The scholarly term ‘illiberalism’ can be conceptualized in brief as modern, ideological reaction against the experience of political, economic, and societal liberalism, whose expressions vary significantly across country-cases and political contexts. Some political actors and intellectuals, especially in Eastern Europe, have taken the term on themselves and even describe their political projects as forthrightly ‘illiberal.’ Yet they are as likely, if not more so, to call themselves simply ‘conservative,’ ‘national-conservative,’ or even ‘Christian-Democratic.’ Coherent illiberal programs are newer in the contemporary Anglophone West and only now moving from intellectual discussions and criticism to nascent ideological projects. Yet illiberal thinkers in the English-speaking world often prefer altogether different descriptors, such as ‘postliberalism’ or ‘the dissident Right’ – in doing so, they often explicitly reject the very same labels of ‘conservatism’ or ‘center-right’ in favor of a distinct ideological vocabulary – and one that much more openly emphasizes the reactionary and radical nature of their position vis-à-vis the prevailing political forces in power.
What is the relationship between the phenomenon of illiberalism in Eastern Europe, where self-described illiberal political and intellectual elites are perhaps most common (and certainly most electorally successful), with the new and entrepreneurial political thinkers in the Anglo-American world that have varyingly collected under the umbrella term of postliberalism? Although sharing a common family of reaction, divergences are considerable – ranging from their distinct origins and political approaches to their very sociocultural positions in society and ultimately their current political relevance. Despite these differences, an asymmetric dialogue has grown between illiberalism’s East European and English-speaking promoters at the intellectual and political elite level, and one that may become a more productive dynamic over the next decade.
Illiberalism’s Eastern European Origins
The scholarly concept of illiberalism has developed inductively over the last two decades, as researchers sought to explain the quick rise of vehement political opposition to liberalism and left-liberal governance in East-Central and Eastern Europe in the 2000s. Hungary and Poland sit as paradigmatic cases, although scholars have written on varying illiberal movements and policy orientations across the region.
The region also uniquely hosts political actors and intellectuals that themselves use the illiberal term, although not in the pejorative sense implied by much current scholarship. This is most famously the case with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has described his political goals in terms of building an “illiberal democracy,” in contradistinction to the aggressively liberal regimes of Western Europe and the liberal-progressive ideological orientation of the European Union’s supranational bureaucracy. Politically-minded intellectuals in the region have also used the term in a positive light, distinguishing the liberal ‘them’ of the EU’s leading elites and the ‘us’ of reluctant national populations across post-communist Eastern Europe, who have found ‘liberal democracy’ to be far from what it had been sold as in the 1990s.
Even so, illiberal democracy is not the preferred term among illiberal politicians and political movements in the region. This is in no small part due to the existence of a long history of non-liberal politics in Eastern Europe, which means that recourse to a neologism is less necessary, even if it captures the phenomenon conceptually from an outside, academic perspective. Non-liberal democratic politics – or non-liberal authoritarian politics, for that matter – have significant legacies in the region, and differing strains of right-wing ideological positioning have specific labels that convey appropriate semantic clarity in the local context. In this sense, ‘conservatism,’ ‘national-conservatism,’ (non-liberal) ‘Christian-Democracy,’ and other ideological descriptors are often preferred, even if the substance of the reaction can be classified as illiberal in content, orientation, and motivation when observed with analytic distance.
This specific form of illiberalism is notable especially for its pragmatic relevance to substantive politics beyond the realm of ideas. Illiberal political parties run competitively in elections across the regions and govern in several. Illiberal educational and civil society institutions are well-established and growing, seeding further electoral victories and claiming legitimacy as mechanisms of elite development. And as illiberal ideas are well represented in traditional ideological legacies – especially the statist and nationalist right-wings of Eastern European countries – the cost of introducing populations to illiberal frames is quite low and perfectly legible within each given country’s localized political vernacular.
Postliberalism in the Anglo-American World
In contrast to Eastern Europe, illiberal ideational trends in two of the core modern hubs of global liberalism – North America and the British Isles – express themselves very differently. In doing so, they also helpfully illustrate the very different experiences with, and socialization into, contemporary liberalism itself that typifies these countries and informs their current ideological dynamics. Ultimately, the way illiberalism has developed among intellectuals and writers in the Anglo-American world underlines the more limited institutional toolbox from which they can draw, just as the more radical flavors of ideological imperatives that have emerged are shaped by experience under a century (or three) of a very different ideological inheritance.
Many of the most entrepreneurial and influential illiberal thinkers in the English-speaking world have begun using the term ‘postliberal(ism)’ to describe in broad strokes their intellectual and philosophical approaches. Postliberalism as a term in these kinds of debates was initially deployed in the United Kingdom by left-leaning writers who had become disenchanted with the atomization, secularism, and materialism dominant of the present era. Postliberalism in the UK has a decidedly reactionary cast, and one that acknowledges that the project is one seeking to rectify the perceived damages done to the body politic by hegemonic liberalism.
As British postliberalism has developed, it has oriented itself towards variations on the idea of a culturally conservative, societally-unitive political project with left economic underpinnings. This is sometimes tied to the idea of developing a ‘Blue Labour, or ‘Red Tory’ cadre in politics. The recently enthroned King Charles III has been termed the United Kingdom’s first “post-liberal monarch,” in an ecumenical sense of rejecting “the marketisation of ever more aspects of human life” and one who promotes a sort of paternalistic stewardship of state and society in opposition to market liberalism and cultural atomization. This postliberal vista in its most substantive articulations is statist, family- and community-oriented, and refers to the premodern trappings of the British political inheritance vis-à-vis the negative effects of Americanization, political homogenization, social atomization, and sclerotic bureaucratization.
Yet postliberalism is not a preferred term only for British reaction, but also encompasses political Catholic movements, primarily found in the United States. There, postliberalism has been taken by small groups of religious intellectuals that sometimes also describe themselves as ‘integralists.’ As integralism has very specific metaphysical commitments in this setting, the postliberal label has been used as a means to ease the connection between their distinct mix of political Catholic ideas and other, more broad illiberal intellectual projects under the general label of postliberalism. The outworking of this has been an effort to identify concrete policies that go beyond a shared critique of liberalism. This unites integralist strands of postliberalism with the more secular, and certainly less Catholic, ones found in the UK. Perhaps the most unique contribution to postliberal thought by American integralists has been a strong emphasis on the “common good” as an overarching goal of political action and a legal-constitutional framework, framed as hearkening back to classical forms of politics in contrast with liberal emphases on individual autonomy as the primary good of politics.
Finally, a third variation on postliberalism in the Anglo-American world is an overlapping, but distinct illiberal tendency that is sometimes referred to as the ‘dissident Right.’ This insufficient term captures a wide swathe of ideational actors and is particularly used by internet-based political commentators and thinkers to describe their position as outside establishment and traditional tendencies on the hard right side of the American political spectrum. Many tendencies can be noted here, far more diffuse than other collectives of postliberal thought. The dissident Right includes, just by self-designation, writers that fall under various labels, from ‘right-wing bodybuilder’ influencers to nationalists skirting the edge of establishment politics to accelerationist and ‘neo-reactionary’ thinkers. Perhaps the easiest point of entry, if not necessarily the most influential (or fully ‘dissident’), in this ecosystem at present is the ‘National Conservative’ movement, which mixes illiberal political ideas with more mainstream, counter-establishment right-wing politics.
Core Divergences and New Trajectories
While there are notable overlaps between illiberalism as observed in the politics of Eastern European cases and the intellectual developments in the Anglo-American world, significant differences also exist. In part, this is due to a key difference in case environment. In the Western world, the majority population is understood to be largely socialized into liberalism and has experienced many decades – if not centuries – under forms of liberal political, economic, and cultural patterns. Indeed, liberalism is considered a core characteristic of political society in the United States and to a lesser degree the United Kingdom, not least by illiberal intellectuals themselves.
In Eastern Europe, there are no such assumptions that the population can be so described. Sources of illiberal ideas and lifeways are as likely to be seen as core sociocultural elements within the broader society, and understood in a stable, communitarian vein. This is very different from the Western experience, in which established viewpoints that stress the atavistic, conservative, or reactionary elements of rural or suburban-rural populations in the West often also emphasize individualism, libertarianism, and anti-Statism – which can be conceptually captured as ‘classical liberalism’ or at least not communitarian-traditionalist.
