By Rafael Behr
Capitalism conquered the eastern bloc. That’s why liberal politics alone won’t defeat today’s populism
Finnish TV and toilet paper did as much to undermine the USSR as the nuclear deterrent, an Estonian friend once explained to me. He grew up in Tallinn, under Kremlin rule but within antenna range of American soaps broadcast from Helsinki. What Dallas did for eyes that craved glamour, a smuggled supply of soft tissue did for bums rubbed raw by Soviet-issue bog roll. The Balts had too much exposure to what they were missing to be reconciled to the privations of communism.
That feels like a long time ago because it was. The post-cold war realignment has now lasted almost as long as the confrontation itself. The Berlin Wall has now been down for longer than it was up. The period is politically definitive for those who grew up in it, and strangely remote to those who came after. The generation that occupies most positions of power in “western” countries has a crisp sense of what it means to be “the west”, but it is vaguer in their children and nebulous to their grandchildren.
The term can be very problematic. It is too often used to conflate democracy, civilisation and whiteness. But in the context of a strategic rivalry with Berlin as its epicentre, “the west” accurately described one side. So the label stuck.
Measuring political virtue by longitude has also been given fresh impetus by Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet statecraft and the emergence of populist governments in countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The power-hoarding habits of Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, give some coherence to the idea of a liberal “western style”. It means civil liberties upheld by independent courts, a free press, opposition parties unmolested by the state, and a credible prospect of incumbents losing power.
But the lines are blurred by Polish and Hungarian membership of the EU. Their accession in 2004 was supposed to require the highest standards of political pluralism. The deal was liberal reform in exchange for promotion to the economic premier league. Transition was meant to be a one-way street. More established EU states are alarmed by easterners’ sliding back to bad habits.
The European commission can chasten members that don’t uphold the EU’s founding values, and has invoked the relevant treaty clause in response to Polish assaults on judicial independence. But withholding funds or suspension of summit voting rights – the available sanctions – have not been deployed for fear of inflaming nationalist resentment and driving Warsaw further from the democratic fold.
Meanwhile, Austria avoids equivalent censure despite the far-right Freedom party joining its ruling coalition last month. When the same party, whose roots go back to the Nazi apparatus, joined the government in 2000, Vienna was ostracised by fellow EU members. The charge was legitimising extremism. The Freedom party was then beyond the pale. The pale has moved.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s leader, now Austrian vice-chancellor, is not Eurosceptic in the style of Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage. He nonetheless leads a party with an aggressive fixation on Islam – but Austria is a “western” EU member, and that unofficial senior status seems to confer privileges in the club that survive having xenophobes in high office.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. The US president makes a parody of the idea of the west as a beacon of moral authority. It is true that his despotic urges are hemmed by law in a way that lesser countries might not manage. But it is some downgrade of the system to boast that it might withstand assault by a venal, nepotistic maniac. America used to aim higher than constitutional kleptocracy.
In such times it is easy to forget that the “western” model is still the best way to organise people into peaceful, prosperous societies. The benefits of liberal democracy are routinely taken for granted by people who live in one, but not by those who don’t. Millions vote with their feet, migrating across continents in search of a better life. That movement flatters the achievements of democratic societies, although our politics rarely casts it in those terms. It took a generation to get from the idealism of tearing down the wall to the backlash and pulling up the Brexit drawbridge.
Much of the comfort of being the west during the cold war was its material advantage over a captive east. Just as my Estonian friend was fired with envy, we were stoked to feel special by the proximity of our luckless neighbours. And while the moral case against communist regimes was their stifling of freedom, it was economic collapse that did for them. The two were connected, of course. Suppressing dissent was a waste of state resources. Banning free enterprise drove it underground, breeding corruption and undermining the rule of law.
Meanwhile, on both sides of the divide, the case for political liberalism cruised in the slipstream of market capitalism. Western intellectuals and eastern dissidents pleaded for democracy on principle for years before brute economics settled the matter. Worryingly, liberalism doesn’t have as good a record of winning by argument alone as its advocates like to imagine. Fascism, its deadliest enemy, wasn’t debated into submission or outrun in an economic race: it was beaten by military force in a fight to the death, started by the fascists.
Now, as illiberal forces arise in democracy’s heartlands, liberals find themselves frighteningly short of rhetorical tools to defend their cause. There is no eastern bloc peering enviously over our fences, testifying to the superiority of our methods. The fences are down, and those we once pitied are treated as interlopers, snaffling scarce resources. And while Britain, the US and western Europe are still among the richest places on Earth, millions who live there do not take it as a blessing. They feel insecure, disenfranchised, cheated.
We still produce the best TV and the softest toilet paper. But those weren’t ever irrefutable arguments for liberal democracy: they were advertisements for something called the west. And that product, sold on those terms, doesn’t exist any more.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist