Twenty-seven years after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, countries remain deeply fractured, suffering from internal socioeconomic conflicts fed by instability in international affairs, such as the Syrian refugee crisis. In the allied countries of Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, this has resulted in the rise of neo-Nazi and far-right movements.
Substantive political struggle has disappeared from public discourse in the post-communist era.
This has resulted in the rise of neo-Nazi and far- right movements in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The right may have won the recent election in Slovakia but the political situation there is rather unique. My argument is that it represents a total evacuation of substantive political struggle from the established public discourse, which makes sense in the light of the post-communist era. The vote for the far right is then nothing but a spontaneous rebellion against the pseudo-political scaffolding of neoliberalism that has been forced on the nation.
The vote for the far right then can be seen as a spontaneous rebellion against neoliberalism — those with leftist intuitions have voted for radical right solutions because the post-communist structure has left them no other options.
This political situation in the countries known as the Visegrad Four comes down to four factors.
A political crisis
First, there is a crisis within traditional political parties, especially in Slovakia. It begins with a fragmented right-wing spectrum that includes seven parliamentary parties and at least two other non-parliamentary organizations with national influence.
Then there is the monolithic social-democratic party Smer (Direction). But be careful here: social democracy in post-communist Europe doesn’t have the meaning a Western audience may expect. Instead, it is a rather culturally conservative force. At the least, it can be said that so-called social democracy in Central Europe is only as corrupted by local power brokers and multinationals as are its Western “leftist” counterparts.
Hungary and Poland are under the dominance of outrageous right-wing populism, leaving the left both electorally and symbolically defeated. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is government by a broad coalition between social democrats, Christian democrats and the right-wing populist project of a multi-billionaire who is also the current finance minister.
Secondly, these countries are socioeconomically crippled. The last decade of the 20th century saw rapid privatization and the establishment of structural inequalities that persist today. Much of the countries’ wealth ended up in the hands of a new class of predatory capitalists and multinational corporations.
At the same time, funding for education, public services, health care, and science and research stagnated, barely keeping up with the rise in GDP. And the first decade of the new millennium stamped the neoliberal efforts with a sense of symbolic victory. One could say that the foundations of the current crisis were already laid down more than 20 years ago.
The result? Fractured societies with large segments of the population left disenfranchised and frustrated.
The refugee crisis
Thirdly, the Syrian refugee crisis has changed politics across the region.
Although neither Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland are a final destination for most of the migrants, xenophobic and proto-fascist tendencies have skyrocketed in public opinion polls. The toxic atmosphere of fear is remarkable in social media, bleeding rapidly into real life and even casual everyday situations. It may be the natural evolution of internal socioeconomic conflicts, but it should be treated separately since the ultimate trigger in this case lies beyond the region of Central Europe.
The fall of the left
Finally, there is the cultural defeat of the left.
The story of post-communist Europe is intertwined with the denial of emancipatory projects. Anti-communism was a common ideal for such a long time that when the historical trauma finally broke and some radical thoughts trickled into mainstream debates, they were swept away by an extraordinarily strong wave of what some of my friends describe as a conservative counter-revolution.
In the Czech Republic, the progressive left is fighting an exhausting trench war, while it tries to establish influence in both the social democratic movement and the Green Party. But many protest votes are swallowed up on one side by the Communists (who sing “The Internationale,” but have little else in common with old communist politics) and by right-wing populists and xenophobes on the other side.
In Slovakia, there isn’t even a blueprint for a coherent progressive movement.
The Hungarian left’s presence in the national assembly is minuscule, and the Polish left suffered an electoral disaster last year, completely shutting it out of parliament.
Summoning the spirits of fascism
Let’s abandon all political analysis at this point, and look at the results of the recent Slovakian election. This is where things get a little strange.
There are eight parties in a national assembly — the aforementioned “centralist” Smer plus seven parties on the right. OĽaNO-NOVA, the second largest right-wing force, is a chaotic mix of individual candidates (OĽaNO) merged with a semi-organized wannabe political movement originally inspired by the U.S. Republican Party (NOVA).
The fifth party is a nebulous conglomerate called Sme rodina (We Are Family). Once insignificant, the party has been turned into the private enterprise of venture capitalist Boris Kollár. He basically wanted his own party, but missed the deadline to register for the elections, so he bought Sme rodina and transformed it into “anti-establishment political movement.”
A leader of the right emerged during the final vote count in the neoliberal SaS (Freedom and Solidarity). This party revolves around the unpredictable eurosceptic Richard Sulík, stylized as a maverick economist. He is a guru of flat taxation, the flagship of neoliberal policies implemented at the dawn of the century under former Slovak PM Mikuláš Dzurinda. This party’s politics combine the libertarian mantra of minimal state with cultural liberalism, although Sulík also adopted anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election campaign.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric dominated the pre-electoral debate. Of all the major political forces, only Slovak-Hungarian party Most-Híd (The Bridge) resisted.
The worst part, however, is yet to come. Slovakia has a full-blooded fascist party, ĽSNS, in the parliament, with 8 per cent of the vote. Among its MPs-elect are people accused of involvement in racially motivated attacks, as well as celebration of the clerical-fascist Slovak state (1939-45) and Nazi politics in pre-war Germany.
The astonishing success of the far right is amplified by the resurrection of the once left-for-dead Slovak National Party. The right-wing nationalists got nearly 9 per cent of the vote.
Smer formally won the elections with 28 per cent of the vote, but lost practically one-third of its seats. There is some truth in the old saying, paraphrased like so: when social democrats summon the spirits of fascism, it will ultimately eat the left alive. Indeed, Smer was a pivotal force of xenophobic hysteria.
Despite that, what happened in Slovakia’s elections needs to be looked at through the broad political lines described earlier.
Back to basics
The final weeks of the election campaign were characterized by a U-turn in the debate. A strike by elementary and high school teachers, then by nurses, shifted the political debate from immigration issues to the Slovak socioeconomic reality for the first time. Underpaid educational and health care workers symbolized the general mismatch between the politics of the last two decades and people’s desperate need for basic necessities.
But no established political force had a clear answer to this challenge.
The disillusion created by the poor conditions of the masses outside Slovakia’s richest regions may have been diverted towards an imaginary enemy (the immigrant), but the reasons for the anger remained. The country’s fundamental structural problems spring from the bewilderment of post-communist capitalism; they flourish because politics is oriented towards business more than the basic interests of the people.
And the recent elections show that when quasi-democratic forces ignore the real problems and instead offer nothing but trivial anti-corruption slogans and solutions to pseudo-problems, people look elsewhere for alternatives.
The end of civilization
Since post-communism hasn’t produced enough alternatives, nationalism and xenophobia of all imaginable kinds have become the places where people put their hopes. These ideologies operate with a dystopian philosophy that predicts the end of civilization. The death of politics is followed by an attachment to survivalism. Democracy and politics vanish along with the concept of society and so all the obstacles to fascism disappear.
In North America, characters like Donald Trump offer strongly similar solutions. But once democracy has been destroyed, fascism erects its own vision of community, using national, racial, ethnic, and patriarchal building blocks.
The preconditions for the surprising rise of the Slovak fascists were laid down years ago, when they started to communicate personally with people in poor regions, building bonds of trust and an image as protectors of the people. This fieldwork gave them a halo of authenticity — and people struggling with problems triggered by the structural failure of their country believed in it.
Such a regressive situation can only be contested by a progressive left capable of reorienting circuits of solidarity towards post-identitarian ends. Survivalist solidarity of fascist dystopia can be altered by emancipatory solidarity of socialist utopia.
The darkness of the post-communist abyss of pseudo-politics consists precisely in the resignation on the perspective of a project. This perspective feeds new political imagination that opens spaces of possibilities outside the ideological lock-ins of neoliberalism, and transcends fascist dystopia, which is a natural complement of neoliberalism, because it solves real human problems with the simulacrum of an arch enemy that steals from people their source of pleasure — as Lacan and Žižek have explained. Fascism is thus just an alternative political camouflage of capitalism. As a result, it must be clear that there is no actual solidarity in the fascist idea of community.
The flesh and blood politics can be brought back into play only by logics of solidarity inspired by a progressive left — the force that destabilizes subjective identities, searching for new horizons of democratic project.
Until the political imagination is rekindled by recognition of the progressive left as a relevant political player, the countries of Central Europe will remain the pioneers of the diamond road towards fascism.