Counter-revolution: A Few Years Later

The battle between liberal and illiberal forces has dominated the political scene in Poland, Europe and beyond for the past few years. It will remain so for at least a decade, I sense. This is because the real stake in this battle is not elections, but ideology. While much of public attention is devoted to winning and losing elections in individual countries, the real battle is not about parliamentary seats and ministerial posts, but about the hearts and minds of citizens. Will they endorse liberal or illiberal values?
The contrast between liberal and illiberal values is not black and white, of course. There are various schools of liberalism and different notions of illiberalism. These are sometimes informed by local circumstances and in other cases by doctrinal arguments. Liberal (and illiberal) norms can be in conflict – consider the notions of freedom and equality, for instance. Some normative packages are difficult to classify. Is neoliberal economics a liberal or illiberal concept?

All complications aside, liberal and illiberal visions of the world differ significantly. The question is, which of these visions will citizens embrace in the coming years? Will they support further European integration or a return to the nation state? Will they opt for a theocratic state or for a clear division between the church and state in such crucial fields as education? Will they embrace a foreign policy based chiefly on (selfish) national interests or on ethical norms, and above all on human rights? Will they open or close themselves to the ‘other’: Jews, Muslims, migrants, disabled persons? Will they opt for a traditional or modern family, embracing rather than refuting LGBT rights and pluralistic forms of living together? Will they seek confrontation or compromise in pursuing their political visions? What will be their notion of the public good, embracing or rejecting redistribution and solidarity?

I hope and pray that the majority of Europeans will give the liberal reply to these questions. This can only happen if a new generation of intellectuals and politicians emerges offering a liberal notion of a good society fit for the 21st century. The winners of the post-1989 liberal revolution compromised – if not betrayed – liberal values, and consequently lost public trust. They may win elections here and there, but they are no longer in a position to define what is sensible and appropriate, let alone just.

The liberal revolution

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberalism was the only game in town from New York to Tallinn and Athens. Parties that questioned free trade and democratic checks and balances could hardly gain many votes. Politics was about seeking compromise and not about bipolar conflict. Cultural tolerance and religious neutrality were the norm. The European Union (EU) was seen not only as an engine of wealth, but also as an ethical power spreading liberal standards throughout the world. The interpretation of history, the ideal model of society and cultural trends including not only films but also dietary habits reflected the liberal paradigm.

With time, liberalism has created its own peculiar universe, with its own rules and rationality. Like all powerful ideologies, it has defined the notion of normality. It has been a comprehensive ‘bible’ on what is good or wrong in a society, not just a manual for winning elections and making money.

This trend was also present in post-1989 Poland, where liberal ideals conquered the hearts and minds of most citizens despite some residual nationalism on the one hand and communist nostalgia on the other. Compromise prevailed at the Round Table negotiations, because there was little appetite among Poles for confrontation with the local communist nomenklatura and their patrons in Moscow. No political show trials took place, and lustration (a process of eliminating those compromised under the previous regime from holding positions of public influence) was mild because Poles clearly preferred to look to the future rather than to the past. The separation of church and state has been retained, at least on paper, because many Catholics in Poland were sceptical about the power of the clergy. There were highly publicized gestures of reconciliation between the Poles and the Jews, while Chechen refugees and Ukrainian economic migrants were welcomed with open arms. A party campaigning for LGBT rights and sexual freedom received sufficient public support to jump over the high electoral threshold in the parliamentary elections of 2011. This meant that for the first time in its history, members of the Polish parliament included an openly gay MP (Robert Biedroń) and a transsexual MP (Anna Grodzka). European integration received overwhelming support in a referendum in 2004. There was also widespread public support for diplomatic multilateralism and humanitarian intervention. In short, liberalism emerged as the key game in town with notable public support and only occasional resistance, usually on the fringes.

With the passage of years, however, it became clear that liberal norms had been compromised or betrayed by self-proclaimed liberal politicians from the centre-right and centre-left parties that were in power across the Western world. Increasingly, the liberal model showed itself to be defective. Inequality escalated dramatically, tax evasion became widespread, and cuts to social spending notorious.

Democracy has also been weakened, if not perverted, under liberal governments. Its pillars – parliaments, parties and the media – have experienced damaging scandals and lost the trust of ordinary people. Unelected bodies such as central banks, constitutional courts and the European Commission have gradually been authorized to make key decisions. Elections have been organized, but have failed to generate genuine policy change and give voters the sense that their vote matters.

Liberals have not performed much better in international politics. Countries have been invaded without a UN mandate and then left to rot in the hands of local warlords. Prisoners have been tortured. Digital communications espionage has become the norm. Whistle-blowers uncovering all these inconvenient truths have been persecuted. Autocrats in neighbouring countries have been bribed to maintain ‘stability’ and to keep migrants at bay, while democracy and human rights campaigners have gradually been abandoned. Just think about the liberal response to the Arab Spring.

European integration used to be the flagship of the liberal project, generating prosperity and cooperation. Yet in recent years it has become a symbol of austerity, stagnation and conflict.

Liberal governments proved rather ineffective, especially in Southern European countries squeezed by the financial crisis of 2008. Greece’s economy contracted 20 per cent as a result, but Spain, Italy, Portugal (and Northern Ireland) suffered too. Yet even in seemingly successful countries, problems gradually surfaced. Poland’s GDP grew over 20 per cent under liberal governments and its unemployment rate of about 8 per cent compares well with Spain’s unemployment of about 19 per cent. However, Poland became the capital of precariat, with zero-hour contracts giving employees neither job security nor social benefits. Poland also took the lead in terms of income disparity – the 10 per cent best-paid employees earned at least twice as much as the 10 per cent lowest-paid in Sweden, and nearly five times as much in Poland. A report published in 2019 by Thomas Blanchet, Lucas Chancel and Amory Gethin presented data showing that under its liberal governments Poland had become the most unequal country in the EU.

The counter-revolution

In 2015 Poland’s electorate handed power back to the Law and Justice Party (PiS), whose campaign was full of ostensibly anti-liberal slogans. PiS had briefly been in power a few years earlier, and that was not a great political or economic success. For liberals, who had brought Poland handsome economic growth, the results of the 2015 parliamentary (and presidential) elections came as a shock. The voters clearly made their choice based on their daily economic experience, ignoring the rosy growth statistics presented by the liberal media. After coming to power, the PiS government introduced social policy measures that – according to liberal commentators and politicians – the country could not afford. Yet Poland’s economy has continued to grow uninterruptedly, putting members of the previous government in a very uncomfortable position.

Since Poland’s 2015 elections, liberals have been defeated in several other countries. Most notably, in the United Kingdom they lost the Brexit referendum in 2016. In Italy, two illiberal parties won the 2018 elections and formed a joint government. No fewer than seven new EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe are now run by governments that can be labelled illiberal: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria. Populists have made headway also in such prosperous countries as Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Holland and Slovenia. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marie Le Pen in France’s 2017 presidential elections, but since 2018 he is being confronted by the yellow vest protests. Even in Germany, the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag with nearly one hundred seats in the 2017 elections. Angela Merkel remained in power, but her party and social-democratic allies suffered a historic defeat.

Another uncomfortable development for liberals is that since about 2015 or 2016, it is difficult to list many electoral successes of the established centre-left and centre-right parties. Zuzana Čaputová won the 2019 presidential elections in Slovakia with a liberal programme, but she is an environmentalist and anti-corruption activist with no professional experience in politics. Besides, in Slovakia the president has very limited powers. Austria’s new liberal president, Alexander Van der Bellen, comes from the small Green Party, and not from parties that ruled Austria over the past decades. (His formal powers are also very limited.) Jeremy Corbyn was able to appeal to many young British voters and achieved a decent result in the 2017 elections. However, he would never call himself a liberal, and the liberal wing of the Labour Party openly loathes him.

Illiberal politicians represent a mixed bag and they have a mixed record of achievements. Some are neo-fascist, while others are neo-communist; some have a libertarian background, others a conservative one; some talk chiefly about austerity, others about Muslims; some are nationalists, others are secessionist; some are moderate, others are hardliners. Their new star, Thierry Baudet, who appeared practically from nowhere to win the 2019 Dutch local elections, is a former Dutch academic from the prestigious Leiden University. Baudet speaks a sophisticated language with frequent references to philosophy and literature, dresses smartly and even plays the piano. His party is called the Forum for Democracy, rather than the Patriotic Front for the True Dutch. Yet he knocks the elites, migrants, environmentalists and Eurocrats, speaking in apocalyptic tones, promising easy solutions to Europe’s complex problems. PiS also has very different characters among its rank and file. Its ideological gurus include Professor Krystyna Pawłowicz on the one hand, and Professor Zdzisław Krasnodębski on the other.

Illiberal politicians have always been part of the Western world. Jean-Marie Le Pen won a seat in the French National Assembly in 1956, for instance. However, they never managed to form governments in states dominated by liberal ideals. Their recent breakthrough is therefore unprecedented and says more about the liberal crisis than about the charisma or strategy of individual leaders. There is ample evidence that in recent years people have voted against the centre-left and centre-right establishment, in search of various alternatives. The winners include not only nationalist, anti-austerity and anti-immigrant parties, but also the Greens and various new unidentified political entities such as La République En Marche! or Poland’s Wiosna. All this suggests that illiberal politics is in vogue because the liberal class that ruled Europe over the past two or three decades is out of favour. People who loyally supported liberal parties from the centre-right or the centre-left decided to look for alternatives. Illiberal politicians have exploited this window of opportunity. They offer voters the exact opposite of liberal dogmas. They are anything but moderate and timid; indeed, they are proud to carry the banners of illiberal democracy, economics, foreign policy and culture. The rest is history.

Liberal economics in its neo-liberal or ordoliberal variants came under fire for leaving local communities at the mercy of transnational firms and capital. Migrants have also been at the centre of anti-liberal campaigns, because they represent a quintessential product of the liberal policy of opening borders, protecting minorities and forging economic interdependence. European integration is another symbol of the liberal project, and no wonder it often comes under fire for diluting national bonds, interfering too much in domestic regulations and promoting cosmopolitan culture. The liberal approach to the family and to education are also questioned. Poland’s former minister of foreign affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, went as far as to publicly mock ‘a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who use only renewable energy and fight all forms of religion’.

Liberals have been quick to point out illiberal governments’ faults, which are many. This is partly because the new elites that took office were inexperienced, and often proved inefficient. They also lacked clear, let alone plausible remedies for the emerging economic, migratory and democratic problems. The judiciary system under liberal governments perhaps had too much power and was inefficient. Yet destroying judicial independence is unlikely to make the courts work better. It is one thing is to criticize the defects of the Schengen system, but quite another to find workable solutions for migration and migrants. Democratic malaise can hardly be tackled by governing by decree. Family life cannot just be boosted by more public money and church-inspired restrictions. Leaving the overly bureaucratic EU is not likely to make states more affluent and sovereign.

Illiberal politicians are unlikely to be remembered for innovative solutions to the problems of capitalism and democracy. Most of them will probably achieve little in practical economic and administrative terms. Yet their historical contribution has been to break the liberals’ monopoly on how people think. All across Europe, illiberal intellectuals and politicians have managed to cast doubt on a number of previously unquestioned liberal ‘truths’; they have introduced a powerful alternative to the liberal narrative, and they have mobilized a massive social group to vote for them and even actively engage in their illiberal counter-revolution. The market of ideas has been opened and a new class of illiberal evangelists (or propagandists) has emerged. Individual politicians and their parties may soon fail, but this does not necessarily imply a resurgence of liberalism.

Responses to the counter-revolutions

Today commentators usually concentrate on practical questions: will Italy’s so-called yellow–green illiberal coalition stick together? Will PiS be able to win the next parliamentary elections? Will those elections be free and fair? Should Fidesz be expelled from the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament? My analysis suggests that we should also ask whether the illiberal notion of the good society will prevail over the liberal one in the medium and long term. If not, we can expect a new generation of illiberal politicians to replace the current one. Thus the electoral successes of liberal parties may prove to be short-lived.

The key task for liberals is to regain voters’ trust. How do they convince voters that liberalism is still a force for good, despite the rather mixed legacy of liberal governments? So far, liberals have tried to defend their legacy in office chiefly by citing statistics, but this has proved neither credible nor successful. Liberals have also tried to discredit their illiberal opponents. This has been more convincing, but unsuccessful in the sense that it has not led to any spectacular electoral, let alone ideological victory. Liberals have also tried to forge a united front against the populist threat. In Greece, the socialist party PASOK went to bed with its long-standing foe, New Democracy, to prevent Syriza from coming to power. In Italy, Matteo Renzi from the left-wing (former communist) party worked hand in hand with people from Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing party. In Poland, the liberal Civic Platform (PO) party formed an alliance that included the neoliberal Nowoczesna party on the one hand, and post-communist SLD on the other. This tactic was a mixed blessing for liberals. So far, such grand coalitions have seriously weakened mainstream parties not only in Southern Europe, but also in economically prosperous countries such as Germany and Holland. It is too early to conclude whether Poland’s grand coalition will be any more successful.

Some liberals, especially on the right, have tried a different tactic. They have embraced a soft version of populism to defeat their truly populist opponents. Mark Rutte in Holland castigated migrants, Emmanuel Macron bashed traditional parties and Theresa May embraced Brexit. Sebastian Kurz in Austria went even further: in his last electoral campaign, he adopted populist anti-immigrant rhetoric and later formed a government coalition with the party of the late Jörg Haider. (Finland witnessed a similar coalition with populists.) In Poland it is hard to imagine a government coalition between PiS and PO, but leading liberal intellectuals have argued that populist PiS can only be defeated if liberals adopt a populist rhetoric and programme. Can liberalism survive with illiberal rhetoric and practices? How many compromises can liberalism take before becoming illiberal? There are no easy replies to these questions. Nor is it clear whether tactical liberal alliances with illiberal politicians would ultimately domesticate and temper the latter. Numerous Austrian commentators point out that the opposite is happening in their country, as Prime Minister Kurtz increasingly looks, walks and talks like a populist, exhibiting merely a semblance of liberalism.

The way forward

In my view, the route to a liberal revival involves three stages: reckoning with the past, engaging in experiment and creating a new liberal system fit for the digital world. Instead of cultivating nostalgia for liberalism’s glory days, liberals should revisit the catalogue of norms guiding their policies. Over the past three decades, those who call themselves liberals have given priority to freedom over equality; economic ends have received more attention (and protection) than political ones; and private values have been cherished more than public values. These priorities need to be revisited. People associated with neoliberal excesses, clientelism and international adventurism should be pensioned off. New people should take their place, especially women and other groups neglected by the previous generation of liberals.

The next step is to endorse a series of courageous experiments reflecting basic liberal values. The Tobin tax, timebanks, and various forms of shared economy ought to be tried out together with various forms of e-democracy and Barcelona-style municipalismo. Regions, cities and NGOs (including professional associations) should get meaningful access to the EU’s decisions and resources. We can try to forge European integration along functional rather than territrial lines by giving more autonomy and prerogatives to various regulatory agencies all over Europe. This will reduce the powers of central institutions in Brussels, introduce genuine decentralization and bring European institutions closer to citizens and their specific (functional) concerns. These experiments by themselves will not heal capitalism, democracy or integration processes, but they will help move Europe forwards from the current deadlock, empower citizens and reinstate a sense of justice. They will show that liberalism is a force for progress rather than a device for maintaining the status quo and preserving the interests of those in power. Perhaps these experiments will even make liberalism sexy enough for young people to follow. At present, most of them are either alienated or outraged.

The final and most demanding step is to move from experimentation to a new version of open society. Today, openness is chiefly about removing boundaries: digital communication, economic transactions as well as migration can hardly be managed within physical borders. A lot of people fear that this openness will leave them in ‘authority holes’, with no public jurisdiction or protection. Liberals should conceive a model of democracy and markets that will protect citizens from excessive heterogeneity, destabilizing technological innovation and uncontrolled migration. Yet they should also make it plain that the nostalgic and inward-looking solutions proposed by the opponents of liberalism are likely to make things worse rather than better.

Coming up with a liberal vision of Europe fit for the 21st century is primarily an intellectual challenge, but in recent years I have seen very few liberal politicians involving intellectuals in their work. For example, there are more academics and writers in PiS’s electoral lists to the European Parliament than in PO’s. (Although I suspect that the vast majority of intellectuals vote for liberal parties.)

However, there is a difference between the intellectual and political vision of a good society. The latter ought to be negotiated with the people who, in a democracy, are sovereign, that is, the ultimate decision-makers. I strongly believe that the new version of an open society should welcome the plurality, heterogeneity and hybridity of a Europe shaped by globalization, but I know that many voters fear that this would lead to chaos, free-riding and conflict. I am in favor of embracing technological innovation and employing it in the service of open society, but it is hard to deny that the internet is also being used as a tool of propaganda and repression. Machines will perform numerous jobs more cheaply and better than humans, but they may also leave many people with no prospect of employment. I look at migrants as a cultural and economic asset, but this does not mean that those who demand stricter conditions for accepting migrants are wrong. We need to debate all these complex if not controversial issues and search for practical solutions that would reflect such core liberal values as openness and tolerance; individual rights and welfare; restraint, inclusiveness and fairness. I understand why my liberal friends are eager to return to power, but this can hardly be achieved if the electorate is not convinced that the liberal vision of a good society works for the majority of them, and not just for a select group.

Jan Zielonka

Jan Zielonka is a Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and a Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony’s College. His previous appointments included posts at the University of Warsaw, the University of Leiden and the European University in Florence. Zielonka teaches European Politics and Society and directs a large international project funded by the European Research Council on the Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. He has produced 17 books, including 5 single-author monographs, and more than 100 articles and chapters. His work has been published in English, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Slovak, German, Italian, Spanish and French. His main areas of expertise are in Comparative Politics, International Relations and Political Theory.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 3.0 Unported License (users are free to share and adapt the material providing attribution is made to the author and source)

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