History

Are We Becoming Eastern Europe Circa 1980?

Lessons from the fall of the Eastern Bloc.

Side-by-side photos of people crowded around the entrance of a market in Hungary in 1979 and people in New York City waiting in line to enter a Trader Joe's.
Our new normal. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fortepan and John Lamparski/Getty Images.

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Weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, Americans are becoming more and more accustomed to shortages we never would have imagined in the recent past. On Wednesday, another of the largest pork processing plants in the country shut down, increasing fears about potential meat shortages. This is on top of the lack of basic necessities that has left people asking why they can’t seem to find any toilet paper. Our sophisticated global production network—allegedly the nimblest, most efficient supply system in the world—seems unable to make basic adjustments. Last year, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka warned that Democrats “want to take away your hamburgers” by passing environmental legislation. It turns out that unsanitary working conditions that allowed the virus to spread among plant workers were the real threat to the meat supply. Perhaps most critically, people all over the world have been left wondering how it’s possible that the wealthiest country in history cannot seem to provide basic medical equipment to doctors and nurses and lifesaving care to its citizens during an emergency. These changes to America’s usual way of life have come as conservative leaders and groups have quietly backed organized rallies against stay-at-home orders, with protesters saying they’d rather risk death from the virus than live with economic disruptions.

As scholars of Eastern European history, we immediately noticed a connection between the disruption of supply because of logistical challenges and the idea of making sacrifices for an ideology. Indeed, these were some of the very failures of communism over which American-style capitalism had confidently claimed victory three decades ago. Now, history may be replaying itself here with a different ideology but similar devastation to the public.

One of the most enduring images of 1980s Eastern Europe is people queuing up outside of stores for scarce goods. But people were resourceful; they leveraged personal connections to skip lines and made do with ersatz products when something simply wasn’t available. A handful of articles have appeared recently arguing that Eastern Europeans are uniquely equipped to deal with the new shortages because they’ve lived through bare cupboards before. The outcome of those deprivations, though, was nothing short of the collapse of their region’s sociopolitical system.

Historians argue that bread lines in Eastern Europe led to a crisis of legitimacy for Communist regimes. Over the course of several decades, a tacit social contract emerged between the people and the state: The populace generally acquiesced to enduring government corruption and limitations to civil liberties in exchange for having basic necessities—jobs, housing, medicine, food—met. When necessities became scarce, that contract was broken, and the system began to crumble.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. As governments in the U.S. and Western Europe embraced neoliberal policies over the past several decades, the postwar social contract that promised good governance, respect for civil liberties, rising prosperity, and strong social provisions has eroded. New and increasingly invasive forms of government and corporate surveillance—perhaps Sept. 11’s most enduring legacy—have gone largely unchecked and threatened basic rights and freedoms. In the U.S., government corruption is endemic and largely treated as insurmountable, evidenced most recently by the fact that four senators—including members of both the Republican and Democratic parties—dumped stocks apparently based on information they obtained during classified briefings about the impact of COVID-19.

Over this same period, a retrenchment of consumerism led to a reformulation of the social contract. Americans have overall been willing to endure increased economic precariousness and fewer personal freedoms as long as consumer choice has been robust and stuff has been easily and cheaply available. In this contract, basic necessities have either been deemed unnecessary (affordable health care) or taken for granted (toilet paper). Now that the coronavirus has laid bare what is actually essential and revealed that our socioeconomic system is incapable of providing it, we have our own crisis of legitimacy, which may very well lead to systemic changes similar to what Eastern Europe experienced at the end of the 20th century.

In recent weeks, calls have grown louder to reopen the economy even if it means sacrificing lives. Social distancing protesters, a small but amplified minority of Americans, demand that their understanding of the “American way of life” (i.e., unencumbered consumption and the health of their businesses) be put before public health concerns.

Here, too, a comparison with Eastern Europe is revealing. Cold warriors and American politicians insisted that liberal capitalism was superior to communism precisely because the latter demanded the sacrifice of the individual for “utopian” ideology, while liberalism elevated the rights and desires of the individual over all other concerns. To be clear, the latter at least was never true: Enslaved and incarcerated people whose unpaid labor propped up liberal capitalist systems since their founding can attest to that, as can people who are homeless or can’t afford medical care because “market forces” dictate they don’t deserve it. But as protest movements enveloped Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and supply problems became more apparent, communism’s disregard of the individual became the accepted philosophical rationale for these states’ collapse.

Vaclav Havel, maybe the most famous dissident from the Eastern Bloc, interpreted the structural problem differently. “Human beings are compelled to live within a lie,” he explained in his treatise, “The Power of the Powerless,” and mimic the meaningless platitudes of state leaders. He explained that the average person went along with this system because they “surrender[ed] higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization.” He further suggested that Eastern Europe should serve as a “warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies.”

In light of the pandemic, Havel’s warning seems particularly prescient. As tens of millions have lost their jobs, more than 40,000 people in this country have died of COVID-19, tens of thousands have lined up at food banks, and political leaders have called for a quick “return to normal,” the lie that liberal capitalism is an inherently humane political system has been exposed. So has our desire to retreat into consumerism rather than challenge the illusion that our economy is functional or sustainable. We may even empathize with the protesters’ desire to retreat to the familiar. At issue, however, is the fact that such a return may not even be possible. As a recent CBS survey found, large percentages of the country say they refuse to resume “normal life” while the ravages of COVID-19 are still threatening our communal health.

For Havel, the antidote to living within the lie was “living in truth.” This meant recapturing individual dignity and power by refusing to reproduce the lies of a corrupt regime. He also argued that political categories and parties didn’t really matter; the real question was whether you could “live like a human being.” Now more than ever, it’s a worthwhile question for Americans to start asking.