September 12, 2018

Bogdan Voicu – The road from double-risk society to illiberal democracy. the case of eastern european societies

Bogdan VOICU,
Romanian Academy (Research Institute for Quality of Life) & Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu,


This presentation proposes a roadmap for post-communist illiberal democracy as rooted in the mere post-communist. Considering insights from sociology of social values and sociology of social change, I describe illiberal democracy as an expected outcome of the process of postcommunist transformation. The argument is rather theoretical, but several empirical evidences are used to support it. In the end, I sketch potential resulting pathways to follow the experiencing of illiberal democracy or confrontation to its tendencies.

Social sciences produced a plethora of labels in the past 4-5 decades, in an unwritten, but quite intense attempt to explain society and its change. Inglehart (1971) noted that a silent revolution transforms the world. It was coming within a postindustrial age (Bell, 1976), with a post-Taylorist organization of business (Peaucelle, 2000), with parts of human societies directing towards post-material vales (Inglehart, 1971). It seemed that a postmodern world should be described (Giddens, 1990; Lash, 2000; Turner, 1990), as a society of risk (Beck, 1986; Giddens, 1991), in which things are liquid (Bauman, 2000), that functions as a network society (Castells, 1996, 1997), and is a sort of late modernity (Giddens, 1990, 1991), dominated by reflexivity (Lash, 1994). The canonical approach describes the societal setup as an inherent transformation of modern societies, which actually remain modern. Such views fit the basic idea that modernization, rooted in the European Enlightenment, is a “continuous and open-ended process” (Kumar, 1999:72). However, the idea o of perpetual transformation(s) of modernity implies both a lack of ultimate aim of such transformation, and the potentiality for convergence. In contrast with the first view, scholars such as Lyotard (1977) claimed postmodernity is a completely different stage, that is there is an end to modernization in a postmodern stage. Other scholars challenged altogether the potential for convergence and the teleological standpoint, rejecting them, and multiple modernities were proposed as definitory for human societies (Eisenstadt, ‎2000).

Communist societies can be seen as experiments of alternative modernization, with rejection of human rights and individual freedom, as well as with an explicit suppression of cultures of participation. They could be labeled as pseudo-modern or as bearers of fake-modernity (Sztompka, 1993; Voicu, 1998), and feature a double morale (Verdery, 1996) underlying the blat economy of favours (Ledeneva, 2000). Some considered communism as one of the multiple modernities (Arnason, 2002, 2005), which may imply a postcommunist pathway that may not lead to any postmodernity. Others (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Rabusic, 2001) provided evidences of trends observed in postcommunist societies similar to the ones in Western democracies. A certain convergence could be expected. Sztompka’s idea of ‘social becoming’ (1991, 1993) is rooted in the conviction of convergence into modernity.

Within a global world, postcommunist societies were confronted with two challenges. On one hand, their fake-modernity lacked balance, and provided an instable form of societal equilibrium. Therefore, the pressure towards change. With high societal insecurity, the natural pathway to change was the known one, that is towards (Western) modernity. On the other hand, at the moment of communist fall, Western modernity underwent through its process of change towards reflexive, risk societies. For communist societies, this meant the changing of their desired pattern. With a rapidly development of a global world boosted by instant communication and very fast and cheap travel, Eastern societies were supposed to face direct exposure to the changing pattern of modernity.

Rinkevicius (2000) described the situation as double -risk society. The Eastern European societies were supposed to undergo through (partial) modernization and postmodernization in the same time. Material risks common to transition from traditionalism to modernism, and axiological insecurities typical to accepting diversity and reflexivity in the postmodernization becoming were supposed to be faced out simultaneously.

I argue that such process was not experienced only by the postcommunist societies, but to a certain extent it also existed in Western democracies. Such societies were leaving their local optimal equilibrium given by modernity in search for another optimal equilibrium, that better suited at least part of society. Such changes challenge the positions of more conservative parts of society, which feel their vales and habits threatened, and perceive world as becoming an insecure place. Rise in diversity, visible minorities, immigration, a hectic life, and potentiality of losing privileges associated with social status contribute to the image. Voicing up as reaction is the visible side of a silent counter-revolution (Ignazzi, 1999), and leads to extreme right parties in the late 1990s in Western Europe (Ignazzi, 2003). A certain cultural backlash comes with the ascension of the populism (Inglehart & Norris, 2017; Inglehart, 2018). This is consistent with the reported retreats towards more traditional values when societal risks, including persistent inflation or unemployment are derailing societies (Inglehart & Baker, 2000; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005).

The cultural backlash/counter revolution observed in the West should produce impacts in the East through mimetic isomorphism. But there is another reason to cause a tendency towards illiberal democracy, beyond the “authoritarian turn of a post-imperial democracy” coined for Russia (Maslovskii, 2015:58). Such reasn is the mere disequilibria of the fake-modernity, its missing parts, including civic participation and individual responsibility. Individuals displayed in the beginning of the 1990s a rather traditionalistic stance. Confronted with repeated waves of change, from democratization and marketization to increasing inequality and outgoing migration, followed by incoming migration and hosting refugees, Eastern societies faced repetitive chocks and pushes towards backlashing. With the influence of increasing populism in the West, the wish for order into everyday life becomes salient, and populist autocrats find the niche to develop and seize power. Hence the illiberalism in state organization. Paradoxically, in the 1990s, illiberal democracy used to be found rather in Latin America, Africa and Pacific Asia (Bell et al, 1995; Hadiz, 2004; Smith & Ziegler, 2008; Zakaria, 1997), but it looks on its way to extinction (Karatnycky, 1999). However, facing multiple challenges and changes, Eastern European also societies found themselves insufficiently protected due to migration flows. Selective emigration (Chiswick, 1999) allowed a selection of elites that made an illiberal intelligentsia to access power. The process is similar to the Egyptian case (Fahmy & Faruqi, 2017), where the actual values of the elite are driving the country towards autocracy.

Having country-leaders such as Andrej Babiš, Liviu Dragnea, Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orban, and those alike become easy to be explained in this framework. The social opposition (Krastev & van Till, 2015) that they face also becomes natural. The current situation may look like an equilibrium. Is it likely to stay? Or will it evolve into a different direction? I sketch an answer in the end of my presentation, which shows that the grand theory and its continuous innovation of labels can be applied efficiently to explaining the real world.

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