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The story of liberalism’s fall from grace

A review of The Light That Failed: A Reckoning. By: Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Publisher: The Penguin Random House, United Kingdom, 2020.

July 7, 2020 - Millie Radović - Books and ReviewsIssue 4 2020Magazine

In 1891, Rudyard Kipling wrote The Light That Failed, a melancholy novel that tells the story of an artist gone blind and his unrequited love for his childhood friend. It is foreboding that Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have named their new book, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning, after this novel. At its heart, the book aims to answer the question that has formed the basis of many political debates since 2016: Where did liberalism go wrong? In short, Krastev and Holmes posit that without its ideological counterpart, communism, liberalism has “abandoned pluralism for hegemony” and become a victim of its own success. This, they say, has been the defining experience of the exceptional three decades that the world experienced following the end of the Cold War, a time they call “the Age of Imitation”.

The authors deliver their argument through three case studies: Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Russia and the United States. Each of these three, they say, has experienced a profound rejection of liberal values for separate reasons – yet as everything in global politics, their experiences have been interconnected. While the focus on three seemingly so different case studies could make for a disjointed narrative, this structure combines Krastev’s expertise in Eastern European politics – as seen in his earlier books, After Europe (2017) and Democracy Disrupted (2014) – and Holmes’ experience as a law professor who has frequently questioned the liberal tenets of US foreign policy in his own books, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1996) and Passions and Constraint (1995). In that it enables us to jump between events both big and small and test their essential theory: that liberalism performs within a “market” of ideas instead of as one, and that in the absence of that competitive market the ideology lost its way.

While documenting the failures of liberalism’s courting of Eastern Europe and its decline in the United States, The Light That Failed makes two broad arguments: that imitation inherently entails a power structure and that the new world order is rooted firmly in competition.

Imitation as a power structure

Power, long presumed to centre around military might, took on a different meaning after the end of the Cold War. After, as the authors say, “a military superpower capable of obliterating life on earth disappeared like an illusionist’s mirage” overnight – it was soft power, comprising cultural influence and moral superiority that came into focus.

Krastev and Holmes explore several power structures that the Age of Imitation entailed. Moral superiority is the power of the imitator where CEE nations are “optimistic converts” to liberalism, keen to adopt western liberal democratic practices to attain what they called “normal lives”. The very notion that another nation’s way of life is normal ascertains the presumed weakness or inferiority of the imitator. As a direct result of the fall of communism, Central Europeans’ determination to live the lives of Germans, Brits, Americans, and other westerners was so strong that many moved in search of them, rather than wait for those standards of living to arrive at home. And there we see a transfer of power again, as the migration from Central and Eastern European countries resulted in a serious brain drain for these nations. Off hurried those same domestic liberals who had emerged victorious in the velvet revolutions, leaving the not so converted dethroned political elites behind to govern.

At the same time, power is also inherent to imitation in Russia’s post-communist experience – the authors argue that the Russian government cynically simulated political transition to a liberal democracy by organising rigged elections in order to appease and distract the West. All the while they are able to ensure that in Russia’s economic transition to a market economy, the money and power itself remain in the hands of the few. At the same time, Russia’s ironic mimicry of western foreign policy practices (e.g. their involvement in the war in Syria or funding of anti-EU political parties) are almost a parody of previous western actions according to the authors. This imitation is a power statement in itself – “you’re no better than us” says the Kremlin allegedly putting a mirror to Washington, Brussels & co.

In fact, power is even at stake for the imitated, according to Krastev and Holmes. The United States as the winner of the Cold War, was left alone at the centre of the global stage – an initially admirable position in which the entire world sought to learn their language and their “way”. However, in the years that foreigners were looking to learn English, and thanks to the predominance of American culture, Americans have spent very little time learning about foreigners. In other words, today “[w]hile the world knows a lot about America, America knows very little about the world”. This is a damning predicament in an age of economic competition and strategic geopolitical power play. It makes a nation like America fundamentally vulnerable. In the words of Donald Trump, it makes America “a loser”.

Competition is the new world order

The authors conclude the book with a chapter that centres on China as the new leading global power. China, they argue, is the winner of the Age of Imitation. Selectively borrowing, rather than pretending or even trying to imitate the West, China has managed to preserve their domestic structure and stability while advancing their international economic interests. From their successful diaspora educated at elite western universities to leveraging western technologies, China is indeed “laying claim to the far side of the future”.

As the world’s fastest growing major economy, China has used its competitive advantages of cheap labour and raw materials in order to become the global supply chain powerhouse. Having long abandoned its 20th century attempts to spread Maoism, China has focused on promoting its economic and geopolitical interests at an international level. From the now infamous One Belt, One Road project, to the strategic infrastructure investments in East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and even the construction of Beidou-2 – soon to be the most accurate global positioning satellite system in the world – Beijing has understood what liberals in the West have not. It is not co-operation, or even conflict, but competition that is the main driver of global politics in the post-Cold War era. If Krastev and Holmes are right about their assessment of right-wing populists, then not only China but antiliberal Trump, Putin, and even Orbán and Kaczyński have long understood the rules of the game and began rolling the dice while liberals still try to understand the manual.

One thing has become clear in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike ten, 15 or even 20 years ago, amid their biggest test of the century, governments are not co-operating the way we expect them to. While the EU is experiencing bitter internal squabbles over the so called “coronabonds”, the United States and China are embroiled in an information war over the virus’ origins, and the global public health watchdog – the World Health Organisation (WHO) – has been accused of currying favour with Beijing and had a major chunk of its funding cut by the United States.

What’s next for liberalism?

At times demanding on the reader, the book’s theoretical points about the forces driving the decline of liberalism are interwoven with popular culture references to relevant films, plays and prose that help contextualise the points being made. More impressively, the authors are able to place the local cultural works into each chapter, for example referencing Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation in the CEE-focused chapter, Victor Pelevin’s absurdist novella Operation Burning Bush in Russia’s chapter and Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed BlacKkKlansman in the US chapter.

However, while answering many burning questions that occupy the so-called liberal elites’ dinner table conversations, the book also opens up a plethora of new ones. For one, what about the decline in liberal values in other nations, especially in Western Europe? And what about the divisions within the liberal camp? Can we really look at liberal democrats as one homogenous group? It takes only a few clips of recent debates in the European Parliament to see that they have frequently disagreed about what liberalism is in practice.

Such a discussion is complex enough to warrant another book. Nevertheless, liberalism’s inner struggles are a crucial factor in the failures of its courtship of Eastern Europe. In their endeavour to be the beacon of tolerance internationally, not only have liberals, as Krastev and Holmes argue, “abandoned pluralism for hegemony” on the international stage, but they are consistently wrestling with it domestically. Whether it is the freedom to deny the Holocaust in Germany, get a religiously based education in the Netherlands, or to simply offend a holy text, western societies are consistently grappling with whether their tolerance extends to the intolerant. In that process, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany have been among the many liberal democracies to see a rise in antiliberal politicians, many of whom have become formidable competitors in recent elections.

Rather than mourn this new era of competition of ideas, the authors argue that liberals should celebrate them. Indeed, if liberalism works best when faced with a market of competitive ideas, then rather than despair the present or the future state of affairs, liberal democrats ought to make their way back to the drawing board to try and shape them. Unlike Kipling’s tragic tale,the future is brighter than it seems.

Millie Radović holds an MSc in Russian and East European Studies from St Antony’s College, the University of Oxford and a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. She currently works as a tech analyst, writing, advising and speaking about emerging technologies as leapfrogging tools in developing regions.

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