The same year (1877) Dostoevsky wrote his famous short story, ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,’ in which the title character has to leave the planet and actively participate in the Fall from Grace in order to renew his faith in humanity, the Russian writer was also preoccupied with a problem of a different sort. Why was it, he wondered, that ‘all the most important questions of Europe and humanity generally in our age are always raised simultaneously.’ ‘[T]his very simultaneity is striking.’
Observers of our time are struck by another puzzling case of simultaneity. Across apparently vastly different contexts, a new ideology has emerged: ‘illiberalism’ coupled with what Timothy Snyder has termed ‘the politics of eternity,’ and what a number of other commentators are describing as populism. ‘New authoritarians’ dot the political landscape and seem to well up on the horizon. Whereas once nearly every state — from the US to China to East Germany to Spain — claimed to be a ‘democracy,’ regardless of how many elections were held or how those elections were conducted, all of a sudden even its defenders are wondering whether democracy ever had a fighting chance. Just as the welfare state and decades of postwar economic prosperity are now frequently cast as anomalous blips on the vast timeline of human history and exceptions proving the general rule of crisis, democracy, too is being retrospectively shrunk to a few patches of earth in exceptional times, seen as forever embattled, insecure, and tenuous. In the rear-view mirror, democracy may be much closer than it appears, yet we seem nonetheless transfixed by the world of appearances.
And so we seek to identify the common causes — the original sins — that gave rise to this convergence. If we could only discover what must be corrected and atoned for, then the work of salvation should be easy enough. Yet the most common explanations are too enormous to have real explanatory power: capitalism, globalization, neoliberalism, modernity. They are at once deeply within and far beyond us, and furthermore fail to answer the question: ‘Why now?’ Who can atone or correct for ‘globalization’ or ‘capitalism’? The horror we see seems coterminous with the very world we inhabit.
It may be that our search for an ‘original sin’ or a common explanatory history is misguided, that we have committed a mistake we were warned against already in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Marx and Engels noted that
although every shopkeeper can tell the difference between what someone says they are and what they really are, our historiography has not yet come to this trivial realization. It takes every epoch for its word, what it says about itself and imagines of itself.‘
This warning has implications for whether we see the likes of Orbán and Kaczyński as typically exclusively east-central European, or as harbingers of a future that lies in store for the West. ‘In the 1990s and in the 2000s,’ writes the historian and influencer Timothy Snyder, ‘influence flowed from west to east. […] in the 2010s influence flowed from east to west.’ The statement is glib to be sure; but is it true?
Photographer: Ruben Gustav. Photo source: Flickr
Much depends on how we answer the question of causality; does the rise of neo-authoritarianism in these countries have a specific, east-central European root? Indeed, the search for a common historical or structural cause regularly ends in frustration. While one might convincingly trace Hungary’s current state to the particular manifestation of the economic crisis of 2008, to the particular legacy of communism, to never-fully-relinquished relics of a caste-based society held over from the nineteenth century, these explanations ring hollow for a country like Poland, not to mention all the other countries within and beyond the region (Turkey, the US, Great Britain, Brazil…) where populism and neo-authoritarianism have come to power or gained a foothold. Historical trajectories and material conditions in all these countries are too distinct, such that a common historical first cause remains elusive. Discussion then devolves into a more or less rigorous description of symptoms (globalization, neoliberalism, capitalism, inequality, automation, the internet…), or contents itself to limit the scope of the inquiry to a single country or region, leaving the question of causes as indeed of the timing of the convergence for another day.
But what if the rise of figures like Orbán and Kaczyński cannot be traced to a common historical cause, but rather suggest a common political strategy? I propose a thought exercise whereby we relinquish the search for common causes and focus our attention instead on the political strategies wielded by these figures, and how those strategies serve their interests.
Substitution #1: Shift year zero from 1989 to 2008
When explaining what he means by ‘illiberal democracy,’ Orbán has argued that, ‘Illiberal democracy is when the liberals don’t win.’ In his year-end speech for 2016, he noted with relish that all those who thought that ‘the liberal world order was unchangeable,’ that ‘nations are doomed and can go along with their devotees to the museum,’ had been proven wrong. History did not end in 1989, he concluded, ‘It took a sharp turn, broke through, and broke down the carefully constructed barriers, and stepped out of the bed designated for it.’ 1989 could only work as a year-zero for liberalism, the series of events that gave rise to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history.’ If Orbán hoped to undermine liberalism, 1989 had to go.
Ditching 1989 was a bold political strategy, not least of all because it was what made Orbán’s political career in the first place. As a fresh-faced twenty-six-year-old back then, Orbán delivered a famous speech, the theme of which was ‘Russians, go home!’ ‘If we believe in our own strength, then we are capable of bringing an end to the communist dictatorship,’ he told the crowd. The matter of Orbán’s ideological resemblance to interwar fascists is debatable. But in terms of his political strategy, he does seem to have torn a page from Mein Kampf:
‘[I]t is hard to determine when the negative aim of the destruction of a hostile doctrine may be regarded as achieved and assured. For this reason alone, the philosophy’s offensive will be more systematic and also more powerful than the defensive against a philosophy, since here, too, as always, the attack and not the defence makes the decision.’
It was not enough, therefore, to obliterate 1989 as a point of origin since 1989 pointed to a liberal future. Replacing it with another date would not simply negate the ‘end of history,’ but also point to a different future. Orbán showed his political acumen when he declared that the truly significant shift of recent history was not the ‘regime change’ marked by the collapse of state socialism in 1989, but the financial crisis of 2008.
Fidesz politician György Schöpflin said in an interview that Orbán’s vision of the ‘illiberal nation state’ must be viewed primarily in economic terms. In other words, Orbán’s ‘illiberalism’ was a foil for ‘neoliberalism.’ This was an inspired rhetorical shift, one that served two simultaneous aims: to hit liberalism in a spot — the harms of neoliberalism — where liberal guilt and self-criticism was already very much in evidence, and to conceal aspects of the ‘illiberal’ strategy that went far beyond the economic realm, resulting in changes to the constitution, the structure of the judiciary, and curtailing the independence of the media.
Moving year-zero had other effects, as well. Orbán’s political debut in 1989 was marked by the utterance of a resonant slogan: ‘Russians, go home!’ More recently, an article in his party’s mouthpiece Figyelő praised Orbán as the figure who, ‘in 1989, openly stood up and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and stood up to the Brussels conviction that migration could not be stopped.’ Note how the original target (Russia) has shifted to a new one (Brussels).
Kaczyński has similarly made his political career on theorizing that the Russians were behind a 2010 plane crash in Smolensk in which his brother Lech and scores of others were killed, connecting it to a WWII-era Soviet conspiracy to cover up the mass killing of Polish army officers and intellectuals. Yet more than the Russians, Kaczyński blames the liberals — and in particular Donald Tusk, current president of the European Council and former prime minister of Poland — for covering up the truth behind the crash, and lately seems to have forgotten the other essential element of the theory: Vladimir Putin.
Neither Orbán nor Kaczyński have made Putin targets of their ire. Both choose instead to criticize and cast aspersions on the European Union and domestic liberal opposition. In 2014, Orbán declared that Hungary would join China, India, Turkey and Russia in the ‘race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful,’ and in the fall of 2016 he said ‘freedom-loving people’ needed to guard against the ‘Sovietization’ drive within the EU. Where once he used ‘Russian’ as stand-in for ‘Soviet,’ now Orbán uses ‘Soviet’ as a stand-in for ‘EU,’ another clever substitution along the lines of the year-zero shift from 1989 to 2008. Meanwhile, his government has negotiated a secretive nuclear energy deal with Moscow that effectively turns the keys of much of Hungary’s energy sector over to a Russian company.
Substitution #2: From Liberal Politics to Neoliberal Statecraft
On the surface, today’s illiberals are harsh critics of neoliberalism and have undertaken concrete measures to ameliorate the effects of market exposure for some citizens, specifically those with large families and current or aspiring homeowners. Orbán’s Fidesz helped Hungarians dig out of underwater mortgages following the 2008 financial crisis, and the government gives extra money and tax breaks to families with three or more children. The director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, Sławomir Sierakowski, has noted how, during its earlier period in power (2005-2007), PiS implemented neoliberal policies, but this time around they have distributed benefits for multi-child families, free medication for seniors over 75, and a reduction in the retirement age.
Yet even as they cast themselves as the vanguard of the fight against neoliberalism, both Orbán and Kaczyński are willing to use the market when it serves to eliminate or sap the power of their critics, especially the media. Wielding the ‘compete-to-survive’ rhetoric of business to undermine the mouthpieces of opposition, the governing parties in both Hungary and Poland have gone after leading opposition newspapers (Népszabadság and Magyar Nemzet in Hungary and Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland), not by censorship or detention of journalists, but by cutting off their access to advertising revenue and subscriptions, and making it very difficult or impossible for them to compete economically. Meanwhile, government-friendly papers are supported with advertising by state-owned corporations and subscriptions from government offices.
As such the new authoritarians have not abandoned neoliberalism, but rather moved it squarely into the political realm. ‘Some of us, in Europe and North America, have settled on the idea that various forms of democratic and economic competition are the fairest alternative to inherited or ordained power. But […] Sooner or later, the losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value of the competition itself,’ writes Anne Applebaum in a recent piece on the fate of liberal democracy in Poland, Hungary, and beyond.
‘These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy.’
Applebaum believes that competition produces a meritocracy, which is why illiberal neo-authoritarians hate it. But she neglects the obvious fact that most successful competitors, given the chance, will use their dominant status to try to prevent others from entering into competition with them; favouring those who make deals that benefit them and driving out of business those who try to hold their own: viz. Amazon and Walmart. In raising the lessons of mega-corporations to the level of the state, the neo-authoritarians are neoliberals par excellence.
Substitution #3: Shift the content of nationalism from a ‘Yugoslav’ to a ‘Western’ type
The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s raised fears that inter-ethnic conflict and territorial revisionism were going to plague the region’s politics following the collapse of state socialism. Yet so far the illiberal nationalist leaders have steered clear of interethnic antagonism. A particular irony of recent developments is the extent to which illiberal semi-authoritarian states are marked not so much by tensions around endogenous minorities, hostile neighbours, or oppressed ethnic kin in the ‘near abroad,’ as they are by tensions within the national polity. Hungarians hate each other, now arguably more than ever before, which is quite an achievement in a polity that has long nursed deep divisions (just google ‘kuruc’ and ‘labanc’). More strikingly, Poles hate each other, too, a remarkable reversal from the mass character of Solidarity of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Furthermore, although nationalists in both Poland and Hungary have a history of hostility towards their neighbours — especially Ukrainians and Romanians respectively — both states are largely playing well with those neighbours now.
Territorial revisionism, or the desire to ‘rectify’ the ‘unjust’ boundaries of bygone peace treaties, was long a political obsession for Hungary in particular. The spirit of revisionism still exists and remains politically potent, but is now geopolitically tame. Many Hungarian cars sport stickers with maps of Greater Hungary (reflecting the pre-1920 borders of the country), and the symbolism of revisionism (the brain-shaped Kingdom of Hungary) is everywhere. Orbán even gave his famous speech on how Hungary could be an ‘illiberal nation state’ in the formerly Hungarian territory of Transylvania that is now part of Romania. Yet the government is on good terms with its neighbours, no longer agitates incessantly on behalf of the Hungarian minority, and has declared that the European Union means that all Hungarians are already united in a single state. Finally, nothing says ‘these borders are fixed’ quite like a big, long fence that cuts across ‘historic Hungary.’ The erection of the super-secure, many-layered border fence along the southern border with Serbia seems to testify to the fact that Hungary has truly relinquished its revisionist ambitions.
Whereas suspicion of Hungarian and Austrian revisionist aspirations once drove a wedge between states in the region, the outlines of a Visegrád cozy of anti-immigrant Euro-racism underpins many of the arguments behind the resurgence of East-Central Europe. The designation ‘new Europe’ used to signal Western condescension towards a region that readily joined George W. Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, but Orbán recently retooled the old designation when he characterized the V4 as the energized ‘new Europe’ in contrast to the stagnating Western one, thereby casting the region as the harbinger of an illiberal future. Yet another clever substitution.
Taken together, these strategies suggest that the answer to the riddle of simultaneity is rooted in a strategic effort on the part of political forces in the region — and in Hungary in particular — to recast the timeline and trajectory of these countries and orient them towards a shared ‘illiberal’ future. This strategic shifting and agglomeration was undertaken with the aim of suggesting a more global historical decadence to liberalism and greater vitality to the illiberal drive. Karl Marx famously opened the Communist Manifesto (1848) with ‘A spectre is haunting Europe; the spectre of Communism,’ when in fact very few people in Europe had any concept of ‘Communism,’ much less viewed it with the implied agitation. The ‘illiberals’ of our time have deployed a similar rhetorical coup by connecting otherwise distinct strands of vague unease into an implied grouping with a clear and pervasive global enemy (liberalism).
In light of these developments, one recent attempt to identify the forces at work behind the ‘illiberal turn’ warrants special attention. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s article in the Journal of Democracy titled ‘Imitation and Its Discontents’ sets out to explain the phenomenon for East-Central Europe. Their argument runs that countries like Hungary and Poland, fed up with always being imitators and followers of a big-brother Western Europe, are now ‘undermining liberal democracy by implementing a clever policy of piecemeal imitation,’ adapting liberal courts and constitutions to illiberal ends, endeavouring to transform the European Union in their own image, which is itself an antagonistic mirror image of the liberal order. ‘We are the real Europeans, Orbán and Kaczyński claim, and if the West wants to save itself, it will have to imitate the East,’ they write.
Their argument is all the more compelling in that it operates both in the realm of psychology and in the realm of demography, portraying anxiety about immigration as a psychological response to a more fundamental anxiety about emigration rooted in concrete demographic changes (they note that some countries have lost more than twenty percent of their populations to outmigration). ‘About 3.4 million people left Romania in the decade after 2007—numbers usually associated with a war or some other catastrophe.’
But there is something their analysis misses, and that is the extent to which these leaders have undertaken a different sort of imitation: instead of imitating and perverse-mirroring the post-1989 liberal order, they have substituted many of the ethno-nationalist features associated with East-Central Europe with a particular variety of more racialized and immigrant-focused Western European nationalism. The reason it is not recognizable as ‘Western’ is because, in the West, this brand of right-wing nationalism had hitherto remained on the fringe and never managed to run a government. In East-Central Europe, views that were once espoused by parties in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France, are now running states. They appear distinct because they are in power. But examine their programs closely and there is nothing at all specifically East-Central European about their message. Anti-Muslim, anti-migrant, critical of the EU, Christianity without kindness, emphasis on race and willingness to form partnerships with fellow white Europeans; nihil novi.
In 1922, Arnold Toynbee published his classic history, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilizations. He opened the book with an evocative image: the shadow that so frightened western Europeans in the East was their own:
‘[W]e civilised people of the West glance with pity or contempt at our non-Western contemporaries lying under the shadow of some stronger power, which seems to paralyse their energies by depriving them of light. Generally we are too deeply engrossed in our own business to look closer, and we pass by on the other side — conjecturing (if our curiosity is sufficiently aroused to demand an explanation) that the shadow which oppresses these sickly forms is the ghost of their own past. Yet if we paused to examine that dim gigantic overshadowing figure standing, apparently unconscious, with its back to its victims, we should be startled to find that its features are ours.’
Toynbee’s assessment is at least partially accurate for our time. Nonetheless, ‘the ghost of their own past’ is no less present in the ‘illiberal’ strategy of the East-Central European neo-authoritarians. In the parliamentary elections of April 2018, Fidesz and its Christian democratic partner won 133 of the 199 seats in parliament, yielding an electoral map of Hungary that is almost entirely orange (the color of Fidesz). OSCE observers of the election noted that in the months prior, public funds were funnelled into ‘government information campaigns,’ betraying ‘a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources.’ In other words, Orbán meant for his party to be conflated with the state itself. The similarities this party-state strategy bears to that of the communist government of János Kádár (party chief and de facto head of the Hungarian state from 1956 to 1988) have not been lost on contemporary observers. Above all, having learnt from state socialism, Orbán and Kaczyński are more aware than their Western right-wing counterparts that you do not actually need a majority to rule. You simply have to be able to conflate your party with the state.