Can Europe Make It?

Central and eastern Europe as playground of a conservative avant-garde

Central and eastern European hard right parties have more rapid success than their western counterparts, due to these countries’ subjection to the worst effects of neoliberalism and financialisation.

Adam Blanden
3 October 2016

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban casts his vote in the Anti-Immigration Referendum in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, October 2, 2016. Vadim Ghirda/Press Association. All rights reserved.Wir schaffen das – "We can do it" – was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's rather bald slogan in the face of questions about her Flüchtlingspolitik (refugee plan) last year as migrant deaths increased and yet numbers of new arrivals continued to rise. This mass, outright opposition to EU policy by a group of peripheral states is unprecedented in the history of European integration.  

The European refugee crisis since 2015 has exposed deep wounds on the continent. Fierce criticism has been directed at the refusal of central and eastern European countries to accept European Union mandated refugee quotas. These newer, eastern members of the European Union – all former COMECON or Soviet republics – were expected to provide open peripheral markets and obedient workforces for the west, but recent events suggest their national elites have other ideas.

Initial court challenges to the quotas by Slovakia and Hungary in December 2015 were followed this May by opposition to the European Commission's proposal to distribute refugees across the continent via a so-called "fairness mechanism" which would charge €250,000 for each refugee refused asylum in a member state. This mass, outright opposition to EU policy by a group of peripheral states is unprecedented in the history of European integration.  

Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orbán has drawn particular ire for his country's behaviour during the EU's disastrous response to the crisis. Over the course of just a few days in the middle of September, Amnesty International reported, the Hungarian government declared a "crisis situation caused by immigration" and began policing its borders with Serbia. It amended its Criminal Code and Asylum Law, established "transit zones" across the country for refugees, and adopted a resolution which declared that Hungary would have to "defend itself by any means necessary from waves of illegal immigration." In July 2016, Hungary declared a "border emergency" and detained sixty migrants crossing the Serbian border.

Orbán's party, Fidesz, is a stalwart of the central European right and the closest to a durable parliamentary entity in the region, having come out of the anti-communist dissident traditions of the 1980s. But they are not alone. Poland's own hard right Law and Justice Party (PiS) won a majority government in October 2015 and has recently refused to take a single refugee. The Czech President Miloš Zeman, once a social democrat, has declared Islamic migrants "impossible to integrate." Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico went further, declaring, "Islam has no place in Slovakia." Slovenia and Croatia have both banned the transit of most refugees across their territories. The northerly Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – have built fences on their eastern borders to defend themselves from the prospect of migrants arriving via Russia. Even the former East German länder, integrated into the west at an annual cost of €70 billion between 1991 and 2010, are a stronghold of the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland and home of the neo-fascist Pegida movement. 

An atavistic east?

Central and eastern Europe's rightward shift has not gone unnoticed in the European press. Britain's Economist magazine argued in January that, unlike the insurgencies of the west European far right, in the east "it is governments... who trumpet some of the most extreme views. And they are taking advantage of anti-migrant fervour to implement an illiberal agenda on other fronts." "it is governments... who trumpet some of the most extreme views. And they are taking advantage of anti-migrant fervour to implement an illiberal agenda on other fronts."

Though it is quite true that governments like Fidesz are cracking down on media freedom, this predates last year's intensification of the migrant crisis by some time. Indeed Orbán's government and its creeping authoritarianism was mostly ignored by enlightened European opinion until very recently. Even last year, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopolous said he might have "disagreed with the means used" by Hungary but broadly endorsed the project of securing the EU's external borders. With the onset of the migrant crisis, Angela Merkel made pointed – though often private – criticisms of her Eastern European neighbours, arguing that "isolation doesn't work" and that countries could hardly sit out "certain developments of globalization." But this terribly enlightened European response, emphasising the inevitability of "developments" of globalisation against the "anti-migrant fervour" of the east, fell on deaf ears.

Indeed much of the public reaction to the crisis has emphasised technocratic fixes to problems diagnosed as little more than simple atavisms. Andras Schweitzer in the Guardian argued that central and eastern European states, traumatised by past threats to their existence, viewed ethnic homogeneity as a defence against the threat of social collapse. However, all nationalisms are influenced by notions of ethnicity, and underlying ethnic worldviews cannot fully explain the conjunctural rise of the right. Where then might a more plausible explanation for the rightward shift of central and eastern European politics lie? None of the eastern states which were integrated into the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet system has been immune to the dynamism of the new populist right.

