All posts

Hungary’s “democracy” problem – a concept and its background

 Since 2010, Orbán Viktor’s government symbolically announced an anticolonial war against Western capital. At the same time, it carried out major transformations in the 1989 system of political democracy, and started a campaign of economic centralization. Due to these, Hungary came under the spotlight of international discussions, as a model impersonating the fate of democracy in the context of the present crisis and controversial EU crisis management.

In the new Hungary-talk, Western liberals speak of nationalism, antidemocratic rule and, in the case of Jobbik, fascism. Nationalists praise Orbán as a rightful freedom fighter against the rule of EU and financial capital. In Hungary, Orbán’s liberal opposition relies heavily on Western help and publicity, a connection which reinforces the nationalist interpretation of liberalism as a political tool of foreign (Jewish) capital. Since 2011, a political opposition movement against the Orbán regime took shape which was featured extensively in supporting Western media. By spring 2013, the majority of this movement joined Gordon Bajnai, Hungary’s former neoliberal prime minister in his campaign for 2014 elections. A smaller section of the movement chose to stay independent, and criticize the Orbán government without re-legitimizing the former rule of socialist-liberal coalitions.

Economically, from the late 1960s, Hungary developed a direct dependence from Western capital through marketizing reforms and state loans. Since 1990, state debt, the need for Western capital, and overly courteous policies for FDI investment solidified its position of economic dependence from Western, especially German markets. Due to informal connections of the elite inherited from state socialism and solidified by the informal process of privatization, postsocialist Hungary developed a regime of semi-peripheric political capitalism, where both economic and political competition happens in a power field of two blocks of informal economic-political cooperation, defined in terms of party loyalty to “left” or “right”. After Fidesz gained 2/3s in Parliament in 2010, it started a program of semi-peripheric economic centralization, to feed Fidesz’s economic background mostly from the sector of non-tradable goods (telecommunications, public transport etc.), stabilize state debt, and transform Hungarian labor force to fit the needs of industrial investors, both national and multinational. Social costs have been further marginalized, new measures of discipline and penalization introduced, together with some measures of redistribution (such as flat tax) that favor the upper middle class and national capital.

 Ideologically, the two positions featured by the two big political blocks were those of a “left” and “right”, their mutually different in terms of “democracy” depending on the position they took in the power field of Western dependence. The “left” acquired for itself the badge of the “democratic” side, where “democracy” stood for an idealized European model of procedural democracy, something superior to the morals and general culture of the population, that needs to be introduced without their consent. On the right, “democracy” came to be interpreted as the ideology of an unruly power coalition between local “democrats” and Western capital, as contrasted to an anti-institutional, anti-procedural and compensatory sense of an organic, ethnic common sense, to be represented by a good leader. By 2000, Hungarian sociologists described a deep political polarization of the population according to “left” and “right”, defined by informal ties and sociocultural content, and with no correlation to social status – that is: structural interests of wide social groups.

In our approach, the Orbán regime is an organic outcome of the history of Hungarian post-socialism, and its position within global processes. In the new Hungary-talk, Hungary’s case is treated as an exception. The analysis of Hungary’s economic situation has been made opaque by cultural, ethnic and geographical essentializations, and the analysis of Hungarian democracy has been obliterated by the hierarchical relationship between East and West. We conducted this discussion as part of our ongoing endeavour to clear our analytical language from the epistemological effects of dependency and subordination, and substitute local compensations such as nationalism or civilisatoric antipopulism with an emancipatory move to understand ourselves, Hungarians and East Europeans, as part of global history.

 The following discussion took place on May 3, 2013 among members of the Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet”.

Participants: Márton Czirfusz (MCz), Márk Áron Éber (MAE), Ágnes Gagyi (AG), Tamás Gerőcs (GT), Gábor Halmai (GH), Csaba Jelinek (CsJ), András Pinkasz (AP), Gergő Pulay (GP), András Szépe (ASz)

Notes taken by: Gergő Pulay

Edited by: Márton Czirfusz, Ágnes Gagyi, András Szépe

Translated by: Ágnes Gagyi, Tamás Gerőcs, Csaba Jelinek, Tibor T. Meszmann

Democracy vs. participation

 TG: The apparent disputes of dismantling the rule of law, and the subsequent hollowing out of democracy did not start in 2010 with the overwhelming victory of Viktor Orbán, but such phenomena had been on the agenda also before. Participatory democracy is something rather unknown in the Hungarian political context; in fact, the birth of the system after the fall of communism itself suffers from democratic deficit. Thus, what we witness today is arguably just the very new phase of a long and slowly evolving process.

