Many years ago, in 1954, György Lukács published one of his largely unread masterpieces with the title Die Zerstörung der Vernunft, The Destruction of Reason, (Az ész trónfosztása, “the dethroning of reason” in Hungarian). I find a certain sad irony here in that the abandonment of reason by the left, once trumpeted as the sole torchbearer of the Enlightenment, has become one of the milestones of our era. In truth, the left is as much the captive of unreason as its despised reactionary counterparts – the “bourgeoisie” in Lukács’s time, the “populists” in our time.
At the heart of the story is that with the end of Communism, the left – defined broadly – was bereft of purpose in the short term, but over time built itself into something different from what it had stood for, namely it abandoned capture of the state for economic redistribution, switched to the market and began a career in moral legislation. Of course, the latter was always lurking in a part of the left, but with the abandonment of its economic goals, the left also abandoned its working class roots and most of its other roots as well. It has become free-floating, fascinated by every social fashion around.
This detachment may derive from the Marxist proposition that the nation state is moribund or has actually died. But, this is crucial, the nation state has not died, on the contrary, it is alive and reclaiming its sovereignty, even while the left or neo-left pretends that it has achieved its aims by declaring that we are in the era of the post-national. Hence all power in the name of the nation state is heretical or polluted or just dangerous. We can observe this later, in detailed analysis of the “Brussels” vs Member States struggle, where the underlying problem is not democracy as such, but democracy on an international level and democracy on the state level. In other words, where do sovereignty, power and accountability lie? The answers diverge.
Hence what has arisen is binary polarisations structured by moral, rather than economic or material criteria. This can be seen in much, if not all of the Western world, not merely in Hungary. It is broadly identifiable as “left” and “right”, but both have changed their content over the last few decades, though retaining the former markers. It will be argued here that this metamorphosis has proved decidedly deleterious to democratic politics.
The central assumption in democracy is that all the major actors and elites are agreed on a few shared propositions and assumptions, to the effect that debates about power have certain common rules, that it is to the advantage of all actors that decisions are taken by representatives of the voters and, most importantly, that the overall framework of legitimate politics can only be changed by a widespread consensus. Underpinning it all is the assumption that all parties are open to rational argument and counterargument, meaning a degree of mutual respect. I recognise that this is an ideal-typical model and that it can never be perfect in practice.
There have been serious inroads into this system. Debate has declined and the intellectual and cognitive barriers between the neo-left and the neo-right are markedly higher than before, understandably as both left and right have been forced to redefine what their ideas and identities mean in the aftermath of the end of Communism. The Burkean (or Oakeshottian) small steps of traditional conservatism have been upended by globalisation, technological change, the partial freeing of money from state control (the power of the bond market) and, equally, by having to respond to the changes in the identity of the left. The issues of tradition, family, nationhood, moderation, fiscal caution all had to be reconfigured.
In brief, the left underwent a transformation – ironically by the same, imperceptible steps that Burke had favoured – in seeking a new role for itself. In trying to find “the best of left and right”, as the Blair project had it, it quietly forgot about equality, the class system, the parity of esteem that citizenship implied and, indeed, came ever more strongly to suspect the non-elites of being a serious obstacle to its grand project of converting society into a simulacrum of itself – to make the world safe for neo-liberalism by tolerating nothing else in the political field. The capture of democracy by liberal democracy was more than a shift in usage, it marked a rejection of all claims to structure democracy by other values, like Christian Democracy or Social Democracy.
This had an enormously significant consequence, namely the growing depoliticisation of politics, the outsourcing of decisions of power to institutions that could not be questioned politically – to the market, to the judiciary, to the technocracy, to NGOs and lobbies and, equally, to the European integration process, the EU, which had itself absorbed the ideals of neo-liberalism, not least moral legislation, as well as the market.
Thus the EU, previously centrally focused on conflict resolution, now saw the promotion of a single system of values, as defined by a leftwing elite, as the primary, the sole purpose and identifier of being European. These values are usually those that are summarised in Article 2 of the Treaty (TEU), but the closer definition and application of these values, involving judgement and discretionary power, remained in the hands of the elite. On the other hand, as support for this elite position has begun to dwindle, the rhetoric has become louder and the elite seems less and less capable of hearing alternatives, so we are in the midst of a long farewell to reason, to dialogue and to feedback.
