In the panic of the pandemic, we are making a lot of category errors. A category error, or mistake, is a term coined by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he gives a very English example. “A foreigner watching his first game of cricket learns what are the functions of the bowlers, the batsmen, the fielders, the umpires and the scorers. He then says, ‘But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit.’ ” Ryle went on to make his most famous point, that René Descartes was wrong to represent the human mind as a “ghost in the machine” — something distinct from the body. We no more have separate minds than a cricket team has a 12th player with the job of boosting the others’ morale.
Still, if the ghost of Ryle will forgive me, our minds today seem to be in a state of great confusion about what may befall our bodies. We are suddenly fearful of the invisible yet seemingly ubiquitous coronavirus. Yet we struggle to think clearly and to act consistently.
When I first warned readers of this column in January to “brace yourself for a coronavirus pandemic”, I was widely seen as an eccentric. Now, according to a CNN poll published last week, a “majority of Americans (55%) say it is at least somewhat likely that someone in their local community will be infected with novel coronavirus in the next few weeks”.
On January 29, I warned the clients of my advisory firm, Greenmantle, that “financial markets have not priced in the extent of the Chinese economic slowdown that the coronavirus — and Beijing’s belatedly aggressive response to it — imply”. Only a minority of them paid heed; as recently as 12 days ago, one was still mocking me as “a Debbie Downer, Fergie Frowner”. I’m still frowning. Despite Friday afternoon’s whistling past the graveyard, US stocks are down 20% from their peak.
The first category error I observe today is that many investors, seeing the extraordinary market volatility of the past week — which rivals the financial spasms of 1987, 2001 and 2008 — conclude that they are in a financial crisis. They therefore expect central bankers and finance ministers to deal with it, as they dealt with the last one.
But this is not a true financial crisis; it is a public health emergency with financial symptoms. Monetary and fiscal stimulus is no more likely to halt the pandemic than a quarantine of Wall Street would have halted the great banking panic of September 2008. No amount of quantitative easing and deficit spending can avert a recession in America if Covid-19 is spreading through the population at an exponential rate and if the combination of prudent cancellations and consumer panic will bring much economic activity to a halt.
An earlier category error was to confuse demagogy with leadership. I was not one of those who defiantly persisted with “never Trump” after the current occupant of the White House won the Republican nomination in 2016. I was more of a “seldom Trumper” — someone who, with all due reservations about Donald Trump’s character and temperament, was prepared to acknowledge the ways this president, in his feral, instinctive way, had improved on the foreign and economic policies of his predecessor.
But there was always going to come a crisis that would expose this president’s flaws — and it has come in the year he seeks re-election. Two weeks ago I argued that Covid-19 posed a mortal threat to his presidency. Last Thursday the prediction markets came around to my view, with Joe Biden edging ahead as the favourite to win on November 3.
Nevertheless, I feel as if I have read Peter Wehner’s latest piece in The Atlantic — “The Trump presidency is over” — a few times before. Oh yes, that was Steve Bannon’s line in August 2017, and numerous less interesting figures have used it in between.
This brings me to the third potential category error. Is California — or New York state — Italy? If so, then I agree that Trump is done. But are we sure? Will the impact of the coronavirus really be as devastating to one or more US states as it has been to Italy?
It is now quite widely assumed that it will be. That is why there has been panic-buying of hand-sanitising liquid and toilet paper in many of our local supermarkets. That is why a significant number of my friends are leaving California and New York for states they think will be hit less hard by the pandemic. John F Kennedy airport was thronged yesterday with people doing what, since time immemorial, they have done in times of plague: fleeing the big city (and spreading the virus).
If the whole of America goes the way of Italy then, adjusting for population, within two weeks there will 95,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and nearly 7,000 dead. The war zone scenes in some Italian hospitals will be replayed in San Francisco or New York — and they may even be worse, as America has slightly fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy.
The puzzle is why this is not already happening. Between December 1 and February 5, roughly the same number of direct flights went from Wuhan to Rome (28) and Paris (23) as went to San Francisco and New York (23 each). Indeed, according to research by network scientists at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, America was the fifth most likely country to import Covid-19 from China, after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The risk for Italy was substantially less. Moreover, according to a new paper from the same team, America should have begun to see local generation of more than 50 infections per day sooner than Italy.
