UCL European Institute


The world turned back upside down? 

19 March 2018

Sean Hanley, Senior Lecturer at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), reviews and reflects upon Jan Zielonka's new book, Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat.


Academically-authored death-of-democracy and liberalism-under-siege books are a rapidly expanding genre. The latest of these slim doomy volumes is Jan Zielonka's Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat.

The book is an extended essay written in the form of a letter to the late Ralf Dahrendorf, whose Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (1990) offered a similar, but more optimistic take on Europe's prospects in the immediate aftermath of 1989. Tellingly, while Dahrendorf addresses an anonymous 'gentleman in Warsaw', this imaginary exchange takes place between two British-based European scholars.

From the outset, Zielonka makes clear he's not setting out to write yet another tract about populism. Instead, he offers us a reflection on the weaknesses and limitations of liberalism in Europe - 'a self-critical book by lifelong liberal.'

Whether in economics, democracy, European integration or when meeting the challenges of migration and climate change, liberals have, Zielonka argues, mucked things up since the fall of communism. Liberalism has mainly served elites, economic winners and vested interests becoming 'a comprehensive ideology of power: set of values, way of government and cultural ethos'.

Elections have become mediated carnivals of spin; parties declined as representative, socially-rooted institutions; too many decisions are given over to unelected, technocratic institutions without a real popular or participatory component; and politics is more an exercise in top-down institutional engineering, than negotiation between elite and electorate. The liberal order is essentially an oligarchy legitimized by general elections, which change governments with changing policy.

Some of political challenges, he suggests, are side-effects of the spread of liberalism. Migration, for example, is the quintessential product a liberal order with open borders, economic interdependence and the protection of minorities

It is no wonder (a recurring phrase in the book) that many voters are angry and fearful and turn to a range of forces ranging from Marine Le Pen to Beppe Grillo and Aleksis Tsipras, who represent, albeit in different forms, an illiberal counter-revolution.

But the issue, Zielonka says, is not hard and soft populism - 'the real contest is between the winners of the post 1989 revolution and those who intend to talk to topple and dismantle the post-1989 system' be they populist or not. The liberal system is beginning to crumble.


None of this is a particularly original diagnosis. Writers like Cas Mudde and Ivan Krastev have long pointed out the pathologies of 'undemocratic liberalism'. The diverse, inchoate, antiliberal 'counter-revolutionary' camp Zielonka describes are, in fact, simply the endlessly well catalogued populist parties in a different guise.

Zielonka makes the useful point that illiberal counter-revolutions, like the liberal revolutions of 1989, can be piecemeal and negotiated processes of extrication to which the incumbents acquiesce. But the counter-revolution metaphor hinders more than it helps.  1989 was a sudden full-scale change regime, 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, the delivery of illiberal sentiment delivered by popular vote.

We are not yet living through a latter-day 1933 or 1948, or even an anti-1989.  A better analogy might be that, as the Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský once observed, liberal capitalism is still waiting for its own version of glasnost and perestroika. Failed, misconceived but well-intentioned reform.

Liberals, Zielonka says, should in any case, ask themselves why so many people have started to hate them. Nor will bashing the 'counterrevolutionary' camp not lead to a liberal rebirth.  Liberals have, after all, acted 'populist' when it suits them, using bombastic and moralistic rhetoric, or cynically sexing up the facts when it suits them.

He does not offer a programme or manifesto. Indeed, sometimes he appears as bland as the mainstream politicians and institutions he criticizes. Solutions to the migration crisis, he tells us vaguely, require 'genuine dialogue with the public on a sensitive subject'.

Reflecting on the lack of a compelling liberal vision, he reflects that if they put their minds to it it will only take 'several years for sociologists, economists, and philosophers to spell out such a vision' and 'another year or two' for the media to translate into language ordinary people can understand. The hope for a 'festival of liberal ideas' seems equally worthy. But if it were that easy, surely we would be living through the European liberal renaissance right now?

Three watchwords

However, the book's more thoughtful passages do offer some pointers. The three watchwords that the liberals should have on their banners, or least on their agenda of things to reinvent: are equality, community, and truth.

