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Majoritarian Futures

Ivan Krastev

In his novel Death with Interruptions (2008), José Saramago tells the story of a country where people suddenly stop dying and death loses its central role in human life. At first, people are gripped by euphoria, but soon “awkwardness” of various kinds – metaphysical, political and practical – starts to come back into their world. The Catholic church realises that “without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church”.1 For insurance companies, life without death also means oblivion. The state faces the impossible task of paying pensions forever. Families with elderly and infirm relatives become aware that it is only death that saves them from an eternity of nursing care. A mafia-style cabal emerges to smuggle old and sick people to neighbouring countries (where death is still an option). The prime minister warns the monarch: “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”2

Saramago is short on details regarding the political turmoil in the unnamed “End-of-Death-Land”, but we can easily imagine “occupy movements” in which young and unemployed people stage protests and occupy public squares once they discover there will be no jobs for them in this “land of no death”, and that the politics of the place will be dominated by older generations. It is also easy to assume the rise of “great again” right-wing populist parties and leaders. In short, Saramago’s novel is a great introduction to today’s world.

The West’s experience with globalisation resembles Saramago’s imagined flirtation with immortality. It is a dream that suddenly turned into a nightmare. Just a few years ago, many in the West tended to view the opening up of the world as the end of all troubles. This enthusiasm has vanished. Instead, we are witnessing a worldwide insurgence against the progressive post-1989 liberal order defined by the opening of borders for people, capital, goods and ideas, an insurgence that takes the form of democracy’s revolt against liberalism.

The paradoxical effect of the spread of democracy in the non-Western world, according to a recent study, is that citizens

in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.3

The study also shows that “younger generations are less committed to the importance of democracy” and that they are “less likely to be politically engaged”.4

No less puzzling are the effects of the revolution in communications. Today people can Google virtually everything there is to know about the world, and censorship has become practically impossible. At the same time, we can observe a stunning spread of abstruse conspiracy theories and a dramatic rise in public mistrust of democratic institutions. The irony is that the death of censorship has brought us post-truth politics.

What we witness in the West today is not a temporary setback in a progressive development, not a “pause”, but a reversal. It is the unmaking of the post-1989 world, and the most dramatic feature of this ongoing transformation is not the rise of authoritarian regimes, but the changing nature of democratic ones in many Western countries. In the first decades after 1989 the spread of free elections meant the inclusion of different minority groups (ethnic, religious, sexual) in public life. Today elections foster the empowerment of majority groups. Threatened majorities have emerged as the major force in European politics. They fear that foreigners are taking over their countries and endangering their way of life, and they are convinced that this is the result of a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants. The populism of these majorities is not the product of romantic nationalism, as might have been the case a century or more ago. Rather, it is fuelled by demo- graphic projections that foreshadow not only the expected mass movements of people to Europe and the US but also the shrinking role of both globally, as well as by the disruptions brought about by the technological revolution. Demography makes Europeans imagine a world in which their cultures are vanishing, while the technological revolution promises them a world in which their current jobs will disappear. The transformation of Western public opinion from a revolutionary into a reactionary force explains the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe and the victory of Donald Trump in the US.

The end of ... ?
A little more than a quarter-century ago, in what now seems like the very distant year of 1989 – the annus mirabilis that saw Germans dancing joyfully on the rubble of the Berlin Wall – Francis Fukuyama captured the spirit of the time. With the end of the Cold War, he argued in a famous essay, all major ideological conflicts had been resolved.5 The contest was over, and history had produced a winner: Western-style liberal democracy. Taking a page from Hegel, Fukuyama presented the victory of the West in the Cold War as a favourable verdict delivered by History itself, understood as a kind of Higher Court of World Justice. In the short run, some countries might not succeed in emulating this exemplary model. But they would have to try. The Western model was the only (i)deal in town.

Within this framework, the central questions were: how can the West transform the rest of the world and how can the rest of the world best imitate the West? What institutions and policies need to be transferred and copied? It is this vision of the post-Cold War world that is collapsing before our eyes. The question posed by the unravelling of the liberal order is how the last three decades have transformed the West and why the post-1989 world is resented by those who, in the eyes of many, were its principal beneficiaries: Americans and Europeans. The current political turmoil in Europe and the US cannot be reduced to a revolt of the economic losers from globalisation. The strongest argument supporting the view that it is not only about the economy cites the case of Poland: Poles enjoyed a decade of impressive economic growth, prosperity and even the decline of social inequality; nevertheless in 2015 they voted for a reactionary populist party that they had voted out of power just a few years earlier. Why did they do that?

