######### Card Hero LETTERS #########
Letters to the editors

Vol. 4, NO. 4 / July 2019

To the editors:

In reviewing Timothy Snyder’s recent book about the return of autocratic politics in the West, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, historian Paweł Machcewicz asks an important question: “Are there any reasons for optimism?” For Machcewicz, the chief takeaway from Snyder’s book and, simultaneously, the main grounds for pessimism are “the inherent fragility of democracy and freedom” and “the scarcity of [their] public defenders.” One way forward through the difficult times ahead is to speak the truth, hence the book’s dedication to “[t]he reporters, the heroes of our time.” Machcewicz also concludes that “in practical terms, what is really needed to safeguard the future of democracy and freedom are people ready to accept risks and make sacrifices.” In his view, “it is the Ukrainian protestors who are the real heroes” of Snyder’s book. It may be worth posing two other questions in this context. First, what, if anything, prevents democracies in crisis from spiraling into a cycle of violence and conflict between the populace and an increasingly illiberal state? And second, more broadly, where does Snyder’s dark warning actually leave us?

The Road to Unfreedom is a grim tale. With relentless detail, Snyder recounts Russia’s successful efforts to foment unrest in faltering liberal democracies. Yet the two most alarming and demoralizing elements in the story, as Machcewicz points out, concern vulnerabilities in the West. One, in my reading, is the sudden revival of once-discredited fascism, racism becoming part of the mainstream, an eagerness to stigmatize and exclude others, and the ease with which verbal and physical violence is reentering politics. In his introduction, Snyder recalls giving talks about Thinking the Twentieth Century, a book cowritten with his friend, the historian Tony Judt. This book was a way of making sense of a difficult century in which ideals mingled with ideologies, totalitarian regimes committed genocides, and renewed hopes led to seemingly happy endings. Having emerged from the work on the book, and observing the return of the previous century’s most dangerous tropes in public life, Snyder felt that the book’s “subject had been forgotten all too well.”1 I had a similar feeling recently, while riding the train from Warsaw to Berlin and hearing a Polish man rant loudly about “the Jews.” Humanity, it seems, is not very good at learning from history. With this in mind, it is reasonable to ask whether there is any point in trying to avert a catastrophe by studying the lessons of the past?

The other utterly demoralizing theme that Snyder explores is the unraveling of democracy in the United States. He shows how Russia actively participated in preparing the candidacy of Donald Trump, by courting him directly and by grooming American society for the ascendancy of the failed businessman. Why did Americans vote en masse for a candidate who openly assaulted democratic, patriotic, and social norms? Snyder thinks that

the Russian effort succeeded because the United States is much more like the Russian Federation than Americans would like to think. Because Russian leaders had already made the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, they had instincts and techniques that, as it turned out, corresponded to emerging tendencies in American society.2

Among the preconditions for undermining democracy are growing social tensions resulting from increasing inequalities. These are brought about by naive faith in the wisdom of free markets. Tensions escalate further with the shifting structure of the production and consumption of news, not to mention the simultaneous withering of local journalism. In Snyder’s words, “democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters.”3 Arguably, the United States is now teetering on that threshold. With democratic forces in the United States retreating, one cannot help but wonder whether the West is doomed.

If the facts were not depressing enough, Snyder observes, the fictions at hand can be even more disheartening. As it turns out, the Kremlin’s main propagandist and ideologue, Vladimir Surkov, writes novels on the side. The plot of Almost Zero, published in 2009, concerns a hero who

was troubled by a flatmate who only slept. An expert issued a report: “We will all be gone… as soon as he opens his eyes. Society’s duty, and yours in particular, is to continue his dream.”4

Snyder sees Surkov’s fiction as “a kind of political confession,” revealing a strategy to convince people that “the only truth was the absence of truth.”5 Surkov’s work reproduces familiar elements from numerous stories warning about the manipulation of the human mind for political ends. Examples include Robert Wiene’s nightmarish, allegorical film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which the eponymous scientist uses a somnambulist to commit murders; Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, a critique of fellow writers who have succumbed to comfortable coexistence with Poland’s communist authorities by having swallowed obedience-inducing Murti-Bing pills; or George Orwell’s dystopia about the future totalitarian society, 1984. We are now living in the shadows of these fearsome phantasmagorias, a condition summed up in an episode of the popular Netflix series Black Mirror. “The Waldo Moment,” which first aired in 2013, tells the story of a vulgar cartoon character, the eponymous Waldo, who becomes the face of an anonymous global regime. Using a strategy implemented by an American consulting firm that exploits popular disenchantment with politicians, the abhorrent, cursing, farting, scoffing imaginary blue bear wins elections and becomes an actual political force.

