Thursday, November 23, 2017

Terra Nostra, for how long?

Giorgia Meloni, president of Terra Nostra. (Wikicommons: Niccolò Caranti)

A nationalist bloc of nations now extends across much of eastern and central Europe, but Italy seems like another world. In the Italian parliament the leading nationalist party, the Lega Nord (LN), has lost seats at each general election since 1994, except for the one in 2008. The party is also under pressure from members to distance itself from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, particularly after both failed to make major electoral gains this year. Finally, by its very nature, the LN is limited in its potential for growth—it’s a regional party whose support is confined to northern Italy.

Ironically, Italy had once been Europe’s epicenter of political change, as novelist and literary critic Umberto Eco pointed out:

Italian fascism was the first right-wing dictatorship that took over a European country, and all similar movements later found a sort of archetype in Mussolini's regime. Italian fascism was the first to establish a military liturgy, a folklore, even a way of dressing—far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be. It was only in the Thirties that fascist movements appeared, with Mosley, in Great Britain, and in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and even in South America. It was Italian fascism that convinced many European liberal leaders that the new regime was carrying out interesting social reform, and that it was providing a mildly revolutionary alternative to the Communist threat. (Eco 1995)

What would have happened if Italy had stayed out of the Second World War? Would fascism have remained an “interesting” alternative not only to Communism but also to liberal democracy? Probably not. It would have fallen prey to dry rot and eventually collapsed, like in Spain and Portugal. There were fundamental problems with fascism besides the obvious one of stupid jingoism. There was also the problem of maintaining traditional values in an increasingly urban and anonymous mass culture, and this mission was assigned to a state/clerical bureaucracy that might, one day, have other ideas …

As a credible postwar movement, fascism persisted longer in Italy than elsewhere. Indeed, a neo-fascist party was represented in the Italian parliament throughout the postwar era. This was the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MRI), which held seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate from 1948 until its dissolution in 1995, when the MRI rebranded itself as the Alleanza Nazionale (AN) in a bid to gain mainstream support. 

Although it was for a long time preoccupied with the debate of fascism and anti-fascism, the party distanced itself from this in the early 1990s to rather focus on contemporary Italian issues. [...] When the party transformed itself into the AN, it outspokenly rejected fascism, as well as "any kind of totalitarianism and racism." In contrast to other far-right parties in Europe which increased their power in the late 1980s, the MSI chose to not campaign against immigration, because [there] was less than [in] other European countries. (Wikipedia 2017a)

This transformation paid off, electorally. In 1996 the AN peaked at 16% of the popular vote, and in 2001 it joined a coalition government with its leader as Deputy Prime Minister and Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister. Finally, in 2009 it was absorbed into a new party created by Berlusconi, Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL).

There is a lesson in this. If you imitate the mainstream in order to gain power, you may destroy your reason for seeking power, which is to promote your ideas and make them public policy. The end becomes cannibalized by the means.

And yet ...

One may conclude that nothing points to a nationalist breakthrough in Italy, at least not in the near future. Yet things aren't necessarily what they seem. Although the Lega Nord has lost support at the national level, it has gained support at the regional level, particularly in the 2015 regional elections. A party member, Luca Zaia, was elected president of the Veneto region with 50% of the vote, the combined score for the LN and Zaia lists being 41%. The party came second in Liguria (22%) and Tuscany (16%) and third in Marche (13%) and Umbria (14%). These were record successes.

One doesn't have to look far for the reason. Over the past three years half a million migrants, mostly from Africa, have poured into Italy. And the end isn't in sight. The migrant wave is being driven by population pressure in Africa, and not by specific events like the civil war in Syria:

While irregular crossings in the Mediterranean to reach Europe have been growing for a number of years, 2015 marked the sharpest rise in sea arrivals to the EU with a four-fold increase from 2014.

[...] There has been a rapid decline in the presence of Syrian nationals who went from 24% of arrivals in 2014 to just 5% in 2015. While Eritreans were the largest single nationality group in 2015, it is the presence of young single men from a wide range of African countries that truly characterises the Central Mediterranean route in 2015. (Crawley et al. 2016)

Meanwhile, an alternative to the Lega Nord has been taking shape. In 2012 the Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) was founded with Giorgia Meloni as president and a membership drawn largely from the old AN. Its ideology is described as follows:

[The basic principles are] nationalism, national conservatism, and the Social Right [a French movement of social conservatism].

