Political pundits live dangerously: Pontificating on the immediate future, they often get it disastrously wrong. With his End of History and the Last Man, philosopher-historian Francis Fukuyama analyzed the collapse of fascism and communism, concluding that the democratic market economy was the unchallenged winner. The Light that Failed: A Reckoning shatters this cozy illusion.
The authors, Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev, are well-matched to debunk Fukuyama’s proposition. Holmes is a professor at New York University specializing in the history of liberalism, while Krastev is a central European intellectual based in Sofia and Vienna, working from what was once the fault line between command and liberal economies. Their defining metaphor is on page one: We (in the West) thought we were Pygmalion, but we have ended up playing Dr. Frankenstein. The monster is loose.
The central thrust of the book is that imitation rarely works. The titular “Light” is the beacon of Western liberal democracy, beckoning the newly liberated nations of the latter 20th century to a better life, with social justice underpinned by a market economy that works for the good of all. Holmes and Krastev take just over 200 pages to deconstruct the failure of Western democracy to fulfill its own self-declared promise as role model for the world.
The Fatal Flaw
The first weakness in the Western model was its belief in its own perfection. This, the authors comment, was eerily similar to a fatal flaw in Soviet ideology, i.e. that communism was inevitable. As the Iron Curtain vaporized in 1989, reformers in the newly liberated Ostbloc fell for a similar fallacy: Imitation of the West was the pathway to “normality.” But then a number of destabilizing events dimmed liberal democracy’s post-Cold War glow. In rapid succession: 9/11, Iraq, the 2008 recession, Crimea, Syria and Brexit.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was quick to recognize that in a liberal democracy, governments are subject to the whims of pesky voters. But it was not enough to stifle the opposition and its media allies; he needed an alternative. Orbán borrowed from conservative America: national dignity. He stigmatized his opponents as “foreign hearted” and ensured a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing him to strip out democratic safeguards.
Conversely, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin imitated Western democracy as an act of revenge. The authors drily comment that the Russians had been faking communism for decades, and had no difficulty now faking democracy. Then Donald Trump arrived to decry “globalization” and dismantle 75 years of American diplomatic strategy. NATO no longer serves our interests he whined, and America is the victim of global trade. Holmes and Krastev leave no doubt that the Trump presidency is consolidating much of the world’s growing contempt for the Western model.
English as Handicap
The Light that Failed piles up the evidence page by remorseless page. There is a considerable degree of repetition, points are reinforced with examples and then confirmed in summary. But the content is crisp and factual, the writing lively and often witty. Holmes and Krastev reserve a special contempt for monolingual America’s thralldom to the English language. Far from being an advantage, it is a serious handicap in understanding the world, leading to “cultural illiteracy … incurious parochialism and indifference.” The authors doubt the long held belief that the universality of its language and American “cultural clout” supported some kind of mysterious “soft power.” America is transparent to outsiders, but Americans understand little about the rest of the world. Apparently, Putin told his defense minister that if he wanted to understand how America worked, he need only watch House of Cards on Netflix.
The Putin regime is adroitly ruthless, but in the longer term, a minor player beside Xi Jinping’s explosively renascent China. Holmes and Krastev have plenty to say on the subject, so please read the book. Whether the gloomy trajectory of The Light that Failed becomes reality, we will have to wait and see. But one thing seems indisputable: The shining light of Western democracy grows dimmer by the day.