Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Gábor Schein on Speaking with Double Tongues

My friend Rachel sent this very fine article to me a few days ago and since then it has appeared in Open Democracy. Some excerpts with my comments in italics. It's long but bear with me.

Hungary's present state cannot fully be understood without recalling what happened after 1989. The worst of the new developments - the disappearance of nearly one million jobs, the impoverishment of the south and the east, the literal maiming of the regions with the highest Roma population - were all accompanied by the persistence of the worst legacy of the previous era: an absence of social solidarity, leaving entire regions and classes abandoned, and a series of political and economic elites thoroughly occupied with dividing up the resources of the state for themselves.

Now, the most valuable good in Hungarian society is nothing more than the ownership of an individual dwelling. Achieved, by and large, through working overtime, as much after 1989 as before. Not only the crushing inflation of the past decades, but the continual social pattern of massive overwork has not only severely damaged interpersonal relations, but the possibility of political engagement among individuals as well.

That absence of social solidarity, that had seemed quite strong before 1989, may just have been unity in the face of a common enemy, the state as it was. Working overtime meant, in fact, working at three or four jobs at once, in order to make ends meet before 1989. Much of that work was moonlighting, working in the black economy. Habituation to such conditions is deeply corrupting and continued to be corrupting past 1989. That corruption followed the old pattern but in new conditions...

Though the Hungarian Constitution – heavily amended after 1990 but now derided by Premier Viktor Orbán as a Stalinist relic – contained all of the necessary legal stipulations necessary for the creation of a legitimate democratic state, no democratic mentality existed to make use of the written laws....
Much as in the Kádár decades, all roads still led to the state – now, of course, not to the USSR-backed Communists but to the ruling political parties. Whether right or left, all of these parties made use of ineffective laws to hide the real sources of their financing. And the inevitable result has been the ever-present corruption that has poisoned the organs of public society.

Schein goes on to talk of financial ruin through cheap credit (not news here either) with tragic results:

Now we see the predicament of the many families who took out mortgages in Swiss Francs: 1 Swiss franc, worth 180 HUF at the beginning of 2009, reached 270 HUF by 2011. Many Hungarians were forced to sell everything that they had built up through a lifetime of hard work. A wave of suicides, a palpably growing public aggressiveness, found echoes in the racist statements appearing again and again in the media, even in ordinary conversations. Then the militant units of the self-styled “Hungarian Guard”, an affiliate of the far-right Jobbik party, began marching through settlements with high Roma populations, provoking brawls. In eastern Hungary, a small group came to be charged with the murder of several local Roma; possible connections with the intelligence services remain unexplained. All of these outrages were just a part of the backdrop of daily life: the concept of what was normal was changing, rapidly, but almost imperceptibly...

...the parliamentary elections of 2008 led to a flood of empty promises. The Socialists won, only to face a campaign of public anger against the party, focusing on a leaked statement from the former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány from two years before. Every day, the opposition parties repeated their list of unmet promises. And ever more frequently, the parliamentary opposition made use of nationalist slogans and symbols that only shortly before had been the exclusive preserve of the still-marginal neo-fascist party Jobbik.

No-one comes well out of the Hungarian situation and the parallels are worrying.

In hindsight, there are definite parallels here with the fall of the Weimar Republic. Of course, inside the framework of the EU the final political outcome has been quite different from that of Germany in 1933. Yet nonetheless, the pervasive impression of an ungovernable chaos meant that at the end the new socialist prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who had succeeded Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2009, was glad to hand over government on April 11, 2010 to Viktor Orbán, even though he knew full well that the successor ruled his own party like a dictator and would inevitably move to a more authoritarian style.

And, most worryingly:

Only a few months after the 2010 elections, the centres of independent power vital to a democratic state were eviscerated. Interpretations of constitutional law were restricted, and all judges past the age of 62 were forced into early retirement, to be replaced with the party cronies of Viktor Orbán. Through the new media law, the press and broadcasting were held back; meanwhile, the news services were formed into centralized monopolies while government-friendly media shamelessly lied and distorted facts. For all practical purposes, the right to strike was taken away from employees. Dozens of religious organisations were simply forced to close. Private pension funds were looted through government-sanctioned blackmail. Schools, previously in the control of local districts, were nationalised and all headmasters replaced; meanwhile, their educational programme was given a sharp ideological slant through the new law. A number of attack campaigns were levied against critical intellectuals. Only the National Bank managed to retain a certain degree of independence, and this with the aid of the EU. All the while the state, through the adoption of laws targeted specifically for this purpose, acquired for itself major shares of numerous large enterprises. Crowning the entire process of power consolidation was the implementation of a new constitution that – fully against the recommendations of the EU and other international bodies – placed ethnic and social minorities at a marked disadvantage.