The first is a standard prescription.  Neoliberalism must be rolled back and there should be a greater focus on public interest, rather than private profit. George Soros was, Zielonka argues, right to identify unfettered global capitalism as the biggest threat to liberal societies and political systems. Paul Mason, Owen Jones and Thomas Piketty are all name checked as are a now familiar set of arguments about rising inequality, and its corrosive effects rehearsed.

Even liberals, Zielonka concedes, often find the liberal conception of society, however socially equalised, vague and bloodless - liberals, he argues, in a curious unintended echo of the early Tony Blair, need to re-engage with communitarian liberalism.

However, he skirts around the more difficult question of whether social liberals and social democrats need to engage with the social conservatism and nationalism of some voters in the illiberal populist camp.  He does not, he tells us, believe in the possibility of a 'liberal nationalism', although the book (on Poland and Czechia) by Stefan Auer he cities suggests that, in certain circumstances, it is possible).

'Embracing truth' is a vaguer concept. It means first of all not trying to fight their fake news with our fake news. But it also means understanding citizens' concerns, rather than spinning and triangulating. Moreover, it is hinted, the liberal grip on reality need to be strengthened by evolving  responses Karl Popper style, in the spirit of the open society, rather than looking for grand strategic vision or liberal blueprint.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Zielonka also strikes an unfashionable, if sometimes well camouflaged, note of optimism.  Most Europeans, after all, believe in the basic liberal values of individual security, freedom, the rule of law and want tolerant inclusive societies.

Moreover, as emerges very clearly, the counterrevolutionaries have something in common with ailing liberals - they are also divided and have no coherent shared idea of the political order that they want to build, notwithstanding the pretensions of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński  to be leading a European conservative cultural counterrevolution.

Liberal Europe might have to pass through a 'valley of tears' just as post-communist societies did (in Dahrendorf's phrase) after 1989. But liberal democracy has adapted itself in the past and can do so again - and, although it's not quite clear how or in what form.

The populist distinction between the people and elite may also have some legitimacy; and the populists' (sometime) embrace of inclusive forms such as internet-based voting or participatory budgeting has its virtues.

Expert decision-making can have its place in areas such as health, environment protection or pensions where a long-term view is needed, but might be rolled back where, as with central banks, consequences are immediate and short-term, so electoral decisions have real effect.

Civic mobilization too can play a role: resisting or even toppling an illiberal government on the streets may sometimes have its place - provided the tactics are strictly non-violent.

Future states

In many respects Zielonka's analysis is a curious mix, a liberal critique of populism and a populist critique of liberalism.

The way out of the conundrum can to some extent be found in his idiosyncratically sceptical take on the EU.  He wants neither a retreat to national states, nor an effort to give the EU more if the profile of a EU the profile supranational state. As in his previous book, he anticipates a 'polyphonic Europe' of overlapping centres and networks of power. Open but not borderless.

The path to a polyphonic Europe is unclear. But Zielonka's verdict on the  current EU - it is dysfunctional and disintegrating .  The Union has, he argues, more often than not ended up generating the reverse effect to that intended.

The euro was supposed to promote prosperity and European unity, but had exactly the opposite effect. The fall of communism and EU enlargement made Germany repression power, but it failed sufficiently to step up to a leadership role.  European Neighbourhood Policy has not surrounded the Union with a 'ring of friends', but left it in the middle of regions of insecurity.

The traditional trade-off of (economic) efficiency for lack of participation has not delivered sufficiently or sufficiently widely. It is, Zielonka acidly notes, not altogether surprising that Britain's Remain campaign had a hard job making the European Union look good and opted for.

Both liberals and counter-revolutionary opponents, therefore need to evolve not only a new vision of democracy and capitalism, but to accept an 'invitation to reconsider the relationship between territory, authority rights in Europe' in ways which involve the unravelling of current forms of integration.

There are too the broader off-stage challenges of global warming and technological change.  The reference to the 'billion bitcoin question' rather blows Zielonka's  tech credibility -  the cryptocurrency has a total possible circulation of a mere Ƀ21 million - but given the huge stakes is perhaps not inappropriate.

  • Sean Hanley is a Senior Lecturer at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). 
  • This post was originally featured on Sean Hanley's personal blog and is reposted with permission.