 CsJ: There was an earlier important, turning-point moment when the country was in the international spotlight in 2006. Back then, the so called socialist-liberal coalition managed to keep in power but due to some unsolved conspiracy, confidential records from the socialist party’s congress were leaked out, and the subsequent riots that followed in Autumn were brutally repressed by the police. Today the international media shows Orbán as the evidence for the apparent crisis, and there is nothing else in its focus beside him and the economic turmoil that has hit Hungary. Despite this, 2006 was a signal for the mounting economic and political tension that culminated in today’s turnaround. Back then, Hungary witnessed such an unprecedented disillusionment that made certain movements to organize themselves on the street. Even this phenomena had some preludes; for instance in 2002 the conservative government lost the election, and a group of right-wing activists simply occupied a bridge in Budapest and claimed a recount of the votes. We can conclude that the defeat of the liberal project of regime change has its roots around the millennium.

 AG: We must also emphasize that such participatory attempts on behalf of the conservatives were not embodied in movements of the dissident tradition, but in the so called “civic circles” were launched by Viktor Orbán after his electoral defeat in 2002. He called his activists and supporters for a conservative movement, the structure of which was going to be built “bottom-up”. It was evidently designed to challenge the re-election of the “democratic coalition” on the left.

 TG: On the other hand, we see that this civic circles attempt was not for widening participatory democracy, but civil circles are – instead of being made bottom-up – an overt evidence of a centrally planned and conducted organization.

 ASz: Yes, this tension became very apparent when the civic circles’ horizontal networking was conquered by the very hierarchically structured powerhouse of Fidesz. A tension of interests emerged in the organizational structure. Speaking of the 2006 happenings, on the one hand that very moment constructed a conservative mythology, while on the other hand leftist intellectuals labelled it as vandalism. For the left this interpretation served for legitimate repressions. For today’s pro-democracy grassroots movements, events in 2006 were a deviation, but we also experienced the liberals’ contradictory and distant reactions to hurting civil liberty rights. For our group, 2006 meant something else.

 AP: I think, 2006 was the start of a learning process for everyone, since this was the first experience of the culture of demonstration, even if its side-effects were violent.

 ASz: The beginning of the riots was more spontaneous, but as it progressed, right-wing elements took over the leadership.

 GP: It was evident in 2006 that other groups were also active beyond the football fans and the radicals, the leading figures of the disillusioned; since at that time those demonstrations were “the only game in town”. However, by then it crystallized perfectly who the national radicals really were. Prior to the riots this community had slowly established its own exclusive parallel reality with respect to fashion, music, media, festivals, literature and even clothing. In the early 2000s, liberal intellectuals believed that taking the process of political and social disillusionment – the protagonists of which they called “nazis” – too serious would simply contribute to legitimisation of the right extremes. As you say it in Hungarian: the liberals feared that the radical youth would become presentable in the Saloon…

The real effects of this nazi labelling were a general feeling of victimhood among diverse radical groups. This served as a sort of resource for managing a coherent unity against those in power who has made the nazi charges. In the beginning of the 2000s as a student union representative I participated in the admission process of social research applicants whose tasks were to present their research proposals. One of the applicants from a small Hungarian township told a story about his father who was a grocer and, like other retailers, he lost his job after Tesco entered town. This research plan was finally not supported because the admission committee found it outdated in the wake of the contemporary multinational corporations. As I imagine it now, this student could have easily turned to the Jobbik, the radical political party. Right extremism in Hungary has a wide range of cultural coding, in the heart of which is the principle of “Greater Hungary” representing a sort of Hungarian supremacy, a powerful instrument in binding all kinds of radicals from populists to skinheads. This principle tends to create own legends and heroes that you can easily encounter in radical forums. The process of legend-making is always an important reference for these radicals who always represent themselves in relation to heroes when for instance writing autobiographies. Members, who are committed to those principles are in charge of sustaining some sort of a lifeline with those heroes, in their own life they must know how to represent the new generation of the legendary ancestors. 2006 was lead by very charismatic figures.