In economic matters, these [principles] mean abandoning the euro, implementing protectionism for products made in Italy, and repealing the European Fiscal Compact.

On the issue of taxation, the electoral program calls for a "family quotient" [taxation that takes the size of the nuclear family into account], a lower sales tax of 4% on goods for young children, and tax deductions substantiated with receipts for such goods.

The party also calls for a social mortgage, i.e., establishment of a publicly funded institution to build housing and living quarters for sale to families who do not already own a home. Mortgage payments will not exceed one fifth of family income, and an eligible family must have at least one gainfully employed member.

At the international level the party declares that it is close to the Front National of Marine Le Pen and the Law and Justice party in Poland. (Wikipedia 2017b)

The party is opposed to birthright citizenship and decriminalization of illegal immigration, and it supports a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. Finally, in the field of civil rights, it opposes gay marriage and parenting, stating that it wants to safeguard the traditional family.

Although the FdI won only 2% of the popular vote in the 2013 general election, it has done better in subsequent municipal and regional elections. In the 2016 election in Rome it received 12% of the popular vote. In the 2017 regional election in Sicily, a politician close to the party was elected president. In preparation for the 2018 general election, the FdI is working to form a broader nationalist front called Terra Nostra (TN) (Wikipedia 2017c).


At first glance, Italy’s nationalist scene looks moribund. Over the past twenty years the Lega Nord has steadily lost support in general elections. In the 1990s the Movimento Sociale Italiano lost its raison d'être and eventually disappeared into the political mainstream. A closer look, however, shows that the LN has been increasing its support at the regional and municipal levels. The last few years have also seen a new nationalist party come into being: the Fratelli d'Italia, now renamed Terra Nostra. Time will tell, but it has already shown promising growth in municipal and regional elections. The TN is partly a response to electoral successes by similar parties in other countries, notably the Front National in France and the Law and Justice party in Poland, but its main impetus seems to be events in Italy itself, particularly the sharp rise in immigration from Africa over the past three years.

Both parties will have to overcome several barriers to electoral success:

- The Lega Nord cannot fully mobilize the nationalist vote. Its support is confined to northern Italy and is fueled by a perception that the north is subsidizing the south and an overgrown central government. It has in fact tried to build support in southern and central Italy, but with little success.

- Terra Nostra is new, and new parties are prone to problems that plague any new team of people: disagreement over vision and ideology, uncertainty over direction and strategy, etc. Since many of its founding members had formerly belonged to the AN, and previously to the MRI, they will tend to follow old visions and old ideology. In particular, belief in a strong central state will block cooperation with the LN.

- There is a lack of time. Immigration to Italy has reached high levels. With a fertility rate of 1.2 children per native-born woman, the most likely scenario will be rapid demographic replacement. Indeed, this fate awaits the entire southern tier of Europe.

Although both parties may do very well in the upcoming 2018 general election, they will probably not do well enough to form a coalition government on their own. The outcome will likely be a three-way coalition: Lega Nord, Terra Nostra, and Forza Italia, i.e., Berlusconi's party. This raises the prospect of absorption into the political mainstream, as was the case a decade ago. This time, however, the tail might wag the dog; there are signs that Forza Italia voters are realizing that Italy, like Europe as a whole, is facing an existential crisis. On the other hand, their party is still a mix of liberal and traditionalist tendencies:

In October 2014 Berlusconi personally endorsed Renzi's proposals on civil unions for gays and a quicker path to citizenship to Italian-born children of immigrants. However, recent developments proved the party more socially conservative. FI clarified that it considers marriage solely as the union between a man and a woman. The majority of its members voted against civil unions, whereas the NCD voted in favour. Moreover, the party is critical of teaching gender studies in schools. Party members are generally pro-life and therefore seek to limit abortion and euthanasia. The party has criticized illegal immigration and the way it has been managed by centre-left coalition governments. It has also declared itself against the introduction of jus soli in Italy. In addition, the party is opposed to drug liberalization, which it considers potentially negative for health and not useful for solving criminal matters. When FI's predecessors were in power, they restricted the legislation on the matter, with the Fini-Giovanardi law. Finally, FI considers Italy as a country with a Christian civilization and, thus, favours displaying Christian symbols in public places. (Wikipedia 2017d)

This is typical conservatism, and on several points it is vulnerable to the sort of manipulation by outside interests that we have seen with conservative parties elsewhere. If, for example, only illegal immigration is problematic, why not solve the problem by legalizing it? Perhaps Berlusconi has learned his lesson, but the example of conservatives elsewhere isn't reassuring. Again, time will tell.


