Hungary: A Black Hole on Europe’s Map
An interview with G. M. Tamás by Jaroslav Fiala (A2 magazine)
Jaroslav Fiala (JF): In the past you have written on post-fascism. In recent years, the growing rise of nationalist and racist forces has taken place across Europe. What is your explanation for this phenomenon?
G. M. Tamás (GMT): The whole nature of European politics has changed after 1989: the two hegemonic blocs had disintegrated, after the Soviet threat which forced the internal compromise in the West resulting in the welfare state and the toleration of large West European communist parties and communist-influenced trade unions, ceased to exist. So did cease to exist the Western pressure which had set certain limits to Stalinist and post-Stalinist dictatorship. The Cold War equilibrium was over.
The more or less ‘proletarian’ counter-power together with the ‘adversary culture’ from academic Marxism to avant-garde cultural practices is gone, too. The compromesso storico – the key to the flowering of Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s – has become both unnecessary and impossible. The new states and their élites had to realise that old-style religion and nationalism is ineffectual, their foundations have crumbled, the Army and the Church are not the forces they used to be. Social integration, mass mobilization are now indirect, mediated through the media, if at all.
A sense of integration for passive and isolated citizens can be offered only by political passions that can be exercised privately, without organization, without ideology proper, in an exclusively negative way. So explanations for social discontent can be understood chiefly as the result of ‘heterogeneous’ elements (in the sense of Georges Bataille), ‘outsiders,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘immigrants,’ ‘gays,’ non-participants (welfare cheats, layabouts, the underclass in general). This does not need mass mobilization as in ‘classical’ fascism because it does not concern any parts of the ruling class or state élites, while fascism and National Socialism, of course, did. This is an authoritarian radicalism based not on hatred, but on contempt. The hyperactive passivity of old fascism gives way to the passive passivity of post-fascism.
JF: Let’s focus on Hungary. The election showed a rightward, extremist shift, again. What is happening to your country?
GMT: It’s a difficult question – and the most important one. First of all, this was another election where genuine right-wing and pseudo-left parties had a contest. The ‘left’ coalition combined elements of human rights liberalism, pro-European business liberalism and a very vulgar ‘left’ populism, with obviously unrealistic promises. These elements went very badly together. Viktor Orbán and his national conservatives simply refused to present a programme or an election manifesto at all. Their only slogan was “We’ll continue!” Their policy is a combination of handouts to the middle class and to the middle class only, and of a very severe ‘law and order’ routine against everyone else. It’s a simple and straightforward politics of repression: censorship of the media called ‘national unity’ (that is, no audible dissent), strongly chauvinist national education at all levels, a cult of ‘hard work’ persecuting the unemployed, especially the Roma poor, a macho talk of will, force, determination, action, ‘follow-the-leader,’ virility. A new national identity rooted in football and based on extreme right football supporters’ groups, contempt for intellectuals and a generalized hatred against all foreigners (both against our neighbours in the ‘successor states’ and against the treacherous, decadent West, not to speak of our coloured brethren).
The left has been presented – following the oldest recipe – as the agents of ‘abroad,’ le parti de l’étranger. At the same time, the governing party has lost hundreds of thousands of votes that went in part to the overt fascists. The malcontent just leave the country in droves. London is today the third largest Hungarian city. The general mood is glum, there is an atmosphere of suspicion and loathing. There is xenophobia and ethnicism without the slightest trace of national pride.
JF: How would you describe Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz? Before 1989 you were friends…
GMT: Actually, we were friends up to the mid-1990s. Mr Orbán is a very able, very ruthless, totally unprincipled and pragmatic politician, a cunning tactician and a shameless demagogue. He keeps contradicting himself and affirms the opposite of what he has trumpeted a week ago, but since he doesn’t give interviews and is never subjected to critical, let alone hostile questioning (the new House rules in Parliament make him almost exempt of any obligation to debate and to convince), he doesn’t have to account for any of these. There was not a single TV debate between Fidesz and the opposition. His rhetoric is outrageously simplified: he’s fighting the cosmopolitan powers of international finance and those of international leftist subversion to keep the Nation safe, reduce the cost of living and give back to Hungary its ancestral might, you know, a brave little David struggling with Goliath, and so on. The worst enemy can be recognized by his or her accusing the national conservative Hungarian government of anti-Semitism which does not exist, it is all a malevolent Jewish invention.
JF: Why is Orbán’s Fidesz so popular? It seems that the party expropriated many anti-capitalist elements. Basically, it says: if you are against the socio-economic system, vote for us.
