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Beyond Moral Interpretations of the EU ‘Migration Crisis’: Hungary and the Global Economic Division of Labor


This article is a reflection in hindsight on the ‘summer of migration’ of 2015 in Europe, and the symbolic debates around the role of Hungary during those months. Historical events that have followed brought significant changes in the structural and political-ideological constellations we describe. However, as political-ideological treatments of the present crisis continue to mobilize moral values tied to particular positions within the global system, we hope a posthumous analysis of how moral stances are ascribed within a long-standing hierarchical global distribution of labor, hiding systemic interconnections, can also contribute to today’s debates.

source: sputnik news

In the last couple of years as migrant routes of asylum-seekers fleeing the Middle East has been deterred from Mediterranean shores to the Balkan route, Hungary became one of the countries where migrants first reached the Schengen zone. As a response to the sharply rising number of migrants since 2012, the Hungarian government first prepared with a notorious national consultation and billboard campaign advertising the protection of Hungarian culture and jobs from migrants, then, facing a peak in the number of refugees during the summer of 2015, with the construction of wired fences along the Hungarian-Serbian and Hungarian-Croatian borders and a radical amendment to national asylum legislation, part of which was allocated to the sphere of criminal legislation. In a delicate interplay of internal contradictions of the Dublin agreement, incapacity of the Hungarian administration to continue its initial policy of detaining ‘illegal’ migrants as thousands began to cross its border, rumours about Germany suspending Dublin resettlements of Syrian refugees, and massive internal-external politicking, Hungary gave place to instances of agglomeration of people waiting for transfer without sufficient provisions. This happened firstin Budapest’s train stations and public spaces nearby, and then, in even more dire circumstances, on the Hungarian-Serbian, and later Hungarian-Croatian borders.

Within discussions of the ‘European refugee crisis’, Hungary’s treatment of migrants became a focus point, gathering moral sentiments about European values and their crisis. “Europe’s Hungary problem” became one of the screens where guilt, scapegoating, fear of historical specters, and the conflict between righteous self-defense and the superior moral stance of humanitarianism collided. Moral claims were formulated with a short-term view on relations which, in the long term, are elements of one and the same crisis of global economic and political structures. Our aim here is to show based on the Hungarian case how a hierarchical global distribution of labor may play out in the distribution of moral stances, and also to provide food for thought in the current context of ever harsher political exploitations and claims over migration in Europe.

1.The long durée of systemic interconnections and the hierarchical global distribution of labor

The development of the capitalist world economy fueled the incorporation of new external regions that laid the social basis for the emerging global division of labor. This expansion started in the 16th century with the incorporation of Eastern Europe and somewhat later the Balkans, Northern Africa and the Middle-East under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire. The process was more or less complete by the mid-19th century, when all these regions were deeply, but to different extents, integrated into the global capitalist division of labor through economic (e.g. trade and financial) and political (colonial) mechanisms.

Looking at global migration along these lines, it is clear that population movements have always happened in response to the development of production and trade, and to demographic changes. By the birth of capitalist world economy, colonization triggered the migration of millions of European colonizers, while the role of immigrants would be crucial in the industrialization and modernization of the core states of accumulation from about the mid-17th century onwards. The movement ofan exploitable labor force often contained an element of coercion, involving violence, military force, or bureaucratic control: see, for instance, slave economies in the American colonies; indentured colonial labor in Asia, Africa, and the Americas; foreign workers in Germany and France in the interwar period; or “guest-workers” in the West of Europe during the post-WWII boom, when labor was recruited from the former colonies as well as countries of the European periphery. As of today, reliance on the  labor of irregular migrants without the provision of social security is another of this kind of strategy that state bureaucracies knowingly “tolerate”.

Despite the expanding nature of global capitalism,its evolution process has been cyclically interrupted by systemic crises within the cores of accumulation that have caused several readjustments and new forms of integration locally. Different forms of reintegration into the capitalist system, initiated periodically by crises in core states, all resulted in dependent, uneven development, both financially and through unfavourable trade specialization.

