What If Liberalism Can’t Be Repaired?

Petr Agha

_11. 02. 2021


The Light That Failed joins the very popular genre of “crisis-of-democracy” literature. They all have one thing in common, with Trump’s victory and Brexit, all of a sudden (liberal) democracy is in crisis. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, which were frowned upon as parochial failures to live up to the democratic standards (of the West) and confirmation of the “catching-up” revolution paradigm of the 90s, suddenly became the proof of democracy’s crisis and fragility. Through this prism the more distant events coalesced into a pattern of a global wave of nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian governments. But while all of these authors make some room for recent disruptions—the growth of inequality, the rise of social media, the backlash against immigration—they share a view that formed during the Cold War and seemed vindicated in 1989: that “democracy” means a cleaned-up version of what we do in Old Europe, complemented with capitalism, a word that hardly appears in their books because it is so deeply assumed. The main task of the book is to answer the question of why liberalism has been in visible crisis since the 2010s. The easy-dream scenario of creating a carbon copy of the West in the East in a relatively short and painless evolutionary catching-up process, where the focus has been on the big legal-constitutional transformations, has evaporated in the recent years and nowadays it is high time to discover and describe systematically the shadowy side of the process which begun in 1989.
The authors’ starting place is Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in his famous 1989 essay, “The End of His-tory”—that the collapse of the Soviet experiment signaled “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” Here was a proposition, they argue, that not only appealed to “American self-love,” but was taken as “self-evident to dissidents and reformers living behind the Iron Curtain.” Krastev and Holmes identify here the crucial point in the debate on the crisis of liberal-ism, in this precise moment “liberalism [is] abandoning pluralism for hegemony,” and this forms the central thesis of their book. “This absence of alternatives, we submit, even more than the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism, best explains the anti-Western ethos dominating post-Communist societies today. . . . because, at some elementary level, human beings need choice, even just the illusion of it.” They further maintain that “resentment at liber-al democracy’s canonical status and the politics of imitation in general has . . . played a decisive role” in the authoritarian-populist turn, and not only in formerly Communist Europe, but in Russia and the United States as well.
The novelty in Krastev and Holmes’ book is the application of personal psychology to the politics of post-1989 liberalism with their imitation scheme. Central Europeans seemed not only to wholehearted-ly adopt the means and techniques of western liberal democracies, but also to introject their goals and desires. “When the cold war ended, racing to join the west was the shared mission of central and east-ern Europeans. Indeed, becoming indistinguishably western was arguably the principal aim of the revolutions of 1989. The enthusiastic copying of western models, accompanied as it was by the evac-uation of Soviet troops from the region, was initially experienced as liberation.” Holmes and Krastev emphasize the psychological and moral costs of this project. Somewhat puzzlingly, in the region the model long imitated has increasingly become an obstacle to the self-esteem and self-realisation of the imitators. Not only were the assimilators denied freedom of choice, but they had to deny their identity.
From here, Krastev and Holmes conclude that illiberalism is a delayed response to this unequal politi-cal and economic reconstitution of post-Soviet space. “This lack of alternatives, rather than the gravita-tional pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism, is what best explains the anti-western ethos dominating post-communist societies today. The very concept that “there is no other way” provided an independent motive for the wave of populist xenophobia and reactionary na-tivism that began in central and Eastern Europe, and is now washing across much of the world.” In addition, they were subjected to the judgment of their mentors, who constantly reminded them of their inadequacy, and in each subsequent attempt to approach the norm, they pointed to the distance that still separated them from it. This confirmed the inequality between the representatives of the model and its imitators: the elites of the West reminded those who wanted to join it that they still had a long way to go before they deserved recognition for their equals. This misrepresentation undermined the newcom-ers’ sense of self-esteem and accumulated resentment and a desire for revenge.
The authors deliver their argument through three case studies: Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Russia and the United States. Each of these three, they say, has experienced a profound rejection of liberal values for separate reasons – yet as everything in global politics, their experiences have been interconnected. This review focuses on the Central and Eastern European region, that is the Chapters 1 and 2, where the authors rethink post-Soviet history from the current situation of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, which is seen as the bedrock of the current deep crisis of liberal democracies around the world.
The world, according to Krastev and Holmes, is divided into the West and the Rest and the Rest al-ways envied the West and was driven by an obsession to imitate it. Here, the East primarily refers to the post-communist East, a part of the World that, because of its communist totalitarian past, had di-verted from the ―normal‖ historical path to democracy, economic prosperity and cultural excellence, the path of the West. The post-communist states aspiring towards democracy and free market were immediately sent to school. The language with which the process and the societies of the region were described and with which they began to describe themselves mostly took the form of pedagogical tones, the phrase “growing up to democracy” had become an intrinsic part of the vocabulary of the so called transformation. This rhetoric has accompanied the democratic transition from the beginning and was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of the leaders of democratic change. Eastern European nonetheless eventually fell victim to the preexisting and incurable diseases which have been embedded inside the region, such as patrimonialism, nepotism, and corruption.
Krastev and Holmes are of course aware of the effect socioeconomic conditions have on the loss of hope and momentum in the liberal project, however their consideration is somehow exhausted by the economic crisis of 2008. Liberalism’s reputation, they write, never recovered from it. The financial crisis and the rise of populism may indicate that the self-legitimization processes of liberalism, which depended on the fact that such a structure of society allowed sufficiently substantial sections of society to acquire a better standard of living (mostly based on credit) began to disintegrate after governments began to accept economic policy of so-called austerity in the post 2008 developments.
The East-West divide is of course and foremost an ideological phenomenon. Its ideological function is to show the West as emancipated from its own history, which in turn allows the West to be imposed as general and canonic, while the East is carrying the baggage of its own history which is peripheral and provincial. The result is that within the West-East divide, the East is forever doomed to struggle to get rid of its past, to struggle for recognition and to remain local, particular, and peripheral – in other words unable to attain the firmament of universality. The East within this divide is always determined in relation to the West, which is supposed to be universal. Boris Buden calls this rhetorical and argu-mentative tactic the “repressive infantilization” of nations, who are supposed to learn the democratic modus operandi from scratch and liberate themselves from their alleged communist mentality.
The crisis-of-democracy literature largely presumes that these debates have been settled, so that any doubts about that settlement must be symptoms of confusion or bad faith. The mainstream academic thinking, which this book is a prime example of, seems not to have come up with a workable analysis of either populism or the crisis of the liberal project. The current political situation in this anti-populist salon is debated in narrowly liberal democratic and western centric elitist frameworks, usually asking “how to prevent the escalation of populism”, how to provide a “remedy for this pathology of modern democracy” and “maintain” or restore existing political order”. In other words, populism is usually understood as an “unusual and pathological” turn in (Western) politics that needs to be combated. “Anti-populism” suddenly appears in the political field as a clear discursive repertoire, but it also hin-ders our ability to analyze changing organizational patterns of party politics, identify the rise of new political divisions rooted in the decline of traditional economic identities and political identification, and understand understanding the nature of social antagonisms and the complex processes of collec-tive identity formation. For one, what about the decline in liberal values in other nations, especially in Western Europe? And what about the divisions within the liberal camp? Can we really look at liberal democrats as one homogenous group? It takes only a few clips of recent debates in the European Par-liament to see that they have frequently disagreed about what liberalism is in practice.
The uncomfortable truth is that the current form of liberal democracy and the ideological project of the EU do not have an answer to the questions posed by the current wave of discontent and dissent. What the ideological project of the EU can do effectively, is to marginalize these voices and assume that the order is constituted and there is no escaping it. The illusion of the unproblematic nature of the current institutional, political and economic design of the current version of the European project may be kept alive for some more time, however this illusion is likely to be carried on the backs of ever growing parts of the population. The tendency to naturalize the current ideology as the unquestioned horizon of our political possibilities is underlined by the familiar expression ‘there is no alternative’. The strength of the no alternative argument lies in the argument itself. If those in control of finance, politics and the media are not willing, or are unable, to even attempt to see an alternative none will be visible.

The segments of society who carry the labels of especially Eastern populists are often and colorfully portrayed as folklore and kitsch, liberal ideology of the European project is then portrayed as a guar-antee of the dominant political-economic state of affairs, a state that is considered normal. Krastev and Holmes grew up with this kind of language. The thing is that it doesn’t work. They try to restore the liberalism of the 90s only to find out that the life had gone out of it. Whatever had made it vital was gone, leaving behind empty forms and phrases. Krastev and Holmes identify correctly that the current wave of populism Populism in the West and the (post-communist) East is probably best understood an expression of the discontent with the way things have been for large segments of populations. However they stop short of delivering a truly meaningful analysis precisely because they are deeply rooted in the narratives and ideology of the early 90s which they helped to build. Liberal democracy and its ideology is never questioned and the deep crisis of western democracies is attributed to their imitation theory.

The Light that Failed: A Reckoning is a perfect representation of the current impasse of the western liberal camp, caught between a moral denunciation of the fallacies of the system and a refusal to take stock of their structural motivations, in other words – the present is wrong, but the future may be worse, therefore, in the meantime, let’s stick with what we have, tweak it a bit, and most importantly lie low, because some rocks may be incoming. What we are thus offered, in short, is a recipe of impo-tence. But perhaps the failure in projecting any coherent alternative is not a failure of imagination or analytical perceptiveness — virtues which both authors definitely do not lack. It is simply the reflec-tion of our structural reality, whereby labels like populist, East, West, illiberal, Trump, Putin or de-mocracy help defending the current state of affairs.