Transition in Context

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written December 23, 2002

Updated June 2005

The implosion of communism was often presented - not least by Francis Fukuyama in his celebrated "The end of History" - as the incontrovertible victory of economic liberalism over Marxism. In truth, the battle raged for seven decades between two strands of socialism.

Social democracy was conceived in the 19th century as a benign alternative to the revolutionary belligerence of Marx and Engels. It sparred with communism - the virulent and authoritarian species of socialism that Marxism has mutated into. European history between 1946-1989 was not a clash of diametrically opposed ideologies - but an internecine war between two competing interpretations of the same doctrine.

Both contestants boasted a single market - the European Union and COMECON, respectively. In both the state was heavily involved in the economy and owned a sizable chunk of the means of production, though in the Soviet Union and its satellites, the state was the economy.

Both sported well-developed, entrenched and all-pervasive welfarism. Both east and west were stiflingly bureaucratic, statist, profoundly illiberal and comprehensively regulated. Crucially, the west was economically successful and democratic while Russia evolved into a paranoid nightmare of inefficiency and gloom. Hence its demise.

When communism crumbled, all of Europe - east and west - experienced a protracted and agonizing transition. Privatization, deregulation, competition and liberalization swept across both parts of the continent. The irony is that central and east Europe's adaptation was more farfetched and alacritous than the west's.

The tax burden - a measure of the state's immersion in the economy - still equals more than two fifths of gross domestic product in all members of the European Union. The countries in transition - from Russia to Bulgaria and from Estonia to Hungary - are way more economically liberal today than France, Germany and even Britain - let alone the nations of Scandinavia.

An increasingly united Europe has opted for "capitalism with a human face" - the democratic isotope of socialism (sometimes with a touch of corporatism). But it now faces the challenge of the Anglo-Saxon variety of the free market. Nowhere is this ideological altercation more evident than in the countries formerly behind the iron curtain.

Long before Enron and, the tech bubble and Wall Street's accounting frauds and pernicious conflicts of interest - transition has exposed the raw and vulnerable nerves running through the foundations of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Eastern Europe is a monument to the folly of unmitigated and unbridled freemarketry.

Transition has given economists a rare chance to study capitalism and economic policies from scratch. What's more important - free markets, institutions, education, democracy, or capital? Central and east Europe became a giant lab in which to peruse policies pertaining to criminality, private property ownership, entrepreneurship, privatization, income distribution, employment, inflation and social welfare.

Superficially, the debate revolved around the scientific rigor and usefulness - or lack thereof - of the "Washington Consensus". Opposing monetary and fiscal policies, free trade versus protectionism, capital controls and convertibility - these occupied the minds and writings of all manner of economic and development "experts" in the first decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet, deep underneath, transition - perhaps because it was so thoroughly botched - taught us unforgettable lessons about markets and the way they work, namely that "objective", "mechanical" capitalism is a mirage.

Perhaps the most important moral is that, like all other economic processes - transition is, mostly, in the mind. Successful capitalism requires education and experience. The blind in east Europe were led by the one-eyed. Capitalism was presented - especially by Western protagonists of "shock therapy" - as a deus ex machina, a panacea, guaranteed to transport the region's derelict economies and destitute people to the kitschy glamour of the tacky soap operas that flooded their television screens.

Bedazzled by the alleged omnipotence and omniscience of the "invisible hand", no one predicted the utter meltdown that ensued: the mass unemployment, the ubiquitous poverty, the glaring abyss between new rich and always poor, or the skyrocketing prices even as income plummeted. Nor were the good parts of the new economic regime understood or explained: private property, personal profit, incentives.

The dangers of transition were flippantly ignored and the peoples of central and eastern Europe were treated as mere guinea pigs by eager Western economists on fat retainers. Crime was allowed to hijack important parts of the post-communist economic agenda, such as the privatization of state assets. Kleptocracies subsumed the newborn states. Social safety nets crumbled.

In their vainglorious attempt to pose as accurate and, thus, "respectable", scientists, economists refused to admit that capitalism is not merely a compendium of algorithms and formulas - but mainly a state of mind. It is an all-encompassing, holistic, worldview, a set of values, a code of conduct, a list of goals, aspirations, fantasies and preferences and a catalog of moral do's and don'ts. This is where transition, micromanaged by these "experts" failed.

The mere exposure to free markets was supposed to unleash innovation and entrepreneurship in the long-oppressed populations of east Europe. When this recipe bombed, the West tried to engender a stable, share-holding, business-owning, middle class by financing small size enterprises. It then proceeded to strengthen and transform indigenous institutions. None of it worked. Transition had no grassroots support and its prescriptive - and painful - nature caused wide resentment and obstruction.

