17 September 2021

“Not What We Were Promised”

Four Answers to an Insoluble Question  

Review Essay

Günter Frankenberg, Authoritarianism: Constitutional Perspectives (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2020)

Ivan Krastev, Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed: A Reckoning (London, Allen Lane (Penguin), 2019)

Cristina Parau, Transnational Networking and Elite Self-Empowerment: The Making of the Judiciary in Contemporary Europe and Beyond (Oxford, OUP, British Academy Monographs, 2018)

Michael Wilkinson, Authoritarian Liberalism and the Transformation of Modern Europe, (Oxford, OUP, 2021)


There was a time that my generation, the cohort of those who came of age in the 1990s, still remembers well. In Eastern Europe, after 1989 and for a good decade and a half thereafter, the world appeared, at least through the eyes of young post-communist urbanites, brimming with liberal-constitutional potential. True, there would be hurdles and a few bumps on the road and yes, our societies were dirt-poor and most of our industry heaps of half-corrugated metal. Yet the future lay ahead full of promise: we were to build constitutionalism and free market economies at home, have international human rights protections through the Council of Europe, security via NATO membership, and then, perhaps, one day, full Western prosperity and freedom in the newly-minted European Union. In those years, one read Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, today’s global punchline, with interest and excitement.

The age of innocence has come and gone, leaving behind a sense of malaise and even fear. The United States is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Trump presidency; four years of discombobulated politics in the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, closed with a mob attack on the Capitol. Scenes of American troops departing Kabul disorderly after twenty years of occupation, with many lives given and trillions spent to make the country ‘safe for democracy’, make a mockery out of ‘transitology’ and ‘democratization’. In Europe, the Orbán majority managed a unique feat, that of making Hungary the only EU member, indeed the only European state in memory, which harassed a university until it drove it out of the country. Meanwhile, Poland has been carrying out, for the better part of a decade, an attrition war with Union and Council of Europe institutions, as its South-eastern municipalities establish dystopian Macondos (‘zones free of LGBT ideology’). The Enlargement, which seemed for a while indomitable (EU-15 (1995), EU-25 (2004), EU-27 (2007), EU-28 (2013)), petered out and then took an abrupt nose-dive after Brexit, when the second-biggest economy in the bloc and one of its only two credible security providers left the Union.

As the Enlightenment is no longer marching through the world, most ask themselves the Leninist question (what is to be done?). A few inquire into the more apposite and logically precedent issues: How and why did this come about? Why don’t we now have what we (thought we) were promised in the 1990s? The four books under review seek to play the long game, by addressing causes and phenomena. Together, they offer a balanced assortment of positions: two (Frankenberg and Holmes-Krastev) are primarily written as defences of the fraying liberal consensus against the recent populist onslaught, whereas the second group (Parau and Wilkinson) question what the authors believe to be liberal internationalism gone awry. Due to editorial space limitations and the argumentative economy of this review essay, only the main theses will be reconstructed, around the main motifs that animate them.

I. Searching for the Label

Günter Frankenberg, a distinguished German comparativist who coined the wonderful ‘IKEA theory’ of constitutional design, addresses present perplexities by placing recent phenomena on a continuum.

Frankenberg resists the currently prevalent trend in the academe, that of using and abusing the ‘populism’ label (pp. 52-53: “Its indeterminacy resists definition and analytical clarity, very much like the proverb has it: jelly cannot be nailed to the wall.”). He proposes instead a more encompassing essentialist taxonomy, under the umbrella concept of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism, according to Frankenberg, has four essential features, which overlap in practice but can be distinguished ideal-typically: i. an opportunistic power technology that relies on informality, pretextual uses of emergency, executive domination and the submission of independent institutions (first and foremost, the judiciary); ii. A patrimonial perception of power, equating the state with private property, so that public money can be pocketed and public power bequeathed at will and perhaps even recouped (the Putin/Medvedev scheme); iii. The transformation of the people from electors into mimeographed accomplices, via privatized forms of participation (e.g., petitions instead of protests, rubberstamp plebiscites) or ritualized, choreographed publicity (Reichsparteitag, National People’s Congress), and iv. A cult of immediacy that suppresses intermediary organizations and replaces them with cardboard-cutout enemies and contrived illusions of homogeneity and communion (with one another and with the sinister fatherly leader: Mao swimming across the Yangtze, Mussolini in the Adriatic, Hitler with his dog, Putin horseback-riding bare-chested, etc.). According to Frankenberg, authoritarian tendencies and moments exist also in liberal design (secretive elites in Philadelphia, Dredd Scott v. Sandford, Locke’s prerogative power) or in the spillovers of liberalism abroad (e.g., the East India Company or ‘banana republics’ under the yoke of the United Fruit Company, at pp. 147-149).

