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26 December, 2011

A Crisis of Liberalism?

The political matrix of Central and Eastern Europe opening up the political space for a bipartisan system with no authentic niche left for the liberals, allowed some catch-it-all or pocket parties set up by the new tycoons and those seeking political revenge to pass for liberal forces — and this was the real tragedy

When asked about the chances of liberalism to change the intellectual landscape and the logic of political life in Eastern Europe, the Polish sociologist Jerzy Szacki expresses his grave doubts. He said that he feared, and with sound reason, that liberalism planted in the soil of post-communist societies would become a caricature of itself, turning into an inversion of Marxism celebrating and obsessively associating itself with economics and financial power, instead of speaking up in favor of liberty and human rights.

Szacki was 100% right and this is exactly what happened in Central and Eastern Europe. After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, what I would describe as the matrix of Central/East European politics emerged: the former Communist party assumed all financial power creating a network within which economic and political power merged into an indivisible whole; whereas its opposing power, a conservative-nationalistic party with some remnants of former communists who would paint their house in new colors nearly overnight, became something like its negative double – a churchly and more or less authoritarian unit in its spirit fiercely opposed to the former power structure, yet hardly differing from it in terms of democratic sensibilities.

And where were our would-be liberals left in this context? At best, they tended in those days to become detached and semi-academic clubs studying and celebrating Adam Smith and a grossly simplified concept of the invisible hand. In addition, an explosive proliferation of translations of Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and other laissez-faire liberal economists quickly led to the sonorous titles with which newly-born liberals in Eastern Europe christened center-left liberals in Western Europe and North America – “socialists,” “communists,” “traitors of liberalism,” and the like.

I remember one quick exchange with an American colleague who was about to give a public lecture at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Awaiting my public talk in a neighboring auditorium, I wished him good luck to which he reacted by offering a brief recollection of his impressions of the Czech Republic, commenting on the new draft of the constitution which he was to discuss, he noted ironically that what he encountered there was a striking version of Marxism turned upside down. “Not a single word about culture or education, just economy” – he sighed.

Yet this was merely an insignificant part of a painful problem. The fact that the majority of liberals in Central and Eastern Europe failed to reveal and appreciate the liberalism of Isaiah Berlin, John Gray or Michael Ignatieff — an inclusive and critical interpretive framework for the politics of dialogue and co-existence on the grounds of mutual recognition and human worth, instead of a one-dimensional, doctrinal, and partisan approach — was regrettable, but it was not to be the worst piece of news. More was to come.

The aforementioned political matrix of Central and Eastern Europe opening up the political space for a bipartisan system with no authentic niche left for the liberals, allowed some catch-it-all or pocket parties set up by the new tycoons and those seeking political revenge to pass for liberal forces — and this was the real tragedy. The old-fashioned or worn-out modes of political discourse and rhetoric were a tiny segment of the post-communist political drama; the fact that pocket parties or various sorts of quasi-liberal mixes were accepted into the political family of European liberals was far more painful for the future of liberalism.

Those political calculations and manifestations of political technocracy have already dealt a serious blow to European liberals. Desperately trying to recruit new “brethren in the faith” in Eastern Europe, European liberals risk losing their own political identity and raison d’être. The caricature of liberal ideas in Eastern Europe where liberalism has been confined to the technocratic advocacy of free market and the resulting vulgar economic interpretation of the human world is a result of the Eastern European intellectual and moral vacuum after 1990.

Regrettably, its counterpart in Western Europe does not look any better if we take into account the rejection of educational and moral aspects of politics which is a cancer of the new European liberalism obsessed with how to find a niche and to be accommodated in global policy-making and Realpolitik. A disdain for the humanities and liberal education, coupled with a blindness to culture and its crucial role in Europe, seems a curse of European liberals.

I can easily imagine the reaction of those who would strongly oppose this writer by reminding him of the commitment of liberals to human rights. This may be true to some extent but we cannot deceive ourselves by taking liberals as the only champions of human rights – it makes no sense to assume the moral monopoly here, as many liberals are simply unaware of the dramas of the peoples and individuals from Central and Eastern Europe that engraved the names of great dissidents on the memory of this part of Europe. Nobody has a monopoly on truth in politics, and the same applies to virtue and ethics in general.

In our age of technocracy walking in the guise of democracy, liberals betray a human being every time they threaten him or her as a mere workforce, statistical unit, or merely part of a majority and "the electorate". This is a crucial issue that they have yet to address.


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