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Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt
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Since the ‘migration crisis’ of 2016, long-simmering tensions between the Western members of the European Union and its ‘new’ Eastern members – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – have proven to be fertile ground for rebellion against liberal values and policies.

In this startling and original book Ivan Kalmar argues that Central Europe illiberalism is a misguided response to the devastating effects of global neoliberalism which arose from the area’s brutal transition to capitalism in the 1990s.

Kalmar argues that dismissive attitudes towards ‘Eastern Europeans’ in the EU as incapable of real democracy are a form of racism, and connected to recent racist attacks on migrants from the area to the West.

He explores the close relation between racism towards Central Europeans and racism by Central Europeans: a people white, but not quite.

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This chapter fact-checks, by citing a wide variety of mostly quantitative data, common prejudices and misconceptions about Central Europe. They include the notion that democracy has failed there, that corruption and crime are much greater than in the West, or that emigration has created a demographic disaster.

When comparing Central, Western, and Eastern Europe, best results are achieved by carefully differentiating between the large cities and the rural areas of each region. On many measures, the big cities of Central Europe resemble the West; the rural areas of the West resemble Central Europe.

The overall picture that emerges is that many things that are commonly assumed about ‘Eastern Europe’ are false or at best half-truths. Central Europe is located on many political, economic, and cultural measures somewhere between the West and the rest of Eastern Europe (such as the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia), but typically closer to the West. The inclusion of the area in a generalized ‘Eastern Europe’ is due more to prior expectations than to verifiable fact.

Keywords: economy; illiberalism; democracy; core and periphery; urban and rural areas

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As the West extended its political and economic system to the former communist countries, Western multinational corporations were not looking for new, equal partners, but for cheap labour and new markets, much as in the postcolonial areas of the Global South. Illiberalism in the area has been a misguided reaction to this fact, rather than an internal failure due to the cultural inability of ‘Eastern Europeans’ to ‘imitate’ liberal democracy, as the authors Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes suggest. This chapter relates the partial and limited integration into the West of ‘white but not quite’ Central Europe, to the limited acceptance of colonial elites as ‘the same but not quite’, discussed in the 1990s by Homi Bhabha.

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Although illiberal Central Europeans are passionately critical of what they see as the liberal establishment of the West, they in fact see themselves the true guardians of the West’s real heritage: they are the real Europeans. This view of Central Europe is espoused enthusiastically by white nationalists and illiberals in the West also, who see Central and Eastern Europe as the last bastion of the White Man. But, more subtly, Western liberals, too, may project pure whiteness onto the East of Europe, to avoid uncomfortable questions of race and racism in the West. The case studies included in the chapter are drawn from fantasy cinema.

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I wrote this book because I am a Central European, and in spite of its severe faults I love Central Europe. To be precise, I am a Central European, but not quite. I was born in Prague, by coincidence. I am not quite a Czech, though I do hold a Czech passport (as well as Canadian). My parents survived the Holocaust in Budapest, using false names and forged documents to convince police and collaborators that they were not Jewish. Neither my father nor my mother was quite a Hungarian. He was born in Slovakia, where Jews were not considered quite Slovak. She was a Budapest girl, but her father came from some place in the Habsburg province of Galicia that no one remembers. The family called it Poland, though today it may well be Ukraine. Although my grandfather was not quite Polish, his origins caused problems for my mother’s folks. They suffered discrimination by Hungarians, including Budapest Jews. The ‘modern’ Jews there had contempt for the ‘Eastern Jews’, as they called the Orthodox Jews from the eastern regions of the Habsburg Empire. They would have been surprised to hear, in what I say in this book is postwar terminology, that they themselves were ‘Eastern European’. My father, who had studied medicine in Bratislava before being expelled as a Jew, married my mother when the war was over, and they moved to continue his studies in Prague.

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This chapter uses racism in football as a case study to reinforce the general conclusions of the book. Football racism in Central Europe is quite striking, but not as much as in some other Eastern European countries. Yet incidents of football racism in Central Europe are often described as typically ‘Eastern European’, while very similar incidents in the West are never generalized as ‘Western European’. Criticizing racism in Central European football is urgently necessary, but projecting racism eastward by pretending that it is radically different from the liberal West is ill-advised.

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Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, colour racism, and homophobia in Central Europe are rampant and dangerous. The open expression of hate has become more common there than in much of the West, both among the general public and at the highest levels of political leadership. Yet hate in Central Europe is not entirely different in form from the West, nor does it stem from completely different causes.

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The Conclusion repeats that illiberalism is a misguided response to the damage that the unrestrained neoliberalism of the 1990s has done to relatively marginalized populations, including in Central Europe. Racially tinged white illiberalism is seen in many parts of the globe, but is more successful politically in Central Europe, not so much for cultural reasons as because of a relative lack of populations of colour who are in a position to fight back. The demographic changes brought on by migration from outside Europe have meant that in Western Europe politicians have had to begin paying attention to the non-white vote. This will also be the case eventually in the post-communist areas in the EU when, as the author argues is inevitable, more migrants from outside Europe settle there.

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A new racism against Eastern Europeans, which this book calls ‘Eastern Europeanism’, includes Central Europeans among its targets. Eastern Europeanism was needed to racialize Central Europeans in order to attribute their continuing ‘immaturity’ as Western-style liberal democracies and as capitalist market economies, not to the conditions of a wild wave of privatization and the colonial-style domination of their economies by ‘globalized’ capital, but rather to some obscure and Eastern essence, to an ingrained character that forever tied them to the backwardness of less than fully European Russia.

This chapter locates Eastern Europeanism in the history of racialization, explains that race is not necessarily a matter of skin colour, and focuses on this and other cases of racism by white people against white people.

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The form of racism the book calls Eastern Europeanism assumes that anything that happens in ‘Eastern Europe’ also happens in all other parts of it, and that most developments there have causes different from the West. This exaggerated East–West distinction incorporates as a matter of course Central Europe in ‘Eastern Europe’. Doing so serves the interests of Western business, seeking to exploit Central European labour within the framework of the EU free market, while also delegitimizing potential competition from local businesspeople. At the same time, the rhetoric of East–West difference helps to turn Western European labour against perceived competition from Central European migrants. Against this background, the chapter explores scholarship in ‘Central and Eastern European Studies’ that claims, incorrectly, that the East–West difference seen during the Cold War actually goes back, in much the same form, to the Enlightenment period. Like Orientalism, sometimes Central and Eastern European Studies produces its own object, and so justifies a distinction embedded in global inequalities.

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