Twenty Political Reads to Help You Steer the Troubled Waters of 2019 (1/2)

Updated: Dec 30, 2018

How can we make sense of politics when major democracies slide into the hands of demagogues  populists, and authoritarians who erode individual liberties, undermine institutions, suffocate the press, create enemies of foreigners and minorities, and turn their backs on multilateral cooperation in favour of narrow national priorities?   


Part I - Illuminating the Darkness With a view to the bloody history of the 20th century, we explore the lure of Fascism with Madeline Albright [1] and Umberto Eco [2], we examine the incomparable blood-trail Nazism and Stalinism left in Eastern Europe with Anne Applebaum [3], and we learn about Argentina’s descent into authoritarianism in the 1970ies with Uki Goñi [4]. Looking at the authoritarian storms of the present, we investigate the actual policies left-wing and right-wing populist governments have pursued with Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle [5], we scrutinise the poisonous effects of imperial nostalgia with Elif Shafak [6], we learn about the lies that lay the foundation of illiberal rulers in Poland and Hungary with Anne Applebaum [7], we analyse how technologies that were hailed for their potential for liberation have become tools of autocrats with Zeynep Tufekci [8], and we delve into the destructive dynamics of what Pankaj Mishra [9] calls imperial liberal globalism:


  1. Madeleine Albright on how to face the cynicism of left-wing and right-wing populism: "We must push back harder against the cynicism of both right and left. Fascism thrives when there are no social anchors, when the perception takes hold that the media always lies, the courts are corrupt, democracy is a sham, corporations are in thrall to the devil, and only a strong hand can protect against the evil “other”—whether Jew, Muslim, black, so-called redneck or so-called elite. Flawed though our institutions may be, they are the best that 4,000 years of civilization have produced and cannot be cast aside without opening the door to something far worse. ... The right response to thuggish politics is not more thuggery; it is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make democracies more effective. We should remember that the heroes we cherish—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela—spoke to the best within us." Read the interview here (Economist, 2018)

  2. Umberto Eco's timeless analysis of the constituent elements of fascism: "In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view – one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction." Read the whole essay here (New York Review of Books, 1995).

  3. Anne Applebaum reminds us what happened under the totalitarian nightmare brought about by Hitler and Stalin: "This is the region [referring Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus] that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. In this period, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów, it was no longer in eastern Poland but in western Ukraine, and its Polish and Jewish pre-war population had been murdered or deported and replaced...” Read the entire article here (New York Review of Books, November 2010).

  4. Uki Goñi on how authoritarianism arrived in Argentina in the 1970ies: "For many Argentines, then, the military represented not a subjugation to arbitrary rule, but a release from the frustrations, complexity, and compromises of representative government. A large part of society clasped with joy the extended hand of totalitarian certainty. Life was suddenly simplified by conformity to a single, uncontested power. For those who cherish democracy, it is necessary to comprehend the secret delight with which many greeted its passing... Whipped up by the irrational fear of a communist takeover, this impatience won the day. And once Argentina had accepted the necessity for a single, absolute solution, the killing could begin." Read the entire essay here (New York Review of Books, August 2018)

  5. Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle on the anti-democratic track record of current populist governments on both the left and the right:"According to our research, populist governments have deepened corruption, eroded individual rights, and inflicted serious damage on democratic institutions… But are all populists equally dangerous? -... Since 1990, 13 right-wing populist governments have been elected; of these, five brought about significant democratic backsliding. Over the same time period, 15 left-wing populist governments were elected; of these, the same number, five, brought about significant democratic backsliding. This suggests that left-wing populists are not likely to be a cure for right-wing populism; they are, on the contrary, likely to accelerate the speed with which democracy burns out." Read the whole text here (The Atlantic, December 2018).

  6. Anne Applebaum on Poland's descent into tribalist politics and illiberal democracy: "From Orwell to Koestler, the European writers of the 20th century were obsessed with the idea of the Big Lie. The vast ideological constructs that were Communism and fascism, the posters demanding fealty to the Party or the Leader, the Brownshirts and Blackshirts marching in formation, the torch-lit parades, the terror police—these Big Lies were so absurd and inhuman, they required prolonged violence to impose and the threat of violence to maintain.. [I]n Poland, and in Hungary too, we now have examples of what happens when a Medium-Size Lie—a conspiracy theory—is propagated first by a political party as the central plank of its election campaign, and then by a ruling party, with the full force of a modern, centralized state apparatus behind it... Read the entire article here (The Atlantic, 2018).

  7. Elif Shafak explains how glorifying the past can poison the present: "Memory is a responsibility. We ought to remember the past, not only in its polished glories but also its atrocities and injustices. Rhetoric about returning to a golden past is not innocent and it is not the right way forward. Let us please not be so complacent as to assume that imperial nationalism, a toxic liquid that has turned sour in country after country, will not have the same effect in the UK because, after all, “this place is different”. That’s exactly what a Hungarian, Turkish, Croatian, Austrian or German imperial-nationalist would have said. As Europe witnesses a rise in a new form of political nostalgia, the last thing we need is for British politicians to jump on this doomed bandwagon. No country is exceptional. We are all in this mess together." Read the whole text here (Guardian, 2018) .

  8. Zeynep Tufekci on how authoritarians are using the digital tools that once had been hailed as tools of liberation: "Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands. This is a hard lesson of history but a solid one. It is key to understanding how, in seven years, digital technologies have gone from being hailed as tools of freedom and change to being blamed for upheavals in Western democracies—for enabling increased polarization, rising authoritarianism, and meddling in national elections by Russia and others." Read the whole text here (Medium, 2018).

  9. Pankaj Mishra’s critique of imperialist liberalism: "Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise..." Read the entire interview here (LA Review of Books, 2018).

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© 2018 Ivo Nicholas Scherrer