Jan Zielonka: Liberal Europe in Retreat

Liberalism was able to define the notion of normality: what was rational and what was crazy. The new forces will attempt to do the same. They are by no means paper tigers. Not any longer—says Jan Zielonka in an interview with Jakub Dymek.

With the electoral win of populist coalition-to-be in Italy, Poland’s right-wing surge, and the impending Brexit, many commentators struggle to find adequate term for what’s really going on in Europe. You, however, in your latest book Counter-Revolution are certain that this is indeed a retreat from established order and something more than just a temporary shakedown. Why this term—counter-revolution—and how do you came to this conclusion?

Ralf Dahrendorf, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, wrote Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Warsaw. My book is indeed also intended as a letter, to Dahrendorf himself. While he wrote on the liberal revolution, I’m writing on the destruction of the same liberal order he observed in its triumphant moment. So that is why I’m using the word “counter-revolution.” Of course, as then as it is now, many things are happening in peaceful manner, so to some it might not seem as neither revolution nor counter-revolution. But make no mistake: this is a systemic shift we’re talking about. We all do remember Francis Fukuyama and his definitive statements on the universal success of liberal order, right? And now we see pillars of this order crumbling under attack. We witness wholesale exchange of the elite: where liberal experts and sages are being replaced by their sworn enemies.

Where then is the line between reasonable concern about these recent political and social changes and sheer panic and liberal hysteria? Because one can feel we have a fair share of both.

Look, real life is not like a math equation or a physical diagram—you cannot simply say when you witness a moment of rupture, a definite breaking point. But there’s very little doubt that parties like Lega Nord, 5 Stars Movement, or those who favored Brexit in the UK, these are the people who favor very serious rupture with politics as it was. And they do mean it. It’s no accident Theresa May repeats that “Brexit means Brexit.” It is the case with Italians and others: they are no paper tigers. Not anymore. However, what they will eventually be able to achieve depends on the strategy, personality of the leaders, and so on. Local context matters. But these new parties, the new kids on the block so to speak, have some core agenda: they’re against liberalism, European integration, free trade, diplomatic multilateralism, human rights.

Real life is not like a math equation a physical diagram—you cannot simply say when you witness a moment of rupture, a definite breaking point.

Does this counterrevolution that you describe have a certain breaking point where everything falls apart and one can say “it’s done, liberalism is gone for good,” or do you see these processes as more gradual, incremental steps towards some new order?

You’re probably familiar with Lampedusa’s famous saying: everything has to change for everything to stay the same. Well, I don’t believe that. I think liberalism brought significant changes not only to how we do politics but also how do we organize society and its culture. Liberalism—as every other hegemonic ideology—was able to define the notion of normality: what was rational and what was simply irrational or crazy. The new forces will attempt to do the same. I don’t know to what extent will they be successful, but there will be an attempt to redefine “normal.” In Poland for example, the previous government of Civic Platform (PO), the same government under which there was the biggest GDP growth in the entire EU, was time and time again saying they cannot afford any social policy, because it’s simply not possible. After them came Law and Justice (PiS) and these same things previously deemed irrational and impossible became possible in an instant. These are fundamental ideological paradigms being contested and redefined “live on air.” We’re in the period of change when we have to walk in the dark, because we do not understand what is going on. My book, however, is an effort to understand the bigger picture. Not to see the trees but the forest. What does Alexis Tsipras, Viktor Orbán, and Jarosław Kaczyński have in common? Very little, you can argue.

Exactly. What is the common denominator here?

They’re all hostile to the pillars of liberal order! Some of them are left-wing or former communists, the others are conservative or nationalist. Their personalities are different as is the situation from country to country. Greek economy contracted by 25% and Polish grew by 25%, but here and there you see the same sentiment against the ruling classes of the past decade. This is the common denominator. These people will make some concessions, of course. They’re politicians after all. SYRIZA in Greece eventually agreed to Brussels’ ultimatum in 2015 and PiS in Poland is also in the process of negotiations over the rule of law with European Commission, their core anti-liberal belief, however, remains unchanged.

But you cannot argue that Greek left is as inherently anti-liberal, can you? True, SYRIZA professes socialist economic policy, but its social views are liberal.

It’s a very old conflict about what liberalism is and isn’t.

And what are the answers?

