The Light that Shines

The Light that Failed. Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev New York: Pegasus Books 2019

If you are a person of critical, progressive persuasion, recent political developments give you more than enough reasons to feel frustrated. The liberal consensus is apparently over, yet it has not been replaced by anything that could even remotely fit in the paradigm of Enlightenment. Austerity seems to have been discredited, yet any renaissance of the welfare state is posed to be the domain of the likes of Jarosław Kaczyński or Boris Johnson rather than Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. People are revolting against the status quo yet few progressive politicians have managed to ride on this wave of popular discontent that favors autocracy over democracy.

The attitude taken by the liberal milieu towards these troubling developments adds a great deal of disappointment to this already somber landscape. It amounts to a mix of disgust, disdain and hurt feelings: not only have the people turned out to be savage and barbarian, but they do not appreciate all the benefits bestowed upon them by the recent decades of liberal hegemony. There is a kind of populophobia growing in liberal minds that tends to explain all disturbing political facts in an equally convenient as unpromising way: bad things are happening, because people are bad. Fascism is on the rise, because people are pigs and if you allow them to behave like pigs that is exactly what they are going to do—as it was once ‘explained’ by a Polish anti-populist liberal ‘activist’.1

What makes this kind of reaction even more disappointing is its striking contrast with popular belief that liberalism may have a number of downsides, however what it is good at is fighting conservatism and obscurantism. After all, the destruction of authoritarian autocracies and the securing of individual freedoms was supposed to be the bourgeoisie’s political achievement of historical importance. Even Marx believed that. It would be very difficult to uphold that opinion based on the current political situation—the really existing liberalism does not live up to its idealized image.

The global failure of the liberal project is epitomized by a peculiar reversal of what the so-called modernization theories of the last century asserted to be the general direction of universal history.

Not a World-wide Triumph of Liberal Order after 1989

In that rather gloomy landscape, the book written by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes is a genuine ray of light. After well intended, although somewhat underwhelming attempts at giving account of liberalism’s failures—like, for example Mark Lila’s Once and Future Liberal—the essay of the US-Bulgarian duo truly opens up a new discursive path towards rethinking contemporary political predicaments. As the Authors admit, it does not aspire to be a full and comprehensive explication of why the West is losing the fight for democracy—as the subtitle states—but it does give genuine insights into what has gone socially and politically wrong in recent decades.

Deconstructing in a witty way the many traps and perils of social and political mimetism, the book examines the post-1989 world in the timeframe of what the Authors call “The Age of Imitation”—the period after the alleged end of history that was supposed to be the era of world-wide triumph of the liberal order. A particular focus is placed on four areas: Eastern Europe (with a separate chapter on Russia), the US and China. It is worth paying attention to the fact that it is precisely in that order that the Authors’ analysis proceeds, starting with populist revolt in the post-Soviet bloc, particularly in Poland and Hungary. It is not because of vanity or narcissism that I underline that fact—the East yields for recognition that it genuinely lacks, however the acknowledgement that it receives in The Light that Failed is not of the sort that could kindle any progressive mind.

As the book demonstrates, the global failure of the liberal is epitomized by a peculiar reversal of what the so-called modernization theories of the last century—from Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society in the 1950s to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History in the 1990s—asserted to be the general direction of universal history. Not only does the West not lead and the rest does not follow, but rather the contrary is true: if anything it is rather what we may call the (semi)peripheries, the developing countries, the postcolonial world or even the Third World—to use that obsolete etiquette—that now leads revealing a possible future of the West that once believed itself to be the avantgarde of global modernization.

It is a phenomenon that I once proposed to call ‘de-modernization’2 as it directly reverses the alleged pattern of modernization theories. Thus the post-Soviet Eastern Europe has become a kind of perverse avant-garde that not only refuses to imitate the West, but even provides inspiration for populist revolts in Western, liberal countries. The book by Krastev and Holmes is one of the first ones to give this phenomenon the attention that it requires.

The Need to Try to Explain Populism

As one would expect from a genuine attempt at thinking, The Light that Failed does not go only against liberal illusions, but it also shatters fantasies dear to leftist hearts. What many left-wing politicians and commentators believe is that people choose conservative populists over progressive leftists because of some kind of trick that renders the electorate blind to what they are actually voting for. The usual culprit is media manipulation: if only the opposition had more access to state media in countries like Poland or Hungary or if private media did not present Corbyn in such a bad light, or if they gave more space to Sanders, people would surely chose openness over closeness and ‘civilization’ over ‘barbarism’.

It is a useful fantasy as it allows the Left to maintain the image of noble people and not cross beyond the line of criticizing the working class into the no-go zone of politically incorrect thoughtcrime. The fact that it is, after all, a kind of patronizing attitude that deprives people of genuine agency, attributing all their actions to ideological interpellation, does not seem to matter much to any left-wing defender of working-class dignity.

People want populism, knowing what it is, just like they wanted Fascism realizing what it implied. It is not a moral or ethical judgement, it is rather a structural approach.

With every consecutive election that the Left loses—and a lot indicates there will be more of those in 2020—it is more and more difficult to sustain that illusion. A decade ago it might have sounded plausible that as there was no progressive alternative on the horizon, the only possible choice against the liberal mainstream was the one of reactionary conservatism. It does not sound credible, however, that today people do not know that Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders or Jean-Luc Mélenchon exist and what they stand for.

What seems much more likely is that people are perfectly aware that there is a left-wing alternative, however only a smaller minority finds it desirable. Thus we need to approach populism in the very same way that Wilhelm Reich approached Fascism almost a century ago3: not denying the populist desire, but acknowledging it is there and trying to explain it. This is what Krastev and Holmes do.

