Comparing the politics in Europe today to the 1930s overlooks how self-declared illiberal democrats are as much products of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the EU as heirs of 20th-century fascism. As part of our series on the forces shaping Europe as it heads to the polls, Andrea Pető, Professor of Gender Studies at the Central European University in Budapest, explores the challenge that illiberal regimes pose for gender equality and the values of modernity. In power, she argues, the likes of Viktor Orbán seek to preserve the status quo, cement their rule, and make some money on the way. These regimes are like parasitic mushrooms, at once living off and attacking their hosts with no vitality of their own. Their conservative ideology might target women, minorities, or the EU for political gains but it lacks vision. The threat for the EU then is not opposition and upheaval, but the gradual onset of corruption and decay.
In the last days of World War Two, an artist was commissioned to paint the portrait of Adolf Hitler for the Frankfurt City Hall. The city was soon occupied by Allied forces and the artist, not wanting his work to be wasted, quickly repainted the portrait so it would not be quite so obvious who the painting’s model was. Those who took the time to look closely at the painting knew, however, not only because the painting hung on the same spot in the City Hall, but also because the white paint did not fully cover the subject’s iconic features. Urban legend or not, this story illustrates the point that Europe’s dark legacy lives with us, and white paint can only cover it temporarily.
Before the upcoming European Parliament elections, upon reading headlines in government-sponsored media attacking reproductive rights, and seeing billboards celebrating white families with several children or portraying refugees as medical risks in Hungary or Poland, it is easy to cry wolf because of the similarities between the 1930s and today as far as gender politics are concerned.
Is the re-emergence of an anti-modernist far right a backlash against changes in women’s situation in the 2010s similar to the situation in the 1930s? Or, to put it differently, has the painted-over portrait always been there in the City Hall, and we just failed to study it closely in recent decades? If the latter holds true, then the historical circumstances, like the triple crises seen since 2008 (financial, refugee, and security), only helped older, latent anti-modernist ideas, values, and institutions to gain visibility once more.
the fact that illiberal tendencies are increasing all across Europe suggests that they should be viewed as local symptoms of structural failures of the European (neo)liberal democratic project
In the 1930s the radicalisation of women that prompted their eventual political mobilisation for the extreme right was often connected to their experiences of paid employment. Those women who at great individual cost managed to graduate from university were confronted with discrimination in the workplace. No matter that women were admitted to universities, the hierarchies of the workplace remained oppressive. Women’s political radicalism was therefore a reaction to society’s rigidity, to discrimination and poverty, which is best exemplified by the case of the first generation of female professional intellectuals. In the 1930s, the far right as a political force promoted a new form of political citizenship. For this radicalised generation, the far right acknowledged women as active political agents through promoting social justice and addressing discrimination, albeit within a conservative political regime founded on gender-based exclusion. Today, increasing social inequalities are successfully addressed by extreme right-wing parties – and not by traditional political parties, building on the rhetorical legacy of the 1930s that so polarised the political spectrum.
However, in spite of the similarities, the main difference between the 1930s and today lies in the relationships and functions of the state. Presently, we are witnessing a quiet and largely successful process of state capture, yet one that keeps the facade of democracy in Central Europe. As argued elsewhere, illiberal European states can best be understood as majoritarian nationalist responses to the systematic preponderance of globalised neoliberal democracy, which has shaped the relationships between individuals and the state during the last four decades. The illiberal states are reaching back to the ‘Third Way’ ideology of the 1930s as they offer a desirable, viable and livable alternative to established ideologies of conservatism and liberalism. They do so in a clear challenge to the progressive European political tradition. Present illiberal states are products of post-1989 transition where anti-communism became the basis of national independence leaving no political space for progressive traditions hopelessly entangled with the failure of existing socialism.
George Mosse in his often quoted Masses and Man described fascism as an “amoeba-like absorption of ideas from mainstream of popular thought and culture, countered by the urge towards activism and taming” in addition to a ruthless dismantling of the liberal parliamentary order. As far as the inadequate response from mainstream politics for economic inequality and also to women’s suffrage is concerned, failures of conservative politics led to the radicalisation of the mainstream in interwar Europe. This phenomenon can be described as the 1930s Weimar phenomenon. The biological metaphor of the polypore, a parasitic fungus, sheds light on the differences between the 1930s and today. Illiberalism should not be perceived as a revival of authoritarianism, but rather as a new form of governance resting on and instrumentalising previous democratic concepts and institutions. It can be better understood when one goes beyond routine comparative analysis of political systems along the East-West divide, and instead traces the gradual sociopolitical developments in these countries while placing them in the context of broader global processes. While post-communist democracies have their own legacies, the fact that illiberal tendencies are increasing all across Europe suggests that they should be viewed as local symptoms of structural failures of the European (neo)liberal democratic project, a dark legacy of Europeanisation in its current form.
an illiberal regime is best understood as a polypore state, a parasitic organism, which feeds on the vital resources of its host, at the same time contributing to its decay
In terms of its modus operandi, an illiberal regime is best understood as a polypore state, a parasitic organism, which feeds on the vital resources of its host, at the same time contributing to its decay. In return it produces a state structure, but one that remains fully dependent on the host. On the one hand, illiberal ‘polyporism’ involves exploiting and appropriating various aspects of the European liberal democratic project – institutions, procedures, concepts, and funding opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, the Hungarian Fidesz, as other European far-right parties, is not interested in leaving the EU or even rejecting its basic concepts such as human rights. Rather, it wishes to exploit the funding and political opportunities the EU offers by creating a facade of compliance while at the same time pursuing their own political agenda. On the other hand, ‘polyporism’ involves the illiberal regime divesting resources from those it considers the beneficiaries of the “corrupt liberal post-communist system” – the existent human rights and civil society sector – in order to transfer these resources to its own base to secure and enlarge it. Moreover, unlike Mosse’s amoeba which has an existence and economy of its own, the polypore usually attacks already damaged trees. Illiberals primarily rise to power in the context of weak state institutions, weak and divided progressive parties, and a failing liberal democratic project. In the polypore state, far-right extremism is incorporated to legitimise and to maintain the existence of the polypore, and the polypore alone. Nevertheless, the life energy and ideas that stem from the tree provide its livelihood. Therefore, it is the polypore’s vital interest to keep the tree alive up to a certain and controlled limit in order to legitimise its own existence while using the available resources for developing its own clientele.
As in the case of the painted-over Hitler portrait in Frankfurt, the legacy of those times lives with us today. However, historical analogies cannot explain the massive electoral support far-right parties receive from women and might prevent us from recognising the radically new features of illiberal governance. Before the European Parliament elections, this would be a major strategic mistake as EU institutions are now up for grabs by actors from polypore states risking to hijack and extract from EU infrastructure. If the illiberal block has its say on the future of the EU, not much will appear to change at the beginning. The technocratic euro-lingo will cover illiberals’ real aspirations: emptying concepts, weakening institutions, appointing nonqualified cronies, and channeling European taxpayers’ money to select individuals. As far as gender equality polices are concerned, they will be replaced by support for worthy women and families producing babies. And in the end, there might not even be a City Hall in which to hang a portrait.