Paranoia, Conspiracy Theories, and Democratic Decay: Reflections on the Political Commentaries of Ivan Krastev
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
Since 2015, political scientist Ivan Krastev has become a regular op-ed contributor to the New York Times, with each of his columns starting with the dateline: “Sofia, Bulgaria.” Following his successful 2012 TED talk, “Can Democracy Survive Without Trust?”, Krastev has advised Americans on all things Eastern European from the perspective of one who has weathered the vicissitudes of authoritarianism. More recently, his short pieces reflect on the increasingly unstable and potentially undemocratic global political climate, tracking the rise of civic paranoia in the so-called consolidated democracies. Krastev explains: “The dramatic decline of trust in democratic institutions since the 1970s is painfully shown by the fact that, in the majority of Western societies, nearly everyone under the age of forty has lived their entire life in a country where the majority of citizens do not trust their national government.”
Krastev argues that free societies require faith: faith in the future, faith that your fellow citizens will play by the rules, and faith that elected politicians represent the interests of their constituents rather than merely using the state as a vehicle to amass personal wealth, influence, and power. He tracks the breakdown in public certitude in advanced capitalist countries, particularly following the global financial crisis of 2008. From his position as someone who experienced the societal fissures that characterized the waning years of twentieth-century state socialism in Eastern Europe, Krastev warns that the cancerlike spread of mistrust may presage a collapse of the established political order.
Krastev’s March 16, 2017 column, “The Rise of the Paranoid Citizen,” delved into the chaotic and unpredictable world of post-truth, “fake news,” and conspiracy theories, foretelling the right-wing media’s response to the ongoing troubles of Donald Trump’s presidency. During the first year of his administration, Trump was mired in scandal after the summary dismissal of FBI director James Comey, the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and the subsequent indictments charging Russian interference. To deflect attention from the growing scandal, Fox News, Breitbart, and the right-wing blogosphere continued to fuel suspicions about White House leaks, the “deep state,” and the liberal media’s so-called witch hunt against Trump. The president lent these tales credibility, propagating “alternative facts” to his supporters and painting himself as the victim of a vast plot to prevent him from making America great again.
When citizens don’t know who to trust or believe they’re being deceived, truth becomes a commodity, something with both inherent use values and socially determined exchange values. It can be hoarded, traded, and distributed unequally.
After conducting fieldwork in Bulgaria over two decades, I am familiar with the Balkan penchant for conspiracy theories and the damage they can do to the social fabric of a polity. When citizens don’t know who to trust or believe they’re being deceived, truth becomes a commodity, something with both inherent use values and socially determined exchange values. It can be hoarded, traded, and distributed unequally. For those who own the means of truth production (whether these be political, economic, or cultural elites), a scarcity of truth in society only increases its price.
Over the years, I have collected conspiracy theories from friends and colleagues, and watched how they exacerbated uncertainty and paranoia about the future, leading to a steady flow of emigrants to the West as my Bulgarian peers abandoned hope.
One of the most poignant illustrations of the breakdown in trust can be seen in an anecdote from 1986. A young conscript in the army receives a phone call from his mother, a member of the nomenklatura (party elite). It is late April and, without explanation, she tells her son not to eat any salad for the next few weeks. Green salads are a popular spring dish, and the army mess is full of lettuce, green onions, and carrots. When the soldier tries to warn his fellow conscripts not to eat the salad, they consume heaping bowls of greens just to spite him. “If there is something wrong with the lettuce,” they reason, “the government would have told us.” They tease and torment him for his supposed paranoia until the full extent of the Chernobyl disaster (and the attempted cover-up) becomes known. Then they despise him for hailing from the privileged class: those privileged with access to the truth.
Many Bulgarians never recovered from the breakdown in public faith that followed their government’s decision to remain silent about the nuclear accident. Krastev astutely suggests that once a government loses the trust of the people, it forfeits the basis of its legitimacy.
Since the 2016 election in the United States, I have noticed a similar paranoia emerging among my American friends and colleagues, an erosion of trust and a willingness to lend credibility to whispers about extreme libertarian plots to dismantle the federal government or the return of white supremacy. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale feels plausible. On the far right, gun advocates assert that the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Florida are liberal hoaxes, false-flag operations to undermine the Second Amendment. Politically polarized Americans live in increasingly separate spheres of truth production and no longer enjoy a shared objective reality. Krastev hears the echoes of the end of state socialism in these recent developments, and his widely read columns implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) draw parallels with the upheavals of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Krastev reminds his American readers that superpowers can collapse. To paraphrase Alexei Yurchak (2005), Krastev knows well that everything can seem like it is forever, until the moment that it is no more. The communist ideal imagined a very different world than the one that manifested itself in the twentieth-century state-socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. It was the disjuncture between the utopian and egalitarian ideal and the brutal and impoverished reality of state socialism that led to its demise. As a voice of experience from Bulgaria, Krastev tracks the growing disparity between the democratic ideal and the actually existing practice of democracy. For those wary of the authoritarian tendencies of current political leaders, we must fight to restore a collective commitment to truth as a public good to which all have equal access. Post-truth inevitably leads to post-democracy.
Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.