 AG: The outbreak of those long-repressed energies was smartly made use for political purposes. 2006 in Hungary represents the declining legitimacy of the democratic coalition. This is the reason why the conservative vocabulary is constantly pressing for an experience of severity of police raids such as innocent people shot in the eye in police attacks.

 Democrats and corruption

 ASz: So far we argued that the events of 2006 should be included into the analysis of the present situation. 2006 amplified an earlier discourse on the corruption of the Socialists and how the corrupt socialist-liberal coalition “stole” the country. This discourse of “stealing” the country goes back to the regime change and the role of Kádárist elites in privatization. 2006 reinforced this picture: Gyurcsány not only admitted to have lied to the people, but also suppressed the protests with force.

 AG: In the 8 years period of socialist-liberal government between 2002-2010 corruption was necessarily associated with the “left”, as they were the ones who could validate the interests of their economic-political power bloc. Corruption is the name for this type of power. Young people who are socialised between 2002-2010 came to see the socialist-liberals as their enemy.

 TG: The problem of legitimation crisis goes back to the regime change, since the regime change itself lacked a democratic base. This is a fact that determined the mobilization opportunities of the new parties. That is, party legitimation cannot be built on democratic participation, and not even on clear ideologies, but only on competition for mobilization tools in a legitimatory field that is damaged from the beginning. One such tool they found was recurrent references to corruption. From the “left”’s point of view, 2006 is a crisis: the socialist-liberal coalition loses ground, it loses its ideological links (the king becomes naked), and it loses its position within the competition for legitimation.

 CsJ: What we have been speaking about has a deeper basis in the social texture, which, on its turn, is subject to processes of a longer term. If we look at inequality or the distribution of wealth, the situation is constantly deteriorating since the 1970s. After the regime change, another onslaught is the 1995 austerity package of Minister of Economy Lajos Bokros. Although his shock therapy fixes the macro data of the economy up until the beginning of the 2000s, but along with that, inequality keeps growing. 2006 also functioned as a valve for social tensions accumulated in that long process. This is a weird constellation, because ideology is sticked to it. Now the general perception is that as Fidesz did not win the 2006 elections, right-wing football supporters painted the town red. But the social background beyond ideology is seldom mentioned – how the social tensions seen in 2006 were produced, what kinds of social realities it is anchored in. Which is even more significant as these deeper problems have not been solved ever since, and I think they stand beyond many phenomena that are now linked to the Orbán regime.

 ASz: There is a certain continuity, there are antecedents to today. The right always had the fore that it could label the social-liberal “left” an heir of Communism (based on the continuity between the old and the new Socialist party), and generalize it as an eternal, enmical elite (they came back to power after ‘89; they are the same people doing the same thing as before 1989). Thus, the social transformation and the growing inequality appears in a general rage against the eternal “them” – an anti-elitism that is not articulated in class terms.

 GH: This is not only anti-elitism, it is a very articulate anti-communist (in extreme versions: antisemitic) rage, at least on the far right. For them, the Fidesz loses its legitimation through a process of “kádárification”, as in corrupt treatment of public goods, etc. One of the main arguments of Jobbik against Fidesz is that it allowed ex-cadres among its members after 2002, and being, consequently, “contaminated” (“Zsidesz”, from “zsidó”, “jew”, in the extreme version). So yes, this is anti-elitism, but in a specific local colour, that defines the frames of ideological criticism.

Social and ideological polarization

 CsJ: Regarding the ideological creation of the two poles, the 1970s serve as an important moment. At this time, the Eastern European dissident elites joined the neoliberal project of the global North. This occured together with the change in the global system, that is, the global breakthrough of neoliberalism. The same happened also in Hungary. In the 1950s and 1960s Hungary was under a dictatorship, but in this period a great modernizational leap also happened, similar to the Western European welfare period. Inequalities began to rise with the New Economic Mechanism, introduced in 1968. This is not a Hungarian specificity, it is a global phenomenon. But in the Hungarian process the liberal and the national elite took different positions.

 AG: The second phase is the 1990s, when the whole elite took up positions in the function of Western integration. Currently, within the EU structure the neoliberal project of state-led expropriation is running, what weakens further the positions of local allies. Within these dependencies, the position of the Hungarian elite is overdetermined. Evidently, an external power field is shaping Hungarian politics. However, both abroad and at home the Hungarian situation is commonly interpreted in an essentialist, isolationist manner. Abroad, at the moment, the following question dominates the discourse: what has happened to these mysterious people, Hungarians? On the other hand, the Hungarian public understands the external environment through the universality of local relations. This means that you have to go through a painful effort until you explain for example, to an American reporter, that in the local “official left” discourse the IMF cannot be undemocratic, if it is against Orbán. These essentialisms – supported by internal and external power relations – greatly contribute to hiding the global relations of the Hungarian public life, and thus hinder criticism.

