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Art After Liberalism, Part 3: Postliberal Cold War, Global Edition

Post #1904 • November 16, 2021, 9:53 PM

["Art After Liberalism" is a paper rejected by the 53rd Congress of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), supported instead by readers. Index: Proposal, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.]

Back in June, the Hungarian parliament, dominated by the Fidesz party of Viktor Orban, passed legislation that "outlaws sharing information with under-18s that the government considers to be promoting homosexuality or gender change," as reported by the Guardian. Said report describes the country's Jobbik party, which also supported the ruling, as "far-right," a position it arguably hasn't occupied in a half decade. Jobbik moderated itself years ago by ditching an alliance with the Justice and Life Party, which dissolved in July by merging into Mi Hazánk Mozgalom ("Our Homeland Movement"), a newer party formed by politicians who defected after Jobbik, if you will, squished. Jobbik is cautiously pro-EU. Which is to say, Hungary has parties so far to the right of Fidesz and Jobbik that calling them "far-right" is irresponsible and sloppy, and that I do more research than the Guardian.

Reaction from the rest of the continent was unsurprising. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters, "For me, Hungary has no place in the EU anymore." CNN's rendering of his comments, sic erat scrptum: "But, unfortunately, in the system that we have, I can't do it on my own, but [with] 26 other member states saying: 'you have to leave. This has to happen step by step and, in the meantime, you hope that they will adapt."

Though the BBC picked it up, it otherwise went nearly unreported that Rutte, in that very press interaction, said that "The long-term aim is to bring Hungary to its knees on this issue." Indeed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened at the time to use "all powers available" to force Hungary to repeal the law. On June 26, Newsweek reported that EU parliamentary president David Sassoli was considering withholding covid relief payments to Hungary in retaliation for the ruling.

On July 9, EU parliament voted to take Hungary to the European Court of Justice over it. This prompted Orban to to call for a referendum that put a list of questions to the vote of the Hungarian people:

These would include asking Hungarians whether they support the holding of sexual orientation workshops in schools without their consent, or whether they believe gender reassignment procedures should be promoted among children.

Orban said the questions would also include whether the content that could affect children’s sexual orientation should be shown without any restrictions, or that gender reassignment procedures should be made available to children as well.

He urged all participants to answer “No” to the questions.

Said vote takes place sometime next spring. A bit more context: last November, Hungary and Poland (which has similar legislation, likewise introduced over the last couple of years, around issues of homosexuality and transgenderism) blew up the approval process for a €750 billion budget and recovery bill rather than submit to the EU's demands that they amend the germane laws. It looks like they're about to do it again, prompting von der Leyen and Sassoli to threaten to cut the holdouts from the budget entirely.

I highlight this dispute because it exemplifies the great conflict of our moment: the cold war between progressive postliberalism and conservative postliberalism.

Postliberalism answers a question: "Are our natives any good?" I don't mean the aboriginals, most of whom have been wiped out no matter where on the globe you might point to. I mean instead the dominant, majority population of a given country or other civic unit in the most recent stretch of history. Conservative postliberals answer Yes, our dominant, majority population rightly embraces its identity as such, and its traditions, values, and history are valid. If their rulers are to have any reason to exist, they must defend that civilization against barbarism. Progressive postliberals answer No, our dominant, majority population embraces its identity at humanity's peril, its traditions are anachronisms, its values are baseless, and its history is a source of shame. Said people, traditions, values, and history may as well be, and perhaps should be, replaced according to the progressive motivation to defend the oppressed against oppression.

Progressive postliberalism is necessarily an expansionist project. Its ideals are not tied to a particular people. As such they can be exported, and not to export them is to suffer the existence of oppression where it might be put down. Conservative postliberalism is necessarily a defensive project. Its ideals are closely tied to a particular people whose ethos constitutes its flavor and soul.

Presented like so, it should be clear why the above conflict between Brussels and Budapest has played out in the way that it has. Brussels believes that it is defending LGBT persons from oppression. Budapest believes that it is defending Hungarians' ability to persist as Hungarians in a form that most Hungarians can recognize, rather than see their children made over in some other vision. These conceptions can be both correct according to their respective premises, and irreconcilable.

Orban, for his part, is plain about running a postliberal regime. Here he is in 2014:

...what is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals – that needs to be acknowledged – with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.

This has the advantage of candor over Brussels, which despite its lip-service to liberalism is also running a postliberal project. European globalism is not wholly illiberal any more than Hungary is wholly illiberal. But it is a technocracy of frightening scope that disdains regional particularities and sensitivities. It is the source of bureaucratic abominations like the Great Reset. Its leadership grew so unaccountable that England voted in an unambiguous election to leave the EU, which then attempted to thwart that act of democracy by every means in its power. There is nothing particularly liberal about withholding covid relief money from people because you don't like their leaders' attitude about gays. That is an ad hoc exercise of power, and I say so as someone on the side of the gays. (Orban claims to be as well.) Liberals do not go around crowing that they intend to bring their opponents to their knees. That's the kind of braggadocio that you would expect from Orban. (Unlike Rutte, Orban can pull it off.)

I mentioned in the previous part that progressive postliberalism has enemies at its opposite pole and at both ends of the other two axes, but there is an important exception. That exception is China. China has developed a compatibilist postliberalism with both progressive and conservative aspects. It is expansionist: witness, for instance, the way that it obliged John Cena to whimper like a beaten dog for calling Taiwan a country, or its funding of British YouTubers to spread pro-China propaganda. It is also defensive: witness this headline, "China proposes teaching masculinity to boys as state is alarmed by changing gender roles." Its hybrid model allows it to interface with both progressive and conservative postliberal regimes as needed. A notable example of the former is the absurd, cynical partnership of China with the World Health Organization. One of the latter is the proposed Fudan University in Budapest.

It is worth wondering why there was no progressive postliberal outrage about the news in September that China had ordered its broadcasters to "resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics." Orban may be weak on LGBT rights but he's never gone that far either legally or culturally. There is the aspect of compatibility between progressive and Chinese postliberalism, to be sure. But there's also an assumption in progressive postliberalism that the West is the ultimate source of evil. The ideals of progressive postliberalism may not be tied to a particular people, but its conception of its enemy is specifically the population that conservative postliberalism attempts to defend. (Conservative postliberalism's conception of its enemies is conversely broad, and includes any number of invasive peoples or ideas.) The West is not easy to demarcate, but its gestalt is recognizable: bourgeois mores, pale skin, capitalism, Judeo-Christianity, the Enlightenment, and so on. It includes liberalism. Progressive postliberalism is working off of its own history antagonistically in order to achieve a revolutionary end to all oppression. Liberalism provides the fuel, but that fuel is being consumed. Wesley Yang describes the successor ideology as "authoritarian Utopianism that masquerades as liberal humanism while usurping it from within," and this is synonymous with progressive postliberalism. Progressive postliberals won't criticize China because China isn't the West, and when they blame the West for whatever failing in human affairs is under consideration at the moment, China readily agrees.

That brings us to the United States, which will be the subject of Part 4.

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