In an interview for the French newspaper Le Figaro, author of the philosophical essay “How to get out of the liberal impasse”, Frédéric Saint Clair reformulates the much maligned term “illiberal democracy” from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s 2014 speech, giving it a broader, more potent form.
In a 2014 speech Viktor Orbán said that “the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, … but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization,… instead includes a different, special, national approach”. Although most of those in command of the Hungarian language understood the linguistic origin of the concept, it was immediately seized upon by Western media outlets and politicians hostile to Orbán’s conservative-national vision for democracy.
In a 2019 address Orbán repeats the term, trying to explain it by contrasting a liberal versus national type of democracy as two competing models. Many in Hungary have felt that the term should have been retired and replaced by another one, instead of repeated attempts to redefine it. Allowing a concept so full of negative connotations and ambiguity to appear in Orbán’s text enable his opponents to use it against him every since, appearing in almost every article criticizing his policies.
In contrast, Saint Clair’s rearticulation of the term into what he calls a “post-liberal” democracy is exactly the direction that transforms it into a potent tool in explaining the shortcomings of the currently dominant liberal model.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term “illiberal” as “not liberal: as such” or “opposed to liberalism”, which leaves plenty of room for a neutral interpretation. However, it also lists synonyms such as “not broad-minded”, “bigoted” of even “undemocratic”. In a political context such as the current Euro-Atlantic one, in which opinion-makers often present a choice between liberalism and authoritarianism as the only choice, not allowing room for any other forms for parliamentary democracies, the definition found in the Oxford dictionary is perhaps more to the point. It defines “illiberal” as “not allowing much freedom of opinion or action”, listing “intolerant” as the word’s synonym.
Frédéric Saint Clair, who is also a former advisor to former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (2005-2007), thinks that Francis Fukuyama’s claim, that liberal democracy is an unsurpassable political and economic model has been discredited. He maintains that the so called clash of civilizations, theorized by Samuel Huntington is now a reality, and it has shaken the certainties of Westerners. This reality, states Saint Clair, has given an impetus to the rise of “illiberal” political models, such as that of Viktor Orbán, because these seem to resist the violence of civilizational clashes better than liberal governance.
In Saint Clair’s view, the above can explain the rise of the authoritarian capitalist models, such as the one in China, which is the real winner of globalization.
In his opinion, the West is in decline, the American superpower is a distant memory, Europe is on the verge of disintegration, and cities in France look like a Third World country. On the basis of these developments he concludes that the liberal model is not a must, it is not the only valid alternative to authoritarian regimes.
He then refers to the works by Alexandre Kojève, who believed that liberalism, both political and economic, would make it possible to control the will to power of individuals as well as that of states, and to obtain a completely pacified society. On the contrary, says Saint Clair, the twenty-first century has given these theories a scathing rebuttal.
He continues by saying that the
concept of freedom existed long before the appearance of liberalism. It will easily survive its disappearance.
The challenge is not to become illiberals, but post-liberals, that is to say, to take the necessary distance to develop a model that allows us to insert the ideal of liberty replacing the fake one delivered by the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment: the indefinite increase of rights and wealth of individuals. Similarly to the Hungarian Prime Minister’s proposal though, Saint Clair also calls for European societies to return to their Western and national specificity.
The French author claims that civil society has been targeted as much by civilizational Islam as by American or Chinese capitalism. Liberalism facilitates their progressive takeover by its indefinite, and blind extension of these so-called “fundamental” freedoms. “Our civil society, our place of living together, our customs, our traditions, our environment, were Americanized yesterday, they are Islamized today, and they will undoubtedly adopt a Chinese model tomorrow”. Saint Clair adds that politicians talk about protecting our civilization in vain because their political models are all attached to a form of social liberalism, of total impotence because it is entirely blind to the civilizational fact.
Saint Clair thinks that we have made some progress, but it is not enough for we are still submitting, without admitting it, to the eternal liberal economic and political model. We behave as if liberalism had really won. But liberalism has reached a dead end. “Humanism knew how to create the marvels of our civilization that liberalism does not stop ruining”, concludes his words Frédéric Saint Clair.
Featured Photo: Facebook Viktor Orbán