Yet, although the curve of confirmed US cases looks about as steep as the curve for Italy, there appears to be a lag. Some have hypothesised that America is about 11 days behind Italy, so San Francisco will be where Milan is today by March 26. But why is it behind? The obvious explanation is the disastrous slowness with which America has been able to make functioning Covid-19 tests available. Even without testing, however, we would expect to see many more people already falling ill and dying in American hospitals. It is not as if older Americans are on average healthier than their Italian contemporaries — rather the opposite, I should think.
A better explanation, which I owe to two German economists, is that Italy’s social network may differ from America’s in terms of general gregariousness and physical proximity, and, more importantly, in terms of interactions between the older and younger generations.
A fourth and final category error is to confuse a real pandemic with science fiction. Just as it was underreaction to dismiss Covid-19 as “just the flu”, it is overreaction to think we are now in the film Contagion or the novel Station Eleven. We are entering the panic phase of the pandemic. Paradoxically, that is a good thing — because just a couple more weeks of complacency really would have been an error.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
‘The coronavirus panic is dumb.” I hesitate to disagree with Elon Musk, but here goes.
The wrong way to think about the rapid spread around the world of the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, and the disease it causes, Covid-19, is to say—as another smart and wealthy man put it to me last Monday—“Remember the H1N1-A virus of 2009? Neither do I. It infected a significant chunk of the globe, killed 20,000 U.S. citizens and we got over it pretty quickly.” He might have added that 20,000 is less than half the number of Americans who died of influenza and pneumonia in 2017.
H1N1, also known as swine flu, was a form of influenza. The reproductive number—the number of people a carrier typically infected, R0 for short—was 1.75. In the U.S., the CDC estimates that H1N1 infected 60.8 million people and killed 12,469, for a mortality rate of 0.02%
This new coronavirus—which is not influenza—appears to have a higher R0 and a much higher mortality rate. That rate is almost certainly lower than the World Health Organization suggested last week (3.4%), but it is still much higher than for H1N1. South Korea, which probably has the most accurate data given its aggressive testing regime, reports 50 deaths from 7,313 infections, a mortality rate of 0.68%. If as many Americans catch Covid-19 as caught swine flu, the death toll could exceed 440,000.
In short, Covid-19 has the potential to make 2020 much more than a bad flu season. To understand why, we need to apply more sophisticated frameworks than are being employed by most lay commentators, billionaires included.
“In Wuhan there also seems to be a new outbreak of pneumonia that’s bad.” That was the first mention in my email of the coming pandemic, on Jan. 4. Just over two weeks later, I noted that the new virus had “already caused three deaths in the city of Wuhan” but warned that it could spread rapidly, like SARS in 2003, as the outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Ten days after that, on Jan. 30, the number of confirmed cases world-wide was 9,776 and the total deaths 213. As of March 8, there are more than 107,000 confirmed cases and close to 3,700 deaths.
At first, the number of cases outside China did not grow exponentially. But that changed in February. Three weeks ago, the number was doubling every eight days. Now it is doubling every five days.
Standard epidemiological models tend to understate the threat posed by a virus such as 2019-nCoV, because they don’t take account of the topology of the social networks that transmit it. Thanks to the work of network scientists such as Romualdo Pastor-Satorras and Alessandro Vespignani, we now understand the extraordinary power of modern transportation networks combined with the social-network hubs known as “superspreaders.”
To quote László Barabási, Mr. Vespignani’s colleague at Northeastern University, “When it comes to the spreading of a pathogen, the epidemic parameters are of secondary importance. The most important factor is the structure of the mobility network. . . . An influenza virus moves through a continent with the speed of a sports car or of a smaller airplane.”
That means travel restrictions tend to be imposed too late to stop the spread of a contagious virus along the routes between the world’s 3,000 busiest airports. What matters is not geographic distance but “effective distance” in journey time.
Then there are all the local networks on the ground, where airports, shopping malls, supermarkets and schools act as hubs connected to countless homes and offices.
Finally, and crucially, there are social networks, which have the same “scale-free” character as the transportation networks: A relatively small number of nodes have an amazingly high number of edges. In good times, these are the frequent flyers, the gregarious networkers, the sexual Lotharios. In times of contagion, they are the superspreaders, like Gaëtan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant who claimed to have had 2,500 sexual partners and came to be known as “patient zero” in the early histories of AIDS, or Liu Jianlun, the physician from Guangdong Province who brought SARS to Hong Kong when he checked into the Metropole Hotel on Feb. 21, 2003.
Nicholas Christakis has shown that there was a similar pattern at Harvard when H1N1 came to campus. “The speed with which people acquired the flu during the epidemic, depended on various aspects of their social network position,” writes Mr. Christakis, who is now at Yale. “Those with more friends, those who were more central in the network, and those whose friends did not know each other got it sooner.”
Similar processes have caused Covid-19 to spread with startling speed around the world, then outward from transport and social hubs. A British businessman who went from a conference in Singapore to a ski trip in the French Alps was one of the first superspreaders to be identified in this epidemic. The virus reached Switzerland via a group of tourists returning from Italy.
For all these reasons, the number of known cases in the U.S. (436) must be off by at least one order of magnitude and more likely two, simply because of the disastrous shortage of test kits. According to Messrs. Pastor-Satorras and Vespignani’s Global Epidemic and Mobility model, the United States is the fifth-likeliest country to import Covid-19 from abroad—after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. If the U.S. turns out to have proportionately as many cases as South Korea, it will soon have some 46,000 cases and more than 300 deaths—or 1,200 deaths if the U.S. mortality rate is as high as Italy’s.
Network effects are the reason it is anything but dumb to worry about the novel coronavirus. Not only is it spreading much faster than most Americans realize; it is also disrupting global manufacturing supply chains as well as all the economic activities that depend on travel and proximity. It could set off a cascade of defaults in the corporate bond market, disrupting the global financial network.
Finally, cable news and online social networks can be relied upon to disseminate alarmist and downright fake stories about the pandemic—like the widely circulated map of global air routes that, according to one Australian website, depicted the “flight data of an estimated five million Wuhan residents who fled during the critical two weeks before the outbreak city was placed under lockdown.”
That aspect of the panic is indeed dumb. But that doesn’t make it smart to underestimate the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic—a perfect illustration of the vulnerability and fragility of our networked world.
Mr. Ferguson is writer and host of “Niall Ferguson’s Networld,” based on his 2018 book, “The Square and the Tower,” which will air March 17 on PBS.
This is the time of year when I get the paper-flower question. Living in California, but born in Britain, I am one of a tiny number of people here who wear a poppy in the week before Remembrance Day. Hence the question: “Hey, Niall, what’s with the red paper flower?” I don’t mind explaining. I wear it in memory of my grandfathers, John Ferguson and Tom Hamilton.
The former fought the Germans on the western front for most of the First World War. The latter fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. Both survived — otherwise, there would be no me — but each had his life shortened by the damage war did to his lungs. And I wear the poppy to commemorate the tens of millions of people — not only the British servicemen — whose lives were cut much shorter.
Sometimes I also point out that this is not some British eccentricity. It was an American woman, Moina Michael — a professor at Georgia University — who originally suggested wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She in turn was inspired by a Canadian, John McCrae, whose 1915 poem In Flanders Fields still resonates. Beginning in 1919, a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, sold artificial poppies in America to raise money for orphans in the war-torn regions of France. The tradition may have died out in America, but it is alive and well in Australia and New Zealand too.
If my interlocutor has not fled by now, I add that I would not have become a historian without such symbols of the past. For poppies, like the stone war memorials that were so numerous in the Scotland of my youth, prompted the earliest historical question in my mind: why did that happen? Why did my grandfathers, when they were still such young men — a mere teenager, in the case of John Ferguson — end up in mortal peril so far from home? It’s a version of Tolstoy’s more profound question at the end of War and Peace: “What is the power that moves nations?” It is the question I have spent my adult life trying to answer.
Remembrance, in short, has never been enough for me. We also need to learn from history. Here is one of the lessons that is too seldom learnt. Scraps of paper matter, and I don’t mean paper flowers.
What became the Great War — only later renamed the First World War after the Second had begun — might simply have been the Second Franco-German War if Britain and its empire had not joined it on August 4, 1914. Why did that happen?
Formally, Britain went to war because the German attack on Belgium violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which — under article VII of the annexe to the treaty — bound all five of the great powers of Europe to uphold Belgian neutrality. There were other reasons for intervening, naturally: the geopolitical calculation that a German victory over France, unlike in 1871, would pose a strategic threat to Britain, and the domestic political calculation that if the Liberals did not go to war, their government would fall and the Conservatives would go to war anyway. But Belgium mattered.
On August 6, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, explained to the House of Commons “what we are fighting for”. His speech focused on Britain’s “solemn international obligation” to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of both law and honour, and “to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed”. The evidence suggests that this casus belli did indeed resonate with the British public.
The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lamented that “England should fall upon them for the sake of the neutrality of Belgium” — for “un chiffon de papier”. But scraps of paper count, even if the 1839 treaty was only (as one cabinet minister observed) a convenient “plea . . . for intervention on behalf of France”.
How many Britons in 1914 knew the terms of that treaty? Not 16-year-old John Ferguson, I’ll be bound. And yet the commitment to Belgium, along with a sustained emphasis on German atrocities towards Belgian civilians, became central to British war propaganda.
Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war? I can think of two. In each case, they exist on paper. In each case, they have lost or are losing credibility, so that potential foes might be forgiven for dismissing them as mere scraps of paper.
The first is article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, which binds each signatory to consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America . . . an attack against them all”, and, in that case, to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
The second is the Taiwan Relations Act of April 10, 1979, which states that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that America “will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.
With respect to Nato, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last week gave a damning interview. “To my mind,” he told The Economist, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato.”
The Economist: Do you now believe that article 5 doesn’t work either; is that what you suspect?
Macron: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Donald Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
With respect to Taiwan, a similar question could easily be asked. Would Donald Trump feel bound by the 1979 act if China sought to end Taiwan’s autonomy and force it to submit to rule from Beijing? That is no remote scenario. Last Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned that China might resort to military aggression towards Taiwan as a means of deflecting internal political pressure as the mainland economy slows down.
So, go ahead, ask me why I am wearing a poppy. Commemoration is about more than showing respect to past generations. It is also about being alert to future dangers: red flags, as well as red flowers.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Thirty years ago, I was in love — with Berlin. As an impoverished British graduate student paid in weedy pounds not mighty deutschmarks, I could live there more cheaply than in Hamburg or Munich, and so I spent the summer of 1989 in a friend’s apartment in the Kurfürstenstrasse, dividing my time between the archives and journalism. West Berlin was not only inexpensive, it was fun. But the real attraction was the parallel world of “real existing socialism” next door, on the other side of the wall.
In those days, under the four-power agreement between the victors of the Second World War, a British citizen could travel pretty freely from the west of the city to the east and back, though you had to pay for the privilege. But when you boarded the S-Bahn train at Friedrichstrasse on the eastern side of the city to head back to West Berlin, you’d be the only person on the train. It was an eerie journey, riding in solitude past the bullet-riddled Reichstag building. I’d read enough John le Carré to get a cheap thrill every time I made that trip.
And then, in the summer of 1989, things changed. Suddenly I was no longer the only person on the train. In fact I was surrounded by Hungarians and Poles because their governments had, for the first time, given their people freedom to travel to the West. I got so excited about this that I wrote a story for one of the British papers, suggesting the headline: “The Berlin Wall is crumbling.”
If they’d published it, I’d have been one of the tiny number of commentators who correctly prophesied the collapse of communism. (The real Nostradamus was the American journalist James P O’Donnell, who published an article in the German magazine Das Beste in January 1979, correctly foreseeing the destruction of the wall 10 years later and even the sale of pieces of it as souvenirs.) But the deputy editor back in London said I’d listened to “one too many Ronald Reagan speeches”. My prophecy was spiked.
Worse, when the wall did crumble, on November 9, 1989, I was back in Britain, listening in agony as my old friend Matt Frei covered the story for BBC radio, live from the streets of Berlin. History had been made, and I’d not only missed predicting it. I’d missed witnessing it.
The sole consolation was that my side — the side of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II — had won, and the joy of victory after victory as the dominoes fell soon overcame the fear of missing out.
In the words of Francis Fukuyama, who succeeded in publishing a prescient essay in the summer of 1989, “What is important . . . is that political liberalism has been following economic liberalism, more slowly than many had hoped but with seeming inevitability.” In backing Thatcher and Reagan as an undergraduate, I had found myself part of a minority of punk Tories and young fogeys (among them one Boris Johnson).
We had argued that free markets and free citizens went hand in hand. We had cheered in 1987 when Reagan told his Russian counterpart, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And, just two years after that speech, we had been vindicated.
