A Just and Democratic Transformation Needed Now, More than Ever
We are generally being warned against declaring victory over populism and that the Covid pandemic crisis may strengthen, rather than weaken, populist politicians in the long run. I wonder, however, whether the ﬁght of liberal politicians, media and academicians with populism is a well-deﬁned conﬂict of our time. Or is it a proxy conﬂict? One can, as Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin do, refer to the argument that populism is a permanent element of democracy, and the liberal vision of enduring consensual, procedural, and monitored democracy turned out to be an illusion. Such an option does not mean leniency for xenophobia, discrimination or exclusion, but it can remind us that democratic order is simply not just a matter of legal standards and court rulings, but is also the result of a constant political dispute for which we must be prepared. So why should we declare populism as our greatest enemy that we must defeat and destroy, as Jan Sowa suggests in his text? I know, the experiences of 1933 usually come as a warning in response to such doubts. But what if generals usually conduct battles they know from the past and therefore become helpless against those which prognosticate the future? What if contemporary liberalism “bleeds out” in the ﬁght against populism, which it cannot win unless at the price of renouncing its own rules, and therefore often misjudges the meaning of actual threats?
One should look at populism, the right-wing version and the left-wing one, differently. Let's see in it the symptoms rather than the cause of the problems we face, because if we do not face them in the near future, it may be really bad for us. Instead of fighting the symptoms, let's ask about their sources.
On the other hand, it is not a secret knowledge either. Much has been written about the sources of modern crises. Thus, it is rather the matter of will and of practical changes. We know what is wrong, we don’t know how to fix it. The financial crisis has destroyed our faith in the model of democratic capitalism (Wolfgang Streeck, Peter Wagner), the migration crisis has destroyed our sense of security, but also undermined our faith in the stable, normative foundations of our identities (Ivan Krastev, Douglas Murry). Finally, the Covid19 crisis makes us aware that our approach to globalization is self-destructive (Thomas Piketty, Paul Dembinski). All these developments warn us of the civilization shock hitting the world, which we called the post-Cold War, and which we often use to identify with the primacy of the liberal West. There are also deeper processes in play, which can lead to the emergence of new structures of relationship between capital, advanced technologies, political power and social hierarchies on a global scale. We are entering the phase of the creation of a new world, which marks the end not only of the post-Cold War world, but will close the whole chapter of the history of the modern world of the last two centuries. And it won't mean the "end of history" at all. It also does not have to mean the end of Europe, the West or its values - democracy, freedom, justice and human dignity, provided that contemporary liberals show readiness to reconsider other perspectives for the future - not only the left but also traditional, conservative identities. A just and democratic transformation of the West is possible. From this perspective, populism is not a vehicle that brings us back to the past, to the terrible 1930s, but a symptom of a civilization shock, and its consequences for the future of the West that we should be able to read in order to response in a right way. So instead of struggling for passing new horizons, let's look for a new balance, more diverse and fairer.
That is why the separation of populism and authoritarianism proposed by Nadia Urbinati is important. Not only because thanks to it we can recognize that populism is a permanent element of democratization in Western history and in this sense nothing new. It also allows us to see different strategies for dealing with the Western civilization shock and current crises. I will not pretend to be a specialist in Hungarian politics, but I am observing with growing attention from a Polish perspective the evolution of Viktor Orban from an anti-communist politician towards new authoritarianism. By creating his own oligarchy and centralizing power in his hands, Orban reveals not only the paradoxes of liberal transformation in Central Europe after thirty years of time, but is also the example of "globalization friendly authoritarianism" described by Dani Rodrik as a strategic response to the Western crisis and globalization. That is why he will seek inspiration modelled on centralization of power as it has been recently the case of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Recep Erdogan. However, I believe that the democratically managed response to the civilization shock of the West, as a combination of strengthening democratic governments and the cooperation between them, on the one hand, and legal and bureaucratic management mechanisms which are in the EU, on the other, is still an alternative within our reach. Otherwise, Europe's only effective response to the globalization friendly authoritarianism of China, Russia or Turkey would remain the authoritarianism of bureaucratic supranational institutions and legal procedures supported by some new concert of powers. We must not allow this to happen if we do not want to transform the West to a pure form of order in the new world, forgetting what has constituted its essence - freedom. From this perspective, COVID19 is more an opportunity than a threat. Unlike previous crises caused by greed, financial irresponsibility, geopolitical abandonment or civilization conceit, nature itself has forced us now to draw our attention to problems which constitute a real threat to us: that the advanced technologies developed by large corporations uncontrolled can put humanity at risk comparable to those faced during the Cold War; that the global development of capitalism has become not only irrational but illogic from the simple common sense; that we need democratic governance structures on a global scale, but also on a national and regional scale; that the relationship between what is private and what must be public needs to be rethought if we are serious about combating increasing inequalities; that without values and identity man and society will lose the ability to develop independently. All this should make us aware that the orthodox approach to the issue of the primacy of politics over economics, law or science as populism, dangerous and irrational, which we must fight to the end, simply becomes absurd. The civilization shock that the West is experiencing today proves that neither economics, nor science, nor even law, need be more rational and secure than politics. It means in effect the return of politics in its existential, human dimension. It is only up to us how this return will take place: whether it will bring further polarization, mobilize emotions and fears, negate the legitimacy of the other party of political conflict, and thus improve populism as a method of political struggle, which is now used by all parties today, or hopefully lead to the reconstruction of political reason, fragile and temporal but absolutely preconditioned for starting any just and democratic transformation of our world.