Joseph Stalin, a master manipulator and liar if there ever was one, once called upon his country’s writers to become engineers of the human soul. In the context of anti-democratic sentiment in the United States, the Kremlin’s will to spread chaos in the West, and authoritarian China’s growing strength, both “The Waldo Moment” and The Road to Unfreedom raise a question: do the beleaguered forces of democracy stand a chance against authoritarian forces who have big data and cutting-edge technology at their fingertips?6 If it is to retain a mild degree of optimism, Snyder’s book must be read in one of three ways.

First, and somewhat counterintuitively, we have to approach The Road to Unfreedom with a degree of skepticism about the extrapolative potential of history. To do that, we have to face up to a paradox. As concerned citizens, in order to act, we must believe that democracy is in desperate danger; but, in order to ward off despondency, we cannot think, no matter how powerful the analogies with the past, that the forces of unfreedom must inevitably lead to a dystopian end. The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of the late nineteenth century shows how history can be an imprecise guide. At that time, big cities in Western Europe and the United States were struggling to cope with the vast quantities of horse manure accumulating in their streets. In 1894, a journalist for The Times speculated that “[i]n 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”7 Horses were ultimately replaced by cars and the crisis was averted. The lesson from this example is that the future can be surprising and unpredictable, and that nothing is truly in the cards. Perhaps, then, just because people are more open to the idea that “Demokratschi: Schtonk!” (to borrow a line from The Great Dictator), it does not necessarily mean we are completely dans la merde.

History can alert us to the potential consequences of our actions, but it can also hamper our understanding of how the yet-to-be future can differ from the past. This is one of the arguments a Polish sociologist cited by Machcewicz, Maciej Gdula, makes in a timely study devoted to the 2015 victory of the Law and Justice Party, an organization notorious for its illiberal, increasingly authoritarian leanings. Gdula challenges the accepted narrative about why Law and Justice won: globalization led to profound social inequalities and scores of people stranded on the sidelines, and these forgotten individuals, eager to win back their lives and dignity, elected a populist government. Drawing on economic statistics, Gdula argues compellingly that, at least in the Polish case, this story fails to stand up to scrutiny. The popular narrative serves only to make the Left feel that, with the promise of a welfare state up their sleeve, they still represent a real political force. Gdula dislikes inequalities but argues emphatically that it was not the promise of the social safety net that won Law and Justice a majority in the Polish parliament. Instead, the party’s victory and continued popular support hinge on its superior understanding of how the new class divisions intersect with fresh possibilities in the internet-dominated public sphere.8 The Left, Gdula argues, should capitalize on these new possibilities as well, for instance, by organizing behind progressive charismatic leaders. Such individuals, he maintains, are well positioned to embody various sets of relations among people and to send out a coherent message through today’s diffused media environment. Some will find charismatic leadership too controversial and historically fraught. But in the context of Snyder’s book, Gdula’s proposition can at least invite us to question the limits of historical thinking. Surely, history is full of warnings; but at some point, we need to worry that close engagement with the past hinders our thinking about the present day.

Second, in order to retain some degree of optimism about the future, The Road to Unfreedom must be anchored by a renewed faith in human agency. From Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Karl Marx to Fernand Braudel, mighty philosophical and historiographic traditions have always discouraged this approach. Marx wrote explicitly that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”9 To avoid capitulating to fatalism, focusing on individuals is necessary, as Snyder well knows. “The only thing that stands between inevitability and eternity,” he writes, “is history, as considered and lived by individuals.”10 Thinking historically can also help prevent a slide into eternity or inevitability because “history always continues and alternatives always present themselves.”11 It takes a step back to see it sometimes, but The Road to Unfreedom is a history of choices, not of predetermined structures and stages that unfold neatly up to the present day. Russia, according to Snyder, faced “a time of choice” between December 2011 and March 2012, during the rigged parliamentary elections that secured the majority for Putin’s political party and his third presidential term.

