When I published my travel notes on a nine-day visit to Hungary several weeks ago, readers may have been perplexed over why I bothered.
My concluding point was that the controversial populist, authoritarian prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban draws his power from the strong national, ethnic identity of his compatriots. That seems, by itself, an unexceptional observation. However, when I made it I had in mind a very specific intellectual context of “illiberal democracy” which I will now spell out in this essay reviewing the latest book by the notable French political philosopher Alain de Benoist, Contre Liberalisme [Against Liberalism].
The book is unlikely to figure on your list of summer reading. Firstly, because it exists only in the original French edition. Secondly, and more importantly, because it is highly technical, the oeuvre of a first-class Philosopher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject who is addressing his peers, not the general public. Alain de Benoist, to those unfamiliar with him, may be described as a consummate bibliophile, dedicating his life to reading and writing books. He is said to have the largest private library in France numbering more than 200,000 volumes.
Being a philosopher does not mean one is cut off from contemporary life. Quite the contrary in the case of de Benoist, who in this volume casts an occasional eye at Mitterand, at Macron and at ….Viktor Orban who is the main figure in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Liberalism and Democracy.” De Benoist tells us how these statesmen do or do not fit into the philosophical profiles he is drawing.
However, his book caught my attention for its direct relevance to what I believe is a much more significant issue of our international relations landscape: it bears directly on the supposedly missing ideological dimension of the ongoing Cold War between Russia and the West. Why that is so I will explain in due course. But first, I offer a brief overview of de Benoist’s reasoning in this book.
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Contre Liberalisme comprises over a dozen related essays. Several, such as the “Critique of Hayek” will be of interest to a very few specialists. Others are more accessible and provide a very interesting analytical framework to what we see around us in political, social and economic life, bringing together seemingly very diverse and unrelated phenomena, many of them highly troubling, and highlighting the common thread of causality driving them all.
Because this is not a monograph but a collection of essays, there is a certain amount of overlap and repetition of key points. Since these points are quite subtle and embedded in a dense web of literature going back a couple of centuries if not to Antiquity, the repetition from slightly different angles may be helpful to comprehension.
I found particularly valuable the first 143 pages, followed by the essay on “Liberalism and Democracy” mentioned above and the essay entitled “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.”
In his underlying thesis, Alain de Benoist tells us that the common denominator in all strands of Liberalism, both political and economic, is the exclusive focus on the individual and his/her rights at the expense of all else. Society, nation do not exist: they are merely aggregations of individuals.
The trappings of this individual-above-all approach are ‘free movement of goods, capital and people,’ the ultimate primacy of ‘the universal rights of man,’ denial of national sovereignty in the name of those rights, the call for minimal government, turning the state into nothing more than a ‘night watchman’ while the discrepancy in wealth across the population grows and grows, and the middle class melts away before our eyes.
Globalism is a natural expression of the tenets of Liberalism. Open borders, the absence of any restrictions on migration are also part and parcel of Liberalism. An individual has the right to live and work anywhere he pleases.
Nation, ethnicity, history have no value in Liberalism. They are only impediments to the individual’s freedom to create his or her own identity. This identity is as an economic unit, a participant in the market as producer and consumer. One pursues profit, one indulges in unrestricted and unapologetic consumerism. Unbridled egoism is justified by the mythical ‘invisible hand’ first described by Adam Smith whereby serving oneself necessarily leads to the most efficient and fair solutions for society as a whole.
By setting as its highest good the liberation of the individual from all societal, religious and governmental restraints that do not infringe directly on the rights of others, Liberalism underpins extreme feminism, which claims for women full control over their bodies, meaning in practice unrestricted abortions. Liberalism promotes minorities such as LGBT and transgender, including the right of homosexuals to civil marriage, to adoption, to surrogacy. Liberalism is comfortable with gene editing. Liberalism has no objections to narcotics use. It endorses the right to ownership of firearms. Liberalism is the guiding principle for the “progressive” changes in social mores that are taking us to a brave new world, in the views of some, or to Sodom and Gomorrah in the views of others.