After WWII the USA emerged as the leading power of the global capitalist regime, both with respect to its military might and as the driving force of the global accumulation process. Old structures of the Mediterranean region were re-integrated into that new hierarchy.By the 1970’s, the long downturn of the former US-led accumulation regime, based on Fordist mass production and consumption, led to one of the biggest realignments in the evolution of global accumulation. All participants at any level in the hierarchical system came under forces of depression to readjust to a heavily competitive new situation that stemmed from the crisis of  US hegemony. Readjustment was an integral part of the long downturn but the actual context in which different actors pursued policies was highly contingent upon their structural position within the hegemonic system. In Europe a main guiding idea for readjustment was the ascent of the different alliances of capitalist factions into a supranational political construct.

For the sake of European integration and in defense of the global position of European capital, two very important political instruments were encapsulated in the reformulation of the cross-border alliance of the different factions of capital. First, the monetary union with a single currency and the highly protected internal market where – at least theoretically – all commodities, including labor and capital are free to move or to be moved. Second, the political body of law enforcement and policing which is the ultimate source of the monopoly over powerso crucial in any capitalist regime to foster accumulation. The implementation of the Schengen zone emerged as part of the above mentioned political strategies. European capital benefited from the integration of post-socialist Eastern European states, both in terms of labor source and opportunities for capital investment.

In the Mediterranean periphery of Europe, the sources of global accumulation were politically embedded in a post-colonial heritage that served to maintain former colonial relationships. States in North Africa and the Middle East traditionally produced raw materials (from food-stuffs to natural gas and oil) for core markets and also supplied a vast amount of labor for the world market, the absorption of which was always contingent upon the “boom-bust cycles of accumulation”. In crisis years excess labor exuberated in peripheral areas, causing enormous social and political upheavals, similar to the ones we have witnessed during the “Arab Spring” today.

2.Downturns of hegemonic systems causing systemic breakdowns in the peripheries

In earlier phases of the long downturn of global accumulation between the 70s and 80s, military regimes,created and sustained in the context of the Cold War (see e.g. Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq or the al-Assad dynasty in Syria) dominated in most North African and Middle-Eastern states. Although the region has never been politically or socially homogenous, the economic basis of many of those regimes was the production of energy and agricultural goods, the social basis was typically the combination of some sorts of popular alliance between the military-bureaucratic regimes and semi-proletarianized workers. The ideological underpinnings of these regimes were developmentalism (e.g. Nasserism) and in some cases even a socialist version of it (e.g. the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in both Syria and Iraq).This was the formation that brought a repressive stability in the intra-  and interstate system within the periphery of the European Mediterranean structure. Accumulation of the North Atlantic core could be uninterruptedly maintained. Global and local accumulation regimes have, however, always been inseparable and presumeone another’s existence and functioning.

In the face of the present crisis, it seems that the balance of power within the core coalition of the European capitalist factions has been shifting away from their former project. We would need to analyze the evolution of the new coalition carefully in order to fully understand their trajectory. Up until now, we can presume that some of the core capitalists lost their former appetite for the Mediterraneanperiphery. Those markets are less appealing, commodities (labor or raw materials) less needed in the accumulation efforts thanks to new sources and destinations in Asia, Latin-America, and partially in Eastern Europe.

When the global system sets into motion in need for readjustment on both political and economic bases, we experience systemic collapses in particular places of the structure. What combines these seemingly different crises is that they are all different forms of systemic collapse caused by the crisis of the long downturn of the US hegemony.

