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White But Not Quite. Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt

Kalmar, Ivan
334 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Juraj Marusiak, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava

Although almost twenty years have passed since the European Union’s (EU) eastern enlargement; the categorization of its member states into the “old” and the “new” ones that became members after 2004 persists to this day. The issue of hierarchical relations in Europe and the phenomenon of Orientalism not only in the relationship between the “West” and non-European states, but also within Europe, which constitutes the main domain of Ivan Kalmar’s research, is not a new topic of research. As Tomasz Zarycki points out, to a large extent the perception of Central (and Eastern) Europe in the West merely reproduces the traditional historically formed image of the Balkans as the European “internal Other”,[1] even to the point of having racist elements. Different variants of the title of Kalmar’s book also appear in the works of authors from the region of the former Yugoslavia.[2] Like Zarycki, Kalmar points out that Orientalist approaches are not only characteristic of the developed states of Western Europe but are equally present in the states of Central Europe in relation to immigrants from Ukraine, as well as to members of Roma communities.

The key concepts Kalmar’s book works with are issues of race, illiberalism, and Central Europe. On the other hand, the topic of Central European illiberalism, which Kalmar sees as a “wrong response” to the “real problem of the quasi-colonial takeover of Central Europe by the West” (p. 200), is seen as a revolt against the West. At the same time, however, the author refuses to see this phenomenon as an essential characteristic of the region or as a consequence of the experience of communism. He is rather pointing to its global character and manifestations, whether at the center of the West (e.g. in the case of Donald Trump in the US) or at its periphery (e.g. Recep Erdoğan in Turkey or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil) (p. 10).

However, the author’s primary focus is on the racialization of relations within the EU, especially after its enlargement in 2004 and in the context of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, when Central European societies began to be labelled racist in connection with their rejection of compulsory quotas for the redistribution of refugees from non-European countries (p. 6). At the same time, he stresses that the context of Central European racism operates in multiple directions: “I am concerned here with whiteness. The illiberal racism of Central Europeans is that of white people against people of color; the racism against Central Europeans is a racism (largely) of whites against whites” (p. 6). In this context, author recalls that race “was not always necessarily associated with phenotype, such as skin color”, but the concept of race was in the past also constructed according to linguistic criteria. Thus, racism is seen primarily as an expression of a relationship of inequality based on the origins of individuals or entire communities: “‘White but not quite’ means white, but not possessed of full white privilege” (p. 6).

The book is based on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, which allows him to point out the ambiguity of Central Europe’s position in the space between its center and periphery. It is precisely the semi-peripheral position of the region that is the source of racialization practices in Western European states, the essence of which is the non-acceptance of the “new member states” as equal partners. Such an attitude towards Central Europeans, legitimized by the need for cheap labour and compliant markets, he refers to as “Eastern Europeanism”, which he considers a form of racism (p. 36). By Central Europe, the author understands in particular the Visegrad Group countries, i.e. the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, which in the pre-accession period and for a long time afterwards have been regarded as an example of successful post-communist transformation and integration.
The author’s primary focus is therefore not on Central European illiberalism per se, but on the image of Central Europe in the West. In the first sections he points to the formation of a mental map of Europe, according to which Central Europeans already in the early 1990s became in the eyes of the West those who “faltered in their assimilation to Western standards, including the standards of liberal democracy, appeared to fail to become properly white” (p. 44). At the same time, however, he points to the fact that such racialization is not a new phenomenon but has its historical roots in the Enlightenment. He then examines common Eastern Europeanist stereotypes, such as failure of freedom and democracy, out-of-control corruption, poverty, criminality, surly and miserable people, and outmigration that drains the population, bringing about a thorough deconstruction of the society (p. 106).

At the same time, however, the author also remains critical of the Central European elites who do not reject racialized hierarchies of “whiteness” as such. They do not claim solidarity with the Global South (208), but instead they promote “Central European applicants to the Western club [by] belittl[ing] other applicants’ credentials by stressing their own ‘European’ racial privilege” (198). In doing so, he paradoxically identifies the proximity between the positions of Central European dissidents and contemporary Central European illiberals, who articulate Central European claims to be recognized as part of the West, “perhaps even its most authentic” part, emphasizing the decisive importance of Central Europe to Europe as a whole, as well as its role as a mediator between East and West (p. 96). In both cases, these are expressions of an “inferiority complex” that Central European elites seek to overcome by claiming a leadership position in the club, to which one has not even been fully admitted (p. 104).
The illiberal revolt of part of the Central European elites is, according to the author, rather the “expression of injured pride for being compared to non-Europeans” and claims to “hereditary status as whites” (p. 208). He describes the rhetoric of contemporary Central European illiberalism as a combination “of anti-neoliberal economic analysis and illiberal nationalism” (p. 215). He also sees the roots of Central European illiberalism in the adoption of a neoliberal form of capitalist system (Thatcherism) with authoritarian features (p. 211).

In the book’s conclusion, the author considers whether and to what extent “white illiberalism” in Central Europe is the same as in the West. In his words, they are identical phenomena in terms of rhetoric and structural characteristics and are “misguided protest against the same neoliberal globalism” (p. 242). On the other hand, in Central Europe, “in spite of significant opposition to it, it has seen more, and more enduring, political success there” (p. 243). One reason, he claims, is that “the impact of neoliberal globalism in the areas was far more brutal than in most of the West, due to the disruptions of the ‘transition’ from communism” (p. 243).

Not all the author’s assumptions can be unequivocally shared. It is evident that the Central European states joined the EU as a weaker partner in economic terms. The political changes of 1989–1990 meant a change in the flows of economic, political, and cultural capital, with the West becoming the new centre. Therefore, tensions between the West and the Central European states would probably have erupted even if the Thatcherite neoliberal model of capitalism had not been chosen. The experience of Slovenia, which has chosen a model inspired by the Scandinavian way, with a strong role for the state in managing economic and social processes, is a case in point. Nevertheless, this country has had a long experience with the illiberal government of Prime Minister Janez Janša (2004–2008, 2012–2013, and 2020–2022). On the other hand, EU accession, which was preceded by the “European”, or Western, choice of Central European societies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was the result of a free decision of the citizens. Finally, in my opinion, the author overestimates the role of the so-called national capitalists in the formation of Central European illiberalism. Both Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar during his third government (1994–1998) and Viktor Orbán after 2010 created their “national capitalists”, i.e. a layer of government-loyal oligarchs ready to finance from above government projects, campaigns, and pro-government media.

The book is an important contribution to the debate on the position of Central Europe in the EU, where the region has replaced the Mediterranean periphery states as the “internal Other”. It makes a particular contribution by not only deconstructing stereotypes of Central Europe, but also analysing the processes of functioning and creating inequalities in the contemporary EU. This is why it deserves to be the subject of debate not only in Central Europe but perhaps even more so in the West.

[1] Tomasz Zarycki, Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe, London 2014.
[2] Marina Blagojević, Knowledge Production at the Semiperiphery. A Gender Perspective, Belgrade 2009; Ivana Spasić, Cosmopolitanism as Discourse and Performance. A View from the Semiperiphery, in: Revija za sociologiju, 41 (2011), 3, pp. 269–290.

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