Right-wing protestors, waving Spanish and Valencian flags, try to block a leftist demonstration supporting the Catalan separatist movement during the regional day in Valencia, Spain, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Heino Kalis - RC198C5D9780
Spanish rightwing protesters in Valencia, Spain, last year © Reuters

A counter-revolution threatens European liberalism. “Under attack is not just the EU but also other symbols of the current order: liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics, migration and a multicultural society, historical ‘truths’ and political correctness, moderate political parties and mainstream media, cultural tolerance and religious neutrality.”

Many would agree with Jan Zielonka’s diagnosis. What makes his short book more interesting is his view that liberals are responsible. This is a book of disappointed love. It is too easy, he argues, to blame the people or even the populist politicians for the counter-revolution. Liberals must look within themselves, where they will find much wanting.

The author is professor of European politics at Oxford university. He is also, perhaps significantly, of Polish origin. Counter-Revolution takes the form of a letter to the late Ralf Dahrendorf, who was not only one of postwar Europe’s most significant liberal thinkers but also a German who became a British life peer. Theresa May might have dared to label him a “citizen of nowhere”.

Professor Zielonka’s book is a riposte to one written by Dahrendorf shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the decades since, the dream of a united, liberal and democratic Europe has indeed faded.

The author partly blames the counter-revolution on the “liberal project” of “deregulation, marketization, and privatization”. But he also condemns the transformation of democracy into technocracy, with ever greater powers delegated to “non-majoritarian institutions — central banks, constitutional courts, regulatory agencies”. He is particularly critical of the EU, a “prototype of a non-majoritarian institution led by ‘enlightened’ experts”.

Moreover, he argues, we have had too many losers, even within economically successful countries and still more in the crisis-hit ones. The results are predictable. “Those dependent on the shrinking public provisions, those with no skills to compete in the market, or those squeezed by mobile migrant labour were ready to switch their vote to the political entrepreneurs who opposed the dominant order.”

The euro crisis and the migration crisis also “highlighted the growing imbalances among individual states of Europe”. Some, he notes, even talk of an accidental German empire. The response of the establishment to its failures has also been insufficiently imaginative, in his view: neo-liberal economics and technocratic politics remain essentially unchanged.

More radically, Zielonka questions whether “our liberal vision sufficiently account[s] for people’s fears and passions, collective bonds and traditions, trust, love and bigotries”. Liberals, he notes, may be unable to create solidarity. “It is not even certain that a notion of a good society and justice can be spelt out and agreed upon without a reference to a certain group of people, living in a certain territory and sharing a certain historical, cultural, and moral perspective.”

Among his more compelling points is that the institutional pillars of political representation have crumbled: politics have become oligarchic; and the media mere purveyors of entertainment. Not least, national democracies cannot control a transnational market economy. How then is the democratic ideal to be made real in the contemporary world?

Though the counter-revolutionaries are partly the product of liberalism’s failures, they offer no credible answers. Indeed, for Zielonka their record in office is “disquieting, to put it mildly”. But they are a natural response, he argues, to insecurity: the politics of fear triumphing over the politics of hope. “When people feel insecure, the time is ripe for a counter-revolution.”

All this is largely plausible, so far as it goes. But much is missing. The book does not recognise the wider economic forces at work on wealthy European countries. Neither the rise of China, nor the impact of new technology nor de-industrialisation are considered.

These transformations are far more powerful than the bogey of “neo-liberalism”. Nor have European welfare states been starved of resources. They have, instead, become more burdened and less effective. Again, while inequality is indeed a challenge, it is hard to deny the anger and resentment created by mass immigration itself.

In castigating the EU’s response, Zielonka notes that “bold reforms are contentious while timid ones are useless”. He argues against the priority given by liberals to freedom over equality. He argues against the priority given to “growth, competitiveness and productivity”. He argues for a more flexible EU. He also argues for an “open society”.

Yet the concrete proposals are thin. Among them is the notion that “nation-states should no longer dictate the rules of European politics; cities, regions, and transnational organizations should gain greater access to the European decision-making system and resources”.

The author wants the partial replacement of parliamentary representation by more direct “participation, deliberation and contestation”. Yet he also wants a reformed capitalism that is regulated transnationally. Above all, “The counter-revolutionary forces pit ‘ordinary people’ against ‘the elite’; the liberal forces must show that the elites and the people can work together for common causes.” To that end, the author trusts in the ability of a younger networked generation to renew the liberal project.

The book offers a cry of despair, an indictment and some hope for a better future. We can see the crisis of liberal democracy most clearly in the fact that so ardent, yet disappointed, a proponent offers not much more.

Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat, by Jan Zielonka, Oxford University Press, RRP£14.99, 176 pages

Martin Wolf is the FT’s chief economics commentator

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