GMT: It is the usual right-wing anti-capitalism of the 1930s: it makes a difference between productive and parasitic capital. Mr Orbán makes special deals with Western industrial companies that are fully or partly tax-exempt and are attracted by the extremely low Hungarian wages, but declares war against banks and against global financial institutions such as the IMF. The decorative refurbishment of Budapest (in a very poor taste, I might add) is paid for by the EU, the anti-Hungarian monster. Mr Orbán is, like many before him, the champion of the national bourgeoisie, he is by now himself a very rich man.
Like the radical right everywhere, Fidesz is opposed to anybody it deems ‘improductive’ from bankers to intellectuals to the unemployed to the old-age pensioners and to university students. ‘Improductive’ equals ‘parasitic’ equals ‘subversive.’ By their ambivalent, semi-anti-capitalist talk they have managed to become the system itself and also the opposition to the system. As it is mostly the middle class who vote, there are about two million people who would fall for this propaganda done very skilfully by the Fidesz PR and indoctrination machine (a combination of Thatcherism and Putinism), undergirded by Mr Orbán’s relentless activity and continuous initiatives in every regard.
Also people are getting restless. Mr Orbán has acquired tyrannical traits of late that might be, sooner or later, his undoing. (He seems to believe that he is actually governing Transylvania and Vojvodina as well, the fantaisiste Szekler flag is fluttering on the Budapest Parliament building, Hungarian government representatives are holding assemblies and participating in public ceremonies in Romania, without even paying courtesy calls on the local authorities. The official term is ‘reunification of the nation across the borders.’ This is nonsense, but extremely dangerous nonsense.)
JF: Is the influence of anti-communism significant? If so, how does the Hungarian right use it?
GMT: It is the old extreme-right formula: communism and liberalism are identical. They are inventions of rootless, misanthropic, mysterious circles, opposed to human nature and to the natural order. ‘We,’ true Hungarians, are conservative pragmatists, serving our own interests only, defined by a sober look at our own people and at our own country. We are no ideologists, we are looking for simple things, such as dignity, pride, well-being, a simple but comfortable life and we cherish tradition, be it the tradition of kings or peasants. And so on. And, of course, although this is only suggested, not stated, both communism and liberalism speak with a slightly Semitic accent.
JF: The election showed growing support for racist, anti-Semitic Jobbik as well. It seems this party has a lot of supporters among young people. Why?
GMT: The strength of Jobbik is its unsentimental, clear hatred of the Roma and its open wish to see them thwarted or, better, expelled. It’s based on ‘moral panic’ like the old anti-Black racism of the antebellum American South: crime, proliferation of sensual, oversexed savages etc. Also it appeals to the young middle class by its anti-establishment stance. It sees history from the point of the view of the Axis, rejects all democratic bromides and does not respect the obligatory good manners of politics between, say, 1945 and 2000. This seems rebellious and original. They are using the symbols of the old Arrow-Cross party, hated and despised even by the more mainstream fascist tendencies, and which was known by its lunatic cruelty. This is the ultimate non-PC statement.
JF: How does Jobbik operate? Is it like the Golden Dawn in Greece (e. g. organizing ‘riot police,’ militias, services for the poor etc.)?
GMT: They are not doing anything for the poor, except promising that they will rid them of the Roma, but as to the rest, it’s rather identical in method. The serial murder of six Roma executed by extreme right militants now in custody did not cause great revulsion. Instead, there are speculations how the Judeo-Bolshevik or Judeo-Liberal cabal has organized the assassinations in order to slander our people. In this climate, Jobbik has no difficult job. After the elections, the centre-left parties have propounded a ‘constructive dialogue’ or ‘debate’ with Jobbik. The fascist party cannot be kept in quarantine, declared the leadership of the Hungarian Socialist Party. In the national elections, the fascists were on the second place, now it is predicted that at the European elections they will reach the second position. In the local elections in the autumn, they might acquire 70-80 mayoralties in the provinces, pollsters say. In the new Hungarian Parliament, the select committee on culture and education will be presided by a fascist.
JF: There is a lot of hatred against Roma people in Hungary. Are there also activists defending them? Or is the civil society rather weak and passive?
GMT: There are such groups, of course, immensely unpopular. Civil society is not wholly passive, but it simply isn’t anti-racist. This might change, though, although at the moment even the centre-left has abandoned the topic and is beginning to talk, too, of ‘public security in the countryside,’ the acceptable translation of ‘Gypsy crime.’
JF: How about the Hungarian left? Why did it fail in obtaining support?
