Deadlock of Western liberalism. Petr Agha Reviews a Book by Krastev and Holmes

The Light that Failed: A Reckoning fails to deliver a fresh interpretation which would venture beyond the traditional liberal mantra. It is a representation of the contemporary deadlock of Western liberalism, writes Petr Agha.


The world looks very different now than what many anticipated thirty years ago. Back then, the end of the Cold War was supposed to confirm that democracy and capitalism were the only imaginable political and economic systems. Of course, that is not the world we have lived in or live in now. What went wrong? This is the question that Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes ask in their book The Light that Failed: A Reckoning which has so far received many accolades. 

This book joins others as authors have produced a number of similar books since the beginning of the global financial crisis. Bookshelves are bursting in seams with books about populist “threats”, academic journals feature a great number of articles on the topic and the result is quite unfortunate as populism studies find itself in a crisis of originality. At first glance Krastev and Holmes’ book doesn’t offer a new or, in any sense, radical account which ventures beyond what has already been published on the topic, but there are a number of interesting perspectives which are really worth considering. 

The book’s central question is how it was possible that the triumph of the West in the Cold War produced not a victory for liberalism but a series of defeats and disasters. With the collapse of communism, liberal democracy triumphed as an all-encompassing model of modernity. What followed was “copycat Westernization” in which countries all over the world found themselves pressured to mimic the institutions, values, and ways of life of the United States and Western Europe. And herein lies the crux of the problem, according to Krastev and Holmes, as the result has been a deep and festering resentment in those societies which has resulted in a pervasive political counterattack against liberalism.

Imitation and its Discontents

Krastev and Holmes deliver their argument through three case major studies: Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Russia and the United States. These countries, according to them, have gone through a serious denunciation of post-89 liberalism. 

In the first chapter, “The Copycat Mind,” they argue that the transition in Central and Eastern Europe lacked an alternative, which already created a feeling of disrespect towards local culture and traditions. The language with which the process was presented and justified by the authors mostly took the form of pedagogical tones, the phrase “growing up to democracy” had become an intrinsic part of the vocabulary of the transformation process. CEE was supposed to learn how to join again the normal historical path to democracy, economic prosperity, and cultural excellence of the West, from which it was diverted by its communist totalitarian past. This rhetoric was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of the leaders of democratic change in the CEE. The next two chapters “Imitation as Retaliation” and “Imitation as Dispossession” focus on post–Cold War Russia and the political rise of Donald Trump, to further illustrate the validity of the “imitation thesis”. This review focuses primarily on CEE and how Krastev and Holmes’ theoretical apparatus might help us understand the current situation in the region, for this reason I’m leaving out other parts of the book to gain more space to address the CEE-related aspects.

What is this “politics of imitation” thesis that they put forward? Central Europeans were true believers in liberal democracy. Krastev and Holmes call them “Converts”. Central Europeans seemed not only to wholeheartedly adopt the means and techniques of Western liberal democracies, but also to introject their goals and desires. The dream for Poland or Hungary and others was to be like Germany but the process of imitation proved psychologically humiliating and politically taxing. They were subjected to the judgment of their mentors, who constantly reminded them of their inadequacy, and in each subsequent attempt to approach the norm, they pointed to the distance that still separated them from it. This misrepresentation undermined the newcomers’ sense of self-esteem and accumulated resentment and a desire for revenge.

In Krastev and Holmes’ account, the right-wing politics coming to the fore in Hungary, Poland, and other post-communist countries has less to do with the reassertion of primordial nationalist and illiberal identities than with a perceived need on the part of their citizens for independence, recognition, and dignity. 

The Closing of an Age

Krastev and Holmes identify correctly that the current wave of populism in the West and the (post-communist) East is probably best understood as an expression of the discontent with how the post-‘89 transformation had turned out for many. Liberalism’s reputation, they write, never recovered from the 2008 crisis, because the self-legitimization processes of liberalism, which depended on a structure of society that allowed sufficiently substantial sections of society to acquire a better standard of living (mostly based on credit) began to disintegrate. 

Not only did the crisis have a significant impact on the reputation of the liberal project, the crisis also translated into the actual socio-economic conditions of people world-wide. This is an important point, raised by other authors, and Krastev and Holmes did well to have incorporated this into their analysis. However, their consideration is somehow exhausted by the crisis of 2008, while the roots of that problem need to be seen also in the changed world economy and absence of regulation and moderation over the last thirty or so years, which doesn’t make it into their analysis.  

Taking the 2008 crisis as their point of departure leaves the impression that the authors are unaware of the transformation of the world since the 1990s.

They do not engage seriously with changed geopolitical situation, where the dominance of the USA has been slowly replaced by multipolar world order.

Besides this, there are a number of events and developments which might also shed some light on the crisis of liberalism. They do name the profound demographic change, but reserve this argument almost exclusively as an explanation for the shifts in the CEE region as if other parts of the world did not experience similar challenges with the same or different effect on the composition of societies, their ideological preferences or their institutional structures. Technologies and the way they dramatically changed society, its ways of communication, political marketing, deliberation and the profound atomization of society, were not included enough in their analysis either. 

In addition, there are new forms of political experiences, online and offline movements, and a new kind of political consciousness, which do not necessarily follow the logic of political institutions and big ideologies of the 20th century. Krastev and Holmes do mention technologies, but only in connection with the election of Trump and not as something which has profoundly changed our societal and political landscape to such an extent that perhaps mass ideology, such as modern-day liberalism, may have a very hard time to preserve its post-Cold War dominance. These transformations, and I put forward only the most evident examples, have changed the world in which liberalism and its institutional and economics derivatives operate.

