Liberalism: The Light that Failed?

In 1891, Rudyard Kipling published ‘The Light that Failed’, his first novel about an artist’s unrequited love for his childhood playmate and his progressive loss of sight. It must have been this last theme that made the title seem appropriate for a new important book by Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and American political theorist Stephen Holmes. Since Sophocles’ depiction of King Oedipus in ancient Greek tragedy, Western culture has associated loss of sight with hubris. Also known as the ‘pride that blinds’, this dangerous overconfidence often provoked the downfall of even the mightiest in history.

The authors’ goal is to explain the ongoing global retreat of liberal democracy after the long end-of-history ‘illusion’ that saw it as the inevitable destiny of the entire post-Cold War globe. Resorting to the instruments of political psychology, they essentially impute this retreat to the hubris of liberal democracy’s upholders in the last three decades, and to the resentful reaction of those they patronised. Francis Fukuyama, the leading theoretician of triumphant liberalism, suggested in the early 1990s that an ‘Age of Imitation’ was dawning. In this new age, western liberal and capitalist democracy would come to be seen as the highest form of political organisation, and the rest of the world would be expected and invited to converge on it – to imitate it.

What Fukuyama did not realise, Krastev and Holmes observe, is the antagonistic nature of imitation: if I want to be like you, I ultimately want to replace you. The politics of imitation implied a moral asymmetry (one side, the original, was by definition better than the other, the copy), put inherited identity at risk and exposed the imitators (post-communist countries and beyond) to the judgmental monitoring of conformity by supercilious imitated. This was particularly true for Central Europe, one of the book’s three case studies, together with Russia and the US.

Central Europeans seemed not only to wholeheartedly adopt the means and techniques of western liberal democracies, but also to introject their goals and desires. Somewhat puzzlingly, in the region the model long imitated has increasingly become an obstacle to the self-esteem and self-realisation of the imitators. The authors convey this complex twist of political psychology by showing how, in countries like Hungary, Poland, Romania or Bulgaria, the gripping fear of incoming foreigners really conceals the existential anguish created by millions of their own citizens leaving to the West over the last three decades.

Theirs, Krastev and Holmes contend, is a desperate defensive posture against the model – the ‘original’ – that attracted so many of their best and brightest, awakening the spectrum of depopulation and demographic implosion. They are thus creating a countermodel based on the ideal of tightly-knit and culturally homogeneous national communities, which they hope will make them worthy and attractive in their own right, and not as pale and approximate copies of an unattainable original: the liberal, multiculturalist West.

The mutation of liberalism over the last decades – something I have myself tried to capture in the past with the concept of liberal overreach – is also given due attention. It is accurately described as the story of ‘liberalism abandoning pluralism for hegemony’ and creating the resentful impression that ‘(imposed) no-alternative Soviet communism, after 1989, was replaced by (invited) no-alternative Western liberalism’.  

Though written by two longstanding defenders of liberalism, the book acknowledges the reality of liberal hubris and its negative consequences. 

On the international scene, this hegemonic posture was outspokenly articulated in the ambitious – and disastrous – agenda of neoconservatives. However, and this is something the authors are almost silent about, the same trajectory could be observed in the internal affairs of Western democracies, where the rise of political correctness has created a thought-and-speech police chastening conservative positions about religion, national identity and traditional societal values. This probably contributed to the illiberal backlash of latter-day too. After all, as Krastev and Holmes do write, ‘in the eyes of conservative Poles in the days of the Cold War (…) Western societies were normal because, unlike communist systems, they cherished tradition and believed in God. But today, suddenly, Poles have discovered that Western ‘normality’ means secularism, multiculturalism and gay marriage.’

The authors are well aware that theirs cannot be the whole story. They recognise the ‘one-sidedness, incompleteness and empirical vulnerabilities’ of their thesis. It cannot, for example, account for the evolution of post-communist countries such as the Baltic states, which did not so far experience a major illiberal backlash. Most importantly, it does not explain why the backlash had to take the precise form it did. Why could it not produce a more moderate form of central European, conservative liberalism that would have continued to believe – like the Cold War West of Thatcher and Reagan that so many anti-communist dissidents admired – in God, nations and traditional values, but without questioning the foundations of liberal democracy? Besides, the important question of what precisely the liberal democratic West could and should have done differently since the fall of the Berlin wall is never precisely answered.

Nonetheless, the book is commendable on several grounds. It abandons the crusading tones so far adopted by both liberals and anti-liberals in their important debate about the current state and future prospects of liberal democracy. Though written by two longstanding defenders of liberalism, it acknowledges the reality of liberal hubris and its negative consequences. Through the concept of imitation, it offers an innovative interpretation not only of Central Europe, but also of Russia and Trump’s US. Most importantly, the book is rather plausible in its reading of the historical phase we have now entered.

The rise of China, we are explained, marks the end of the ‘Age of Imitation’ because, unlike Russia, the country’s leadership never even pretended to imitate the liberal democratic West. On the contrary, much like the strategists of the Meiji restoration in Japan one and a half-century ago, the communist heirs to the Middle Kingdom have selectively appropriated the technical prowess of the West at the service of their own political and cultural system, which they have no intention of abandoning. Meanwhile, the US has for the first time elected a president that is openly dismissive of America’s calling to spread democracy and human rights and sees his country as just another great power looking to increase its wealth and defend its interests. Those are significant moves away from the various universalisms of the last century.   

In the passage from the Cold War to the Age of Imitation, the authors claim, the clash between two universalist political doctrines – liberalism and communism – gave way to the energetic exportation all over the world of the one that seemed victorious. However, we now start to apprehend that, in its sudden and bloodless death, universalist communism might have wounded universalist liberalism too, slowly reawakening the more atavistic forces of nation, culture, ethnicity and religion in the process.

We therefore might be entering ‘a pluralistic and competitive world, where no centres of military and economic power will strive to spread their own system of values across the globe’. A world that might vindicate Samuel Huntington’s predictions more than Francis Fukuyama’s. And one that the European Union – with its edifying but increasingly quixotic liberal messianism – might find most challenging and inhospitable to inhabit. The ‘chastised liberalism’ proposed by Krastev and Holmes – a moderate liberalism that abandons hegemony and returns to authentic pluralism both internally and internationally – might thus be needed in the EU more than anywhere else.