 TG: An outcome of these legitimacy struggles are parallel realities, which aim at providing walking sticks to the electorate. Pure concepts are provided, which enable interpretation of not only domestic, but also global events. Naturally, this is also part of mobilization, as they not only have an interpretative purpose, but they also connect to a predefined political community. What is more, by exploiting certain concepts (e.g. nation, democratic, liberal) they close the participants in their world. The purpose of this mobilization is not interpretation of global events, but to make people take sides in political struggles. Mobilization essentializes the evaluations of the situation of social relations, and as part of the struggle for legitimacy, polarizes the political community on linguistic level. A certain use of a concept pushes one towards a certain position. After a while, the legitimacy struggle transforms itself into a struggle of alternative realities which are operated by conceptual constructions. Each side continuously challenges the sense of reality of the other (for example, whether the rule of law has strengthened or weakened), trying to push the other into defense. An important condition for this are linguistically constructed systematic instruments which have broad and strong mobilization capacities. These instruments secure that there is no space for interpretation outside these parallel realities, what could influence the discourse of political actors.

 ASz: Regarding polarization, it is important to keep in mind that the political counterparts which are created do not overlap with the two counterparts which are created through social inequalities, that is, between the winners and losers of system change. The elite is disconnected from the society, thus when a right and left are created, social processes cannot be articulated through this opposition.

 TG: There is a global trend in the know-how of creating these symbols, and how they are separated from societies. The instruments of mass mobilization, creation of groups is different than it used to be in the 1950s or 1960s. Mobilization happens today through democratic deficit and identity politics. There is no “appropriate” information, there are only interpretative frames and identity politics: who fights against whom, who refers to what outside and inside these poles.  Positions and symbols are generated, in turn these polarize interpretative possibilities. The role of foreign media appears as that they take sides with certain local groups, institutions. Orbán’s group says that these foreign journals remind them of liberal domestic informants, fighting against them.

 AG:Jobbik has built its position on the extreme right also in this fashion: as an ideological creature it shapes the ideological field not by dealing with the primary problem of its target group, unemployment, but by the second most important issue, the Roma issue. In the present ideological sphere this is a focal point, in case you refer to it, the whole field is reacting.

 GP: In terms of nationalism, compared to other Eastern European states, there is an important difference. Before 1989, Hungary was a consequent anti-nationalist system – in contrast, for example, to Romania, where more and more elements of inter-war nationalist discourse were brought in, the power increasingly stressed the ethnic-cultural unity of the nation. In Hungary, this was not the case. Even during the 1988 protest in Budapest against Ceaușescu’s destruction of Transylvanian villages, the names of these villages appeared on banners in three languages – Hungarian, Romanian and German – indicating that this was not solely a Hungarian issue. One must add, however, that in Hungarian history there is a broader frame than that of nationalism, and that is the frame of Hungarian supremacy, the frame of “petit imperialism” (Attila Melegh).  According to this, Hungarians are predestined to be in leaders’ role vis-à-vis the peoples of neighboring countries, irrespectively of the linguistic-cultural differences, as only Hungarians have a comparative advantage of civilizational surplus. This historically old idea was developed further by the Kádár system with its policies of consumer-socialism forming “the happiest barrack”, while it tried to avoid nationalism in its ethnic-cultural form. The amazingly powerful symbolic potential of this framework was recognized only after the system change. Since 1989, the ethnic-cultural nationalism has returned from a suppressed status. That is, from the perspective of identity politics the story of Orbán is a culmination of a longer process, we can also say that this is the danse macabre of Hungarian cultural supremacy. This explains the search for national culture (for example, through rehabilitation of forgotten writers in literature). Aligned with EU-level anti-nationalism, the liberals condemn this search, but this only increases its ideological strength.