Even so, commonalities exist, although the direction of influence thus far has gone primarily in the direction from illiberal politics as expressed in Eastern European countries to receptive illiberal intellectuals in the West. For example, Adrian Vermeule, the influential integralist and constitutional legal scholar, has reviewed the illiberal Polish thinker, Ryszard Legutko’s writing as part of a project to lay bare the failure of liberalism to act as a neutral, rather than ideological, regime. More often, postliberals in the Anglo-American world take important cues from exemplar states like Hungary, as they provide a kind of ‘proof-of-concept’ that their ideas are in fact actionable in the 21st century. In certain ways, Hungary in particular functions in the kind of way that Sweden does as a touchstone for progressive policy analysts – a small, homogenous European country with legacies of high state capacity through which idealized policies can bear fruit and act as an easy-to-grasp heuristic for how the world could be different.
Yet the influence of illiberal example cases such as Hungary or Poland has primarily worked either in a general sense of possibility or at the level of reminding American postliberals that the state does not have to be the enemy. What remains missing is the core differentiation between Eastern European illiberalism and Anglo-American postliberalism: a functional, cohesive political party vehicle for which illiberally-inclined segments of the population can vote, alongside which cadres of political elites can be developed, and civil society spinoffs from the party can work to build out diffuse support for illiberal political and societal goals.
Furthermore, the degree of relative esotericism and intellectual radicalism in English-speaking postliberal ideational spaces is much greater than those found among mainstream illiberal institutions and actors in Eastern Europe. While there are also ‘far-right’ or ‘extreme right’ groups in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere which would qualify as illiberal and also maintain truly extremist positions, they are not the norm. Rather, illiberal movements in these countries sit firmly in the broad right of their political spectra, are moderated at elite levels by actual access to and responsibility with political and institutional power, and do not primarily exist online or in specialized publications. This is very different from the postliberal ecosystem in the Anglo-American world and is a function of relative intellectual marginality and the overwhelming dominance of liberalism as a core characteristic of elite circles in the US and UK for many decades.
Until very recently, there was little evidence that mainstream illiberal elites have taken much by way of cues from postliberal writings, with a few exceptions primarily associated with Hungary. Prime Minister Orbán has indeed noted the interest among the Anglo-American illiberal right in Hungary and promotes elite networks in Europe and North America that highlight the Hungarian example. This asymmetric interaction may indeed grow thicker over time, as network connections mature and postliberal writers in the Anglophone world take advantage of the institutionalized apparatus of illiberal ‘thought collectives,’ civil society, and elite educational entities in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. Evidence of this includes visits by postliberal Catholic scholars and writers to Hungary to meet with Orbán personally as well as to participate in institutional events, meetings, and discussions.
While the growing term ‘postliberalism’ is in part simply a function of entrepreneurial branding by illiberal intellectual actors in Anglo-American countries, the inferred commitments of the ‘postliberal’ label also illustrates an important distinction: illiberal elites living in consolidated liberal societies for many generations in the West have different points of reference, social structures, and cultural toolkits in comparison to illiberal elites in post-communist states, which is reflected in differing degrees of ideological esotericism, perceptions of conceptual overlaps, and at the level of pragmatic politics. Illiberalism in Eastern Europe is politically substantive, institutionally pragmatic, and action-oriented while postliberalism (and its other labels) is still largely critique-generating, institutionally marginal, and discourse-oriented. It remains to be seen what will be taken substantively from both respective political and ideological projects over time, and to what degree friendly ‘meetings-of-the minds’ turn into more isomorphic or diffusion-oriented relationships.
Author’s Note: this analytic essay is derived from a longer working paper, “‘Illiberalism’ in the East But ‘Postliberalism’ in the West? Contrasting Elite Ideological Dissent from Eastern Europe to North America,” presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.
Dr. Julian G. Waller is an Associate Research Analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Professorial Lecturer in Political Science at George Washington University, and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. All views are his own and do not represent his employers or affiliated organizations.
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