The Rise of Illiberalism

An interview with Ivan Krastev by Maciej Nowicki

The project of Orbán and Putin contains a fundamental contradiction, which cannot be overcome. Therefore, their utopia will never become more than a utopia—says Ivan Krastev in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

Viktor Orbán has repeatedly criticized the EU, but recently he went much further: in a keynote speech he said that the European model has become obsolete and that we should seek inspiration in authoritarian countries, Russia and China. How should we understand that?

Orbán is now the most influential European leader after Angela Merkel. Many of the mainstream politicians secretly want to emulate him. In our part of Europe he is constantly gaining in importance, since the majority of Bulgarians, Romanians and Croats perceive the years of emerging from communism as one big disaster. The right-wing opposition in Poland hopes that Warsaw repeats the “Hungarian variant.” And the speech delivered in Transylvania on 26 July 2014, made the Prime Minister of Hungary an even more important figure.

For the first time the leader of a EU country bluntly presents illiberalism as his political project. And on top of that as the model to follow he names Russia, which is in a state of undeclared war against the EU. Of course his speech was criticized in the USA and Europe. And that was what he wanted, he provoked that on purpose…

Just like Putin…

Exactly. Orbán’s speech is based on the same logic as was the annexation of the Crimea by Putin. The Hungarian Prime Minister evidently wants to underline that times have changed and that the old order is no longer valid, and he is the only leader who has the courage to say the truth.

This is strikingly remindful of the 1920s. Orbán stresses that since he won two consecutive elections and he is unquestionably representing the majority, this majority should rule. Also Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini did not rule against their nations. On the contrary, they enjoyed huge social support. At that time liberalism was regarded as a denial of true democracy.

Of course, Orbán does not want to become a new Hitler or Stalin. However, he does attempt to change the nature of the European project, in which pluralism and minority rights are the foundation of politics. And one more thing: many people present Orbán as a freak of nature. Unfortunately, he represents the mainstream in a larger degree than we realize. What we are seeing today is a kind of global revolt against the checks and balances principle. Politicians have come to a conclusion that under the current regime they are unable to overcome the crisis. Increasingly often they speak against the independence of the courts. They attack the sovereignty of central banks. They claim that voters’ control of the government should be weakened.

Orbán used to be a liberal, which makes his criticism even more painful: in a way it is internal criticism, coming from a former ally…

We have the liberalism of Mrs Merkel, which is working. We also have liberalism which is not working—in the majority of European countries. And finally, we have the illiberal proposal of Orbán, which is presented as the only alternative. Orbán says: I tried to introduce liberal solutions and I can’t see any advantages of this system. And he is doing that at a time when the liberal consensus is crumbling. In many post-communist countries the majority perceives the transformation as a disaster and wants someone to pay for the lost hopes and thwarted lives. All over the West young people see capitalism as a dead end. They are afraid that they will have to fight for jobs with machines, and even if they do get jobs, they will be treated as machines. Most Europeans are convinced that their children will be worse off than themselves.

And this is not all. The Ukrainian–Russian war destroyed some more illusions. We wanted to believe that economic codependence would bring us peace and harmony. This made us conclude that Russia would not do anything stupid, because it was too dependent on us.

Yet today the whole row about the sanctions— which many EU countries do not want—leads us to an opposite conclusion: when Russia does something stupid, we will not react. Because we are too codependent.

Historically, people like Orbán were brushed off in one sentence: we used to say that these are empty promises. But it no longer works that way. Which of his promises did Hollande fulfill, to name but one example? Orbán is dealing with the economy better than Hollande. And he is a whole lot more popular. Does this mean that an illiberalism which works may become a model for others?

The Europeans are dissatisfied with what they have and they are waiting for a different future. What does Orbán really promise? He is drawing on the repertory from the 1920s. He wants to sell this past as the future. The falsehood of this promise will finally come out.

Besides Orbán is a very talented politician. He has a phenomenal political sense. He knows where the red line runs—he is always careful not to go too far. So that Brussels would be angry, but not punish him by taking the money away. Just like with playing cards. If there is just one clever crook, in the short term he is winning. Therefore Orbán is winning so far. But when others start cheating, the advantages are much less obvious. In short, an EU with many Orbáns is unthinkable. It would no longer be the EU, but some ruins.

If Orbán will not find too many people openly imitating him, why is he so important?

Because Orbán’s case shows how weak liberal institutions and the liberal order are. We are constantly hearing that Orbán must be punished, but then nothing happens. In short, one precedent follows another. The existing order is eroding as a result.

We have learned not to react to anything. Take the recent elections to the European Parliament. I don’t even mean the fact that the populists had such a good result. This is not the worst. I am shocked by something completely different— that this populist revolt has not provoked any anti-populist response. And the crisis is getting even bigger…

Marine Le Pen probably will never become president of France, contrary to what some polls say. Still, owing to her extremely strong position, almost no one abroad is treating France seriously…

We knew that France was economically much weaker than it used to be. Le Pen’s successes did to France what the crisis did to Spain or Italy—it deprived it of a significant part of its influence and a huge part of respect. Before it was France which was “inventing “ the EU. Now the National Front dominates in the French debate about Europe.

