Timothy Snyder: “The thing about authoritarianism is that it’s just so boring”
Peter Sterančák, Michal Micovčin / December 12, 2018
(20 min read)
Interviewing professor at Yale University Timothy D. Snyder, is not an easy task for a student magazine so we were naturally excited to do it for Il Ponte. A historian by profession, specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, professor Snyder is also a permanent fellow at The Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His latest book, The Road to Unfreedom (Cesta do neslobody), explores parallels between the rise of authoritarianism in Europe, USA and Russia. We traveled to Vienna to meet him and although we only agreed on 15 minutes, prof. Snyder was kind enough to stay with us another 15 minutes to answer all our questions.
We discussed, among other things: current political development in Slovakia; ideas from his latest books, such as: historic perception of time, importance of ideas in politics, xenophobia, the rise of authoritarianism, or power of oligarchy; a role of Europe and EU in fighting extremism; and a role of journalism in protecting truth.
We come from Slovakia and we’ve had a busy year so far in our country, in particular the political turmoil and protests that followed the murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. Have you been following these developments and do you think Slovak society has reacted adequately?
It’s not for me to tell Slovaks what to do. I’d answer it in a slightly different way. The question of a free press and in particular the ability of journalists to investigate inequality and corruption seems to me to be the most important question of our time. I think the real axis of politics in Europe and in America is not right versus left; it’s reality versus unreality. And unreality is winning. Unreality helps oligarchs and oligarchs help unreality. The only way for people to have any idea where inequality comes from or what oligarchs are doing – the only way to find these things out is by the work of independent journalists. So, this is an absolutely central question and I’m sure that there’s more that could be done in Slovakia. But, from the external perspective it’s very important that Slovaks reacted and it’s very important that the prime minister had to resign. This wouldn’t have happened in every country. I had the sense that civil society in Bratislava was pretty strong but it was exemplary, because it’s very important to see that murder of a journalist isn’t going actually to change things in the way that the murderers wanted them to change. And it’s also important in resisting the general [political] climate.
So, you were positively surprised by the reaction?
I wasn’t so much surprised. I was gratified by it. I think it’s incredibly important and not only in Slovakia.
Connected to that, one more local question regarding Slovakia. There’s a lot of public debate about reviving interest in controversial figures from our recent history such as Jozef Tiso, or Gustav Husák. RTVS, Slovakia’s public broadcaster, for example, is trying to provoke questions about them that were already answered by facts and history. How do you think the media in general should handle these topics?
I haven’t been following these debates in particular. So I would just make a couple of general points. The first is that Slovakia, thus far, has happily avoided the kinds of memory wars that one sees in Poland, or in Ukraine, for example. And I think that’s a good thing. I mean, I’m in favour of history, of course. I am a historian. But it’s important not to have the whole political discussion dominated by questions like “Are we good? Are we evil? Are we victims, or are we perpetrators?” Because those aren’t the only important questions. There are more important questions, like “How you build a state?”, “What’s the relationship between the state and Europe?”, “Where does Slovakia come from? In the 19th century and in the 20th century.”
For me those are more important questions. So, if you’re asking what the media should do, I think the media should write about history that isn’t the same history that politicians necessarily are talking about. And when it comes to controversial figures of the 20th century, it’s very important to just be as factual as possible and not be passionate. Because there’s a form of politics that just wins when the subject becomes “Are we good or are we evil?” “No one else understands us, because we’re so good and so innocent.” That is unfortunately a step towards authoritarianism: “We have these figures; nobody understands them; therefore, we’re innocent; therefore, we’re good; therefore no one should criticize our leaders,” and so on. You want to try to avoid a discussion which takes that form.
Let me start by saying it’s good to have a historical sense of time, a sense of time that says there were events in the past and we should learn about them.
But how should we students react when there’s a show called “The Greatest Slovak” and the trailer for the show features Gustav Husák and Josef Tiso? And it asked if they were martyrs or tyrants?
If I was a young person, in particular I think I would say “We want better Slovaks”. You can’t yourself fall into those choices: as if it’s got to be Husák or Tiso! (laughs) I think especially young people should say: “We actually want better Slovaks”. We don’t want the same Slovaks that our grandparents and parents were arguing about. We will look back into our history and we’ll find more interesting Slovaks. Maybe some women. The only way to win those discussions is to find surprising things – say, you find some poet that everyone else forgot about, or you find someone who was interesting in 1920s and 1930s Czechoslovakia. Find better examples, because this whole thing you’re talking about is a trap, basically. It’s a trap to say either Tiso or Husák. Or either martyr or hero. And the only way of out is for someone else to say “Hey and by the way, we think the greatest Slovak is somebody completely different.”
