The 1990s: Some things we missed

After nagging at me for years, a 1996 comic book’s suggestion that the 1990s would prove to be a lost opportunity, for humanity, feels like it at last warrants a serious evaluation.

A month after summoning myself to get around to that, though, I wonder now if the moment of opportunity is relatively illusory. It seems like both I, personally, and the concentric circles of groups to which I relate should have done more. Should have responded to a relatively crisis-free and prosperous moment by pursuing ambitious reforms, and deep cultural and institutional renewal. It seems like we might indeed have launched a golden age had more of us been more generous, and more active in trying to solve problems bigger than our own personal concerns.

But it occurs to me that this is less of a special moment than a regular failing of human history. Many eras “might have been the prologue to a golden age” if people were more generous and more engaged in reform.

I look at e.g. today’s high school student activists and compare them with myself and most peers, immersed as we were in comparatively trivial pursuits. We should have done better, attempted more at least. But I’m not sure what prompt we overlooked. I was concerned by problems that seemed to threaten my personal life directly; arguably so are today’s students except that e.g. those problems now include heavily armed crazies shooting them.

Perhaps older people should have been more responsible, perhaps leaders of some sort really did drop the ball. After tossing around various possibilities for how, though, many still seem applicable to broad human history not just the 1990s.

I think it’s possible, though, that a few fundamental errors of the 1990s do represent a “wrong turn” particular to that era. Ironically, it has also occurred to me that another pop-culture artifact that wasn’t even trying to be especially serious might sum them up. From Austin Powers, 1997:

British intelligence figure introduces Austin Powers, just awakened after 30 years in cryogenic suspension, to a visiting Russian general.

“Russian intelligence, are you mad?”

“A lot’s happened since you were frozen. The Cold War’s over!”

“Well! Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades?”

“Austin… we won.”

“Oh groovy. Smashing. Yay capitalism.”

What was faintly cheeky 21 years ago seems, as of this moment, almost profound for how much of an era’s consequential sociopolitical attitudes it packs into 24 seconds.

I am by no means the first or only person to reflect that America, and “the West” generally, seems to have lost its way after the end of the Cold War. But I agree that the loss of a rival system removed a means and incentive to make sure that our own systems were at least more just than the rival’s.

At the same time, an entire generation or more of policymakers and other influencers probably drew exactly the wrong conclusions from a competition that was lost by the rival more than won by ourselves. Success was not the product of “free markets,” or even of markets and democracy; success as such was more a product of those things being more effective frameworks for active intervention, by leaders who were motivated to deliver good outcomes.

Instead, we ended up with relatively broad consensus that markets worked, and that therefore leaders would do best by trying to create vague “opportunities” rather than directly pursuing positive outcomes.

Market failures were, I would say, reduced to minor flaws that barely even merited worrying about, rather than reasons to recognize a fundamental need for curation even in a “market” system. The lure of the “meritocracy” and the convenient system justification it provided was too great, and we got claptrap like Who Moved My Cheese, in which elites reassured one another that anyone not prospering under the existing system bore all the burden for adapting. A quarter-century passed before many elites discovered the remarkable capability of people and communities to refuse to adapt, and instead to suffer for year upon year upon year, building an electoral block of resentment that eventually became too big to ignore.

On an even more fundamental level, arguably all three beliefs underpinning that Austin Powers scene were simply erroneous. Market capitalism didn’t win, nor did democracy; only the forms and labels won. Totalitarian states and repressive state-run economies generally gave way, yes, but not to democracy and market competition. They often gave way to rigged sham-democracies and crony capitalism. Including in the triumphalist West itself.

As has become apparent over the past year, the hostility of a hostile rival’s leadership didn’t go away, either. Austin Powers, literally frozen amid the Cold War, now seems realist rather than reactionary in suggesting it “mad” that Russian spooks would suddenly be harmless after spending their lives trying to score against the West. Perhaps they might have lost the means to do so, under a government that genuinely saw a friend and partner in Western countries… but the post Cold War Western consensus prevailed in foreign policy just as in domestic. Instead of a generous Marshall Plan, most defeated opponents got the “blessings” of deregulation and privatization. Which seem to have been every bit as effective at curing cultural anger with prosperity as they have been here.

…could these errors really have been broadly recognized at the time, though?

In theory I believe so. In practical terms, tough to say. If there is one big, unified failing, it’s probably oversimplification. The lessons of post-WWI policy and post-WWII policy should have been an obvious argument for helping a failed Russia, but arguably the prescription of laissez-faire economics seemed like help if one believed “markets work.” That belief can be excused, in the context of the 1990s, only on the basis of absolutely childish simplification of the socioeconomic experiment which the Cold War represented. As just one example, as the Cold War ended American firms had just spent the 1980s getting their butts kicked by competitors from Japan, which has an economy that makes a mockery of a simplistic “market/state” duality. (1980s America’s awareness of Japan as a successful competitor is captured by another pop-culture artifact which involves skipping over 30 years.)

The fact that Japan’s economy plunged right in the midst of the Iron Curtain powers’ collapse may have significantly encouraged a smug belief that a “laissez-faire” approach was definitely best, but who knows. The fact that Japan is not easily classified in a simplistic market/state model, which should have warned against simplistic models in general, probably would instead have made it easy to smudge into a market triumphalist moment either way. Japan’s downturn could be blamed on the interventionist features of its economy; extended success might simply have been credited to the market features, and (assisted by a little Orientalism) thereby written off as any kind of warning against declaring the problem of economic policy “solved.”

So, again, the 1990s probably had errors particular to the era, but perhaps not of a kind particular to that era. Deconstructing those errors certainly offers lessons, but perhaps not really new lessons.

One other angle occurs to me, for now, which will need to be its own post.

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