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The Twilight Of 1989

How can Anne Applebaum and I come to such different conclusions about the current political crisis? Here's a theory
Anne Applebaum

If you haven’t heard this week’s TAC Right Now podcast featuring an interview with me about my new book Live Not By Lies, well, here you go:

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In the interview, my colleague Helen Andrews notes that I approvingly quote Anne Applebaum’s work about the Soviet sphere in my book. Yet Applebaum’s new book, Twilight Of Democracy, surveys the contemporary scene, and draws the opposite conclusion: that we are not headed into a left-wing soft totalitarianism, but rather into right-wing authoritarianism. (Once again, let me point out that the two terms are not interchangeable; authoritarianism is a system in which political power is monopolized and concentrated in a figure or a party, while totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism, in which all political power is monopolized and concentrated — and all aspects of life are politicized.)

Helen wants to know how Anne Applebaum and I can come to such opposite conclusions from more or less the same data. I had a guess, but not having read Applebaum’s new book, I couldn’t say for sure. After we recorded the episode, I ordered Twilight Of Democracy, and read it. Now I know — and I’m going to explain it.

Applebaum is a prominent journalist who used to be associated with neoconservative circles. She is the wife of Radek Sikorski, a senior Polish politician. She begins her book by talking about a New Year’s Eve party at their Polish country home at the turn of the millennium. Poland had been free from communism for about a decade. Everyone was giddy. But now, half the people at the party aren’t talking to the other half. In Applebaum’s view, the anti-communist consensus split between classically liberal internationalists like her — pro-globalism, pro-liberal social values, pro-immigration — and nationalist populists, like supporters of Poland’s Law & Justice Party, Hungary’s Fidesz, and Donald Trump. In the book, she details these changes, and offers explanations for why they happened.

I won’t address the many detailed criticisms she has of particular people she knows, or knew, in the region’s politics. I am in no position to judge the accuracy or fairness of Applebaum’s claims. She may be completely right — I dunno. It’s beside the point here. What I’m interested in is the ideas in play.

Applebaum writes:

More recently, Karen Stenner, a behavioral economist who began researching personality traits two decades ago, has argued that about a third of the population in any country has what she calls an authoritarian predisposition, a word that is more useful than personality, because it is less rigid. An authoritarian predisposition, one that favors homogeneity and order, can be present without necessarily manifesting itself; its opposite, a “libertarian” predisposition, one that favors diversity and difference, can be silently present too.

Stenner’s definition of authoritarianism isn’t political, and it isn’t the same thing as conservatism. Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity: there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their politics from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.

In his 1927 book La trahison des clercs—loosely translated as “The Treason of the Intellectuals” or sometimes “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals”—the French essayist Julien Benda observed and described the authoritarian elites of his time long before anyone else understood how important they were. Anticipating Arendt, his concern was not “authoritarian personalities” as such, but rather the particular people who supported the authoritarianism that he already saw taking both left- and right-wing forms all across Europe. He described both far-right and far-left ideologues who sought to promote either “class passion,” in the form of Soviet Marxism, or “national passion,” in the form of fascism, and accused them both of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes. Sarcastically, he called these fallen intellectuals clercs or “clerks,” a word whose oldest meanings link it to “clergy.” Ten years before Stalin’s Great Terror and six years before Hitler came to power, Benda already feared that the writers, journalists, and and essayists who had morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists would goad whole civilizations into acts of violence. And so it came to pass.

Applebaum goes on to say that this is present on both the left and the right today.  I agree with her! She and I might well draw the lines in different places, but we generally agree that this is a problem on both sides.

Where we disagree is over what constitutes illicit and indefensible acts of authoritarianism, and on which side poses the greater threat to the common good. That’s because — and this is the heart of it — we disagree on what constitutes the common good.

For example, she writes:

By contrast, the new right does not want to conserve or to preserve what exists at all. In continental Europe, the new right scorns Christian Democracy, which used its political base in the church to found and create the EU after the nightmare of the Second World War. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the new right has broken with the old-fashioned, Burkean small-c conservatism that is suspicious of rapid change in all its forms.

Although they hate the phrase, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.

A lot of people on my side dislike Anne Applebaum, but I see no reason to think of her as deceptive. I think she is an honest, even pure, expression of the globalist right-liberal. People on the “new right,” as she calls it, think of the institutions that exist — broadly speaking, the European Union and its various agencies and norms — as a threat to their particular traditions and sovereignty. In his great little book The Demon In Democracy, Ryszard Legutko, a Polish philosopher who is part of the party opposed by Applebaum’s husband, explains why to Poles of his political and cultural convictions, the EU is a kinder, gentler version of communism. Both are driven by the homogenizing, totalizing vision of progressivism, which wants to free humankind of traditional religion, loyalties, and particularities.