In many parts of Southern Europe, the monetary union created a single-minded service economy based on tourism and the real-estate boom fueled byfinancial capital from the core (e.g. see Germany and the UK). The source of this type of development was exhausted by the economic crisis in 2008, and we can think to the long-term consequences if we consider the violent handling the euro-crisis in Greece. In Eastern Europe, the systemic collapse was more violent within those states where the European power bloc hadno direct control over the situation. These are more like buffer zones where the vacuum of power is the most explicit when global hegemonic structures are in crisis. The breakup of Ukraine in that sense is mirroring the bigger crisis of the global hegemony. With respect to the Middle-East and Northern Africa, systemic collapses started with the domino effect of regime changes during the “Arab Spring”. The class basis of the former Arab regimes was challenged from all directions. Newly emerging middle classes who had capitalized on the pre-crisis boom years of tourism suffered greatly from the economic crisis of 2008 and wanted a greater say over their political destiny, while extreme price rises of basic staples made working and living conditions unbearable for much of the working and non-working population. The temporary alliance of those classes smashed many of the military-bureaucratic regimes, although this class alliance has not been stable enough to intervene in either a new state or power bloc formation. The fall of the Islamist popular movement (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and the reinsertion of the military junta is a showcase for how stability is supervised by global powers using force.

The sublimation of the crisis of the global, and in this case European, hegemonic structures, and the readjustments initiated by core capitalist institutions have their most striking and devastating effects in peripheral areas. Let it be the economic and social undermining in Greece, the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine, or the growing power vacuum in the Middle-East where all the local and global potentates struggle directly over the new hegemony within the territory of Syria. Systemic collapses, like in many other periods, create unbearable human conditions, and in the most humiliating cases, even genocide, like in Syria today. One consequence of the systemic collapses is almost always the liquidation of innocent people on a large scale.

Although the devastating results of the long downturn in the core are less spectacular when we compare them to what happens in the periphery, they can also become very explicit. Migration is one case of how dramatically these readjustments can take place. The humanitarian sea watch and rescue-services in the Mediterranean-Sea were outsourced to non-governmental actors, whereas European states and the EU invested more funds in border patrol and military operations along the Northern African coastline, something we might call a privatized Keynesian solution to handle the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean-Sea.

The very heightened situation created by the parallel crises of Greece and the Schengen system combined with the war in Ukraine highlights the fact that the fundamental instruments in the hand of the ruling power bloc in the EU (the monetary and the policing tools) will be reformulated along a new power bloc formation that will most probably lead to an increasingly unstable new version of the accumulation system. In that sense, instead of crisis resolution in the core, the mounting costs are only periodically redistributed.

The Eastern European elite plays its traditional role in the new power bloc formation as a dependent ally to those core capitalist factions with which it is the most closely associated. In the case of the Hungarian national bourgeoisie, such an alignment with southern German industrial interests is represented by the recent process of industrial relocation and the subsequent reindustrialization of the region. The reintegration of these societies to the newly forming regional division of labor is also the social and political basis of the recent class, state and power bloc formation in Hungary, and in many other Eastern European countries as well. This process is largely the result of the greater European power shift.

3. External integration as internal force – the ‘illiberal’ regime in Hungary

In political and moral treatments, the birth of the present right-wing regime in Hungary has been linked to the rise of an illiberal, anti-democratic ideology. As we argued elsewhere, from a systemic perspective that change is linked to the exhaustion of the FDI- and credit-led mode of world economic integration Hungary was oriented toward since the 1970’s. After the regime change in 1989, the elite bloc mediating that mode of integration was politically represented by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. National capital was bound to a contender role, represented politically by the nationalist pole. To cover the gap between elite and popular interests in the process of political democratization, both elite groups developed ideological bridging techniques. The nationalist bloc developed a discourse of protecting “national” interests from the “anti-Hungarian” alliance of Socialists and Western capital, blurring the difference between interests of the people and those of national capital. Consequently, the mainstream of the Socialist-Liberal bloc tended to define critical expressions of the interests of labor as nationalist and anti-democratic. Within the power field of elite struggles, the nationalist bloc identified with a populist position, opposing Liberal attachment to democratic institutionalism as a Western import. From 2014, the present regime proceeded to use the term “illiberal democracy” to name that position. Here, we will continue to use the liberal definition of democracy as a working term, and describe the nationalist bloc’s position as populist anti-democratism, opposed to the Socialist-Liberal bloc’s democratic anti-populism. Western support for the latter’s talk of democracy helped solidify the positions of both blocs (defender of Hungarian interests vs. defender of Western democracy against popular nationalism), and to cover up the gap between interests of labor and of elites.