Politics as such disappear under Liberalism. Politics imply competition between a variety of different policies serving different end values. Under Liberalism, it is not the function of the state to determine or serve end values, only to protect the people in their territory as they engage in free exchange from which outcomes emerge spontaneously. Liberalism puts in power technocrats who are not answerable to the people, and who know best by definition. Thus, as Margaret Thatcher famously said to her opponents “there is no alternative.” The role of the state is to administer not govern.
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In his chapter on “Liberalism and Democracy,” Alain de Benoist notes that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first European leader to apply to himself the label “illiberal.” This was during a speech at the Summer University of his Fidesz Party in 2014:
“The Hungarian nation is not an aggregation of individuals, he declared, but a community which it is up to us to organize, to strengthen and to raise up. In this sense, the new State that we are building is not a liberal State but an illiberal State.”
In this speech, Orban remarked that a democracy is not necessarily liberal: “One can be a democrat even without being liberal.”
Then, in September 2017, Viktor Orban told the Hungarian Parliament that for a Central European people to adopt Western liberalism “would mean spiritual suicide for the Central Europeans.”
And, one month later, on 23 October, the national holiday of Hungary, Orban again singled out “the global force which would like to turn the European nations into a standardized heap” and denounced “the financial empire which has imposed on us new migratory waves, millions of migrants and new invasions of populations to turn Europe into a land of mixed-bloods.”
Taken by themselves, the statements by Viktor Orban might seem inexplicable and extreme. But placed with the context of the abhorrent excesses of Liberalism described by Alain de Benoist and promoted to a large extent by the European Institutions in Brussels, Orban’s positions are logical and brave. It is not for nothing that he is a significant contributor to the populist, Eurosceptic movements of the Far Right not only in Central Europe (the Vysegrad Group and Austria) but also today in Western Europe, where his allies are Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France.
It is a pity that Alain de Benoist does not extend his examination of illiberalism in Europe beyond the borders of the EU further to the East, because everything he is saying has great relevance for our understanding of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To be sure, Putin never used the precise terminology of illiberal democracy, speaking instead of managed democracy. And Putin had his long period of flirtation with Neoliberal economics as practiced by several leading members of his team, most particularly his long time Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin and the Yeltsin-era implementer of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, whose career continued to flourish under the new president.
Putin’s efforts at befriending global capital going back to the time of his accession to power produced very modest results and were largely curtailed after he imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a struggle to establish central government power over private interests and essentially nationalized Yukos – to the chagrin of the Western oil majors who had hoped to acquire a major stake in the Russian industry via a deal with the oligarch and so continue their accumulation of Russian raw material assets.
However, from 2007 Putin emerged on the world stage as the leading defender of national sovereignty against American global hegemony. Putin has placed great emphasis on the Russia’s national history, on the Orthodox Christian faith, on every country’s right to uphold its own traditional values. In a word, Putin has championed national diversity as opposed to standardization and anonymity of some aggregation of individuals. He has brought back and modernized many of the collectivist obligations of the Soviet, now Russian state including free higher education, affordable universal medical care, heavy state subsidies to all institutions of Culture and Sport. He has thumbed his nose at the Liberal West.
Taken by themselves, and Western analysts of Russia almost exclusively take these pronouncements and policies of Putin by themselves, as something unique to the authoritarian ensconced in the Kremlin, Putin’s political, social and economic pronouncements are denounced as idiosyncratic, eclectic and self-serving, invented on the fly to prop up what is claimed to be a shaky regime, lacking democratic legitimacy.
However, when put in the intellectual analytical framework provided by Alain de Benoist in his latest book, Putin may be seen as entirely aligned with what Viktor Orban and the illiberal democrats of Western Europe are thinking and saying. They have arrived at common positions independently of one another. This commonality includes by the way, state promotion of child-bearing and of family values.
