Life behind the Berlin Wall. A moving film by German Magnum Photographer Thomas Hoepker.

My favourite photograph from this film, chronicling the life of East Berliners under the communist regime, is the shot of two brothers separated by the wall, at the Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears); a Berlin Railway station where East Germans said goodbye to visitors going back to West Germany. As usual, and paradoxically, humanity is somehow expressed so poigninatly when at its most repressed, and a camera is best placed to record the universality of these fleeting moments. As an aside, this film accompanied an old article in The Economist magazine about economic freedoms outpacing political reform in the 20 last years (Thank you Vincent Bartley for bringing it to my attention.) As is increasingly the case, the comments section is far more interesting to read. I found this comment, by ‘AussieLouis’ particularly intelligent, observant and prescient – worth a read.


The article is timely and has raised serious issues of economic and political freedoms which we take for granted at our peril.

Once again, though excellent the points raised, they are entirely from a Western perspective. There is nothing wrong with this but the world as evolving currently requires an understanding of an Eastern perspective, in particular, a Chinese one. This is so because unlike the previous wealthy Chinese empire of the nineteen century, this emerging one would have a great impact (which it previously never had), on how the social-political-economic nature of the world is going to evolve.

I mention this because no other than the big Russian nation is now studying seriously whether a Chinese style (which John Naisbitt described as a form of ‘vertical democracy’) of government is more efficacious than an often disruptive and counter-productive, bicameral, Westminster style one.

No one who understands freedom could argue that a Western democracy is not the best form for individual freedom. In recent years, however, the advent of unfettered capitalism has seemingly made very questionable, the benefits of Western style democratic governance. It’s as though, the powerfully vested few could high-jack the system for their narrow interests alone, leaving the rest unprotected from wholesale skull-drudgery.

The strangest irony is that real democracy and unfettered capitalism (or true laisse faire) are, as Marx would describe, natural opposites. Democracy, in the simplest term is the will of the democratic majority, as expressed in individual ballots. Capitalism, on the other hand, is by nature autocratic, representing the will of a powerful minority. And when democracy becomes a captive of uncontrolled capitalism as in the US recently, democratic considerations takes a back seat, as it were, and the capitalist-autocrats take over and the common man suffers. Albeit, for only awhile (and this is the safeguard of democracy) but eventually, “he who holds the purse, controls the world”.

This is what the Chinese realised when Deng Xiao Ping, looked around in the eighties. You can have the longest, existing civilisation in the world but without money you are nothing. It did not take long before the pragmatic Chinese saw what needed doing; i.e. create a capitalist-type economy. The question of compatibility was quickly resolved when Deng visited Lee Kuan Yew; he saw how an authoritarian regime sits well with capitalism and thrives. He got the answer of how you can control the population completely, at the same time provides them the means to be wealthy. The rest, as they say is history. Confucianism, which provides the basic framework of Chinese society, and Communism, has fundamentally to do with respect of authority and allowing it to function without question; the provision being that it must do well in furthering the welfare of the people. It is thus clear that capitalism and autocracy are natural partners; nobody elects the leaders; the leaders elect themselves.

It is never understood, particularly in the right-wing West, why the Chinese people would not rise against the many human rights violations that the Westerner can see. The answer is that the Chinese view it differently. If your government has lifted ‘400 million’ or more of you out of abject poverty and your life is so much better in the last twenty years and there are opportunities to be fabulously rich, why would you object?

The assumption in the West is often that the individual generally knows what he wants and when enough numbers have the same wants they form the majority to elect the government they want. Off course, the rights of the minority, which can be a considerable number is often ignored. This naturally results in a bicameral situation where one side is engaged endlessly in undermining the other, to the detriment of all. This fundamentally is the weakness. And when public opinion is controlled by a few press barons which represents only the interests of the few rich, democracy meaning free speech is often undermined. Free speech becomes only free for opinion makers in the major newspapers. The voice of the ordinary man is often left unheard. Thus the warning of the sub-primed danger, the raising of Madoff’s schemes, the plight of the uninsured for health care and such, are like voices crying in the wilderness. The result is that the Chinese system now seems much better. Much of the world is now looking to China to lead it out of their economic crisis.

Those of us who treasure freedom have better wake up. Capitalism without social justice cannot endure as Communism with social and economic justice can. The enemies of Obama as reflected by the mean and vehement opposition of insurance companies in the US to the Health reforms, is a stark indication of the malaise of unfettered capitalism; it destroys democracy as we see it!

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