With the depletion of FDI-led development, the crisis of 2008 reached Hungary in a state of recession, with high public and private debt. Economic crisis, decades of austerity and disillusionment with the ascetic catching-up ideology of the Socialist-Liberal coalition led to a sweeping political victory of the nationalist bloc, which engaged in a reorganization of Hungary’s integration in order to broaden national capital’s space of maneuver within the given circumstances.

While in international political and moral debates the contradiction between Hungarian politics and European values have been amplified, it needs to be emphasized that beyond the difference of its structural position that distinguishes it from core capitalist functions, the primary interest of Hungarian national capital is to maintain its position as mediator of Hungary’s capitalist integration. In that position, it is necessarily an ally, too, of the capitalist groups it competes with. For instance, it supplies cheap labor for those industrial interests, and during the crisis years it stimulates its economy to absorb the enormous reserve army created during the post-socialist transition. In its systemic aspects, the Hungarian national capitalist bloc is not a symmetric moral opponent of European capital, but part of the same European power bloc. It represents the same logic and interest of capital but in a more subordinate position in the hierarchy of the hegemonic structure which has come under the forces of crisis and readjustment.

4. Beyond the moral division of labor

Debates over Hungary’s role within the “European refugee crisis” have taken place in the power field of vertical alliances and conflicts set by earlier processes of Hungary’s integration. Two main positions during the debates in the summer of 2015 were those set by earlier structures of Hungary’s post-socialist integration: Western progress against popular backwardness/nationalism, and the protection of national interest against foreign attacks. In line with the structure of the earlier ideological duet of Hungarian elite blocs, covering the gap between the nterests of elitesand the people, recent discourse over Hungary’s role often recurred to essentializing economic-political positions and decision-making of elites as an inherent quality of the Hungarian people.

Apart from some quantitative research which states that there is a general growth of xenophobic sentiments in the region, there is barely a reliable resource on the relation between positions in the social hierarchy and anti-refugee sentiments. Even endeavoursat producing empirically grounded analyses, such as Hann’s, usually derive from causal relationships between relative material deprivation and anti-refugee sentiments. It is a shaky interpretation, since during the crisis people with different social biographies were represented among the helpers (see activist efforts described by Kallius-Monterescu-Rajaram, the protest and publicly expressed solidarity of different Roma community representatives, or those of the City is For All movement engaging homeless people). While middle-class helpers were more exposed in the media, we know little about the reasons they were mobilized to go to Keleti trainstation,to give water, orto support refugees on the highway from the capital to the Austrian border. Among factors and social relations that should be taken into account, relative deprivation is just one, which does not explain entirely how the division between non-xenophobic and xenophobic perception of the current events is constituted. The values represented in public discourses are not necessarily inherent values of social classes mobilized in the symbolic struggle. Top-down production of ideology, ideological gestures and policies framed the events, producing and reproducing the existing anti-democratic populist and democratic anti-populist divide, attaching these ideologies symbolically to social positions and habituses. Competing elite blocs used symbolic means in an interactive ideological/cultural field in Hungary and within the EU to appropriate the interpretation of the crisis. While the Hungarian government tries to position itself symbolically above this division, representing the interest of Hungarians in opposition to foreign and internal forces attacking the country’s symbolic refugee politics, in practice it capitalizes on it and accelerates the earlier polarization in the Hungarian political sphere. From this point of view, violent implementation of the Schengen treaty and the anti-refugee campaign were tools for gaining political capital both in the country and within the EU.