At the same time as Fukuyama was heralding history’s end, the American political scientist Ken Jowitt was presenting a very different interpretation of the end of the Cold War – not as a time of triumph but as the onset of crisis and trauma, a time when the seeds were sown for what he called “the new world disorder”.6 In his view, the end of communism “should be likened to a catastrophic volcanic eruption, one that initially and immediately affects only the surrounding political ‘biota’ (ie, other Leninist regimes), but whose effects most likely will have a global impact on the boundaries and identities that for half a century have politically, economically, and militarily defined and ordered the world”.7 In Fukuyama’s view, the borders between states would formally endure in the post-Cold War, but they would lose much of their relevance. Jowitt, on the other hand, envisioned redrawn borders, reshaped identities, proliferating conflicts and paralysing uncertainty. He saw the post-communist period not as an age of imitation with few dramatic events, but as a painful and dangerous era full of regimes that could best be described as political mutants.

Jowitt agreed with Fukuyama that no new universal ideology would appear to challenge liberal democracy, but he foresaw the return of old ethnic, religious and tribal identities. And indeed, one of the paradoxes of globalisation is that while the free movement of people, capital, goods and ideas brings people closer to each other, it also reduces the capacity of nation-states to integrate strangers. As Arjun Appadurai observed a decade ago, “the nation state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethnos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full domination”.8 The unintended consequence of macroeconomic policies following the mantra “there is no alternative” is that identity politics have taken over the centre of European politics. The market and the internet have proven to be powerful forces for increasing the choices of individuals, but they have eroded the social cohesion of Western societies because both reinforce the inclination of individuals to satisfy their natural preferences, such as preferring contact with people like themselves and staying away from strangers. We live in a world that is more connected but also less integrated. Globalisation connects while disconnecting. Jowitt warned that in this connected/disconnected world we should be prepared for explosions of anger and the emergence of “movements of rage” that would spring from the ashes of weakened nation-states.

For Jowitt the post-Cold War order was more like “a singles bar of a kind”: “It’s a bunch of people who don’t know each other, who, in the lingo, hook up, go home, have sex, don’t see each other again, can’t remember each other’s names, go back to the bar and meet somebody else. So it’s a world that’s made up of disconnections.”9 This is a world rich in experience, but it does not lend itself to stable identities and it does not engender loyalties. Not surprisingly, as a reaction, we see the return of the barricade as the desired border. It is exactly this transition – from the disconnected world of the 1990s to the barricaded world emerging today – that has changed the role performed by democratic regimes. It replaces democracy as a regime favouring the emancipation of minorities with democracy as a political regime that secures the power of majorities.

The current refugee crisis in Europe is the most striking manifestation of the changing nature of the appeal of democracy and the rising tension between the principles of democratic majoritarianism and liberal constitutionalism for both the publics and the elites. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, spoke for many when he claimed that “a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy.”10 Moreover, he insisted, one could – and indeed should – say that societies founded upon liberal principles will likely not be able to sustain their global competitiveness in coming years. Rather, it is more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they manage to reform themselves substantially:

Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia. And I believe that our political community rightly anticipated this challenge. And if we think on what we did in the last four years, and what we are going to do in the following four years, then it really can be interpreted from this angle. We are searching for (and we are doing our best to find ways of parting with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them) the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race.11

The migration crisis, whatever EU officials in Brussels might say, is not about a “lack of solidarity”. Rather, it is about a clash of solidarities – of national, ethnic and religious soli- darities chafing against our obligations as human beings. It should be seen not simply as the movement of people from outside Europe to the old continent, or from poorer EU member states to richer ones, but also in terms of the movement of voters away from the centre, and of the displacement of the division between left and right by the division between internationalists and nativists.

The refugee crisis also sparked a migration of arguments. In the 1970s left-wing intellectuals in the West tended to defend passionately the right of poor indigenous communities in India or Latin America to preserve their way of life. But what about the middle-class communities in the West today? Are they to be deprived of the very same right? And how should we explain the fact that it is the traditional constituency of the left that is moving to the far right? In Austria, more than 85 per cent of blue-collar workers voted for the extreme national-conservative candidate in the second round of the May 2016 presidential elections. In German regional elections in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, more than 30 per cent of the same group supported Alternative für Deutschland. In the French regional elections in December 2015, the National Front won 50 per cent of the vote among working-class voters. The results of the British referendum are equally striking: Brexit polled strongest in the traditional “safe” Labour constituencies in the north of England. It is now clear that the post-Marxist working class, which today believes neither in its vanguard role nor in a global anti-capitalist revolution, has no reason to be internationalist.

Normative threats
The populism of the threatened majorities is a kind of populism for which history has poorly prepared us. It is psychologists rather than sociologists who can help us make sense of it. In the 1930s and 1940s some German émigrés who were lucky enough to escape the country before the Nazis could send them to concentration camps were haunted by the question of whether what they saw happening in Germany could happen in their new homelands. They were not content to explain authoritarianism simply in terms of the German national character or in terms of class politics. They were disposed to look at authoritarianism as a stable characteristic of an individual, as a certain type of personality. Since the 1950s the study of the “authoritarian personality” has undergone major changes and the original hypothesis has been significantly reformulated, but in her recent book The Authoritarian Dynamic Karen Stenner12, who works in this tradition, presents several findings that are of particular relevance for our attempt to understand the rise of threatened majorities and the changing nature of Western democracies. Stenner demonstrates that the demand for authoritarian rule is not a stable psychological trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition of individuals to become intolerant when they perceive increased levels of threat.

In Jonathan Haidt’s words, it’s “as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group”.13 And what pushes this button is not just any threat, but what Stenner calls a “normative threat”, when the person has the feeling

that the integrity of the moral order is endangered and the perceived ‘we’ is falling apart. It is a fear that the moral order is collapsing, rather than his concrete situation, that triggers his turn against foreigners and any others whom he sees as a threat.

Stenner’s notion of the “normative threat” helps us to understand better how the refugee crisis of 2015 has transformed European politics and why Central European societies were the ones that expressed the most hostile reactions, despite the fact that there are hardly any refugees in their countries. In the case of Europe, the “normative threat” posed by the refugee crisis has its roots in demographics. Curiously, demographic panic is one of the least discussed factors shaping Europeans’ behaviour towards migrants and refugees. But it is a critical one, and particularly important in Central and Eastern Europe. In the region’s recent history, nations and states have been known to wither. Over the last quarter-century, about one in ten Bulgarians has left to live and work abroad. And the majority of those who left (and leave) are, as one would expect, young people. According to UN projections, Bulgaria’s population will shrink by 27.9 per cent between now and 2050. In small nations like Bulgaria, Lithuania or Romania (over the last ten years Lithuania has lost 12.2 per cent of its population, Romania 7 per cent), alarm over “ethnic disappearance” can be felt. For them, the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an ageing Europe needs migrants only strengthens a growing sense of existential melancholy.

A decade ago, the Hungarian philosopher and former dissident Gáspár Miklós Tamás14 observed that the Enlightenment, in which the idea of the European Union is intellectually rooted, demands universal citizenship. But universal citizenship requires one of two things to happen: either poor and dysfunctional countries have to become places in which it is worthwhile to live, or Europe has to open its borders to everybody. Neither is going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Today the world is populated by many failed states nobody wants to be a citizen of, and Europe does not have the capacity, nor will its citizens ever agree, to keep the borders open.

The migrants’ revolution
In 1981, when researchers of the University of Michigan conducted the first World Values Survey15, they were surprised to find that a nation’s happiness was not determined by its material well-being. Back then Nigerians were as happy as West Germans. But now, thirty-five years later, the situation has changed. According to the latest surveys, in most places people are as happy as their GDP would suggest.16 What happened in between was that Nigerians got TV sets and later the internet, which made it possible for young Africans to see how Europeans live and what their schools and hospitals look like. Globalisation has made the world a village, but this village lives under a dictatorship – the dictatorship of global comparisons. People do not compare their lives with those of their neighbours any more. They compare themselves with the most prosperous inhabitants of the planet.

In this connected world of ours, migration is the new revolution – not the twentieth-century revolution of the masses, but a twenty-first-century exit-driven revolution enacted by individuals and families and inspired not by pictures of the future painted by ideologues but by Google Maps photos of life on the other side of the border. This new revolution does not require political movements or political leaders to succeed. So we should not be surprised if, for many of the wretched of the earth, crossing the EU’s border is more attractive than any utopia. For a growing number of people, the idea of change means changing the country they live in rather than the government they live under.

The problem with this migrants’ revolution is its worrying capacity to provoke a counter-revolution in Europe. The key characteristic of many of the right-wing populist parties in Europe is not that they are national-conservative but that they are reactionary. Reflecting on the rise of reactionary politics in the West, Mark Lilla has observed that “the enduring vitality of the reactionary spirit even in the absence of a revolutionary political program” comes from the feeling that to “live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological changes, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution”.17 And for the reactionaries, “the only sane response to apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over”.18

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik turned out to be right with his warning some years ago that in order to manage the tensions between national democracy and the global market, nations have three options. They can restrict democracy in order to gain competitiveness in international markets. They can limit globalisation in the hope of building democratic legitimacy at home. Or they can globalise democracy at the cost of national sovereignty. What we cannot have is hyper-globalisation, democracy and self-determination all at once. So it should come as no surprise when internationalists begin to feel uneasy about national democracies and when democracy-praising populists turn out to be protectionist and isolationist.19

The populist turn
If history teaches us anything, it is that the spread of free elections can be an instrument for both opening and closing national societies. Democracy is a mechanism of inclusion but also of exclusion, and what we are witnessing today is the rise of majoritarian regimes in which the majority has turned the state into its own private possession – as an answer to the competitive pressure of a world in which popular will is the only source of political legitimacy and global markets are the only source of economic growth.

The “populist turn” is different in different countries, but we can identify some general similarities. The rise of populist sentiments means a return to political polarisation and a more confrontational style of politics (which is not necessarily a negative development). It reverses the process of fragmentation of the political space characterised by the mushrooming of small one-issue political parties and movements, and it makes publics focus not on their individual but on their collective fears. The rise of populism entails a return to a more personalised politics in which political leaders play a very significant role and institutions are most often mistrusted. The left/right divide is replaced by a conflict between inter- nationalists and nativists. The explosion of fears also marks

the dissolution of the union between democracy and liberalism that was the distinctive characteristic of the post-1989 world.

The real appeal of liberal democracy is that those defeated in elections need not fear losing too much: electoral defeat means having to regroup and plan for the next contest, not having to flee into exile or go underground while all one’s possessions are seized. The little-remarked downside of this is that for the winners, liberal democracy offers no chance of a full and final victory. In pre-democratic times – meaning the bulk of human history – disputes were not settled by peaceful debates and orderly handovers of power. Instead, force ruled: the victorious invaders or the winning parties in a civil war had their vanquished foes at their mercy, free to do with them as they liked. Under liberal democracy, the “conqueror” gets no such satisfaction. The paradox of liberal democracy is that citizens are freer, but they feel powerless.

The appeal of populist parties is that they promise non-ambiguous victory. They appeal to those who view the separation of powers, so beloved of liberals, not as a way to keep those in power accountable but as an alibi for the elites to evade their electoral promises. Thus, what characterises populists in power are their constant attempts to dismantle the system of checks and balances and to bring independent institutions like courts, central banks, media outlets and civil society organisations under their control. But populist parties are not only merciless victors – they are also nasty losers. Their conviction that they speak for the majority makes it difficult for them to accept electoral defeat. The result is a growing number of contested elections and the rise of the mentality that “elections are only fair if we win them”.

In the post-1989 world there was the common presumption that the spread of democracy in the long term would also mean the spread of liberalism. It is this very assumption that is now being questioned by the rise of majoritarian regimes in different corners of the globe. The paradox of the post-Cold War liberal democracies in Europe was that the advancement of personal freedoms and human rights was accompanied by the decline of the power of citizens to change not only governments but also policies with their vote. Now the primacy of politics is back and governments are regaining their capacity to rule but – as it seems today – at the cost of individual freedoms.

1. José Saramago, Death with Interruptions, London: Vintage Books, 2008, p 8.
2. Ibid, p 78.
3. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Democratic Disconnect”, , 27:3 (2016 Journal of Democracy), pp 5-17, p 7.
4 Ibid, p 10.
5. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, National Interest, (Summer 1989), pp 3-18.
6. Ken Jowitt, “After Leninism: The New World Disorder”, Journal of Democracy, 2 (Winter 1991), pp 11-20. Jowitt later elaborated his ideas in The New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, esp chapters 7-9.
7. Ibid, p 259.
8. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, p 23.
9. Harry Kreisler, “The Individual, Charisma and the Leninist Extinction: A Conversation with Ken Jowitt”, 7 December 1999, “Conversations with History”, Series of the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, at http://globetrotter.berkeley. edu/people/Jowitt/jowitt-con0.html (retrieved November 2016), p 5.
10. Viktor Orbán, Speech at Băile Tuşnad, 26 July 2014; an English translation of the speech is available at http://budapestbeacon. com/public-policy/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile- tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/10592 (retrieved November 2016).
11. Ibid.
12. Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
13. Jonathan Haidt, “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism”, The American Interest, 12:1, 10 July 2016.
14. Gáspár Miklós Tamás, “What is Post-fascism?”, 13 September 2001, at article_306.jsp (retrieved November 2016).
15. “History of the World Values Survey Association”, at http://www. (retrieved November 2016).
16. Max Roser, “Happiness and Life Satisfaction” (2016), at https:// (retrieved November 2016).
17. Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, New York: New York Review Books, 2016, p xiv.
18. Mark Lilla, “Republicans for Revolution”, New York Review of Books, 12 January 2012.
19. Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011.


Ivan Krastev, born in 1965 in Lukovit in Bulgaria, is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. The above essay appears in The Great Regression, edited by Heinrich Geiselberger and published by Polity (£12.99, ISBN: 978-1509522361). Other contributors to the volume, which “interrogates the worldwide rejection of liberal democracy and its replacement by populist authoritarianism”, include Paul Mason, Pankaj Mishra, Wolfgang Streeck and Bruno Latour.