long, and cruel conflicts at bay.

One might even wonder whether the cold war and the ensuing worldwide antagonism between its contestants has not actually contributed to the frequency and intensity of ethnic, religious, and similar communal violence, as the participants in these conflicts were often able to obtain support, or promises of support, from one or both of the superpowers. It is therefore impossible to tell whether the end of the cold war will lead to more or to less communal strife than would have continued to occur in a cold-war-as-usual world. The same reasoning is applicable, incidentally, to international terrorism.

Finally, and most important, the demise of “actually existing socialism”—that wretched Brezhnevian mixture of political oppression and economic deterioration—need not spell the end of the long aspiration toward a more just and compassionate social order. In the first place, the end of the cold war may have the opposite effect from the one suggested by Nayar in at least one major country—the United States. Here the cold war has long had the effect of muting class conflict, since no important interest group was willing to use arguments or take positions that might suggest it was influenced by Marxism-Leninism. As a result, and in contrast to the Thirties, any domestic conflict in this country was widely seen and explained in terms of race and ethnicity, rather than class. Now, with the passing of cold war taboos, there are already some signs that it is possible once again to speak about the rich and the poor as conceivably having divergent interests.5

No doubt the disasters that have befallen a great historical experiment which was supposed to end the “exploitation of man by man” will cast a shadow on future programs and movements that aim at combining equity with democracy and economic progress. Nevertheless, in the West as in the East and the South the search for a just society is rooted in ancient and powerful religious and philosophical teachings. To some extent, these teachings are already incorporated in the constantly evolving institutions of modern societies, which are known widely as the welfare state. Furthermore, the intellectual traditions just noted continue to exhibit considerable vitality: they have been vigorously renewed in recent decades through the writings of philosophers and economists such as John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and many others. The quest for “panhuman” ideals is far from being forsaken.

  1. 1

    Changing Production Patterns with Social Equity (Santiago: UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1990).

  2. 2

    A vacuous optimism,” The Times Literary Supplement (May 18–24, 1990), pp. 526, 533.

  3. 3

    Pan-human seems to me a much more expressive term than the Parsonian “universalistic.”

  4. 4

    See Albert O. Hirschman, “The Political Economy of Latin American Development: Seven Exercises in Retrospection,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (1987), pp. 7–13.

  5. 5

    I am indebted for this point to a discussion with Gary Gerstle.

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