The Road to Unfreedom

The Road to Unfreedom, written by Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University in the United States,  is a persuasive, revealing but disturbing book that links the present political problems in Europe, Russia and the United States.

The central idea in the book is two ways of living in time, two ways of translating facts into stories.  Both notions are false and lead us towards authoritarianism, hence the title “road to unfreedom”.  The two stories are the Politics of Inevitability and the Politics of Eternity.

In the politics of inevitability, there is one fixed future without alternatives in which life will be better for everyone.  It is the “end of history” discourse.  History is moving towards a clear end. The problem is that it blinds societies for the inevitable unattractive alternatives.  For example, if you believe that the internet only brings enlightenment, you don’t see the negative influence the internet has on democracy and inequality.

In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.  Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia.

Accepting that the future is fixed is to deny individual responsibility for making change.  The main problem of the politics of inevitability is that it opens the door to something worse. Financial or economic shocks may shift countries from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity.

In the politics of eternity, there is no future, only a nostalgic loop back to a glorious past.  Time is not a line but a circle.

The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility.

Russia has reached the stage of eternity first.  It went through the politics of inevitability during the 1990s to reach the politics of eternity with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.  Hydrocarbons, oligarchy and a lack of succession mechanisms drove this fast evolution towards eternity.

Europe and the USA are in a politics of inevitability and risk moving to a politics of eternity. Russia actively intervenes in European and American politics to realize this move to eternity, but there are also internal factors both within Europe and the United States: inequality, mythical representations of the past, oligarchy, a reliance on hydrocarbons and the demise of an independent and critical press, the weakening of institutions and the disregard for facts and experts.

The West is vulnerable as it believes in the notion of a glorious nation state past, whereas, in fact, European countries moved to European integration after their empires collapsed.

The politics of eternity is attractive for despots as it offers a solution to the challenges of succession and the inequality of wealth.  In a politics of eternity, elections are just a ritual and the leader comes from outside the system.  By removing the succession question, the immediate future is taken away and replaced by an endless loop of outside leaders.  Secondly, each person has its fixed place within the society, like cells in a body.  Therefore, there is no space for personal advancement which is convenient for the extreme rich, in Russia or other regions with high inequality.

Rather than discuss reforms, eternity politicians designate external threats. Rather than presenting a future with possibilities and hopes, they offer an eternal present with defined enemies and artificial crises. For this to work, citizens have to meet eternity politicians halfway. Demoralized by their inability to change their life, they must accept that the meaning of politics lies not in institutional reform but in daily emotion. They must stop thinking about a better and prefer the constant invocation of a proud past.

In the politics of eternity, facts don’t matter.  Everything is a lie and in such a world, your lies are as much worth as someone else’s lies.  To end factuality is to begin eternity. If citizens doubt everything, they cannot see alternative models beyond the country’s borders, cannot have sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organize political change.  Putin’s direct assault on factuality is called implausible deniability. By denying things that are obviously true, he moves the focus from reporting the facts to a reality show about the men in power. Russian media create a climate in which news is entertainment.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. For Russia in 2012, the fictional problem became the designs of the European Union and the United States to destroy Russia.  It was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses.  Russia’s real geopolitical problem was China. The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.

The EU was presented as an existential threat to Russia, because it enforced law and generated prosperity. Russia has been trying to define success in this war not in terms of prosperity and freedom but in terms of sexuality and culture, and that the European Union (and the United States) be defined as threats not because of anything they did but because of the values they supposedly represent.

The essence of Russia’s foreign policy is a strategic relativism: Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.  Russia sees international politics as a negative-sum game, where a skillful player can win by losing less than everyone else. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia.

In 2013, Russia began to influence its European neighbors into abandoning their own institutions and histories. It did so by supporting the extreme Right within EU member states.  It stimulates a discourse that harks back to a glorious, but fictional past of a wise and prosperous nation state. They do this through cyberwarfare, supporting extremist organizations and foreign policy.

Useful idiots like Farage and Le Pen propose a return to a nonexistent past, when Europeans lived in nation-states without immigrants. They are eternity politicians. Both Great Britain and France had been maritime empires that, as their colonies won independence, joined a European integration project. The European Union was a necessity for crumbling empires that lost colonial wars. Because they had no modern history as nation-states, an exit from the European Union would be a step into the unknown rather than the homecoming promised by nationalism.

Cyberwarfare is the preferred instrument, using cyber-attacks and controlling the online conversation by armies of bots.  The same bots were used in Ukraine, Brexit, US elections and various European elections. Twitter accounts that posted on Brexit were linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency—later, every single one of them would also post on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  About a third of the discussion of Brexit on Twitter was generated by bots—and more than 90% of the bots tweeting political material were not located in the United Kingdom.

Russia bombed Syria to generate refugees, then encouraged Europeans to panic in order to weaken the German government and help the AfD.  Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists.  Russian-backed social media in Germany the Alternatif fur Deutschland (AfD) as the savior of Germany.

The American politics of inevitability gave way to a politics of eternity with the election of Trump. As in Europe, there are the vulnerabilities of the United States created by a politics of inevitability that are exploited by an aggressive Russian foreign policy.

It was in the places where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked.  Also, after the financial crisis of 2008, the American local press collapsed, leaving Americans to the internet for their information.  Few anticipated that the internet would be used against them.

