Eastern Europe Showed How Neoliberalism Produces Reactionary Populism, Like Trump

By John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands (a Dispatch Books original) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new book, Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams (Zed Books), has just been released. Originally published at TomDispatch

He was a rich businessman, an outspoken outsider with a love of conspiracy theories. And he was a populist running for president.

In 1990, when Donald Trump was still beyond the furthest outskirts of American politics, Stanislaw Tyminski was trying to become the new president of post-communist Poland.  He shared something else with the future Trump: nobody in the political elite took Tyminski seriously.

That was a mistake. He was the standard-bearer for a virulent right-wing populism that would one day take power in Poland and control the politics of the region. He would be the first in a long line of underestimated buffoons of the post-Cold War era who started us on a devolutionary path leading to Donald Trump. Tyminski’s major error: his political backwardness was a little ahead of its time.

In true Trumpian fashion, Stan Tyminski couldn’t have been a more unlikely politician. As a successful businessman in Canada, he had made millions. He proved luckless, however, in Canadian politics. His Libertarian Party never got more than 1% of the vote.

In 1990, he decided to return to his native Poland, then preparing for its first free presidential election since the 1920s. A relatively open parliamentary election in 1989, as the Warsaw Pact was beginning to unravel, had produced a solid victory for candidates backed by the independent trade union, Solidarity. Those former dissidents-turned-politicians had been governing for a year, with Solidarity intellectual and pioneering newspaper editor Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister but former Communist general Wojciech Jaruzelski holding the presidency. Now, the general was finally stepping aside.

Running in addition to Mazowiecki was former trade union leader Lech Walesa, who had done more than any other Pole to take down the Communist government (and received a Nobel Prize for his efforts). Compared to such political giants, Tyminski was an unknown.

All three made promises. Walesa announced that he would provide every Pole with $10,000 to invest in new capitalist enterprises. Mazowiecki swore he’d get the Rolling Stones to perform in Poland. Tyminski had the strangest pitch of all. He carried around a black briefcase inside which, he claimed, was secret information that would blow Polish politics to smithereens.

Tyminski managed to get a toehold in national politics because, by November 1990, many Poles were already fed up with the status quo Solidarity had ushered in. They’d suffered the early consequences of the “shock therapy” economic reforms that would soon be introduced across much of Eastern Europe and, after 1991, Russia. Although the Polish economy had finally stabilized, unemployment had, by the end of 1990, shot up from next to nothing to 6.5% and the country’s national income had fallen by more than 11%. Though some were doing well in the new business-friendly environment, the general standard of living had plummeted as part of Poland’s price for entering the global economy. The burden of that had fallen disproportionately on workers in sunset industries, small farmers, and pensioners.

Mazowiecki, the face of this new political order, would, like Hillary Clinton many years later, go down to ignominious defeat, while Tyminski surprised everyone by making it into the second round of voting. Garnering support from areas hard hit by the dislocations of economic reform, he squared off against the plainspoken, splenetic Walesa.

Tyminski did everything he could to paint his opponent as the consummate insider, a collaborator with the Communist secret police in his youth.  “I have a lot of material and I have it here… and some of it is very serious and of a personal nature,” Tyminski told Walesa in a debate on national television, holding that briefcase of his close at hand. Walesa retaliated by accusing him of being a front man for the former communist secret police. Tyminski was forced to admit that his staff did include ex-secret policemen, but he never actually opened that briefcase. Walesa was resoundingly swept into the presidency by an electoral margin of three to one.

Stan Tyminski eventually took his wild conspiracy theories and populist pretensions back to Canada, a political has-been. And yet he was prescient in so many ways (including those charges against Walesa, who probably did collaborate briefly with the secret police). The liberal reforms that Eastern Europe implemented after the transformations of 1989 were supposed to be a one-way journey into a future as prosperous and boring as Scandinavia’s. Tyminski, on the other hand, had conjured up a very different, far grimmer future — unpredictable, angry, intolerant, paranoid — the very one that seems to have become our present.

Tyminski’s “children” now govern nearly every country in Eastern Europe, and the United States, too, is in the grip of a Tyminski-like leader. Perhaps these illiberal leaders have reached the peak of their influence — or have they? The opposite scenario is too dismal to contemplate: that the political climate has irreversibly changed and liberalism has irrevocably weakened in the U.S., in Eastern Europe, everywhere.

