(Book Review) The Light that Failed. A Reckoning, by Krastev and Holmes

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Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. The Light that Failed. A Reckoning (London: Penguin, 2019)

More than a reckoning?

Before the breakup of the Covid-19 pandemic put democracy on hold, The Light that Failed. A Reckoning entered the academic circles and public wider tremendously. In their book, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes rethought the decline of the liberal democracy in an time of great upheaval, yet without uncritically re-exploring explosive global dynamics nor mourning the end of history. They instead advanced a lucid and somewhat cynical analysis on how liberal democracy became the first victim of its success after 1989.

The book went wiral and, two years later, the epidemiological crisis and Russia’s war against Ukraine did not only extended the decline of liberal democracy but also gave both authors the role of Cassandra. This is why, in hindsight, The Light that Failed was not a simple reckoning.

For Krastev and Holmes, the absence of an ideological alternative to Westernisation did not heal Europe’s fraught asymmetry between the postsocialist imitators and the imitated West. In a strange twist, authoritarian regimes began influencing consolidated democracies in the West. This “Age of Imitation” has opened up a new global space of competition and confrontation, in which in-transition democracies and their political leaderships began mirroring one another and turning dilemmas and incoherencies of liberal democracy to serve vested interests on regional and domestic ground. 

Central-East Europe resembles the figure of Frankenstein: a region assembled by second-rate replicas. If Hungary and Poland are the two most-discussed Frankenstates, then Victor Orbán’s and Jarosław Kaczynski’s political leaderships are anything but two opportunistic models of illiberalism. After securing consensus at home, their “minority revolt” discourse against Brussels, the new Moscow, has been rhetorically employed in opposition to the once-embraced (but now-detested) affiliation with the Western hegemonic power. As Krastev and Holmes noticed, universalism has turned out to represent the particularism of the rich – namely, a new model of values, norms, and practices to impose on ordinary citizens and not too different from those that Communist élites had thwarted against the majority’s will. At present, the Ukrainian cause has yet again aligned Poland with the West. At the same time, however, Hungary’s bipolar position confirms that the West’s long traditions of pluralism, constitutionalism, and multiculturalism cannot replace national traditionalism and regional reminiscences. 

The bitter kiss of liberal democracy has not awakened a (still) sleeping beauty. This sparkling allegory shows how, in post-Soviet Russia, too, both authors identified how Western-like democratisation has utterly failed. In retrospect, Russia’s politics of imitation with the West has acknowledged the moral superiority of the Western-like democracy, on the one hand, but also retailed rusty mechanisms of the same liberal model of democracy to rip off the Western mask of hypocrisy, on the other hand. Abroad and at home, Russia’s mimicry has de facto exploited liberal values and norms of democracy, which, in the eyes of Russians, are neither fully possessed by the West nor let them rightly function. In imitating democracy in its first post-Soviet phase of democratisation, Moscow’s simulation has mirrored the Western modus operandi on the surface. Underneath, Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the current war against Ukraine unravel Vladimir Putin’s spoiling tactics to replicate NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, and Lybia. Domestically, elections are held to secure national unity rather than assuring civic rights, freedom of choice, and functioning democratic procedures and institutions. All of these show how, according to Krastev and Holmes, Russia is a managed democracy rather than an imitated one.

Also, Russia has played the role of the imitator as a preventive strategy. For the Kremlin, it has always been much better to know the West than being known by it. However, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is the result of such a political mimicry on a global scale. Experts and pundits who saw the USA through the old-fashioned prism of the post-Cold War order overlooked how the Sino-Russian alliance came to influence and expanse itself even before the first pandemic shockwave.  

Throughout the book, there is little doubt that Krastev and Holmes recall quite coherently the nexus between the decline of liberal democracy and the “imitation argumentation.” The latter remains the cipher for exploring the genealogy of the brutal invasion of Russia against Ukraine and the worrisome events currently following up. When juxtaposed, The Light That Failed sheds new light on the current global dynamics, thereby revealing how imitators and imitated play their role, as well as foreseeing winners and losers of a world yet to come. 


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