A significant cause must surely be the lived political-economic experience of people in these countries since 1989, an experience that has done so much to shape present conceptions of society and broader expectations of political life. By 1989, according to Joachim Becker in the New Left Review, "dissident circles in these countries were moving in a (neo-)liberal direction." Much of the communist state apparatus had reoriented itself towards capitalism while a de facto alliance between a dissident intelligentsia and state technocrats emerged in the form of what one group of authors terms a "second Bildungsbürgertum" (or developmental bourgeoisie) aiming to integrate these countries into the global economy on a neoliberal basis. This strange alliance filled the vacuum where a formal, property-owning bourgeoisie would otherwise have existed.

The same authors go on to explain that the most powerful figures in post-communist systems were not the owners of traditional firms but "bank managers, managers of investment funds, experts at the Ministry of Finance, advisers at the IMF and the World Bank, and experts working for foreign and international financial agencies." Eastern Europe found itself quickly locked into an acute form of what the economist Costas Lapavitsas calls "subordinate financialisation." Given the collapse of COMECON markets for industrial goods and the influx of foreign credit, western-controlled finance would inevitably pull the economic strings in the region. The predominant power of western-controlled financial markets over eastern European access to consumer goods, credit, new construction and much of its industrial base (the globalised car industry in particular) resulted in weak states and a weak, clientelistic bourgeoisie. The extent of foreign ownership has encouraged conspiracy theorists in Poland's Law and Justice Party to allege that Angela Merkel may be a Stasi agent and that German foreign investment in Poland is in fact a way to re-partition the country. 

Legacy of collapse

The scale of the economic collapse was spurred on by the "shock therapy" policies endorsed by post-communist governments across the region, undertaken in attempts to free up capital and labour and attract foreign investment. The opposition of this radical right to the perceived liberalism of the EU does not in any way extend to a criticism of capitalist institutions as such.

According to data in an IMF working paper reproduced by Joachim Becker in New Left Review, Poland's economy alone shrank by 11.6 percent in 1990. This was nothing compared to Latvia, where the economy contracted by 34.9 percent in 1992. For the entire region a rapid collapse of internal and COMECON markets led to extraordinary levels of depression. For most of these countries GDP had not returned to its pre-1989 levels even by 2000. During the 1990s wage levels collapsed too, often by margins of 30 percent. Welfare spending was cut to historic lows, leaving central and eastern European incomes in a death spiral for much of the 1990s. Privatisation was carried out rapidly, often without any real compensation and with no growth in productivity or new jobs appearing in fresh industries. Unemployment remained stubbornly high across the region despite the massive buy-ups of the post-communist industrial infrastructure by foreign firms. By 2006, 15 percent of European car production took place in Central Europe. Telecommunications were taken over by western firms. Foreign investment was particularly high in real estate.

As with much of the advanced capitalist west, cheap credit flooded the region in the 2000s, driving a consumer boom which partly compensated for the region's very low wages. And then in the wake of the US subprime mortgage crisis, the flow of credit dried up and the underlying weaknesses of the region's economies reasserted themselves, though this time more unevenly. After accession to the EU, emigration increased and has not ever really fallen. The singular goal of budding national elites – integration with the EU – has undermined national capital formation.

Though central and eastern European countries may be statistical outliers – their household income and welfare spending lower; vulnerability to foreign capital movements greater; national industries weaker; the downsides of EU integration further accentuated than elsewhere – they are at the extreme of a single European trend. It is this fact that explains the "baffling" hostility to immigration of the wider public and the reliance of governments on racist sentiment in particular. Though these countries have, in most cases, fewer refugees and migrants than elsewhere, they have already suffered the full social devastation of financialised capitalism and neoliberal-driven austerity. These factors shape conceptions of politics and society and ultimately limit acts of social compassion and solidarity: if a decent life and home are not extended to citizens, it is inevitable that they will turn their anger on their perceived rivals. Racism is also an integral component of the worldview of the hard right, and it is to the hard right that the electoral spoils of the 2008 crisis have fallen.

The crisis of 2008 struck deep into the already fragile, often credit-fuelled consumer economies of Europe's eastern periphery. The result has been the upending of already-fragile parliamentary systems, with major parties either shrinking or disappearing. As in the rest of Europe, social democratic parties which embraced neoliberalism and austerity have suffered a particularly crushing blow. The Hungarian Socialist Party is a good example: having re-branded itself after the fall of the Warsaw Pact system, this new western-style formation enthusiastically backed privatisation and neoliberal policies. The party went on to dominate the post-communist transition period in Hungary. In 2006 the party was returned to power with 43.2% of the vote, but immediately after the 2008 crisis their support collapsed.

