The haunting of Europe Pseudo-liberal projections and the spectres of illiberalism

Zoran Oklopcic

_30. 04. 2021

A spectre is haunting Central and Eastern Europe—the spectre of illiberalism. All major powers in the Western civilization have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: The Venice Commission and the European Council; Brookings Institution and the Financial Times; Princeton anti-populists and Berlin constitutionalists; prestigious institutions and eminent intellectuals; Jan-Werner Müller and Timothy Garton-Ash.

The spectre that haunts their imaginations is neither a doctrine, nor a creed, nor a theory, and nor an ideology. Instead, it is perhaps best understood as a set of perceptions, inclinations, and dispositions, which those who are alarmed about the current state of democratic ‘decay’, ‘disrepair’ or ‘erosion’ associate with the most prominent protagonists of more specific -isms: from ‘authoritarian legalism’ and ‘populist nationalism’, to ‘opportunistic populism’ and ‘extreme majoritarianism’.

Unlike more threatening spectres, the menace that appears in the op-ed sections of the online editions of The New York Times or The Guardian has a unique capacity to spread its influence without leaving any paper trail behind. When it comes to the ideological sources of contemporary illiberalism—to put it differently—there is no such thing as ‘The Illiberal manifesto’, ‘The Critique of the Hamburg Program of SPD’ or ‘The 18th Brumaire of Emmanuel M. Bonaparte’.

Even so, the illiberalism that haunts contemporary Europe is not to be underestimated. Though mostly discussed in relation to Viktor Orbán’s programmatic denunciation of liberal democracy, the menace that threatens the survival of liberalism in Central and Eastern Europe has long been denounced both by the columnists of eminent American publications, as well as by the iconic post-communist intellectuals.

Rather than emerging with Orbán, the illiberalism that today haunts the imaginations of professional defenders of liberal democracy has long been manifest in the attitudes, gestures and behaviours of otherwise incomparable political actors: from ‘irresponsible’, ‘unpredictable’, and ‘incompetent’ proto-authoritarians such as Lech Walesa —to less brutally vulgar ‘hardheaded pragmatist[s]’ and ‘cynical populist[s]’ (such as Václav Klaus) —or ‘burly former leftist[s]’, ‘known for [their] outspoken populism’ (such as Miloš Zeman).

In confronting the various strains of the seemingly ineradicable virus of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe, it remains important not to lose the sense of proportion. Though seemingly ineradicable from the political swamps in the peripheries of the European Union, the threats that this virus has been posing to the institutional and moral health of young liberal democracies has still been the problem of only local, or at best regional, proportions. As long as those capable of changing the political course of Central and Eastern European countries continued to be grateful—or at the very least, loyal—to those whose geopolitical umbrella allegedly ensured their existential security and material prosperity, they could rest assured that their crypto-fascist, ethno-chauvinist, or authoritarian populist ‘deviations’, won’t be taken as a reason to eject them from the club of tolerably liberal democracies, as was the case with the valedictorians of post-communist transition, Hungary and Poland.

As long as the guardians of liberal political galaxies remain convinced that peripheral populations remain sensitive to the material incentives that come from the geopolitical center, they will be willing to ignore the illiberal deviations of their governments. This, among other things, is why a paleo-Orbán such as Vladimír Mečiar could never become the object of such inordinate liberal fixations. Ordinary Slovaks (unlike Hungarians, one might add) ‘quite sensibly recognized that a bit of nationalistic self-indulgence was not really worth [losing] the place‘—as Bruce Ackerman delicately put it—‘on the gravy train to the EU’: their ‘chance of a lifetime’.

Though refreshingly honest in its nonchalant condescension toward the one-track-mind of materialistic Slovaks, a claim such as Ackerman’s is still a rare find. Even when they only worry about liberal democracy in Poland and Hungary because they fear for the destiny of the European Union—or for the ongoing ability of the United States to project its ‘soft power’ abroad— those who participate in the debates about the institutional health of liberal democracy will wisely keep the broader, geopolitical picture—within which the allegedly decaying liberal democracies exist in the form of culturally inclined, existentially committed and politically affiliated states— committed territorial sovereign states—in the background.