The post-Cold War liberalism is strangely enough never questioned in the book.  And, if liberalism emerged as the undisputed ideology of the post-Cold War era—meaning a combination of democracy and capitalism—which form of capitalism do we have? Has it changed? If so, how? 

These questions, unexplored in The Light That Failed, are essential to understanding the post–Cold War era and to answer the question they pose – “what if we were wrong?”. In their telling, the fatal flaw was that in the post-Cold War era, the world was divided in two, separating “imitators from the imitated, established democracies from countries struggling to complete the transition to democracy.” (p. 10) This dichotomy established a moral hierarchy, fueling shame, resentment, and eventually retaliation.  

Their argument is however one step removed from the key problem of the post-Cold War liberalism, which was the conviction that the West’s own political and economic development was complete. Along with numerous books and newspaper articles the book largely presumes that these debates have been settled, so that any doubts about that settlement must be symptoms of confusion or bad faith. Krastev and Holmes join those who claim that the current version of liberal capitalism is (in addition to being the only option) the best way for society and economics to function. The tendency to naturalize the current form of liberal democracy as the unquestioned horizon of our political possibilities is expressed by the familiar formula ‘there is no alternative’ which Krastev and Holmes themselves identify as one of the most problematic aspects of the post-1989 transformation. It is this unquestioned horizon that creates two camps – populist and anti-populist. The segments of society that, in the liberal discourse, carry the labels of populist, are colorfully portrayed as folklorist and kitsch and disregarded, while liberal ideology is portrayed as a guarantee of the dominant political-economic state of affairs, a state that is considered normal. 

In other words, recent developments are described as a pathology that needs to be combated. But, instead of critically engaging with the very foundations of the post-89 project, the authors rather want to draw on and strengthen the principles which helped build the post-89 liberal political, economic and institutional regime simply because they believe them to be right. They stop short of delivering a truly meaningful analysis precisely because they are deeply rooted in the narratives and ideology of the early 1990s which they helped to construct. Although the authors distance themselves from historical or cultural determinism which links the perceived xenophobic nature of the CEE region to its inherited identity, they also see their cause in its past, though not pre-communist or communist, but post-communist.

Adopting this lens into our epistemological field provides us with comfortable answers. However, it seriously hinders our ability to analyze the changing organizational patterns of party politics, identify the rise of new political divisions rooted in the decline of traditional economic identities and political identification. All these events and factors suddenly become inherent representations and symptoms of backsliding populist movements and this pattern in turn blinds us to the deficiencies of the current form of liberal capitalism. The uncomfortable truth is that the current form of liberal democracy does not have an answer to the questions posed by the current wave of discontent and dissent. These seem to escape the understanding of the authors, despite the fact that these phenomena are signs of a deep transformation of the political imaginary that the authors convincingly represent. 

What is missing?

The book makes a number of informative observations along the way. Indeed, the authors’ conceptual grappling with the notion of imitation is intriguing but, as we have seen, it rests on a number of problematic assumptions. Krastev and Holmes portray Central and Eastern European leaders as mimics while leaving all the contradictions in the story of the liberal West  to one side. This is particularly notable insofar as their account of the crisis of liberalism builds precisely on the dichotomy between “barricaded national and ethnic communities” (p. 192) waging an “identity-based war” (p. 192) against liberal universalism of the West. However, it seems to me that there are two great weakness of the book.

Firstly, it is the inability of the authors to critically examine liberalism as ideology as well as the political and institutional designs it has inspired. Secondly, it is the marked tendency to summarize the global anti-liberal politics into labels such as populism and authoritarianism, instead of giving light to a set of diverse political, social and economic developments in the past 30 years. 

For a start, I think it is important to distinguish between illiberalism as reality and illiberalism as signifier. The first refers to a complex cluster of phenomena ranging from party ideology and organization to statecraft, while the second includes the usage of this term in specific debates. As for the latter, it is clear that many academics and journalists have become blinded by the label “illiberal / populist”. In both journalistic and academic settings, the rise of this type of anti-populist books does a lot of disservice to the cause they profess, which is to analyse “what went wrong” and to find ways to answer the challenges of today.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, we all expected, including Krastev and Holmes, that liberal democracy as conceived in the West would easily prevail. Today we are facing the fading of this belief. In reaction to this, not just mainstream academia but also European institutions launched an obsessive anti-populist campaign. This has little to do with many of today’s challenges to liberal democratic politics. There is an important agenda of liberal democratic reform, and anti-populism is not an authentic response to the current challenges. 

This is why the book, despite all its strength, ultimately fails to deliver a fresh interpretation which would venture beyond the traditional liberal mantra. The Light that Failed: A Reckoning is a representation of the contemporary deadlock of Western liberalism. But perhaps the failure in projecting any coherent alternative to the current literature in the field is not a failure of imagination or analytical perceptiveness — virtues which both authors definitely do not lack. It is simply the reflection of our structural reality, whereby labels like populist, East, West, illiberal, Trump, Putin or democracy obfuscate the ongoing crisis of not only the European project, but also the very foundations upon which it has been built.  

Petr Agha

The Light that Failed: A Reckoning

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes 

Published by Pegasus Books 2020

Contact Us