History gone wrong: liberal democracy’s failure to flourish in Central Europe and Russia

(This is cross-posted at Goodreads.)

The Light that Faileds first sentence says ‘the future was better yesterday’. And so it was. Thirty years ago there were high hopes for the future of liberal democracy, especially in Central Europe, which had just peacefully ended communist rule. But that is yesterday’s future, replaced now with Central European governments dismantling liberal democracy, authoritarian regimes in Russia and China causing trouble around the world, and many established liberal democracies suffering from serious political dysfunction.

In trying to explain what is going on, The Light that Failed: A Reckoning, reads to me more like a pre-20th century political classic than contemporary political analysis (one of its authors, Stephen Holmes, has previously written excellent books on the history of liberalism and its critics; I have ordered the English-language books of his Bulgarian co-author Ivan Krastev). The Light that Failed has evidence and examples, but not the relentless facts and data of recent journalistic or academic accounts. Instead, its contribution is the categories it uses to understand events and its psychological insight.

light that failed

The book’s central concept is imitation. Individuals and societies are always copying each other, but this process can be experienced in very different ways. In Central Europe, the first post-communist political leaders and many of their people wanted to imitate the West: democracy, individual freedom, a market economy. And a triumphalist West wanted its model to be imitated; including in countries where the political elites and many of their people were not asking for advice.

In the early post-communist era, the Central European and Russian experiences had major points of difference. For the Central Europeans the end of communism meant liberation and hope. For the Russians it was humiliation: defeat in the Cold War, disintegration of the Soviet Union, and falling living standards. They did not want to imitate the West; that they felt pressure to do so was another sign of their weakness.

When Russia borrowed Western ideas it usually did so cynically. As Krastev and Holmes say, simulating democracy was politically useful for the Russians in the 1990s. Russia’s political elite found faking democracy easy because they had been faking communism for decades. In Russia and other ex-communist countries, the shift to private property was abused by the former communist elites for self-enrichment.

Russia still has elections, but this is imitation in form rather than substance, about the governing elites maintaining their control rather than risking being replaced. Rigged elections do not give voters a genuine choice, but instead inform the regime about the loyalties and competence of lower-level officials. The political struggle in Russia is not between rival forces seeking democratic mandates, but between these lower-level officials vying for approval from the powerful. By introducing new candidates and policies at elections, the governing elites gain an opportunity to renew and rebrand themselves.

Alongside this cynicism there was, as The Light that Failed argues, a genuine problem in transplanting ideas and institutions. The social and cultural conditions for democracy in Russia were missing. The communists had destroyed civil society and the social groups that might have otherwise formed the basis for political parties. People in Russia don’t think of politics as a way of improving their lives – it generally hasn’t in the past. It seems that the Soviet-era idea of voting only for the people in power still has some sway, ‘”popularity” in Russia is consequence not a cause of the power one yields’.

Subversive imitation of the West also influences Russia’s foreign policy, with revenge for Russia’s humiliations a major motive. Russian interference in US politics is a mocking copy of US intervention in the politics of other countries. When Russia invaded Crimea, Putin’s justification lifted passages of text directly from Western leaders supporting their intervention in Kosovo. He aims to highlight hypocrisy and to show that Western principles hide Western self-interest.

In Central Europe, as noted, the post-communist era started out much more positively than in Russia. But since then things have deteriorated badly with ‘illiberal democrats’ coming to power in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Thirty years on from the fall of communism, these countries again have much in common with Russia.

The former communist European countries share with Russia serious population and demographic issues (Krastev and Holmes describe Russia as combining European birth rates with African mortality rates). Large numbers of young people have left for the Western countries that never experienced communism, depriving their home countries of the people most likely to support liberal democracy, rupturing relations between the generations, and exacerbating concern among those who remain about their country’s future.

As Krastev and Holmes note, this is an unusual post-revolutionary pattern – normally people on the losing rather than winning side of a revolution go into exile. But because the communists had imprisoned their own people the right to travel was one of the most important freedoms of the post-communist era (and one that still exists, despite other political reversals).

The demographic vulnerability of Central European countries partly explains the anti-immigration politics of its populist leaders. Although their foreign-born residents are currently a low proportion of their total population, leaders of Central European countries believe that the free movement of people could change the nature of their small and ageing societies, particularly if the migrants are from culturally very different countries in Africa and the Middle East. Highlighting the migrant crisis in Western Europe also serves to make it a less attractive place for young Central Europeans.

Migration and the global financial crisis are among the reasons why, for many of those remaining in Central Europe, the countries of Western Europe are no longer models they want to imitate. But even without these issues the process of Westernisation and EU membership had became an affront to national dignity. The soft colonisation of Brussels was much more benign than the hard colonisation of Moscow; every new EU country freely applied to join. But once in EU membership could still feel like control from the outside (and hence Brexit, outside the scope of this book).

Although principally about Europe, The Light that Failed also discusses Trump, given the obvious parallels between him, Putin and Central European leaders. The US, with its strong civil society and liberal democratic political culture, has much better prospects of self-correction than does Central Europe (Russia is I think doomed to despotism). But Trump highlights how even countries with long democratic histories are vulnerable to political disturbance.

The specific aspect of the Trump analysis I will mention, because of its parallels to the communist era, is his attitude to truth. Krastev and Holmes cite George Kennan’s Cold War analysis of Russian disbelief in truth. Rather than statements being judged genuinely true or false, with true statements valuable and false statements not, the Russians looked for a statement’s purpose or effect. Something was true not because it was based on an independently verifiable reality, but because it served the Party’s interests. Something was false not because it was incorrect, but because it served a purpose contrary to the Party’s interests.

Similarly Trump seems not to care whether what he says is true or false, being only concerned whether his statements will help him ‘win’. The willingness of Trump’s supporters to accept and repeat his untruths is, for him, a useful test of their loyalty (like participation in sham Russian elections is a test of loyalty to Putin). And ‘paying no price for telling easily exposable untruths is an effective way to display one’s power and impunity’.

There will always be liars, and it is a cliché of democratic politics that politicians don’t always tell the truth. But usually straight-out lies, statements that are known to be untrue in the moment they are said, are rare in democratic politics, because politicians lose respect even among their supporters when caught out. The Trump phenomena is striking not just because of his indifference to the truth but because so many Americans don’t care enough to drop their support.

The Light that Failed is not intended to be the last word on any of its subjects. I’ll look out for reviews from people who know much more about Russia and Central Europe than I do. But I found it a fresh and stimulating take on why the future looked better yesterday than it does today.

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