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The (Grass)roots of Illiberalism: Contemporary Authoritarianism, Identity Projects, & Culture Wars in Europe

NICK: Welcome to the show, Dr. Laruelle. I believe that today we’re going to have a great conversation about illiberalism, the trends in Eastern Europe, and maybe Western Europe. I know it’s a big topic nowadays, with the rise of authoritarian governments and the conflicts that it’s sparked, so, just to start us off, what is illiberalism? What does it entail, what does it mean?

Marléne Laruelle: Yeah, thank you so much for the invitation, and first great question! Of course, it’s a new term, illiberalism, and it’s a very new concept — but also sometimes an old concept; it’s a very contested concept. It’s still kind of waiting for its definition, and it has several possible definitions, ways of growing. I see illiberalism — the way I want to frame it, it’s as a kind of cluster of ideologies, right? So, it has some flexibility. It has some inner coherence, but also flexibility. It’s a cluster of ideologies that are challenging liberalism, and the liberalisms that are challenged can be very different. It can be political liberalism, economic, societal, or the geopolitical liberal world order that’s getting challenged.

The challenge is mostly based around two key arguments. One is the need for sovereignty — it can be political sovereignty, economic sovereignty, cultural sovereignty, and [the other is] the idea that we should reinforce or protect traditional hierarchy — and here, also, hierarchy can be a gendered hierarchy, a sexual one, the familial hierarchy, the national hierarchy… so you can see that, in that definition, illiberalism… it may overlap with conservatism, far right reactionary politics, with religion in some aspects, it has a broad spectrum. But there is a growing literature also, telling us, ‘be careful,’ because the way you divide, or the way you oppose, liberalism and illiberalism is problematic, because you would have a whole world of leftist literature that would say, well, we think that liberalism itself, the way it exists in the contemporary Western hemisphere, right, that neoliberalism has been producing illiberal practices, and that it's not one opposing the other, but that contemporary liberalism, because it is economically neoliberal, is also producing some form of illiberalism, and therefore one is not opposing the other, but one is the product of the other — so, you see that depending on the definition you want to have, you will find different kind of ways of framing it, and I think that what is interesting with that concept is that it forces us to rethink, what do we define as the liberal societal order? Many people consider this, you know, as obvious, but it's not so obvious, and it can get challenged, and that's what we see now.

E: One of the things you mentioned was that focus on… reinforcing, protecting traditional hierarchies, right — but something that I’ve noticed — I’ve read in one of your articles, I’ve noticed in my own research, is that a lot of these illiberal movements that we’re seeing right now are actually grassroots, right? They're coming from below, and there's this narrative about that kind of resurgence. It kind of coexists with populism in some senses. So something that I'm actually really interested in, I'd love to hear more about is the question of how these more grassroots narratives, first of all, are being propagated and also how they interact with institutions, with hegemonic institutions, with these hierarchical agents, etcetera.

ML: Yeah, I think you have both top-down and bottom-up phenomena meeting, right — you have a supply side and a demand side and usually the literature is looking at the supply side, right? We look at Victor Orban, Putin, Erdogan, Netanyahu, and also Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and the political leaders that we identify as illiberal, and how they kind of have a political offer that then gets selected or not. But I think it's really interesting to look at the grassroots aspect, right, at the demand side. Why is that meaningful for people? Why? Why do people feel like… kind of law and order, tradition, stability, you know, normativity makes sense? And I think, at least for me, it's much more fruitful because it's really sending us in the direction for research about, you know, what people find destabilizing in the current liberal order. And I think you have both, you know, social and economic aspects that are to be taken into consideration, you know, what are the social groups that feel threatened, that feel diminished, that have grievances, that have resentment and one way to express that is to have kind of illiberal strategies.

