THE LIGHT THAT FAILED: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy, by two well-known and highly regarded political analysts, has garnered glowing reviews from a range of intellectual luminaries, and has won at least one major prize. I thus began to read it with high hopes of gaining some new and important insights into the turn to the populist right in Eastern Europe, and the implications of this turn for the wider world. I was deeply disappointed.
There are three major problems with the book’s argument. The first is that it is wrong on the merits, even if viewed in the most generous way. The second is that it makes Eastern Europe after 1989 a proxy for the rest of the world. The third is that its argument is yet another version of claims about the descent of the world into populism and xenophobia that are as old as Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld (1995). The Light That Failed has the rare distinction of being both derivative and wrong.
Let me flesh out these three criticisms. First, on the merits. The foundational idea of the book, that Eastern Europe after 1989 exemplifies the “Age of Imitation,” is a remarkable combination of stereotyping and ahistoricism. It is a slightly dressed-up version of one of the oldest falsehoods of modernization theory: the notion that the world after 1945 (if not for centuries before) always envied the modernity of the West and was driven by an obsession to imitate it. This massively discredited theory about the “West and the Rest” is riddled with ethnocentrism, teleological arrogance, and confusion between norms and facts. Modernization theorists tended to attribute all the virtues in what were called “the new states” of the postcolonial world to successful imitation of the liberal West and all the failures of these states to preexisting and incurable diseases such as patrimonialism, nepotism, and corruption. Among its many stunning flaws, modernization theory scrupulously ignored the many ways in which Western liberal modernity gradually became a victim of its own contradictions, in such areas as race in the United States, state welfarism in Europe, and entrepreneurship (or its absence) in the United Kingdom. Brexit, Trumpism, and the 2007–’08 financial collapse are the end of the road of these contradictions for Western liberal thought and policy. Krastev and Holmes pay virtually no attention to all of this, instead portraying Eastern European leaders as mere mimics with no awareness at all of the contradictions in the story of the liberal West.
An additional blindness is the authors’ inattention to the role of the Western powers (notably the United States), both before and after 1989, in promoting their political and economic interests in the region by every means possible. These efforts included making aid and trade conditional on political conversion to the virtues of the free market, a worldview force-fed to a set of countries with nowhere to turn in the newly unipolar world. The early career of Jeffrey Sachs, who administered the bitter medicine of the market freely in Russia, Poland, and other Central European countries, thus bringing ruin to their societies, is illustrative of this missionizing. Sachs was subsequently successfully reborn as the biggest friend of the world’s poor. Stephen Holmes, along with other colleagues at the University of Chicago, was deeply involved with the Eastern European Constitutional Review, a training manual for “imitators” in Central Europe, showing them how to design their newly hatched democracies. It takes considerable myopia for him and his co-author to attribute Eastern Europe’s turn to the right to a failure of imitation. In addition to the active interference of Western academics in Central European affairs after 1989, there were the efforts of the State Department, the CIA, the World Bank, and many Western European think tanks to tilt these societies toward market democracy and an engineered liberalism. The forceful meddling of Western state and academic missionaries in Eastern Europe’s “experiment” with liberal democracy makes a mockery of the whole notion of the region’s fawning “imitation” of Western ideals.
The second profound mistake of the book is its breezy assumption that Eastern Europe after 1989 can stand in for the rest of the less developed world, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. The authors frequently allude to this putative global extension of their main argument, mostly to assure the reader that theirs is not a parochial area studies analysis. All serious scholars of global decolonization would find this extension a highly suspect proposition. Indeed, there is a growing body of critical work that explores the methodological difficulties involved in trying to connect post-socialism and postcolonialism in any substantial way. Even a superficial acquaintance with Latin America, Africa, and Asia after 1989 would show that the world of commonalities envisaged by Nehru, Nasser, Tito, Sukarno, and others during the Bandung period of the late 1960s and early 1970s proved in fact to be a mirage. The many countries in this arc of decolonization exemplified the wide gamut of political possibilities, from extreme autocracies with military strong men to communist regimes to highly admirable democracies such as India (which turned to populist authoritarianism only in the last decade). All of these vectors have now begun to converge in a global swing to the right, but the idea that this has anything to do with the failure of efforts to imitate the liberal West is dubious at best.
It is possible that the authors’ gestures to the global reach of their argument are no more than casual hubris. So, let us turn now to Eastern Europe, the main area where Krastev and Holmes can claim some expertise and around which they have built their case. This region has been the focus of a vigorous debate among area specialists and comparatists for decades. It has given birth to many versions of the “pressure cooker” theory of ethnic war and xenophobia, which posits that the communist model (especially in the case of Yugoslavia) kept the lid on underlying social divisions and hatreds which, after the lid was lifted, resurged with a vengeance, returning the region to its tribal roots and setting the clock back to the 15th century. This long-discredited approach to the bloodshed of the early 1990s — which gave birth to Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, among other new countries in the region — is not the argument Holmes and Krastev advance, but it is highly consistent with their view of the way in which a “primitive” set of societies, disappointed by their failure to become like their Western models, has reverted to blood, soil, and war.
