Can Europe Make It?

The post-89 debacle in eastern and central Europe

The neoliberal fantasy of the world as a de-politicised marketplace has been decisive in the rise of the regressive nationalistic populism holding sway across so much of the world today.

Bob Brecher
4 December 2019
Lord Dahrendorf presenting F.A. Hayek with a commemorative plate at the LSE, 2009.
Lord Dahrendorf presenting F.A. Hayek with a commemorative plate at the LSE, 2009.
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Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Writing about the rampantly nationalist illiberalism that has increasingly characterised the politics of central and eastern Europe since 1989, Michael Hauser (15 Nov. 2019) and Tom Junes (20 Nov 2019) make important points about how we might understand the causes of the rise of nationalism in eastern and central Europe. But both miss the central role in that rise of the neoliberal ‘settlement’ in Europe and further afield; and in so doing, both imply, however unintentionally, a sort of ‘European exceptionalism’ in terms of its old nationalisms. But the post-1989 history of Europe – whether eastern, central, western, southern or northern – is of a piece with that of the USA, Latin America, India and China. Getting clearer about this not only helps explain the “regressive populism” sweeping across Europe, but also allows us better to understand both neoliberalism and its causal relation to this nationalistic populism.

Let me start with what on the face of it might seem rather surprising: the genuine horror with which neoliberal thinktanks, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK, have greeted this development. After all, isn’t this “regressive populism” founded on a rejection of the soft liberalism of social democracy, precisely the same sort of liberalism that the neoliberals reject as statist? But there is in fact nothing at all inconsistent here: neoliberalism is not per se nationalistic, for all the arrant racism of some of its leading gurus, notably Hayek (see for example his interview with Earlene Graver et al in 1983). It prides itself, for instance, on selling to and buying from anyone, anywhere, recognising no national boundaries and insisting on the free movement of both capital and labour. In that respect neoliberalism really is committed to a political universalism; and this is precisely why many neoliberal cadres decry the anti-universalistic ‘cultural turn’ in politics, whereby political content is replaced by parochial cultural identities -- and the ‘free market’ takes second place to the protectionist nation-state.

Neoliberalism has… a blind spot about its own role in the rise of the very identity politics, or the non-political politics, as Hauser and Junes describe it, that it deplores.

But the trouble is that neoliberalism has – it has to have – a blind spot about its own role in the rise of the very identity politics, or the non-political politics, as Hauser and Junes describe it, that it deplores. The point is that the “regressive populism” of eastern and central Europe is of a piece with that of western Europe, the USA, Latin America, India and others. For in its insistence not only on the sovereignty of the so-called free market but also on its application across the whole of life (see eg Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, Verso 2013) neoliberal policies sentence millions of people to poverty – whether absolute or relative – and to the despair that such poverty brings, a despair that is at once material and existential.

Given how neoliberalism treats human beings as mere means to economic ends, as cogs in a globally functioning market machine with no significant identity of their own as human beings, it is no surprise that the people worst affected should respond by rejecting altogether politics in any meaningful sense. For what does the neoliberal view of the market as sovereign amount to but precisely a depoliticisation of politics? The ‘non-politics’ of Havel, for example, like those of many others, turns out to be a version of what the neoliberals have themselves long advocated – even if they would prefer that depoliticisation to have taken a very different form, and even if it is neoliberalism itself which has helped cause the shift from content to identity. After all, it has long been an ambition of the neoliberals themselves to take the politics out of politics. It is one of the central ways in which neoliberalism distinguishes itself from classical liberalism. So however much and however sincerely neoliberals might bewail the rise of nationalistic populism, it is their own vision and attempted instantiation of a marketized world that have brought to power the likes of Orban, Johnson, Babiš and Trump; and that have brought to the surface a revitalised nationalism around the world. For that is all that the human victims of neoliberalism have left.

Orban, Johnson, Babiš and Trump… and a revitalised nationalism… is all that the human victims of neoliberalism have left.

There are two specific and related ways in which neoliberalism has unleashed the very demons it decries. First, as I have argued, it forces people to defend themselves as best they can against the depredations of the market by taking what shelter they can in the one thing that remains to them, whether in the American rust belt, the de-industrialised former GDR or the economically eviscerated lands of central and eastern Europe. And nationalism, rightly or wrongly, is what offers that shelter. Second, in their insistence on the absolute primacy of the market, neoliberals have themselves given legitimation to precisely those populist figures who regard their political roles as an extension of their business interests. Again, witness for instance Trump in the USA, Putin’s billionaire friends in Russia, Ivanishvili in Georgia or Babiš in the Czech Republic. It is successful business people, we are encouraged to believe – whether “we” inhabit the USA, Latin America, Europe, India or China – who make successful politicians precisely inasmuch as they reject politics in favour of business; that is to say, in favour of the rule of the market.

It is successful business people, we are encouraged to believe… who make successful politicians precisely inasmuch as they reject politics in favour of business.

In pushing a politically despairing electorate into nationalism, it is the neoliberal fantasy of a world as a de-politicised marketplace that has played a decisive part in the rise of the regressive nationalistic populism that today holds sway across so much of the world. The post-1989 history of eastern and central Europe is no exception.

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