But you can also look at, you know, the change in the media ecosystem that is pushing people to access more easily than before, maybe some illiberal offers, so I'm really interested in this kind of grassroots aspect. And as you were saying, there are grassroots illiberal entrepreneurs, there are grassroots civil society actors. Even if we can discuss how they are civil and so on, depending on the definition we have. So you have all these kinds of grassroots movements that I think are really important to capture. Because we need to understand that for many people, law and order, conservative values, whatever it means, you know, and the kind of stability, predictability, tradition, knowing where people stand, that everybody has a place and a role and a status in the system, and that shouldn't change — it's telling us a lot about the feeling of uncertainty. And I think the more we live in a world, you know it's changing fast. It's very immediate. Everything is kind of — all the lines, everything is blurry, everything can be transformed, everything can be deconstructed. I mean, it's not an easy process to go through. I mean, if you belong to kind of, you know, intellectual elites, you can probably deal with that. But for many people, it's pretty destabilizing and people need to feel, you know, at least some things are secured and stable to be able to protect themselves. So I think it's important to take into consideration that kind of grassroots aspect.

N: Well, and I'm immediately struck by… at the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the confusion in Western media about symbols of the Russian Empire being next to symbols of the Soviet Union and this mismatch or or mixture of them. But obviously, if you take illiberalism conceptually, that mixture makes perfect sense. This is kind of reaching into history for a challenge to a new liberal order that they feel has kind of let them down, and I mean, if you look at the 1990s, and that experience in Russia especially, I mean that illuminates it very well.

ML: Yeah, I think Russia is of course, a fascinating case because it has experienced all the forms of liberalism at the same time in the 90s, right, the political one, the economic one and the geopolitical one. And therefore it has had backlash in a sense. The first — and very radically, first from the grassroots and then from the top… with Putin's regime kind of building on the illiberal tradition, but yeah, as you said, the more you experience things in a very abrupt way, and then you lose predictability and stability, the more natural it seems to have a kind of conservative backlash where part of the society is asking for some stability and predictability and then it gets constructed as a political ideology by the regime, that is kind of sent back to the population — through state media, through history textbooks and what you mentioned — about the fact that we still find it ,in the West, paradoxical to have both Tsarist symbols and Soviet symbols. But if you see them from the Russian side, they are linked by the fact that it's all statist symbols, right, that when the state is strong things are going well. And the state can be imperial or Soviet or Putinist, that doesn't matter. What matters is that if the state is strong, Russia is strong, the state is weak, Russia is weak. And so that's the way the regime has been able to build this kind of historical continuity that goes beyond ideological divisions, but that is making sense for a lot of Russian citizens indeed.

E: I think another interesting example of this that I’ve been looking at — I mean, to draw my own research area in a little bit, I’ve kind of been looking at Poland, and there’s this… really, really strong narrative of Polish nationalism, the Polak-Katolik character, this glorification of the nation specifically as this, like, last bulwark of Christianity in Europe. And that’s something that’s been narrativized a lot, especially by Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, for the last, what, eight years? But something that I’ve noticed that’s really kind of interesting, and still confounds me, is this assertion, or claiming, of grassroots identity by people who are absolutely in power — but they still like to claim this kind of grassroots identity? You know, that’s something I find really interesting, and obviously very effective.

ML: Yeah, I think that's a strategy of many illiberal leaders, and that's where they match with the populist definition, right? That they always find ways to say they are part of the grassroots and the people, against the corrupt elites, while in many aspects they are part of the elites, right? So you mentioned the Polish case, of course the obvious case would be Trump, right? Saying he’s not part of the establishment while he's clearly, on some form or some definition of the establishment, part of it — but think also Marine Le Pen in France, who is always presenting herself as outside of the political establishment because she didn't finish one of the you know, the big schools for technocrats, but she belongs to one of the richest families in France, right? So you can always find this element, there is always — and that's where indeed you have a populist aspect to always try to look like, you know, the, the grounded, rooted in local realities, kind of figure that knows how to talk to the average citizen and always as a way to dissociate, so — the good patriot that is rooted in its genuine environment, from the cosmopolitan, urbanized, globalized elite that likes to live in a very you know, denationalized world. So that's, I think, the kind of the binary they try to build.