In the end, however, the attempt to counter “populism” by recourse to a grander, more encompassing narrative (authoritarianism) only leaves the reader stranded on a bigger conceptualist shoal. Donald Trump’s exploits populate the entire book; the cover itself reproduces an effigy image of the former US president, pastiched after the famous Leviathan engraving. Yet, unsavory as Mr. Trump has undoubtedly been, comparing him to Hitler or Goebbels (Twitter as the modern equivalent of the Volksempfänger; “Trump, very much like Hitler, Mussolini and today’s authoritarian nationalists”, at p. 218 and in similar permutations throughout) hardly advances the type of knowledge that is constitutionally useful. Such loose associations are, to be sure, refreshing in the arts (Brezhnev took Afghanistan, Begin took Beirut, Galtieri took the Union Jack, and Maggie, over lunch one day, etc.) and perhaps in different formats (a pamphlet, for instance). But incessant associative-polemical parallels between Donald Trump and the likes of Adolf Hitler are unhelpful in what purports to be a constitutional theory argument. Frankenberg does in the beginning draw a distinction between totalitarian and non-totalitarian authoritarianism but this difference is lost on the reader throughout most of the book, as the common denominator (authoritarianism) gains the upper hand in the argument.

Methodologically, as Professor Frankenberg pursues authoritarianism and authoritarian tendencies across history and the globe, he is all too often at the mercy of online and press citations for purposes of exemplification. As sources are crammed in to fit the narrative and not triangulated, this results in perplexities. We find out, for instance (p. 169) that each Singaporean must pay 244 euros a year towards PM Lee Hsien Loong’s salary of 1,7 million dollars. Even without the currency exchange, that would put the population of Singapore at 6967,2 inhabitants; the country’s population is however 5,7 million. On p. 163, another example of patrimonialism is given. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has, we are told, the benefit of “the not inconsiderable inheritance of a property that was illegally appropriated in 1963”, estimated at between 1 million and 2 billion square meters in size. 1 million sqm is a French vineyard (100 hectares). A 2 billion sqm. property is however in a whole different ballpark. This tendency extends to sometimes ‘pick and choose’ forms of constitutional referencing. Art. 56 (1) in the Romanian Constitution is cited as an example of authoritarianism, due to the fact that it mentions the “sacredness of loyalty” to the country (not, as Frankenberg cites the provision, “a sacred duty”, p. 25). The provision is prefatory to its operative part in Art. 56 (2), namely, oath-taking by public officials and members of the armed forces.1) Why oath-taking, a widely used procedure in liberal democracies (oaths by elected officials, by public servants, by the military, by newly naturalized citizens, by witnesses in court, etc.) should be authoritarian in nature remains unexplained.

Likewise, since Frankenberg tries to identify the essence of authoritarianism across time and space in its outward manifestations, associations are often difficult to follow. Doctors, we are told on page 153, are “special candidates of trust who are offered succession to the throne” and a footnote specifies that Donald Trump had appointed the former White House physician as chief medical adviser (not as dictator in Trump’s stead, however). François Duvalier is mentioned (a doctor dictator!) and we find out that he appointed his son Baby Doc to succeed him (a playboy, not a doctor). Radovan Karadžić follows (dictator and doctor, yet not a dictator’s doctor) and the enumeration closes, finally, with a dentist-dictator, Mr. Berdymukhamedov, who succeeded his dictatorial patient, Mr. Nyyazov, at the helm of Turkmenistan, once the latter had passed away. Autocrats prefer dogs and horses “as beastly incarnations of loyalty”, we are told on p. 220. The relevance of this consideration is, again, elusive. President Obama, presumably not an autocrat, had two Portuguese water dogs that he dearly flaunted before cameras, whereas the author’s authoritarian nemesis, President Trump, kept no pets (maybe because authoritarian leaders are also egotistic).

