The People After 1989

Europe Since 1989: A History (2016) represents Philipp Ther’s groundbreaking attempt to fill the absence of what he calls a ‘book conceptualizing the quarter-century since 1989 as a distinct historical epoch’, by focussing on neoliberalism as the ‘guiding ideology’ of the period. Ther defines neoliberalism as the process of ‘privatizing state enterprises, liberalizing previously regulated sectors (such as banks and the stock exchange), and generally withdrawing from the economy’ which, initiated by Thatcher and Reagan, ‘became a major factor driving European history, first in the United Kingdom, then in the postcommunist East, reaching Western Europe after a slight delay and eventually the Mediterranean South’. It seems fair to judge that whilst for a while the free-for-all could bring prosperity for many, now, however, it brings anxiety for almost all – and Ther maintains that in fact ‘around the year 2014’ the neoliberal era ‘came to an end’. Writing in the ‘Preface to the English Paperback Edition’ of his text in 2018 (i.e. before the 2020 coronavirus crisis hit Europe’s economy), Ther adduced as evidence of neoliberalism’s collapse ‘the recent political (not yet economic) turmoil in the West, and the rising contestation by authoritarian regimes within and outside of the European Union’.[i] Orban, Putin.

Ther notes how ‘the social disruptions and the lack of prospects for (too) large parts of the population’ attendant upon neoliberal developments, have been ‘a fertile ground for right-wing populists and nationalists’. This is why, as Ther puts it, ‘Brexit and the election of Donald Trump can be interpreted as a belated popular revolt against Thatcherism and Reaganomics’. If the collapse of neoliberalism is twinned with the rise of populism, it seems possible to discern an emerging shift from a liberal climate of openness to a protectionist climate of anxious inwardness. ‘The [right-wing] populists’ simple strategy was to focus entirely on the nation, disregard the opinions of international investors, and, above all, promise the ethnically defined electorate protection against the rigours of [neoliberal] transformation’, Ther summarized. Whilst the people are to be protected from globalization, labour market competition and migrant crime, the populists’ focus on the nation involves a pledge to ‘uphold national values’ and a ‘claim to represent the will of the “true people”’; this claim, Ther clarifies, is ‘based on an ethno-nationally defined demos, and this is why radical nationalism is a cornerstone of right-wing populism’.[ii]

It is worth noting, however, that an appeal to national values and to an idea of the ‘true people’ appears to be constitutive of politics in general now. In the last UK general election, the Conservatives appealed to the just-about-managings for core support whilst Labour bidded to represent the Many Not The Few; on the back of Brexit and the coronavirus Boris Johnson has sought to co-opt a doughty totalized populace through a martial cult of the Second World War to rival Putin’s cult of the Great Patriotic War. Unnerved by the virus, the UK is instead aggressively fragmenting into its devolved nations and mayoral principalities. But the sense that ‘the people’ are now, as it were, at once blowing in the wind and up for grabs makes it even more pertinent to try to reclaim the concept of the ‘true people’ from populism.

Ther’s analysis showed how the evolution of contemporary populisms with their limiting ideas of the people related to the growing dominance post-1989 of economics over politics, or the concentration of economic policy in the hands of a specialist caste, whereby economic policy was functionalized and distanced from democratic politics. As Ther observes, ‘the rise of capitalism in Eastern Europe’ is ‘a development that does not go hand in hand with the rise of democracies, as Francis Fukuyama […] expected in 1989’; indeed, he argues, the experience of postcommunist countries revealed that ‘deficient democracy and neoliberal reform policies were […] mutually dependent’. One example of this mutual dependency in Europe since 1989 relates to how ‘TINA’ neoliberalism triggers the downgrading of democratic politics. ‘Whenever the antipolitical argument that “there is no alternative” to one or other reform is asserted (which has been a key part of the neoliberal repertoire since the eighties), it prompts antipolitical reactions such as populism.’ Hence, Ther wrote, ‘the power of populist parties such as Syriza [in Greece] is dependent on the increasing influence of technocrats’ – ‘and vice versa’, he adds. His suggestion that populist movements ‘can only be debunked if the dialectic between technocracy and populism is broken’, means that ‘the traditional parties must recast the term “reform” in a positive light’. This may in turn help stimulate a more positive idea of the people than the idea that we are simply suffering victims of the application of technocrat economics. Ther’s study certainly suggests a link between the absence of a positive concept of the people and our self-identification as purely economic animals, when he notes that ‘no concept of a generation of 1989 has emerged’ in the period after the 1989-91 revolutions, during which our submission to economic reforms has ruled out an evolution of collective consciousness. ‘Any sense of generational community has since been weakened by the rapid pace of change, the divergent experiences of transformation depending on individuals’ gender and social background, and the sobering results of the changes in the early 1990s.’[iii]  