N: It's almost a contradiction. I've heard it referred to as, kind of, the emergence of a nationalist international. But maybe if we think of it as an illiberal international, because I seem to remember Steve Bannon, who was kind of this infamous illiberal character, referring to reading Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin and kind of reaching across borders — so is there sort of a shared intellectual base? Is there kind of this intellectual genealogy happening between these different movements?

ML: Yeah. So I think if we look at illiberal political and intellectual movements, then we have shared genealogy. They read the same authors, so that’s one thing, they read the classic conservatives, and they read the New Right. You know, the Alain de Benoist, the German Conservative Revolution and all their kind of more current versions. So they have a shared doctrinal stock that you can find in the US, in Europe, in Russia. And then you have transnational connections that are genuine, right? People travel, they visit each other, they talk on Zoom. They have conferences in person or virtually. Uh, you have exchange of money. You have financial support, right? We know a lot about Russia’s support to the European far right. But the American far right has been funding its European counterpart a lot also… so that's why it's really interesting, because the geopolitical lines of divide that we tend to imagine are not always there.

Think Victor Orban — he is largely a pro Russian figure, but all the intellectual circles around him that are framing Hungary as this kind of Christian, you know, “last white Europe,” Christian country, they are all connected to the US and they are really… there is a very deep, also, Trans-Atlantic American-Hungarian connection that is not contradictory with the fact that Hungary is playing for Russian cards, right? So it's much more complex than we imagine. So you have all this intellectual and personal and financial connection data indeed existing. Of course, I mean, they are also divided on many aspects and competing with each other and so on, but [the connections] are there. And I think you have clearly — so, of course Russia was influential, especially before February 24th. Since then, it has been much more difficult for Russia to continue the honeymoon with the European far right — the US far right, or illiberal movements are really reaching out to their European counterpart a lot. And then you have kind of ideological affinities, right? You have those who are more kind of German, Nordic-oriented, you have those who are more Catholic, you know, like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Latin America with a more kind of Catholic version of it. So, all these transnational connections exist. So it's both a shared doctrinal stock and intellectual connection and mutual borrowing.

E: Something on this note that I’d kind of like to mention — you mentioned briefly that you, you identified Orban as kind of a pro-Russia player, right? Something that really kind of intrigues me, which is a, you know, developing situation, I think, is these fault lines that we're seeing develop in Central Europe, related to the war in Ukraine, related to different countries and different governments, alignments that they've chosen. As you’ve mentioned, Orban Is very pro Russia, I believe the Serbian government is as well, and then you've got these other countries like — really, Poland again is the one I'm most familiar with who's been very, of course, very outspoken against Russia, that's actually kind of a pivotal piece of the Polish rhetoric. I don't really…I don't really know, I think it would be too big of a question to say, like, “what do you think is gonna happen with these fault lines,” but…

ML: No, no, but I think it's a good point, because ideological lines of divide don't overlap with geopolitical lines of divide, right? You can have the Polish and Hungarian narrative that are very close to each other ideologically, and they are geopolitically on two different lines. One is for Russia and the other is super pro-NATO, Trans-Atlantic. Look at [Giorgia] Meloni.. Meloni has been really now super pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian and very Trans-Atlantic. Marine Le Pen, even if she has toned down her pro-Russian stance, is still more on a kind of continental Europe against NATO kind of narrative. So I think on the contrary, it's interesting because for years, we really tended to see the illiberal rise in Europe as being necessarily pro-Russian, and I think we see now that it's much more complicated than that, that it doesn't overlap, right? The same as we have now with the Israeli Palestinian conflict, where the lines don't overlap necessarily, and those you may have imagined siding for one side or the other are not necessarily like that, soI think it's a much more fragmented world that we have to face now, it's not like, you know, like the “good democracy” on one side, the “bad one” on the other side and the line of divide, ideologically and geopolitically, overlapping. It’s much more complicated.