Though taken for granted by the self-appointed diagnosticians of democratic disfigurations, the extremely narrow focus of their analytical vision will invariably provoke those who are not already invested in the success of the pseudo-therapeutic liberal theoretical project to raise some uncomfortable questions: from the specific ones that ask ‘[w]hy should a country like Poland be more an object of hysteria on these particular grounds [than, for instance] Saudi Arabia or China’; to those more general, which ask: ‘Why would a regime that is democratic but not liberal be more objectionable than a regime that is neither democratic nor liberal?’

Which regimes are liberal and democratic and which ones are not, however, is not clear at all. The form of government that two and half decades ago distinguished itself from others by its adherence to ‘free and fair elections, the rule of law, a separation of powers’, and the four ‘basic liberties’ of constitutional liberalism, eventually came to be described as ‘a complicated interaction between … political competition, stable institutions of state, vibrant organs of civil society, meaningful political intermediaries’, which ‘reinforces the democratic virtues of popular sovereignty’, in which the majority, either directly or through representative bodies, exercises decision-making political power’, and in which ‘the losers of today have a credible chance to reorganize and perhaps emerge as the winners of tomorrow’.

On another recent view, ‘liberal constitutional democracy’ appears as a form of government in which ‘periodic free-and-fair elections in which a losing side cedes power’ and ‘the liberal rights … that are closely linked to democracy in practice’ depend on ‘the stability, predictability, and integrity of law and legal institutions’ that ensure ‘the maintenance of a reasonable level of democratic responsiveness’, which requires ‘meaningful political competition’ that includes ‘relatively free ability to organize and offer policy proposals, criticize leaders, and secure freedom from official intimidation’.

To Kim Lane Scheppele, such complexity makes any attempt to define liberal democracy, as a distinct form of government, ‘fiendishly difficult’: though united by ‘common values’ at the level of individual constitutional orders, says Scheppele, their ‘difference seems even larger than commonality’. If Scheppele is right— if we have no way of determining whether concrete institutional forms and constitutional doctrines of those regimes conform with the abstract ideals of (constitutional) liberalism and (liberal) democracy—then why bother to include such disparate regimes under the same category, in the first place?

So rather than fiendishly difficult to define, contemporary liberal democracy is defined in a way that makes it fiendishly difficult to raise important and perfectly sensible questions. By way of example, consider those provoked by Huq and Ginsburg’s definition:

(1) Can it be said that in a regime in which the parties that regularly ‘rotate’ in power and agree on major social and economic decisions is also a system that is overall democratically responsive to a reasonable degree?

(2) Would such two-party states still be reasonably ‘democratically responsive’ if it turned out that, on closer inspection, their citizens have ‘minuscule’ impact on the content of public policies?

(3) Why should political competition be considered ‘meaningful’ if it includes only a ‘relatively free ability to organize and offer policy proposals, criticize leaders, and secure freedom from official intimidation’—and not an ability of political parties which enjoy broad but diffuse support to participate in the elections in which they would have a fair chance of contributing, if not causing a ‘rotation’ in power?

(4) Can there be ‘meaningful’ political competition in a political regime that is an effective duopoly?

Those that keep constructing ever more baroque conceptions of democratic government have no reason to expose their polemically intended constructs to the scrutiny of those who are not already convinced about the superiority of an essentially American conception of liberal democracy. Instead, their contestable constructs simply enter the debate as the victims of democratic ‘decay’, ‘disfiguration’, or ‘regression’: the metaphors that encourage us to think of the changes in the functioning of democratic institutions in terms of disgust-provoking and health-destroying organic processes (decay); ugly deviations from aesthetically appealing norms (disfiguration) or astronomical trajectories of celestial bodies, whose features may be objectively ascertained by impartial scientists.

What’s decaying, eroding, and regressing, on closer inspection, are increasingly complex models of democracy, whose ‘interpenetrating’, ‘interlocking’, ‘interacting’, ‘mutually reinforcing’ and constantly proliferating constituent elements appear entangled in ‘plural’, ‘multifaceted’, ‘complex’, and ‘inevitable’ ways. The point is far from trivial: The nature of the threat to liberal democracy depends on whether illiberalism is a superficial, no-life threatening condition (like tooth decay caused by too many sugar-coated lollipops of populism); a more serious, but still non-life threatening acute inflammation of its political life (caused by the swallowing of toxic political ideas); more like a chronic ailment like an irritable bowel syndrome (curable only by removing its democratic intestines) or—in the worst case scenario—a proper viral infection which may easily turn malignant.

