The new protests and protest movements that emerged in the late autumn of 2014 in Hungary created the impression among many observers and participants that the erosion of the hitherto unshakeable Orbán-régime has begun, potentially leading to its disintegration within 1 or 2 years.
Why was this feeling widespread? The following reasons could be named, bearing in mind though that they are all based on anecdotal evidence and rudimentary observations, as no serious empirical analysis of the protests is available yet:
– a widely held feeling that many of the participants were previously politically inactive, first-time protesters, often quite young
– protests have spread to other cities than Budapest
– in contrast to the protests of 2011-2012, which in retrospect seem like the last gasp of the fallen-from-grace liberal political forces of the Wende, in these protests, liberals have played almost no part whatsoever. Instead new voices and figures have emerged
– the grievances and slogans of the protests went far beyond the critique of the incumbent administration and occasionally even hinted at a categorical rejection of the entire period since 1990, provoking the anger of not only the government media, but of neoliberal outlets and noted liberal dignitaries of the Wende as well
Do the protests raise any hope from an anti-capitalist perspective? Clearly, it is the last point of those mentioned above that holds at least the possibility of a strengthening of anti-capitalist attitudes. We have to be very clear and underline that the criticism of the Orbán-régime does not necessarily come in progressive forms, but also has a neoliberal and even a fascist variety.
It is true that in terms of its (anti-)welfare and many other policies the régime pursues a purely neoliberal line (flat tax, increase of the VAT to 27%, decimation and outright elimination of benefits), which in its anti-poor brutality is on par with the slash-and-burn austerity policies of the Troika in Southern Europe. Cuts in the Hungarian case are not spread over (i.e., not extended to middle strata), but are almost completely concentrated on the poorest 30-50% of society, leading to an explosion in the percentage of those under the poverty line and severely deprived according to recent surveys.
On the other hand, the administration did substantially deviate from the neoliberal canon when it heavily tapped into the profits of a number of sectors (finance, telecommunication, retail) dominated by multinationals, raising extra revenue up to a few percent of GDP per annum. This made it possible to eschew some austerity measures that would have impacted the middle classes and pensioners (cuts in the nominal value of pensions and public sector wages, mass redundancies in the public sector on the scale experienced in Greece), and also to launch investment programs and buy-outs to build up or strengthen the positions of domestic capitalists supportive of the administration. To describe these latter programs as corruption affairs is a significant understatement. It is very likely true that some of the attacks coming from the West targeting the administration are indeed motivated by the interests that have been damaged by these ‘unorthodox’ measures. The owners and managers of multinational companies outside and some of their highly qualified domestic employees within Hungary dislike the administration for this very specific reason and when calling for ’change‘ and ‘normality’ what they probably have in mind is a return to the orthodox neoliberalism of Troika-style technocratic governments (such as the one led by Gordon Bajnai in Hungary during 2009-2010). Such attitudes are coupled in the case of the remnants of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia with an abhorrence – in itself very much understandable and justified – of the cultural character of the régime, manifested in the deluge of nationalist kitsch and the full-scale relegitimising of the interwar Horthy-régime. It is, however, also interesting to observe that for the neoliberal critics of the administration, this abhorrence is not coupled anymore with a critique of its antidemocratic drift, as the depoliticisation and creeping disenfranchisement of the populace is tacitly perceived as desirable by them as well, even if the preferred means to this end might be different. Here, the pro-Western, neoconservative (conditional) supporters of the administration and its neoliberal critics find a point of agreement. Together, these groups represent a significant number of people in the capital and some of them have surely attended the protests. Beyond them, the idea of ‘catch-up development’ to Western Europe is – somewhat surprisingly in the light of the last 25 years – still not fully discredited in the eyes of many, who are definitely not beneficiaries of Troika-style neoliberalism in an objective, economic sense. Without an alternative narrative, however, they paradoxically choose to march against the government with the flag of European neoliberalism (ie. the EU-flag), notwithstanding the fact that this very flag is the hated symbol of anti-democratic and viciously anti-poor austerity policies all over Southern Europe, very much similar to those of Mr. Orbán.
A third aspect of Mr Orbán’s reign is the progressive erosion of bourgeois political pluralism, the rule of law and division of powers.
