Can Europe Make It?

The post-politics of 1989 are the root of Europe's anti-liberal turn

1989 was hailed as the end of politics, but it created the conditions for regressive populism to emerge 30 years later.

Michael Hauser
15 November 2019, 4.33pm
Vaclav Havel and protesters commemorate the struggle for Freedom and Democracy at Prague memorial during 1989 Velvet Revolution.
MD (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1989 was a miraculous year for western liberal democracy. According to the American scholar Francis Fukuyama, the year, with its concatenating regime changes in central and eastern Europe, was definitive proof that liberal democracy was the final stage of history. 

Fukuyama’s doctrine put the pestilential manifestations of global capitalism, such as the debt bondage of poor countries and their exclusion from the world market, the infiltration of mafias into economics and politics, unemployment and ethnic wars out of mind. The regime change in central and eastern Europe induced euphoric hallucinations that no western political scientists had probably ever anticipated. 

The revolutions of 1989 gave skeptical citizens and politicians from the West the possibility of vicariously experiencing euphoria through people in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and countries in eastern Europe. Central and eastern Europe was a place where a depleted western democracy vindicated its belief in Fukuyama’s claim that liberal democracy was the end of history. 

Hallucinatory politics

Jacques Derrida, writing in response to Fukuyama, dismissed his reading of 1989 as a blind and delirious hallucination that rendered the real problems of liberal capitalism invisible. We have seen this hallucination operate in the Czech lands, and it took many forms in the 1990s. Capitalism was considered to be a communist fiction and only a free-market economy was spoken of. “Freedom and democracy” was understood to be a fairytale realm in which “decent people” who spread truth and love would rule.

The former Czech president Václav Havel’s “non-political politics” arose as a protest against the political mechanisms of late socialism. The core paradox of “non-political politics” is the idea that “non-political” moral values can be the foundation of a political position. Simply put, if we “live in truth” it is already a political behavior. In retrospect, “non-political politics” appears like a thought-substrate of the hallucinatory politics that arose after the Velvet Revolution. 

When the foundations for the new regime were laid, this hallucinatory politics became a defining formula for political conduct – one that is disparaging to laws and institutions. Non-political politics neglects one of the pillars of liberal democracy: the rule of law. This – according to Fukuyama and many other liberal theorists – consists of impartiality and equality before the law, and it is the guarantee of freedom and other individual rights. 

As Theodor Adorno once formulated, so long as bourgeois rights – which have a certain limiting effect on the spontaneity of the individual – are not in effect, instead of a regime of freedom taking hold in a given historical situation, cliques and mafias will rule. The non-political politicians invoking moral values and Martin Heidegger’s ontological meaning of the world did not focus on the establishment of the rule of law as a system of “bourgeois rights and freedoms” and the institutions that would enforce them. Instead, they engaged in legal improvisations and created leaky laws that were later patched up with amendments. 

“Non-political” politics

With its generalised moral calls and roots in an ontological order of the world, non-political politics produced the impression that a “free society” made up of “decent people” can get by without rule by law. This superordination of values above the law created a situation reminiscent of the “state of exception” written about by Giorgio Agamben in his eponymous book. Agamben examines the state of exception as a political and legal situation that enables the transformation of a citizen into a being without rights who is turned into “bare life”. Although this person still exists in the legal order, the legal order does not apply to it. 

The hallucinatory non-political politics that acceded to political power began to manifest as a sovereign political power that occasionally has the “moral” justification to call for the laws themselves to be jettisoned. Non-political politicians appropriated the moral justification for suspending the law and their opponents and any inconvenient persons could be de facto turned into Agamben’s “bare life”, which no legal order applies to. 

Already in the first democratic Czech elections in 1990, politicians connected with the Civic Forum movement violated the 48-hour ban on any kind of pre-election campaigning. Jan Ruml, and indirectly Václav Havel, were involved by having a report on communist collaboration by the chairman of the Czechoslovak People’s Party Josef Bartončík broadcast. This party was the only real electoral opponent to the Civic Forum for the spectrum of non-communist voters. 