In the European debate over Hungary’s role in the crisis, the mutually supporting tropes of ‘democratic’ and ‘populist’ takes on the crisis supported a moral division of labor in the EU. Beneath that moral surface lies an economic and coercive order in which policemen, themselves children of socially mobile elements of the working class in the periphery of Europe, are ordered, in the name of the nation, and with the silent support of European institutions, to protect abstract values which hide the interest of vertical alliances of capitalist power blocs.

In the moral debates over Hungary’s role in the 2015 ‘summer of migration’, anti-fascist essentialization of Hungarian people as xenophobic contributed to the essentializations made by the propaganda machines of the government of Hungary, sustaining the country’s function within the EU.

5. Intersecting class and migration politics

As political discourses shift under pressing structural conditions, it becomes visible howfragile as well as selective Europe’s migration policies are. In case of Germany, for instance, what had already become tangible in summer is that official German politics explicitly defined both that group who may be recognized as refugees, and that group whose requests for asylum will probably be rejected. The so much celebrated Willkommenskultur of Germany has only been willing to engage those Syrian asylum-seekers who have had enough resources to get as far as Europe (unlike those millions of counterparts who have to hope for a better future in the overcrowded refugee camps in Syria’s neighboring countries). It has not been concerned, moreover, with those systematically refused asylum to those who flee Albania, Montenegro, or Kosovo, no matter if many of them have been Roma people suffering from long-standing persecution. These political decisions provide evidence for the lack of the predominance of the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which were still enforced during the post-WWII boom cycle. Today, this strategic choice suggests instead a kind of covert class politics where migrants from the Balkan may not fit to the ideal of those German corporate leaders’ imaginary who welcome refugees as “young, well trained, and highly motivated;  [as] [t]hat’s exactly the sort of person [they] are looking for” when being in desperate need for relatively cheap white collar workers.

This selection of migrant labor is present in the periphery of Europe, in Hungary, too. However, its form corresponds to the different hierarchical positions within Europe. Compared to the experience of core states after WWII, in the Eastern periphery the  movement of people has taken a quite divergent turn in both political and economic terms. Aside from Yugoslavia’s bilateral recruitment agreement with West Germany, and short bursts of emigration from Hungary (following the 1956 uprising), and Czechoslovakia (after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion), cross-border movement into, within and from the former Eastern Bloc was highly limited, and controlled by agreements among socialist states. With post-socialist transition, Eastern Europe emerged as a new source region of labor migrants, while in line with the imbalances of unequal exchange, emigrees have always outnumbered the number of immigrants arriving to East European countries.

Compared to other countries in the region, the systematic out-migration of Hungarian surplus labor, both skilled and highly skilled, started relatively slowly after 1989. Nevertheless, it has shown a steady growth, to which the country’s economic recession after 2006, the financial crisis, and the concomitant collapse of foreign currency loans of many households, as well as  severe cuts to welfare benefits since 2011 have contributed in the last couple of years.Most recently, the number of highly skilled emigrants increased, while financial remittances have risen abruptly, reaching almost 3 per cent of the country’s GDP.

In terms of immigration, since 1989 the majority of migrants have been composed of ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries. Defined as “kin-groups”, their political and economic incorporation has usually been ideologically treated as separate from migration politics, and covered, instead, within spheres of diaspora or nation-building politics. Reflecting the diverse structural positions within the periphery itself, migrating ethnic Hungarians tend to become cheap labor force fo seasonal and permanent work in both private and public sectors of the Hungarian economy. In contrast, migrants coming from outside of Europe are more likely to start micro-, small-, or medium-size enterprises, and become petty capitalists in the retail and catering sector; or in other cases, supply labor for these migrant enterprises – even if this means acquiring jobs below their educational status.

