Monday, 16 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 4

The Keynotes (1): Umut Korkut on the problems and downfall of liberalism

I too have a problem at this point since my keynote speech overlaps a little with the keynote of Dr Umut Korkut (Glasgow Caledonian University) whose came first. It is tempting to interweave the two but perhaps a short note on each before trying to draw them together. I, of course, have my text but not his, so his is from notes and memory. I suspect I may finish up writing more and thinking more at the end but I do want to present his case as best I can. The words are mine but the ideas his.

Dr Umut Korkut (I'll call him Umut from now on) gave, I think, the better speech but then he is a specialist scholar and knows more of the field. And yet it's more than that: he has a firm conceptual grasp of a wider process, with a wealth of reading:  I have my own sense of events but with relatively thin reading. On a personal note he is himself Turkish but speaks good Hungarian (maybe better than I do in some areas) as I found when talking to him before he spoke.

The key in his keynote was the idea of liberalism: how we understand it and how it operates.

Liberalism, he began, is in favour of modernity and against tradition but it faces mounting challenges. Nor is there a consensus on its virtues. It is deeply interwound with economic neo-liberalism, that is to say late capitalism, and is perhaps overdetermined by it.

He then gave a long and coherent critique of liberalism as we have it.

Democratisation is not the same as liberalisation. Liberalism, he said, has too many controlling assumptions. Arguments for the free market and democracy seem to go hand-in-hand. Centralised states were broken up to prepare the way to democratisation but the liberalism that followed was not the same thing. Liberals, he argued, demanded absolute support for economic liberalisation and thought in terms of the enlightened versus the unenlightened. In other words there was no argument against it. Anyone who thought otherwise was regarded as simply unenlightened (or stupid or mischievous).

The trouble with Europe was that it was too closely tied to economic liberalism. Its opponents, the conservatives, became fierce enemies, not only of economic liberalism but of social liberalism too, regarding it, not without reason, as elitist.

Historical liberalism had as its aim the creation  of 'the good society'. It was a process of renewal that began in the late nineteenth century. It meant change, but change from above. The controllers change but their replacements are also controllers.

He quoted a reforming member of the last Communist government, Rezsö Nyers, who argued against top-down change.

The question was why Hungarian liberalism had alienated the public. This was part of the answer.

He then dealt with the conservative reaction and cited the storming of the TV headquarters in 2006, attacks on Roma, and attacks on gays in 2007 and after. Xenophobia also grew: what was foreign was likely to be treacherous. And since the idea of liberalism involved both social tolerance and late capitalism, the world financial crisis of 2008 (which was a crisis of neo-liberalsm) dealt a serious blow to liberalism in general.

Left-liberalism was perceived by Hungarians to have started under Communism. In their rejection of it Fidesz wove together various patriotic themes and introduced a great many reforms. Ironically the economic reforms resembled those of the left-liberals but the political reforms were very different and embodied a different political climate (as represented by those events in 2006 above to the present). There was the continuing rise of the far-right Jobbik and Orbán's "illiberal democracy" speech to contend with.

He ended by pointing to the rich intellectual traditions of Hungary but blamed the lordly-disdain of liberals (left-liberals) for bringing about the current situation.

This argument left out the decisive and disastrous leaked speech of Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2006, the then MSzP (or Socialist) prime minister. I am not sure whether Umut regarded it as merely incidental, as just a trigger to a deeper process, or whether there was simply no time to deal with it. To my mind the Gyurcsány speech tied in with the concerns of the earlier paper about corruption. The argument also omitted any reference to  the increasing number and ferocity of religious assaults on symbols and institutions of social liberalism, but that would have been another large subject. We couldn't have expected him to cover that too. I only register these points as they seem worth mentioning.

Afterwards I asked whether there was only the one hard choice between liberalism / neo-liberalism on the one hand and conservatism / reaction on the other. What of social democracy on the Scandinavian model? The time for that was past, he answered (and others agreed). It was already passing in the 80s. The model was never quite what it is now painted now to be and it is redundant
(There was, in effect, no Third Way).
He may be right on that. We will see what Syriza come up with in Greece and what that leads to though I have no great confidence in single state solutions.

I was however taken by his critique of liberalism. I could readily see the justice of much of it and it bore directly on the question of Hungarian identity in my own speech later that day.

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