Sian Norris speaks to Professor Lea Ypi and reflects on the threats to freedom and democracy hanging over Europe – and their historical roots

Across the world, democracy and freedom is under threat. 

From Poland to Russia, Belarus, Hungary and Turkey to India, press freedom is being repressed as media outlets and journalists that challenge governments lose their licences, freedom and even their lives.

In the US, far-right actors push the ‘big lie’ and try to overturn an election. Here in the UK, everything from voting to protesting is being made harder, as the Elections Bill and the Policing Bill restrict people’s democratic rights.

In a move echoing the authoritarian populist rulers of Poland and Hungary, Conservative MP Julian Knight has asked for the BBC to appoint a “pro-Brexit” political editor, months after the right tried to block the promotion of a journalist it considered too “woke” to run news. Meanwhile, the new Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Nadine Dorries is said to be furious at the BBC’s Nick Robinson’s handling of an interview with the Prime Minister. 

The crisis in freedom and democracy comes more than 30 years after liberals declared the “end of history” following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The claim was that the end of the ideological 20th Century had been reached and, in the future, there could be no alternative to the dominant, western model of liberalism – both political and economic. 

“If you think of history as a unit and humanity as another unit, it’s very hard to think that any dominant ideology would be dominant for a long time,” explains Professor Lea Ypi. Her new book Free: Coming of Age at the End of History brings together memoir with political philosophy to explore notions of freedom and democracy. “It was a very arrogant statement to say that history was coming to an end and liberalism is asserting itself because any other alternative has been defeated.”

The end of the Cold War entrenched the neoliberalism of the previous decade as the dominant economic and political force – “a model that accommodated the conflicts of capitalism at that time,” Ypi says.

The system set about creating what the journalist Paul Mason refers to in his book Clear Bright Future “the neoliberal self” – an individual for whom “consumption becomes a self-validating activity” and who has “exchanged security for autonomy and adopted individualism as the solution to the failure of collective action”. The collective action he mentions is the social democratic model of worker mass movements of the post-war period. 

The 2008 financial crash smashed the end of history narrative. When it came, nothing was established to take its place. Instead, neoliberalism has limped along on life support. And, while it is possible to put a financial system on life-support, putting an ideology on life-support seems doomed to fail. 

This failure is, in part, fuelling the rise of a radical and far-right in Europe, the US, and even in India and Brazil. As Mason says in his book, How to Stop Fascism, “the psychological impact of [neoliberal ideology] being wrong is immense”. Fascism, he believes, “is what happens when our faith in this ideology evaporates, and no progressive alternative takes its place”.

No Alternative for Eastern Europe

Since at least 2008, the far-right has been on the march in eastern Europe, with authoritarian populist leaders in formerly Communist countries using far-right dog whistles and policy design to entrench their power. 

In Poland, for example, the ruling Law and Justice party has integrated an anti-LGBTIQ, anti-women and anti-migration platform with an all-out assault on the democratic structures of a free press and independent court system. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has demonised people seeking asylum, the LGBTIQ community and echoed far-right ‘Great Replacement’ rhetoric while enriching his allies and attacking a free press. 

In Slovakia, neo-Nazis have repeatedly won Government seats, with conservative colleagues breaking precedent to vote with them on abortion issues. Romania’s January election also saw far-right, anti-LGBTIQ, anti-abortion and anti-EU politicians take their place in Parliament. 

The EU has responded with much hand-wringing over the bullish actions of leaders such as Orban in Hungary and Andrzej Duda and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. But less attention has been paid to the role of the 1990s ‘no alternative’ narrative, and how that narrative’s relationship with the EU could have led to the rise in authoritarianism across the east. 

“In eastern European countries, a lot of the far-right rise has to do with those countries’ incorporation into the EU,” Ypi tells Byline Times. “In the 1990s, it was a top-down process where the EU told countries what to do to become a country of good standing.”

Post-1989, it was desirable for countries emerging from communist rule to join the rest of Europe. Romania, as an example, overturned its deadly abortion ban in 1991 in part to announce its rebirth as a modern, European nation. 

“But the way in which it happened was to give people the debates they should be having in their own countries in order to join the European system,” Ypi says. “It was top-down and paternalistic. I think there would have been a lot of dissent that was suppressed in the name of entering the EU. And that dissent only emerged once those countries became part of the EU.

“On the other hand, it was clear the dissident movements in countries that were ending socialism were unhappy with what they had. But it was not clear that they had endorsed liberalism. There was focus on freedom of speech, of assembly and expression but it was not clear that this came with an economic package of liberalism.”

This argument is supported by authors Ivan Kristen and Stephen Holmes in their book The Light That Failed. They argue that “the attempt to democratise formerly communist countries was aiming at a kind of cultural conversion to values, habits and attitudes considered normal in the West”. This “political and moral ‘shock therapy’ put inherited identity at risk”. 

That sense of an attack on ‘inherited identity’ has easily been exploited by right-wing populist leaders and far-right actors in Eastern Europe and beyond – including in countries such as Italy and the UK. 

In Italy, the far-right political leader Matteo Salvini portrayed the EU as a set of progressive elites determined to undermine Italy. His promise to his voters was to defy an EU that wanted to impose its agenda on Italy’s traditions through its immigration and human rights commitments. Salvini offered to protect traditional Italian values of marriage, family, children and Catholicism against this perceived assault. 

In the case of Brexit, the EU was portrayed as being in opposition to Imperial Britain – denying Britain the “sovereignty” it had once commanded when Britannia ruled the waves. The atrocities, genocides and cruelty of the empire are, of course, erased from this narrative. 

As for Hungary, Viktor Orban offered voters a return to the 9th Century Hungarian might of the Magyar warriors – a Hungarian spirit being repressed by EU diktat. According to Kristen and Holmes, Orban captured “the public’s imagination by denouncing the universalism of human rights and open-border liberalism as expressions of the West’s lofty indifference to their countries’ national traditions and heritage”.

Both Brexit and Orban’s image of the Magyars on horseback reflect a notion of the fascist mythic past: a desire to return to an idealised moment of supremacy and greatness that is being denied a nation’s people by its enemies. 

“There was a lot of frustration on the ground in many countries about the process of joining the EU,” says Ypi. “And that frustration could only be aired once they had joined. There had been no democratic process to let these political ideas mature, so people fall for the easiest critique of the system. That easiest critique is coming from the right who blame the immigrants, blame the borders, blame the EU, blame the elites for people’s problems.”

While this is clearly a responsibility of the right, Ypi argues, “it is just as much a failure of the left in not being able to articulate that discourse and articulate systemic alternatives”.

What’s the Alternative?

For Professor Lea Ypi, those systemic alternatives involve the left moving away from a nationalist framework and taking a transnational approach to equality and justice. 

“We need to decouple the left from the nationalist project,” she tells Byline Times. “The left project is not a project you can hold in national borders. And yet currently, all the political projects and debates and potential for change are held within national borders.” 

Part of the far-right attack on freedom that is currently being waged focuses on a desire to return to a pre-Enlightenment, pre-rational moment. This desire to “reverse modernity,” Paul Mason writes, “has become a necessity” to the modern far-right which seeks a “complete reversal of the Enlightenment triggered by a… global catastrophe”.

“The philosophical roots of fascism is a conception that tries to destroy reason,” Ypi says. “If you succeed in the destruction of the reason, all horrible things can happen.” 

This can be resisted, Ypi argues, through a belief in the human.

“There is a kernel of rationality in everyone that, in the right political structures, becomes explicated and can give birth to the right systems,” she tells Byline Times. “ If you start from this perspective of human nature, a human being even in the most oppressive circumstances, has it within themself to rise above those circumstances. You must never lose this way of relating to yourself as a human being and to believe that other people can do that. Hope lies in human nature.”


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