In Great Britain it is slightly similar: the UKIP sets the tone in European matters, which makes London grow distant from the Union.

As a result we have a different Europe. Germany is increasingly dominant, because their two mainstream parties, the CDU and the SPD, are still very strong. In short, all this is not about illiberalism of all kinds gaining power overnight. We are seeing a series of gradual changes instead, which make the Union change its overall shape. There is no more talk about further enlargement. Immigration policy will definitely be changed. And this is just a beginning…

It is not only the fault of people like Orbán or Le Pen. Joschka Fischer is on to something when he says that the true problem lies with mainstream parties which do not have a lot of sensible things to offer.

The liberal order has many drawbacks and it would be silly to ignore them. I will give you another example: contrary to what is often said, the true aim of the EU was not weakening the nation states, but the exact opposite—saving them. Germans and Italians brought themselves into disrepute during the war and the French collaborated with the Nazis to a much larger extent than they would admit. Only the European Union could save these countries—turn the former “warfare” into future “welfare,” belligerence into prosperity. But now that has changed. Let us take Scotland… The Scots almost left Great Britain! We are seeing the same thing in Catalonia, and we will soon see it in other countries with strong minorities. The existence of the EU is now an encouragement to destroy nation-states. Rich provinces feel safe and do not intend to share their wealth with anyone.

This is a very important point: does the EU defend countries against globalization? Or, it rather destroys and weakens states? We must ask questions of this type…

So far on the one hand we have politicians who build their position by attacking the liberal order, like Orbán or Le Pen. On the other hand we have those who want to defend the status quo at all costs, they ensure us that everything is going perfectly, although they themselves do not believe it. The only thing which is completely lacking is honest reformism. There are no people who believe that liberal democracy is the best possible system, while at the same time understand how many things need to be changed.

You claim that we are living in a “democracy of distrust.”To what extent is this distrust a side effect of the crisis? And to what extent is it an essential feature of today’s world?

Both factors work hand-in-hand. Of course without the economic turbulence we would put more trust in the world and politicians. But this lack of trust is also an important part of our culture. We distrust not only politicians: we do not trust anyone. Of course there was a moment when this lack of trust in a way strengthened the individual. A modicum of distrust can help us. But today our culture has become a machine for destroying any kind of trust. This is a fundamental problem, for people who do not trust anyone are unable to bring about any social change. There is a saying that it is better to let yourself be cheated than to trust no one. And what is happening today? People go out to the streets to protest. Yet the very next day they again do not believe anyone.

Some people say that the solution is to increase transparency in politics. You claim, in my opinion correctly, that this is an illusion.

European political institutions have never been as transparent as they are today. But at the same time they have never been as distrusted. One in three Europeans believes in the Union, and nine in ten Greeks think that their government is a thief. I think this proves something.

Today we are not protesting against governments, but against the very idea of being governed. The global middle class does not even believe in any form of government. It is constantly chanting the slogan, “we don’t want the government to do this or that.” It is incapable of coming up with anything else. As a result it is losing in importance, it is becoming more and more alienated, because lower classes want something completely different: they want the government to help them.

Politicians of course know that distrust is reigning in today’s world. And they do not even try to recover the lost trust. They use a different strategy: managing distrust. They try to persuade the voters that their opponents are even less trustworthy. In a word, they are winding up the spiral even more.

And politicians such as Orbán and Le Pen are the winners of this situation, becoming the kind of “bankers of distrust.”

Orbán captures the confidence of the Hungarians, pointing at the enemies of the nation; stressing how hard it is to be a Hungarian today—because almost the entire world is against the Hungarians. Putin operates in exactly the same way, but in a much more radical form. Such a strategy ultimately always turns against the politicians using it. If you constantly present the world as an enemy and encourage people to fight against it, the world eventually does become your enemy… This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You wrote recently that what we are experiencing today is in 1968 a rebours. What does it mean exactly?

Back then the threat to the system came from the left and today it is coming from the right. In 1968 only the past counted, and today the opposite is true. Then the dream was global solidarity, today the uniqueness of the nation is highlighted. The people behind 1968 were in love with the “other.” Today the populists deify their own community, people who are exactly the same as them.

Orbán, Erdogan and Putin perfectly fit this description. They are radical nostalgia-mongers. And they want to defend their community against the pressure of the outside world.

They do, nevertheless, have a powerful enemy in this war: global capitalism. To global capitalism, every closed border means a decline in profits. And it is not certain that Russians or Hungarians support their leaders in that matter. They have nothing against the exaltation of their own nation, but they also want access to the benefits of the global economy. Orbán and Putin therefore are in a very difficult position. Their project contains a fundamental contradiction, which cannot be overcome. Therefore, their utopia will never become more than a utopia.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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