Crawley, H., F. Duvell, N. Sigona, S. McMahon, and K. Jones (2016).  Unpacking a rapidly changing scenario: migration flows, routes and trajectories across the Mediterranean. Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG) Research Brief No.1 March 2016  

Eco, U. (1995). Ur-Fascism, The New York Review of Books, June 22  

Wikipedia (2017a). Italian Social Movement.  

Wikipedia (2017b). Fratelli d'Italia - Alleanza Nazionale.

Wikipedia (2017c). Brothers of Italy  

Wikipedia (2017d). Forza Italia.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The next two to three years

Election posters for the radical nationalist SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), (Wikicommons: Micki)

A nationalist bloc of nations has come into being in eastern and central Europe—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. This is a new development, and most commentators in North America and Western Europe are still digesting what has happened. So they are easy prey for three misconceptions:

This is right-wing nationalism, even far right. Actually, in denouncing the erosion of the welfare state and in rejecting military intervention abroad, it has more in common with Bernie Sanders than with Margaret Thatcher. It is, in fact, a sharp break with the thinking that has dominated the right since the days of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

This is a return to the belligerent nationalism of the early 20th century. Europe no longer has enough young men to sacrifice in needless wars—ironically, that's what postnational Western elites have been pushing. In the early 21st century, nationalism is about rejecting military adventurism abroad and defending what we have at home.

This is an Eastern European thing, a legacy of communism. True, in its initial stages. National identity is stronger in Eastern Europe, partly because the Iron Curtain hindered the inflow of Western culture and partly because these societies are less differentiated and more homogeneous. Because citizens share similar interests, consensus can be reached more easily and then spread elsewhere. And the new nationalist consensus has already spread west of the former Iron Curtain. 

Over the next two to three years, this consensus will spread into other small countries or regions where the elites are close to the people, where English isn't widely used, and where the culture is similar and tends to be locally produced. The next dominoes to fall will thus probably be Slovenia and Croatia to the south and Switzerland, Bavaria, and Saxony to the west. This political change will happen as much through ideological conversion of old parties as through electoral upsets by new parties.

The nationalist consensus will spread to other countries with the help of another factor: the relative weakness of the local elite and, conversely, the relative strength of public feeling that change is necessary. If we look at Europe as a whole, we can identify two zones where the elites are weak and the desire for change is correspondingly strong. One is Serbia/Macedonia/Bulgaria. The other is Italy.


Although Serbia is next to Hungary, it has less in common with that country than does Austria or Czechia. As a state within Yugoslavia, it was never part of the Warsaw Pact and only an associate member of Comecon. It was communist, yes, but it remained nonaligned during the Cold War. In addition, its religious heritage is Orthodox and not Catholic. Like much of the Orthodox world, it had once lived under Muslim rule and thus views the Islamic world differently—as a former colonizing power and not as a former victim of colonialism.

Currently, Serbia is ruled by the SNS (Srpska napredna stranka), which won 48% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The party originated in a group that broke away from the much more radical SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), a nationalist party that opposes European integration and globalism. Internationally, the SNS cooperates with the FPO of Austria (Freedom Party) and Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia). 

Nonetheless, Serbia’s governing party is acting more and more like postnational Western elites. In 2015, it gave 600,000 migrants free passage through the country, partly under pressure from the EU—as the foreign minister hinted in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

DW: Serbia is one of the main countries that refugees transit on the Balkan route to the European Union. What measures has your country adopted in response?

Ivica Dacic: Up to now we had a fair and constructive approach to this issue, and for this we were praised by the entire world and commended for our behavior from the European Union, the United Nations and all world powers. I have to note that in 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia. (Deutsche Welle 2016)

The government is in fact seeking EU membership:

Serbia's prime minister said Wednesday [June 28, 2017] her future government's goal is membership in the European Union along with modernization of the troubled Balkan country.

Ana Brnabic told Serbian parliament that the government will lead a "balanced" foreign policy, seeking good relations with Russia, China and the U.S.

Lawmakers are expected to vote her government into office later this week. If confirmed, Brnabic will become Serbia's first ever female and openly gay prime minister.