The argument, locked on the concept of authoritarianism and the drive to define deviations from constitutional normality in genus proximum rather than differentia specifica, bogs down in the end, where the features of authoritarian constitutions are itemized and tabulated in diagram form, along the axes of addressees (internal and external audiences) and purposes (symbolic and instrumental), p. 254. One example, the most relevant among the four quadrant categories, should suffice. It is generally characteristic of autocratic constitutions, we are told (Authoritarian Constitutions as Governance Manuals; internal audience, instrumental use), that: 1. ‘freedoms are linked to both obligations and reservations in favour of the security and stability of the public order’2) 2. “They contain clauses prohibiting the abuse of rights.”3) 3. “They provide for restrictions on or the lifting of restrictions in exceptional situations, such as riots, war or disasters”4), 4. “They are subject to a general legal reservation.”5) (p. 257).

II. Let’s Psychologize the Masses

Ivan Krastev, noted public intellectual and political scientist, and Stephen Holmes, prominent NYU constitutional theorist, start from the postulate that tectonic plates are indeed shifting. According to their tightly and very engagingly written book, mass psychology is the best point of access to study the roots of current predicaments. They have in a way written a Psychologie des foules for the Populist Age.

The authors recognize, with a sub-rosa Schmittian accolade, liberal self-complacency after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a factor (as in: ‘When my enemy is gone, I no longer know or have enough reason to be true to the best version of myself’).6) This line of thought, also social-psychological, is however mentioned somewhat in passing and not valorised throughout the argument. Populist psychology receives most of the attention.

According to the argument, to blame for Eastern European populism is copycat resentment. A desire to imitate the West in all things was bred by the anticlimactic nature of the transition; Holmes and Krastev cite Furet, who “pungently” noted that “Not a single new idea has come out of Eastern Europe” (p. 24). Revolutions of normality (thus Havel) were driven only by a cartoonish desire to be exactly like the Western model (I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too). Such expectations were unrealistic from the start, given past development lags and contemporaneous GDP differentials and thus inevitably disappointed by realities. Disappointment bred frustration, frustration bred anger, anger made disgruntled Easterners to eventually throw the failed copycat’s garden variety tantrum (Orbán, Kaczyński, Putin as well but with a geopolitical twist).

To be sure, the authors pursue their imitation thesis down to its more sophisticated implications. In this sense, the observation that resistance to migration during the refugee crisis (Orbán, poor man’s Trump, building his barbed wire fence against Syrians fleeing war and destruction) is in fact resistance to depopulation is nothing short of masterful. EU integration has indeed generated massive economic emigration; the consequences are mixed, since diaspora remittances are a poor substitute for lost workers, brain drain, imperilled social security systems, children often left behind to be raised by grandparents, etc. According to the authors, when Eastern European populists defend their countries against migrants who have no intention to settle in the CEE anyhow (like everyone else, they want to go the West), they defend in fact their countries against EU freedom of movement exercises with exodus-like implications. The remark that when one imitates dynamic societies, one is inevitably disappointed is also insightful. In this vein, resistance to social progressiveness (portrayed by populists as ‘Western decadence’) is according to Krastev and Holmes a direct result of the fact what the ‘West’ Easterners admired and wanted to emulate was the predominantly Christian-democratic, anti-communist, conservative Western Bloc of the Cold War (p. 43). That version of the Occident is gone and the populist, stuck in the past as he is, doesn’t even get it.

Yet if the authors would have pursued their Freudian analysis a little deeper, they could have discovered that in some respects Eastern European elites of many party colours have been met (“back to the future!”) by aspects and realities that correspond well to their representations during and in the immediate aftermath of communism.7) The version of economic liberalism that was and still is popular among anti-communist CEE intelligentsia consists essentially in Hayek, Mises, Chicago-style market fetishism, seasoned by finer spirits with a few, often disjointed references to Adam Smith or Nozick and recently updated by the new entrepreneurial classes with the Economist as weekly Gospel of record. Everything else is ‘communistic’. In the 1990s, what the Eastern mainstream had ideologically yearned for still found little correspondence in the realities of the Western social-democratic states whose prosperity (but not solidarity) they wanted to achieve. In a sense, institutional Europe, the EU, reinforced, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the kind of ruthless market fetishism that was always projected upon Westernization in the outskirts of Europe. What was initially peripheral bovarism has thus become mainstream.