All (or at Least a Few) Aboard

Imagine the history of Eastern Europe after 1989 as a train leaving a decrepit station where tasty snacks and interesting reading material aren’t available, the public address system issues garbled announcements, the bathrooms are out of order, and the help desk unstaffed. As the final boarding chimes echo through the station, the passengers pile onto the train.  A lucky few are in a first-class car with access to a surprisingly good cafe and plush sleeping compartments, a somewhat larger group in the reserved second-class seats, and everyone else crowded into totally rundown cars with appalling seats. The ultimate destination all of them have been told is a lovely terminal with well-provisioned stores, clean public restrooms, and a responsive administrative system in a city and country equally well run.

Think of this as the train of “transition.” Everyone on it seems convinced that they’re en route to a stunning market democracy in a post-Cold War world where political differences and ideological struggles have lost their relevance, where as American political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously put it in 1989, the “end of history” is in sight. “Today,” Fukuyama wrote a couple of years later, “we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist.”  Pragmatic decisions are all that’s left, and they’re to be chewed over by policymakers and implemented by bureaucrats.

If Eastern Europeans knew what they’d left behind and were fervent about where they were heading, they had little idea about the nature of the journey they were undertaking. German political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf tried to provide a few time stamps for such a transition: six months to create parties and political institutions, six years to establish the basis for a market economy, and 60 years to build a proper civil society. Except for some cranky members of the extreme right and a few Stalinist leftovers, everyone in the region seemed to back this liberal project, seeing it as a ticket into the larger European community.

For the first few years, the train of transition rolled along. There was grumbling in the back cars, but everyone was still on board with the overall plan to reach Western Europe or bust.

As it happened, the first-class passengers were easily transported to the heart of the sunny West. The second-class passengers barely made it across the border. And the rest didn’t get far beyond that original, disheveled station.  

Mind the Gap

When I first traveled across Eastern Europe in 1990, the very year of the Polish presidential election, many of the people I interviewed expected to be living like Viennese or Londoners within five years, a decade at the most. If this was a delusion, it was one partially fueled by the outside advisers who flooded the region in 1990. Planners from the U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, put a five-year window on their assistance package.

And for some, the transition did last only a few years because cities like Warsaw in Poland quickly became high-priced locations for international corporate offices and NGOs. So the capital cities of Eastern Europe made the trip west, while smaller cities and towns and, above all, the countryside remained mired in the past.  This urban-rural gap mirrored the one that still persists between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. In 1991, according to the World Bank’s figures, Hungary’s per capita gross domestic product was $3,333, Austria’s $22,356. By 2016, Hungary’s had risen to $27,481, while Austria’s stood at $48,004. In other words, though the gap had been narrowed considerably, as with other Eastern European countries — Poland ($27,764), Romania ($22,347), Bulgaria ($20,326) — it had at best been cut in half.

“In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe,” Adam Jagusiak, a former peace activist and Polish Foreign Ministry employee, told me in an interview in 2013. “It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What’s most disappointing for most people, not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap…  Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That’s a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe two or three percent.”

The liberal project succeeded in ushering virtually all of Eastern Europe into the European Union. But in the end, because of the persistent gap between expectations and reality, voters began to look around for something different.

Opportunism Knocks

Stan Tyminski ran for president before unemployment in Poland soared from 6.5% in 1990 to 20% by 2002. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán had far better timing.

Orbán was a young lawyer in Budapest in 1988 when he helped found a liberal party that you had to be under 35 to join. Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democrats, won a commendable 21 seats in the 1990 elections, good enough for a sixth-place showing. Four years later, that country’s former Communist Party (renamed the Socialists) came out on top, while Fidesz dropped a couple spots. What disappointed Orbán far more, however, was the way the Alliance of Free Democrats — the “adult” version of Fidesz — opted to form a coalition government with the Socialists.

That was the moment when, having second thoughts about liberalism as a vehicle for his own personal ambitions, he began to transform both Fidesz, which dropped its under-35 requirement, and himself. When economic “reform” shocked Hungary as it had Poland, Orbán recast himself as an increasingly illiberal Hungarian nationalist and his once-liberal party became a pillar of the new right. In 2010, he became prime minister for the second time, a position he’s held for the last seven years.

