I suppose that many people throughout the world were, whether they realized it at the time or not, Fukuyamaists in roughly the first decade following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During this period, it really did seem like a nascent spirit of neoliberal modernity was spreading throughout the world and heralding the opening of nations and markets. From 2001 onwards, of course, all of this would begin to collapse. First there was 9/11, incorrectly perceived and promoted as a “clash of civilizations”, which triggered a series of misprosecuted US-backed wars throughout the Middle East. Then there was the devastating international financial crash of 2008, which paved the way for Brexit, Trumpism, and the host of reactionary nationalisms now plaguing the geopolitical community. Today, even Fukuyama is no longer a Fukuyamaist in the traditional sense given his recent acknowledgement that “certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true” and his expression of support for the return of basic socialized initiatives.
In light of these factors, reading journalist Anne Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020), was a somewhat strange experience for me. Throughout this well-written little book, Applebaum justly indicts the rise of reactionary authoritarian nationalisms all over the world while expressing virtually unwavering faith in the Fukuyamaist neoliberal ideals of the past. In this regard, she is somewhat of a nostalgic, though, I would argue, one of the worst variety given that she seems virtually unaware of just how naïve her Centre-Right faith in the thoroughly discredited ideology of neoliberalism now appears. In essence, while Applebaum is a trenchant critic of the current symptoms that now register our global ailment, she fails to correctly diagnose the disease itself, which is the toxic, unsustainable system of neoliberal capitalism that kicked into high gear following the collapse of the Berlin Wall back in 1989.
Applebaum opens her book by recalling a New Year’s Eve party that she and her husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, threw for a group of journalist and political friends at their Poland manor house – yes, you read that correctly – back in 1999, which anyone old enough to remember was indeed the year that we all did “party like it’s 1999”. Whether Applebaum realizes it or not, what comes across in this section is her own enormous sense of bourgeois bohemian privilege. Describing her circle of friends, she writes, “[A]t that moment in history, you might have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites” (2). I must admit that Applebaum’s willingness here to acknowledge her Thatcherite leanings simultaneously shocked and compelled me. Shocked, because, to acknowledge my own political leanings, I have published a Stuart Hall-influenced academic essay vociferously indicting Thatcherism and exploring how it aligns with some of the reactionary authoritarian populist currents now plaguing Britain and the wider geopolitical community. Compelled, because, well, to be candid, I had actually forgotten how Thatcher was historically viewed as somewhat of a hero to many Poles who had vociferously opposed the system of totalitarian communism that had dominated their nation. After all, as demonstrated in the documentary The Shock Doctrine (2009), which is based on Naomi Klein’s superlative 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Thatcher had been feted as a hero by many Poles when she met with Lech Walesa, the leader of the anti-communist trade union movement Solidarity, during her visit to Poland in 1988.
Perhaps because of her second-hand knowledge of the horrors of totalitarian communism given her status as an American-born Pole who later moved to Poland in the wake of communism’s demise there, Applebaum maintains a justified deep-rooted skepticism of regimes that claim to speak “for the people.” In this respect, however, she largely fails to differentiate democratic progressive populism from that of the reactionary authoritarian variety, though this is not the main problem that I divine with her book. I am, after all, in basic agreement with Applebaum’s implicit “horseshoe theory” premise that totalitarianism has historically emerged when either extremist Left (e.g., Leninism) or extremist Right (e.g., Hitler’s fascism) regimes have altogether dwarfed the notion of individual rights and desires in the name of sham “collectivist” appeals (23-24).
To put it bluntly, my main problem with Applebaum’s book is that it betrays the questionable worldview of its author, who is in my opinion too much a byproduct of her privileged milieu and educational background to recognize how her intense faith in notions of individualized meritocracy often come across as being alarmingly naïve. For example, when Applebaum essentially praises free market neoliberalism by writing, “A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented” (27), I found myself thinking of the grand American progressive populist critic Chris Hedges, who in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (2009), writes, “The real purpose of the richly endowed schools is to perpetuate their own. They do this even as they pretend to embrace the ideology of the common man, trumpet diversity on campus, and pose as a meritocracy” (98).
Is there not a sense in which “meritocratic” America is also, to use Applebaum’s phrase, “rigged”? Are we really to believe, for example, that the American socioeconomic system was functioning healthily under Obama, who was obviously a far better leader than Trump but essentially neoliberal “lite” in terms of his policy orchestrations? I here again turn to Hedges, who in Empire of Illusion, critiques Obama, for whom I have qualified admiration, as being a byproduct of an Ivy League-system predicated on fostering a sense of entitlement and faith in au courant technocratic “wisdom”: “Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet ministers. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton. . . . They speak the same easy language of entitlement. The education they have obtained has served to rigidify and perpetuate social stratification” (113).
If there is a key flaw in Applebaum’s overall line of reasoning throughout Twilight of Democracy, it is that she is too prone to simply attribute our current global disharmony to people having lost faith in the reigning neoliberal system of governance. In essence, she does not spend much time reflecting on why people have lost faith, thereby paving the way for opportunistic reactionary populist “leaders” like Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to seize power in order to realize their Machiavellian aims. With specific regard to her birth nation of America, Applebaum, after justly alluding to some of the limitations that inhered in the Enlightenment ideals of the founding fathers (143), proceeds to write the following ahistorical comments, which caused my jaw to drop: “But what really made American patriotism unique, both then [the Enlightenment] and later, was the fact that it was never explicitly connected to a single ethnic identity with a single origin in a single space” (144). This is a remarkably glib analysis considering America’s historical Calvinist foundational socioreligious values and WASP socioeconomic infrastructure, which continue to influence contemporary American notions of meritocracy and their relation to America’s neoliberal cultural-political-economic value system.
The issue is not that America and other nations have slid dangerously close to neo-fascism due to a paranoid loss of a shared cultural-political-economic consensus, but rather that the entire US exported and coordinated system of neoliberalism has now mutated into something so grotesquely unjust that it has corrupted entire national body politics, thereby threatening the very prospect of healthy internationalism. How, precisely, such a knowledgeable, experienced, and well-traveled journalist as Applebaum misses this issue is, frankly, beyond me, as she provides one of the best critical diagnoses of Trumpism that I have yet read. As Applebaum points out, Trump, with the advice of his then chief strategist Steve Bannon, seized the 2016 electoral conjuncture by fomenting a faux “revolutionary” appeal that manipulated ostensible Left and Right elements: “By 2016, some of the old elements of the Marxist Left – their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change – met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy” (152).
Compellingly, Applebaum marshals well-documented evidence to demonstrate how Bannon, who despite being insidious is actually a highly educated and remarkably well-read man, has in the past compared himself to Lenin (152) and channeled the revolutionary sentiments of the extremist-Left 1970s Weathermen group (152-153). The point here is not that Trump had any significant appeal to contemporary radical Left voters (though he did win some 6-9 million former Obama voters in 2016), but rather that he marshaled a reactionary authoritarian populist campaign predicated on fomenting open disgust with the very process of democratic politics itself. Trump was not operating in the legitimate, historically grounded American tradition of a progressive populist like Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States (1980), or Bernie Sanders, who sought to ignite a socially progressive democratic uprising oriented towards building a more just, multicultural cosmopolitan America that could potentially foment a socialistic form of internationalism. No, Trump’s appeals were predicated on a logic of destruction and contempt for the very process of democratic politics itself. To this end, Trump did receive indirect support from some elements of the American extremist Left via their apathetic refusal to participate in democratic politics and their eagerness to see the nation-state burn under his dangerous reactionary appeals, which they saw as a necessary destructive step towards the realization of their revolutionary ambitions. Applebaum here makes a valid observation about how the messianic faith of the American evangelical Right bears a similarity to the teleological “end-of-history” beliefs of certain extremist Left cults, which I have personally researched in the past.
