The Road to Unfreedom

By Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is an academic writer who wants to write for a mass audience, and he has had some success in this regard. His little chapbook On Tyranny, for example, became a surprise bestseller, without saying much that was very new. Its virtues were that it was short and relatively accessible.

I had to stick in that qualifier because Snyder is not always so easy to understand. He can drift into poetic, rhetorical metaphors (“The ink of political fiction is blood,” “To end factuality is to begin eternity”) and has a penchant for coming up with infelicitous labels for concepts that might be better expressed in more familiar terms (schizofascism, sadopopulism). A good example of both tendencies in action can be seen in the central distinction he makes between the politics of inevitability and eternity.

The meaning of these terms is not self-evident and may require some explanation.

The two politics are a linked pair, reduced in their simplest terms to “progress and doom.” Both are mythic structures, or ways of imagining history. The politics of inevitability has it that history has a purpose and a direction. This may be toward the “one market, under God” of neoliberalism, or the Marxist classless society. Either way, it signifies the march of progress, which terminates in the end of history. This progress is a natural law and cannot be altered or avoided. Hence inevitability. As the acronym TINA has it, “there is no alternative.” Snyder likens it to sleepwalking “to a premarked grave in a prepurchased lot” (he frequently uses death imagery). Even democracy becomes an empty ritual, akin to what David Runciman in How Democracy Ends refers to as “mindlessness.”

The politics of inevitability turns into the politics of eternity by way of the poetry I mentioned earlier. “Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse.” “The natural successor to the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity.” What Snyder is getting at here is the way the politics of eternity happens when the inevitable doesn’t materialize. Progress (toward whatever end) turns into the God that fails. Why does it fail? Because of its enemies. Enemies that are invariably seen as external threats, the foreign “other.”

The upshot of the politics of eternity is that there is no longer any progress, or way that history can be redeemed. I don’t like the word “eternity” but the general point is that a return to the past “replaces the forward movement of time.” There is only an eternal struggle, with the forces of darkness and light locked in endless warfare.

Snyder’s point in The Road to Unfreedom is that this trajectory from inevitability to eternity, from saviour to victim, from utopia to nostalgia, from progress to doom, from “radical hope” to “bottomless fear” (there are a lot of these pairings) is one that the United States, under the tutelage of Putin’s Russia, is currently traveling.

There is something to this. I can remember the world’s outpouring of solidarity with the U.S. after the attacks on 9/11, best represented by the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde the day after: Nous sommes tous américains — We Are All Americans.

What was odd was that the U.S. wasn’t having any of it. Very soon the French would be vilified, along with any other country that didn’t immediately fall into line. Instead of taking a true leadership role the U.S. identified itself with Israel, the besieged outpost of civilization surrounded by enemies and under attack by terrorists. Such a transference baffled me, as it seemed so far removed from America’s role and place in the world. Snyder’s categories, however, help explain what was going on. From the shining city on the hill America had become Masada, a nation trapped in a cycle of “endless crises and permanent threats.”

Of course 9/11 was before Trump, a figure Snyder despises as “an American loser who became a Russian tool.” Specifically, Trump was a tool designed by Russia in its own political image: the media-generated “payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as in fact he has done.” Trump’s Manchurian mission was to lead America further down the road to unfreedom, from inevitability to eternity. Another instance of mission accomplished.

Snyder has been criticized for giving Russia too much credit (or blame) for creating Trump. I think he makes a convincing case, though the financial details of the arrangement are still obscure. The bigger problem people seem to have with emphasizing the Russian connection is that they feel it lets Hillary Clinton and the Democrats off the hook. But for the Russians (or the Electoral College, or James Comey, or whatever other excuse), Clinton would have won.

In a close election one can make an argument for any single factor being determinative. Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election and I assume they did have some impact, but did they tip the scale in Trump’s favour?
This seems to me to be an idle question. What was significant was that the election was even close in the first place. Trump was a symptom of the systems failure in American politics, not the disease.

I think Snyder is fair in this regard too, highlighting the ways in which America has become susceptible to just such a threat as the propagandists of the politics of eternity pose. From the growth in inequality to the hollowing out of the news to the replacement of facts with fiction and the rise of social media, the West has become increasingly vulnerable to the sirens of eternity.

The greatest failure has been of the politics of inevitability. The march of progress has either stalled or gone into reverse, with stagnating or falling real wages over the last forty years and government’s near total inability to take action on any of the most pressing issues people face. This has led in turn to widespread disgust with politicians, who are seen as being a class of self-serving, unrepresentative and unresponsive elites. In such an environment the forces of anti-government have gained strength, earning mandates to simply tear it all down. The result is Snyder’s sadopopulism:

Insofar as the American politics of eternity generates policy, its purpose is to inflict pain: regressive taxes that transfer wealth from the majority of the country to the very rich, and the reduction or elimination of health care. The politics of eternity works as a negative-sum game, where everyone but the top 1% or so of the population does worse, and the resulting suffering is used to keep the game going. People get the feeling of winning because they believe that others are losing. . . . So long as enough Americans understood losing as a sign that others must be losing still more, the logic could continue.

This is the downward spiral we’re currently stuck in. The only way out is a rise in prosperity and a better functioning economy, which I don’t see as being in the cards. The new inevitability is that we’re all going down.

Review first published online June 11, 2018.

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