"The time before us will show how brave we are to move boundaries," Brnabic said in her speech. "Now is the moment to make a step forward and take our society, country and economy into the 21st century."

She warned that "if we don't take that chance, we can hardly count on another one again."

When President Aleksandar Vucic nominated the U.S.- and U.K.-educated Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister earlier this month, it was seen as an attempt to calm Western concerns that Serbia was getting too chose to Russia despite its proclaimed goal of joining the EU. (Gec 2017) 

This pro-EU attitude has been adopted in the name of realism. Unemployment hovers at 20% and, despite widespread privatization, the painful transition to a market economy is showing no signs of ending. For advocates of EU membership, the solution is to be patient and to work at becoming like Western Europe. This discourse has a strong element of faith:

There is a Serbia of lies, deceptions, myths, hatred, and death. It is a rural, patriarchal, collectivistic, clerical, anti-Western and anti-modern Serbia. It is also a Serbia manipulated by cynical leaders who exploit its primitiveness and stupidity. Whenever this Serbia had its say, it brought death onto others, and misery onto itself. But, there is another Serbia, urban, modern, pacifist, cosmopolitan, liberal, democratic and European! This is our Serbia! This other Serbia is the only possible future for all of us! We will work hard together with our neighbors and foreign friends to reform Serbia and make it worthy of the European future that awaits it. (Vetta 2009)

Neighboring Bulgaria, however, has been an EU member since 2007 and a NATO member since 2004, yet there too the "transition" shows no signs of ending. The unemployment rate is lower, around 10%, but this figure excludes the large numbers of young Bulgarians who have left the country. From almost nine million in 1988, the population has fallen to a little over seven million today. Serbia is likewise losing its young people, as is most of Eastern Europe.

The transition to a Western market economy has been problematic wherever one goes beyond the Hajnal Line—this imaginary line that runs from Trieste to St. Petersburg. Individualism is weaker and kinship correspondingly stronger, with the result that nepotism and familialism prevent the market from working optimally. We in the West call this "corruption," yet most people in the world think it's normal to favor your kin, just as it's normal to favor yourself. Kith and kin are an extension of the self.

To be sure, consumerism is making Serbian culture more individualistic and hence more accommodating to the market economy, but this cultural change is still incomplete and not without adverse effects. In Eastern Europe, like elsewhere, people buy prestigious consumer goods that they don't really need and, often, don't have the means to pay for. They go heavily into debt and decide to postpone having children. With the exception of Russia and Albania, the one-child family has become the norm throughout Eastern Europe. Economic change is thus linked to a demographic change that is ultimately more serious:

Serbia has been enduring a demographic crisis since the beginning of the 1990s, with a death rate that has continuously exceeded its birth rate, and a total fertility rate of 1.43 children per mother, one of the lowest in the world. Serbia subsequently has one of the oldest populations in the world, with the average age of 42.9 years, and its population is shrinking at one of the fastest rates in the world. A fifth of all households consist of only one person, and just one-fourth of four and more persons. (Wikipedia 2017)

Many Serbs are still hoping that stronger ties with the West will solve their problems. Yet, increasingly, this seems to be a vain hope. The Western model of economic and social development may not be equally applicable to all cultural settings. Indeed, it might not be applicable anywhere in its current form, given its promotion of individualism and its rejection of enduring collective identities like the family, the ethny, and the nation. 

Faith in the Western model is giving way to disillusionment throughout Eastern Europe, and a feeling of having reached a dead end, as Viktor Orban wrote in 2011:

[...] Europe now stands at a fateful juncture. For over twenty years I have been taking part in various European counsels and conferences, and at these gatherings one thing has been consistently clear: the participants have always agreed that there is a well-worn, time-tested path down which it is both worthwhile and indeed necessary to continue plodding. But over the course of the past year and a half the mood at these gatherings has changed fundamentally. Today all of Europe is compelled to face the unpleasant fact that we have run out of well-worn paths. At most the familiar paths will lead us back to the familiar past and its mistakes, setbacks, and failures. (Orban, 2011)

In itself, disillusionment does not cause political change. One must articulate an alternative to the status quo and make it known through mainstream or alternative media. This is one thing that defenders of the status quo fear the most, such as those in Serbia:

Traditional media outlets in Serbia see themselves constantly confronted with direct or indirect pressure. That pressure ranges from direct threats against public media journalists to economic pressure applied to private media companies, especially through mechanisms such as the control of paid advertising. The situation has caused many citizens to turn to Facebook to get their news. For a large portion of society, Facebook and Twitter have become people's main source of information. "It is a reaction to government control of traditional media outlets," says Zeljko Bodrozic, from the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS). "Besides a few other online portals, social media outlets have become the only source for independent news information."