Among the emotions palpable at the protests the strongest was the disgruntlement concerning anti-poor cutbacks, various corruption affairs (these are, arguably, actually part of a process that goes deeper, i.e. the construction of a petty and grand bourgeoisie faithful to and dependent on the governing party Fidesz and its régime) and anti-democratic measures. For the emergence of anti-capitalist attitudes in the near future the following points seem crucial:
If they are to survive and draw in larger groups of Hungarian society, beyond the young Budapest middle class, the protests would have to unequivocally break with the neoliberal critique of the administration. It would have to become clear that in the – anyhow rather limited – conflict of interests between the government and its domestic business allies on the one hand and certain foreign-owned companies on the other, neither the government nor Western business and neoliberal and imperialist institutions (be they the EU, the IMF or the American government) shall receive the support of society, as both are its enemies. Laid-off government employees, underpaid school-teachers or the students of the crumbling university system are not upset because of the reduced profits of Auchan, OTP or Erste Bank (or at any rate it’s hard to see why they should be). At the moment, it is reasonable from a tactical point of view for the protests to concentrate their full firepower on the government, but even on the short term it would be arguably necessary to break from the neoliberal critique of the Orbán-régime to increase the mass base of the protest to a critical level.
When it comes to corruption affairs these are usually spoken of as examples of the greed of those in power or of ‘politicians’ in general. In contrast, it is ultimately clear that they are a systemic feature of semi-peripheral capitalism: the ‘national bourgeoisie’ cannot keep afloat without government assistance, just as those state-dependent middle-class groups ideologically close to a particular government, as the employment capacity of the highly dysfunctional economic system created after 1990 is extremely meagre. It is only with a fundamental change of the class character of the state that these patterns could change. If social mobilisation reaches a critical level – something that can occur only with a long period of laying its preconditions – it could put a stop to the regressive policies of ‘perverse redistribution’ favouring the ‘national’ bourgeoisie and upper-middle class only. Surely, the hurdle to this is not that such a shift – if existing as a political option – would not have enough support in an electoral sense. Due to Hungary’s semi-peripheral position in the world system, the spectrum of those whose life prospects are damaged every day by the regressive policies of post-1990 ‘offshore-democracy’ spans from the permanently unemployed underclass to substantial groups of the middle classes. In other words, the relevant ‘coalition of interests’ in an objective sense is surely more than the majority. The barrier to the actual formation of such a coalition is rather the Orbán-régime itself at the moment, but beyond that, the subjective (cultural etc.) and objective (incorporated in the party system and the institutions and apparatuses of the state) hegemony of the post-1990 capitalist status quo. This is, however, something not impossible to change in the long term.
Beyond that, if the protestors are serious about breaking with the ways of the last 25 years and their disastrous consequences on living standards, the target in the end would have to become the entire system of post-1990 Hungarian capitalism and the ‘hyperexploitation‘ both by foreign and domestic capitalists that it has meant. Simply put, in the economic system that emerged after the Wende the reproduction of labour power on the same level of skills etc. as inherited from the state socialist system is not paid for by the capitalist class, either because they are unable to cover these costs or because they can afford not to do so, with the willing help of various administrations. This situation has led to the systematic destruction of the social infrastructure observed in the last 25 years and a concomitant ‘downgrading’ of Hungarian society. To what extent these processes could be reversed (or at least mitigated) within the narrow constraints of the Hungarian economy and state is of course questionable, but a certain outcome of the process of long-term mobilisation, that is perhaps the most important of all, would be a dramatic change in the awareness of the population of its objective position in the capitalist world-system.
All this is still a remote possibility at this point. However, the recent protests were the first time that such a perspective could even be envisioned. Those who are thinking ‘beyond capital’ (István Mészáros) already now – not because of some personal obsession, but quite simply as they see no other way towards a more humane society, and more and more even for the survival of human civilisation – cannot but tell others, wherever and however they can, why and how Hungarian society finds itself where it is now and what might be a way out. Whether there is a readiness and affinity for such an analysis and perspective on the part of those on the streets might become clearer in the following months.
Mihály Koltai, Editor of the Hungarian quarterly Eszmélet, www.eszmelet.hu