1979: The year everything changed

The 21st century really began in 1979, when four unlikely radicals stepped onto the world stage

The year everything changed

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On the 69th floor of one of the skyscrapers that dominate the Chinese city of Shenzhen—a fishing village 35 years ago that is now home to 14 million people—are life-sized wax figures of Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher, seated together with pots of tea before them. Most visitors view Communist China’s one-time “paramount leader” and the former British prime minister as polar opposites who managed to work out a peaceful resolution for the future of Hong Kong. But they are actually more like yin and yang figures, according to Christian Caryl, author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. “They had a lot in common,” says Caryl, a journalist and senior fellow at MIT. “Both demanded change, both tolerated inequality, both obsessed over the need to create wealth before it could be shared.” The Marxist and the Tory, in fact, “did more to promote market-driven globalization than just about anyone else.”

Thatcher and Deng were not the only history-changing figures to emerge in the revolutionary year of 1979. They were joined by two other titans, Pope John Paul II and the Ayatollah Khomeini, champions of the second of the twin forces that have shaped the world in which we live: markets and religion. And despite the seeming divides between them, all four were linked by more than chronology. Each was motivated by a hostile reaction, as much visceral as intellectual, to what seemed to most of their contemporaries to be unstoppable historical trends. Government control of the economy, even in the capitalist West (“We are all Keynesians now,” said Richard Nixon in 1971) would continue to swell; the Iron Curtain and the fossilized economies of Communist states were here to stay; and, most obvious of all, religion was a spent force throughout the world, relegated to the private sphere, if not to the dustbin.

But his quartet were not, Caryl ably argues, garden-variety conservatives, but actual counter-revolutionaries, and ruthlessly effective ones, at that. Thatcher didn’t block trade-union power in Britain, she shattered it; Khomeini didn’t restore Islam to its traditional place in a modernizing Iran, he established a contemporary theocracy; Deng pulled off something no Soviet reformer ever dreamt of, transforming his nation into a capitalist economic superpower under tight Communist Party control; John Paul II put a dagger through the U.S.S.R.’s claim to the moral and ideological high ground in Eastern Europe.

Caryl’s history-makers tapped into deep veins of national tradition that their opponents had thought passé and, although they had help—Ronald Reagan, the mujahedeen of Afghanistan and Mikhail Gorbachev prime among them—and rode winds of change that were not entirely of their making, each responded skilfully to opportunity.

And, as Thatcher’s career—the one most open to public scrutiny—demonstrates, they had the luck. Just as she was slashing taxes and state revenue, North Sea oil money came to the rescue of the Treasury. When the social upheavals of her first term threatened her re-election, Thatcher was saved by her enemies, first by Argentina’s feckless invasion of the Falklands, which enabled her to gain the aura of successful war leader, and then by the Labour Party’s sharp turn further left, with a heavily Marxist 1983 election manifesto described by one of its own MPs as “the world’s longest suicide note.” In the end, Thatcher stayed in power long enough to utterly remake Britain’s economy—and Britain’s way of thinking about its economy—to the extent that, in 2002, another Labour MP remarked, “We are all Thatcherites now.”

Now change is in the air again. “I think their era is drawing to a close,” says Caryl. “There’s a weariness with markets since 2008, though there is still no language to rally that unease.” The religious picture, too, is clouded. “The appeal of the Islamicist idea is still strong in Arab countries,” says Caryl. But so, too, is the reaction against it, the result of “the 30 years of experience Iran offers—it’s lost its lustre among young Arabs alienated by the real-world fusion of Islam and government.” For now, the new social and economic trends remain just straws in the wind, awaiting new leaders to bring them to life.




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1979: The year everything changed

  1. ’89 is the year historians will circle as epoch-changing, but ’79 sounds worthy of being immortalized as well. What Deng triggered by jettisoning the rotten economic props under his own party is truly astonishing. Sadly, Thatcher’s valient attempt to rescue Britain from self-administered wounds hasn’t outlived her. The rent-seekers have won.

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