Ther’s account makes it clear that the historical period since 1989 has been an era of pauperization for the vast majority of Europeans. There has been progressive de-bourgeoisification: ‘The middle class is thinned out; there are ever more “working poor.”’ Of course these ‘true people’ – the just-about-managing – are not managing really, and are dependent on welfare support to survive. Hence, Ther notes, in the most recent years ‘the most pressing concern is no longer how to lower tax rates but how to maintain the welfare state, or at least some kind of basic government provision’. The coronavirus crisis has brought this concern into focus, with increased attention now being paid (in the UK) to the NHS and Social Care, and the furloughing of millions of workers appears like a dramatization of the fact that, as Ther writes, ‘the trend toward reducing government is over.’ Because this state intervention will contribute to the global economic crisis, it seems worth bearing in mind the example of Germany’s response to the crisis of its own economy and welfare state in the nineties. The 2001-05 welfare state reforms under Gerhard Schröder, Ther observes, brought ‘dramatic, controversial changes’ – but these changes did mean that ‘the decline was halted by a downward adjustment of social standards’.[iv] Because it is likely that coronavirus-provoked state intervention will have the same outcome as the earlier German reduction of state intervention – a lowering of living standards – it now seems necessary to develop some form of acceptance of pauperization, which might involve a redefinition of the ‘working poor’.   

Thinking about why Europeans have let themselves be complicit in the neoliberal experience could help us to think of ways by which the people could have a better experience of post-neoliberalism. A reclamation of an idea of the ‘true people’ might rest on asking why it was that, as Ther stresses, in Europe ‘neoliberalism did not only cater to the business and finance sectors but, as in the United States, also had a popular dimension’. Ther suggests that the explanation has to do with time and with the need for gratification after long-term frustration: ‘the neoliberal order was accepted from below, by society’ because ‘after years of vague promises for the future by reform politicians and communists alike’, the people ‘seized the opportunity to fulfil their immediate wishes’. The shift from communism to consumerism ‘changed popular perceptions of time’, Ther sees, and necessitated a shift towards ‘living in the here and now’. One thing that seems to be called for is therefore a new relation to time. A different, less impatient or greedy, type of consumerism may bring about less of a fixation on the present and a people with a more highly developed historical sense. Ther recalls how Europe, in recent years, has sought to distance itself from the historical. ‘The dialectical construct of old versus new, nostalgic versus progressive, was one of the key mechanisms of neoliberal reform discourse.’ A vocabulary of futurity has been installed in order to make the opponents of reform appear like ‘fusty, blockheaded reactionaries’; key terms from the SPD-Green rhetoric of the Schröder era cited by Ther include ‘”modernization,” “innovation,” “new departure,” and the all-important “future.”’[v] All-pervasive now globally is the dreadful ‘going forward’, an invention which again seems designed to imply that the future could only ever exist as the time or site of progress.

Ther understands neoliberalism, which has an ‘orientation toward a specific model of historical development – […] liberal democracy combined with market economy’, to be ‘rooted in eighteenth-century, occidentalist, Enlightenment-based ideas of progress’. In keeping with its Enlightenment heritage, ‘“rational choices”’ became a ‘key term in the practice of and philosophy behind’ neoliberalism. One example of how economic progress was taken to be grounded in the people’s application of rationality, appears in Ther’s account of the Hartz IV legislative package introduced as part of Germany’s labour market reforms in 2003-05. ‘Hartz IV’ refers to the unemployment benefit Arbeitslosengeld II which, because it is paid only to those who have used up their savings, makes unemployment ‘synonymous with deprivation’, as Ther puts it. ‘The basic premise of these reforms was that the prospect of losing all one’s assets would motivate the unemployed to become more active and flexible.’ Central to the agency invoked by the reforms was the practice of rationality: ‘it was presumed that the unemployed would make rational choices in favour of badly paid jobs over the Hartz IV rate of benefits’. But this form of rationality simply concretizes the category of the ‘working poor’: Ther records that there were 1.3 million receiving additional payments for regular occupations under Hartz IV in 2013. ‘Rational choices’, moreover, are quite simply unavailable to many Germans. Under the reforms, Ther writes, ‘citizens were expected to be autonomous subjects who took active control of their lives’. But the policy-makers, as Ther points out, forgot about those, ‘including single mothers and those caring for sick relatives, who were not in any position to act as homo economicus’. Autonomy cannot be universalized – and in any case the autonomy prescribed by the reforms is in reality a false, enforced and thus self-contradictory autonomy: as Ther observes, ‘freedom – a key concept in reform legislation’ was for the German people here ‘coupled with an obligation to assume responsibility for themselves and the general good’.[vi]    

