In Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror story Frankenstein, an inventor driven by Promethean ambition creates a monster by assembling body parts drawn from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” and even “the unhallowed damps of the grave” into a humanoid creature. Yet the experimenter, Victor Frankenstein, soon comes to regret his overambitious attempt to construct a facsimile of his own species. The monster, bitterly envious of its creator’s happiness and feeling doomed to loneliness and rejection, turns violently against his inventor’s friends and family, laying waste to their world and leaving only remorse and heartbreak as legacies of a misguided experiment in human self-replication.
The U.S. sociologist Kim Scheppele, without pushing the analogy too far, describes today’s Hungary (presided over by another Viktor) as a “Frankenstate”—that is, an illiberal mutant composed of ingeniously stitched-together elements of Western liberal democracies. What she shows, remarkably enough, is that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has succeeded in destroying liberal democracy by implementing a clever policy of piecemeal imitation. He has created a regime that represents a happy marriage between Carl Schmitt’s understanding of politics as a series of melodramatic friend-versus-enemy confrontations and the institutional façade of liberal democracy. When the European Union criticizes the Orbán government for the illiberal character of its reforms, that government is always quick to point out that every controversial legal change, rule, or institution has been faithfully copied from the legal system of one of the EU’s member states. Thus it should come as no surprise that many Western liberals look at the political regimes in Hungary and Poland with the same “horror and disgust” that filled the heart of Victor Frankenstein when he beheld his creature.
To understand the origins of today’s Central and East European illiberal revolution, we should look neither to ideology nor to economics, but instead to the pent-up animosity engendered by the centrality of mimesis in the reform processes launched in the East after 1989. The region’s illiberal turn cannot be grasped apart from the political expectation of “normality” created by the 1989 revolution and the politics of imitation that it legitimized. After the Berlin Wall fell, Europe was no longer divided between communists and democrats. It was instead divided between imitators and the imitated. East-West relations morphed from a Cold War standoff between two hostile systems into a moral hierarchy within a single liberal, Western system. While the mimics looked up to their models, the models looked down on their mimics. It is not entirely mysterious, therefore, why the “imitation of the West” voluntarily chosen by East Europeans three decades ago eventually resulted in a political backlash.
For two decades after 1989, the political philosophy of postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe could be summarized in a single imperative: Imitate the West! The process was called by different names—democratization, liberalization, enlargement, convergence, integration, Europeanization—but the goal pursued by postcommunist reformers was simple. They wished their countries to become “normal,” which meant like the West. This involved importing liberal-democratic institutions, applying Western political and economic recipes, and publicly endorsing Western values. Imitation was widely understood to be the shortest pathway to freedom and prosperity.
Pursuing economic and political reform by imitating a foreign model, however, turned out to have steeper moral and psychological downsides than many had originally expected. The imitator’s life inescapably produces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity, and involuntary insincerity. Indeed, the futile struggle to create a truly credible copy of an idealized model involves a never-ending torment of self-criticism if not self-contempt. [Continue reading…]