Let’s now explore your latest book, The Road to Unfreedom. I think the most interesting concept in it is the idea of the perception of time. You divide the politics of time into two categories: the politics of eternity and the politics of inevitability. Can you briefly describe for our readers what these are and how they work?
Let me start by saying it’s good to have a historical sense of time, a sense of time that says there were events in the past and we should learn about them. Because events in the past help us see what possibilities and limitations there are in the present and, once we see that, we have a certain amount of agency about the future. I think that’s a sensible way to live and I also think that it works well with democracy, because democracy functions that way, or at least it should, namely that we look at the past and make decisions about the present, if only by voting. Through these decisions we can anticipate some kind of future.
Underneath this authoritarian turn that we’re all experiencing is, I think, a challenge to historical time. Because after 1989, what a lot of people in the West and especially in America did, was rather than thinking historically, we said: history is over. We adopted this thing that I call the politics of inevitability. Namely, history is over: there are no other alternatives, the market will create democracy, your wallet determines politics. No one has any individual responsibility for all this, it’s just the way it’s going to happen. That version of progress, that belief in inevitability I think creates all kinds of costs. Including inequality, loss of historical knowledge, and loss of sense of individual responsibility.
The politics of eternity is what comes next when people give up on this idea of automatic progress. Rather than going back to historical time they tend to go in a loop and they say: we no longer believe in an automatic future, and then we’re going to stop thinking about the future entirely. All around Europe, and in America too, people find it hard to talk about the future. The future has just disappeared. It’s not just Slovakia. Take Britain: you ask people in favour of Brexit, tell me about the good future that will follow Brexit and they just don’t know what to say. Because instead of a plausible real future it’s all about looking back into the past, right? Whether it’s Brexit, “Oh, let’s think about the Empire”, or Trump saying ‘Let’s make America great… again.” But with no policy. It’s everywhere. Kaczyński, Putin, Orbán. This is the politics of eternity. There’s no policy for the future. We continue our loop into the past. We use the technology of the present not to make things better but to pound our minds with emotions and divide us and wear us down with emotional questions so that we stop thinking about the future. That’s inevitability becoming eternity.
Technology has lost the ability to promise a better future for everyone.
Do you feel like the future has been stolen by the political agenda of these authoritarians, or do you think the source is existential anxiety about the future itself?
I don’t know the answer. I want to say all of the above. It’s definitely the case that the oligarchs are stealing the future. That’s a very basic thing because if you have an obscene amount of money, unfortunately the tendency often is to support the status quo.
You mean they do it consciously?
Yes, I think there’s something conscious going on with, let’s say, Putin. Who is just an example, but he’s an extremely powerful oligarch who just happen to also control a state. I think when you’re in that position you just don’t want people to think about alternative futures. The other way to relate to oligarchy is social mobility. In America, we have a huge problem with social mobility. What we called the American Dream has really slowed down, if not stopped. So, if people cannot move forward or they can’t get better jobs, or leave their parent’s houses, and you’re an oligarch – what are you going to say about that? You know, you’re not going to open things up for them, you’re not going to make the economy more transparent. So you have to give them something else and that’s the story of the past. That’s part of it.
But then – and I’m still puzzling this out and I don’t have the answer; I’m just going to name it as a phenomenon – technology is not really about the future anymore. Or it’s not about a good future. I mean, you’re going to be replaced by robots is not a great future. We going to enter a future in which rich people will have better genes and poor people will not. That’s not a good future. Technology has lost the ability to promise a better future for everyone. [Take] climate change: it’s the catastrophe of the 21st century brought about by our 20th-century technology, by which I mean carbon emissions. And there’s the strange way these two things come together in the reactions of rich people, some of them technologists, to the upcoming crisis, which is to say “Oh, we’re going to escape: I am going to go to Mars, or I am going to build a platform in Pacific, or I have bunker in New Zealand. This is, for me, the big challenge. This is what I am working on right now: how do we get our future back. Because we need democracy for the future, but we also need a future for democracy. When people don’t believe in the future, it’s really hard to vote and believe it will get slightly better in two years.
Connected to this is, I think, the second most important idea in your book. That is the importance of ideas and where they come from. You mention philosopher Ivan Ilyin and how he influenced Mr Putin in shaping his worldview. How important is the creation of a mythology about a nation or a leader in today’s politics?
Yes, thanks for mentioning that. Writing about Ilyin at the beginning of the book is definitely the biggest risk in the book because you know, who cares about ideas? Who cares about an unknown Russian philosopher? But I did it because I wanted to say what you said, which is that ideas really do matter. And part of the politics of eternity is going back to the 1930s and bringing back thinkers from the 1930s and using them for ulterior purposes. I think one sees that not just in Russia but everywhere – but the Russians, as in many things, are ahead. I do think that these new 21st-century representatives of the right actually do have ideas. They’re not exactly like fascism, even if they use fascists to justify who they are. But there’s a larger point, and it connects to your previous question, which is that ideas also matter if you want to make things different. Because part of what we’ve done in the last 25 years in this politics of inevitability is say that ideas don’t matter. Because the only idea that matters is liberal democracy. But if you forget about other ideas then liberal democracy stops being an idea. It starts being something that people just take for granted. When I look at a lot of younger Europeans and especially Americans, they take what liberal democracy gives for granted. Without seeing it as only one possibility among the others, and because they don’t see any other possibilities, they don’t appreciate what liberal democracy is all about. But more positively, if we are going to make this liberal democracy better, we have to have ideas. If we shut ourselves off from ideas then we don’t have anything else to say how it could be better.
This is what your fellow historian Yuval Noah Harari identifies as a reason for people to retreat into nostalgic ideologies: that we have no vision of the future, no global vision. With all the worries about technology-related unemployment, climate change, etc… You mention it at the end of your book when you talk about the politics of responsibility as a solution to that problem.
I think there’s some kind of relationship there, sure. The thing that I call the politics of responsibility for me is about history. For me, you can’t have the future without the past. If you try to think about ideas for the future without the past you are going to fail. You have to have them, because for them to make sense you have to somehow flow in time. The definition of utopian is that it doesn’t have a connection with history. So, it’s not going to be utopianism that is going to save us but I honestly think we have to think of the present, because what the politics of eternity tries to say is that the present is just a cycle that comes around over and over again. No, the present is a moment in time and things are flowing in the present and they can flow out of the present and we can sometimes control the way they flow help them move towards certain kinds of ideas. But we have to have ideas. So, the politics of responsibility is about having ideas for two years, five years, ten years from now, which aren’t based on historical determinism or some impossible utopia. Ideas based on ethics, people have to be able to say this is good and this is bad, because if you can’t do that you can’t say that this is preferable to this. So, yeah, I think nostalgia has something to do with fear of the future, but I think we have no choice but to get over the fear of the future.
Like with climate change. We can still do a lot about it. We don’t have to give up on climate change. We can still take carbon out of the air. There are all these things that are actually possible if you’re willing to address it.
We’ll soon have elections for the European Parliament. What do you think is the role of European Union in beating the politics of eternity and in creating an integral European identity as opposed to national one?
I have a general answer and I have a specific answer. The general one is that Europe has to have a future. That’s the thing. Europe has to have a future and in some sense be the future. Because, here is how Europe has worked. The Europeans have a story about the past, the West Europeans. It’s basically wrong, but here’s the story: World War II was bad and we’ve learned a lesson and therefore we have the EU. OK, that’s not true, but it has a bigger problem. It’s that it doesn’t offer a future. Because for how many generations can you keep learning about the World War II? I say this as a historian of World War II. It’s very important, but you can’t keep telling every generation that the whole EU is about World War II. The EU has to be about the future. And here’s the thing: that nobody noticed that the Europeans of 1992, with the Maastricht Treaty, were also saying “history is over”, [along with] the Americans, [Francis] Fukuyama: “We won the Cold War, history is over!” Europeans were also saying history is over. “We have our EU, we have nothing to do with Eastern Europe, we don’t want to hear about Eastern Europe at all.” I remember this very clearly, they did not care about you, at all. You were a problem for them. This whole “coming back to Europe” was a problem for them. They didn’t want to hear about it. All those Havels and Šimečkas, when they returned to Europe it meant nothing to EU. They were saying “nope, we’re done...Treaty of Maastricht, common currency, we’re finished”, that was their own version of the end of history.
And what happened was that Eastern Europeans gave the EU the future. From 1992 to 2004, or even a little bit longer… basically Eastern European gave the EU the future. Because, enlargement became the next thing they could do. The EU didn’t want it. And now we’ve passed that. Now, that’s done with. And the EU really, desperately needs a future now. If it’s always going to be only about memory then Europe is going to lose. Because the nostalgia of the British Empire or even nostalgia for Husák, is going to beat nostalgia for the Treaty of Rome.
If Europe is going to win it has to be about the future. And it could be! It’s the biggest economy in the world, it’s the only entity that can take on Google. There are a lot of things you can say about Europe, but no one is really saying them. I don’t know how to do it, but I think it’s like this: the future or bust.
You run into an idea of the migrant. And that vague idea helps you to think of yourself as ‘us’. That’s more of what I think is going on.
The theme of the next issue of our magazine is xenophobia, which is closely tied to nationalism. How do you see the relationship between xenophobia and nationalism? Is it a source or a by-product?
Tell me what you mean by nationalism.
I mean ultra-nationalism. The extreme form of nationalism. Because there’s also a healthy form of nationalism, right? It’s seems to us you mention xenophobia in your work only indirectly. Is there a reason for that?
That’s a good question. So, in my work I try really hard to identify general structures of why people behave the way they do. I also try to describe the way individual ideologies work. So, I think it would be inadequate to describe Hitler’s anti-Semitism as xenophobia. There would be something wrong about it. When I discuss Stalin and the 1930s I try to show how the optimistic policy of creation became xenophobic and fearful of the outside world. But I don’t use the term, because I don’t think the term is particularly helpful. You’re right by saying that xenophobia is somewhere on the edge about what I am writing about, but I’ve never really treated it as a subject. I think that the key thing about xenophobia … I would describe it in a different way. I’d describe it as my colleague Jason Stanley does in his new book about fascism: as the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Because you don’t know who you are. You define who you’re not by virtue of the category of the others, which is largely fictional. Like the migrant crisis in Slovakia or Poland and, for that matter, a lot of other places.
So, it’s a problem of identity?
Yeah, it’s fictional. It’s not like you run into a migrant and you say “Oh, I understand this migrant is a Syrian Muslim, and therefore I am not a Syrian Muslim.” You run into an idea of the migrant. And that vague idea helps you to think of yourself as ‘us’. That’s more of what I think is going on. It’s that you’re not sure who you are, and so you become ‘us’ by saying they’re ‘them’. And migrants are a good ‘them’ because you don’t know anything about them; they come from some other place. The politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ leads straight away from democracy and rule of law, because ‘us’ and ‘them’ isn’t the same thing as citizenship, isn’t the same thing as the rule of law.
But the Jewish conspiracy theory is the cowardly response to globalisation.
Do you consider it a global trend or does it have a special flavour for each country?
As I see it, it’s a global trend. It’s a response to globalisation. It’s the easy response to globalisation. The harder response is: “Let’s build up institutions, let’s define who we are by what we do” or “Yes, globalisation is hard but the state can do something about it”. That’s the hard answer but it’s the good answer. It’s the European answer. Because Europe is the single best response to globalisation. We’re the best shelter, we have the best answers to globalisation, which is true as a matter of fact. The easy answer to globalisation is to say “We’re right and they’re wrong, they’re them and we’re us”. I see it as strikingly similar everywhere. Like the migration thing is strikingly similar in the US. We don’t actually have any Mexican migrants. I mean we do have some, but they’re actually leaving faster than they’re coming.
The whole midterm elections were dominated by this caravan, which president Trump treats like the Wehrmacht or something. It’s like a couple of thousand people. Mostly women and children. They probably aren’t even going to make it to America at all. And he literally sends out the army. So the migrants from the south are not very numerous and maybe won’t even show up.
Is that the result of a failed project of globalisation?
Well, no it’s a result of being cowardly about globalisation. Because the globalisation just is. It’s not anybody’s project per se. It just is. So, then your project is how you respond to globalisation. The way Mr Trump responds to globalisation is (depending on his mood) to say “The Chinese are bad”, “Mexicans are bad”, “The Jews are bad” – as he done lately, with Soros.
… which is always fashionable.
Yes! I mean, this is one thing that came from Eastern Europe. Finally, we’re talking about Soros! You know, after Fico and after Putin and after Orbán, we’re finally talking about Soros.
