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A flawed analysis on the rise of transnational authoritarianism

György Schöpflin on Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy

Let’s start with the good news. The book is readable, has been widely reviewed and received a fair amount of publicity.

But it is deeply flawed. It’s deeply flawed for three broad reasons. The author thinks she is writing about democracy and liberalism – hence the “twilight” metaphor in the title – but she clearly has no real idea what these are. Her definitions are vague and more than somewhat inconsistent. Second, the approach that she uses is personal and personalised (disclosure, I have met Applebaum a few times, but not for many years). This allows her to tell anecdotes, but then she generalises from single instances – something that is inherently problematic. The third reason is about what’s missing from the book, significant factors that offer better explanations than what is in the text. It is hard to know whether these are deliberate or just oversight.

Applebaum’s starting point, roughly, is the end of communism and Fukuyama’s “end of history” proposition (a position he no longer holds). Indeed, the last chapter of the book bears the title “the unend of history”. The argument in the book simply accepts two assumptions, that democracy is the sole future of politics and that democracy is liberal and only liberal. Anything that deviates from this is to be cast into outer darkness – the usual suspects of the bien pensant left, populism, nativism, xenophobia, illiberalism.

Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends

The key here is that liberalism and democracy are separate and separable, yoking them together is, in reality, an innovation and a power grab, maybe an ideology grab. If we accept that liberal democracy as currently defined is the sole, legitimate variant, then pretty much everything before the “end of history” was not democratic. Think of the UK or France after 1945, when the welfare states were launched in earnest. This meant that state allocation took precedence over the individual and what the state did was broadly trusted. Proof? Elections had high participation, the media were free, and the administration of justice was mostly apolitical. So basically, Applebaum accepts without a second thought that Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Conservatism were not democratic, not properly democratic in the eyes of today’s liberals.

What this constructs is a monopoly, a monopoly in the sense that liberals have declared that they alone have the right to define to democracy. In other words, those who vote in ways that liberals do not accept are not democrats. At one point, the book quotes Isaiah Berlin to the effect that the quest for unity is a chimaera, indeed central to his work is the proposition that a single, coherent set of moral norms – monism – ends up as coercive and despotic. What Applebaum and the many who share the mindset will not see is that liberalism in its current iteration is just that, a single set of political norms, intolerant of anything that diverges.

How anyone can write about the West without mentioning the role of the European Union is perplexing

Nor does the book see that the inequalities that current liberal thinking accepts – both social and market liberalism –are actually a growing threat to democracy. Applebaum is dismissive. She describes David Goodhart’s division of English society into Somewheres and Anywheres as being a “false and exaggerated division of the world” (and does so without actually mentioning Goodhart by name). Has she ever visited the deprived parts of northern England? Nor does she mention the fall of Red Wall in last year’s election (from internal evidence the book was finished in the spring of 2020). The gilets jaunes in France get equally short shrift, they are “yellow-jacketed, anti-establishment anarchists”. Not a word, however, about how and why the upsurge broke out, namely the sudden increase in fuel taxes making rural journeys unaffordable. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Applebaum has neither empathy nor sympathy for the citizens of democracies who have been short-changed by the liberal version of democracy.

There is an indirect explanation of sorts in her depiction of Britain – England to be accurate, seeing that Scotland and Wales have only minor walk-on parts – which is mostly the England of the media elite and London, described in the book at length. Most would describe this as a decidedly narrow data base, but this does allow her to generalise, albeit ultimately unconvincingly.

Given that impersonal processes play next to no role in her analysis, it follows that someone has to be named as the villain of the piece and when I began reading the book, I rather thought it would be Jarosław Kaczyński, the pre-eminent figure of Polish national conservatism (Applebaum’s husband, who has an on-stage role in the book, is a senior Polish opposition politician). Kaczyński is mentioned, of course, but he’s not targeted directly. No, the top villain is Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minster and here, of course, I’m on home ground, not least because Applebaum does not know Hungarian, meaning that she has to rely on second-hand information and hearsay.

This and her generally cavalier use of language explain how she is comes to write that Orbán has a “monopoly of power”. By any standard, it’s a weird monopoly of power where the opposition can win the local elections in Budapest and the 10 largest towns in Hungary (2019), where the courts regularly bring in decisions that are not at all welcome to Orbán’s government, where there are regular demonstrations against the government, where the left-wing media use hair-raising language in their critiques (true, Hungarian language use is often hyperbolic). Western readers never get to hear of this, of course, because Western media never mention any of this.

Then, there is the personalisation. Much of the writing is personal and personalised. Applebaum is quite clear on this. There are those who agreed with her in the 1990s, no longer do so and are, therefore, traitors, referring explicitly to Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals. Why traitors? Because they no longer agree with her. This can fairly be termed solipsism of a high order. The central problem with this personalisation is that it does nothing explain why people change their minds and what role was played by social movements, technological or economic change.

Staying with Poland and Hungary, the book never once looks at the carry-over from communism, at the way in which the technocratic elites of the communist system successfully salvaged much of their power (money, knowhow, property, networks) and started doing so well before 1989. Indeed, from the evidence currently seeing the light of day, the entire history of the end of communism will have to be rethought. These well-placed elites saw that the communist system was fragmenting and used their skills to ensure that they remained well-placed. This was the salvaging. Let it be added that the West was complicit in this, enabling transfers of money and happily accepting the rebranding of communists as democratic socialists and liberals. There was to be no accountability for the communist past. So no wonder that the victims of communism were and are resentful.

Lastly there are omissions. Some have already been noted, but how anyone can write about the West, liberalism, Spain, Poland, Hungary etc. without mentioning the role of the European Union is perplexing. Brexit is discussed, but entirely from the London perspective. Yet anyone assessing Poland, Hungary and liberalism is basically being unfair to the reader if the EU is ignored. Brussels has had Hungary in its crosshairs since 2010 when Orbán won the elections with a constitutional majority. In the liberal world view this simply couldn’t happen, so the EU shifted its emphasis from declaring that its success was based on soft power to deploying the rule of law as an instrument of political pressure. Both Hungary and Poland are targeted. This is an ongoing story, but what is invariably omitted is that in the EU’s annual Justice Scoreboard (have you ever heard of it?) Poland and Hungary come out reasonably well. The same is true of the EU’s report on compliance with the law. But you would never know any of this, because it goes against the liberal grain and is probably on the wrong side of history – wherever that may be.

Equally, there is the economic imbalance. The poorer countries of the EU have certainly benefited from the single market and the cohesion funds transfers, but they have not caught up with the West. Market-driven liberalism, opening up to Western capital, as well as the ban on state aid have created a centre-periphery relationship that strengthens the Eurocritical attitudes found throughout the EU, in Italy, France or Greece too, not just in Central Europe. In the book, Europe of the EU plays no role.

So, if you are a fully paid-up member of the bien pensant tendency, you might quite like this book as a kind of political comfort reading. If, on the other hand, your preference is for cogent analysis of current political realities, then you’ll come to a different conclusion.

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