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Book Review: Europe Since 1989: A History (Philipp Ther)

This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains.  I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000.  Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book.  Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day.  But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome.  This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.

I am not going to spend a lot of time parsing this book, because it is a waste of my time, and of anyone else’s reading this, and I have already wasted enough time by reading this book.  But I will examine, a little, the core conceit of this book—neoliberalism, because it is a term commonly thrown around nowadays, in large part as a result of the rumbling civil war on the Left.  In fact, I had never heard the term until 2016, in connection with Bernie Sanders’s attacks on Hillary Clinton, but apparently it has been used for some time among the academic Left, and now I hear it everywhere.

To his credit, Ther at least clearly defines neoliberalism.  For him, in his typically emotional and prejudiced prose, it is “blind belief in the market as an adjudicator in almost all human affairs, irrational reliance on the rationality of market participants, disdain for the state as expressed in the myth of ‘big government,’ and the uniform application of the economic recipes of the Washington Consensus [i.e., deregulation and privatization].”  Thus, though he never says what he wants, Ther says constantly he doesn’t want neoliberalism, and by looking at his definition, we can thereby infer what he wants.  He desires something other than the market to be the “adjudicator in human affairs—given that he praises government throughout, presumably that is to be the government.  He wants the markets downgraded due to irrationality—again, presumably they are to be replaced by government decision-makers.  He wants the state to expand in all areas, for it is not big enough.  Thus, Ther often uses the term “fully functioning government,” contrasting it to “a skeptical view of the welfare state.”  More government is always better, and less freedom of private action is also always better.

In other words—Ther wants a return to “goulash Communism.”  Of course, he would never use the discredited word Communism; Ther rarely uses it even when referring to the pre-1989 era.  He prefers to talk about “the positive achievements of state socialism” under Communism.  He’d call what he wants “socialism with a human face,” or some such tripe, and it’d be awesome.  It’d involve extensive government control of the economy, a variety of extremely aggressive socialistic leveling elements, and, presumably, the strict limitations on freedom of opposition found under Communism and increasingly found in the EU today.

Ther is too smart to openly call for this, though he comes close.  Instead, he focuses on the allegedly negative effects of ending communism while talking up the supposed positive aspects of communism.  To aid this end, Ther insists on making neoliberalism a catchall epithet, so as to sweep in any problem in post-Communist Europe as its fault.  Approvingly quoting some person named Dieter Plehwe, who is apparently incapable of clear writing, “hegemonial neoliberalism must be conceived of in plural terms as a political philosophy and a political practice,” Ther gives himself infinite wiggle room by concluding that neoliberalism “is a moving target that is constantly being changed and adapted, which is why it is so effective.”  We are not told what it is effective at, though, but presumably it is effective at doing evil.  The fact that anyone’s toast is burnt in post-Communist Europe, and everything else bad, is therefore the fault of “hegemonial neoliberalism.”

The necessary flip side of this argument is the claim that socialism gets a bad rap.  There may have been nothing to buy under state socialism, but the dumb populace blamed the wrong people:  “The communists were held responsible for the scarcity because they had a monopoly on political power.”  How they achieved and maintained that monopoly is not mentioned, nor is it ever considered that socialism might have something to do with scarcity.  There is no entry for “Venezuela” in the Index, although Vietnam and China (who, last I checked, were not in Europe) get repeated positive mentions, for righteously “reforming” Communism without giving in to evil neoliberalism.  Ther further complains “the public gave the communists little or no credit for their social policy achievements.” Naturally, Reagan had nothing to do with the end of Communism (called the “East-West conflict,” of course, not Communism), since confrontation doesn’t work, as proven by the fact that North Korea and Cuba are still Communist and have “reaffirmed their disapproval of reforms.”  In fact, people were quite free under late Communism, “the citizens of the Eastern Bloc countries were not as ‘atomized’ [a euphemism for living in fear] as totalitarianism theory—previously a major influence on Cold War studies—has claimed.”

In other words, things were pretty good under Communism, as we now know due to enlightened minds like Philipp Ther’s, and the fault was in transitioning too far away from these largely successful systems.  Ultimately, just in case we don’t get the idea, Ther makes his position totally clear, heroically offering a daring new paradigm:  “[My] assertion challenges the frequent portrayals of communism and state socialism as flawed systems that were destined to fail from the start, or were forced upon countries from without.  Neither the former nor the latter is true.”  All this is stupid and evil, and does not require further comment from me.

Every so often Ther mentions actual history.  But nobody will mistake him for a historian, because almost all of his history is bunk.  For example, he claims that Yugoslavia descended to civil war because its federal organization prevented the demands of the IMF from being implemented—in other words, neoliberalism caused the war.  Other than gems like that one, we are not offered any knowledge about the ebb and flow of what actually happened in Europe since 1989.  Instead, the rest of the book is endless economic pseudo-analysis, complete with many charts, accompanied by pictures from the author’s footloose days of youth in 1990s Eastern Europe, all to prove that life has been harder than desirable for large numbers of people living in post-Communist Europe.  By implication, but without specific argument, Ther wants us to believe that none of this is the fault of Communism, and that all these troubles could all have been avoided if the ill wind of neoliberalism had not blown across the land.  Along the way, of course, Ther flaunts his European ruling class bona fides by finding time to criticize those countries that have not bowed to the EU’s maleficent “liberal democracy,” namely Hungary and Poland, even though those countries have done the most to resist the neoliberalism Ther deplores.  Neoliberalism is awful, apparently, except that restoring traditional European values, as desired by the vast majority of voters in those countries, is worse.

I could go on, but I won’t. I hated this book.  Don’t waste your time or money.

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Published in Book Reviews Charles Communism Eastern European History European History Left-Liberalism Political Economy

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