[Putin] might have listened to criticisms of the parliamentary vote. He might have accepted the outcome of the presidential ballot and won in the second round of voting… Instead, he seemed to take personal offense.12

The power of individual agency stands out as a theme in Snyder’s work. In his booklet On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, the message is that, while autocrats get to decide things, choices are still available to those who want to resist.13

Democratic leaders also confront choices. Above all, Snyder suggests, they should strive to address social inequalities. “To avoid the temptation of eternity,” he writes,

we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflict.14

Snyder’s argument is a jab at neoliberal ideas and policies that have arguably exacerbated inequalities within countries such as the United States and Poland. The book’s title, The Road to Unfreedom, echoes that of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. Hayek was a famous Austrian-born exponent of neoliberalism in the United States. For Snyder, the political safety valve against deepening social and economic inequalities is precisely what Hayek considered the cause of modern enslavement: the social-democratic welfare state.15

The Road to Unfreedom does not address how the legitimacy of social democracy or the welfare state might be restored in the present conditions. It is worth remembering that Americans in particular tend to be suspicious of state involvement in their personal affairs. Even its mildest and most diluted forms, socialism still retains an anti-American stigma that dates back to twentieth-century anti-communism and the Cold War. It is an association that is often disingenuously nourished by the current political Right.16 The 2016 presidential campaign pushed politics to the left in some ways, starting with the promise of the so-called status quo candidate, Hillary Clinton, to cap childcare costs, for instance, and Bernie Sanders running openly and with great support as a democratic socialist.17 In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, more presidential hopefuls are embracing progressive causes than the typically centrist candidates of previous campaigns. During the US midterm elections in November 2018, voters elected to the House of Representatives a cohort of energetic, young progressives who speak eloquently against economic and social inequalities. The most media-savvy of the group is the notably charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-styled democratic socialist from New York.

Citing a Gallup opinion poll, a Fox News pundit recently reported that “Despite mountains of historical evidence revealing the dangers associated with socialism, support for Karl Marx’s collectivist ideas is steadily increasing.”18 He meant it as a warning, and characteristically conflated socialism with Marx. But, of course, to many people out there who simply hope to achieve a healthier, more egalitarian society that recognizes the virtues of moral politics and the value of public good, any uptick in socialist sentiment will be good news. Conservative media in the United States have been working hard to discredit the politicians on the Left. The Right will, of course, try to destroy the progressive momentum these men and women have created. But if the newly elected officials keep their strength, gather more popular support, and stay the course, they might be able to transform the character of US politics.

There is good news from other beleaguered corners of the West, too. Slovakia and Ukraine recently elected new presidents. It is a good sign for democracy that both presidents-elect ran for office on anti-corruption platforms, won in free and fair elections, and seem committed to challenging the broken status quo using legal means. Maybe, after all, political and social change can be effected through the remaining strength of Western democracy, rather than, as the last resort of the oppressed, through violence in the streets. As public officials and presidential candidates in the United States are becoming more vocal in calling out the country’s glaring social, economic, and political problems, they may be clearing the greatest obstacles on the road to the kind of freedom many of us want. In 2010, Judt asked why it is so difficult “even imagining a different sort of life.” His answer was dispiriting: “Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more.”19

