‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’ by Anne Applebaum

2020, 189 p.

I was aware of Anne Applebaum’s work on the Soviet gulags, and I think that I have read several of her essays and pieces in various journals and newspapers, but I confess that it didn’t really occur to me to wonder about her own political affiliations. That’s just as well, because I probably wouldn’t have read this book otherwise, closed as I am in my own little leftish-leaning progressive bubble. In this book, which is a mixture of memoir and political argument, Applebaum talks about her falling out with her friends, most of whom would fit into that American Enterprise Institute, Thatcheritish, conservative-leaning (but not Trumpian) Republican world of intellectuals and diplomats.

In this extended essay/memoir, she starts off with a New Years Eve party that she threw in 1999 – the dawn of a new millenium- attended by journalist friends from London and Moscow, junior diplomats based in Warsaw, a few friends from New York and their Polish friends, cousins and a handful of youngish Polish journalists. Her husband was then foreign minister in a centre-right Polish government. She herself had worked at The Spectator between 1992 and 1996.

You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right- the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcher-ites. Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union (EU), a Poland that was an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.

p. 2

That was twenty years ago. Twenty years on, she says, she would now cross the street to avoid some of those people, who, in turn would refuse to enter her house. They have found themselves on different sides of a political divide that runs through the Polish right, the Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British right and the American right. (p. 4)

Although she says that this is a political difference, it has bled into the personal as well. Ania Bielecka, a close friend and the godmother of one of her children, is now close to the leader of the Polish Law and Justice party, and no longer responds to her texts. Another friend has become a full-time internet troll, several are conspiracy theorists. As she points out, these friends have been educated at the best universities, often speak foreign languages, live in big cities. They form part of the group she calls ‘clercs’, a term used by the French essayist Julien Benda to describe the authoritarian elite of the 1920s-30s, the writers, journalists and essayists, who morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists who goaded whole civilizations into acts of violence. (p.18) She goes on to talk about current-day clercs who have brought their academic and media reputations to give cover to far-right figures and their agendas.

She distinguishes between two types of nostalgia, drawing on the work of Russian essayist Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia. ‘Reflective’ nostalgia is an appeal to the past and its yellowed pages and memory, without actually wanting to bring it back. ‘Restorative nostalgia’ want to “rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps”, as Boym expressed it. It often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories and ‘medium-sized’ lies.

She dates the cultural despair which has driven some British Tories into the arms of UKIP to the end of Thatcherism and the end of the Cold War, sometime between the 1990s and the 2010s. She suggests that the ‘grassroots’ conservatism of Trump’s America or Brexit is a reaction against complexity, often driven by major demographic change, inequality and wage decline and disappointment with meritocracy. It is amplified by the “contentious, cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself” (p. 109)

She draws on examples from across the Northern hemisphere, but concentrates on Brexit in the UK, Trump’s America, Hungary, Poland and Spain. In all these countries, far-right parties have been supported by ‘intellectuals’. Why? she asks. They operate from a variety of motives, she suggests. It is not a charitable list:

The people described range from nativist ideologues to high-minded political essayists; some of them write sophisticated books, others launch viral conspiracy theories. Some are genuinely motivated by the same fears, the same anger, and the same deep desire for unity that motivates their readers and followers. some have been radicalized by angry encounters with the cultural left, or repulsed by the weakness of the liberal centre. Some are cynical and instrumental, adopting radical or authoritarian language because it will bring them power or fame. Some are apocalyptic, convinced that their societies have failed and need to be reconstructed, whatever the result. Some are deeply religious. Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order. All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.

p.21

I found myself thinking of historians and commentators who I have watched embed themselves with the far right. Is it only because I dislike their stance that I find myself ascribing one or another of these motives to them?

She closes her book with another party, held in Poland again, in August 2019. Once-luxurious goods like portable sound systems and basalmic vinegar had become common-place; some of the guests had also attended their 1999 shindig. Some of them weren’t even in 2019. She felt that the division between ‘somewheres’ (i.e. people rooted to a particular place) and ‘anywheres’ (i.e. people who travel) was not visible.

But by March 2020 the world had changed again with the abrupt closure of borders because of COVID. She ends by being unsure which future faces us: perhaps we are living through the twilight of democracy and heading towards anarchy or tyranny; or perhaps the coronavirus will inspire a new sense of global solidarity. (I think that vaccine nationalism has put an end to that optimistic hope). She reminds us that liberal democracies have always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort and struggle (p. 189). And they always acknowledged the possibility of failure.

We always knew, or should have known, that history could once again reach into our private lives and rearrange them. We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of nations would try to draw us in. But maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them.

p. 189

An interesting aside: in America this book was titled Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I’m racking my brains to work out the motives for the different title.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s