The process of transition informed us that markets, left to their own devices, unregulated and unharnessed, yield market failures, anomies, crime and the misallocation of economic resources. The invisible hand must be firmly clasped and guided by functioning and impartial institutions, an ingrained culture of entrepreneurship and fair play, classes of stakeholders, checks and balances and good governance on all levels.

Wealth, behavioral standards, initiative, risk seeking - do not always "trickle down". To get rid of central planning - more central planning is required. The state must counteract numerous market failures , provide some public goods, establish and run institutions, tutor everyone, baby-sit venture capitalists, enhance innovation, enforce laws and standards, maintain safety, attract foreign investment, cope with unemployment and, at times, establish and operate markets for goods and services. This omnipresence runs against the grain of Anglo-Saxon liberalism.

Moreover, such an expanded role of the state sits uncomfortably with complete political liberty. That capitalism is inextricably linked to democracy is a well-meaning fallacy - or a convenient pretext for geopolitical power grabs. East Europe's transition stalled partly due to political anarchy. China's transition, by comparison, is spectacular - inflated figures notwithstanding - because it chose a gradual approach to liberalization: first economic, then political.

Last but not least, pure, "American", capitalism and pure Marxism have more in common than either would care to admit. Both are utopian. Both are materialistic. Both are doctrinaire. Both believe that "it's a jungle out there". Both seek social mobility through control of the means of production. Both claim to be egalitarian forms of social engineering and are civilizing, millennial, universal, missionary pseudo-religions.

The denizens of the nether regions of central and eastern Europe have been the victims of successive economic utopias. They fear and suspect ideological purity. They have been conditioned by the authoritarian breed of socialism they endured, really little more than an overblown conspiracy theory, a persecutory delusion which invariably led to Stalinesque paranoid backlashes. Indeed, Stalin was more representative of communism than any other leader before or after him.

The Economist summed this semipternal mass hysteria neatly thus:

"The core idea that economic structure determines everything has been especially pernicious ... The idea that ... rights have a deeper moral underpinning is an illusion. Morality itself is an illusion., just another weapon of the ruling class. As Gyorgy Lukasc put it, 'Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to act wickedly ... This is the greatest sacrifice revolution asks from us.' Human agency is null: we are mere dupes of 'the system', until we repudiate it outright. What goes for ethics also goes for history, literature, the rest of the humanities and the social sciences. The 'late Marxist' sees them all ... not as subjects for disinterested intellectual inquiry but as forms of social control."

Many in Europe feel that the above paragraph might as well have been written about Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Reduced to bare-bones materialism, it is amoral, if not immoral. It upholds natural selection instead of ethics, prefers money to values, wealth formation to social solidarity.

Predators everywhere - Russian oligarchs, central European cronies, Balkan kleptocrats, east European managers - find this gratifying. All others regard capitalism as yet another rigid and unforgiving creed, this time imposed from Washington by the IMF and multinationals rather as communism was enjoined from Moscow by the Kremlin.

With eight of the former communist countries now new members of the European Union - albeit second rate ones - transition is entering is most fascinating phase. Exposed hitherto to American teachings and practices, the new members are forced to adhere to a whole different rule book - all 82,000 pages of it.

European "capitalism" is really a hybrid of the socialist and liberal teachings of the 19th century. It emphasizes consensus, community, solidarity, equality, stability and continuity. It places these values above profitability, entrepreneurship, competition, individualism, mobility, size, litigation and the use of force. Europeans firmly believe that the workings of the market should be tampered with and that it is the responsibility of the state to see to it that no one gets left behind or trampled upon.

European stakeholder capitalism is paternalistic and inclusive. Employees, employers, the government, communities and suppliers are partners in the decision making process or privies to it. Relics of past models of the market economy still abound in this continent: industrial policy, Keynesian government spending, development aid, export and production subsidies, trade protectionism, the state-sanctioned support of nascent and infant industries. Mild corporatism is rife and manifest in central wage bargaining.

For some countries - notably Estonia - joining the EU has translated into a de-liberalized and re-regulated future. Others find the EU's brand of the market a comfortable and dimly familiar middle ground between America's harsh prescriptions and communism's delusional model. The EU's faceless and Kafkaesque bureaucracy in Brussels - Moscow revisited - should prove to be a relief compared to the IMF's ruffians.

The EU is evolving into a land empire, albeit glacially. The polities of central and eastern Europe were always constituents of empires - reluctantly or by choice. In some ways they are better suited to form an "ever closer union" than the more veteran members.

Also Read:

Lessons in Transition

Is Transition Possible?

The Rip van Winkle Institutions

The Author of this Article is a Racist

The Eureka Connection

Women in Transition:
From Post Feminism to Past Femininity

Axes to Grind - The Taxonomy of Political Conflict

The Solow Paradox

Forward to the Past - Capitalism in Post-Communist Europe

Leapfrogging Transition - Technology and Post Communism

Contracting for Transition

Women in Transition

The Kleptocracies of the East

The Washington Consensus - I. The IMF

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