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Fire in the Mind

THE END OF UTOPIA: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy;\o7 By Russell Jacoby; (BasicBooks: 240 pp., $26)\f7

May 23, 1999|JOHN GRAY | John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and the author of, most recently, "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism" (The New Press)

Not so long ago, the most we had to fear--so we were told--was boredom. In that far-off era, the quietly apocalyptic fall of the Berlin Wall had shown the future lay with "democratic capitalism." With the worldwide triumph of democracy and free markets would come the only evil we should fear--the boredom that follows the end of history. To be sure, from the start there were many who warned against this farrago of sub-Marxian historical determinism and right-wing hubris. In Europe, Asia and the United States, old-fashioned liberals, unreconstructed Social Democrats and traditional conservatives were at one in cautioning that the collapse of communism was not an unmixed blessing. They pointed out that the disintegration of empires is commonly attended with some disorder and that failed tyrannies are not always followed by flourishing democracies. These skeptical voices were heard widely, even if they failed to chasten the callow hopes that animated Western policies throughout the '90s. Yet few of them noted the most striking feature of the end-of-history view of the world, which was its radical utopianism.

The idea that the defeat of a single oppressive regime could remove from the world the chief causes of war and the dangerous appeal of dictatorship betrays an astonishing ignorance of history. But historical myopia is an integral part of the worldview which came to prevail in the parties of the Right that dominated political life in the West during the '80s. By the end of that decade, in Britain, the United States and several other Western countries, the Right had been captured by an anachronistic species of free-market utopianism. The ragbag of skepticism, Augustinian suspicion of human motives and grudging accommodation to the modern age that had done service as a conservative philosophy for a century or more were thrown aside, and the parties of the Right embraced the crackpot certainties of Herbert Spencer and Ayn Rand. Neoliberalism shaped the worldview and policies of once-conservative parties, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. Though they had once been stoic partisans of human imperfection, they became ranting evangelists for global capitalism. Though they had practiced a politics of small gains, modest expectations and preparation for adversity, now they encouraged voters to believe that the secret of unending prosperity had been found. The utopian impulse, which the fall of communism had crushed on the Left, reemerged with undiminished vigor among the promoters of the free market. Utopia had found a home on the Right.

It was a curious spectacle. Grizzled politicians listened respectfully as neoliberal ideologues, fresh-faced from their think tanks, assured them that countries in which civil institutions had been repressed for generations, that had scarcely or never known democratic government and which had few historical memories of capitalism in any of its varieties would soon be "free-market democracies." The scarred histories of many of these countries were passed over, if they were remembered at all, as irrelevant in the new world that the fall of communism had brought forth. Their unresolved territorial rivalries; their legacy of ethnic hatreds; the disastrous communist inheritance of moral and ecological devastation; the eternal strategic imperatives of geography--these daunting obstacles to transition and reconstruction were consigned, with scarcely a passing thought, to the rubbish heap of history.

The rapid transition to post-historical tranquillity of the post-communist countries was guaranteed by a formidable array of programs and devices. Constitutions were scribbled on the backs of envelopes during hasty flights to unfamiliar capitals; independent central banks conjured up to restrain the predations of untrustworthy local politicians and ambitious privatizations of state assets were confidently scheduled. Without contributing much in the way of real assistance, the West drafted in their best and brightest. The post-communist countries embarked on a grand experiment in utopian social engineering, not altogether dissimilar to that which had been imposed upon them in the name of Marxism some decades before.

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