Illiberalism as a Symptom. Reading ‘The End of the Liberal Mind’

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The Greek word krísis originally has meant ‘the turning point in a disease’. In this reading, crisis indicates a decisive moment, a point of revelation of ‘the real’, when a profound change, for good or for worse, is anticipated. Hence, while speaking about the current crisis of liberal democracy, we wait for the outcome and expect to learn about the resilience of our institutions. The definitional ‘turning point’ however also signals that the disease liberal democracy suffers is not new. It began earlier than the recent series of collapses might make us think. In the end, before reaching the decisive moment, you first experience the health breakdown, even if you remain unalarmed.

Such an understanding of the current crisis of Western political systems seems enforced while reading ‘The End of the Liberal Mind. Poland’s New Politics’ (edited by Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz), published by Kultura Liberalna Foundation in 2020. As Ivan Krastev, the author of the foreword stresses, the books aims to present the Polish case as a laboratory of illiberalism, useful for those concerned about the state of democracy in various countries. Karolina Wigura (Introduction: Diagnosing the End of the Liberal Mind) reveals the authors’ aspiration to uncover both causes of and ‘potential exit routes’ from the illiberal condition.


Diagnosis and quack remedies

Victor Orbán’s speech delivered in Băile Tuşnad on 26 July 2014 has become one of the most known texts concerning illiberalism. This speech is oftentimes interpreted as a creed of illiberal politics, aimed to present the FIDESZ’s agenda in a seemingly elaborate, theoretical disguise. Such a reading alone obscures Orbán’s choice of rhetoric. In fact, the ideological flavour is more sophisticated: the speech in large part was intended to seem diagnostic in its overtone. One may say that Orbán tried to convince the audience that ‘the spectre of illiberalism is haunting the World’, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto’s famous first sentence (for a similar use of this metaphor, see this issue of the Journal of Democracy). Besides sketching his political programme, Orbán attempted to embed it in what quite allusively he described as a World-wide trend. For this purpose he referred to the phenomena as diverse as: the emergence of voices that have stressed disappointment with the neoliberal economy after the 2008 crisis, the appeals to increase the market regulation, the rising competitiveness of Asian authoritarian states, the conservative reactions to Western cultural trends. For Orbán there seems to be a factor connecting all these phenomena: the retreat from a liberal orthodoxy that previously dominated the World’s politics. In order to become a competitive community, Orbán claimed, Hungary needs to adjust to the recent illiberal trend.

This observation does not make Orbán’s address any less ideological nor any more accurate, but points at a significant feature of the illiberal turn. Illiberalism can be thought of only within a symbolic reference to liberal politics and its malfunctions. In addition, whatever the illiberal solutions, perhaps we should more often distinguish them from the diagnoses made by the proponents of illiberalism. Illiberal rulers have met numerous external reactions aiming to challenge their policies. However, the diagnoses they formulate should be addressed more often and more seriously – even if they are ideological, oversimplified or cynical. If we are to rebuild our democratic communities, we should search for commonalities in our critical perceptions of the crisis of liberal democracy. The book here discussed offers a view that resonates with this suggestion.


Diagnosis into a symptom

Along diagnosing the diseases of the democratic system, the proponents of illiberalism have soon managed to adopt the language of reform while adopting the old political patterns. Stefan Sękowski (No Change–How the Government and the Opposition Toe the Same Line on Policies, and How to Make a Difference) argues that PiS has mainly just boosted various old maladies of the Polish democracy to the extreme degree. Sękowski points at examples such as the populist management of social problems, the subordination of parliament as well as court-packing. The predecessors of PiS – Sękowski proves – did not hesitate to break the conventional rules of the democratic game while taking care for their own public image and keeping the overall respect for the ideals of the rule of law. Illiberal rulers in many respects just follow their steps, albeit in a radical way. Tomasz Sawczuk (Reconstruction in Democracy: From Jarosław Kaczyński’s Illiberal Shift to Pragmatic Liberalism) supplements this picture. Against the background of the evolution of Jarosław Kaczyński’s views, he criticises ‘the Polish liberal tradition’. He indicates that many Polish liberal politicians and intellectuals in their understanding of liberalism have struggled to embrace democratic guidelines such as political self-definition, pluralism and cooperation.