Thinking about the people’s experience of post-neoliberalism could involve a reclamation of the idea of freedom. Already as early as 1990, Ther notes, ‘the principle of freedom became concentrated on the economy’; that is, reduced to reference to issues such as the freeing of the markets from government restrictions. ‘In the postrevolutionary transformation era, consideration of the ethical and social implications of freedom largely died away.’ Indeed, once it had been ‘appropriated by economics’, the concept of freedom ‘gradually disappeared from public debate’ altogether. I have already touched on one way of reinserting the concept of freedom in public debate: by paying attention to those excluded from agency, from ‘free self-determination and individualism’ (Ther’s words) under neoliberalism. As Ther documents, following the revolutions around 1990 ‘the crisis in agriculture and old industry, mass unemployment, the social decline of minorities such as the Roma, and other new inequalities left only a minority in the postcommunist societies able to take advantage of the newly won freedoms’. Subsequently, rising unemployment since the 2008-09 crisis ‘reduced the numbers of those who enjoy the freedom to pursue their personal goals, even in Western Europe’.[vii] It would be worthwhile to attempt a revaluation of the people’s lack of economic autonomy, or of neoliberal freedom qua ‘free self-determination and individualism’ (Ther), alongside a consideration of the different, less materialistic perceptions and freedoms that this lack can generate.   

Another way of reinvigorating the concept of freedom within public debate could derive from the recognition that the neoliberal, activist idea of ‘freedom’ – to progress, to perform autonomy – is not the same as the idea of freedom that motivated the European revolutions around 1990. As Ther remembers, at that time ‘the focus was on freedom from something – from Soviet domination, from the communists, from censorship, and from persecution, oppression, and paternalism in various other areas of life’. European postcommunism was to involve the development within the formerly communist countries of a form of freedom which Ther elsewhere calls ‘the comprehensive, ethically grounded variety of the revolution era’, in contrast to ‘the reduced, economic’ type of freedom which came to dominate the world in the 1990s. This postcommunist freedom would involve the assertion of the particularity of the ‘small’ nation in relation to Europe as a whole. ‘When Eastern European countries recalled their national histories, they emphasized their sovereignty as well as supported their candidacy for European Union membership.’ In Czechoslovakia, for instance, whose founder Tomáš Masaryk had propagated the idea of the Czechs as a ‘historically democratic nation’ (Ther’s words), president Václav Havel ‘envisioned a […] postimperial Europe, shaped by democracy and freedom, in which the “small” nations would have their place’. But as Ther sees, ‘the freedom gained in 1989 is now largely taken for granted in the EU’, and the Western nations always tended to view European integration as a ‘(technocratic) process’, rather than defining Europe ‘in idealized terms as a community of values’, as formerly communist countries did. One twin goal could be to reclaim both an idea of democracy from the EU technocrats and a concept of sovereign nationhood from the populists. Perhaps a freedom which is about achieving respect for the diversity of ‘small’, democratic nations could still be reclaimed on the periphery of present-day Europe, as Ther suggests. ‘The Ukrainian revolution has […] revitalized some of the values of 1989, which is why it is so despised by the former KGB functionary Vladimir Putin.’[viii]     


[i] Europe since 1989: A History, trans. by Charlotte Hughes-Kreutzmüller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018; first publ. 2016), pp. 32, 5, xii.

[ii] Ther, pp. xi, ix, 119, xi, xii.

[iii] Ther, pp. xi, 119, 314, 286-87, 25.

[iv] Ther, pp. vii, 278, 330.

[v] Ther, pp. 226, 272.

[vi] Ther, pp. 248, 267, 268, 271, 390 n. 19, 268.

[vii] Ther, pp. 303, 302.

[viii] Ther, pp. 302, 304, 301, 300-01, 304, 300, 306.


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