Janos Kornai on Politics in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World



Janos Kornai—who has done pioneering work on the shortage economy and the political economy of state socialism—provides an interesting if depressing interpretation of what we euphemistically call the transitional economies. His point is that both state socialist systems and those that have transitioned to the market and democracy may show an under-appreciated affinity with nationalism.

The starting point for Kornai’s essay is the slide away from democracy in Hungary and the events in the Ukraine. Kornai draws a map of the post-socialist world consisting of the Eastern European democracies, the post-communist autocracies of much of the former Soviet Union (minus the Baltics) and the post-communist dictatorships of China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. In virtually all, however, unresolved ethnic claims and counterclaims provide the foundation for nationalist mobilization, particularly when economic performance falters and among those who are losers from marketization. In both democracies and autocracies, these problems can combine to shift politics in a more repressive direction. As Kornai puts it:

“So, what we have is a mass below, receptive to nationalism and slogans of "law and order." And we have political parties and movements above which sense the opportunities provided by the angry mood of the masses. A vicious, self-inciting cycle evolves from disappointment in democracy, the attempts at anti-democratic governance, nationalism, and economic dissatisfaction. There are government intentions and mass sentiments at work which mutually reinforce each other.”

Kornai notes that both Russia and China are at risk, with obvious implications for international politics. Kornai does not specifically discuss North Korea, but my colleague Marc Noland has recently covered how North Korea is susceptible too. However North Korea’s nationalism has not emerged from ethnic heterogeneity but from tropes of racial purity, a particularly disturbing variant of the phenomenon Kornai describes.

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