The ultimate letdown for me with Applebaum’s book was its ending, which ties back to her opening recollections of partying away back on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with her bourgeois bohemian Centre-Right friends. Discussing an August 2019 party thrown at her Poland manor house, she gushes about the array of people invited. The section is so, well, priceless that I feel the need to partially quote from it here:
Some of the guests were familiar. One friend who came from New York in 1999 returned in 2019, this time with his husband and son. . . . There were others, too, including neighbours from the village, the mayors of some nearby towns, and, again, a small group of friends from abroad, flying in from Houston, London, Istanbul. At one point, I noticed the local forest ranger engaged in heated discussion with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, with whom my husband created the Eastern Partnership between the EU and Ukraine several years earlier. At another point, I saw a well-known lawyer, the grandson of a notorious Polish nationalist of the 1930s, engrossed in conversation with a London-based friend who was born in Ghana. In the previous two decades, the world had shrunk sufficiently for all of them to meet one another in the same rural Polish garden. (180)
Applebaum then proceeds to altogether reject the admittedly debatable “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” distinction (180), attributed to the heterodox progressive journalist David Goodhart, noting, “At our party, it was simply not possible to tell who belonged to which category” (180).
Disregarding for the moment how Applebaum acknowledges having at least one legitimate working-class person at her party in the form of “the local forest ranger” (180), it is hard to ignore how she takes pleasure in, consciously or not, drawing attention to her social capital by citing the well-connected international coterie of people who make up her circle of friends. This passage alone, rife with bourgeois bohemian privilege, permanently marred for me what was an otherwise engaging read and detracted from some of the better points of Applebaum’s subsequent ruminations, in which she astutely notes,
The liberalism of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, or Václav Havel [a hero to me] never promised anything permanent. The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability. Liberal democracies have always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos. (189)
Applebaum’s problem is that she elides serious consideration of how neoliberalism has facilitated Trumpism and other reactionary politics. She essentially presents these political matters as cultural issues that emanate from xenophobia, “fake news,” and the increasing polarization created by tribalized online media, thereby implying that the problem is a loss of faith in the consensus-based politics of the past.
It is not that I disagree with many of Applebaum’s cultural critiques, which are generally trenchant. My issue is that she fails to discuss neoliberalism and recognize how it in itself is a cultural-political-economic ideology that is the key driver behind the destruction of our international community and environmental ecosystem. Here I am actually in deep sympathy with some of Applebaum’s pronounced skepticisms about the reductive, vulgar “base-superstructure” Marxist orthodoxies of the past. Complexity thinking will be the key to a more just, sustainable international system, which will clearly require the sort of “glocalized” collaboration to which Applebaum fleetingly alludes. In order to achieve a true sense of democratic “glocalism,” however, we will have to find innovative ways of creating the possibilities for the measure of a leisured life for all.
Such a process will not be found in “cultural solutions” alone such as Bobo-chic Robin DiAngelo-style racial bias seminars and mandatory HR diversity training for the “proletariat.” Chiefly, it will require an entirely reconfigured international economic system that allows for ethical consumption, entrepreneurial energies, and socialized or at least socialistic provisions that will address unemployment, underemployment, and precarity. This will allow working people throughout the international community to have the necessary leisure time to nurture their intellectual curiosity and altruistic dimensions. It will help ensure that they do not anxiously perceive recent immigrants and migrants as racial and/or ethnic Others who pose existential and socioeconomic threats to their own security, but instead welcome them as fellow human beings who should be treated with openness, compassion, and respect. Such a course of action would, it seems to me, be in keeping with much of Applebaum’s Enlightenment-bequeathed faith in progress and development. After all, as that perfectly self-aware rascal and American founding father Benjamin Franklin noted, “Time is money” (129), though perhaps not in the sense that many naïve neoliberal-minded Americans have come to think.
Cover image: Donald Trump and President of Poland, Andrzej Duda