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The Right People

Frank Callanan

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, 224 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241419717
After Europe, by Ivan Krastev, University of Pennsylvania Press, 136 pp, £15.99, ISBN: 9780812252422

Anne Applebaum is a political writer, academic and historian. She has now added to her important works on aspects of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe a graceful and intelligent memoir that is highly entertaining in a grim way and is brilliantly of this moment. It opens with a party in a remote manor house in northwest Poland on New Year’s Eve of 1999 thrown by her and her husband, Radek Sikorski, who was to be foreign minister of the country in the government led by Civic Platform. “You could have called the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right – the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classic liberals, maybe Thatcherites.”

Half the people at the party no longer speak to the other half. Some, like Applebaum and Sikorski, “continued to support the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market centre right. We remained in political parties that aligned, more or less, with European Christian Democrats, with the Liberal parties of France and the Netherlands, and with the Republican Party of John McCain.” That minute cartography of an overdetermined Atlanticist liberal right is underscored by her adding “some of my guests consider themselves centre-left”. The rest have sheared off into support for Law and Justice in Poland. That is “the parting of friends”.

Her description of the impact of the coming to power of Law and Justice in Poland is devastating in its sobriety. She is pitiless on the betrayal of the rule of law by her Law and Justice-vaunting ex-friends. One of the things she picks up on both in Poland and in the Hungary of Viktor Orbán is the sense of thwarted ambition of those who had supported the democratic revolutions, and whose personal disappointments took opportunistic or ideological nationalist turns. That in turn connected with the resentment of liberal meritocracy as socially unjust and anti-national, which struck deep roots in post-communist Poland. The relentless spawning of governmentally-sponsored conspiracy theories concerning the 2010 crash in which Lech Kaczynski, brother of Jaroslaw, the surviving twin hegemon of Law and Justice, perished when the plane in which he was travelling sought to descend on a fog-bound military airstrip in Smolensk licensed other counter-factual extravagancies, with the antisemitic traits without which no self-respecting conspiracy theory has been complete since the end of the nineteenth century. 

The twin electoral disasters of 2016, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, ensued. Perhaps because of rather than in spite of her own Spectator affiliations Applebaum is trenchantly perceptive on Brexit. In the US she had already refused to vote for McCain because of his nomination of Sarah Palin (“a proto-Trump”) and because of the use of torture in Iraq and she had written about this.

Applebaum’s is an unfinished journey (as all of ours is to a greater or lesser extent). What has shifted decisively is her perception of the sources of the threat to the rule of law if not of democracy, even if she remains exorbitantly suspicious of the left in an analysis in which economics is loftily relegated. There is not a word of criticism of the policies of Margaret Thatcher and the sparse references to Ronald Reagan have a glow of warmth. For most on the European left, and some on the still-reticent centre-right, Brexit owes much to the dismantling of swathes of the British state by Thatcher and her successors, culminating in and carried over the Brexit edge of doom by George Osborne’s puerile and savagely selective imposition of austerity. The narrowness of the choice set of the friends who were parted becomes in that way a problem. Liberal irony is not enough to unravel our present discontents. 

What makes Applebaum’s memoir rather moving is the implacable and honourable candour she observes on the subject of her own political predispositions. One can completely understand the necessity to cleave in present times to a particular political logic. The descent into the threatened chaos of populism accentuates a clinging to somewhat rigid if gracefully expressed classic liberal certitudes. These include a faintly persisting intellectual snobbisme towards the left which is not as classically liberal as she thinks. It is also untrue (and offensive) to treat democratic values in contemporary Europe as proprietary to the (or an imagined) classic liberal right. The effect of Applebaum’s own strangely endearing combination of candour and residual if challenged certitude is nevertheless to prompt a reflexive audit of the prejudices one takes from one’s own political tribe and orientation to wonder what might be inessential or even plain wrong. That feat is achieved almost novelistically by a certain half-self-ironising softening of tone rather than by overt concession (other than in what seems happily to be a widening of her socio-political circles). The unstated moral of her book is perhaps that we have all to press on further, and expand and if necessary puncture our intellectual bubbles, as the nature, scale and above all the peculiar modalities of the populist challenge acquire definition.

Ivan Krastev is the chair of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. His After Europe strikingly complements Applebaum’s personal memoir from the perspective of a political scientist, not least in arguing from eastern and central Europe out. Krastev might be called a Euro-realist. He believes that the only way of addressing the risk of the disintegration of the union “is to recognise clearheadedly that the refugee crisis has changed the nature of democratic politics on the national level and that what we are witnessing in Europe is not simply a populist riot against the establishment but a voters’ rebellion against the meritocratic elites”.

Krastev’s succinct book is full of sharp aperçus, not confined to political science and electoral or opinion poll data. Thus in discussing with dispassionate intelligence Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, he observes plangently (not à propos Houellebecq himself): “In the tortured imagination of Europe’s threatened majorities, immigration is a form of invasion, with outsiders arriving from all directions, and exit for the natives is not an option. In this sense, far-right voters perceive themselves as much more tragic figures than the French pieds noirs because they have no place to return to.”

Krastev’s data and aperçus connect up. He turns the immigration/emigration sock inside out. There are very few immigrants on the streets and rural lanes of central and eastern Europe. The sense of threat unscrupulously exploited by Orbán derives more from the demoralising impact of emigration – “demographic panic” – on those who remain (quite apart from the regressive political impacts of the departure of young highly educated citizens). John Rawls argued that being a loser in a meritocratic society was not as painful as being a loser in an openly unjust society by virtue of the recognised fairness of the outcome. Krastev mildly comments: “Today it looks as if the great philosopher may have been wrong.” He observes that in this respect “the crisis of the European project at bottom isn’t so much the product of a democratic deficit as a demand for the meritocratic vision of society to be reimagined”. The importance of the point is not vitiated by the immense difficulties of working out how such a reimagining is to be achieved.

Krastev notes that Yeats’s lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” were quoted more frequently in the Western media in the first six months of 2016 than in the preceding thirty years. He submitted the manuscript of the first edition of his book at the end of 2016. This is an updated edition, and he has added an intriguing afterword reviewing his earlier argument in which he says: “I am fascinated by the fact that while the European Union failed to solve any of the crises that were tearing it apart, the interplay between these crises created, miraculously, the conditions that helped the bloc to survive. The union is as fragile as ever, but its chances of enduring are much better than they were three years ago.”

While the parties of the populist right registered very substantial gains in the 2019 European elections, exit from the European union no longer featured in their programmes. The transformation he ascribes mostly to staring into the Brexit abyss and pulling back. He cruelly observes that Britain spent most of the second half of the twentieth century negotiating the dismembering of its empire, an exercise in which its colonies were acutely disadvantaged. In pursuing Brexit, Britain assumed the position of its colonies. “Britain today does not have enough trained experts to conduct successful trade talks, just like its former colonies at the time of their independence.” In the transposition of nostalgia to ideology history is unlearned.

Ivan Krastev’s final image is that the EU has suspended its self-ordained role as “a missionary who wants to shape the world in its own image” and become for the moment “a monastery focused on preserving the very exceptional nature of its political project”. That will suffice for now.

1/10/2020

Frank Callanan is finishing a book on the Politics of James Joyce. He is a Senior Counsel

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