So we arrive at a potentially authoritarian state that, in the classic way, uses one rhetoric at home and another in the international context, though even there...

As the chief of state, Viktor Orbán has named his regime a “centralised sphere of power”. Coded double-meanings and the problems of rhetorical interference belong among the most clear indicators of how power functions in this centralised sphere.

One language of authoritarianism is used for internal consumption, appealing directly to the Hungarian population: nationalistic, self-consciously egocentric and often militant. It creates an easily comprehended framework in which “us” and “the enemy” are caught up in an endless struggle. Viktor Orbán uses this language to promote himself as the protector of all that is national, a St. George in the struggle for national interests assailing the “dragon” of the EU, which is depicted as a colonising foreign power. Even when addressing the highest-positioned EU officials, Orbán draws upon this rhetoric. For after all, this language paints politics as a permanent (and almost inevitably unsuccessful) freedom-struggle. This discourse falls on highly fertile ground among the Hungarian populace..

This is familiar to me and to many countries that position themselves as the victims of the very institutions on which they depend. This way the institutions take the blame for any suffering. It also means that national minorities comes under automatic suspicion and attract hatred and frustration. The rhetoric of the 1956 Uprising is central to this. That honourable and courageous failed revolution has been appropriated entirely by the nationalist right. Important figures such as Imre Nagy lose their importance and become part of the hated background, because, after all, he too was 'a commie'. Language is dissimulation:

However difficult it is, Hungary's authoritarians still have to speak to the outside world in ‘European’. Yet the official translations of Hungarian laws or the new constitution are only partial texts: the sentences and paragraphs that radically diverge from European concepts of human rights are simply deleted. In other cases, there is a search for formulations that more or less correspond to the Hungarian original but which nonetheless sound acceptable in EU-English. Interpreting this genre of translation-practise is exceedingly difficult. Often, the reader comes across sentences that actually have been translated 'accurately' into English and which, if read in Brussels, appear to state nothing objectionable – but when read by a Hungarian in Hungary, show themselves to be formulated in a language thoroughly imbued with an authoritarian mentality, creating a totally different meaning

And, vitally:

Over the course of 2011, the Hungarian Parliament enacted over 200 laws, not counting the many government directives of the same period. With alarming frequency, new laws are completely rewritten within several weeks. No one knows any longer with any clarity what is truly legally valid. Even the institutions directly subordinate to the government, the ministries, are lost among the new legislative directives. Moreover, these bills have been presented to Parliament not by the cabinet but by individual deputies of the ruling Fidesz party, with no need to pass through the process of justification and impact assessment. Laws have been completely revised and rewritten in hours, at times only minutes before the actual vote, with the deputies from the two-thirds majority Fidesz party pressing their “Yes” buttons for a piece of legislature they can't possibly have even seen.

Schein ends with a note on possible ways of improving the situation:

The removal of Viktor Orbán from power at the present moment, would not, however, be desirable, as it would mean the collapse of Fidesz, and could lead to sheer chaos. Above all, the Hungarian political public must struggle with authoritarianism from within its own ranks, no matter how unfavourable the circumstances, and however significant the level of Orbán's support.

Yet even here, Europe can do much to help those in Hungary who are struggling for a true civil society, no matter how lengthy the process might be. The most effective current measures against the authoritarianism of Viktor Orbán are the persistent and thorough pressures of the EU for Hungary to conform to the EU's own stated principles of guarantees of civil and human rights. This pressure, though, must stipulate a policy that would in all cases keep Hungary within the bounds of EU membership.

At the very end Schein hopes for the kind of support for opposition that the Hungarian opposition received from outside in the years before 1989. I wonder whether that is possible within the EU.

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