Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nationalism in Eastern Europe

Ross Douthat has a long column this week on the opposition to European centralization that has cropped up all over the continent, but especially in the east. He quotes Branko Milanovic, a former World Bank economist:
When one draws a line from Estonia to Greece … one notices that all currently existing countries along that axis were during the past several centuries (and in some cases, the past half-millenium) squeezed by the empires: German (or earlier by Prussia) Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman. All these countries fought, more or less continuously, to free themselves from the imperial pressure … their histories are practically nothing but unending struggles for national and religious emancipation.
Most of these nations, Milanovic continues, experienced the events of 1989 primarily as a national liberation, and only secondarily as a victory for liberal principles over totalitarian or authoritarian alternatives. And the nation-states that emerged from ’89 tended to be ethnically homogeneous and proudly so, with their political independence and sense of shared identity inextricably linked.

So it should not be surprising that countries so recently emancipated would embrace the project of European Union liberalism only insofar as it does not seem to threaten either their long-traduced sovereignty or their just-reclaimed identity, and would be wary of a cosmopolitan vision that seems like it could dissolve what they so recently have gained.

As Marusic writes in his essay, from a liberal-cosmopolitan perspective that “sees 1989 primarily as an ideological triumph” for universal values, “much of the politics of the past 10 years in Eastern Europe can only be seen as backsliding,” with leaders like Viktor Orban “a symptom of political decay.”

But from the vantage point of those same countries, for whom independence itself feels hard won and precarious, it seems strange that they should be expected to surrender to a different form of empire just because it dresses its appeals in the language of universal liberalism — especially when the language has a distinctly German accent.
As I've said before, if liberalism is presented as a threat to national identity and local democracy, if it allies itself with bureaucracy and anti-democratic centralization, it will fail. Liberalism must be democratic first. It must speak of allowing people to choose their own destinies, not of imposed solutions. The massive reaction against over-reach in the European Union shows what will happen if liberalism loses touch with the people.


David said...

Isn't this an alternative version of what you're saying: people are fundamentally illiberal, and it is up to liberals to shut up and conform.

David said...

On the one hand, if after a century of bloody struggle, including history's two most terrible wars, all the eastern Europeans have to show for it is, "Finally, it's all Hungarians here!"--that seems a poor sort of goal for a society to have, IMHO.

On the other, the liberal elites gave us asylums, fiscal uniformity, endless reports, and a whole range of other obnoxious, "Doctor knows best" controlling mechanisms.

I suppose we need a wise emperor, or a clever, verbally careful politician, to keep the balance. But when Pericles or Marcus Aurelius inevitably die, it all goes to shit.