The other half of the authoritarianism story

Geoffrey Hosking, a historian of Russia and Emeritus Professor of Russian History (UCL), reviews “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum.

by Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, 21 July 2020

At the turn of the millennium, Anne Applebaum and her husband Radek Sikorski (at that time working in the Polish Foreign Ministry) held a party at Chobielin, in north-western Poland.  Guests included heroes of Central European liberation movements who had fought to free their countries from Communism, along with journalists and intellectuals from Western Europe.  They chatted happily with each other, conscious of having triumphed in what recently seemed like the insuperable problem of ending state socialist tyrannies.  They were convinced supporters of the ideas of democracy, human rights, civil society and the free market.

Two decades later, Applebaum and her husband held another party in Chobielin.  Some of the former celebrants were there, but a few were notably absent.  In the intervening years, they had come to view the post-Communist world in a very different way and now despised much of what they had extolled in the 1990s. Applebaum’s new book shows the contrast between their 1990s role as protagonists of freedom to now, as apostles of authoritarianism.

What caused their radical rethinking?  Applebaum, who has remained loyal to her previous convictions, uses her considerable skills as a historian to try and elucidate their political evolution.  One departure point she finds in the light-hearted satire featured in conservative journals in the 1980s and 90s.  She sketches the Bullingdon Club, of which Sikorski, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron were members.  The neo-Regency attire, the heavy drinking and the jolly japes (smashing windows, breaking up furniture) recalled a lost world where young aristocrats could do what they liked without paying the cost.  But only half-jokingly:  underlying it was nostalgia for an England (not Britain) where people knew their place and were proud of their national identity, an England untainted by trade unions, redistributory taxes and the European Court of Justice.  It is this nostalgia, entertained at first light-heartedly, which became the core of the Chobielin 2019 absentees’ anti-democratic nationalism.

In the mid-2010s, a video emerged showing a man in Spain’s Basque countryside climbing a fence, crossing a river, and then marching up a hill.  Standing at the summit, he praises the Spanish nation and its armed forces, and a slogan appears on the screen:  ‘Hacer Espana Grande Otra Vez!’–  ‘Make Spain Great Again!’  This video became propaganda footage for Vox, the extreme right nationalist party which proclaims a united Spain and despises socialism and the breakaway nationalism of the Basques and Catalans.  The video’s nostalgia for the Franco era was transparent.  Its creator was Rafal Bardaji, one of the celebrants at the first Chobielin party.  When Applebaum asked him recently about the video, he replied, ‘That was my idea.  It was a kind of joke at the time.’  What had happened to Bardaji? He and Applebaum had both been in favour of strengthening the Atlantic alliance, NATO and the EU, with their ideals of liberty and free markets, against Islamist terrorism and resurgent national exclusiveness.  After some years as an adviser to right-wing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, he spent a decade and a half outside the establishment, running a political consultancy and fuming as centre-left and centre-right politicians came and went, and as Basque and Catalan separatism became more vociferous.  Vox gave him a chance to re-enter the big time, though according to Applebaum, he still regarded the video with an amused detachment.

            One of the leading figures in the right-wing pro-democracy circles of the 1990s was John O’Sullivan, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher and editor of the National Review, a ‘great talker’ and ‘brilliant writer’, in Applebaum’s own words.  By the 2010s, though, he was working for the Danube Institute, a Hungarian think-tank whose mission was to defend Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government on the grounds that it promoted truly Christian values and was protecting European civilisation against outsiders who aimed to undermine it.  By the winter of 2019 he was organising an international conference of alt-right parties,to co-ordinate their activities.  Applebaum tried to conduct a frank conversation with him about why he had moved from Atlanticist pro-democracy movements to become the spokesman for a chauvinist authoritarian regime, but it deteriorated into tit-for-tat ‘whataboutist’ repartee.

What explains these political-ideological leaps?  For one, impatience with a dull, utilitarian ‘centrist’ politics, in which centre-left succeeded centre-right without major changes in government policy, yet unstable authority meant nobody could hold power with assurance for long. In such a situation, these satirists had no public role and very little influence, and their latent nostalgia became serious fantasy politics.

Johnson’s frivolous reports of Brussels’s complex politics hooked a delighted audience back in the UK, who were ready to believe that the complexity of the EU was a burden on the simplicity of English (sic) politics. The authors and consumers of these satires latched onto a steady stream of half-truths and falsehoods, the kind of which graced the UKIP campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum

The insistence on ‘facts’ for which there was little or no evidence, the promotion of what Applebaum calls ‘Medium-Size Lies’ through incessant repetition, became a regular part of the stock-in-trade of the new authoritarians.

The echo chambers of social media helped the new authoritarians greatly in this mission, distorting and amplifying news to satisfy what consumers want to hear, and disseminating extremist content with minimal restriction.  This is the milieu in which ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ assertions became ostensibly valid currency.

