In Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror story Frankenstein, an inventor driven by Promethean ambition creates a monster by assembling body parts drawn from ‘the dissecting room and the slaughter-house’ and even ‘the unhallowed damps of the grave’ into a humanoid creature. Yet the experimenter, Victor Frankenstein, soon comes to regret his overambitious attempt to construct a facsimile of his own species. The monster, bitterly envious of its creator’s happiness and feeling doomed to loneliness and rejection, turns violently against his inventor’s friends and family, laying waste to their world and leaving only remorse and heartbreak as legacies of a misguided experiment in human self-replication.
The US sociologist Kim Scheppele, without pushing the analogy too far, describes today’s Hungary (presided over by another Viktor) as a ‘Frankenstate’ – that is, an illiberal mutant composed of ingeniously stitched-together elements of western liberal democracies. What she shows, remarkably enough, is that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has succeeded in destroying liberal democracy by implementing a clever policy of piecemeal imitation. He has created a regime that represents a happy marriage between Carl Schmitt’s understanding of politics as a series of melodramatic friend-versus-enemy confrontations and the institutional façade of liberal democracy. When the European Union criticizes the Orbán government for the illiberal character of its reforms, that government is always quick to point out that every controversial legal change, rule, or institution has been faithfully copied from the legal system of one of the EU’s member states. Thus it should come as no surprise that many western liberals look at the political regimes in Hungary and Poland with the same ‘horror and disgust’ that filled the heart of Victor Frankenstein when he beheld his creature.
To understand the origins of today’s central and eastern European illiberal revolution, we should look neither to ideology nor to economics, but instead to the pent-up animosity engendered by the centrality of mimesis in the reform processes launched in the East after 1989. The region’s illiberal turn cannot be grasped apart from the political expectation of ‘normality’ created by the 1989 revolution and the politics of imitation that it legitimized. After the Berlin Wall fell, Europe was no longer divided between communists and democrats. It was instead divided between imitators and the imitated. East–West relations morphed from a Cold War standoff between two hostile systems into a moral hierarchy within a single liberal, western system. While the mimics looked up to their models, the models looked down on their mimics. It is not entirely mysterious, therefore, why the ‘imitation of the West’ voluntarily chosen by eastern Europeans three decades ago eventually resulted in a political backlash.
For two decades after 1989, the political philosophy of post-communist central and eastern Europe could be summarized in a single imperative: imitate the West! The process was called by different names – democratization, liberalization, enlargement, convergence, integration, Europeanization – but the goal pursued by post-communist reformers was simple. They wished their countries to become ‘normal’, which meant like the West. This involved importing liberal-democratic institutions, applying western political and economic recipes, and publicly endorsing western values. Imitation was widely understood to be the shortest pathway to freedom and prosperity.
Pursuing economic and political reform by imitating a foreign model, however, turned out to have steeper moral and psychological downsides than many had originally expected. The imitator’s life inescapably produces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity, and involuntary insincerity. Indeed, the futile struggle to create a truly credible copy of an idealized model involves a never-ending torment of self-criticism if not self-contempt.
What makes imitation so irksome is not only the implicit assumption that the mimic is somehow morally and humanly inferior to the model. It also entails the assumption that central and eastern Europe’s copycat nations accept the West’s right to evaluate their success or failure at living up to Western standards. In this sense, imitation comes to feel like a loss of sovereignty.
Thus, the rise of authoritarian chauvinism and xenophobia in central and eastern Europe has its roots not in political theory, but in political psychology. It reflects a deep-seated disgust at the post-1989 ‘imitation imperative’, with all its demeaning and humiliating implications.
The origins of the region’s current illiberalism are emotional and pre-ideological, rooted in rebellion at the humiliations that must necessarily accompany a project requiring acknowledgment of a foreign culture as superior to one’s own. Illiberalism in a strictly theoretical sense, then, is largely a cover story. It lends a patina of intellectual respectability to a desire, widely shared at a visceral level, to shake off the colonial dependency implicit in the very project of westernization.
The counter-revolution against liberalism
When Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński accuses ‘liberalism’ of being ‘against the very notion of the nation,’ and when Orbán’s lieutenant Mária Schmidt says ‘we are Hungarians, and we want to preserve our culture’, their overheated nativism embodies a refusal to be judged by foreigners according to foreign standards. In effect, they are saying ‘we are not trying to copy you, and therefore it makes no sense for you to consider us botched or poor-quality copies of yourselves’. To repeat, the self-styled ‘ideology’ of illiberalism ranks below its proponents’ emotional urge to restore national self-respect by denying that western liberalism provides the model to which all societies must conform. The abhorrence of compulsory imitation is primary, the intellectual criticism of the model being imitated merely secondary and collateral.
To be sure, this humiliation-driven repudiation of liberal ideas and institutions has not emerged in a vacuum. Favourable ground for an illiberal counterrevolution has been prepared by several important shifts in global political affairs. Authoritarian China’s rise as an economic powerhouse has dissolved what had once been seen as the intrinsic link between liberal democracy and material prosperity. While in 1989 liberalism was associated with appealing ideals of individual freedom, legal fairness, and governmental transparency, by 2010 it had been tainted by two decades of association with really existing and inevitably faulty post-communist governments. The disastrous consequences of the Iraq War, launched in 2003, discredited the idea of democracy promotion. The economic crisis of 2008 bred a deep distrust of business elites and of the ‘casino capitalism’ that almost destroyed the world financial order. Central and eastern Europeans turned against liberalism not so much because it was failing at home as because in their view it was failing in the West. It was as if they had been told to imitate the globally dominant West just as the West was losing that very dominance. Such a context could hardly have favoured the politics of imitation.
The counter-revolutions that broke out in Hungary in 2010 and Poland in 2015 represented a perfectly predictable return of the repressed. Attempts by central and eastern Europeans to imitate post-1945 Germany’s way of dealing with its recent history turned out to encounter insuperable problems.
German democracy rests on the assumption that nationalism leads ineluctably to Nazism. The transnational EU originated as part of a geopolitical strategy to block a potentially dangerous reassertion of German sovereignty by integrating the country economically into the rest of Europe and by giving the Federal Republic a ‘post-national’ identity. In Germany, as a result, ethno-nationalism came close to being criminalized. Central and eastern Europeans, by contrast, find it difficult to share such a negative view of nationalism – first, because their states are children of the age of nationalism that accompanied the breakup of multinational empires; and second, because nationalism played an essential role in the mostly nonviolent anti-communist revolutions that began in 1989.
In central and eastern Europe, unlike in Germany, nationalism and liberalism are likely to be seen as mutually supporting rather than clashing ideas. Poles would find it absurd to cease honouring the nationalistic leaders who lost their lives defending Poland against Hitler or Stalin. The region also was forced to suffer for decades under communist propaganda that reflexively, indeed numbingly, denounced nationalism. Here is perhaps another reason why central and eastern Europeans feel wary of Germany’s obsessive desire to detach citizenship from hereditary membership in a national community. For a time during the 1990s, the Yugoslav wars led Europe as a whole (including the post-communist portion) to see or pretend to see nationalism as the root of all evil. In the long run, however, the identification of liberalism with anti-nationalism did more than merely make people less prone to support liberal parties in post-communist countries. It also made liberalism, including so-called constitutional patriotism, seem to be a new ‘German ideology’ designed to govern Europe in the interests of Berlin.
The double meaning of normality
The revolutions of 1989 seemed exciting at the time, but viewed in retrospect, they turn out to have been colourless revolutions. ‘Not a single new idea has come out of eastern Europe in 1989’, François Furet, the great historian of the French Revolution, famously observed. Germany’s leading philosopher Jürgen Habermas concurred. He was not especially scandalized by ‘the lack of ideas that are either innovative or oriented towards the future’, since for him the eastern European revolutions were ‘rectifying revolutions’ or ‘catch-up revolutions’. Their goal was to return eastern European societies to the mainstream of western modernity by allowing the eastern Europeans to gain what the western Europeans had long possessed.
In 1989, central and eastern Europeans were not dreaming of some perfect world that had never existed. They were longing for a ‘normal life’ in a ‘normal country.’ As Poland’s Adam Michnik later confessed, ‘My obsession has been that we should have a revolution that [does] not resemble the French or the Russian, but rather the American, in the sense that it be for something, not against something. A revolution for a constitution, not a paradise. An anti-utopian revolution. Because utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.’ His cry was therefore ‘Liberty, Fraternity, Normality’. When Poles of his generation spoke of ‘normality’, it should be said, they did not mean some earlier pre-communist period of Polish history to which their country could happily revert once the parenthesis of Soviet occupation was closed. What they meant by ‘normality’ was the West.
Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel described his country’s struggle to escape communist rule as ‘simply trying to do away with its own abnormality, to normalize’. After decades of living with eyes focused on a purportedly radiant future, the main idea now was to live in the present and to enjoy the pleasures of everyday life.
This elevation of western ‘normality’ as the principal goal of political revolution had two perverse effects. It dramatically raised the question of how to reconcile ‘normal’ in the sense of ‘what is widespread in one’s country’ with ‘normal’ in the sense of ‘something that the West somehow is while the East is not’. It also made emigration the natural choice of central and eastern European revolutionaries.
One of the crucial problems with communism was that its ideal was a society that never existed and that nobody was sure ever would exist. One of the central problems for westernizing revolutions, on the other hand, is that the model they aim to imitate is constantly morphing before our eyes. The socialist utopia may have been eternally unreachable, but at least it possessed a comfortingly unchanging quality. Western liberal democracy, by contrast, has proved shape-shifting and protean to an extreme. Because western normality is defined not as an ideal but as an existing reality, every change in western societies brings a new image of what is normal. Just as technology companies insist that you should buy their latest model and make it difficult to rely on the previous one, the West insisted that only Europe’s latest post-national political model was worth buying.
The disturbing effect of an elusively changing ‘normality’ is best illustrated by the way central and eastern Europeans have reacted to changing cultural norms in western societies over the last two decades. In the eyes of conservative Poles in the days of the Cold War, western societies were normal because, unlike communist systems, they cherished tradition and believed in God. Then suddenly Poles discovered that western ‘normality’ today means secularism, multiculturalism and gay marriage. Should we be surprised that Poles and their neighbours felt ‘cheated’ when they found out that the society they wanted to imitate had disappeared, washed away by the swift currents of modernization?
If, in the immediate aftermath of 1989, ‘normality’ was understood largely in political terms (free elections, separation of powers, private property, and the right to travel), during the last decade normality has increasingly come to be interpreted in cultural terms. As a result, Central and East Europeans are becoming mistrustful and resentful of norms coming from the West. Ironically, as we shall see below, eastern Europe is now starting to view itself as the last bastion of genuine European values.
In order to reconcile the idea of ‘normal’ (meaning what is widespread at home) with what is normatively obligatory in the countries they aim to imitate, eastern Europeans consciously or unconsciously have begun to ‘normalize’ the model countries, arguing that what is widespread in the East is also prevalent in the West, even though westerners hypocritically pretend that their societies are different. Eastern Europeans often relieve their normative dissonance – say, between paying bribes to survive in the East and fighting corruption to be accepted in the West – by concluding that the West is really just as corrupt as the East, but westerners are simply in denial and hiding the truth.
A liberal revolution of normality was not thought to be a leap in time from a dark past to the bright future. It was instead imagined as a movement across physical space, as if all of eastern Europe would be relocating to the House of the West, previously seen only in photographs and films. Explicit analogies were drawn between the unification of Germany realized after the Wall came down, and the idea of a unified Europe. In the early 1990s, in fact, many eastern Europeans burned with envy at the astonishingly lucky East Germans, who had overnight collectively migrated to the West, waking up miraculously with West German passports in their hands and (so some thought) deutschmark-stuffed wallets in their pockets. If the 1989 revolution was a regionwide westward migration, then the main question was which eastern European countries would arrive first at their shared destination.
Exit, imitation and disloyalty
On 13 December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared a state of emergency in Poland, and tens of thousands of participants in the anti-communist Solidarity movement were arrested and interned. A year later, the Polish government proposed to release those willing to sign a loyalty oath as well as those prepared to emigrate. In response to these offers, Adam Michnik penned two open letters from his prison cell. One was entitled ‘Why You Are Not Signing’ and the other ‘Why You Are Not Emigrating’. His arguments for not signing were straightforward. Solidarity activists should not swear loyalty to the government because the government had broken its faith with Poland. They should not sign because signing to save one’s neck would mean humiliation and loss of dignity, but also because, by signing, they would be putting themselves in the company of people who had betrayed their friends and their ideals.
As for why the jailed dissidents should shun emigration, Michnik thought this required a more nuanced answer. A dozen years before, as a Polish Jew and one of the leaders of the March 1968 student protests in Poland, Michnik had been distressed to see some of his best friends leave the country. He also watched as the communist regime tried to persuade ordinary people that those who left had done so because they cared nothing about Poland. Only Jews emigrate – that was how the government had tried to turn Pole against Pole.
By 1982, Michnik was no longer angry at his friends who had left the country fourteen years before. He also recognized the important contribution of the émigré community to the birth of Solidarity. But while admitting that emigration remained a legitimate expression of personal freedom, he strongly urged Solidarity activists not to go into exile, because ‘each decision to emigrate is a gift to Jaruzelski’. Moreover, dissidents who left for freedom beyond Poland’s borders would be betraying those who stayed behind, especially those working and praying for a better Poland. Leaving would also undermine the democratic movement and help the communists by rendering society too easily pacified and by associating the opposition cause with selfishness and disloyalty to the nation. The best way to show solidarity with one’s suffering countrymen and to resist the communist rulers was to refuse the poisoned gift of personal freedom in the West, for being able to emigrate and thereby enjoy such freedom was hardly an option for the vast majority of Poles.
By deciding not to emigrate, Michnik argued, the imprisoned activists would also give meaning to those who had decided to emigrate earlier and were supporting the Polish resistance from abroad. Freedom itself means that people have a right to do what they want. But in the circumstances of 1982, ‘the interned Solidarity activists who choose exile are committing an act that is both a capitulation and a desertion’. Michnik admitted that this statement sounded harsh and intolerant and that some might think it conflicted with his belief that ‘the decision to emigrate is a very personal one’. But in 1982, to emigrate or not to emigrate was the ultimate loyalty test for Solidarity activists. Only by choosing to remain in jail instead of taking up the attractive offer of personal freedom in the West could they earn the trust of their fellow citizens, upon which the future of a free Polish society depended.
If in 1982 emigration was an act of betrayal, that is not how it seemed in 1992. After 1989, the desire to have what Havel called ‘a normal political life’ led to mass emigration. If in East Germany ‘exit’ was followed by ‘voice’ (to use Albert O. Hirschman’s famous terms), then in central and eastern Europe it was the other way around: voice came first, then exit. At first, euphoria over communism’s end fed hopes for immediate, radical improvement. Central and eastern Europeans would wake from the communist nightmare to freer, more prosperous, and, above all, more western countries. When no magic and instant westernization came, many took their families and left for the West. After the shocking success of a revolution aimed at copying western normality, Michnik’s harsh 1982 claim that emigration to the West was a capitulation and a desertion no longer made any sense. The personal choice to decamp to western Europe could no longer be stigmatized as disloyal to nations devoted to becoming like the West. A revolution that had made imitation of the West its goal could give no strong reasons against westward emigration.
Revolutions as a rule force people to cross borders – moral borders if not territorial ones. When the French Revolution broke out, many of its enemies decamped. When the Bolsheviks set up their dictatorship in Russia, millions of White Russians left the country and lived abroad for years with suitcases packed in hopes of a Bolshevik collapse. In these cases, however, the defeated enemies of the revolution were the ones who left. The contrast brings out the historical anomaly of 1989. After the velvet revolutions, it was the winners – not the losers – who moved away. Those most impatient to see their countries change were also the ones most eager to plunge into the life of a free citizenry. They were the first to go abroad to study, work, and live in the West, taking their pro-western inclinations with them.
It is hard to picture Leon Trotsky, after his Bolsheviks won, deciding that it was time to go study at Oxford. But that is what Viktor Orbán and many others did. And they had good reasons to do so. Unlike the French and Russian revolutionaries, who believed that they were building a new civilization hostile to the old order of throne and altar, and that Paris and Moscow were where this future was being forged, the revolutionaries of 1989 were strongly motivated to travel to the West in order to see up close how the normal society they hoped to build at home actually worked in practice. Every revolutionary wants to live in the future, and if Germany was the future of Poland, then the most heartfelt revolutionaries might as well pack up and move to Germany.
The dream of a collective return to Europe made such a choice both logical and legitimate. Why should a young Pole or Hungarian wait for his country one day to become like Germany, when he could start working and raising a family in Frankfurt or Hamburg tomorrow? After all, it is easier to change countries than to change your country. When borders were opened after 1989, exit was favoured over voice because political reform requires the focused cooperation of many organized social interests, while emigration requires only you and yours. The mistrust of nationalistic loyalties and the prospect of a politically united Europe also helped to make emigration the political choice for many liberal-minded eastern Europeans. This, alongside the vanishing of anti-communist dissidents, is why Michnik’s thundering against emigration lost its moral and emotional punch after 1989. This brings us to the refugee crisis that struck Europe in 2015 and 2016.
Demography is destiny
The dominant storyline of the illiberal counterrevolution in central and eastern Europe is encapsulated in the inverted meaning of the idea of an ‘open society’. In 1989, the open society meant a promise of freedom, above all a freedom to do what had been previously forbidden, namely to travel to the West. Today, openness to the world, for large swaths of the central and eastern European electorate, connotes not freedom but danger: immigrant invasion, depopulation, and loss of national sovereignty.
The refugee crisis of 2015 brought the region’s brewing revolt against individualism and universalism to a head. What central and eastern Europeans realized in the course of the refugee crisis was that, in our connected but unequal world, migration is the most revolutionary revolution of them all. The twentieth-century revolt of the masses is a thing of the past. We are now facing a twenty-first-century revolt of the migrants. Undertaken anarchically, not by organized revolutionary parties but by millions of disconnected individuals and families, this revolt faces no collective-action problems. It is inspired not by ideologically coloured pictures of a radiant, imaginary future, but by glossy photos of life on the other side of the border.
Globalization has made the world a village, but this village lives under a kind of dictatorship – a dictatorship of global comparisons. People these days no longer compare their own lives only to the lives of their neighbours; they also compare themselves to the most prosperous inhabitants of the planet. Thus, if you seek an economically secure life for your children, the best thing you can do is to make sure that they will be born in Denmark, Germany, or Sweden, with the Czech Republic or Poland as perhaps second-tier options.
The combination of an aging population, low birth rates, and an unending flow of outmigration is the ultimate source of demographic panic in central and eastern Europe, even though it is expressed politically in the nonsensical claim that invading migrants from Africa and the Middle East pose an existential threat to the nations of the region. Immigration anxiety is fomented by a fear that unassimilable foreigners will enter the country, dilute national identity, and weaken national cohesion. This fear, in turn, reflects a largely unspoken preoccupation with demographic collapse. Between 1989 and 2017, Latvia haemorrhaged 27 percent of its population; Lithuania, 22.5 percent; Bulgaria, almost 21 percent. Two-million East Germans, or almost 14 percent of the country’s pre-1989 inhabitants, decamped to West Germany in search of work and a better life. The number of central and eastern Europeans who left their home region (mostly bound for western Europe) as a result of the 2008 economic crisis exceeds the total number of refugees who came to western Europe from outside Europe, including the refugees from Syria. About 3.4 million people left Romania in the decade after 2007 – numbers usually associated with a war or some other catastrophe. Three-quarters of these Romanians, moreover, were 35 or younger when they left. The threat that confronts central and eastern Europe today resembles the prospect of depopulation that East Germany faced before the communists put up the Berlin Wall. It is the danger that working-age citizens will leave the East to pursue lives in the West.
Panic in the face of a non-existent immigrant invasion should be understood as a distorted echo of a more realistic underlying fear that huge swaths of one’s own population, including the most energetic and able young people, will leave the country and settle permanently abroad. The magnitude of the post-1989 migration out of central and eastern Europe explains why there has been such a deeply hostile reaction to the refugee crisis across the region, even though hardly any refugees have relocated to it (as distinguished from transiting across it).
Fear of diversity is at the core of the rise of European illiberalism, but it has a different meaning in the East than in the West. In western Europe, illiberalism is born of the fear that liberal societies are unable to cope with diversity. In the East, the question is how to prevent diversity from arising in the first place. If a century ago eastern Europe was the continent’s most ethnically diverse part, today it is unbelievably homogeneous. Only 1.6 percent of current Polish citizens were born outside Poland, while the proportion of Muslims among Polish citizens is less than 0.1 percent.
Accounting for anti-immigrant hysteria
The trauma of people pouring out of the region explains what might otherwise seem mysterious – the strong sense of loss in countries that have benefited from the political and economic changes since 1989. Across Europe, the areas that suffered the greatest haemorrhaging of population in recent decades have been the ones most inclined to vote for far-right parties. This strongly suggests that the illiberal turn in Central Europe, too, is deeply rooted in the mass exodus from the region, especially of young people, and the demographic anxieties that this outmigration has left behind.
The second factor explaining anti-immigrant hysteria without immigrants brings us back to our main argument. While there has been no ’invasion’ by African and Middle Eastern immigrants trying to settle in the region, central and eastern Europeans are constantly exposed through sensationalized television reporting to the immigration problems that plague western Europe. The consequence is a new understanding in the East of the essential divide between the two halves of the continent: while the East is still homogeneous and monoethnic, the West is viewed as having become heterogeneous and multi-ethnic as a result of a thoughtless and suicidal policy of allowing easy immigration. The radical revaluation of values here is remarkable. Rather than western Europeans being considered far ahead and eastern Europeans far behind, western Europeans are now described, in the rhetoric of xenophobic populists, as having lost their way. In the febrile imaginations of these populists, western Europe has become the periphery of a Greater Africa and Greater Middle East.
As a result, western Europe no longer represents the model of a culturally triumphant West that central and eastern Europeans long aspired to imitate. On the contrary, the open societies of western Europe, unable to defend their borders against foreign (and especially Muslim) ‘invaders’, provide a basically negative model, a living picture of the social order that eastern Europeans are most eager to avoid.
To resurrect the moral disapproval that once attached to emigration, central and eastern European populists must reject the claim that Hungary, Poland, or the other countries in the region can succeed politically and economically only if they faithfully imitate the West. The rise of nationalistic rhetoric and the illiberal turn in the East look suspiciously like a desperate attempt to build a ‘loyalty wall’ that will stanch the haemorrhaging and stop young central and eastern Europeans from leaving their countries. Formulated differently, populists in Warsaw and Budapest have turned the refugee crisis in the West into a ‘branding opportunity’ for the East. Only if the nation stops trying to be like the West will its citizens stop leaving for the West. To halt outmigration, it is necessary to ruin the reputation of the West as a land of opportunity and to tear down the idea that western liberalism is the gold standard of an advanced social and economic order. Western Europe’s open immigration system is rejected less because it has invited in Africans and Middle Easterners than because it has served as an irresistible magnet for central and eastern Europeans themselves.
Europe today is haunted by the spectre of reverse imitation. The players in the post-1989 ‘imitation game’ are, at least in some respects, changing places. In a few cases, the mimics have become the models and vice versa. The ultimate revenge of the central and eastern European populists against western liberalism is not merely to reject the ‘imitation imperative’, but to invert it. We are the real Europeans, Orbán and Kaczyński claim, and if the West wants to save itself, it will have to imitate the East. As Orbán revealingly declared in a speech in July 2017, ‘twenty-seven years ago here in central Europe we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.’
This article was first published in Journal of Democracy 3/201