There’s an argument to be made now, of course, that we got 1989 childishly wrong. While we blithely celebrated the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe, we wholly underestimated the significance of its survival in China. In our Eurocentric way, we paid more attention to events in Timisoara than to those in Tiananmen Square, where communism had shown its true, repressive face that June.
Now, 30 years on, the enlargement of the EU and Nato — even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — seem much less significant historically than China’s spectacular rise after 1989. Reminder: in 1989 China’s gross domestic product was 8.2% the size of America’s. Today, according to the IMF, it is two-thirds: 66.6%. Adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, China’s economy is actually larger than that of America and has been since 2014. The Soviet Union never achieved anything close to that. At its Cold War peak, in the mid-1970s, its economy was just 44% the size of America’s.
For years we told ourselves that China would eventually succumb to the West’s embrace. The internet, we dreamed, would do the trick. If China tried to regulate it, the effort would be like “nailing Jello to a wall”, in Bill Clinton’s famous phrase. That has proved very wrong.
We were wrong, too, if we thought that the liberated nations of central Europe would gratefully morph into West Europeans, dismissing from their memories the searing experiences of 40 years under communism, and becoming just like us. That hasn’t happened — not in Poland, despite its economic success in the past 30 years, and not in Hungary, which under Viktor Orban has become the populist bad boy of the European Union.
Friends with whom I once jubilantly celebrated the events of 1989 now express bitter disillusionment with developments in Warsaw and Budapest. Others ask me what has really been achieved when the most popular political parties in the former East German state of Thuringia, based on last weekend’s election, are the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Yet there is a need for some perspective. Central Europe is a vastly freer, richer and happier place than it was under the iron heels of the Russians and their puppets. It is also far less prone to political fragmentation and polarisation than it was in its last period of democratic government between the world wars.
More importantly, I simply disbelieve those who tell us today that China is in the process of reviving totalitarianism, not to mention the planned economy, with the help of big data, facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence. This surely is to misunderstand the seven key lessons of 1989.
1 The Soviet empire was unassailable as long as it was capable of growing. When stagnation set in — when productivity growth turned negative in the 1970s — the system began to rot. Between 1973 and 1990, per capita growth was negative. When China slows, as demographic and financial headwinds dictate that it must, there will also be popular disillusionment, just as there was in the old Eastern bloc.
2 Growth tends to create a middle class, and the middle class expects more than hollow slogans, even if it does not expect democracy. With a few proletarian exceptions — Lech Wałesa is the most obvious — the dissidents who led what Timothy Garton Ash called “the Refolution”, a mix of reform and revolution, were bourgeois intellectuals: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, for example, or Bronislaw Geremek in Poland. Such people exist in China today — think of the artist Ai Weiwei — and their deep dissatisfaction with the one-party state is essentially the same as their central European precursors.
3 Corruption, inefficiency and environmental degradation are inherent features of a one-party state without the rule of law. In a fundamentally corrupt system without true accountability, even an anti-corruption campaign becomes corrupt. What the Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer called the “grabbing hand” will always grab. If the party is above the law, it will tend towards lawlessness.
4 No amount of surveillance will preserve a state that loses legitimacy. The Stasi didn’t need AI to know pretty much everything that was going on in the German Democratic Republic: they just relied on a vast network of part-time spies and snoopers known, with truly Orwellian euphemism, as “unofficial co-workers”. But knowing what people said in the supposed privacy of their own homes didn’t save that system. On the contrary.
5 In a surveillance state, everyone gets used to lying. But when everyone lies, you get disasters like Chernobyl, on April 26, 1986 — the death knell of the Soviet system — or the public relations fiasco that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall itself: a bungled press conference by the politburo member Günter Schabowski, who intimated semi-intelligibly that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen”, starting “right away, immediately”.
A key point made in Mary Elise Sarotte’s brilliant book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall is that lack of trust within the party elite and the security apparatus prevented an effective retraction of this fateful order and led a key Stasi officer, Harald Jäger, to throw open the crucial checkpoint rather than fire on the crowd that had formed as the news of Schabowski’s statement spread.
