The Political Economy of Transition: Coming to Grips with History and Methodology

By Jozef M.Van Brabant | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The annus mirabilis with its drawn-out aftermath has ushered into the social sciences in general and economics in particular a nearly completely new set of research topics and opportunities for investigating them with some urgency, given the diverse needs of policy makers. Radical economic, political, and social transformations of defunct one-party regimes present in many ways a unique problématique. This is so in part because the state-socialist support base of the political systems had already earlier collapsed or it had been under severe strain for some time. We are now nearly a decade down this transformation road. In many ways, the experiences have been without precedent in peacetime. They have been unique, baffling at times, and exhilarating in disproving sturdy expectations or in sharpening widely held precepts. One might therefore at first glance argue that the “events” in transition economies offer lessons only for other, similarly destabilized societies embarking on remaking themselves wholesale. Apart from its intrinsic merits as history, such a peripatetic inquiry would not be very illuminating, if only because the number of one-party, administratively planned regimes extant has rapidly dwindled, arguably to Cuba and North Korea. But change has not invariably been in the direction of democracy and market building!

The experience of the economies in transition has not been all that singular, however. Nor has movement been uniformly in the “desired” directions. For one thing, the design of the transformation agenda could have reflected more closely the realities deriving essentially from the legacies of state-socialist planning. Also, the adversities encountered when these societies were turned into “planned” economies could usefully have been recalled. Moreover, a good dose of common sense would have helped to fashion imaginative, yet less disruptive shifts in societal relations (Cairncross 1985) than what has occurred since 1989. That has frequently been lacking because of ideology or purely technocratic appreciations responding at times to a warped view of a highly convoluted reality. I emphasize too that the stage of the transition to date is not particularly comforting. Indeed, not all so-called transition economies have been progressing with forging a coalition in favor of democracy and market-based resource allocation. Also, the gains recently scored by some countries do not warrant complacency: I certainly

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