To wit, the current ‘anti-populist’ Prime Minister of Romania, Mr. Florin Cîțu, was dubbed by his local supporters, with unintentional humour, as a ‘Romanian Thatcher’ (and also as a ‘Romanian Merkel’). When asked by reporters a short while ago, in the context of an abrupt inflationary spike, whether he knew the price of a loaf of bread, the Prime Minister answered that he didn’t know and tried not to eat the thing. A different gender-blind analogy (“Let them eat cake!”) was naturally drawn. He continued by praising the liberal economic miracle that had produced prosperity: Romania was no longer a low-salary economy, he said, as 1% of the employees earn net wages of more than 3000 euros per month.8) A prominent member of the National Liberal Party even toyed with the idea, recirculated also by a group of local businessmen, that equal voting rights as such are populistic and that, consequently, a return to the Besitz und Bildung census-based suffrage or perhaps a plural voting system (i.e., as in Belgium between 1894 and 1919 or in the Kaiserreich, under the Prussian ‘Dreiklassenwahlunrecht’)9) could be the solutions.10) These are admittedly crude, albeit in their brutality for that very reason honest, formulations of more suavely framed Eastern European trends. Variations of the latter category abound in narratives concerning ‘captive’ vs. ‘rule of law-prone’ (‘enlightened’, ‘European’) electorates, ‘bread and circus voting’, and the like. The relevance and driving forces of such discourses are only superficially accessible by mass psychology. Facts are arguably more useful, for instance: the lack of a Western-style left tradition in the East, caused by the agrarian nature of the pre-communist societies (peasant populist parties were the mainstream left before communism),11) the fact that many of these countries are created by bits and pieces of former Empires and development lags still linger on between regions, or the uneven distribution of EU accessions benefits, skewed against rural and small-urban areas and in favour of big cities (in Bucharest, life expectancy itself is 3,7 years higher on the average, compared to rural and small-urban areas or former industrial cities).12) This configuration results in all manner of instrumental discourses, that can partly be explained by social psychologies. In Romania, for instance, decades of battles between the big urban centre-right (often self-interested) defenders of the rule of law and the more rural-centred mainstream left, just as opportunistic and corruption-prone as the rest but also redistributive, have resulted in the lionization in the Western press of the numerous Romanian diaspora as a counter-populist force for the good, rule of law, and European progress.13) The diaspora votes overwhelmingly right, partly due to psychologically speculated narratives, partly because it is easy to vote ‘anticommunist’ and elite-conformant when you do not have to suffer the effects yourself (cuts to the healthcare system, to education, to all benefits). In presidential elections, when participation is higher, Romanians abroad can even swing the country vote to the right, as in 2009. One needs however to ponder what kinds of right do many Romanians abroad vote. As soon as a xenophobic, anti-vaccination, ultra-nationalist party was on offer, AUR, it garnered promptly 23.3% of the expat vote, more than double the inland percentages (ranking first in Italy, second in Spain, where sizable expat communities have settled).14) This tendency was also visible during a 2018 ‘referendum for the family’, a confirmatory referendum to approve an amendment to Art. 48, restricting the definition of marriage to heterosexual unions. Romanians abroad were percentage-wise much more interested in the poll than inland voters, so that the home country could be spared the ‘decay’ of the Western societies in which they now lived.

Furthermore, and related, whereas liberal attention is turned to Poland and Hungary, many new EU member states that appear stable (not ‘populist’) are so only apparently and at a high deferred cost. In Mr. Krastev’s own country, Bulgaria, the EPP propped against all odds the Borisov Government, while the Commission wanted in 2019 to lift the CVM conditionality on account of progresses allegedly made in the fight against organised crime, corruption and in the field of judicial reforms.15) This happened months before massive demonstrations erupted once it became public knowledge that the leader of a splinter party supporting the government had appropriated a portion of the public beach and after photographs were leaked of the Prime Minister sleeping next to a gun, a drawer-full of 500-euro bill wads, and a few scattered gold ingots.16) During Mr. Borisov’s reign in office (with short interruptions, from 2009 until 2021), the inequality index peaked to over 40, the highest in the EU.17) If leaks of mafia-style scenery and ensuing summer-long demonstrations are needed for an EPP-affiliated local party boss to be finally allowed to fall, should this not raise broader questions about the state of democracy in the EU-27? In Poland for instance (Hungary, admittedly, is an outlier) the current government lowered the GINI index considerably through transf