By contrast, the neo-liberal elite welcome entitlement, arrogance and elitist power. In these circumstances, compromise – a necessary condition of democracy – has become ever more difficult to attain. To quote Bertrand Russell, “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies”.
The great promise of the Enlightenment, that there should be no privileged knowledge and everything should be open to questioning – Ernest Gellner’s “cognitive growth” – is being quietly or not so quietly renounced. The insistence on “politically correct” language illustrates this proposition. It means that certain ideas cannot be voiced, certain questions cannot be put. Interestingly the temptation is strong to draw an analogy between current political behaviour and the methods of the Inquisition: the hierarchy of power defines the heretic, albeit our analogy may be stretched, given that contemporary heretics have their own hierarchies of power, but this only complicates the situation yet further.
The leftwing elites, above all in Brussels, are far less exposed to public opinion, hence their response to the shifts in opinion of the last three-four years has had a minimal effect on their value creation activities. No doubt, this will be corrected in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, but until then, we can be sure that much the same rhetoric will remain dominant in Brussels, thereby ensuring both its growing irrelevance and the decline of these values.
In reality, the entire EU project has been in the grip of a legitimation crisis, basically since the 2005 French and Dutch referenda, which rejected the constitutional treaty project. But, and this is where the “dethronement of reason” enters the process, the Brussels elites are too deeply enveloped in their narrow thought-worlds, too far detached to pay any attention to this shift. Italy is the leading example. The problem is that the Brussels elites believe themselves to be wholly legitimated by their self-defined value-system, hence they do not listen. Their attitudes are not too far from a belief in being “the elect”, not the Elect of God, I hasten to add, but elected by History (note the capital letter). If anyone is looking for a profound insight into the mind of those who believe that they are the elect, they can do worse than read James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (published in 1824, by the way).
This argument justifies my title.
A prime example of my thesis is the Sargentini Report, which was adopted at the committee level by the European Parliament in June 2018. It will be voted in plenary in the autumn and will likely receive a majority – the parliamentary left always votes solidly together in these human rights issues. In brief, the report is a catalogue of various alleged breaches of human rights law by the Hungarian government. What is fascinating about this document is that its authors simply ignore the counterargument that has been put forward by the Hungarian government. The document and its refutation are long, but one example should illustrate this dialogue of the deaf.
The report asserts:
The competences of the Hungarian Constitutional Court were restricted as a result of the constitutional reform, including with regard to budgetary matters, the abolition of the actio popularis, the possibility for the Court to refer to its case law prior to 1 January 2012 and the limitation on the Court’s ability to review the constitutionality of any changes to the Fundamental Law apart from those of a procedural nature only. The Venice Commission expressed serious concerns about those limitations and about the procedure for the appointment of judges, and made recommendations to the Hungarian authorities to ensure the necessary checks and balances in its Opinion on Act CLI of 2011 on the Constitutional Court of Hungary adopted on 19 June 2012 and in its Opinion on the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary adopted on 17 June 2013.
The Hungarian authorities responded:
In a European comparison, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has a remarkable set of powers. Despite several professional legal arguments to the contrary, the Fundamental Law refrained from decentralisation – e.g. by transferring the protection of fundamental rights to ordinary courts – and maintained the remarkably strong competences of the Constitutional Court. Contrary to the negative perception echoed in the draft report, the Constitutional Court even received new competencies under the Fundamental Law in terms of the scope of the right to initiate preliminary (ex ante) legality control of legislative drafts and by reinforcing its competence and gaining practical competences for subsequent (ex post) legality control, similar to the German model on constitutional control. Ex post constitutional control may be initiated by the Government, by one fourth of the members of the Parliament or by the Ombudsman. Altogether the current competences of the Constitutional Court reflect a professional and political compromise (the abolition of the actio popularis was explicitly requested by the Constitutional Court itself) which strengthens the efficiency of constitutional control by shifting the focus from abstract constitutional review towards actual constitutional review.
Regarding the review of constitutional amendments, the new provision is in line with the former approach of the Constitutional Court. This case law explicitly confirmed that the Court had no competence to review the substance of the amendments as the Court itself is subordinate to the Constitution and cannot review the Constitution itself in terms of its constitutional conformity. International examples confirm this approach. The provision did therefore not introduce a limitation of competences; on the contrary, it established clear rules for the exercise of the competence for review and so the control of the constitutional power is even more safeguarded.
The Sargentini Report may seem to some to be an extreme case, atypical of the EU, but my sense of it, after 14 years in the European Parliament, is that the boundaries erected by the human rights left have become harder, ever more impenetrable. The dangers of politicising the law, something that the left mentions frequently, just evaporate when some leftwing cause is at issue. Thus the contest over the administration of the law in Poland is driven at maximum speed (and volume) by the left, which includes a part of the EPP. As far as the well-documented cases of politicised law in Romania are concerned, there is silence. The same goes for Malta, where there was outrage at the murder of the investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, but once that died down, again silence. Why Hungary or Poland and why not Romania or Malta? It is the colour of their governments, and that is it. And even worse in a way, the glaring double standard passes the left by. There is nothing like inconsistency to erode legitimacy and undermine trust. The saying quoted by Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, that “trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback” is never applied by the left to itself. How could it be? The Elect are always right, are they not?
The epistemic closure in which the left now lives has had various consequences. Any institution which closes itself off from external realities and processes is bound to become introverted and anti-innovative – monological to use Bakhtin’s formulation. When such a body can no longer ignore the challenge of change, it will deplore it, use rhetorical constructs to dismiss it or demonise it. This is what we are in the middle of in Europe currently. There is a rising challenge to the self-ascribed eternal truths of the left and this is sufficiently well-established that it can be described as a form of political innovation. For the left, which sincerely believes that it is there for eternity, this is anathema. And, yes, I am conscious that I am using religious vocabulary here, because I increasingly see the left as being in the grip of an unshakeable belief system that does not brook heresy.
For about a decade, those who disagree with the left’s verities and question them have been dismissed as “populists”, a label that has no coherent content, but is much used as a convenient dismissal, by the media above all. Indeed, the incestuous relationship between the leftwing politicians and the leftwing journalists, each feeding the other and underwriting their self-righteousness is definitely one of the factors that have contributed to the closure noted in the foregoing. And in using the term “fascist” to define all one’s adversaries, the left has successfully bent time out of joint and has endowed itself with a moral superiority over the “right”. The result is that all policies of right-wing governments are judged through a distorted historical prism. Falsely, obviously.
At the discursive level, then, one of the most striking developments has been the declaration by a successful politician that he is “proud to be a populist”. This statement, made by Matteo Salvini of the Italian Lega, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago and vividly illustrates the speed of political innovation. Those who challenge the liberal hegemony no longer hide in the shadows, but see their legitimacy as clear and incontestable. Indeed, Salvini has spoken of a “league of leagues” to challenge the liberal mainstream in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. The possibility that in the next European Parliament there will be a blocking minority of Eurocritical and Eurosceptic parties cannot be excluded.
All this raises the question, why? Why has a significant minority – so far only a minority – of European citizens turned against the integration process? The simple or simplified answer is that they felt excluded from it. The liberal current, as we have seen, shifted to a position where it did not think it at all important to argue in favour of integration, but saw it as inherently good and those who questioned any aspect of it as inherently bad (“populist”).
This identification of Europe with liberalism has had deeply negative consequences, because it has necessarily excluded sizeable swathes of the voters. In this perspective, populism seeks to bring the voters back into the European integration process by transforming it into something that addresses the majority. There are those, of course, who want to dismantle the EU, full stop.
What those who have turned integration into liberalism, and vice versa, have omitted from their calculations is that legitimacy and legality are not the same thing. A particular rule may be legal and enforceable, but if over time it runs counter to the wishes of the majority, it will lose its legitimacy. This is currently happening to European integration. Hence unless there is a change in attitudes with a corresponding reconnection to the majority, the future of integration is decidedly overcast.
The growing gap between legality and legitimacy is further overshadowed by judicial activism, known technically as juristocracy. This topic has accumulated a good deal of often concerned analysis, to the effect that judicial activism, judge-made law and intervention, the power of constitutional courts over legislatures have moved too far from representation and, hence are suffering an erosion of legitimacy. In the medium term this development is unsustainable, because it threatens the fundamentals of democracy – the exercise of power by the consent of the governed. When it comes to the powers exercised by the European Union, the danger is made all the more acute by the remoteness of the EU from those over whom that power is exercised. This cannot in any way be a successful formula for European integration.