Experts and heroes

 AP: There is a typical disaccord between Orbán’s spiritual, popular leader image and that of an expert. Orbán refers to the people, instead of referring to procedural democracy and to numbers. Already during the PM-debate in 2006, he said that he does not trust statistics. This is interesting because expertise dominated the discourse already during the Kádár era, a language spoken by Westernizing, marketizing economists; after the system change, it became the brand of the socialist-liberal coalition, together with the problem, that people do not understand expert leadership.

 MCz: The former Minister of Economy – today the president of the central bank – when invited to give a lecture, often talks about spiritual issues (for example about Hungarian predetermination) instead speaking about numbers.

CsJ: Not long ago, Orbán travelled in the company of the Budapest mayor in a newly introduced city bus. They passed the building of the former ballet institute, a symbol of the shady privatization deals of the last decades, its value estimated for several times higher than when it was privatized. Orbán said, we need to get this building back to the state, let’s quickly make a law on it. This story put the democratic opposition on high alert: how might political leaders just say we will make a law? The answer of the mayor was that he is not interested in labels and protocols, the abstract law is not the most important thing: the crucial issue is that he is doing is good for the people.

 GP: When the Constitutional Court vetoed the law which made homelessness a criminal offence, Orbán’s reaction was that the decision of the court was alienated from real life. In this story, one can easily recognize Orbán’s fairy tale image (“the son of the people”), linked to the most important element, namely, that cunning is at play. Here things do not happen according to formal principles, but according to a specific Hungarian mindset.

 MAE: It leaked out that at a consultation on educational policy, Orbán said to the minister in charge for education “you can tell me the numbers, but I see the world differently”.

 AP: “We know better what you need” is literally an anti-expert discourse dating back to 2008, to a successfül referendum initiated by Fidesz against the austerity measures of the left-liberal government. The success can be linked to the erosion from 2006, which we already discussed.

 GH: I think the real power of Orbán’s concept of democracy lies exactly here: instead of a “Gentlemen’s Very Merry argle-barge”, “people’s discomfort” is translated into politics, as the government “has an ear” for people’s complaints. As treacheries happened in the spheres of democracy and economy (the “commie” elite is technocratic and it is the enemy of the nation), it wants to deal with and find solution to “real” questions. It also aims at an emotional system change – e.g. “lets be brave to be big”. Thus there is a diagnostic, settling move, but the answer is the same paralyzing institutional system (castrated civil circles, hierarchical “federations”, village parliaments, national consultations since 2002), which are then stifled after 2006. At that time, Orbán formulated an ultimatum to the government, but then even himself believed in a constitutional solution (in opposition to Jobbik, who hit a separate road then). He is satisfied with the “electoral revolution” which happened four years later utilizing the same, terribly wrong representative structure, which contaminates the whole system. I find some historical repetition in facts that in 1990, under the name “civil society” the old opposition entered the parliament, and thus civil society ceised to exist. In 2010, the opposition seized to exist, as a two third majority represents everyone the others should thus shut up. (This was prepared in 2002 campaign, observable e.g. in the Fidesz slogan “the homeland cannot be in opposition”).


 GA: In the early years, the right wing of the new political elite were just as antipopulist as liberal dissidents. Throughout the 80s, they featured on the same side of the debates, and were pretty coherent with the complaints of socialist educators on the degrading morals of the people, interested in money and blue jeans instead of (socialist, liberal or national) moral goods. This had to do with the social historical positions of these intellectuals. Regime changers were not interested, neither forced to be interested in the people. New populists spoke about the people, but without any significant empirical reference. Their proposals were more of a symbolic than concrete character.

 TG: In the situation where the interests of the people and the IMF were contrasted, most academics drifted to the side of the latter. When Hungary entered the neoliberal project, the above mentioned economists and sociologists were the experts recognized in the West. As they entered positions of power, their expertise began to erode. In contrast, the Fidesz and the right in general had a collective experience of the 2002 elections, when previous polls did not forecast rightly the actual results. For them, numbers came to count less. Also: theirs is a political governance, where policies are not made according to numbers and expert bargains, but brought by a superior political leadership. That is, numbers do not count as much as political context does.

 GH: Revulsion against “numbers” has a popular basis too. It very much regards the history of privatization: profitable branches are shown to be “bankrupt” on paper and sold for scrap metal prices or sold by competitor companies to gain market, etc. The whole story stirs around macro data in the 90s, that bred the first austerity package of the socialist-liberal coalition – coming from the Maatstricht spiral, the competition for FDI, for the “best student” position in the region, while these numbers don’t “drip down” to the people. So I think “numbers” have this alienating effect, not only for Orbán, but for the majority of the voters too.