[...] Television outlets, as well as radio and popular daily newspapers, continue to set the tone and influence opinion. "At the same time," says Bodrozic, "social media has been 'hijacked' by the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The government cannot forbid or limit internet use, but it can poison independent news sources or make them appear senseless by actively deploying internet trolls." (Deutsche Welle 2017)

Interestingly, Facebook is cooperating with Serbian authorities in this crackdown on alternative media. News sources will now have less prominence on Facebook unless they're willing to pay for placement in the main feed (Deutsche Welle 2017).

The SNS leadership has come a long way from its nationalist origins. Could this be a double game? Are they trying to get the perks that come with EU candidacy (loans, investment, visa liberalization) while having no real intention of joining? There is probably a mix of motives. Many party members have misgivings about EU membership but feel it's necessary to get Serbia back on its feet. Others are tired of being vilified in the Western media and even in Hollywood movies. For them, EU membership will be a ticket to international acceptance. Finally, others have fully internalized the worldview that prevails in the West, certainly at the U.S. and U.K. universities that the prime minister attended.

In any case, it doesn't matter what the governing party really thinks. All that matters is what it does, and that, in itself, has already caused irreparable harm.

Next week: Italy


Deutsche Welle (2016). 'In 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia' Date: 13/02/2016

Deutsche Welle (2017). Facebook dual feed experiment: Giving users what they want or enabling state censorship? Date: 03/11/2017

Gec, J. (2017). Serbia's next premier: EU membership, modernization priority, World Politics Review, June 28

Orban, V. (2011). The Year of European Renewal - The Prime Minister's Thoughts on the
Hungarian EU Presidency, Hungarian Review 1, 5-11.

Vetta, T. (2009). Revived nationalism versus European democracy:
Class and "identity dilemmas" in contemporary Serbia, Focaal-European Journal of Anthropology 55, 74-89

Wikipedia (2017). Serbia

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why the dominoes fall

Election Poster for the Lega dei Ticinesi (Italian canton of Switzerland), an "isolationist, national conservative party" (Wiki). Currently, it holds 21 out of 90 seats in the Ticino legislature (Wikicommons: NAC)

My last post was on the collapse of communism in 1989, specifically why it began in Hungary and Poland and why it spread so fast throughout Eastern Europe. At the end I mused that the same two countries were once more the bad boys on the block.

History doesn't repeat itself, at least not exactly. Today, the actors are different, as is the dominant ideology, which for want of a better term I will call "globalism." The cultural context is also larger and more diverse. In 1989, the dominoes fell within a geographic space that was not only smaller but also more homogeneous socially and culturally. Even if we ignore earlier points in common (Catholic and/or Slavic heritage of most countries, largely agrarian social order until recent times), these societies all shared the historical experience of the postwar era: occupation by the Red Army, destruction of the prewar elites, imposition of a new socioeconomic model, and transnational integration into the Warsaw Pact and COMECON.

Today, the dominoes are falling within a larger and more diverse geographic space—Europe in its entirety, as well as overseas societies of European origin. People do share points in common within this space, notably a long history of Christianization and a consciousness of being "white" in relation to the rest of the world. For most, however, this commonality has become a source of ambivalence and, increasingly, shame. Furthermore, this larger geographic space is marked by differences in political and social development that dwarf those of Eastern Europe in 1989.

So what makes the dominoes fall? Beissinger (2007) called this phenomenon "modular revolutionary change" and tried to identify the processes that drive it:

I use the term "modular" in the way in which Tarrow used the term to describe the spread of collective action across groups. Modular action is action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others—a model being, in one of Webster's definitions, "an example for imitation or emulation."

[...] Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another.

To explain this power of example, Beissinger (2007) proposed "the elite defection model":

[...] once example gains momentum and crosses the tipping point where modular behavior accelerates across groups, a general expectation about the direction in which events are flowing demoralizes those representing established institutions, potentially promoting defections among them and encouraging bandwagoning behavior. Here, established elites entertain doubts about their own legitimacy and the future of the structures they are defending, so that a demonstration of the vulnerability of such structures in other contexts leads them to co-opt opposition demands or to seek to bail out before it becomes too late.

This bandwagon effect isn't inevitable. If the elites of one country see what is happening in another, they may try to prevent the same thing from happening in theirs, either through negative measures (harsher repression) or through positive ones (reform). Beissinger (2007) mentioned only the possibility of negative measures:

[...] established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further. Under this model, established elites retain a belief in the future of current institutions, hold that established elites in other contexts where modular change was previously successful squandered that future as a result of foolish moves, and respond to the threat of modular change by moving aggressively to prevent such challenges, repressing them and raising the institutional constraints that they face.

There are reasons why this kind of situation causes elites to respond with negative measures rather than positive ones. First, even modest reform can spin out of control if people strongly desire change. Second, the elites themselves may fall prey to their own propaganda, particularly their demonization of the opposition. They may thus double down and strive even harder to portray opponents as wicked traitors who must be stopped at all costs.

Third, the elites don't necessarily have the same self-interests as the rest of society. This was less so in communist Eastern Europe, where social distances were relatively small, partly because of socialist ideology and partly because the prewar elites had been eliminated. In 21st century Western Europe and North America, however, the top 1% live in a very different world and accordingly have a very different view of self-interest. In particular, over the past half-century they have greatly improved their position at the expense of their fellow citizens by outsourcing work to low-wage countries and by insourcing low-wage workers for those jobs that cannot be outsourced. In short, the elites can relocate labor and money to maximize return on their investment, while the Western working class cannot so easily relocate itself.

In any case, fewer and fewer countries can offer Western working people the standard of living they once enjoyed. We can debate back and forth whether globalism is raising the living standards of the world's poor—in some countries it has and it others it hasn't. One thing however is clear. Throughout the Western world, incomes have stagnated or declined for most people—largely as a result of a shift from high-paying, largely unionized jobs in manufacturing to much lower-paying, non-unionized jobs in services, where competition with immigrants is most intense.

This point was made by Bernie Sanders in an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN:

SANDERS: If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don't know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.

DOBBS: And as we know, the principal industries which hire the bulk of illegal aliens, that is construction, landscaping ...

SANDERS: Lou, I just heard something.

DOBBS: Those are all industries in which wages are declining. I don't hear that discussed on the Senate floor by the proponents of this amnesty legislation.

SANDERS: That's right. They have no good response. I read something today that a lot of people coming into this country are coming in as lifeguards. I guess we can't find — that's right. We can't [find] American workers to work as lifeguards. And the H1B program has teachers, elementary school teachers. Well, you know.

DOBBS: And that H1B program, we got to watch Senator Ted Kennedy watch there with the sole witness being one Bill Gates, the world's richest man, telling him he wanted unlimited H1B visas, obviously uninformed to the fact that seven out of 10 visas under the H1B program goes to Indian corporations that are outsourcing those positions to American corporations in this country and that four out of five of those jobs that are supposed to be high-skilled jobs are actually category one jobs which is low skill.

SANDERS: Well, you raise a good point, in that this whole immigration guest worker program is the other side of the trade issue. On one hand you have large multinationals trying to shut down plants in the America, move to China and on the other hand you have the service industry bringing in low wage workers from abroad. The result is the same — middle class gets shrunken and wages go down. (CNN 2007)

And this is only one aspect of the economic, demographic, and political crisis that now faces people throughout the Western world, particularly those who thought they had a nation-state to defend their interests. Radical change, by its very nature, tends to do more harm than good, and the change we’re now facing dwarfs that of any previous revolution. Robespierre and Lenin didn’t attempt what the current leadership of the West is now attempting. In many respects the crisis we face is an existential one.


How many dominoes will fall? And how fast? Clearly, the process will be slower and more irregular than it was back in 1989. Compared to Eastern Europe, the Western world is much more heterogeneous culturally, politically, and historically. Its elites likewise have less in common with the average man and woman. Finally, they can rely on support from each other, most crucially from elites at the center of the Western world.

On the other hand, this same heterogeneity means that some countries have elites whose hold on power is weaker and whose legitimacy is correspondingly weaker. In such countries, repression may be harsher and yet less effective because there is so little collaboration at the grassroots level. If change is in the air, agents of repression may hesitate to act, for fear that they might later be held accountable for their actions.