This is a strange idea, since it requires us to overlook a number of historical realities, including the longstanding anti-liberalism of the Catholic Church through much of Eastern Europe, the exposure of all the countries previously part of Yugoslavia to Tito’s admiration for the leaders of the newly decolonized nations (notably Jawaharlal Nehru), and the Nazi inclinations of the Romanian and Croatian leadership going as far back as the Iron Cross. All these deep-rooted factors are much more likely to have fueled the turn to xenophobia and ultra-nationalism in the region after 1990 than any supposed frustration with a failure to imitate the West, especially when combined with the crushing debt burdens of so many countries in the region, the fomenting of ethnic enmities among neighbors and friends through media propaganda and militia mobilization, and the corruption and cronyism unleashed by the new cult of the market.
In fact, some of these criticisms are largely moot since, as it turns out, the only real examples in Eastern Europe that interest Krastev and Holmes are Hungary and Poland, because these are the only cases that fit their narrative of the journey from imitation to rage. Even here, however, the real problem turns out to be not the failed imitation of the West but the cooked-up fear of immigrants — which is, according to the authors, actually a “projection” of underlying concerns about the mass emigration of ethnic Polish and Hungarian citizens to the West. Thus, the book’s “imitation” argument morphs into a “projection/displacement” argument in order to explain the xenophobic turn in these countries. More troubling, a slippery set of claims about Eastern Europe, based mainly on a study of Hungary and Poland, has been used to support sweeping pronouncements about the global turn to the right.
Finally, we come to the third problem with this book — its utterly derivative quality, which has escaped the attention of its many distinguished reviewers. The main argument — that Central Europe unraveled during its short democratic history after 1989 because it failed in its efforts to imitate the West — has been previewed in numerous prior studies. I have already mentioned Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, an early proponent of the fundamentalist perils involved in imitating the West. In Africa, a host of writers and thinkers have identified and criticized the tendency of elites to mimic the West, in areas ranging from higher education and economic development to national constitutions and elections. In China, Japan, and other East Asian countries, there have been longstanding debates about the pitfalls of the copycat approach to technology, art, education, and entertainment. India has seen more than a century of vigorous discussion about the hazards of blind imitation of the West, along with an equally vigorous defense of pro-Western views, bordering on Anglophilia and free market idolatry; numerous thinkers and scholars writing about India have made “imitation” the central concern of their analyses. When it comes to Latin America, the question of imitation covers the full range of possibilities, from Octavio Paz’s “labyrinth of solitude” to a frank acknowledgment of the risks involved in imitating Western liberalism.
The plain truth is that, in scholarship and public debate in much of the world over the last half century, the issue of “imitation” of the West — whether via technology transfer, modernization, democratization, or simply “catching up” — has been a central concern of many debates about the erosion of liberal institutions. The robustness and imperviousness to evidence of this intellectual tradition is testimony to the nine lives of modernization theory, of which the most recent is to be found in the book under review. The scandal of modernization theory is not just its parochial, Eurocentric, patronizing, and self-aggrandizing message but the zeal with which it was adopted by Western elites in government, private foundations, aid agencies, think tanks, and universities since the late 1950s, and was forced upon the world as a compulsory goal. “Imitation” is merely the psychological counterpart of this theory.
Despite being the conceptual linchpin of their book, imitation is hardly theorized here much beyond a clichéd parable of “keeping up with the Joneses,” which simply exports hackneyed assumptions about consumerist lifestyles in the postwar United States. In fact, as Sheldon Pollock has shown in his 2006 book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, all the great empires of human history, both in the West and elsewhere, have been based on imitation of previous empires, but every such imitation was always a modification and innovation, not a mere replica of its model. In other words, imitation (whether by the British of the Romans, or by the Romans of the Achaemenids, or by the Mongols of the Han Chinese) is one of the central ways major forms of political organization change throughout history. So, yes, Central European countries have indeed modified Western democracy in a variety of ways, of which the Orbán-Kaczyński model is just one, and this modification is among many that have occurred globally. Moreover, as the authors note, some of these imitations are now being imitated in the home of the original, the United States. Of course, the “original” was just the American imitation of the French model from the late 18th century, with other bits from Britain and elsewhere in Europe thrown in. Thus, we could just as easily make the case that the United States’s descent into Trump’s populist anti-liberalism is due to the country’s failure to successfully imitate the European model over the last 250 years. This is the kind of reductio ad absurdum that a loose theory of imitation can produce.
The case of the United States is indeed relevant to the flaws of this book, though not in the way the authors suggest. The single biggest embarrassment to the central thesis Krastev and Holmes advance is that the US in the Trump era has become a leader in the dismantling of liberal democracy, a situation that needs to be squared with an imitation theory designed for Eastern Europe. Krastev and Holmes attempt to explain away this awkward problem with a set of convoluted claims about Trump imitating the imitators in Hungary and Poland who are presently dismantling Western-style democracy. These claims are difficult to follow, and impossible to take seriously, especially in light of the numerous stronger arguments that have been made to account for the Trump phenomenon, from economic dispossession to stubbornly persistent racism to impatience with the slow workings of liberal democracy in addressing core issues like job loss, urban decay, economic volatility, and deepening inequality. Krastev and Holmes would have been better off exploring some of these complex realities, which have led not just Trump but a number of right-wing demagogues around the world, from Bolsonaro to Modi to Netanyahu, to embrace the worst anti-liberal and autocratic models. Now that would be a study of “imitation” that would be worth pursuing.