 MAE: Maybe we can understand the connection between the people, the elite and antipopulism from the story of the second economy. In the end of the 80s, we had a flowering second economy, small entrepreneurship was on the rise. From the 1970s on, Hungary was in recession, and the second economy was encouraged by Kádár to sustain the standards of living, for they are afraid of another 1956 in case of a drastic sink in those standards. This is the Kádárist compromise: they let people get a bit more for themselves, if they don’t mess with politics. Worker peasants were willing to accept that compromise, two thirds of Hungarian households profited from the second economy. But after the regime change, intellectuals began to call these people stupid Kádárist petit bourgeois, who do not want to be free, do not want democracy and responsibility, just to run their little business, as they used to. For the majority, the promise of the regime change is that they will be able to carry on with the little, slightly profitable businesses, and reach even higher standards of living – that the regime change will be a fair business, after all. Instead, the regime change brings mounting unemployment, plus sweeping ideological accusations for wanting to live better/the same level as they did under Kádár. In the eyes of neoliberals, Kádár is a paternalist, etatist dictator, who fed Homo Kádáricus on foreign loans, and created an environment that hindered efficiency. In a verve of purification, they set out to clear these people from their anti-efficiency environment, and educate them to take responsibility. So people felt they have been betrayed. The national discourse was not strong in the beginning, but as there were no other frames around, and no one else to resonate with their experience than nationalist political entrepreneurs, the national narratives has become a compensatory relief for many.

 AP: There are weird combinations in the relationship between expertise and nationalism. The strongly right-wing Echo TV features economists who once were on the left and thought about communitarian economy, but then lost ground, were marginalized by the liberal-left, and finally found a home in the nationalist bloc. Under the nationalist shine, they keep saying the same things they used to say.

 MAE: The example of Echo TV illustrates how hard it is to distill the reference to the “people” from the general nationalist discourse, to separate it from Jobbik. To return to my example on the second economy: those whose households depended on the second economy, put their final hopes in the EU accession. But in the end it was the EU accession that gave them the final stroke, with exaggerated regulations that crashed the remaining conditions of small entrepreneurs and farmers. As a consequence, many receded in a mystical-nationalist symbolic world, to which liberals reacted by labeling them as fascists.

 ASz: You asked the question how we could distill nationalism from a reference to the “people”. I think we can find an answer to that in the political fights of the early 20th century. When the social democratic party was formed in Hungary, they thought, following Marx, that communism could be achieved only if we first achieve capitalism. In that, they counted on liberals as their allies. The two political poles were, then too, liberals vs. conservatives. The forming left thought that liberals would be their natural allies against feudal landlords. But this was not to be: the elite closed in against the left. First liberals allied with social democrats in the topic of election rights, but then, capitalists needed cheap labour, and landlords needed servants to remain silent. Liberals and conservatives had their debates within parliament, but the majority of society remained outside of these debates. What they did was elite politics, the debate was not formed by real social processes. Interestingly, the Kádár regime came to care most about the well-being of the people, not democratically of course. During the regime change, the political scenery of the inter-war period is reproduced: liberals versus conservatives. At the beginning of the century, social democrats tried to transcend their parliamentary immobilization by building a mass movement. Today, in spite of appearances, not even Jobbik transcends narrow elite politics. The nationalist narrative comes as a substitute, as a negation of what the liberals are doing. Meanwhile, Hungarian sociology is barely interested in social structure. So we need to do a double work: describe Hungarian society, the structure that produces inequality, and build a political project that mobilizes those disadvantaged by that structure. Maybe to succeed in this work, we will need to seize hold of our whole relationship to politics. We shall transcend the stage where politics appear in the form of debates abstracted from the actual social positions. This is something that can be pointed out only through a mass movement.

Apathy and mobilization

ASz: But if this system manages to sustain itself, isn’t it possible in the end, that it will be transformed by an external, revolutionary change? I think there is a minimal possibility of a “civil-war-situation”, if the majority of the society will not be able to find its demands articulated in the programmes of the two blocks. We have to think about this process as well. And in addition, I would like to bring in a further dimension: political apathy could be connected to the fact that in terms of the scale of migration we have started to “catch up” to the other Eastern European countries. This is a new phenomenon, formerly we have not experienced that so much Hungarians would like to migrate to other countries.