In my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, a Budapest teacher told me how this worked in his youth under communism:

Those steeped in the teachings of Marx believed that communism was inevitable because History—a force with godlike powers of determination—required it. Kundera says that what makes a leftist (of any kind—socialists, communists, Trotskyites, left-liberals, and so on) a leftist is a shared belief that humanity is on a “Grand March” toward Progress: “The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.”

If progress is inevitable, and the Communist Party is the leader of society’s Grand March to the progressive future, then, the theory goes, to resist the Party is to stand against the future—indeed, against reality itself. Those who oppose the Party oppose progress and freedom and align themselves with greed, backwardness, bigotry, and all manner of injustice. How necessary—indeed, how noble—it is of the Party to bulldoze these stumbling blocks on the Grand March and make straight and smooth the road to tomorrow.

“There was constant propaganda about how communism was changing the village for the better,” recalls
Tamás Sályi, a Budapest teacher of English, of his Hungarian youth. “There were always films of the farmer learning to improve his life with new technology. Those who rejected it were [depicted as] endangering their families. There are so many examples about how everything old and traditional prevented life from being good and happy.”

Thus does the Myth of Progress become a justification for exercising dictatorial power to eliminate all opposition.

Now, Anne Applebaum was and is a strong critic of communism. Let us get that straight. There is nothing in her work that is sympathetic to communism in the least.

And yet, there’s this quote from the same Tamas Salyi, in Live Not By Lies:

Tamás Sályi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.

The idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty has been poison for Hungarians, he believes. About progressives today, Sályi says, “I think they really believe that if they erase all memory of the past, and turn everyone into newborn babies, then they can write whatever they want on that blank slate. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to manipulate people who know who they are, rooted in tradition.”

You see? Salyi spent roughly the first half of his life living under communism, and the second half living under liberal capitalism. On the same day I went to interview him and his wife, a young Hungarian Catholic told me that her generation has completely abandoned the faith. It is a legacy of the dead past. Most of the Millennials and Zoomers, she said — and I heard this in other former Soviet bloc countries — want nothing more than to live as Western Europeans do: as hedonistic consumers bound by nothing but the limits of their desires.

This is where a lot of the people Applebaum denounces as right-wing enemies come from. The kind of people she dislikes are the Catholics I talked to in Poland who work for US and European-based multinationals, and who say that their companies are forcing them to violate their consciences by observing LGBT Pride celebrations in the offices. They see this — correctly — as cultural imperialism, as part of an alien ideology forced on them by Western capitalists.

Elsewhere, Applebaum writes:

Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: true believers can advance—a prospect especially appealing to people whom the previous regime or society had not promoted. Arendt observed the attraction of authoritarianism to people who feel resentful or unsuccessful back in the 1940s, when she wrote that the worst kind of one-party state “invariably
replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

This form of soft dictatorship does not require mass violence to stay in power. Instead, it relies upon a cadre of elites to run the bureaucracy, the state media, the courts, and, in some places, state companies. These modern day clercs understand their role, which is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, and however disastrous their impact on ordinary people and institutions. In exchange, they know that they will be rewarded and advanced.

I have no doubt that that happens in some of these countries. But look, how is this so different from the left-liberal corporate, academic, and institutional regime we have in the US, where you can be sub-competent and still keep your job if you tick off the right diversity, inclusion, and equity boxes — and where, if you dissent from this ideology, you will be sacked no matter how good your are at your job? Believe me, I have seen in the journalism profession how this works. It’s invisible to many liberals, who will deny to their dying day that it’s happening. But it’s happening.

In Live Not By Lies, I write:

All politicians prize loyalty, but few would regard it as the most important quality in government, and even fewer would admit it. But President Donald Trump is a rule-breaker in many ways. He once said, “I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive, and more than energy.”

Trump’s exaltation of personal loyalty over expertise is discreditable and corrupting. But how can liberals complain? Loyalty to the group or the tribe is at the core of leftist identity politics. Loyalty to an ideology over expertise is no less disturbing than loyalty to a personality. This is at the root of “cancel culture,” in which transgressors, however minor their infractions, find themselves cast into outer darkness.

In early 2020, an astonishing cancel-culture controversy emerged in which Jeanine Cummins, author of a much-anticipated novel about the Mexican immigrant experience, suffered savage attack in the media from some progressive Latino writers who accused the white woman of stealing the experiences of Latinos. Some prominent Latinas who had praised the book in advance of its publication—including novelist Erika L. Sanchez, and actress Salma Hayek—withdrew their backing, lest they seem disloyal to their group.