N: To talk about fragmentation and things, especially at the periphery of the former Soviet Union, war in Ukraine, the biggest example, I think it's kind of indisputable that this is a challenge, illiberalism versus liberalism. But I'm also thinking of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, where you have kind of a revanchist Azerbaijani state versus kind of a more westward-facing Armenian administration. So, do you think that these ideological fault lines are starting to cause active conflict in certain areas?

ML: Well, I would be more nuanced than that, because I think you can indeed read the two conflicts as having this [structure of], you know, more democratic versus more authoritarian regime, which is the case. I mean, yeah, of course, Ukraine and Armenia are more democratic than Russia and Azerbaijan, but I don't think the cause of the conflict is the ideology. I think the cause of the conflicts are really deeply anchored identity projects and strategic projects, right? So for Russia, it's both an identity project about being a great power, having influence over its neighbor. If the neighbor doesn't want to be in the Russian orbit, then the neighbor will become illegitimate, and therefore that justifies the invasion; the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, it’s also old, historical roots. It's an identity project for both countries, and for me that's more important. That is what really triggered the wars. And then of course, you have the political line of divide… but for me, this line of divide, I mean it's not the core cause of the conflict, right?

I think the cause of the conflict is really identity projects that have been built by these different societies, and that if they would be ideologically closer to each other, we would still maybe have the conflict and the fact that you have a war for identity projects also force them to become — to ideologically identify. I mean, I think for very long, you know, the Ukrainian government could have been, I mean it was always more democratic than Russia, but it was corrupt. It was, you know, kleptocratic and so on. But once you are at war with Russia and it's really become part of your national identity, then the push toward becoming really, genuinely more democratic, because that's where you want to reach Europe, then it's become part of your nation building, but it's not because you are democratic first, it's because you get invaded, and then your kind of solution is to move toward Europe.

[Similarly,] I mean, the Pashinyan government was always more democratic than the Aliyev one, but for very long, Pashinyan was working pretty well with Russia, right, and the Aliyev government, for years, was a pretty Western-oriented and anti-Russian one, so I don't think this kind of — the ideological aspect arrives in the secondary position compared to the strategic and the identity conflicts.

E: On that note, if we could take like a little flip from talking about this ingenuine, to perhaps more genuine, democratization, something that I think would be really interesting to talk about is how illiberal regimes use the outward performance of liberalism as tools to kind of garner support, preserve their own power, preserve relationships, maybe so whether that's, you know, elections, referendums or, you know, things like using the language of human rights, what are some ways that we see that?

ML: Yeah, absolutely, and I think there is a growing literature exactly on that to say, OK, contemporary authoritarian regimes are smarter than the previous ones, right? They are not clashing directly in terms of language, in terms of their own narrative — against democracy, human rights; on the contrary, they appropriate the narrative, right, and they try from the inside to change the definition of what is human rights. What is a referendum, right? What is democracy? So it's a very…  it's a much more complex strategy to react [to] on the side of liberal democracy, because the language itself becomes very difficult to interpret, right? So I think that's a strategy that indeed has been growing both domestically, which also tells you that to be legitimate, even in an authoritarian regime, you still need to tell your society that you are democratic and you have elections and that matters, right, even if everybody know they may be fake and and not free and fair, but still you play according to these rules, right? And then on the international scene also, it's a way to penetrate all the international institutions, trying to change the language of the laws to kind of transform it.

There have been great studies done on the way the Russian Orthodox Church has been first criticizing the human rights definition, and then accepting it, and trying to transform it from the inside. So, there  there is a lot of learning processes right from authoritarian and/or illiberal regimes in in appropriating the liberal language. I think what we should be looking at is not the — I mean, it's important to look at the way they appropriate the language, but what we should check, what should be the kind of criteria is, you know, what is happening with checks and balances, court independence, media independence, civil society, so — if you put the respect for plurality as the core element, you can usually pretty easily move away from language appropriation and clearly identify you know who is kind of promoting plurality in the society and who is afraid of plurality.

