When We Began

May 10, 2013 Topic: History

When We Began

The twenty-first century couldn't have happened without 1979's upheavals.

Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels. 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books.

The 1970s were not a glamorous period of human history. From today’s perspective, they were a decade of questionable taste in clothing, hairstyles, music, and architecture. There was a general sense of economic and political unease in the West. But there are good reasons to study the 1970s, argues Christian Caryl in his latest book, Strange Rebels. Most importantly, it was a decade in which the overall malaise prompted cataclysmic events that have irrevocably shaped the world in which we live today.

Christian Caryl is a journalist of the old school. A senior fellow at the Legatum Institute (full disclosure: I worked as an economist there until February 2013) and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, his book demonstrates the breadth of his experience in journalism (he served as bureau chief for Newsweek and US News in Tokyo and Moscow, respectively). A riveting read, it is interspersed with gripping anecdotes and an admirable attention to detail. Its main thesis—that our current world would be unimaginable without the unique concatenation of world events that occurred in a very short period of time in 1979—is both novel and compelling.

What exactly happened in 1979? Well, for one, Margaret Thatcher won Britain’s general election in May, ending a decade of economic stagnation, rampant inflation and excessive unionism. In the years that followed, she and her colleagues would fix the British economy, and turn an overregulated state in decline into an economic powerhouse. More importantly, she would change the conversation about economic policy in the West. Government ownership of industry, unionism and naïve Keynesian stabilization policies, which formed the basis of the post-war economic consensus in Western Europe, would be intellectually discredited for the years to come—though they would unfortunately resurface in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008.

Although not discussed explicitly in the book, Thatcher’s example inspired pro-market reformers around the world, including those in Eastern Europe. In 1989, for transitional economies for Eastern Europe, a rapid return to free markets was the only credible option and alternative to pipedream fantasies of seeking a “third way” between capitalism and communism.

Speaking of Eastern Europe, in June 1979 Pope John Paul II visited Poland, on a trip that heralded troubles for the communist regime. When he learned about the forthcoming visit, Leonid Brezhnev called Edward Gierek, the secretary of the Polish communist party, to persuade him to cancel Pope’s trip and recommended that the Pope declare himself indisposed. Canceling the visit was a nonstarter, however, so Brezhnev concluded the conversation abruptly. “Do what you want, so long as you and your party don’t regret it later,” he said, before hanging up.

Unsurprisingly, the pope was a massive hit in his home country. One million people showed up for his homily on Victory Square in Warsaw. For Poles, many of whom “had spent much of their lives watching television broadcasts or attending public rallies where the only language to be heard was the ponderous idiom of Marxism-Leninism,” this was a turning of the tide, which would later give rise to an organized opposition movement and finally to the downfall of communism.

Eight months earlier, in November 1978, Deng Xiaoping took over the Politburo Standing Committee, after outmaneuvering Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. In the years that followed, incremental economic reforms would be adopted, reflecting Deng’s idea that “initiative cannot be aroused without economic means.” Without liberalizing its political realm, China would slowly open up to foreign investment and trade, leading to the most astonishing episode of economic growth in human history.

Caryl notes that 1979 was marked by two other events that have left a profound mark on our present era. On January 16, 1979, the Shah of Iran boarded a plane to Aswan, Egypt, never to return. His hasty departure, depicted as a “holiday,” was the climax of more than a year of violent protests, which ultimately led to the demise of the U.S.-backed monarchy and installation of an Islamic Republic.

Finally, on Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet forces entered Afghanistan. The decision came after the Communist-controlled central government in Kabul started to lose control of the situation in the country. Afghan communists ascended to power through a coup that deposed president Mohammed Daoud, cousin of the former monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah. The utopian Marxist agenda was at odds with the principles guiding the poor tribal society, and the Communists’ claim to power soon became tenuous.

But why the Soviets decided to become involved in what would become a catastrophic ten-year war catastrophe is unclear. None of the participants of the December 12 meeting in the Kremlin is alive. The only remaining document from the meeting is a memorandum, handwritten by Konstantin Chernenko and signed by members of the Politburo, which talks vaguely about “measures to be taken” in order to redress the “situation in A.”

In any event, both the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would affirm the role that political Islam would play in international affairs. Moreover, they highlight the unintended consequence of Cold War Soviet and U.S. foreign policies in places that had never been central to the policy agendas of Moscow or Washington.

As an old-school journalist, Caryl is somewhat reluctant to offer lessons from the events he describes so skillfully. That may leave the reader somewhat confused as to what is the unifying argument of the volume. Caryl’s story is framed as one of a “great backlash”—but backlash against what? In the epilogue, 1979 is correctly described as a year when people around the world started to revolt against the dominant ideas of “societal progress,” presumably including excessively big government, the planned economy, and forced secularism.

It would have been helpful to stress that those ideas, rather than being tied to human progress, were incarnations of a very specific, hubristic notion about the role of government in improving societies, dubbed as “constructivist rationalism” by Friedrich von Hayek. Even in 2013, many people are still in need of a healthy dose of skepticism about the ability of big, unchecked governments to deliver good outcomes.

Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. He tweets at @daliborrohac.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hebert Sanchez. CC BY-SA 3.0.