Beyond cancel culture, which is reactive, institutions are embedding within their systems ideological tests to weed out dissenters. At universities within the University of California system, for example, teachers who want to apply for tenure-track positions have to affirm their commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion”—and to have demonstrated it, even if it has nothing to do with their field. Similar politically correct loyalty oaths are required at leading public and private schools.

De facto loyalty tests to diversity ideology are common in corporate America. As the inventor of JavaScript, Brendan Eich was one of the most important early figures of the internet. But in 2014, he was forced out of leadership of Mozilla, the company he founded, after employees objected to a small donation he made to the 2008 campaign to stop gay marriage in California.

A Soviet-born US physician told me—after I agreed not to use his name—that he never posts anything remotely controversial on social media, because he knows that the human resources department at his hospital monitors employee accounts for evidence of disloyalty to the progressive “diversity and inclusion” creed.

That same doctor disclosed that social justice ideology is forcing physicians like him to ignore their medical training and judgment when it comes to transgender health. He said it is not permissible within his institution to advise gender dysphoric patients against treatments they desire, even when a physician believes it is not in that particular patient’s health interest.

I interviewed that physician face to face on one of my trips last year. I had to assure him multiple times that I would not use his name in my book. He said he really could lose everything he and his wife had worked for — this, simply for being identified as disloyal to transgender ideology, even from a purely medical point of view.

This is why I have a lot of trouble seeing eye to eye with Anne Applebaum. She sees all the cultural changes on the LGBT front as uncomplicated goods. She sees immigration in the same way, it appears. In her book, Applebaum harshly criticizes the Spanish populist party Vox. She makes them sound like a bunch of opportunistic haters. Nowhere in Applebaum’s book is there any recognition that Vox is fighting radical gender ideology coming at Spanish families from the Spanish left in power. I wrote about it here, and earlier here, in a piece about how the left-wing governing party in the province of Navarra is pushing through mandatory sex-and-gender education on preschool children. In a later post, I talked about Vox in a longer piece how the “establishment Right” — that would be people like Anne Applebaum — don’t understand the new right at all. Excerpt:

Meanwhile, in Spain, the populist party Vox has been voted into power in the province of Andalusia, ending forty years of Socialist rule in Spain’s most left-wing province. Why? The migration crisis, with Andalusia on the front line, has a lot to do with it.  In Spain, a man told me that his relative works for the government on those front lines, and voted for Vox because he can see with his own eyes, every single day, migrants coming ashore and melting into the greater European population — while the government does nothing. Another Spaniard told me that people in Andalusia were sick and tired of corruption in the ruling party, which they had come to see stood for nothing more than protecting itself.

Vox is hysterically denounced by the Spanish and European media as “far right.” Here, in the liberal Madrid daily El Pais, is a description of Vox’s platform. Read this and say with a straight face that Vox’s sensible, moderately conservative nationalism counts as “far right.” It’s an absurd slur, and shows just how far Europe’s liberal establishment — of which the intellectuals who are signatories to the Guardian column — have drifted from the legitimate needs of the people.

Applebaum’s book is a perfect example of why it is impossible to trust the news in the US and UK media about the right-of-center counter-establishment parties in Europe. Right-liberals like Applebaum see them all as undifferentiated authoritarian troglodytes. Why is it racist or Islamophobic for people in a European nation to prefer for their nation and its culture to be as it always has been? People who hold these views might well hate foreigners, or hate Muslims, but the Applebaums of the world can’t conceive of their political views as being driven by anything other than hatred. Maybe they love what they’ve been given, and want to keep it.

Unsurprisingly, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is singled out by Applebaum for special opprobrium. Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing in National Review, says that Orban is neither the hero that some on the right want him to be, nor the villain that most on the left despise. In this passage, you can see why Orban’s strong opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration, is less a matter of hating outsiders than loving one’s own country, and seeing it threatened:

But Orban used the [immigration] issue, to dramatize himself as standing against the great powers in the European Union, but also to dramatize the long struggle of the Hungarian people to survive the political domination of outsiders. In his 2019 state-of-the-nation address, he connected the immigration issue to Hungary’s birth dearth, a Continental phenomenon in Europe and a regional catastrophe in Central Europe. “People in the West are responding to this with immigration,” he said. “They say that the shortfall should be made up by immigrants, and then the numbers will be in order. Hungarians see this in a different light. We do not need numbers, but Hungarian children.”