In 1992, an unverified list of those who allegedly collaborated with the communist secret police was published by former dissenter Petr Cibulka. The lists made no distinction between active collaborators and passive subjects who were often forced to sign papers or had never actually signed them at all. On the list are also the names of persons who had been objects of surveillance. At the same time, not all of the active collaborators are listed there, but some portion of the public took Cibulka’s list as a veracious document and there were directors of businesses, research institutes, hospitals and other institutions who forced employees listed therein to resign their positions and functions. Some of those on the list had been imprisoned or persecuted in the 1950s for their anti-communist convictions, or they were eminent Czech scientists and writers, and even the head of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia, Cardinal František Tomášek was included. 

More than one hundred thousand names were gradually included in these lists. Only a minimal number of them had voluntarily collaborated with the communist secret police (StB), and many had not collaborated at all. There were also numerous persons connected with the Prague Spring of 1968 conspicuously present on the rolls and – other than one or two exceptions – no members of the post-revolution right wing parties are to be found there. There were also very few names of StB investigators, if any were there at all. As someone remarked, the victims became culprits.

Stalinism veiled in velvet

After the revolution, due to the Complete List of StB Collaborators and the leaky lustration laws, a condition or state was created where no one could be certain if he or she would be accused of collaboration without any regard for whether they had actually been involved in any such acts. The accusation of collaboration itself, expressed from certain positions of power such as by someone holding a political position or a broadcast from an influential medium, had the result that the individual in question lost one of the fundamental rights that the laws affords. They are viewed as guilty – unless a court determines otherwise. This “presumption of guilt” is in contravention of the legal order as well as of international conventions on human rights. The post-revolution accusations of collaboration with the StB acquire the character of exclusion from the law – for a period unknown in advance – because the “presumption of guilt” comes into force. 

The pathological form of the lustrations as the result of a government directly ruled by moral values bears similarities with Stalinism. This is a comparison that concerns the question of how the law was perceived in relation to political power in the sense of Agamben’s state of exception. Such a comparison assumes that we will disregard for the moment all of the vast differences such as the gulag system, repressions, central planning, and communist ideology on the Stalinist side and the liberal conceptions of freedom, the market economy, and plurality of politics and opinions on the side of non-political politics.  

Under Stalin, collaboration potentially concerned every citizen – with the exception of Stalin himself.  Such accusations in the post-November regime are based in the act of accusation itself, which does not have to correspond to a real form of relation to the StB, and they were used as a means for asserting political or other interests by “non-political” or, later, right-wing politicians. To wit: the accusation of collaboration was an act that stood above the law. 

Central and eastern Europe as a regressive avant-garde

The era of Fukuyamesque liberal hallucination lasted from 1989 until recent years when a populist return to conservative values followed in its wake. What, then, has been the main outcome of democracy in central and eastern Europe thirty years after 1989? The fact that in central and eastern Europe there exists a mixed political form created by liberal democracy with elements of the state of exception can be considered as the main historical finding. This was an intermediary stage between liberal democracy and “illiberal” democracy as political regimes that develop conservative-populist society-wide projects are termed. “Illiberal democracy” can be characterised by the continued existence of liberal democratic constitutions, laws, and procedures (e.g. parliamentary elections), but a political will that demands ever more exceptions to the rule of law, so in practice it operates independently of the law. 

Boris Buden in the book Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus  (Zone of Transition: The End of Postcommunism) speaks critically about the promulgation of “transitology” after 1989, according to which central and eastern Europe are transitioning into “mature” liberal democracy and should learn from countries that have already attained it. Buden’s book was published in 2009, when the 20 years that had passed since 1989 were being commemorated. However, during the past ten years Buden’s book has become dated. On the 30th anniversary of 1989, it’s clear that transitology was correct about one thing: central and eastern Europe really were in transition the whole time, but exactly in the opposite direction than the transitiologists were teaching. 

An anti-liberal turn has taken place, especially in Russia, Hungary, and Poland, foreshadowing a similar shift in western Europe and democracies. Central and eastern Europe in this sense created a regressive political avant-garde that conservative populists in the West could learn from. At present, transitology as a whole is turned on its head because the roles of teacher and pupil have been reversed. Conservative-populist western politicians are now learning how to win elections and how to govern from Russia, Hungary, and Poland.

A conservative-populist politician can apply Havel’s non-political politics to their projects, because they, too, hold their values to be above the law and only these values are ascribed a more concrete importance. “Decency” means respect for the traditions of patriarchal values and “love” is love for one’s family and nation. And they have one value in common with the non-political politics: both groups speak about truth.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData