When so­ci­ety gives up its own free­dom

Historian Anne Ap­ple­baum cat­a­logues the warn­ing signs that go hand in hand with the end of western democ­racy

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Paschal Dono­hoe

Anne Ap­ple­baum is a lead­ing historian of the era when rulers vis­ited ter­ror upon their own sub­jects, and the ex­is­tence of demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions ap­peared an unattain­able ideal in the face of ar­bi­trary and vi­o­lent co­er­cion. Her sig­na­ture achieve­ment is Gu­lag: A His­tory (2003), an award­win­ning study of the ter­ror of con­cen­tra­tion camps dur­ing the reign of Stalin.

This be­gan a se­quence of his­to­ries, in­clud­ing a study of eastern Europe in the af­ter­math of the sec­ond World War, and con­clud­ing with a vis­ceral re­count­ing of the rav­ages of the Ukrainian famine

Ap­ple­baum has looked into the dark­est

Twi­light of Democ­racy: The Fail­ure of Pol­i­tics and the Part­ing of Friends

By Anne Ap­ple­baum

Allen Lane, 224pp, £16.99 corners of his­tory on the con­ti­nent of Europe. Her works peer into the crevices of the foun­da­tions of our cur­rent na­tions and cul­tures, where in­hu­man­ity to our fel­low hu­man wreaked piti­less cru­elty.

So this au­thor’s jour­nal­ism has edge. When she warns of dis­in­for­ma­tion or the risks of author­i­tar­i­an­ism, it is be­cause the al­ter­na­tive to demo­cratic life is not an imag­ined dystopia, but a re­turn to a vein of his­tory mined in her writ­ing.

Her lat­est book, Twi­light of Democ­racy, ap­pears a nat­u­ral ful­fil­ment of the arc of her stud­ies. How­ever, the sub­ti­tle – The Fail­ure of Pol­i­tics and the Part­ing of Friends – hints at the per­sonal na­ture of this work. This more in­ti­mate tone is ev­i­dent from the be­gin­ning.

It com­mences with a New Year’s Eve party, at the turn of this cen­tury, in north­west Poland. Fire­works were ig­nited, cas­settes played at high vol­ume, wine drunk, a pis­tol shot fired into the night sky.

Nearly two decades later this ex­u­ber­ance is well ex­tin­guished. The au­thor writes that “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the peo­ple who were at my New Year’s Eve Party . . . In fact, about half of the peo­ple who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The es­trange­ments are po­lit­i­cal, not per­sonal.”

Th­ese es­trange­ments are not ex­plained by chang­ing eco­nomic cir­cum­stances or by de­pri­va­tion. The au­thor notes that her for­mer friends are ma­te­ri­ally com­fort­able and glob­ally mo­bile. This is not the cry of an­guish of those be­trayed by a cos­set­ted elite; the elite them­selves are the study of this work.

Ap­ple­baum does not of­fer a sin­gle the­ory for their es­trange­ment, but she reaches the bleak­est of con­clu­sions: “Given the right con­di­tions, any so­ci­ety can turn against democ­racy. In­deed, if his­tory is any­thing to go by, all of our so­ci­eties even­tu­ally will.” This slow turn­ing is demon­strated by tales of such risks in Hun­gary and Poland, of for­mer friends who now de­vote their lives to the de­fence and con­tin­u­a­tion of the rul­ing regimes.

Th­ese fig­ures are de­scribed as a “new gen­er­a­tion of clercs”. This bor­rows from the omi­nous pre­science of the French es­say­ist Julien Benda, who warned, in 1927, that the “writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, and

es­say­ists who had mor­phed into po­lit­i­cal en­trepreneur­s and pro­pa­gan­dists would goad whole civ­i­liza­tions into acts of vi­o­lence”.

Th­ese warn­ings are also made in an anal­y­sis of the pol­i­tics of the United King­dom. Ap­ple­baum sug­gests that the de­sire to cre­ate a “su­pe­rior com­mu­nity” is a cat­a­lyst to dis­rup­tion that “can hap­pen in some of the old­est and most se­cure democ­ra­cies in the world”. This chap­ter is in­sight­ful in point­ing to the lure of “restora­tive nos­tal­gia”, to the ap­peal of over­tones of na­tional en­deav­our or an idyl­lic past as a balm to the fric­tions of to­day.

How­ever, lim­i­ta­tions also be­come clear. Brexit has con­sumed my life for nearly four years. I have di­rectly en­coun­tered the im­pulses and forces that played a de­ci­sive role in the ref­er­en­dum and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this re­sult as a hard exit from the Euro­pean Union.

The lan­guage of Bri­tish pol­i­tics has changed. But it is a step too far to equate the vot­ers and those com­mit­ted to exit as au­thor­i­tar­ian or par­tic­i­pat­ing in the “twi­light of democ­racy”.

This points to a dilemma in as­sess­ing the health of democ­ra­cies. A ma­jor­ity of vot­ers have sup­ported the regimes that are a cause of such con­cern in this book. Their voice, they may con­tend, is now vented and recog­nised by gov­ern­ments they elected af­ter decades of ex­clu­sion. Th­ese vot­ers and their lead­ers could de­clare that democ­racy is fi­nally work­ing.

This is where Twi­light of Democ­racy is of real value. The au­thor warns of the use of tech­nolo­gies that are fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the prac­tice of pol­i­tics and ad­vo­cacy.

In the most im­por­tant chap­ter, Cas­cades of False­hood, the reader is warned that the “jan­gling, dis­so­nant sound of mod­ern pol­i­tics; the anger on ca­ble tele­vi­sion and the evening news; the fast pace of so­cial me­dia; the head­lines that clash with one an­other when we scroll through them; the dullness, by con­trast, of the bu­reau­cracy and the courts; all of this has un­nerved that part of the pop­u­la­tion that prefers unity and ho­mo­gene­ity”.

The long-term health of democ­racy de­pends on never pur­su­ing to­tal vic­tory, on see­ing those with dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal views as op­po­nents and not en­e­mies of the peo­ple and upon a pre­sump­tion of good faith for all who seek of­fice.

So Ap­ple­baum is right to warn of the risks of a pes­simism so deep about na­tional prospects that any act is jus­ti­fied and any ar­gu­ment worth­while in pur­suit of a fu­ture to chime with imag­i­na­tions of a more uni­fied past.

A con­clud­ing chap­ter, which in­cludes a more re­cent party with new friends, leads the au­thor to re­flect that “the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the cur­rent mo­ment seems fright­en­ing, and yet this un­cer­tainty has always been there . . . The checks and bal­ances of Western con­sti­tu­tional democ­ra­cies never guar­an­teed sta­bil­ity.”

This is a source of hope, not just anger. Progress is pos­si­ble. The per­sonal na­ture of this book does not always sit eas­ily with the univer­sal na­ture of its warn­ings and proph­e­sies. In­ter­ested read­ers should also con­sider On Tyranny by Ti­mothy Sny­der.

The risk of twi­light of our western demo­cratic model, the un­cer­tainty of what may fol­low – a brighter dawn or a darker night – re­quire that all warn­ings be ur­gently con­sid­ered. This book de­mands such con­sid­er­a­tion.

Paschal Dono­hoe is the Min­is­ter for Fi­nance



Chelsea pen­sion­ers file in to cast their bal­lots in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum on June 23rd, 2016.

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