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Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

Disillusioned with Democracy: A Conceptual Introduction to Illiberalism 

Three questions to Marlène Laruelle

INTERVIEW - 22 October 2021

The idea of an illiberal democracy may seem contradictory. Yet, it’s a concept that denotes both an ideology and a regime type, it combines cultural conservatism with nationalism and has concrete implications on socio-economic policies. In other words, it is a complex but key concept that is becoming increasingly present in the analysis of democracy today. Marlène Laruelle, research associate at Ifri’s Russia/NEI Center, helps us fork through the various components and theoretical frameworks of illiberalism. 

What does illiberalism mean? 

I define illiberalism as an ideological universe that opposes different forms of liberalism by promoting majoritarian, nation-centric, and culturally integrative approaches. It represents a backlash against previous experiences of liberalism, denouncing what Yascha Mounk has termed "undemocratic liberalism," i.e., the political, economic, and cultural liberalism embodied by supranational institutions, globalization, multiculturalism, and minority-rights protections. 

Ideologically, it combines elements from classical conservatism (respect for traditional hierarchies, whether national, religious, patriarchal, or heterosexual) and from the New Right (including calls for rebellion against the current social and political order). 

Illiberalism pushes back against liberalism after having experienced it, and this "post-'' aspect is critical because it explains the disillusion.

The two genealogies differ on their relationship to liberalism. The New Right calls for a fundamental break with it and refers to the mythical thousand-year-old European identity. Classical conservatism, on the other hand, shares with liberalism a focus on the Enlightenment, modernization, and emancipation but takes a critical view thereof. The two also position themselves differently with regards to the fascist currents of the interwar years: the New Right more openly rehabilitates these than classical conservatism.

There is one last important point to make: illiberalism is not simply a synonym for all forms of non-liberalism. There are many ways to be non-liberal. Fascism and communism in the past, Islamism based on Sharia law today, and dictatorial/ultra-repressive authoritarian regimes such as China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are all non-liberal, but do not count as "illiberal". Illiberalism must be understood only as an ideology that looks skeptically at liberalism as it exists today in practice. In fact, illiberalism pushes back against liberalism after having experienced it, and this "post-'' aspect is critical because it explains the disillusion. This means that only countries that have experienced some form of liberalism and of democracy can be considered to have illiberal constituencies, parties, or regimes. 

What sets illiberalism apart from populism? How do the two interact? 

I think the two overlap to a significant degree. They both describe contemporary movements, parties, regimes, and leaders that promote an agenda that I consider illiberal. I belong to the school of thought that considers "populism" to be a discursive frame based on the "us vs. them"dichotomy and not an ideology per se. Here, I side with Paris Aslanidis (2016), who challenges the definition of populism as an ideology, considering that it relies on immediacy and direct communication, deliberately violating conventional rules of polite speech and behavior. 

I therefore argue that "illiberalism" offers more refined conceptual tools than "populism" for analyzing the political and cultural evolutions we are facing today. But the two terms are quite distinct in several areas. First, populism includes leftist movements that subscribe to a very liberal vision of the nation and of individual identity (multiculturalism and LGBTQ+ rights). Moreover, illiberalism is used to define movements or leaders who are illiberal but not populist (for instance Vladimir Putin).

"Illiberalism" offers more refined conceptual tools than "populism" for analyzing the political and cultural evolutions we are facing today. 

Finally, illiberalism can also be used to talk about intellectuals or elitist movements that do not share the "us versus them" rhetoric so central to populism.

What are specific countries and examples we should be paying attention to? 

There are several. Central Europe is probably the main playing field of illiberalism, but I would also add the US, because of its strong far-right and conservative constituencies, as well as its leading role in producing conspiracy theories. We also see several European countries, including the Nordic ones long considered immune to any type of illiberal sentiment, and Israel, which is often forgotten although Netanyahu shares similar traits with illiberal leaders (Orban, Duda, Putin, Erdogan, Trump…). A fascinating tension around liberalism that directly impacts our understanding of illiberalism is the discrepancy between philosophical ideals and realities. The core countries embodying liberal democracy - such as the US or, after the Second World War, the countries of Western Europe - have always engaged in practices which question the validity of an all-encompassing liberalism, whether by excluding women, engaging in segregation, or marginalizing minorities. It would be more accurate, therefore, to speak of liberal systems that contain pockets of non-liberal practices.

In the "Global South," there are various case studies to choose from: India, Brazil, the Philippines, or arguably, even South Africa. This allows the connection between scholarship on liberalism and its critics, and the huge postcolonial/decolonial literature that views liberalism as a European product, intimately articulated with non-liberal practices of domination, exclusion, and deculturation. The intuitive conflation of Western/European countries with liberal democracy and modernity/modernization does not leave room for the notion of "multiple modernities" - implying an access to modernity that does not follow one of the entanglement of liberalisms described above. As formulated by Jaeger et al. (quoted in Börzel and Zürn 2020, 13), liberalism has been an "external blueprint" of a political order claiming universal validity.





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