In a remarkable number of ways Orbán anticipated Donald Trump. He reversed his country’s longstanding mistrust of Russia by openly courting its president, Vladimir Putin, and pledging to transform Hungarian politics along the lines of that country’s “illiberal state.” He railed against mainstream journalism, attempted to bend the judiciary (and the constitution) to his will, and rigged the state apparatus to benefit his supporters. In perhaps his most ominous twist, Orbán courted the Hungarian version of the alt-right with relentless anti-immigrant statements and the occasional anti-Semitic gesture.

The Polish right wing was so enamored of Orbán’s success that, in 2011, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced that “the day will come when we will succeed and we will have Budapest in Warsaw.” Four years later, his Law and Justice Party took power on a mixed platform of populism and conspiracy theories reminiscent of Stan Tyminski’s.

Now, Donald Trump is constructing Budapest in Washington D.C., as he unwittingly follows Tyminski’s and Orbán’s trajectory. The reality TV star cultivated his status as an extreme outsider. During the Obama era, he identified a political opportunity on the right and, in September 2009, switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Seven years later, having combined outlandish conspiracy theories (think: birtherism) with an astute critique of liberal elites, he squeaked into power. He surely owes something to native (and nativist) traditions from Huey Long to Ross Perot, but he shares so much more with his compatriots across the Atlantic.

That transatlantic commonality begins with his canny exploitation of the gap between expectation and reality. The United States, like Eastern Europe, was going through its own “economic transition” in the 1990s. Millions of Americans expected the new economy — the global economy, the digital economy, the service economy, the sharing economy — to produce new jobs, better jobs.  And it did generate enormous wealth, but mostly, as in Eastern Europe, for a narrow, highly urbanized slice of the population. Income inequality has increased so dramatically that the American world now resembles the nineteenth-century Gilded Age.

In the eras of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the liberal project meant government intervention in the economy on behalf of working Americans and the disadvantaged. By the time Bill Clinton took the White House in 1993, the focus of the “new” Democrats was already shifting to global free-trade deals that would only accelerate the country’s loss of manufacturing jobs and a harsh vision of social spending represented most starkly by Clinton’s grim version of welfare reform. Meanwhile, the increasing coziness of the “new” Democratic Party and Wall Street would lead to significant financial deregulation that, in turn, would produce an economic meltdown in 2007-2008.

Although Barack Obama would prove progressive on some issues, he would also embrace Clintonesque positions on trade, social welfare, and Wall Street. As in Eastern Europe, such a liberal project would leave many people behind. So no one should have been surprised that these disappointed voters would eventually seek their revenge at the polls, as traditional Democrats in working-class neighborhoods began to vote Republican.

Aided by “dark money” and his dark mutterings about migrants, Mexicans, and Muslims, Trump rode a wave of Eastern European-style disenchantment to the Oval Office. Now, he’s taking his revenge not just against the neoliberalism of the Clinton and Obama years, but the entire twentieth-century liberal understanding of the state.

Conservative anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist once remarked that his dream was not “to abolish government” but “to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The question today in both Eastern Europe and the U.S. is: Have Trump, Orbán, and others shrunk liberalism to such a degree that they can now drown it in that bathtub? 

The Future of Liberalism

Those wielding political metaphors love the idea of oscillation. You know, the pendulum swinging back and forth, the tide ebbing and flowing, voters opting for one political flavor and then, surfeited, returning to what they once rejected.

So far, voters in Eastern Europe haven’t shown any signs of wanting to return to the liberal politics that had delivered their countries to the promised land of European Union (EU) membership. In Hungary, Fidesz continues to lead the polls as the 2018 elections approach. The right-wing Law and Justice Party in Poland has only increased its popularity since it captured the state in elections two years ago.

Indeed, the rest of the region is following their lead. In October, the party of billionaire right-wing businessman Andrej Babiš captured the most votes in the Czech elections. Boyko Borisov, a populist with an authoritarian bent, has returned to power in Bulgaria, while nationalists are back in charge in Croatia. The anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim leader of Slovakia, Robert Fico, has been prime minister for nine of the last 11 years. (Though governing from the social-democratic left, Fico has exhibited distinctly authoritarian tendencies.) These leaders have different political philosophies and operate in different cultural contexts, but they all share one thing: an aversion to the liberal project.

Further out on the fringes, the Eastern European alt-right flourishes. This year, neo-Nazis flew the American flag in a February march in Croatia’s capital Zagreb to celebrate Donald Trump; 60,000 far-right nationalists gathered for Poland’s annual independence day in November; and Hungary has become a virtual mecca for extremists. As right-wing authoritarians gain mainstream appeal, those further to the right are courting greater visibility.

