On missing the 1990s


I miss the ’90s.

I never thought I would say that, but there it is. As a Gen X, I’m a child of the ’80s, albeit as experienced on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  But now I’m getting nostalgic about the ’90.  The ’90s gave us “Seinfeld”, dubbed by some “the show about nothing.”  Well, I’m nostalgic about “the decade about nothing”.

It’s not that nothing had happened in those ten years. The Soviet Union dissolved and democracy started to sprout all over the former communist bloc. We had the first Gulf War, Somalia, the bloody unravelling of Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, and the intervention in Kosovo. World Trade Centre became a terrorist target for the first time, and the wider world outside of the intelligence circles has heard for the first time the name Osama bin Laden in connection with the attacks on American embassies in Africa. The last decade of the 20th century has had its share of carnage (though a lot less than earlier in the century) but what it did not have was a theme. For fifty years before, people were born, worked, lived, loved and died in the shadow of a long war against totalitarianisms of the left and the right, the war sometimes hot but mostly cold. Since 2001, it has been a war again, this time on terror, however inadequate or misleading that designation is. But the ’90s… Well, the 90s just were.

What I miss the most is the all-pervasive optimism. Between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet communism disintegrated and ended up on the ash heap of history, fulfilling Ronald Reagan’s much scorned prophecy. The winds of change that the German hard rockers Scorpions balladeered about were in fact the whole world breathing a collective sigh of relief. Relief that we survived and made it without being vaporised in a nuclear holocaust. Relief that German militarism, Nazism and communism, which between 1914 and 1989 were responsible for the deaths of some 250 million human beings, were finally no more. Relief that George Orwell’s “1984” had, after all, a happy ending.

Now we could finally live – and live up to the humanity’s true potential. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and ended South Africa’s apartheid, and in the Northern Ireland, in the Good Friday Agreement, the Catholics and the Protestants closed the book on half a millennium of heartache and 30 years of the Troubles. Germany reunited peacefully and the European project looked like it might actually work – from Atlantic to the Baltic, if not the Urals. We would beat the swords into ploughshares, end world hunger and poverty, build a peaceful New World Order, and splurge the “peace dividend” on some nice things for a change. Democracy was resurgent around the world and capitalism seemingly triumphant. The history has come to an end and the drink was on us.

Bill Clinton epitomised that optimism. Barack Obama did not invent hope and change; Clinton practiced it long before, and more successfully. It helped that during his tenure the economy was booming, the world was largely at peace and America faced no major ideological or strategic competitor, thus able to joyfully savour its unipolar moment. But them’s the breaks; we all have to work with what we’re given. And Clinton certainly was the master of reshuffling and playing the cards he’s been dealt. Charismatic, Southern, sunny (at least until the re-emergence of the semen-splattered blue dress later in the decade), he was the new centrist face of the Democratic Party, the welfare reformer and the budget balancer, but one who cared and felt your pain. In many ways he was the second coming of JFK – the first time patrician, the second time trailer park – who returned his party to its more optimistic and confident roots after a quarter of a century left-liberal detour to nowhere.

But it wasn’t just in international affairs and domestic politics that the decade rocked. The ’90s saw the longest recorded expansion of the economy in the American. Forget the talk about the ’80s as the decade of greed; the ’90s really delivered, and with a Democrat in the White House it was now OK to do well. Free trade was in vogue, and despite warnings by Donald Trump’s John the Baptist, Ross Perot, of a giant sucking sound, NAFTA quadrupled the North American trade instead. The Internet was becoming a big thing, already sophisticated enough for porn, but yet free from the scourge of social media narcissism. MTV was still playing music, most of it good. We were optimistic about our capacity to fix environmental problems; global warming, as it was then known, was not yet a moral panic but just another challenge that we would collectively overcome through ingenuity and cooperation, like we did with the acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Hell, we were actually pretty optimistic about technology in general. Last, but not least, Gen Y was still in their nappies, their soon-to-be legendary sense of entitlement largely restricted to their favourite toys.

And the rest is history…

…and it hasn’t been a good one.

So what lessons can we learn – or re-learn – from the ’90s? Firstly, as the cliches go, nothing lasts forever, all good things must come to an end, and you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Golden ages are only recognised and celebrated in hindsight.

Speaking of golden ages, the second lesson is that at least sometimes history repeats itself. In some ways the 1990s bear an uncanny resemblance to the ’90 of the previous century, of Mark Twain’s Gilded Age in America, the Belle Epoque of the fin de siecle France, and the Naughty Nineties in Great Britain. Peaceful, prosperous, exciting, optimistic, creative and innovative, they were ostensibly roaring good times, but they too ended, ominously in the hecatomb of Flanders trenches.

Thirdly, the grapes of wrath are sown during the good times. French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin painted shepherds in a bucolic idyll of Greek mythology staring at a tomb that bears a Latin inscription “Et in Arcadia ego”, usually understood as “I (death) am in Arcadia too.” There was a snake even in the Garden of Eden, and in the end there was a snake – or rather multiple snakes – in the ’90s Eden too: what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” of the markets, the Islamist tumour that metastasised into Al Qaeda and dozens of off-shots including now the Islamic State, the backlash against the crony capitalism in Russia that gave us Vladimir Putin, China’s unprecedented expansion that made her not only America’s lender of last resort but also her main international competitor.

But don’t let me finish this nostalgic trip down the memory lane with a series of downers. If the good times nourish within the seeds of their own decline, then conversely we can hope that the not-so-good times harbour the seeds of a brighter future ahead. If I knew what these seeds are I would be raking in some serious money in applied corporate futurology instead of writing insightful opinion pieces. Be that as it may, I’m already looking forward to the ’20s. OK, the ’30s at the latest.