N: Yeah, we saw that Russia is more than happy to run elections in occupied territories and indeed, I think that they've run now two rounds of — not only the first referendum but also the second, the elections. But I think that it's very interesting, this kind of ideological mobilization of these kind of trappings, I don't know — and we know that Putin has used the language of decolonization, which kind of originates in academia itself, or originates in kind of these larger, what would be called liberal, discussions and how do you think that that kind of that language is used?

ML: Yeah, the reframing of Russia, the anti colonial power, I think is really fascinating, right — and it has a long history. In fact, it's not something that is new. Of course you can immediately think like, well, Soviet Union was also an anti-imperial power, and fighting with the Third World, etcetera. So they have that legacy, but even before I mean, the Slavophiles, the 19th century, we're also seeing Russia is colonized by Europe, the Romano-Germanic Europe, it was not the Anglo-Saxon at that time. It was the Romano-Germanic one. So, you had that among the first Eurasianists, who were also saying the way Russia can de-Westernize, de-Europeanize, is by realizing that European identity, it’s a colonial-normative process, and Russia needs to exit it.

So it has a long tradition, and the fact that it's re-emerging now since the full scale invasion is really interesting, because I think it's both a reply to the decoupling with the West, and the kind of the the Russian political establishment really cutting links with the West, and it's a way to talk to the global South, right. So it's this rebranding of Russia as the global South’s power, reaching back to the Soviet legacy and trying to say, OK, we may not be perfect. We may be our own colonial power in our own world, but we all together are fighting against a bigger imperialism, which is the Western one. And I think on that we should recognize that Russia has been able to frame things in a pretty successful way and to reach out to global audiences in a much more efficient way than what we were imagining at the beginning, and here also, it should be clearly interpreted — it’s not that the global South is pro-Russian for the sake of being pro-Russian, it's for the sake of being anti-US or anti-European, right, and it's this idea that Russia is a necessary counterweight to the US.

Doesn't mean Putin was right in invading Ukraine, and in the global South, there have been a lot of criticisms of Putin's decision, but at the same time they are not ready to apply sanctions because no one in the global South would like to see a world that would be kind of dominated by the US or by the West, so I think Russia has been pretty smart in trying to craft this new anticolonial narrative, which is very much a rightist, right, it's a decolonization coming from the right on the Russian side. And it's also talking to a lot of conservative, you know, Muslims, for example, because in the Muslim world you also have a very strong anticolonial language, also coming from the side of conservative values. So they have been able to find resonant elements in many different countries, so I think it's a pretty interesting construction.

E: On this topic — my perception of the, kind of, “average person’s” understanding of Russia right now, contemporarily, is — you know, they’re aware of Russia’s war on Ukraine, I think that’s pretty globally known at this point, everyone’s pretty clear on where we stand on that, but something I’d really like to do is… let’s step back and talk about, really, what does Russia’s global influence really, truly look like today?

ML: Yeah, that's a great point, and we don't have so [much] research done on that, right. We have public opinion research, but that's usually very broad. It's not very detailed because, I mean, the world is big… so we have a broad idea. There was a really interesting survey, or compilation of surveys, kind of big-data type of surveys done in the summer of 2022, where you could see really largely Russophile public opinion, very visible in French-speaking Africa and in Southeast Asia, so that was really like, you know, 60-70% of the public opinion being pro-Russian. And then you have more median, you know, Latin America, Middle East, like more half-half type of support. And then of course in Europe, pro-Russian positions really collapsed — you can still identify them, right? So you would have Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia,

potentially some part of the public opinion in Bulgaria, some part in Turkey, some part in Israel, at least before the the October 7th terrorist attack, and the fact that the conflict is also now getting directly connected to to the war in Ukraine, but globally in the West.