 AG: Though it is true, that the number of Hungarian migrants is closer and closer to the number of migrants from other countries within the region, but the difference between Hungarian and other contexts is that in Hungary the ideological overtone of this phenomenon plays a much more significant role. While in Romania migration is treated in the everyday discourses on economy, in Hungary it is a key ideological question as well: it is connected to the idea of eroding national spaces and of displacing the nation.

 GP: Based on experiences gained from conferences, I would say that in Romania the people migrating to Western Europe in order to find job were depicted as positive actors, as those who were able to bring money, entrepreneurial culture and western civilization back home. It was out of question, whether there is anything problematic with the system, in which they start to live. In 2004 I was at a wedding in Gdańsk, Poland, where at that time already 3 million people had decided to go west to find a job. The main question during the wedding ceremony was to what extent the migrant family members and friends coming back from Great Britain will give more valuable and more expensive wedding presents. In Hungary the number of migrants has started to increase only after 2008. The question is why exactly at that time. Nowadays, if my friends in their twenties start to talk about migration, they depict this decision as something dramatic and irreversible. As if we would be in the autumn of 1956. On the other hand, there are some who describe the act of staying in Hungary as a political act. This idea also roots back to a historical referent: during the Kádár regime there was the saying that “I stay in Hungary just for adventure”, which was used to defend the decision of those whose friends decided to migrate. It is thrilling to see how the members of our generation reproduce these old narratives of migration, about which they have no direct experience. I find the ideologization crucial; not only in this particular case, but in general. It is a somewhat exotic thing from the regional perspective. In 2006 my Bulgarian and Romanian friends were just laughing when I explained to them what a huge scandal it became when it turned out, that the prime minister was lying. Is it a surprise for the Hungarians, that a prime minister lies? Nowadays in Hungary it is part of a very radical critique to say that all the political leaders are corrupt, oligarchic and connected to the mafia, no matter if they are  from the “left” of from the “right”. Haven’t we known it already? It is also strange in the Hungarian situation, that it has been possible after 1990 that decade long friendships have been broken because of political reasons. It is like a science-fiction, to end a friendship because you vote for different parties. Thus I find it crucial that the experience of  “the people” should not be articulated through party politics. But I also have dilemmas, because during the Bulgarian and Romanian mass demonstrations the ruling elites were able to prey on the protestors and to hijack the protests, which in turn led to the further increase of disillusionment. The results of the protests became completely alien to what catalyzed mass mobilization in the beginning.

 TG: Indeed, it seems paradox that in parallel to the increasing ideologization apathy increases as well. I think these two processes are two sides of the same coin: lethargy appears, while at the same time – in a continuously narrowing political space – ideology becomes more and more intense. A consequence is that the social groups forced into apathy and lethargy have became unorganizable from a political point of view. Fidesz will slowly but firmly contribute to the disembedding of many institutions, but since it will take for a long time, it is impossible to create a huge revolution, to organize mass mobilization against it.

 MAE: To illustrate extreme apathy: public opinion researchers have shown that the number of those, who would not vote for any party has never been so high; according to Ipsos it is currently 54% of the population. We can assume, that part of this group would be receptive for a certain message, if there would be someone who could create it. Let’s imagine that in 2014 the oppositional groups will join forces, but they lose and Orbán wins once more. In that case those members of the oppositional side, who are close to the leftist ideology and who allied with the others only because of the short-term vision to defeat Orbán, would come back to the left after realizing that the focus on the short-term interests could not be successful. Our mission is to have the bases of a long-term movement built by that time. Until that point what we need is not mass demonstrations, but a movement.

 CsJ: These points are leading towards the direction to pose the ultimate question of what is to be done, what we could do. It is not going to be a novelty what I am saying. Basically I see two important points. The first to emphasize the importance of separating leftist ideas from liberal ones. In the vocabulary of Orbán the “leftist-liberal” has become a dirty word, the “other” pole of the dichotomous ideological landscape, the symbol of a long-lasting historical oppression of the Hungarian nation. From the “leftist-liberal” label, how right-wing people use it, the “left” part refers back to the communists of the Kádár era, when the idea of the nation was suppressed. The “liberal” part goes back to the post-1989 alliance of the late-Kádár-era technocrats and the neoliberals, whose aim has been to catch up with “the European and civilized way of democracy and capitalism”. Our aim should be to take back the “left” from the “left-liberal” notion, with criticizing neoliberal economic policies and showing why a real democracy is impossible in a semi-peripheral country like Hungary if you follow a neoliberal economic policy coupled with criminalizing, anti-poor social policies. For this aim we should recontextualize not only the meaning of “liberalism”, but of populism as well. It is impossible to move further without this theoretical/ideological work, and it is inseparable from the need of movements, in which broad segments of the society could participate.