Trump is a perfect politician of eternity. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great.   He creates a fantasy of the innocent us and the guilty then with the fictional idea of the wall.  The fictional creation “Donald Trump, successful businessman” fills the public space with untruth.  He never apologizes for lies, since doing so would be to recognize that such a thing as truth exists.  His claims to be the eternal victim are characteristics of a politics of eternity.

Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election was not just an attempt to get a certain person elected. It was also the application of pressure to the democratic structure by making the system slightly less representative, tilting the system towards authoritarianism. The victory of a Russian-backed candidate could be less important, in the long run, than the erosion of democracy.

Is there a way off the road to unfreedom?  There is, but Snyder is pessimistic.  The conclusion of this tale lies in the acknowledgment that Putin’s strategy has been very successful in shaking our faith in the sanctity of fact and expert knowledge.  The way to leave the road to unfreedom is through a politics of responsibility:

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity and exit the road to unfreedom. We begin a politics of responsibility.

What does it mean to be responsible?

The politics of inevitability takes responsibility for the future away. Responsibility means discussing political choices and possible futures, realizing that our individual choices matter. It means accepting that people have ideas that don’t fit our preconceptions and looking for compromise. It means realizing how important conventions and mutual respect are as a way of maintaining order and civility — and how easily and carelessly they can be smashed.

We must keep digging for the facts and exposing falsehoods.  We should mistrust one-sided accounts of the past or the present.

Learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.  Yuval Noah Harari, Homo deus

A politics of responsibility would have to be about the future, not about a non-existing past. It should be about an active production of facts, investigative journalism and promoting quality local media.  It is also about investing in high quality education and renewable energy and cherishing the institutions that make it possible for individuals to act responsibly.

Although the book is mainly about Russia, Europe and the United States, the ideas of the book are relevant for developing countries as well. Snyder also highlights the importance of a quality public education system to develop critical citizens.

The Globalization Paradox

Rodrik is a globalization skeptic in the line of Ha Joon Chang. He is not against globalization, but put the mantra of free markets into perspective. Rodrik spends a considerable part of his book on the history of globalization. He focuses on 2 periods of strong globalization.  The first one, between 1820 and the First World War, the increase in global trade was based on imperialist policies, thereby forcing other countries to open their markets and accept unfavorable trade treaties (globalization by gunboat), and on the gold standard, which works fine as long as you don’t have a democracy to prevent the painful internal devaluations that are needed from time to time.  The globalization drive after the second world war was based on the Bretton-Woods system and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) within a multilateral world order, guaranteed by the US (dollar-exchange standard).  These are the precursors to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), founded in 1995, but are based on different premises. Bretton-Woods and GATT respect the primacy of the nation-state limiting the reach of globalization where it creates conflicts with nation states.  In contrast, the WTO aims towards hyperglobalization, even when it has negative consequences for nation states (e.g,, agriculture, food regulations, financial services) or undermines democratic decision-making within nation states.  Recent economic success stories such as China and South Korea are due more to playing by the Bretton-Woods rules than WTO rules, relying on export subsidies, import tariffs and weak enforcement of intellectual property laws.

Rodrik sees a fundamental trilemma between globalization, nation states and democracy.  You can have two, any two, but not all three. If you want globalization and democracy, you need global institutions, undermining the nation-state.  If you want nation states and democracy, you can’t have deep globalization, as this requires global rules and creates the enormous capital flows that can undermine domestic economies.


Rodrik’s trilemma helps to gain insight in many current politics.  Globalisation causes a power shift to the supranational level, often to non-democratic institutions (IMF, ECB, multinational companies, WTO).  At the same time, many challenges remain deeply national, such as ageing populations, social safety, migration, inequality as a result of winner-takes-all markets.  International mobility of goods and finance makes that nations tend to engage in races to the bottom (lowering taxes, standards) to attract investment and capital. Currently, globalisation and nation states seem to have the upper hand, eroding democracy.  The power of electorates to significantly influence key economic and social decisions has become very limited, such is the disciplining force of international markets.  The rise of populist parties and Brexit are consequences of this democratic erosion.  Rodrik does not consider global democratic institutions realistic and therefore pleads for returning to nation states more power to set their economic and social policies within a set of global “traffic rules”, such as keeping trade imbalances in check. This would require scattering some sand in the wheels of international finance, like a financial transactions tax.

For developing countries, the situation is even more dire. Globalization has a tendency to “freeze” a country’s role in the international division of labor. In a globalized world, countries that live from exporting resources have little incentives to diversify and invest in representative institutions and education level of their population. Secondly, within the WTO system, many industrial policies that were used by developed countries are no longer allowed, such as protection of domestic industries, export subsidies, capital controls, currency devaluations and weak enforcement of intellectual property.  Rodrik reminds us of the fact that the USA and the UK were notable protectionists until their industries were strong enough to stand on their own feet.  Thirdly, manufacturing as a powerful driver of economic development for low-income countries may have run its course.

Manufacturing became a powerful driver of economic development for low-income countries for three reasons. First, it was relatively easy to absorb technology from abroad and generate high-productivity jobs. Second, manufacturing jobs did not require highly skill: farmers could be turned into production workers in factories with little investment in additional training. And, third, manufacturing demand was not constrained by low domestic incomes: production could expand through exports. But manufacturing has become increasingly skill-intensive which has made it very difficult for newcomers to break into world markets for manufacturing.