Of course, pro-Russian public opinion largely collapsed, but you can really see in Middle East and Latin America, half-half, and then this… big spot of of French-speaking Africa, which is telling, right, because if French-speaking Africa is super pro-Russian — it’s not that they are pro-Russian because of their love for Russia, they are pro-Russian because they hate the French, right. So it's really the mirror game that makes Russia successful. That said, Russia is playing pretty well economically, pretty well bypassing sanctions, pretty well in developing economic ties, you know, Rosatom, for example, is really successful or largely successful at selling, you know, nuclear stuff. And so, there are still pockets of the Russian economy that work well with the global South. So I think that Russia’s capacity was, yeah, ideologically and economically, a kind of decoupling with the West and finding niches to replace, it's never working super smoothly, but it works enough to make the country resist the sanction pressures pretty well.

E: I think another really interesting contingent to discuss who might be a little bit more fringe, perhaps less actually influential, but something I think it's important to take into account is this contingent of US evangelicals who really connect with Putin, with Russia, on a moral level, as this kind of moral savior.

ML: Absolutely. And it really has existed since at least a decade ago, right. It's even more now, 15 years, I would say, where really, you have this kind of honeymoon, at least you had a honeymoon at the beginning. Then of course, depending — I mean first, Crimea’s annexation, then the war, the full scale invasion have kind of changed party things, but you still have indeed part of the US Christian right that really had this kind of admiration for Putin as, you know, the strongman, the kind of traditional values, traditional masculinity man, very clear on what he wants for Russia in terms of LGBT rights and so on. So indeed, this evangelical right has a kind of influence, and what is interesting here also is that it has a grassroots aspect, right? There is a growing number of US evangelicals who got disappointed with US churches, and who have converted to Orthodoxy — or I mean some are converting to kind of radical fundamentalist Catholicism also, but some are converting to Orthodoxy, seeing Orthodoxy at the last version of Christianity that is resisting any kind of modernization. So it has also, I mean it's very minority, but still it's not only a kind of, you know, high level thing. You also have a grassroots aspect to that, that indeed is fascinating. And the Russian Orthodox Church is also playing on that very much. So it's also something that serves their interests, to be seen as the last fortress of the “real Christianity” against all other Christianities that got modernized and liberalized.

N: Yeah. And I think it's interesting that Putin actually recently spoke out against abortion rates in Russia, which — Russia is traditionally, since Soviet times, has had a relatively high rate of abortions per capita. But I think it's interesting, too, how there's been a turn, almost, to the Putin regime, speaking globally in this kind of very rightward, illiberal way, but then when he speaks to a domestic audience, there's always the emphasis on the multi-ethnic and even kind of these Soviet conceptions of multinationality, which I think, in certain cases, this is kind of how you can see maybe different strains of illiberalism, or how it reacts in the domestic sphere versus the international one, because I know that in the case of such as Orban’s Hungary, it's very much a monoethnic understanding, whereas here maybe we see that, you know, this is multinational, multiethnic illiberalism.

ML: Yeah, absolutely. It's a great point to make, the gap in narrative between what is sold to foreign, to external, audiences, and what is produced for domestic audiences has always been very important. And it's also that we tend not to — when you really look at what the regime, and what the regime can mean both Putin [himself] and many people around him, like members of his government, to the Russian population, it's much more — it still has a modernizing and secular aspect that I think we tend not to want to see because we look for the more radical statement, right? So they try to keep indeed the multinationality for sure and in a sense it even got reinforced by the war, which is very paradoxical, right, because we see the war as this kind of revival of Russian imperialism, and this will of kind of negating the Ukrainian identity and absorbing it, so we see it as a kind of ethnonationalistic idealism. But Putin has been talking about the multinationality of Russia really, like really, in a really inflated manner since the beginning of the full scale invasion, and as you were mentioning at the beginning, there is also — now we see this radicalization in relation to abortion, right?

