In the spring of 1987, US president Ronald Reagan delivered an address — one which has since accrued exponential renown — against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, that old dividing line between East and West, communism and capitalism, totalitarianism and democracy.
The Berlin Wall physically represented what was more broadly called the “Iron Curtain,” the ideological veil separating opposing ways of seeing and ways of life. At that time, history was bending towards us in the West, with our free-market economies and liberal-leaning societies seemingly leading the way. Reagan famously demanded of the Soviet ruler: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Here in the West, we believed in individualism and freedom, which supposedly supported a democratic and responsible government and fostered economic competition and innovation. The Soviet satellite republics enjoyed nothing of the sort, living under dreary planned economies, deprived of private property, with collective standards outstripping human rights, and a resigned sense of political corruption and impending doom destined to pervade daily life.
The Berlin Wall signified this. And at first glance, it seems that the segment housed in the Centre de commerce mondial’s atrium is evidence. The West side is spraypainted with graffiti and splashed with bursts of vibrant colour; the East side is bleak and bears only what appear to be administrative markings. Obviously, the permissive West was the superior flank, and we assumed simply that freedom would naturally flow eastward with the wall’s dissolution in 1990.
But that hasn’t happened.
What we call democracy was intended to guarantee that governments were responsible to the people who elected them. And yet the world’s two leading democracies, the United States and Britain, have demonstrated that even free choice doesn’t assure the contentment of the demos.
The way democracies are structured in the West ensures the perpetual tyranny of the minority. In the US, the population is more-or-less divided, but in the UK, as in Canada, ruling parties can routinely form a “majority” government with 30% or less of the vote. The UK has endured an undemocratic transfer of power so many times in the past decade that it’s difficult to count. And more than 40% of Americans still don’t trust the 2020 presidential election outcome. Maybe it’s time to admit that this form of democracy we live under has a few flaws.
Communications technologies were meant to liberate us Westerners, freeing everyone from the shackles of space and time and allowing the unfettered flow of information to permeate borders and broaden hearts and minds.
And yet the West’s media are constantly warring with each other over what constitutes important information, and who holds the truth. Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, has such contempt for the media that he has replaced his company’s entire public relations department with an auto-reply message delivering a poop emoji.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, state surveillance of private individuals was considered one of the most heinous transgressions of Eastern totalitarianism. The Oscar-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others depicted the humdrum occupation of an East German surveillance officer assigned to spy on the conversation and communication of ordinary citizens. This cinematic rendering was supposed to look shocking to Western audiences, a revelation of how low totalitarian governments stooped just to collect a little bit of information.
And yet we in the West have shrugged at exposé after exposé of major media corporations — and governments, too — conducting mass-surveillance that would make Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler blush like a nun. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are arguably little more than surveillance networks.
Ultimately, it was concluded to be capitalism, like the pudding’s eating, that would prove the West’s dominance. Open competition in every marketplace would allow everyone, doing anything, the opportunity to succeed, for cheaper, thus providing the best possible goods and services to a free public for the least cost, freeing up more capital for leisure and the pursuit of happiness.
And yet the world’s capitalist economies since 1990 have heaved through at least three recessions — one of them “great” — a financial crisis in 2008 precipitated by the collapse of major lending institutions, and the unprecedented consolidation of wealth into the fewest hands in history. A recent Oxfam report found that the 1 percent, as we have come to accept them, snatched nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020. At $42 trillion, that’s almost twice as much as the bottom 99 percent of us.
What do you buy when you can afford anything? Ironically, the most coveted bauble in the free West is Control.
Capitalism undermines democracy when it becomes possible to purchase political power. And unrestricted communication is compromised when the channels are owned and operated by capitalists for the purposes of surveillance. The free marketplace ceases to be free when capital stomps out competition. And ultimately, the demos — us citizens — lose trust in the system.
That’s what the East-West divide always seemed to be about: trust. If you want for nothing, you can trust your neighbour. You can trust the free media. You can trust the best products. You can trust the most popular politicians. And you can trust fair elections.
Except, as we all know, we can trust none of these things.
Again, it is ironic that the East appears to have won in the trust department, too. You can’t trust Biden or Trudeau or whomever happens to be Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of writing. But you can trust Putin to be Putin. That’s why Trump won — and may again: because, no matter how ridiculous his tactics, America could always trust Trump to Trump.
Our free and liberal democracy has afforded, among other things, what appears to be free and fair choice in all walks of life, including governing authorities, consumer products, and channels of communication. Western life gives us in Montreal the freedom to display a segment of the Berlin Wall as if it’s the spoils of some brutal war in some distant past, as if to say, “job done.” But the job isn’t done. Walls just like it and worse are still being built. And the once shining triptych of democracy, technology, and capitalism has lost its lustre.
On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev warned the world of a new Cold War emerging between East and West, one rooted in the Ukrainian question, and aggravated by what Gorbachev referred to as American “triumphalism.” The West got cocky is what Gorby meant. Instead of ensuring that another wall like it could never happen again, we just decorated it.
First as tragedy, then as tourist attraction.◼︎