The other half of the story

What, then, is to be done about the situation?  This is where my doubts about Applebaum’s book begin.  She has brilliantly conveyed the contrast between the 1990s and the 2010s, but has she really explained it?  Looking back over the first half of the text, I cannot find any convincing explanation, only a dramatisation of the incongruity.

Applebaum attributes her former colleagues’ changes of heart to historical cycles which periodically revive nationalism. She cites France’s Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, in which a Jewish army officer was falsely convicted of betraying military secrets to the Germans. The resulting public split among French elites generated cover-ups and the spread of known falsehoods aimed at shoring up Dreyfus’ conviction. As we see, fake news is not new.

Ultimately, Dreyfus was cleared and he was rehabilitated with full honours in the army. Though it would seem a resounding defeat for liars and fantasists, the anti-Dreyfus lobby re-emerged with the launch of Charles Maurras’ Action Francaise, and culminated in the establishment of the pro-German authoritarian Vichy government during the Second World War.

All just part of the historical cycle, then?  That seems an unsatisfactory explanation of what has been building up in the last decade.  Applebaum’s exposition of individuals’ changes of heart, though illuminating and well presented, is only half the story.  What she does not do is to examine her own beliefs and their practical effects on political and economic life.  Was there something about the liberalism of the passionate 1990s anti-Communists which pointed towards the polar opposite ideas some of them espoused in the 2010s?  After all, liberalism comes in different guises.  In Britain after the Second World War the dominant brand of liberalism was that of Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes, and it created a consensus around which most politicians, left and right, could agree until the 1970s.  In Europe, a similar consensus prevailed over the same period, represented by the various Christian Democrat and Social Democrat governments.  The triumphant anti-Communist liberalism of the 1990s was very different from that.

This leads us to the other half of the story:  the question of why so much of the world’s public has proved receptive to the lure of authoritarianism We must look back at the kind of liberalism which was enthusiastically embraced at the Chobielin celebration of 1999. It not only embraced free speech, human rights and constitutional limits on authoritarian governments, but also glorified the free market.  We have known for the last decade that minimally regulated markets generate monstrous distortions in all economies.  As Robert Skidelsky observed recently: ‘Markets without states are mafias.’  [Money and Government (2018), p 350] Utilising the freedoms of the unregulated market, finance companies now extract wealth on a considerable scale from ordinary businesses and families, parking it in offshore tax havens. ‘Shadow banks’ now hold at least as much money as ordinary banks. Their funds, artificially shielded from the costs of social obligations, are of course sometimes used for legitimate investment which generates new wealth, but much of it nourishes terrorism, drug-trading and the outsize enrichment of already rich individuals. 

Much of the public suffers from this illegitimate wealth accumulation in the form of low pay, insecure jobs, degraded public health care and under-funded education systems. These same people do not trust most politicians, who they see as out of touch and uncaring about their genuine everyday problems.

The anxious and insecure will naturally seek out someone to trust.  As if on cue, the colourful snake-oil merchants appear on their screens and Facebook pages, speaking a language that sounds down-to-earth, reassuring them that their problems are understood, and that a genuine community, the nation, exists and is ready to save them and enfold them in its embrace.  No matter that the new authoritarians are up to their necks in illegitimate wealth accumulation, they look authentic, and if they are not, so what? – all politicians are untrustworthy anyway.

The so-called ‘populists’ are exploiting the alienation from ‘normal’ politics generated by an economic system which allows its beneficiaries to evade all responsibilities to any particular nation and its people. 

In fact, the nation-state is the only institution which, in current circumstances, can protect us from the marauding international ‘saboteurs’ (the name applied to them in a recent book by Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronan Palan) who have flourished in the over-fertile soil of neo-liberal economics. The IMF, the World Bank and the WTO have no mechanism to defend the interests of those abandoned on the sidelines of technological change and financial ingenuity.  Only the enfeebled sinews of national social security systems can do that, and they are currently impoverished by their governments’ drive to re-establish ‘balanced’ budgets and present their countries as reliable recipients of international investment.

Nation-states need to be linked in international institutions like the EU and the World Health Organisation to do their job properly.  Nevertheless, they are an indispensable focus for efforts to ensure that finance improves people’s lives.  The nation-state is the largest organisation which most people trust and with which they identify.  They value the freedom to travel and work abroad, but they need to know that there is a place which they can call home.

In short, The Lure of Authoritarianism is a stimulating book, a vivid and well-written account of a perceptive thinker’s engagement with the coteries of the neo-liberal right and her rediscovery of reality – some of it, at any rate. But it deals with only half of her subject.  We need to understand better the other half, the appeal of the fantasists to those who are trapped in an intolerable reality.  And then we need to work out how to ensure that they too can become fully entitled participants in the economy on which they depend. If most people feel rejected and impoverished, then the fantasists win. They are winning right now.

Feature image: Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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