So for very long, the regime was indeed pretty hard-line on homosexuality and everything gender-related, but pretty soft on abortion. There were always radical voices inside the government, and inside, of course, the Russian Orthodox Church, that were super anti-abortion but the government was remaining pretty moderate, in tradition with the Soviet heritage of allowing women, you know, like, you are free to do whatever you think you should be doing with your body, and that indeed seems to be changing, and I think that's an effect of the war, right, is that it's radicalizing narratives, it's making more legitimate the more radical narratives, coming from the more radical fringes, including the Russian Orthodox Church and also because the war accelerates the vision of the nation as a kind of biological body, right? The more you need men to be ready to die for the motherland, the more, symbolically, women have to take back the traditional role of producing new citizens, right? So you are kind of making more archaic, right, the gender identity — men go to die, and women have the job to create new citizens. So, I think that is accelerating, unfortunately, the issue of abortion. And indeed there have been several — not only by Putin but by the Minister of Health, several statements that seem to indicate that Russia may be moving toward a much more radical anti-abortion policy, which was not the case before.

E: Actually, that kind of makes me think of — and I don't know if this is really pre-existing in the Russian narrative specifically, but something that I've kind of noticed in my own research into illiberalism is this tool, called “gender ideology,” which I've noticed is very often a talking point of regimes or movements that could be called illiberal — and it's like, I mean, it's a conglomeration of… they blame alternately, and/or universally… it's like, feminism, abortion rights activists, gay rights activists, gender rights activists, and also allies. So I mean, that's, I think, an extremely activating — I mean it's kind of the battleground du jour, you know, like that's the thing that's become the most embattled in international arguments, you could say, maybe — especially earlier, how we were talking about language. I think the language around gender in international law, especially when it comes to organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, that's the kind of thing that's being argued, right, and that kind of brings it back to this core of morality and traditionalism that it often centers around. This idea of what's right, what's natural.

ML: Yeah, absolutely. Because gender is the last frontier that you have, and is the most personal one in a sense, right. It's really touching to very sensitive elements of very basic definitions of who we are, so it has become the glue, now, of all these illiberal movements, because they know it's a very easy way to polarize society and to create this kind of culture war, right? So on that [front], it's an import from the US tradition of culture war — the US tradition has been historically gun and abortion-related. While [the gun debate] is very specific to the US, there are not many countries where you can export the guns debates because they don't have it… Abortion, yes, but you see it not in every country. I mean, in Western Europe, the abortion debate, I mean it can be reopening, but it's still considered the kind of thing that you don't challenge anymore in such an open manner, but everything that is [related to] homosexuality, and even more gender, is really the battle.

Yeah, all of them, Putin and Orban, and all the illiberal leaders have been really using gender as the most kind of cliche element they want to use to [discredit] liberalism — the kind of extreme, you know, “perverted” societal order, and indeed, as you said, the moralizing aspect is very important, and it's a very caricatured way of bringing up the discussion on gender issues. Indeed, it's resonating with a large part of the population in a sense, right, is that I mean the… accepting the idea of gender fluidity, it’s still a thing that… you know, it's very generational and it's really for some societies, it's in the process of being accepted and still, I mean, even look in this country, right, or in Western Europe, but for Central and Eastern Europe, for the Muslim world, it’s still seen as a very, you know, Western-centric debate, that is so far away from the realities of the majority of individuals on the planet that it's easy to then kind of use that as the hammer you put on liberalism to denounce it.

E: Yeah, absolutely. So, I have to admit that was kind of a teeing-up question because something that— I mean this is like a huge, this is a huge question, you know, I feel like we could have a whole other episode about this question, but with this, you know, kind of narrative that constructs opposition to international organizations like the EU, the UN, etc… I mean, when faced with illiberal governments, illiberal activity that are working against cooperation, I mean, what should we do about this, you know what I mean? Like, what is there to do?

