The recent nativist revolt in countries like Hungary and Poland challenges the ideas of western liberal economic policies in Eastern Europe, argues James Mark in an exclusive interview with LRT.lt.
One of the three authors of 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe and a professor of history at the University of Exeter in the UK, Mark discussed in depth the trends and undercurrents in present-day Europe that bear the echoes of 1989.
“Today there are perceived linkages between the fight for greater freedom in Hong Kong and the struggle to realise fully the promises of 1989 in Eastern Europe, for example,” Mark says.
“But there are multiple revolts occurring over the last decade – especially in places that ‘World systems’ theorists used to call semi-peripheries.”
During the last few weeks I’ve seen articles in “The Economist” and BBC where numbers of protests in 2019 were discussed as unprecedented or almost unprecedented. BBC Russia even named its article “Mass protests around the world: the new 1968 or coincidence”. What would be your answer to this headline? Eastern Europe, Latin America, East and South-East Asia, Southern Europe […] are regions which went through ‘third wave’ democratisations in the late twentieth century and now there is a rebellion against the liberal systems that were created. […] In Chile, […] the neoliberal economic system that was constructed under dictatorship was not challenged when democracy came and hence is seen as the source of both corruption and of inequality.
And you can see some similarity in the nativist revolt in Eastern Europe, but here the challenge doesn’t come so much from the streets. It’s coming from mainly right-wing politicians who want to build a bigger state that can protect the citizens from their fears – whether that be globalisation or climate change.
It is the reversal of 1989 which stood for the destruction of the nomenklatura and the overbearing state. Such movements also claim that they, not western ‘liberal’ Europe or Brussels, represent the true Europe – a conservative white anti-LGBT, anti-multicultural vision.”
Interestingly, they are in many ways inheritors of communist ideology, in that they see the West as dissolute, and are reviving a language of anti-colonialism to fight it.
Changing political contexts have allowed these movements to build. This is first the result of the financial crisis of 2008, which broke the idea that western liberal economic model is the only way one could follow.
And it was also the result of accession to the European Union for Eastern European states. No longer did they have to perform liberal conditionality to enter the club: this allowed voices which had hitherto been marginal to find their way into the mainstream.
Finally, the demographic crisis – one must remember that Eastern Europe is the only world region which has lost population in the twenty-first century, as its mobile citizens have migrated West – has been instrumentalised by nativists to question whether the Union as currently constituted works for them.
As a historian, do you see common historical circumstances when revolts like in the 1960s happen?
There has been enormous economic dislocation amongst young educated people in many different parts of the world. Where advantages given to the older generation aren’t so available to them, we’ve seen radicalization of young people to the left and right.
In Eastern Europe it is a little different. Because of the expansion of the European Union, the region’s young, especially the educated ones, could make up for a lack of opportunities by traveling to the West to get jobs in Germany, Italy, the UK and so on.
That of course has created the notion of demographic crisis that is instrumentalised by the populists, who say that we are losing some of our best people.
It is interesting that even in economically successful countries like Poland there is still this notion that we have to protect the idea of conservative cultural nation against the forces of liberal European Union or against globalisation.
The description of your new book 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe says that “communist states had in fact long been shapers of an interconnecting world”. How did they shape that world, what do you mean by it? Because usually we understand socialist block countries as passive soviet satellites and nothing more.
We wanted to get away from the idea that the collapse of state socialism in 1989 represented the entry point of the region into globalisation.
There are many different ways in which socialist states where very global, [which isn’t] necessarily easily recognisable to modern western eyes.
But something happened in the late 1950s. Eastern European states started to open their cultures, and develop their global thinking; excluded from a project that would become the European Community to the West, caught within a Moscow-dominated bloc, and seeing many similarities between their own anti-colonial histories and those of a world opening up to the South, most started to make new links around the world.
Eastern Europe’s support for the development of China in the early 1950s was one of the largest transfers of developmental assistance in the twentieth century. The reversal of interwar protections and withdrawal from the global in many ways starts with the collapse of Western European empires in the late 1950s. It is interesting that if you look at campaigns for free trade and breaking imperial preference, Eastern Europeans along with Africans and Latin Americans are actually at the forefront of that. It’s often the US and the UK who really stood against these new ways of connecting the world.
Socialist states were part of all major global conflicts and developments in the second half of the twentieth century; many of them were founding members of important international organisations. At the height of its expansion around 1980, socialist states encompassed roughly one third of the world’s population.
Of course, in some ways it’s not global, according to today’s standards – mobility for citizens across and outside socialist states remained limited, although not as restricted as we sometimes think.
In countries like Hungary and Poland, the term “neoliberalism” is now synonymous with “enemy” and it often blends with antipathy towards Brussels. How has this happened and evolved? What is inside the shell of this term “neoliberalism” when they use it?
It’s only in the late 2000’s when we start to have this critique of always imitating the West. It’s been marginal before that point, but with the financial crisis it really takes greater form, and in the background there is China rising. Some Eastern European states, Hungary being at the forefront, start what they call “the Eastern opening”.
There is a phrase that Viktor Orbán uses, which says “We are sailing on a Western ship, but an Eastern wind is blowing”. So it’s a notion that we have to put ourselves in between somehow – we need the dynamism of an illiberal China, but at the same time remaining a part of the EU with all the benefits.
And cultural politics is also very striking, in Hungary in particular. During the migrant or refugee crisis, they said, “we defend Christian white Europe” – because the multicultural liberal West, represented by the EU and Chancellor Merkel who wanted to enforce “Muslim migrant quotas” on countries which had lost parts of their population to labour mobility to Western European countries – would not do this.
They claimed that they were different because they never had extra-European empires. That’s partly a claim about racial and national purity in the present: we do not need to assuage white guilt, as Western Europeans do, as we have no imperial burden, and nor do we have a tradition of postcolonial migration. So we do not have postcolonial responsibility to take extra-European migrants.
Of course, this avoids many discussions of the region’s involvement in settler colonialism across the world [and] the fact that Eastern Europe always participated in the much wider European colonial culture through fantasy and longing.
And right-wingers in Western Europe, and Trumpist Republicans in the US, encouraged this idealisation of Eastern Europe as a masculine heroic region tempered by the struggle against Communists who knew what it meant to stand up for white western civilization.