Some People in Poland Rejected Liberalism at a very Early Stage

People want populism, knowing what it is, just like they wanted Fascism realizing what it implied. It is not—by any means—a moral or ethical judgement, not just a different way of saying that “people are bad so they do bad things”. It is rather a structural approach that takes into account both people’s agency and the fact that in the given structural conditions some solutions seem more desirable and even rational than others. People do make their political choices, but not in the circumstances of their own making. Thus in an environment of unregulated, free-market capitalism with diminishing support of any welfare state, in conditions of growing precarization and an uncertain future it is logical and rational for people to try to limit competition by making immigration as difficult as possible.

In the social reality of compulsive narcissism created by social media and by ubiquitous politics of identity it is therefore not surprising that people strive to eliminate any competitors to recognition—homosexuals, ethnic minorities or other disadvantaged groups—believing that those groups are stealing their enjoyment. Why would the right-wingers not talk about protecting identity if the left has been doing nothing but that for the last four decades? The conceptual framework of Krastev and Holmes’ book allows for these and a similar diagnosis to be articulated thus taking the attempts to grasp the nature of current socio-political predicaments to a new level.

The Authors also acknowledge people’s agency when it comes to the transformation of 1989. As the Polish economist Tadeusz Kowalik affirmed on several occasions, the most hardcore model of neoliberal transition was not imposed on Poland forcefully by international institutions, but chosen by the Polish side. It is true that Jeffrey Sachs and David Lipton arrived in Poland in the summer of 1989 with propositions based on radical shock doctrine, however the expected outcome of negotiations with the Polish side was supposed to be some middle way between the radical left-wing program of Solidarity of 1981 and the market-fundamentalist extreme.

Polish opposition intellectuals opted for the most austere option, betraying any notion of class solidarity as well as Solidarity as a trade union.

It was that left-wing solution that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund wanted to avoid. To their great surprise, Polish opposition intellectuals opted for the most austere option, betraying any notion of class solidarity as well as Solidarity as a trade union.4

Initially, they had public support, however it also needs to be recognized that this support faded very, very quickly. Already in 1990, Stan Tymiński, an obscure—and proto-populist—candidate in presidential elections gathered 25% of votes. At least some people in Poland rejected liberalism at a very early stage—the Polish populist revolt is not a post-2008 phenomenon nor did it come to existence during the so-called first PiS government in 2005-07. It has been there for a long time as a gloomy reverse of neoliberal capitalism.

The Liberal Emperor is Naked

That important fact points to what is maybe the weakest side of Krastev and Holmes’ book: a lack of class analysis and their predilection to reasoning in big hypostatical terms: ‘societies’ chose, ‘countries’ decide, etc. Not that it discredits the conclusions—it just makes mechanisms of what has been going on more difficult to grasp. Take one of the most important factors of the populist uprising: xenophobia and the anti-immigration stance. It is not a ubiquitous position, however, neither is support for it randomly distributed in the population. One can clearly see that upper classes are much more favorable to immigration and multiculturalism than the lower ones.

It is not a 0 -1 division, however, a clear correlation between openness and class position is obviously there. It is not a major intellectual challenge to explain it: the less you are likely to enter into a direct competition with a migrant when it comes to getting a job, renting an apartment or obtaining welfare benefits, the more eagerly you will support immigration. I am in favor of making, for example, borders as permeable as possible, however what is the risk of an immigrant claiming my job due to their lower material expectations (readiness to accept a lower salary)? It may not be zero, however, it is such an unlikely scenario that it is negligible. Being open and ethically correct comes at no cost for me, on the contrary—immigrants bringing their food, their dress and their customs make my lebenswelt more diverse and colorful. (Obviously, I do not believe in any fundamental threat of Islamism—the only dangerous minority are the rich.)

This problem goes even deeper: technically the middle class does not participate in national identity to a lesser degree that the lower classes do. I am not less Polish than a PiS voter from the Polish countryside: I carry the same passport, I speak the same language, I was raised with the same books and movies, I was even brought up to be Catholic just like them. Why then am I – similarly to other people like me—not obsessed with defending my national identity at any cost?

Well, due to a different class situation, namely to the fact that I do have many other things apart from my national identity—both cultural and material capital that allows me to distance myself from being just Polish and appreciate other things. For vast segments of societies, their national and religious identity along with their families are the only instances of community that are left after neoliberalism destroyed all forms of collective structures, especially the ones of class and a trade union. That is why before we expect people to be less attached to their primordial identities, we have to make sure there are progressive forms of community that they can belong to.

For vast segments of societies, their national and religious identity along with their families are the only instances of community that are left after neoliberalism destroyed all forms of collective structures.

The authors may argue, of course, that applying in a consistent way a class-oriented materialist analysis of processes and phenomena they deal with in their work would mean writing a different book than the one they actually did write. It’s a legitimate point. It is important to stress that such a book would not go against their conclusions, it would just give them an additional dimension. What’s more, now that Krastev and Holmes have managed to get their foot in the door by showing that the liberal emperor is naked, there’s a whole new field open for various kinds of different investigations into the failure of the Age of Imitation. In the difficult situation that we are all in, opening new perspectives is not less important than giving answers—yet one more reason to truly praise Krastev and Holmes’ achievement as the light that shines.


  1. Allow me to spare him embarrassment of quoting him by his name, though the statement was made publicly.
  2. See J. Sowa, „The Age of De-modernization”, Aspen Review Central Europe, Issue 03/2019; available on-line: www.aspen.review/article/2019/age-demodernization/ [accessed on 10.02.2020].
  3. See W. Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. M. B. Higgins, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1970.
  4. More see D. Ost, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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