Despite the fact that a remarkable number of non-European migrants have arrived to Hungary since the late 1980s, the government’s incentive to carry out a migration strategy – even without setting up real institutional infrastructures – was first only triggered by thereceipt ofcertain EU transfers tied to policies of migrant incorporation. That is, migration was not high on the political agenda of either elite bloc before this. Similarly, it was the crisis that encouraged the current government (likewise some of its European counterparts) to introduce a golden visa which provides a long-term residence permit in return for investment in state bonds to the more affluent migrants. This may not be considered an incentive for immigration, but rather the mobilization of additional resources for financing public debt (in return for easy access and mobility to the core and within the Schengen zone), which is a good illustration of how different structural positions may appropriate different migration politics within the European and global hierarchical orders.

As for asylum-seekers from the Middle East entering Europe through Hungary, given the cheap local surplus labor, national capital has apparently no interest in offering job opportunities to newcomers. At the same time, the central government opened up legal possibility for recognized refugees to become public work laborers, working for wages below the local market prices in the country.

From the perspective of how shifting alliances among elite interests shape migration politics, it is peculiar how dynamically boundaries of the conflict of interests have been moved even within the core states of Europe during the debates over migration. In Germany, for instance, political and economic ruptures have become visible in disputes between coalition partners and the conservative alliance of CSU/CDU within the federal government over Angela Merkel’s open-door policies towards Syrian asylum-seekers. The Bavarian stance opposing  Merkel’s open policies sought closer alliance to the Eastern European and Eastern German positions. Meanwhile, Orbán made efforts to take this opportunity, and become the leading figure of anti-migration alliances. His stance on the EU seeks to capitalize upon the fragility of the European power bloc in order to gain space for maneuvering his controversial policies , which have becomespectacular along with hissystematic linkingof the threat of terror attacks to migration in Europe, too.

Throughout the summer of 2015, political and ideological treatments of migration by governments, media, and political party narratives, as well as popular perceptions, have relied heavilyon political, economic and social divisions of labor within Europe, developed along the lines of the cyclical shifts and dynamics of global capitalism. In this article we have argued that contemporary systemic collapses in Europe’s Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern peripheries, the massive inflow of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, and divergence in the reaction patterns in European policies interconnect within the overarching crisis of the post-WWII hegemonic structure of global capitalism. Through the case of debates over Hungary’s migration policies during the summer of 2015, we showed that ideological-moral divisions over migration policies were based in differences in positions within the same distribution of labor, and that the moral division of labor over migration policies was utilized to sustain those systemic positions. We argued that ideological-moral stances on migration need to be understood in their connection to the structural processes of readjustment under a crisis of global accumulation, and the position of their proponents within those processes. As the systemic crisis unfolds, structural readjustments may bring about critical moments when moral universes built on earlier conditions come undone, and thus show how embedded they were into their structural environment. This can be seen in recent shifts in moral values connected to migration policies, or in reactions to the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Instead of starting from a moral stance, which poses the risk of seeing only universalized binaries, we propose to explore the current crisis from a historical as well a structural perspective, where interplays between moral and social divisions of labor within Europe may also become more manifest.

agiAgnes Gagyi is a social movements researcher focusing on Eastern European politics and social movements in long-term global historical perspective. She is member of the Working Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet”.



tamasTamás Gerőcs graduated from Corvinus University of Budapest in 2008 with a major degree of International Relations, in 2013 he started his doctorate program in world economics. He is an active member of the Working Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet” and since 2015 he works as a junior research fellow at the Institute of World Economics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


lindaLinda Szabó is currently a PhD Candidate of the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department of the Central European University, Budapest, and a member of both the Working Group for Public Sociology ‘Helyzet’ and the Collective for Critical Urban Research. Her PhD project explores the sociol-spatial effects of migrant entrepreneurship, with particular focus on Chinese merchants in the post-socialist, semi-peripheral context of Budapest.

martonMárton Szarvas graduated at the department of Design and Art Theory at the Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design in 2013. Currently he is an MA student at Central European University studying Sociology and Social Anthropology. Active member of the Working Group for Public Sociology ‘Helyzet’.

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