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Illiberalism Studies Program’s Marlene Laruelle (The George Washington University) interviewed AUTHLIB consortium lead Zsolt Enyedi about his recent AUTHLIB Working Paper titled “Ideologies of Autocratization“. In a conversation for Agora on, they discussed concepts of paternalistic populism, illiberal conservatism, and civilizational ethnocentrism Zsolt Enyedi elaborated in his working paper, and also touched on illiberalism in Hungary as well as Viktor Orbán’s appeal among the American radical right.


Marlene Laruelle: Zsolt, thank you very much for joining us. You have just published a working paper entitled “Ideologies of Autocratization.” In it, you point to the various ideologies that underlay autocratization projects today and flesh out their similarities, while leaving room for their differences. To start, can you tell why you think focusing on ideology is justified or necessary when studying autocratization, as many other scholars de-emphasize ideology? Then, can you briefly walk us through those different ideologies, especially the differences between what you call paternalist populism, illiberal conservatism, and civilizationist ethnocentrism?

Zsolt Enyedi: Political action is inconceivable without some involvement of ideas, values and worldviews, even though there is a considerable variation in the degree of how explicit and organized the ideational elements are and there is also variation in the degree of the causal autonomy of ideas as compared to structural factors, such as economy, universal psychology, institutions, etc.

My sense is that the research on de-democratization has been too much dominated either by political sociological explanations (increase of inequalities, tensions of globalization, the polarization-inducing changes in communication technologies, etc.) or by agent-specific accounts that emphasize the autocratic ambitions of specific strongmen. We need to acknowledge that liberal democracy requires a normative choice, and that there exist alternatives to it. We shouldn’t dismiss references to alternative values as red herrings or as smokescreens just because political actors also have materialistic goals or because they themselves fall short of their propagated ideas. And we shouldn’t assume an ideology-less political world just because no new Communist Manifesto has been written. This is why AUTHLIB is focused on the newly emerging ideological constructs, both at elite- and at mass-level.

Out of the three concepts, the one that I first started using is paternalist populism. I became fascinated by the parallel co-existence of top-down and bottom-up logics in the discourse and behavior of many actors that are commonly considered populist. And I don’t mean here simply the fact that populists accept the charismatic leader as the embodiment of the people and give him/her a privileged role in defining the popular will. Rather, I mean that some of the populist actors acknowledge that the people are imperfect and perhaps even corrupted and that some elite groups, using the apparatus of the state, are allowed to contribute to the perfection of the people. This is an expression of paternalism, a view that regards the state as the guardian and the educator of citizens and sees the various national authorities and spiritual leaders linked to the state as a legitimate elite. It is characterized by the endorsement of a redistributive government engaged in social transformation programs with a long time horizon. It emphasizes the duties of the citizens and the subordination of local and partial social institutions (schools, churches, cultural bodies, etc.) to centrally endorsed guidelines.


The combination of paternalism and populism, therefore, stands for qualified people-centrism and qualified anti-elitism. This construct is populist because its representatives speak on behalf of the homogeneous people against the corrupt international elites, but the bottom-up logic of ideal-typical populism is overshadowed by the top-down organizing role of the wise, native leadership. Paternalist populism considers elections as a crucial source of legitimization, but one that needs to be complemented with elite-controlled representative channels.

Illiberal conservatism, like most conservative traditions, promotes traditional family structures, social order, and religious (Christian) legacies. But this type of conservatism is not satisfied with the protection of inherited socio-cultural structures. In contrast to many versions of conservatism, it is hostile to checks and balances, state neutrality, rule of law, and influential civil society. It divides society into hard-working, deserving, morally exemplary vs. underserving and unproductive groups, advocates the rechanneling of resources from the latter to the former and projects the hierarchical, male-centered nuclear family as the unit of the political society. It demands compliance with official cultural norms in return for public support and it expects educational institutions to defend traditionalist values.

Civilizationist ethnocentrism emphasizes the benefits of organizing the world around relatively small homogenous, ethno-cultural units, whose boundaries are defined by lineage and patriotic attitudes, not citizenship. These units are then expected to coalesce around civilizational values, more specifically, in the region I study, in the defense of white Christian culture. This ideological construct combines the anti-globalist idea of national sovereignty with loyalty to culturally similar nations that are ready to defend themselves against migration and cosmopolitanism.


The interview continues.

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