Liberal politics have been betrayed by liberals
It was once assumed that their values would flourish in east and central Europe
Growing inequalities created resentment among those who lost out from the older social protection, making them open to nationalist appeals from leaders like Victor Orban in Hungary. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
Oligarchs, corruption, illiberal and populist politics and popular protests in Russia and East Central Europe herald next year’s 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet rule.
The revolution hoped to liberate the region from authoritarianism by combining liberal democracy, a capitalist market economy and gradual incorporation of the new states into the refashioned European Union emerging from these geopolitical transformations.
In an essay written in 1990, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe – modelled on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution – Ralf Dahrendorf, the German political sociologist and one-time European commissioner celebrated the changes and aimed to guide them along these lines. Both works were addressed to a gentleman in Warsaw.
Now another Pole, Jan Zielonka, based as Dahrendorf was then in St Anthony’s College Oxford, has penned a book entitled Counter Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat. In a series of chapters he portrays a counter-revolution, asking why so many in Europe now hate liberals. He depicts a democratic malaise, a socialism for the rich, a geopolitics of fear, a neurosis about barbarian immigrants at the gate and chronicles the rise and fall of the EU. These conditions are not confined to central and eastern Europe, but are seen in Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany and Italy as well. In that perspective Brexit is part of a wider trend.
Liberal politics have been betrayed by liberals themselves over these three decades, he argues. They have privileged freedom over equality, neoliberal economics over deliberative politics, a technocratic over a more political EU and a private, atomised individualism over public and social values. Instead of trying to explain populism they should be reflecting on the demise of liberalism and social democracy. Peering into the future he foresees a threefold set of changes required to reinvent and recreate Europe’s liberal project by decentering its politics to cities and regions as well as states, harnessing democratic movements and linking them into new information technologies.
This is a bracing, if perhaps unduly pessimistic, self-criticism from a writer who remains a liberal and wants to retrieve its values. Applied to east and central Europe it highlights the weaknesses of their societies confronted with huge economic and political change.
Liberals assumed their values would flourish once Stalinist structures were removed. But civil societies remained weak, despite the traditions of dissent in communist Poland and Czechoslovakia. The rule of law was difficult to reconcile with the shock therapy privatisations which transferred state ownership to previous elites and new oligarchies and brought in stronger German, Austrian and other west European companies to control their domestic markets. Growing inequalities created resentment among those who lost out from the older social protection.
That made them open to nationalist appeals from leaders like Victor Orban in Hungary, Jan Kaczynski in Poland and from ruling parties dominated by former communist elites in Romania and Slovakia. These draw on memories of occupation by Ottoman, Hapsburg, Russian and Prussian empires as well as later Nazi and Soviet ones. They now blame the EU as a new intrusive external power. Except for the Czechs, most of these countries experienced authoritarian rule between the two World Wars, so have little democratic political culture to fall back on.
In an effort to understand these changes, another Polish specialist on the region, Jacques Rupnic from Sciences Po in Paris, agrees in an essay on the Eurozine website that “the post-1989 liberal cycle has been exhausted”. The triple transition to democracy, market economy and Europe was achieved with EU enlargement in 2004, but all three are now in crisis. Illiberalism, financial austerity and a divided Europe threaten that heritage. “Liberal elites throughout Europe – and not just in east-central Europe – are in decline, because they failed to reformulate the project to make it relevant in the age of globalisation. Their demise, together with that of the mainstream parties, has created a new space for identity politics and anti-European populist movements.”
Rupnic is more optimistic than Zielonka on the prospects of reversing these trends. The disconnect between liberalism and democracy is not complete in Poland and several other states, where societies, public spheres and citizens may have built up a sufficient democratic buffer to resist the authoritarian temptation.
Protests by women against abortion legislation in Poland, by many thousands against the murder of an investigative journalist in Slovakia, or against corruption in Romania and Russia show a continuing spirit of democratic dissent which could yet turn that illiberal tide. They deserve solidarity from other dissatisfied Europeans.