ML: Yeah, it's a tough question. Of course, all these policy questions are the most difficult because there is no easy solution, right? If there was one, we would have known for a long time. It's complicated, because the EU system is by definition a complicated one, because it has this kind of federal aspect and at the same time, you need, on some decisions, unanimity, which is almost, I mean, the more you grow, the more it's difficult to get unanimity on everything. And then you have a lot of checks and balances that have been created precisely to avoid too radical decisions, which means that it has also its kind of counter effects, which is that it becomes very difficult to take a radical decision, for example, against Poland or against Hungary. So at the end the capacity of the EU to play with legal instruments, I mean they have some financial instruments they can play on, but not a lot of legal instruments they can utilize against illiberal regimes that would grow inside their own system — and then it has been very much targeting Poland and especially Hungary, but you can see how it's become more and more difficult, right, because a lot of very important Western European countries have also strongly illiberal leader.

I mean, why do you think Meloni would be voting against Orban? I'm not sure. What if Marine Le Pen, you know, she's not in power, but she could potentially [be], so how— and then look at the European Parliament, it really has a growing number of EU deputies that are themselves Eurosceptic. So the instruments are getting very difficult to use, and I think there is a fear also of pushing too much on Hungary and having a backlash and suddenly having Orban declaring he’s leaving the EU, which I don't think the EU can afford, right? I mean, having Brexit was already super costly, but it had some logic for the UK to leave. But losing a country from Central Europe? It's symbolically, and just, you know, administratively, on the way the EU is functioning, especially now in the context of the war, that would have a dramatic effect, and I think no one in Brussels wants to ever push Orban and corner Orban in a way that suddenly he would declare he’s leaving, right? So I think unfortunately, it also shows the limits of what the EU can do with that. You can — once you are inside the EU and you backlash against liberalism, well, you have a large space to do that, right and then you can weaken the institution from the inside, which unfortunately is the case now, and I think there is not tons of solutions to that, except to try to target really the core of the issue, and I think that's something that Brussels has been trying to do… how do we try to penalize the Orban government without punishing the Hungarian population, right? Because you also don't want the population to lose faith in being a member of the EU, so how do you punish the government without punishing its population? And that's like— the number of administrative or technocratic tools we have are not so numerous.

E: Well, in the spirit of both top down and the bottom up, you know, coexistence in illiberal movements, I suppose the next question I want to ask then is, you know — what on the more individual level is to be done? Is it just like, you know, spreading awareness, talking about it is that. Is that what we do?

ML: Yeah, I think that's what many activists and civil society are doing, trying to spread awareness, you know, trying to have programs to inform people. I think it's important. I think it's largely not enough because you have systemic issues that need to be addressed if you want to avoid the main side of illiberalism and by definition, systemic issues are the most difficult to address, right? How do you address social, economic inequalities and grievances, right, that help, that create this kind of fertile soil? I mean, what do you do with neoliberal austerity measures if you know that they will have, they will be pushing for kind of illiberal solutions. You need to reform the economic system. You need to reform the media ecosystem. You need to reform the fact that not only social media, social media, of course, but even television, and maybe not newspapers, but television and social media are very much based on the commercial model, that push for polarization, right?

So, see the debates currently in Europe about trying to get control over the big social media firms. It's very difficult, right? How do you control algorithms that are pushing toward radical narratives, right? If Elon Musk is doing whatever he wants with Twitter— X, I mean, it will be very difficult. Look at the pressure on Facebook. So all these systemic issues that create this fertile background for illiberalism, they are very difficult to tackle because they are really at the core of our own system. So we can always [focus on] awareness and, you know, media literacy, and kind of civil, civic education. It's always good. But I'm afraid it's not enough if there is not also parallel discussion on all these very painful aspects of the way our societies are functioning, because that's what is helping the liberal system to grow also.

N: Well, it seems to me that the only thing we can be certain of is that we're not going to wake up one day and illiberalism will be gone. So we're looking forward to more research and more work from you and your researchers and your team, and we want to thank you for coming on the show today.

ML: Well, thank you so much for the invitation and the discussion. That was great. Thank you so much, guys. Keep me in the loop. Bye.



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