Esztergom – situated on Hungary’s Danube border with Slovakia, once Hungary’s capital and still the seat of the country’s Catholic Primate – is a desolate place. All public amenities without exception have been incapacitated. Whether street lighting or the hospital, schools or the railway – everything is in a more or less deplorable state. And Saturday’s farmers market looks like all the farmers markets from here to southern Bulgaria: as if that very restricted scope of action permitted by the current contents of shoppers’ wallets was etched in their very faces, in their posture, in their gait.
This all demands an explanation of why – these relentless 20 years of stagnation, this eternal need to struggle for everything, never allowing one to breathe freely. And the fact that every brief respite is legitimate only because there is nothing better to do anyway. And, as is part and parcel of stagnation, the fact that even the question of why is no longer of interest to anyone.
But Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has found the answers to these questions. He understands the little people and is concerned about their troubles. This all the more so, as the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis have made many members of Hungary’s middle class into little people once again.
Băile Tuşnad / Tusnádfürdő is the smallest incorporated town in Romania. Its inhabitants are mostly Hungarian-speaking Székelys. “Băile” is the Romanian word for “bath”. It is somehow reminiscent of the term “bail out”, familiar since the 2008 crisis. And somehow the “bail out” is always the last answer to the question of who ultimately has to take the rap for it.
Perhaps this is why Viktor Orbán used an appearance before 8,000 students in this Transylvanian spa town to impart fundamental insight into his future vision for Hungary – or rather “for the Hungarian community”. During the course of the speech, however, it emerges that this insight refers rather to his interpretations of the past. What and how the future should be remains cryptically hidden behind the unexplained expression “work-based society”.
8,000 students in 2014 – without exception, this is a group who did not experience the “regime change” of 1990 as politically conscious individuals. This offers the speaker the welcome opportunity of an event which for his audience long ago became one of many historical events, and can now truly be explained in historical terms. Thus, it should also be denied its central function as a point of reference in the political discourse – it should be stored in memory as an experience, but no longer kept awake in the back of one’s mind (“a point of reference in our debates on understanding the future and designating our path towards the future”).
In the fierce and also international debates surrounding the new Hungarian constitution implemented by Viktor Orbán in 2011, the prime minister invoked the argument that the “regime change” in 1990 had remained incomplete because no fundamentally new constitution had been produced. He viewed correcting this deficiency as his first and most pressing task after destiny, the electorate and the country’s legislators (i.e. the new electoral laws) had helped him to achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament (“Thank you to everyone whom it concerns: to Providence, to the voters, to Hungary’s legislators…”). The legislator (i.e. Viktor Orbán) had granted voting rights to ethnically Hungarian citizens of neighbouring countries, who in turn used this as “such a noble form of revenge” against those who in 2004 had refused to admit Hungarians living outside the country.
Now, with the new patriotic constitution in hand and with an audience of 8,000 Romanian Hungarians who all enjoy the grace of having been born too late for 1990, the “regime change” is declared complete and with it the post-communist period is declared over. But what kind of period was this actually? And isn’t this the question that we must resolve in order to be able to provide a final answer to the question from Esztergom, the question of why this stagnation?
It was, says Viktor Orbán, the period of Western liberalism. Its collapse in the 2008 crisis, Orbán contends, must now become the new point of reference in place of the events of 1990 (“What we should instead view as our starting point is the great redistribution of global financial, economic, commercial, political and military power that became obvious in 2008.”). Liberalism’s collapse in the crisis marks the end of the long period of its deterioration. The post-communist countries, Orbán asserts, have blindly jumped aboard this long descending Western train idly watching their citizens become exploited and made into the last victims of this “great redistribution”.
Thus, nearly 25 years after the end of communism, the current condition of the Hungarian (Serbian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Macedonian…) state can no longer be explained as a long-term consequence of the decades of dictatorship which preceded 1990. Rather, it was cynical capitalism under the legitimising ideology of liberalism which pulled all of these countries into a spiral of decline after 1990.
On this view, not only has liberalism definitively discredited itself, but the preceding dictatorship is also implicitly absolved of any culpability for the present conditions. And along with it, all the other remaining forms of non-liberal statehood that the world presently has to offer (the Putin model, the Chinese model, the Turkish and Singaporean models mainly…) are also enjoying completely new legitimacy. In any case, Hungary’s future (or rather “the future of the Hungarian community”) can only be achieved in a post-liberal, non-liberal state (“…while breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and keeping ourselves independent from them, we are trying to find the form of community organisation, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come.”).
