Capitalist euphoria proved short-lived in Europe. Five years ago we witnessed the collapse of the post-Stalinist empire, which folded with unexpected ease. By 1991 it was the turn of the Soviet Union itself What had started seventy-four years earlier as a leap into the future ended with the parody of a putsch. Triumphant capitalism was spreading across the Continent, eagerly awaited by the Eastern Europeans, But the infatuation did not last, The reality did not correspond to the picture projected by American television serials, and when the people were given an opportunity, they expressed their disappointment. Last year the Poles and then the Russians voted massively against the practitioners of the shock therapy prescribed by the I.M.F. and the international financial establishment. This year it was the turn of the Hungarians to elect the former Communists,
In Western Europe, too, the mood has altered. Though the economy is finally emerging from the long depression, the prospects are gloomy. Mass unemployment has come to stay. In a deregulated world, where capital can flow freely in search of cheap labor, the European establishment preaches that the welfare state is a luxury that is no longer affordable, To talk about “capitalism with a human face” has ceased to be fashionable.
But if capitalism is no longer celebrating its triumph, it is still victorious. It would be a serious mistake to read the electoral and other symptoms of deep discontent in both halves of Europe as signs of a socialist revival. There are none on the horizon. We are in living a strange period of transition when an old system has outlived its time, but there is nobody to push it off the stage or even to indicate how the pressure should be applied. The success of the system, and its main safeguard for the time being, has been its ability to convince most people that there is no way out and that it is not even worth it to look for one.
Discontent may reach the breaking point, however, whatever the pundits may say about the nonexistence of a solution. And if progressive outlets are unavailable, reactionary ones will be tried. Increasingly we are getting alarm signals, both reminders of the past and pointers to the future: The rise in popularity of the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini in Italy, the 23 percent of the vote captured in Austria’s parliamentary election by Jorg Haider’s xenophobic Freedom Party and the 28 percent conquered in Antwerp. Belgium, by the even more obnoxious Flemish Bloc are some of the recent examples. Yet in the German elections the extreme right did poorly. To find any immediate threat of people running amok as they did before World War I1 we have to look to Eastern Europe, where the recent upheaval has torn the social fabric and driven large sections of the population to despair.
Five years ago, as Eastern Europeans voted with their feet and their Trabant cars for capitalism, it was hard to imagine that they would be putting ex-Communists back into office so soon. Granted that the latter have been converted and rebaptized as Social Democrats; and, even more important, the vote in their favor was not a vote for the ancien régime but a protest against the hardships and inequalities of the new one. Nevertheless, we must try to understand how such high expectations crashed so spectacularly. To do so, we must examine the nature of the Eastern European transition.
Back in 1989, as regimes tumbled with the wall, an entire system was collapsing. The opening of frontiers and the switch toward convertibility of currencies meant that the weaker system would inevitably be swallowed by the one with higher productivity. This was to be coupled with a development without historical precedent-the rapid creation of a new class of property owners, within a few years rather than over decades or centuries of accumulation as in the Western world. It is the combination of these two trends that accounts for the bitterness and complexity of Eastern European politics.