In Europe, there is still a counterweight to this rejection of the liberal project: the European Union.  It has, for instance, strongly censured the Polish and Hungarian governments for their illiberal policies, and it still carries real weight. Unless the EU manages to transform its economic policies in a way that stops favoring rich countries and wealthy individuals, however, it’s likely to prove incapable of stemming the tide of reaction. New French President Emmanuel Macron has offered some interesting proposals — from an EU-wide financial transactions tax to the taxation of digital companies — that might temper some of the galloping greed.  But such EU reforms won’t boost the fortunes of liberalism in Eastern Europe unless that organization begins to address the persistent divide between the two parts of the continent and (as in the United States) between thriving metropolitan centers and those left behind in more rural areas.

In America, Donald Trump remains a deeply unpopular president.  Widespread political resistance to his administration and the Republican Congress has already claimed some early victories. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, rich, right-wing, anti-liberal individuals and foundations have had an outsized impact on politics. Buoyed by the support of the Koch brothers and others, the Trump administration will do everything possible over the next three years to bankrupt the economy through tax “reform,” pack the courts with anti-liberal judges, shed federal personnel, gut federal regulations, and otherwise ensure that the government it hands to its successor will be as close to drowned as possible.

When it comes to this version of “populism,” Eastern Europe led the way.  The question now is: Will it again?  If anti-Trump forces here don’t address persistent voter disgust with the status quo, the Eastern European example offers a grim glimpse of a possible American future as right-wing libertarians, intolerant nationalists, and alt-right extremists secure their lock on the policy apparatus.

Waiting for the “inevitable” pendulum swing of politics is like waiting for Godot. The political scene will not regain equilibrium by itself. In Eastern Europe, as in the United States, the opposition has to jettison those elements of the liberal project that have proven self-defeating — the economics of inequality and the politics of collusion with the powerful — and offer a genuine antidote to right-wing populists. If not, you might as well slap a do-not-resuscitate order on liberalism, kiss social welfare goodbye, and brace yourself for a very mean season ahead.

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  1. witters

    “In Eastern Europe, as in the United States, the opposition has to jettison those elements of the liberal project that have proven self-defeating — the economics of inequality and the politics of collusion with the powerful — and offer a genuine antidote to right-wing populists.”

    He should just say we “jettison neoliberalism.”

  2. Altandmain

    The elite destroyed their own legitimacy. They transformed economic orthodoxy from the post-war Keynesian system, although imperfect, into neoliberalism, which is little more than a justification for the rich to loot and pillage the rest of us.

    There is simply too much money flowing to the top 1% and to a lesser extent, the top 10%, and too little for the bottom 90%. They created a mess out of their own making. Had they kept the Keynesian system, with wages rising in line with productivity, they would have had a faster growing economy. Instead they’ve chosen an oversized slice of a much smaller and likely shrinking pie.

    They are now facing a legitimacy crisis. The Chinese have a term for what they called “Performance Legitimacy” – namely the elites are in power due to their ability to deliver economic gains. The CCP in China has tried moving away from that. In reality, no government ever can. All regimes and ideologies are held up to that standard. Neoliberalism, having utterly failed the working class by design is facing a big legitimacy crisis and by extension, so is capitalism as a whole.

    I mean, look at what the neoliberals are doing:

    Destroying worker rights, austerity, “no cash society” to enrich the banks, attacking civil liberties, deregulating finance even more, privatization. When this inevitably becomes exposed, of course people are going to be desperate for an alternative. Can anyone blame people for getting desperate?

    Glenn Greenwald, writing after Brexit noted that elites:

    Because of how generally satisfied they are with their lot, they regard with affection and respect the internationalist institutions that safeguard the West’s prevailing order: the World Bank and IMF, NATO and the West’s military forces, the Federal Reserve, Wall Street, the EU. While they express some piecemeal criticisms of each, they literally cannot comprehend how anyone would be fundamentally disillusioned by and angry with these institutions, let alone want to break from them. They are far removed from the suffering that causes those anti-establishment sentiments. So they search and search in vain for some rationale that could explain something like Brexit — or the establishment-condemning movements on the right and left — and can find only one way to process it: These people are not motivated by any legitimate grievances or economic suffering, but instead they are just broken, ungrateful, immoral, hateful, racist, and ignorant.