Why is this important? Because, taken altogether, the talking points of Anti-Liberalism or illiberalism, if you will, constitute an ideology. It is the great merit of Alain de Benoist’s book that he demonstrates this even if he does not say so explicitly. And ideology is the one component of the first Cold War said to be absent today, now that Communism has been vanquished and both Russia and the West share market-driven economies and democratic political values. This ideological dimension of the New Cold War places Russia alongside political forces in the European Union that challenge the ruling ideology in Brussels called Liberal Democracy.
Regarding those democratic political values, it is very instructive to read attentively de Benoist’s chapter on “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.” In that chapter, the author takes us back to the Age of the Enlightenment to show that from its very inception, the representative democracy which we take as axiomatic was criticized by thinkers like Rousseau for constituting a forfeit of political power by the people to a political class that would finally conduct its business in defense of its own interests, not in fulfillment of the popular will.
In addition to parliamentarism, Benoit elsewhere in the book reminds us that Rule of Law and Separation of Powers, two additional principles that are held up as fundamental by our Liberal minded elites, were put in place by Enlightenment thinkers precisely to dilute the possible exercise of power in conformity with the popular will.
Good, you will say. These are our bulwarks against monarchical or executive despotism and against mob rule. However, what do you say when these mechanisms are used by our political class in the United States, in Belgium and many other European countries to enact laws and implement policies which work directly against the interests and against the clearly expressed will of the people for the benefit of themselves and their financial backers? What do you say when these anti-popular elites hold onto power for decades notwithstanding the nominal alternation of parties forming the government?
In his examination of how popular will can actually determine policy at the governmental level, de Benoist promotes the notion of participatory democracy. This goes beyond holding referendums to decide contentious issues. It takes us to less obvious channels by which those in power are informed of the people’s interests and priorities. It is precisely here that de Benoist is knowingly or unknowingly describing what Vladimir Putin has put in place in Russia to achieve what political analysts in the know appreciate to be one of the most effective systems for inclusiveness in political decision-making in any major state today.
The Russian parliament is clumsy, often not very professional in the drafting of laws and is dominated by one party, United Russia, which is self-dealing as all ruling parties tend to be everywhere. For that reason, in parallel, in 2005 Putin and his entourage created a Civic Chamber, described by Wikipedia as “a consultative civil society institution with 168 members…to analyze draft legislation and monitor the activities of the parliament, government and other government bodies of Russia and its Federal Subjects.”
In 2011, then prime minister Putin added one further forum for participatory democracy, the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF). According to Wikipedia, the ONF is supposed to provide the ruling United Russia party with ‘new ideas, new suggestions and new faces. It is intended to be a formal alliance between the ruling party and numerous Russian nongovernmental organizations.”
Then there are the annual “Direct Line” televised interchanges between Vladimir Putin and interested citizens from across Russia. Lasting three or four hours, these programs are an institutionalized mechanism by which the head of state hears and responds to the vox populi without the intermediation of the bureaucracy or legislature.
The end result of all these mechanisms of participatory democracy are policies by the Russian government which are rather closely in harmony with the popular will, more so than in most Western countries. This provides the government with stability, and the leader with ratings far and away above the level of most Western leaders, putting aside that other illiberal democrat Viktor Orban, who is doing very well in his own ratings.
There is always a price to pay for stability: the inability to put through fundamental reforms such as the Neo-Liberal economists say Russia needs to raise its GDP performance significantly. But fundamental reforms always sacrifice the interests of one part of society to the interests of another part, and populist leaders like Vladimir Putin try to avoid doing that wherever possible
For all of the above reasons, I hope that those who have proficiency in French will take a look at Alain de Benoist’s latest book Contre Liberalisme. And for those who cannot consult his book, I suggest you pick up copies of Rousseau, Montesquieu and their followers and continuers in North America, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to reconsider afresh the merits and demerits of “liberal democracy.”
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019