Is this utopia?

BC told me that on his visit to Berlin he’d been struck by the contrasts still remaining between east and west. Berlin is a city that demonstrates what happens when two ideas of utopia meet one another. Both western capitalism and Soviet communism promised, like all political ideologies do, their citizens the best possible life. Both thought they had the answer for the perfect form of society. One ‘won’ over the other in Europe, but is this really utopia? –

Everywhere we went we were reminded, even twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the clash of two philosophies enacted in this city. The S-Bahn took us directly under the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, a symbol of Soviet supremacy and the tallest building in Europe, built to tower over West Berlin, from our hotel in East Berlin, round the corner from the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, to the splendour of the Brandenburg Gate, on the edge of the west.

We took a free walking tour that started in front of the Gate. Well, more specifically, in front of Starbucks in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Our guide pointed out that twenty years earlier we would have been shot for standing where we were. Evidence that the Communist ideology wasn’t exactly a dream. But the presence of such a potent symbol of globalisation didn’t feel entirely ideal either. I couldn’t help but feel that some form of innocence had been lost under Western influence.

On the day we arrived in Berlin, Tony Blair was giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry. I’ve been following it fairly closely so I was desperate to hear news of what he said to Lord Chilcot. Frustratingly, there was no news on any of the screens in Stansted Airport, and no English news channels in the hotel. We strained to hear what Blair actually said under the German dubbing and stared at the pictures for some kind of clue to what was going on.

When I found the international version of the Guardian the next day I read that, in justifying his decision to the inquiry, Blair asked what the world would be like now, seven years later, if we hadn’t taken action in Iraq. ‘Who knows?’ is the only real answer. The implication is that Blair believes without the intervention of UK and US troops, the citizens of Iraq would never have the opportunity to experience a ‘good’ life, Western-style. Whereas now they can. At least in theory.

In implementing the downfall of Saddam Hussein – regardless of the premise, regardless of the preparation, or lack of it, for the aftermath – Blair, our government, Parliament, and the UK and US forces, were asserting that the way we form society in our countries is the exemplary model, one that should be propagated to other countries, especially those in the grip of failing or oppressive regimes. We were bringing an opportunity to embrace a transformative and progressive society. Even if perhaps there’s little evidence of it on the streets of Baghdad seven years later.

It seems our cultural message, politically and economically, is that the way in which we live – where big names are everything and small names mean nothing, where greed is rewarded, the poor become poorer, and we feel it more keenly because the number of products and choices on offer become ever greater and greater – is one that should be emulated.

If it’s not our politicians saying it, then it’s the brands we consume – the most potent symbols of our society: ‘This is utopia.’

Learning about Berlin’s history I’m glad I didn’t grow up behind the Iron Curtain or live under the government of the Nazis. I’m glad I don’t live under a dictatorship like Saddam Hussein’s. But I’m not sure I’m satisfied to live in a capitalist society either. I’m sure utopia can’t exist in this world, but if it could, regardless of how highly we may think of ourselves, our justice system and our method of governance, I’m fairly sure this isn’t it.


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