    More importantly still — and directly contrary to what establishment liberals love to claim in order to demonize all who reject their authority — economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive. The opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating. That’s precisely why plutocratic policies that deprive huge portions of the population of basic opportunity and hope are so dangerous. Claiming that supporters of Brexit or Trump or Corbyn or Sanders or anti-establishment European parties on the left and right are motivated only by hatred but not genuine economic suffering and political oppression is a transparent tactic for exonerating status quo institutions and evading responsibility for doing anything about their core corruption.


    If the liberal order dies, it will be because the greed of its own elites destroyed it and because it was unworthy of being saved in the eyes of the general public.

    1. nonclassical

      We need establish exactly what “neoliberalism” entails, and from whence it came-here is that historical documentation:

      “The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

      In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

      When the term re-appeared in the 1980s in connection with Augusto Pinochet’s economic reforms in Chile, the usage of the term had shifted. It had not only become a term with negative connotations employed principally by critics of market reform, but it also had shifted in meaning from a moderate form of liberalism to a more radical and laissez-faire capitalist set of ideas. Scholars now tended to associate it with the theories of economists Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James M. Buchanan, along with politicians and policy-makers such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan.

      The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

  3. Harold

    I may be wrong, but I understood that Eastern Europe, though racist and xenophobic, was not yet planning on jettisoning its social safety net, as the GOP under Trump is.

    1. nonsense factory

      They were really being forced to after the 2008 economic crash, and subsequent fallout. Here’s a discussion of this factor and how it unrolled:

      As liquidity dried up in global financial markets, investors retreated to ‘safer’ havens in the core capitalist states. Faced with this situation, the openness of the CEE economies turned out to be a recipe for disaster. The combination of relatively small economies (except Poland), together with extreme openness to foreign capital and high dependency on exports left the region highly exposed to the effectsof the credit crunch.The Hungarian economy fitted these descriptions perfectly. Its economic openness is extremely high: its proportion of trade in total GDP amounted to 161.4 per cent in 2008 (the highest in the EU-10) and 70 per cent of this trade went to advanced economies. . .

      These concerns boiled over in October 2008 when foreign investors sold more than US $ 2 billion of Hungarian government securities (nearly 5 per cent of Hungary’s foreign-owned securities at the time) within a couple of days. Government officials and policymakers in Budapest now admitted that Hungary faced the threat of a ‘run on the forint’. . .

      A bailout package of US $ 25.1 billion was provided, with the IMF providing two-thirds of the sum, the EU covering the majority of the remainder and the World Bank chipping in with a little more than US $ 1 billion. In return, the socialist minority government agreed to implement austerity measures, including savage welfare spending cuts and tax increases. . .- From poster boy of neoliberal transformation to basket case: Hungary and the global economic crisis From: First the Transition, then the Crash: Eastern Europe in the 2000s

      A classic ‘shock doctrine’ intervention, aka “when there’s blood on the ground, buy property.” The far right capitalized on the public anger over this in 2010, it looks like.

  4. vlade

    Post-Com states is a very complicated situation, and TBH, I don’t think that liberalism or neo-lib is the only thing – or even THE thing – that can be blamed for the state they are in.
    The items I’d note (and it’s not a comprehensive list)

    – Elites (political and economical)in most of the countries there either were, or have direct connections with the elites (often it includes secret service people, but given that majority of records on those were destroyed by the regimes very quickly, it’s often hard to prove either way) of the communist regimes.

    – the economies of the countries were backward, with the exception of the Czech Republic. Comparing even post-WW2 Germany with any of these countries (again, with the possible exception of CZ) is just dumb. That’s not to say the people in those countries did not expect to get up to the level of “West” well within one generation, but realistically, it was never going to be the case.

    – because, if nothing else, the smartest and the most enterpreneurous from these countries emigrated en-masse – even before them joining the EU. More than 1m Poles emigrated (one interesting consequence of Brexit may be that more than a few might be returning to Poland – where it’s unlikely they would vote the current ruling party). In some of the Baltics the population shrunk by >10% by immigration, which was pretty much concentrated in the below-35 age. One exception to this is again Czech Republic, where the migration was much smaller (pretty much most of the emigration there occurred well before the ascension to the EU).