6 Soviet power fragmented on the periphery first. That is why Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are the key areas to watch today, not Beijing. The Berlin Wall fell as part of a chain reaction that began in Poland in the summer of 1988 and spread to Hungary and on to Leipzig (the crucial location, which might have been the German Tiananmen Square) before it reached Berlin. And after Berlin it spread ever further: Sofia, Prague, Timisoara, Bucharest — then to Vilnius, where Lithuania’s independence was declared in March 1990, and finally to Moscow in 1991.
Some similar process, in the end, will bring down the Great Firewall of China.
7 But there is a final point to be made. Academic opinion (never much enamoured of Ronald Reagan) now holds that the Berlin Wall fell because of internal rather than external pressures. In the words of the East German dissident Marianne Birthler, “First we fought for our freedom and then, because of that, the wall fell.”
Such testimony has given rise to the view that Reagan’s 1987 speech was somehow irrelevant. I even got into an argument with an American editor about this recently. I had referred in a draft to “the American victory over the Soviet Union”. Editor: “This is a contentious point, as the implication is that America did win the Cold War. We should at least acknowledge that the notion of an American ‘victory’ is contested by historians and why.”
But this is revisionism ad absurdum. It implies that somehow the dissidents could have thrown off the Soviet yoke even if America had applied no pressure at all — even if Nato had done nothing in response to the deployment of SS-20 missiles in the late 1970s — even if Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech had included the line, “Mr Gorbachev, leave this wall intact.”
The reality, however, is that during the Cold War, America and its allies did a succession of things that fundamentally helped the dissidents, as well as offering encouragement to those who lacked the courage actively to resist the communist regimes, but nevertheless despised them. These included: broadcasting through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, beginning in the 1940s; getting the Soviets to subscribe to a list of human rights they flagrantly did not respect in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975; and offering Warsaw Pact citizens as many glimpses as possible of the better life that was on offer on the other side of the Iron Curtain. As Garton Ash has shown, by 1986 244,000 East Germans were visiting West Germany every year. They soon saw the difference between a Trabant and BMW.
In my book Civilization (2011), I made the argument that 1989 was about consumerism more than it was about conservatism, echoing Sir Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Rock’n’Roll. Four years before the wall fell, the French leftist philosopher and former comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, remarked: “There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.”
He was right. When I had crossed from West Berlin to East Berlin before what Germans called die Wende — the “turning point” — the most striking difference had not been the lack of liberty (that took a little time to discern). It had been the lack of rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites. When ordinary East Berliners first came through Checkpoint Charlie or crossed the Glienicke Bridge in 1989, they did not ask for copies of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. They asked for Coca-Cola.
For the dissidents, this was the triumph of freedom. For their fellow East Germans, it was the triumph of free money, achieved when their savings were converted from East German Monopoly marks into West German deutschmarks on a one-for-one basis — not a trivial windfall. That the second- order effect would be to render the entire East German economy uncompetitive became clear only later, by which time the smarter “Ossis” had moved west.
We should not be surprised that, 30 years on, the death of central European communism has given rise to a few disappointments. It is much more surprising how few disasters there have been. Only one of the former workers’ paradises — Yugoslavia — descended into war and ethnic cleansing. No former members of the Warsaw Pact have ended up at war with each other. Though it has become fashionable to scoff at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, in fact he has been more right than wrong. Today, truly unfree societies account for just 35% of the world’s population and 22% of global GDP. But of those proportions, most (respectively, 19% and 16%) is China.
Will the men in Beijing prove Fukuyama wrong in the end? The lesson of 1989 is surely not to bet on a regime that, at its core, is still based on Lenin’s and Stalin’s one-party state. True, 70 years after its foundation, the people’s republic is undoubtedly in better shape than the Soviet Union was 70 years after the Bolshevik revolution. Moreover, its leaders are firmly resolved not to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union; so there will be no glasnost, no political transparency, in China — not even in Hong Kong, and implicitly not in Taiwan either before too long.
Nevertheless, let me conclude with another prophecy (one that I hope will make it into print). These days I spend more time in Beijing than in Berlin and this is what I foresee. The social credit system, with its technology of 24/7 surveillance, will not prevent China from succumbing, over the next 10 or 20 years, to the combination of a slowing economy, a rising and expectant middle class, a chronically corrupt political system, a corrosive culture of dissembling, and a fragmentation that has already begun on the periphery.
The Great Firewall of China is crumbling. And, as with the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, pressure from outside is going to accelerate the process.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford