By Morgane Fert-Malka
On November 15 the prestigious Parisian research institute CERI1 held a conference about ‘the conservative revolution in East-Central Europe’. The conference had been planned for months and nobody had expected that the world would be turned upside down with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The discussion ended up being about much more than Poland and Hungary – the official focus of the programme.
2016 had two really tough ‘mornings after’: June 242 and November 93. On those mornings one part of the Western world woke up in shock, horrified, unable to make sense of the dazzling speed at which their Kantian ideal had collapsed, unable to understand why a value system that was so intrinsically good had been rejected by so many. How could anyone be against tolerance, hospitality, gender and racial equality, cultural mixing, and open borders in our progressive post-modern societies and creative economies?
Political scientists were aghast and positively ashamed. Not only had they not seen this coming, they also had no idea what to say or do next. I am too young to remember the atmosphere in December 1991 when the Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed, but I suspect there were similarities.
So from December 27, 1991 political scientists started their job of Trümmerfrauen and slowly, painfully wandered through the ruins of their forfeited Weltanschauungen, picking up a brick here and there, cleaning the mess, and eventually building something new and hospitable. They built the ‘post-Soviet transition’, the ‘end of History’, the ‘dividends of peace’, etc. Similarly, political scientists today are counting the casualties and already, courageously, thinking about how to build the next intellectual landscape. They are staring at the smoking ruins of globalisation and the liberal ideal, genuinely wondering what went wrong, and how to make it better in the future. They barely know where to step, and they know it will take time, but what else can be done?
At CERI on November 15, however, the keynote speakers were not so perplexed, not so lost. They had an advantage: they knew where to step. They were specialists of East-Central Europe, where the ‘conservative revolution’ has been on track for some time already. Their programme was ready, their conceptual tools sharpened, all they had to do was broaden the geographical scope and speak not only about Poland and Hungary but about Europe and the Western hemisphere as a whole.
Indeed the host, Jacques Rupnik, opened the conference on these terms. After all, Polish and Hungarian politics, which he and his colleagues were used to studying as idiosyncratic cases, today exemplify and even prove to have foreshadowed a general trend. The study of post-Soviet transitions has always been the science of how those societies and economies managed to catch up, Rupnik admitted, and all of us were wondering why and how East-Central Europe seemed to be backsliding – to illiberalism, to populism. Well, this time they were ahead. They were the vanguard.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Rupnik went on to explain, has long assumed his support of ‘illiberal democracy’ against what he claims to be the fallacy of ‘liberal non-democracy’. Pluralism cannot work, according to Orbán, because the multiplicity of interests distorts and perverts the real democratic process, which he defines as the expression of the unitary will of the people, the indivisible volonté générale à la Rousseau. In this paradigm, the Leader has an organic role. He is the depository of the volonté générale, the mouth through which it is directly expressed. Constitutional checks and balances, as well as political pluralism and the media as the ‘fourth estate’ only stand in the way, while a strong leader means a strong democracy.
It is tempting to draw parallels with the Trump phenomenon in the US, although I doubt the new President-elect ever formulated his political philosophy in such elaborate terms. Clearly much of Trump’s appeal resides in the impression that America – especially the average and disenfranchised America – is directly speaking through his mouth, with all its roughness and political incorrectness. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton is – and appears like – a master at navigating the system of checks and balances and arbitrating between interest groups.
This helps explain why Orbán euphorically reacted to Trump’s election. He told the Telegraph, “I feel like I’m being liberated; from this morning on breathing is easier … The limitation of thinking and speech and discussion and issues that are not permitted to be discussed as we would like is over. [sic]” In Orbán’s philosophy, populism is genuinely not a bad word, and intellectual fascism resides in the coerciveness of the liberal dream.
Orbán is not isolated in his philosophy. Aleksander Smolar, one of the speakers at CERI, described how the Polish leadership follows the same logic. Prominent Polish figure Jaroslaw’s Kaczinski has eagerly mimicked Orbán’s rhetoric and the Polish political elite has been consistently drifting away from the constraints of constitutionalism with the same justification.
It is interesting, as Rupnik noted, to see how words evolve and how their connotation changes. So the term ‘illiberal democracy’, famously coined as a negative characterisation by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay in Foreign Affairs, later appropriated by Orbán and Kaczynski. The term ‘populism’, derogatory in mainstream terminology is now claimed by Podemos and Syriza as a noble legacy from Enesto Laclau. Orbán and Kaczynski mixed two infamous references and presented their movements as a “cultural counter-revolution.”
In the end, it all boils down to ‘Othering’, i.e. defining the Other. Any stance can be justified on the basis that the opposing stance is even worse. In a way this is what the proponents of the Kantian/European dream have failed to understand: that it was not enough for the values they proposed to be attractive in absolute terms, but that they had to prevail over competing ideas. But the competing ideas were confined to the sphere of the politically incorrect or taboo and never had a chance to be disproved (See my previous piece on why Eurosceptics must be shown more respect).
So Orbán defines ‘illiberal democracy’ in opposition to ‘liberal non-democracy’. He also defines himself in opposition to EU elites as he earlier defined himself in opposition to the Soviet occupier. The EU is the new Soviet Union. Trump defines himself in opposition to the Clintons of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. So too, many in the West define themselves in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Putin defines himself in opposition to Washington and Brussels. Across all these fault line migrants (Mexican, Middle-Eastern, African) make the perfect and constant Other – passive and disorganised as they are, yet massive and menacing. The traction of populism and illiberalism is not about dissatisfaction or economic insecurity: Othering happens even in prosperous and happy societies, where the disenfranchised margin is reduced to its minimum, for example in Denmark. Also note that populism has never been the panacea against economic insecurity (cf. Trump’s victory speech: “We have a great economic plan: we are going to double our growth”). No, the traction of populism is about having an – ideally threatening – Other to define oneself against. First, because having no Other means having no Self. Second, because the more infamous the Other, the more beautiful the Self appears to be. Third, because the more threatening the Other, the more the Self feels consistent and united, the easier it is for leaders to seize power while peoples acquiesce.
Unfortunately, those who refuse to define an Other are defenseless and defeated by forfeit. The ‘open society’ is defenseless because, not recognising a threatening Other, it cannot define a strong Self. This is the problem of the Kantian/European ideal, which does not support the idea of borders. Based on this ideal the EU, which after all is but a stage towards an ideal world of supra- or post-national governance, fills the whole world in concentric circles (Member States, Neighbourhood, rest of the world) as if it had no external borders and no Other (the EU only defines itself in opposition to ‘poverty’, ‘conflict’, etc.). In turn, the whole world fills the EU – and to remain consistent, the EU cannot refuse to take them in… The entire Kantian project ends up crumbling, both under the cost of implementing cosmopolitanism, and under the attack of its detractors.
This calls for a few non-exhaustive remarks. First, Orbán, Kaczynski and the like are going to be in trouble when they realise that their Others overlap and conflict. They cannot be anti-Russia, pro-NATO and pro-Trump at the same time. Also, they cannot be both anti-EU and continue projecting influence in world affairs through their EU membership. The anti-EU stance worked as long as the EU had the resilience to shoulder it, but if the EU collapses Orbán and Kaczynski are going to find themselves without a Big Bad Wolf to blame – like two Don Quixotes without windmills and without Sancho Panzas. After Moscow and Brussels, who is going to be their next oppressor?
Second, if Trump does engineer a rapprochement with Russia, then not only does the Polish approach to NATO fall flat, but so does the European security architecture as a whole as based on the Helsinki Accords. There are all reasons to believe that a Trump-Putin friendship, if such a thing is possible, would not include European partners, so there is no reason to rejoice over a Moscow-Washington détente on these terms – especially if this détente translates into a regression of international law and a return of realpolitik where Europe is but a buffer zone in a larger geopolitical game.
The CERI conference ended up being about much more than Poland and Hungary, raising questions of political philosophy, values, the role and shortcomings of political science, and the future of the world. Participants were not optimistic about the future of liberalism. However, as I hope to have shown here, the opposite approach also has its weakness. Having a threatening Other (real or imaginary) is useful, but it presents two risks: the enemy might end up defeating you or being defeated itself, and in both cases the Self dissolves. As long as the Orbáns, the Trumps and the Putins of the world can keep the chemical compound stable, they can ride on their ‘conservative revolutions’; if they don’t, they are left with perpetual war against shifting enemies. Between conservative peace and conservative war, the liberal ideal does not seem so bad after all.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own.
1. The Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI) is Sciences Po Paris’ embedded think tank for international affairs.↩
2. On June 23 The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU (ed.).↩
3. November 8 was the day of the US presidential election (ed.).↩