    – the communist regime heritage made (and still makes) it to get anything close to rule-of-law. Post-revolutions, majority of the judges were still the ones put in (and very often with direct links) to communist regimes, resulting in widespread corruption of the judiciary. It’s not uncommon in some countries for all lower courts to do very weird calls even now, which are subsequently overturned by constitutional (as in direct contradictions to standing laws) – if the claimant has the resources to push it all the way.

    – In general, there is still a substantial impact of the communist regimes on what is felt by the society to be acceptable (for example, the “tax is theft” is a statement that a number of middle class people would strongly agree, even those who say they are left leaning. Probably much higher than in the “West” – and that despite the direct tax being often smaller). It’s quite interesting, as in some cases the communist “all for society” (which, from practical perspective was a lie, and known to be a lie) got very quickly replaced by Thatcherite “there’s no society, only individuals” at just about all levels.

    That all said, there are also interesting “exceptions” to the rule. For example, Fico in Slovakia (mentioned in the article) runs the largest party, got an absolute majority in the previous parliament etc. Yet, when he tried to concentrate even more power by running for president, he resoundingly (by almost 20%) lost to a pro-EU, liberal-views (not neo-lib) Kiska, on a turnout only slightly less than in parliamentary elections. Also, in recent regional elections in Slovakia, Fico’s party lost rather badly – which was the second large headline there from the elections, with the fist one being that an openly facist “zupan” (basically regional governor) elected the last time summarily sent out.

    There are presidential elections in the Czech Republic next Jan, and it will be interesting to see whether the current populist pro-Russia (his presidential staff has received Russian money openly in some cases) president Zeman will win or not – at the moment it looks like 50/50. This is interesting especially since the last elections (October this year) put in power the populist billionaire Babis (also mentioned in the article), and it looks like his minority government will be propped by an interesting coalition of Stalinist communists of KSCM (communist party of CZ) and pretty much neo-fasicst SPD (direct democracy party) – which have only about three common items in their manifestos (leave EU, leave NATO, institute direct referendums), none of which is in Babis’ manifesto.

    1. DJG

      Thanks, vlade. As I read the article, I was reminded that when Trump’s chances of victory were rising, some commenters and I were comparing him to Berlusconi. Berlusconi, in some respects, is still a better model for what Trump is: well-connected real estate developer, media tycoon, serial divorcer with current (indifferent?) model-wife.

      Yet the one notable way that this article draws a link between Trump and Central Europe is in the venomous nationalism. This article reminded me how much venomous nationalism made a mess of Poland and Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, with them going so far as to have adventures in confiscating parts of neighboring countries. So what did the Poles and Hungarians (and not just their dubious elites) do on return of republican forms? Repeat the illiberal 1930s. So Trump also represents a cultural crisis in the United States, which may have a nasty side to American nationalism, but nothing so befogged by romance and a sense of victimhood as the Poles and Hungarians. (Not to mention the Latvians and the Estonians, for all their protestations of post-Soviet reformism. And the article doesn’t even mention Romania, so damaged by years of bad government that it seems only to totter along from crisis to crisis.)

      And I am glad that you pointed out the mass exodus, caused by the economic dislocations and the neoliberal faith of the elites: Certainly, Lithuania, which recently may or may not have stabilized population-wise, saw its population plummet. Even the Russians couldn’t pull off that trick. And, possibly because their neighbors have all devolved into nationalist-neoliberal states, including Belarus, the Lithuanians have not fallen quite as badly for the fog of nationalism. Or I may be thoroughly biased because the G family originated way out in the Lithuanian countryside in one of those tragic towns that once had a little synagogue and even a Lutheran church. Once upon a time.

      A reminder of how all of these tendencies like lack of justice, economic experiments, appeals to so-called Christian morality, fantasies of a glorious national past will end.

      1. vlade

        Yep, I didn’t mention the nationalism, which is rampant in the whole region. In late 19th, early 20th century it was seen as essential to protect themselves and in a lot of cases their relatively new (or newly reacquired – Poland as a state was dead from 1700s, other longer) identity. The nationalism was quite forcibly supressed by USSR (after all, it was meant to be comraderial internationalism), which as often as not meant it blew up in late 1980s with all the force of suppressed thing. Slovakia was probably the first to get extreme nationalist populists with Meciar, which managed to ruin the country pretty quick while enriching himself and his cronies, only to move from him to a right-wing neo-lib government which seemed better to them (admitedly, the wealth was spreada bit more under them, even if some of the poorest regions got no improvements)

        To an extent, the current situation is quite paradoxical, because on one hand you have adoration of Putin and what he did with Russia, while at the same time fear of it (most extreme probably in Poland).