GMT: Apart from being inept, uninspired, disunited and cowardly, the centre-left had no access to the main media (the internet reaches only the young middle class, solidly on the right) and failed to present an alternative. They fought a lukewarm campaign, in the style of ‘more of the same, but better,’ also they were mired in some really disgusting corruption affairs. Their slogans praising democracy were ineffectual, as ‘democracy’ means for most people impoverishment, foreign influence, inequality, unfair employment practices, in one word: failure. ‘Democracy’ makes people laugh and I must confess, I do understand them up to a point.
JF: Given the trajectory of development of post-communist countries after 1989, it seems that most of them are in deep trouble. What went wrong?
GMT: We are all pre-communist countries. But apart from this, Eastern Europe – and the whole world – is in deep trouble. Capitalism, as we all know, is crisis-ridden, but the old consolations don’t apply. Parliamentarism and ‘the free press’ are empty even where they are tolerated by the system better than in Hungary. The left liberal recipe of redistribution is underminded by racism, xenophobia, misogyny and the like. Poverty is on the increase, but equality is hated. Anti-capitalism, too, has reverted to its pre-Marxian moralistic, often nonsensical form. Radical critical thought floats in an empty space, as the old workers’ movement is dead. A replacement for the industrial proletariat is unlikely to be found.
JF: Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? Or are we simply walking toward more exploitation, authoritarianism and new forms of fascism?
GMT: I would be sorely tempted to say yes. But to say that would mean that we should give up thinking and feeling, and I am not prepared to propose quite that. There have been dark ages before. Our task is to keep our little lights alive and do our duty, regardless of failure, regardless of consequences. The continuity of a tradition opposed to exploitation and oppression is vital, even if we are only links in a chain, and will be probably – and justly – forgotten by a better age that might or might not come.
JF: You said that the sense of social integration can be offered only by political passions that can be exercised privately. Do you think this can be achieved only through new xenophobia? Are there any better political passions we could offer to isolated citizens today?
GMT: Passions can certainly be lived in other ways, too. And better passions may be on offer sometimes. Genuine social discontent also can be expressed by various versions of ‘moral panic’ but they won’t amount to anything much as they cannot be sustained in the way that movements (based, after all, on personal, actual, physical, temporal togetherness and shared ideals) could.
JF: Could you say a little more about the differences between the ‘classical’ and new fascism? Are there any other contrasts or similarities?
GMT: ‘Classical’ fascist movements in all their variants have been the movements of war veterans, of soldiers, with military ideas of leadership, following and mobilization. But the age of mass armies is over. More important, fascism appeared amid the collapse of the Old Régime and was a reaction to socialism, to universalist and radical proletarian revolutions. This whole context has disappeared with the defeat of the Axis in 1945, with the cold war equilibrium and its demise, de-colonization and the end of the Soviet system in 1989. What survives, apart from nostalgia for the very worst, is the inability of late capitalism to integrate the ‘heterogeneous.’ The fundamental idea of modernity, civic equality through representation and public guarantees for private lives, is becoming increasingly unthinkable, witness the anti-immigrant policies of the most ‘respectable’ Western governments. Quite simply, the conceptual ‘force’ necessary for imagining a community not based on ethnicity or on common interest narrowly defined, is lacking.
JF: You also said that we are all ‘pre-communist’ countries. What does it mean (e. g. combination of reactionary politics, cowardly and moralistic left or other things)?
GMT: Well, of course, since there was no communism yet – at best, an egalitarian state capitalism with quite a few advances of civilization, beyond tuberculosis, syphilis, mass starvation and death from freezing – we are all pre-communist, even if there won’t be any communism, ever. I don’t think that the undeniable moral failures and sins of the contemporary left are in any sense decisive, however disappointing and saddening. Those are probably only consequences. There is no ‘outside’ to capitalism, as there was in the times of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. (In their case, large peasant societies, colonial or not. There isn’t a revolutionary ‘outside,’ either.)
What kind of ‘adversary culture’ can be kept alive in the absence of a real adversary? Our little Marxist or anarchist conventicles express internal contradictions of late capitalism, but there is nothing outside the unified horizon of the system. It is for the first time that there is Marxist theory – actually, quite a number of excellent works and initiatives – without a Marxist movement. There have been socialists in the nineteenth century – sharply criticized by Lenin and Trotsky – who thought their work was simply a preparation for crises that would be produced by history and not by their own activity. It was waiting for reality to create the opportunity for liberation and emancipation. Neither Mensheviks nor Bolsheviks were proven right ultimately. This is a period ‘after history,’ if we mean modern history engendered by the problems of bourgeois society. These problems are sometimes solved by decadence and obsolescence rather than by anything else, but they remain mostly unsolved. Contemporary reactionary political fashions and illiberal regimes show the deep discontent but are, naturally, making things only worse. This is the situation which we are asked – by events – to address. •