There is a third reason why The Road to Unfreedom need not necessarily become a route to depression—for those concerned about the long-term fate of democracy, that is. Suppose that you think that Marx had a point and Snyder overstates the power of the individual somewhat, no matter how much we want to believe that all is possible at any given time. Entropy is gnawing at your gut. You cannot help but feel that the world is out of joint, norms are being stretched too thin, structures are too badly damaged to be restored, and inequalities have become too entrenched to be overcome. You are not alone. A philosopher and professor at the University of Warsaw, Marcin Król, recently confessed to supplying Poland’s politicians with copies of Hayek’s works during the 1990s. Acknowledging the inequalities that subsequent policies brought about, a contrite Król also reflected on the anticipated violent backlash against Poland’s neoliberal momentum. Król told his interviewer that if such a backlash occurs, “we will be hanging from the lanterns. Just like that.”20 You might also feel that the center will not hold. The hope that democracy will survive and a more just society will emerge is undermined by a sense that, historically speaking, progress of the kind we now need often came about only through revolution and war. Looking around, it is not hard to imagine that conflict could be exacerbated by technological advances, environmental changes, and the fierce desire of the ruling elites to hold on to their gains. In recent decades, language and culture in the United States have become increasingly militarized.21 Wars are being waged in new ways.22 Anticipating violent conflagrations and global catastrophes, the ultra-rich have invested in doomsday bunkers in an effort to ensure their survival.23 Historians, for all their willingness to step out of the ivory tower and for all the might of their minds, do not have Herculean powers. They can dip their feet in the river of human forgetfulness and splash around, perhaps, but they are powerless to change its course. One might then wonder whether Snyder really can be considered, as some have suggested, a “dark prophet.”24

To alleviate a sense of complete dejection, we might have to rethink our idea of historical time. “Eternity,” Snyder warns, “places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.”25 But cyclical time need not always lead to the politics of eternity. We often see history as a sequence of individual choices or systemic events. Instead, why not imagine the past as cycles of openings and closures, appearances, departures and returns? This is how many people across the world conceptualized historical time before the arrival of modernity; some still do, even in the West. Anne Applebaum recently suggested that Americans are especially inclined to think that “liberal democracy, once achieved, cannot be altered,” unlike Europeans, who have experienced countless ups and downs. She writes that

in Greece, history feels not linear but circular. There is liberal democracy and then there is oligarchy. Then there is liberal democracy again. Then there is foreign subversion, then there is an attempted Communist coup, then there is civil war, and then there is dictatorship. And so on, since the time of the Athenian republic.26

This may well be our best form of consolation for the moment. After all, it is easier to acknowledge that democracy might be on its way out when we can also honestly tell ourselves that once we are ready for it again, it may come back.

  1. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 6. 
  2. Ibid., 244. 
  3. Ibid., 249. 
  4. Ibid., 159. 
  5. Ibid., 159. 
  6. Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick, “The Autocrat’s New Toolkit,” The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2019. 
  7. Ben Johnson, “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894,” Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide. 
  8. Maciej Gdula, Nowy autorytaryzm (Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna, 2018), 16. On page 19, he clarifies:
    Before, discourse was important, but now it is the event that counts. Before, structures won; today, it is the leader who does. Before, it was the mainstream that marked the lines of argument; today, the public consists above all of various niches. All of this creates completely new conditions for politics.
    English translation by the author. 
  9. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852). 
  10. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 35. 
  11. Ibid., 16. 
  12. Ibid., 50. 
  13. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). 
  14. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 275–76. 
  15. Judt wrote about the same idea in his moving essay Ill Fares the Land (2010). 
  16. Most recently on it, see David Bentley Hart, “Can We Please Relax about ‘Socialism’? The New York Times, April 27, 2019. 
  17. Danielle Paquette, “The Enormous Ambition of Hillary Clinton’s Child-care Plan,” The Washington Post, May 12, 2016.  
  18. Justin Haskins, “How to Get Your Child to Just Say No to Socialism,” Fox News, February 3, 2019. 
  19. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 34. 
  20. Interview with Marcin Król, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 7, 2014. Reflective of Król’s contrition, the title of his book is Byliśmy głupi / We Were foolish (Warsaw: Czerwone i Czarne, 2015). 
  21. Ted Galen Carpenter, “The Creeping Militarization of American Culture,” The National Interest, May 13, 2016. 
  22. Patryk Babiracki, “Putin’s Postmodern War with the West,” The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2018). 
  23. Olivia Carville, “The Super Rich of Silicon Valley Have a Doomsday Escape Plan,” Bloomberg, September 5, 2018. 
  24. Jacob Mikanowski, “The Bleak Prophecy of Timothy Snyder,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 19, 2019. 
  25. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 8. 
  26. Anne Applebaum, “A Warning from Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come,” The Atlantic, October, 2018. The article came out in a series titled, symptomatically of the overarching mood, “Is Democracy Dying?” 

Patryk Babiracki is an Associate Professor in Russian and East European history at the University of Texas at Arlington and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies.


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