Answers lie in biography of two very different postwar liberals from London School of Economics: Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. In his time Popper was more influential, but it was Hayek who left a tangible impact. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan subscribing to Hayek’s vision of liberalism we have neoliberal economic policy as defining feature of liberalism worldwide and still dominant ideology and policy dogma of the day.

Answers lie in biography of two very different postwar liberals from London School of Economics: Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. In his time Popper was more influential, but it was Hayek who left a tangible impact.

Or maybe rather just until recently?

Oh, I don’t see any government anywhere in the world that would seriously part ways with neoliberalism. Maybe Trump’s shift towards protectionism and his tariffs will amount to a serious step, but it’s too early to say.

How come it is then, that anti-liberal counter-revolution happens in societies and economies so different from each other?

Because it is never about one single thing. It’s neither about migration, nor economics – it’s about the whole package, including culture. Witold Waszczykowski’s [Polish FM 2015-2017] famous interview with Die Welt illustrates this beautifully: what he said is that we no longer want “a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and fight all forms of religion.” See? What we don’t want is the whole package, not just single thing that is wrong or dangerous. People make this mistake often: thinking that counter-revolution is about reversing one policy. It is not. It is about the way we live and think.

The answers lie in the biographies of two very different postwar liberals from the London School of Economics: Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. In his day Popper was more influential, but it was Hayek who left a greater legacy.

Coming back to economics. Many liberal pundits applauded Poland for its performance during the crisis and the GDP growth indeed was impressive. However, let’s not fool ourselves: inequality grew, austerity measures were introduced, millions of people were excluded from benefitting from this growing economic output. Poland became the European champion of part-time, zero hour contracts, the capital of the precariat. How many young people actually have jobs that will provide for future social security and pensions? Infrastructure investments and huge modernization efforts were similarly unequally distributed between western (already richer) and eastern (underdeveloped) part of the country. Those better off got the bigger chunk of the cake. Did you ever try to go to Lublin from Warsaw? Really, it is easier to travel to Berlin from Warsaw than to more remote parts of the country.

That is the clue. There were resources to invest and spend. Unlike what liberals argue: this is not the problem of scarcity and budget discipline, this is the problem of good and bad policy choices. Alas, decisions have been made and consequences are what they are.

Do you claim that, had the liberal and mainstream parties made good decisions and some sort of socially responsible shift in policy soon enough, they would have prevailed?

This is all hypothetical. The actual dilemma at hand is different. Liberal politicians, especially on the right, progressively adopted illiberal rhetoric and policies. Some of them also formed political alliances with those whom they call populists. Does this help the liberal or illiberal cause? I fear the latter. Yet sometimes, we need to make strategic alliances to prevent the far right coming to power. If Partito Democratico had formed a government with 5 Stars Movement, we would not have in power Matteo Salvini.

In one of your recent pieces you’ve argued that liberals across Europe lack strategy and policy proposals to defeat the hard right, regardless of their heated rhetoric. Are liberal parties that clueless?

Liberals talk too much about their adversaries and too little about their own policies. They don’t tell the voters what the new liberal agenda will look like. Do they intend to reform the liberal institutions, and if so, how? Take the EU: when was the last reform of the Union since the failure of the European constitution? There was none, unless you consider the fiscal compact during the Eurozone crisis. This fiscal compact is now responsible for the illiberal surge in the South.

Please remember that people who recently voted for illiberal parties have for many years voted for liberal parties. Liberals should regain trust of these voters. They should correct past mistakes and forge a renewed liberal agenda that is well suited for the Europe of the 21st century. Not only the program, but also the leadership ought to be changed. My generation should allow younger people to take control over their destiny. I trust not only their computer skills, but also their sense of realism and fairness. Sadly, the former seems in short supply among beneficiaries of the post-1989 liberal revolution.


Jakub Dymek

is a columnist and author. His book about the rise of the revolutionary political right in USA, Poland and Russia entitled “Nowi Barbarzyncy” (“The New Barbarians”) was published in 2018 by Arbitror Publishing.

Jan Zielonka

is a Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and a Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony’s College. His previous appointments included posts at the University of Warsaw, Leiden and the European University in Florence. He teaches European Politics and Society and directs a large international project funded by the European Research Council on the Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. He has produced seventeen books, including ve single author monographs, and more than a hundred articles and chapters. His work has been published in English, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Slovak, German, Italian, Spanish and French. His main areas of expertise are in Comparative Politics, International Relations and Political Theory. His latest book is Counter Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat.

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