Needless to say, there is no way to be more precise about the pseudo-medical condition that afflicts contemporary liberal democracies—not because the metaphors that conjure it in the first place couldn’t be pushed one step further—but because those who use them in a hit-and-run fashion, keep fine-tuning their already fine-tuned conceptions of liberal democracy.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes liken such efforts to the behaviour of ‘telephone companies’ which as soon as a new model of a smartphone appears on the market start advertising it as the only one worth buying. (An even better analogy, perhaps, would be with a notoriously despised business model of smartphone manufacturers who nudge the users of older models to discard them and buy new ones, by forcing them to keep uploading ‘prepackaged templates’ that turn legitimate debates about the meaning of ‘meta-concepts’ of liberal constitutionalism into a matter of compliance with ever-more specific ‘checklists’.

The moral panic about the illiberalism that allegedly threatens to infect the minds of the voters in other parts of Europe, conceals the steady promotion of the systems of government, which, though notionally still ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ appear strikingly indifferent toward the material wellbeing of those whose consent they still need in order to be able to legitimately govern.

Unlike the forms of government which present-day pseudo-liberals consider ‘democratic’ as long as they are self-absorbed and purpose-free, those that had to compete against Soviet communism advertised themselves as comprehensively, enthusiastically and reliably majoritarian: able and ready to decide on a wide range of socio-economic issues by means of a majority vote. In a democracy whose task is to make a material difference in the lives of those who live under the authority of its institutions,

We can nationalize an industry whose power is too great for private interests to have. We can establish a government plant to compete with it. We can rely on anti-trust remedies to control it. Or we can embrace laissez-faire. We have the same freedom as to other social and economic problems, those of sharecroppers, banks, minimum wages, prices, coal mines, housing. We can experiment and proceed by trial and error. We can have revolution, if we so will it, by the peaceful route. And having had it, we can undo it four years later. We are committed to no one single panacea for all the ills of mankind, whether they be economic or spiritual.

In contrast to the curiously self-absorbed and nonchalantly inconsequential conceptions of democracy that prevail among contemporary pseudo-liberals, the central task of post-war democracies (which, from 1945 onwards, had to demonstrate their ideological superiority in real-life terms) was simple and straightforward: to undertake ‘practical measures which recognize the human rights of all citizens’ on the one hand— as well as to ‘raise the standard of living at all levels of society’, on the other.

Would those who’d insist a similar understanding of democratic government today be populists or democrats; democrats or majoritarians; liberals or illiberals? Those who use those terms either as the marks of distinction or as the weapons of mass denunciation inadvertently do so on the basis of what they think liberal democracies are (about) as well as on the basis of what they think liberal democracies deserve—and require—in terms of the quality of support they receive from those they govern). The more one expects from ordinary citizens in that regard, the more critical will one tend to be toward the terminology on which they typically relied on in articulating their more disruptive, or radical demands.

Put differently: the spectre of illiberalism will inevitably appear scarier to those whose notion of ‘illiberal actors’ includes not just self- or other-identified illiberal democrats, such as, say Viktor Orbán, but also all those who are not—according to a working paper published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung—not ‘wholly and fully committed to the norms [which] control … the executive’ and ‘uphold civil liberties and the rule of law’ or who are not ‘totally devoted to the institutions that guarantee them’.

Though comical in their accidental totalitarianism, these criteria shouldn’t be ignored because they point to what sanctimonious party technocrats and enterprising political scientists really expect not only from those who don’t want to be accused of illiberalism, but from all who live under the regimes that continue to style themselves as democratic and liberal: full commitment and total devotion—in exchange for nothing in particular. Rather than the objectively identifiable processes of ‘decay’ and ‘erosion’, it is the unexamined conviction about the sensibility of this ridiculous bargain that gives life to the pseudo-liberal apparitions of illiberalism.