 TG: Of course, it is true, that a very much ideologized intellectual elite dominates with its own linguistic tools, which naturally affects those, who are not able to participate in political action. This directly leads to an asymmetric situation. The intellectuals are unable to explain even those phenomenon, which affects their daily lives, they simply use ideological schemes. The strategy of Jobbik exploits this situation with creating a negative feedback to the lack of explanations and of a useful vocabulary. It would be necessary to grasp Hungarian processes with new linguistic elements, and thus to transcend the ideological dichotomy.

 AG: It is a fact – this critical work that you mentioned, which would explore the local power relations and reconnect this local experience to globally oriented critiques and to everyday realities, has not yet been done. But it is already something, that we have started to work on it.

 CsJ: I would also like to emphasize the importance of differentiating between short-term and long-term goals. To turn back to the beginning of the discussion: why is Hungary again a hot topic in the international media? It is a frequently used discourse in these reports, that the problem is so big, that now, in a short-term – even in the next year – it will become clear whether Hungary is turned into fascism, or it remains democratic. However, the roots of the present political and economic crises go back deeply into the past, and we will also have to deal with their consequences in the far future. The importance of the long-term perspective lays in the fact that it could become a divisive line, along which leftists ended up in different political camps. The green party (LMP) was – among other factors – split up because of the differences between long-term and short-term political strategies. One part has believed that because of short-term, pragmatic reasons the alliance with neoliberal, technocratic groups of the opposition is necessary, while the other part wanted to focus on long-term goals. In my opinion the mission of building up a true leftist alternative necessitates to take into consideration the long-term goals. The problems, that were partly caused by political forces calling themselves “leftist”, but being in reality neoliberal or simply corrupt, cannot be solved during a single electoral period of four years. But at the same time, those who would believe in carrying out a long-term strategy, should face with the lack of resources necessary for such a project. For the next steps, a reference point could be the theories of David Harvey. In his argument – described in his book entitled The Enigma of Capital – neoliberalism in its present form is the result of a long co-evolutionary process. Any movement trying to oppose this should thus emerge from a co-revolutionary process, through which many parts of everyday life and of politics should be subverted and transformed. For such a co-revolutionary process many segments of the social processes should be connected in a complex, somewhat synchronic and interconnected way.

 AG: Frankly, what we are talking about now is that we lost many comrades from the “left-liberal” side, who decided to line up behind the former prime minister Gordon Bajnai, in order to join forces against Orbán, as the most important short-term goal.

 TG: I agree, that the time frame is a strategic question, but it is also true, that in the system of neoliberal dependencies polarization is increasing. In those fields of the production of political strategies which try to mobilize people, messages focusing on the short-term, like “there is a huge problem now”, “we should go out to the streets”, have a priority. The limitations of long-term arguments become evident from a populist point of view, since they are inadequate to react to real problems in the present. If we take a long-term perspective, the Orbán government erodes its constituency, because it is getting stuck into a fight between elites, while there is a growing apathy in the society. In this context it becomes more and more demanding to realize problems and to mobilize people.

 GH: I think the so-called “Milla movement” (“milla”=”million” in slang, representing that they would like to gather more than a million people behind them) has a huge responsibility in not letting the people to get involved in politics: they just focused on their stupid campaign to elect an alternative president (where a politically incompatible rapper won) and on waiting for the messiah, for someone who fills in the political vacuum on the oppositional side (which was somehow filled by the former neoliberal prime minister Bajnai). In the end they could not catalyze any sort of empowerment. What could have been done is real grassroots participation and community building.

 ASz: It is evident that the basis of a potential mass movement should be broadened up. In such a broad movement you should be able to improve your social positions compared to those who are above you in the social hierarchy. What is at stake is to have a mass movement, which could be the agent of democratic control. To transcend the stage when the movement is the movement of the intellectuals.

2 replies on “Hungary’s “democracy” problem – a concept and its background”

Comments are closed.