The long read: After communism fell, the promises of western liberalism to transform central and eastern Europe were never fully realised and now we are seeing the backlash
In the spring of 1990, John Feffer, a 26-year-old American, spent several months criss-crossing eastern Europe in hope of unlocking the mystery of its post-communist future and writing a book about the historical transformation unfolding before his eyes. He was no expert, so instead of testing theories, he buttonholed as many people from as many walks of life as possible. The contradictions he encountered were fascinating and puzzling. East Europeans were optimistic but apprehensive. Many of those he interviewed at the time expected to be living like Viennese or Londoners within five years, 10 years at the most. But these hopes were mingled with anxiety and foreboding. As Hungarian sociologist Elemr Hankiss observed: People realised suddenly that in the coming years, it would be decided who would be rich and who would be poor; who would have power and who would not; who would be marginalised and who would be at the centre. And who would be able to found dynasties and whose children would suffer.
Feffer eventually published his book, but did not return to the countries that had briefly captured his imagination. Then, 25 years later, he decided to revisit the region and to seek out those with whom he had spoken in 1990. This time round, eastern Europe was richer but roiled by resentment. The capitalist future had arrived, but its benefits and burdens were unevenly, even crassly distributed. After reminding us that For the World War II generation in eastern Europe, communism was the god that failed, Feffer writes that For the current generation in the region, liberalism is the god that failed.
The striving of ex-communist countries to emulate the west after 1989 has been given an assortment of names Americanisation, Europeanisation, democratisation, liberalisation, enlargement, integration, harmonisation, globalisation and so forth but it has always signified modernisation by imitation and integration by assimilation. After the communist collapse, according to todays central European populists, liberal democracy became a new, inescapable orthodoxy. Their constant lament is that imitating the values, attitudes, institutions and practices of the west became imperative and obligatory.
Across central and eastern Europe, many of the democracies that emerged at the end of the cold war have been transformed into conspiracy-minded majoritarian regimes. In them, political opposition is demonised, non-government media, civil society and independent courts are denuded of their influence and sovereignty is defined by the leaderships determination to resist pressure to conform to western ideals of political pluralism, government transparency and tolerance for strangers, dissidents and minorities.
No single factor can explain the simultaneous emergence of authoritarian anti-liberalisms in so many differently situated countries in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet resentment at liberal democracys canonical status and the politics of imitation in general has played a decisive role. This lack of alternatives, rather than the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism, is what best explains the anti-western ethos dominating post-communist societies today. The very conceit that there is no other way provided an independent motive for the wave of populist xenophobia and reactionary nativism that began in central and eastern Europe, and is now washing across much of the world.
When the cold war ended, racing to join the west was the shared mission of central and eastern Europeans. Indeed, becoming indistinguishably western was arguably the principal aim of the revolutions of 1989. The enthusiastic copying of western models, accompanied as it was by the evacuation of Soviet troops from the region, was initially experienced as liberation. But after two troubled decades, the downsides of this politics of imitation became too obvious to deny. As resentment seethed, illiberal politicians rose in popularity and, in Hungary and Poland, acceded to power.
In the first years after 1989, liberalism was generally associated with the ideals of individual opportunity, freedom to move and to travel, unpunished dissent, access to justice and government responsiveness to public demands. By 2010, the central and eastern European versions of liberalism had been indelibly tainted by two decades of rising social inequality, pervasive corruption and the morally arbitrary redistribution of public property into the hands of small number of people. The economic crisis of 2008 had bred a deep distrust of business elites and the casino capitalism that, writ large, almost destroyed the world financial order.
Liberalisms reputation in the region never recovered from 2008. The financial crisis greatly weakened the case, still being made by a handful of western-trained economists, for continuing to imitate American-style capitalism. Confidence that the political economy of the west was a model for the future of mankind had been linked to the belief that western elites knew what they were doing. Suddenly it was obvious that they did not. This is why 2008 had such a shattering ideological, not merely economic, effect.
Another reason why central and eastern populists have got away with exaggerating the dark sides of European liberalism is that the passage of time has erased from the collective memory the even darker sides of European illiberalism. Meanwhile, the ruling illiberal parties in central and eastern Europe, such as the Civic Alliance (Fidesz) in Hungary and Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland, seek to discredit liberal principles and institutions in order to deflect from legitimate charges of corruption and abuse of power. To justify dismantling the independent press and judiciary, they claim that they are defending the nation against foreign-hearted enemies.