In Tzvetan Todorov’s new book, the Bulgarian-born French literary scholar and historian of ideas offers an engaging essay on the major dilemmas confronted by the democratic order after the end of the Cold War and the demise of communism. His main target is the hubris underlying the conviction that the liberal order represents a kind of terminus ad quem of history, and that to accomplish it, Western powers are entitled to export democratic values and institutions. Todorov lambastes what he regards as the neoliberal infatuation with markets and individualism, and he deplores the decline of a certain Augustinian conviction that the world is much more complex and dangerous than portrayed by the prophets of unfettered capitalism.
In pursuit of his goal, Todorov constructs a fictitious neoliberal consensus that looks more homogeneously militant than anything found in reality. For every Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan there have been other voices within the democratic conversation that present opposing views, from Robert Reich to John Gray. It is puzzling that the thrust of Todorov’s critique is directed at neoliberal triumphalism and so little is said about conservative and neoconservative agendas, let alone the social-democratic one, and the new authoritarian wave is unfortunately glossed over. In terms of theory, it is hard not to be struck by the absence of a dialogue with such figures as John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar, to name but a few of those who have luminously explored the contemporary meanings of liberalism.
The narrative that Todorov proposes is relatively simple: the post-communist global democratic order is beset not by external enemies, but rather by internal forces, the most deleterious being liberal elites’ conviction that they have the epistemic right and the political duty to ensure the ultimate triumph of democracy. The wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan are presented here as voluntary undertakings, heedless of human costs and unpropitious local conditions. Even Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia, intended to prevent genocide, appears in this picture as pointlessly idealistic. But one wonders what Todorov would say about the recent US attempt to save the victims of Islamist fury in Iraq. When are democratic countries entitled to intervene? Only when the United Nations Security Council, which so often is blocked by a Russian and/or Chinese veto, approves it? Is the UN the ultimate provider of legitimacy for external intervention against genocidal tyranny?
Todorov is at his best when he writes about totalitarianism. His analyses are sharply accurate and the interpretation of communism as a secular messianism is persuasive. What is lacking, however, is an emphasis on the moral dimensions of the Cold War; not to describe those decades in a Manichean way, but rather to acknowledge that communism was the opposite of humanism. It was the rule of rampant mendacity and moral turpitude. The communist project was fundamentally one meant to transform human nature, to transcend the human condition through an anthropological revolution. Post-communist ideologies, including neoliberalism, do not have such apocalyptic ambitions.
Surely the main threat to the liberal values in our world is related not to excessive liberal self-confidence, but rather to a deficit of adherence to the basic values defining the democratic tradition. This is what Arthur Koestler identified as a mortal danger: the relativisation of our values and the underestimation of the indispensable distinction between good and evil. True, the new populist oracles abuse the term freedom. Nevertheless, one needs to recognise that there is a paradoxical interplay between the exaltation of human rights as a new political religion and the failure to address the daunting challenges created by the rise of religious fundamentalisms, first and foremost neototalitarian Islamicism.