So more dominoes will surely fall. For now, they'll fall where the elites are more peripheral in the Western world, where their hold on power is weaker, and where cultural affinity or shared historical experience can facilitate the bandwagon effect. In my next post, I will peer into this near future and the apparent surprises that lie in store.


Beissinger, M.R. (2007). Structure and example in modular political phenomena: The diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip revolutions, Perspectives on Politics 5(2), 259-276.

CNN (2007). Lou Dobbs Tonight, June 21, Transcripts

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The bad boys on the block

Demonstration at Warsaw University, May 1988. The dominoes began to fall a year before the collapse that most of us remember (Wikicommons: Rafał Werbanowski)

The sky outside was pitch-black, and the windows were reverberating with the wind blowing off the St. Lawrence. In my motel room the 6 o’clock news showed a scene of festivity—crowds of people milling about the Berlin Wall with some actually on top and chipping off pieces. It all seemed ironic. Here I was doing fieldwork to understand the past and meanwhile the present was changing before my very eyes.

Yet some people had foreseen that change. In 1982, a book had made this prediction:

We should ask ourselves whether, like us, the Russians will not be affected by our new morality. Perhaps this has already happened. In that case, the consequences will be far-reaching in their starkness, as in the West. The Soviet Empire will collapse. Russia will become a democracy. That appears, today, to be unimaginable. What has become of the British Empire, more populous and vaster than the U.S.S.R? It has become confined to a people on an island (Taccoen 1982, p. 71)

In the mid-1980s I ran into a biology professor who had just come back from his native Hungary. “Communism is finished! I felt freer there than I do here!” About the same time another professor, from my department, spoke about a conference in Poland. He was surprised by the dismissive attitude toward Marxism. “They wouldn’t hear anything of it! And these were anthropologists from a socialist country!”

Unlike today, I enjoyed reading newspapers and listening to the news, but before the events of 1989 there hadn’t been much about Eastern Europe. Even Poland’s Solidarity movement had faded from public view, having been quashed by martial law. The general thinking seemed to be that nothing would change there any time soon. All forms of organized opposition had been crushed, and the population cowed. This was especially so in East Germany, where everybody was being monitored in one way or another and where the Berlin Wall was to be upgraded with the latest high tech: electronic sensors, motion detectors, acoustic sensors, and remote surveillance cameras (Rottman 2012). As for Hungary, well, it had always been the bad boy on the block. Nothing new there.

Then in May 1988 Hungary’s leader, János Kádár, resigned after 32 years of power. That same year the Hungarian parliament voted for a “democracy package”: free trade unions, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, as well as a radical rewriting of the constitution. That event went largely unnoticed in the West, but in Eastern Europe it signaled that change was now possible. In August 1988 the Polish authorities agreed to talks with Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity. That, too, was a signal.

Everything else is history. In April 1989 Solidarity was legalized, not only as a union movement but also as a political party. In June, Solidarity candidates won almost all of the seats available to them. Then two “puppet” parties left the Communist-led coalition and teamed up with Solidarity, thus allowing a non-communist coalition to take power. Meanwhile, similar events were playing out in Hungary. In April, the electrified border fence with Austria was turned off, and border guards began removing sections the following month. In June, Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, was reburied at a public ceremony attended by over 100,000. Then, people in other countries began agitating for change, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia … 

One signal led to another. Ultimately, the first signal came in March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. From then on, people throughout the Eastern bloc began pushing the bounds of what was politically possible, and that process started in those countries that already had a history of pushing the bounds.

The speed of change was remarkable, perhaps because of the small social distance between the elites and the mass of the population, combined with a strong sense of common national identity. Despite the repression, the dissidents had got their message across to the people, including the elites. By the late 1980s many among the latter realized that the existing system was dysfunctional and had to change for the greater good. When General Jaruzelski began talks with Solidarity, he did so out of patriotic concern for Poland’s future, and not because circumstances had forced his hand. He could have let things slide indefinitely, had he wanted. Similarly, in Hungary it was the communist leadership that piloted the transition to a non-communist society. They were Hungarians first and communists second.

I have trouble imagining our elites thinking and acting that way. The process of change will likely begin elsewhere and then spread here, through a sort of domino effect, and the first dominos to fall seem to be once again those same two countries.


Rottman, G.L. (2012). The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961-89, Bloomsbury Publishing

Taccoen, L. (1982). L’Occident est nu, Paris: Flammarion.