But the Jewish conspiracy theory is the cowardly response to globalisation. We can’t deal with globalisation as it is, so we blame a Jewish financier, or whatever.
Because global communications are complicated it actually becomes easy for us to think the things we want to think.
In your book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, one of the lessons is ‘Believe in Truth’. How does this fit into our internet era of our “own truths”? What’s the difference between believing in your own truth and believing in truth?
It fits nicely with globalisation. It’s because globalisation is hard, so it’s easy for society to fall into fictions. Because global communications are complicated it actually becomes easy for us to think the things we want to think. Like, for example, “I am great” – which is kind of what it comes down to. Or, “I am right.” That’s like a global fiction. Because, we’re not right. I mean, sometimes, we’re right, but not very often. What the internet does it allows you to think “I am right”.
It’s the denial of reality.
Yes, it’s a subjectivity which is based upon your immediate impulses being affirmed. The distinction to draw at some point is the distinction between what feels right and what is right. Trump is a good example. A politician of the internet age will learn what feels right for you. Then slowly, slowly, slowly you lose the ability to say there’s the difference between what feels right and what is actually true out in the world. With this form of politics, it’s easy to point to individual fictions. Whether it’s the Smolensk crash in Poland, or whether it’s Trump saying Obama was born in Africa, or whether it’s Putin saying he didn’t invade Ukraine – you know, “they were just locals who bought their camouflage uniforms at a store”. It’s easy to look at the individual fictions, but there’s a larger style. The larger style is “we’re going to tell people stuff they want to hear.” The Russian intervention in the American elections was like this: we’re going to find the people who are afraid of Muslims and then we’re going to tell them to be more afraid of Muslims. So, I think the trick in the 21st century has everything to do with individuals and the rules of democracy.
The trick is to say “I’m going to go out in the world and find out some things that challenge me.” That’s what makes me a good man, or a good woman, or a good citizen. I can actually lean into the window a little bit as oppose to just sit back here and let the internet blaze the back of my eyeballs with the stuff that my brain finds comfortable. I am going to get off the chair and figure some things out. I am going to read some stuff that people have reported, this is why reporters are so important. Because we have to produce facts, because they don’t just come to us. People have to go and produce them and we have to read things that change our minds.
We should conclude that we have to open our doors and challenge ourselves?
Yes, that’s what life is. The thing about authoritarianism is that it’s just so boring. It’s sad because it’s nice to feel like you’re right. It’s a good feeling but it’s a terrible way to live. It’s not an interesting way to live. If the guy who’s 50 thinks the same things he thought when he was 22, that’s a failure. That’s a tragedy. That’s a disaster, I think. About some things sure, but if you’re 22 and you think you know everything and then you’re 50 and you think you know everything, that’s sad. And it’s a problem for democracy too. Because in democracy you have to be able to say: “Oh, okay I realise there’s this whole problem I didn’t understand and I am going to vote according to that problem.” But if you’ve already decided when you’re 22 that you know everything, you’re not going to be a good voter.
I see this in my country. I see people falling behind these information walls. I’ll give you an example. In London I was debating the midterm elections, and I was speaking to a Republican and she said she had never heard that voter suppression was an issue. Now, maybe she was just lying, but the more depressing possibility is that this was actually true: that in her information world, there was no mention of the fact that the state of North Dakota has disenfranchised native Americans; that in the state of Texas, if they take you off the voter rolls and then you apply for the right to vote and you make a mistake, they put you in prison, etc. That in two American states the same person that is counting the votes was the person who was running for governor. Which is the kind of thing that if another country did, we would say: that’s a violation of democracy. My point is that this is a basic factual thing and she said she didn’t really know about it. She wasn’t aware of it. There were a bunch of other Republicans and they were like “Yeah, this is not true, this is a conspiracy theory.” I said: “Okay, well, it’s very hard for us to have democracy when we don’t even know basic things about the democracy itself.”
The point is not to make fun of them, the point is to say that the stuff you’re not supposed to know, you have got to find that out.
It’s good to challenge our own information?
Well, it’s good to challenge things that make you feel comfortable. That’s the moment when you have got to watch out. The point with the information is to care about the people who actually generate the facts. Again, going back to the beginning: the actual reporter who’s actually trying to research. For example, there were those connections between Slovak politicians and Italian mafia. That’s the person you have to support, by reading it, by paying for it, all of that. There’s an infinity of junk out there, there’s very small percentage of actual reporting. And those are the people we have to support.