When Disillusionment Becomes Defeatism – An alternative review of ‘The Light That Failed. A Reckoning’

A doctrine whose propagators ask the question “What if we were wrong?” is a doctrine that must be doing something right. Western nations, together with their guiding philosophy, liberalism, have asked themselves this question repeatedly, through centuries, more often and more intensely than any other doctrine, philosophy or civilisation. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes quote Barack Obama who, at the end of his term in 2016, asks this question, and they apply it to the history of post-1989 liberalism in the world. Looking at the new illiberalism in Central Europe, Russia’s militarised kleptocracy, the United States under Donald Trump and increasingly assertive authoritarianism in China, they admit to being former defenders of liberalism (if Irving Kristol hadn’t coined the term for neo-conservatives, Krastev and Holmes might be called “liberals mugged by reality”). And with the zeal of the disillusioned and newly converted, they emphatically answer that, indeed, post-1989 liberalism has spectacularly failed.

In the text that follows, they join the fashionably growing chorus of authors who claim that Western universalism is outdated and that post-1989 liberalism is passé because the West, Icarus-like, flew too high – victim of its own hubris (think Fukuyama 1989), hypocrisy (think Iraq 2003) and undermining of its own principles (think PC liberal illiberalism). We’ve been hearing this narrative in different versions for at least 12 years now, since the beginning of the global financial crisis. For some particularly remarkable examples of post-liberalism literature, look up US scholar Patrick M. Deneen’s ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ or Polish MEP Ryszard Legutko’s ‘The Demon in Democracy’. Consequently, there is nothing new about the failure thesis. The only novelty in Krastev and Holmes’ book is the application of personal psychology to the politics of post-1989 liberalism with their imitation scheme used to characterise elites in Central Europe, Russia, and China.

Without a doubt, Krastev and Holmes have written a well-formulated and well-documented study. But I would like to pick out three fundamental problems in ‘The Light That Failed. A Reckoning’: They relate to the way the authors frame liberalism itself, the way they depict the “process of imitation” in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, and finally the way they sketch out the world of the future.

The framing of liberalism

The West is a normative project, says the German historian Heinrich August Winkler, which means that it represents a model, an ideal state which is never fully reached. (Here’s a little element of Catholicism, for what it’s worth). It has always had its internal acts of betrayal of its own norms. France under Napoleon, for example, was a military dictatorship, even by contemporary standards. But more than any other civilisation, the West, and its guiding philosophy, have the ability to self-criticise and correct their own mistakes. This has always been elementary. And it is overlooked by Krastev and Holmes who suggest that liberalism went astray in 1989.

In characterising Western liberals’ triumphalism in those days, Krastev and Holmes quote avowed illiberals such as Ryszard Legutko with “Communist orthodoxy was replaced by liberal orthodoxy” without exposing the preposterousness of the claim. The same goes for Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt who speaks of “Western colonialism”. But there is no single plausible parallel between liberalism and communism, neither in content nor in method – unless someone can tell me the name of the latest liberal Gulag – except for the claim, upheld for about two decades at most, that “there is no alternative” – which, in itself, was quite significantly a mantra of Margaret Thatcher who amazingly still counts as an idol for today’s illiberals.   

There certainly was hubris in Fukuyama’s “end of history”. But no one defends this hubris anymore today, quite the contrary – and least of all, Fukuyama himself.

The depiction of Central Europe’s reformers

In depicting Central Europe’s reformers wholesale as imitators, Krastev and Holmes become victims of their own idea. What may be true for some of that region’s elites, becomes a highly unfair caricature when applied to the entire group. I myself have met, and worked with, a good part of Poland’s intellectual elite before 1989, and its intellectual, political and business elite after 1989. These were not people who wanted to become someone or something different. These were women and men who felt their country had landed on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in 1945 and they wanted to help bring it back to its natural place, in the middle of Europe and as part of the West. That does not mean they approved of everything the European Commission demanded in terms of reform steps in the accession process to the EU. But to say that Central and Eastern Europe’s “inherited identity” was “at risk” and that it was “forced to enact policies formulated by unelected bureaucrats”, as Krastev and Holmes do, is to adopt the rhetoric of Orbán and Kaczyński.

To present these and other autocrats as the true face of Central and Eastern Europe today is not only playing into their hands, but also factually wrong. There are real conflicts going on in the newer member states of the EU, between different worldviews and different concepts of modernity – just like in Western Europe. To suggest that one side in these conflicts – the nationalists, kleptocrats, and populists – represents the real Central Europe, and the other side thin urban elites removed from the people, is far from the complex reality.

Towards a pluralistic and competitive future?

Like so many interesting texts, this one ends at the most interesting point: How exactly should we imagine the brave new world of “zero hypocrisy”? Krastev and Holmes only very superficially speak about a world that is “pluralistic and competitive” and “where no centres of power will strive to spread their own system of values around the globe”. This begs the question: How will the West compete with Russian hybrid aggression or Chinese neo-imperialism (as if those were without hypocrisy, to put it mildly), if not through self-confident support of democratic ideas and democrats across the globe?  How to explain to a Taiwanese or a Hong Kong democracy protester that the West has failed and is now covering its head with ashes?

‘The Light That Failed. A Reckoning’ is beautifully written food for thought. But in attacking liberal hubris, Krastev and Holmes are beating a dead horse. In their rendering of non-Western “imitation”, they are grossly pigeonholing Central Europe’s former dissidents and later reformers. And in their depiction of a post-Western world as a desirable state of things, they risk betraying democrats across the globe and may well be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Defeatism is the wrong sequel to triumphalism. The West and liberalism may need a more chastised and realistic approach. But despite all their shortcomings, when looking at the alternatives, they remain a promise and an offer to all of humankind.