Illiberal Anxieties – review of Varieties of Post-Communist Capitalism by Peter Mihályi and Iván Szelényi4 min read

 In Central Europe, Culture, Review, Russia
Peter Mihályi and Iván Szelényi argue that post-communist capitalist countries should be understood through an analysis of the communist systems that preceded each country’s transformations. Assigning newly “developed” countries into the rigid paradigm of GDP, number of billionaires, or percentage of land owners does a disservice in acknowledging the rapid changes that had to take place in a very short period of time, so they wrote this book as a way to reshape those measurement protocols. 

This book aims to “tell the story of how post-communist countries, which followed divergent pathways after the fall of communism, seem to be converging increasingly towards a radical nationalist, populist, or illiberal system.” It’s an antithesis to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history being the final victory of liberal capitalism (1989) and instead, a nod to Marx, that people shape their own history, given the existing circumstances and replicate conditions that were transmitted to them from the past.

Looking at Weber

Varieties of Post-communist Capitalism: A Comparative Analysis of Russia, Eastern Europe and China uses a lot of fascinating political theory frameworks to analyze how countries change and grow after communism. It looks at how elections were rolled out, changes in public perception, and how “free”  and “democratic” elections shape each country’s respective culture, almost thirty years later in Post-Soviet countries. It takes a look at oligarchs and follows the movement of political elites under communism to where they are now. While Eastern Europe tended to be categorized as moving away from communism in the liberal tradition – Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Serbia, on the other hand, retained substantial components of patrimonialism or prebendalism. All countries maintained an element of mafia capitalism, an elite power-grab that is still present today.

This book also examines how rents are collected in advanced market economies. It looks at how land and industry began to privatize in each respective country. It dives into how human and cultural capital are viewed in each country’s workforce. There are interesting pyramids and charts detailing the flow of power when workers are plenty but efficacy is low; when wages are stagnated; and the influx of “Nouveau riche” as we see in China. 

What I find most novel is Mihályi and Szelényi’s analysis of Weber and his three ideal types of legitimate authority. Why do people obey laws? Weber writes that obedience is due to legal-rational authority, traditional authority, or charismatic authority. Under market-capitalism, the only form of domination that is consistent is legal-rational, though Mihályi and Szelényi suggest that a fourth type of authority stems from the “will” of the people and will emerge when a country emerges from the “shell” of liberalism, as Lenin once foreshadowed.

Warnings

This book is a perfect mixture of case studies and political theory. It is a very high-level look at the culture and economics of Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. However, it is not without a predilection of anxiety. It is worrisome to Mihályi and Szelényi that not a single country in the post-communist world is immune to nationalism and racism, and has a growing faction in each population.

Varieties of Post-Communist Capitalism analyzes the growth of both Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia as almost inevitable fates for the rest of Eastern Europe. Both Putin’s United Russia and Orban’s FIDESZ parties can be classified as post-communist illiberal, neo-conservative, or managed illiberal democracies in disguise. The authors subtly hint that a grim future is waiting for all post-communist countries if the populace continues to be actively withheld the private ownership given to elites when the systems changed over to market capitalism. 

Varieties of Post-Communist Capitalism is an in-depth and extremely succinct introduction to post-communist economics. I have never had the chance to study this formally, so this book was way more than an introduction. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the intersection of economics, globalism, and the growing neoconservative resentment.

Book details: Mihályi, Peter and Szelényi, Iván Varieties of Post-communist Capitalism: A Comparative Analysis of Russia, Eastern Europe and China, 2020, Haymarket Books. Avaliable to buy here. 

Featured image: Book cover of Varieties of Post-communist Capitalism
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