Immigration can be politically destabilizing even in much stronger, richer nations. It can lead a democratic people to vote for Donald Trump, for instance. In Hungary the calculations are even finer. In a country with a tradition of emigration, any decrease in living standards or quality of life can spur a further exodus of the most talented, who have, in their EU passports, a right to move to richer nations.

In Hungary the fertility rate is at national-suicide levels, 1.53 children per woman. Orban has learned that a small country cannot exercise effective sovereignty without economic growth, and economic growth is more difficult, almost impossible, with a contracting population. “It is not written in the great book of humanity that there must be Hungarians in the world. It is only written in our hearts,” Orban said in his 2019 speech, before announcing a variety of natalist measures, including one that would eliminate income tax for life for any woman who had four children.

Orban’s theory is that small nations must have strong and nimble states that can intervene to protect democratic peoples from the bullying of multinational corporations and larger states. And the process of centralizing political structures is not outside the European norm, even if American conservatives look at it with suspicion. The constitutional reforms removed some checks and balances in the Hungarian system, moving it away from an American-style system toward a more British style of parliamentary supremacy. Orban’s reforms could be compared to Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s, which pulled powers away from local government and put them into Whitehall and its archipelago of quangos. But even in “authoritarian” Hungary, the power of the prime minister would still fall short of the kind of authority enjoyed by European leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron.

So, by now I think you get the point. Applebaum and I would agree that the old postwar Atlanticist consensus favoring free markets and liberal democracy is falling apart in the postcommunist era. She regards the right as the greatest threat to the common good, which she defines as secular, liberal, capitalist, and internationalist. I regard the greatest threat to the common good as the left, which has become increasingly illiberal. I believe in a capitalism with more limits than Applebaum probably does, and in strengthening national sovereignty, and in traditional Christianity (though not with an established church), and in privileging traditional marriage and family. More to the point, I see that the left holds all the high ground within civil society, its institutions, and its networks — media, corporations, universities, etc.. The only thing the right holds is some political power, for now.

The Tragic Romance of the Nostalgic Western Liberal

Finally, here’s an interesting critique of Applebaum’s book by Ivan Krastev, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. He clearly sympathizes with Applebaum, but sees her as someone nostalgic for the narrative of 1989, with the victory of liberal capitalist democracy over communism. More:

Her much-praised history books about the Soviet Gulag and the establishment of the communist regimes in Central Europe were her historical introduction to the inevitability of 1989. For her, the end of the Cold War was not a geopolitical story; it was a moral story, a verdict pronounced by history itself. She tends to see the post-Cold War world as an epic struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between freedom and oppression.

In this sense, Applebaum is a classic ’89er; like many of us, she was shaped by the Cold War without ever really experiencing it. For the ’89ers, the Cold War was what the anti-fascist resistance was for the West’s student revolutionaries of the 1960s, the ’68ers—a time of inspiring heroism and moral clarity. In her worldview, the marriage between democracy and capitalism was made in heaven, and most of the conflicts in the world were not about a clash of interests but about a clash of values. It was this mindset that made many ’89ers first to detect the danger coming from Vladimir Putin’s Russia but also the last to condemn George W. Bush’s ugly war in Iraq.

This is insightful. It turns out that liberal democracy is not an end point, but a means to an end. What is that end? Freedom? Okay, but freedom for what? Progress? Fine, but where are we going? Towards a world of radical individualism, of self-actualized hedonistic shoppers? Anne Applebaum needs to read some Michel Houellebecq.

UPDATE: A reader in Spain writes:

After reading your recent post on Twilight of 1989, it ties into some thoughts i’ve had over past few weeks while watching the riots over there [in America]. The very reason Vox has gained so much ground in such a short period of time is due,  primarily, to lost the culture battles and the “soft totalitarianism” that reached the legislative level, led by the Socialist party (with capitulation from the center-right parties — the “establishment”). An example of this is the “machismo law against violence” or “ley de violencia de género”, a failed law that attempts to curb domestic violence only committed by men against women, and does a number of things, one of which takes the presumption of innocence away from men (e.g. a form of “me too” or “believe her” put into law). I could see a form of this law applied in any number of fields (race, gender discrimination, etc) that a Biden and Democratic controlled Congress would enact if they gained control.

And one last cherry on top…yesterday the Spanish socialist-communist coalition in power announced that various street signs were forms of “machismo” or “sexist” and they would look at changing them. The cojones this government has to announce such a thing while we lead Europe in covid deaths and cases, enter a second wave, and are at at the bottom of the economy ranking in Europe in GDP reduction, employment, etc. This announcement  is why Vox is gaining ground.
This sign is “sexist” and under review by the socialist communist government:


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