Viktor Orbán's national-conservative Fidesz came to power in 2010 with a huge majority, winning 54% of the vote. The Socialists' result collapsed to just 24%. According to Becker the 2008 crisis cost Hungary a serious recession. The forint depreciated sharply and servicing Hungary's sizeable private-sector debts became much harder than in the boom years. Hungary was the first of many European countries to seek an IMF credit line. Though predominantly neoliberal in outlook, Fidesz in power have not simply sold the farm, Becker explains, but introduced "an eclectic mix of policies, both heterodox and orthodox." Among the many factors that make Fidesz an appealing prospect to Hungarians is this posture of selectively opposing EU and neoliberal orthodoxy in the service of an imaginary "national interest" that seeks to exclude minorities.

Europe's "conservative avant garde"

The likes of Fidesz are not without support in the EU's core countries, as Orbán's meeting with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl attests. Fidesz may be hard-right outliers but they are nevertheless integrated into the broad networks of the respectable European right, as evidenced by European conservatives' quiet tolerance of Orbán's radical right-wing reforms. The phenomenon of Fidesz, like so many groups on the hard right across Europe, can only be understood in the context of an overall strengthening of European conservatism, neoliberalism and right-wing thinking since the 1980s. Neoliberalism and the populist, racist hard right are distinct, but the latter is a rebellious outgrowth of the former, not simply its political antagonist. Jarosław Kacyński, the brains behind Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, may be thought of today as a crackpot conspiracy theorist of the anti-liberal and nationalist right, but he started out as a prominent member of Lech Wałęsa's post-communist transition team. Social democratic parties have been engulfed by the misery and corruption of both neoliberal politics and the economics of austerity.

To return briefly to Germany and the example of Alternative für Deutschland, the new right is capable of feeding off distinctive street movements (in the form of Pegida) and at the same time operating amongst pre-existing networks of right-wing intellectualism. As the Princeton professor Jan-Werner Muller observes in the New York Review of Books, the AfD "was founded in 2013 by a group of perfectly respectable, deeply uncharismatic economics professors." Starting off as a eurosceptic grouping opposed to the euro, it was quickly taken over by more typically populist and anti-immigrant figures (a trajectory very close to the UK Independence Party). AfD's "leading intellectual" Marc Jongen, who was once an assistant to the prominent German conservative thinker Peter Sloterdijk, defines AfD as part of a new "conservative avant garde" sweeping Europe. In a political manifesto which coyly recalls Marx and Engels ("Ein Gespenst geht um in Deutschland - das Gespenst der AfD"), Jongen bemoans the "revenge of Planning", "Banksocialism" and the "suspension of the law of the market" by the institutions of the EU and Germany's ruling parties. It is a populism which calls on a supposedly "revolutionary middle class" to restore dignity and sovereignty to Germany, against the EU, the euro and the type of immigrant who does not wish to integrate. AfD combines "free market ideas" and "Christian fundamentalism", according to Muller: peculiar ideological bedfellows – also present in Poland's governing PiS and Hungary's Fidesz – that look less peculiar when placed in the broader context of the heterogeneous European right.

To be sure, these are radical breakaway groups from the mainstream right, perhaps capable of winning support only temporarily. Nevertheless they have risen alongside and within a resurgent right for the past three decades, operating within intellectual and business networks, pressure groups, policy think tanks, and political parties.

The opposition of this radical right to the perceived liberalism of the EU does not in any way extend to a criticism of capitalist institutions as such. Rather it re-articulates some of the concerns of the conventional right – a small, non-interventionist state; a strong nuclear, heterosexual family; national strength; law and order – with popular grievances stoked by the neoliberalisation of politics and the financialisation of the economy.

The key around which all this turns is hostility towards immigration in general and Muslims in particular. If central and eastern European hard right parties have proved capable of greater or more rapid success than their western counterparts (who in many cases are nevertheless drawing closer to electoral victory), it is because these countries have been subjected to the worst effects of neoliberalism and financialisation.

Another key trend across Europe has been the electoral collapse of the Left. The Alternative für Deutschland's astonishing electoral success in Saxony Anhalt this year did not have much impact upon Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Rather it was Merkel's junior coalition partner the Social Democratic Party whose vote fell to a record low of 10.5%. Once the most powerful  party of European social democracy, the SPD now languishes somewhere around 20% in national polls. This echoes trends across every part of the continent, where social democratic parties have been engulfed by the misery and corruption of both neoliberal politics and the economics of austerity. Almost every one of the major electoral representatives of the European centre-left stands on the brink of extinction. While the various factions of the right built up their intellectual weight, the traditional institutions of the left – the trade unions, the various strands of communism, and the mainstream social democratic parties – all decayed. Unless the Left can be reconstituted, we need only look to its east for a dystopian vision of what lies ahead for Europe.               

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