  5. makedoanmend

    Instability as a social policy is a fundamental tenet of capitalism. It is a virtue. By making the working classes’ situations precarious: 1) it turns some of them into low paid but tax paying entrepreneurs with a dubious ability to survive in the elder years 2) instils market discipline in another category of workers allowing them to accept immiseration wages 3) and can ultimately teach those that are slowly wasting away that they have failed the system.

    I suppose there is a parallel between the utter disruption to lives of ordinary workers in former Socialist countries of Eastern Europe, abetted by promises that can’t be fulfilled by capitalism to many of those same workers, and the disruption to the lives of President Trump’s supporters who have seen most of their working class safety net vapourised in the name of markets. Although, I would say the USA in on the leading edge of seeing just what intolerances the population as a whole can tolerate and still maintain some sort of coherent social order. I would image capitalists of other countries are eagerly anticipating the outcomes but are thankful that the USA is leading this new and progressive economic experiment so that they don’t have to.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      “widening inequality and failed economic promises pave the way for reactionary politics.” … a feature, not a bug.

    2. nonclassical

      …see – hear…I would add I suspect oligarchy would just as soon be rid of those unable to enhance GDP – growth…nothing but a burden upon “society” and in particular government taxes…which need be directed towards donors to enablers….

      …simple to “follow the $$$$” (“tax reform”) to trump donars…they don’t even bother hide it at this point.

  6. Adam Eran

    The Trump phenomenon is is not exactly new, either: “Nineteenth-century Germans showed how the Volk, or the people became a sentimental refuge from the arduous experience of modernity; many sank deeper into resentment and hatred of the existing order while waiting for true national grandeur….[So, more recently] in the very places where secular modernity arose, with ideas that were then universally established–individualism (against the significance of social relations), the cult of efficiency and utility (against the ethic of honour), and the normalization of self-interest–the mythic Volk has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.

    “But nationalism is, more than ever before a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other’; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon.”– from Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

    Mishra notes that Gandhi’s assassin belonged to Modi’s party, and Modi, Berlusconi, etc. are symptoms of this same disease.

  7. Scott

    For the majority anywhere in the world life as an experiment
    First time for them,
    Is about work and a paycheck.
    That is what capitalism is for us, a paycheck.
    Then what do you have but citizenship?
    When the paychecks run out.
    A paycheck for being a citizen comes
    from the government of the nation you are
    A citizen of.
    If you had gotten a decent education before
    you started getting paychecks,
    You’d know what to do with it.
    “Dictatorship of the proletariat is Dictatorship.”
    Something “Counter Revolutionaries”, ripped
    off & imprisoned Russians said
    in Concentration Camps of the GPU.
    Stupid people, ignorant people
    Feel on sight, in their ears on the
    streets, or in their homes if they
    still have them, Fair.
    Fair to everybody mean what?
    Not fair to anybody.
    What it takes to get paid fairly
    In the job trapped in
    Has been achieved through organized
    For awhile workers went on vacations,
    Howard Johnson’s flourished.
    Trillions were given to Wall St.
    workers were thrown from their homes.
    No money spent on new transformational
    businesses that gave jobs that paid
    Cash used to buy homes.
    Rents Raised. Stupid bankers.
    The whole trick is to be jettisoned
    That social contract that amounted to
    Government support for businesses
    That never pay their employees enough
    With the Gov. making it so there were
    citizenship handouts & SS
    to maintain the chosen’s profits.
    “Hell to pay.” Some people say.
    War is the answer.
    Maybe all will be lost.
    If what was in the Treasury
    was spent differently,
    Things would be different.

  8. nonclassical

    “By the time Bill Clinton took the White House in 1993, the focus of the “new” Democrats was already shifting to global free-trade deals that would only accelerate the country’s loss of manufacturing jobs and a harsh vision of social spending represented most starkly by Clinton’s grim version of welfare reform.”

    …it wasn’t Bill Clinton who created NAFTA; here is video documentation George HW Bush signing NAFTA (his campaign theme) with Mexico and Canada, Dec. 17, 1992:


    and it wasn’t Bill Clinton who created “welfare reform”; it was Newt Gingrich led congress, “Contract with America”, documented video here:


    and here is Senator Sanders video stating exactly same, at the time:


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