The Tide is Turning?

Two days ago, I was sitting in a Parisian cafe reading about a relatively new French ‘school’ of economics known as the ‘regulationist’ school, when I dimly became aware that the cafe’s television was showing the final movements from Roger Water’s 1990 “The Wall” performance in Berlin, which he had organized to mark the wall of the Berlin Wall. I had listened to that performance live on the radio in NYC, and still remember it vividly. The visuals did not disappoint.

It’s interesting to contrast the way that the fall of the Wall and the end of the cold war has been interpreted by American and European intellectuals. By and large, Americans see the ‘Cold War’ as a competition that we ‘won’. Europeans, by contrast, see it as an experience that they survived. In the areas of constitutionalism and regulation, the American perception is well expressed by Francis Fukuyama’s famous phrase (and essay title), “the end of history” – for the American consciousness, the end of the Cold War affirmed the absolute truth of our political, economic and constitutional understandings. There was no longer anything significant that need to be learned in these areas – hence the ‘end of history’. As he stated it, Fukuyama’s thesis was a little too arrogant even for American tastes. But I think it turned out to be a generally accurate description of how that event affected American understandings of law, development and constitutionalism. For the most part, today, American discussions of law and develop, including constitutional law and development, revolve around a single developmental paradigm, one that we might loosely associate with ‘liberalism’. We may snipe at its edges – disagreeing with some of its variants (like the neo-liberal economics of the IMF), but we no longer recognize any real regulatory alternatives to liberalism per se (such as Marxism or corporatism) the way we did in the 70s and 80s.

This, I would argue, is not a good thing. It is characteristic of a general loss of cultural capacity for learning. The most dramatic example of this in Western history is the Dark Age, which came about with the Catholic Church’s paradigm for social organization and sustenance grew to become Europe’s only paradigm. I have argued – perhaps a little over-dramatically – that American regulatory and constitutional thinking is similarly, for these reasons, in danger of entering its own dark age.

But Europe’s response has been very different. I suspect because Europe does not conceptualize the ending of the Cold War as a kind of victory, it has not interpreted that event as anointing the particular regulatory ideologies of the victor as universally superior and true. Regulatory (and constitutional) discourse here is much more pluralist in its governing paradigms. The regulationist school, for example, is very open about its Marxist influences.

At the closing of the Berlin performance of The Wall, the ensemble sang a song not from the original Wall score entitled “The Tide is Turning.” At least for those of us of a certain age, listening to that song at that time and on that occasion remains one of the most moving moments we are ever going to experience. At the time, I thought that the turning being referred to was from East to West. But now, I wonder if it wasn’t really, in the long term, ultimately going in the other direct, from an increasingly mono-cognate American east to a Europe which has been much better able to retain its conceptual pluralism.

posted by Mike Dowdle