Then – since we have already arrived, as it were, at such “final questions”: what is the world? It is a cage of “communities”, all trapped in a “great global race” in which “competitiveness” is the sole arbiter of success or failure. This sounds like one of those sentences used by Angela Merkel or Wolfgang Schäuble to demand structural reforms in Greece or Italy in order to improve competitiveness.
Or: what is the state? It is a form of “community organisation”. And in what form a “community” organises itself, or why it does so in this and no other form – these are what Viktor Orbán alleges to be the determinative questions. Big questions, indeed! Did he consult Niklas Luhmann then? Just as his Serbian colleague, Aleksandar Vučić, has been drawing inspiration from Max Weber for some time now? Is this all really as compatible with Merkel or Schäuble as it seems to be? It would be disastrous if this were widely believed in the association of “European People’s Parties” – and many there seem to want to believe it! For this would mean simply to stop listening when Orbán speaks openly about wanting “…to construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations within the European Union. I think this is possible.”
The incompatibility is illuminated by the fact that the term “society” does not appear in Orbán’s conception of the new state – and this blatantly refutes any suspicions of a Luhmann reception. The term “society” appears in his speech only in the context of a deficiency: during the post-1990 years, Hungary was a “society”. The Western liberal countries are “societies”. Just as the term “community” points to a deficiency of statehood – for the Hungarian “community” is far larger than the citizens comprised in the Republic of Hungary – so the term “society” serves to describe a deficiency as well: that of a popular collective which has not yet found its suitable state form (a “community organisation”). Orbán uses the small Transylvanian spa town in the middle of Romania to announce this objective for no later than the next legislative period.
But where there is no society, there is also no longer any difference between society and the state. In Viktor Orbán’s new state, the liberal principle that individual freedom is only restricted when it infringes upon the freedom of others will no longer apply. Like all religiously embellished political movements, Orbán’s conception also requires morals based on positively composed norms and at least a small sharia with a list of prohibitions and punishments. That false, liberal rule has applied in Hungary since 1990, so the argument goes, and no one has ever bindingly defined where the freedom of others actually begins. The result was a state of affairs in which the strong defined this line as they saw fit, and the weak fell victim to exploitation.
This sounds nice and solidary and concerned with the general well-being, which it defends against those who have become savage and cynical. But is it not precisely this shameless savagery of appropriation, through which the tycoons of post-communist societies acquired their billions, that is the legacy of the preceding decades of communism? Of the old structures which permitted it, of the old mind-sets and behaviours which were suddenly unleashed? Did they not take the distorted view of the market economy disseminated under communism at face value and in fact implement what they believed to have learned from it?
The categorical imperative in Orbán’s new state should be “that one should not do unto others what one does not want others to do unto you”. But: who here will bindingly define what that thing is that I do not want others to do unto me? This will be done by the state, because, after all, there will no longer be a society to debate this. And as power in the state is constituted (“the governing civil, Christian and national powers in Hungary”), thus will it make its decisions: in a Christian and national manner!
Viktor Orbán’s speech in Băile Tuşnad has been intentionally overlooked in the German media (as far as the author can discern). It is a scandal in the classical sense of the word, an offence to every democrat. The speaker knows this, of course, and announces that this speech too will be condemned by the liberal world as “blasphemy”. However: “Just because a state is not liberal, it can still be a democracy [sic].” But here it is no longer a democracy of debate, but rather one of plebiscite and acclamation; it is about the popular consensus within the “community”. It is about implementing a code of morals fed by resentment.
The official English text of the speech contains only a single typographical error, but it is of truly Freudian quality. The speaker unfurls for his audience the whole scenario of a heteronomy emanating from Brussels, the contempt for Hungarian state sovereignty in the guise of so-called “supervisors”, and the brazenness with which one-third of all European funds contractually awarded to the Hungarian state go to the salaries of “foreign experts” instead of for the benefit of the affected Hungarian citizens. From this, the prime minister infers a demand that inspectors sent from Brussels be paid according to the pay scale of the governmental departments in the host country. Here the text reads “those who are in charge of distributing European Union finding” – of course he means “funding” and not “finding”.
But somehow Viktor Orbán would like to bring under his control more than just the monetary flows from Brussels; ideally, he would also like to control what we in the rest of Europe are able to find out about his new “work-based state”. He must not succeed!
Heinrich Boll Stiftung, August 2014.
Translated from German by Evan Mellander
- In what follows, we refer exclusively to the official English version of the speech available on the prime minister’s website: http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp. ↑