It is uncertain to what extent this brief collection of essays can satisfy the understandability of the Polish case for the readers unfamiliar with the political developments in this country. In particular, some contexts of the party competition and of the political economy beg further analysis. Nevertheless, the book convincingly induces to search for parallel transformations in other states. Rafał Matyja accurately unfolded the tension between particularity and universality inherent in the Polish case. He contends (Emergency Exit) that the weakness of state institutions and the post-Solidarity political configuration sowed the seeds of the strong bipolar ideological division in Poland as early as in the first years of the 21st century. Implementing systemic state reforms would be a thorny and politically risky venture, argues Matyja. Politicians therefore began to invest in ever more divisive ideological conflicts as well as in party centralisation. The defining trends of recent Polish politics thus anticipated the extreme polarisation and harsh leadership in states such as the UK, the US and France.


Oxygen for our democracy

‘The End of the Liberal Mind’ is authored by socially and politically engaged scholars, who represent a plurality of organizations that espouse different understandings of liberalism. Some of these organizations are involved in the famous ‘Spięcie’ project, aimed to fight polarization by cross-publishing diverse, high quality journalistic texts. The book thus might garner not only academic readership, but also be of interest to journalists, activists and students who wish to consider the possible exit from illiberalism.

It is certainly risky to draft any remedies by counting on our comprehension of the psychological side of citizens living under illiberal governments. Alike, the essays in the book at numerous places seem to be highly speculative. There is however some potential in the regionally comparative investigation that can nuance various convictions about the roots of the illiberal turn. For instance, while revenants of nationalism and xenophobia should be properly named and curbed, one in fact should not overrate their share in boosting anti-democratic and anti-European emotions in the present Central Europe. In turn, one should not ignore the degree to which resentments are parasitic upon the traumatic and degenerating experience of state dysfunction and decay. Indeed, as Jarosław Kuisz (The Central European Mind: The Trauma of the State Collapse) argues, a sense of instability and contingency of institutions and social practices, currently experienced in so many states facing a populist imprint, has been a recurring circumstance for the most of the Central European nations over the last centuries.

However, although illiberal politicians have successfully capitalized on bitter emotions – as Karolina Wigura suggests – this circumstance provides liberals with an opportunity to appreciate the emotional side of politics and to enrich their agenda. Wigura’s normative insights in the concluding part of the book (Conclusion: Emotions and the Illiberal Shift) set the path for a dialogue between the liberal and the traditionalist parts of society. She advocates channelling hope and empathy in order to heal the loss of social bonds, which she perceives as one of the underlying causes of the rise of illiberalism. Similarly, Maciej Gdula (Neo-authoritarianism: Sources of Support for Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Chances for Political Change) provides a solid underpinning for the claim that countering illiberalism should be based on the recovery of social bonds, solidarity and mutual responsibility.



In the speech at the acceptance ceremony of the honorary doctorate of the Technical University of Dresden, Vaclav Havel characterized the psychological condition of Central Europeans in 1995 as ‘post-communist’. By this he meant a state of frustration and disappointment with democracy, a feeling of instability and uncertainty caused by the loss of the oppressive, yet well-known social structures, a sense of being uprooted and alienated. According to him, this state of mind is a fertile soil for xenophobia, nationalism and extremism. Moreover, Havel warned, if Western Europe hesitates to accept the post-communist states within the European integration, it may soon face the same problems. This last statement sounds striking today. In fact, many commentators keep the opposite: that perhaps the Eastern enlargement was an introduction of a Trojan horse to the liberal Europe. But is illiberalism a condition that can be contained locally? In the subsequent sentences Havel appealed for cooperation, mutual learning, non-domination and compassion among the European nations. Perhaps the common crisis stems from the common failure to do the task.