Interview: G. M. Tamás on the Anti-Immigration Referendum in Hungary

Note from the LeftEast editors: in run up to the anti-immigration referendum in Hungary (today 02 Oct 2016), Mary Taylor and Agnes Gagyi from the editorial board of LeftEast interviewed Hungarian Marxist philosopher and public intellectual G. M. Tamás on the current developments in Hungary and their connections with wider global-historical processes.

LeftEast: On October 2 in Hungary there will be a referendum on the European migrant quotas. What work does this referendum do on the level of the Hungarian nation-state? How do you see the relationship of the referendum to processes on the international scale?

tgmG.M. Tamás: The October 2 referendum is important, first of all, because of the campaign that preceded it: such a gigantic wave of racist state propaganda has never been seen in Europe since the end of the second world war. It is everywhere: from giant billboards to new elementary school textbooks, from the internet to hundreds of thousands of personal phone calls civil servants were forced to make to mobilise for the ‘no’ vote. The outcome in terms of opinion is not in doubt, the ‘nos’ will be probably be over 80 per cent; but in order to have the required quorum, beyond brain-washing, large-scale vote-rigging is expected, as the ‘opposition’ parties failed to avail themselves of the right to send observers into the electoral commissions which will count the ballot. Intimidation, threats, slander, conspiracy theories, racial stereotypes, downright lies are being spread by the government propaganda machine on a scale never seen before. Even the official far right (the Jobbik party) is shocked. All this is having an effect: I overheard on the train a village labourer talking to some old ladies about the Jewish plot led by the aged billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, supposedly to bring Arabs to Europe to avenge themselves on Christendom and offering them $20,000 a head to attack Hungary and other white countries. So the main import is the change in the political climate – towards xenophobia and racism – and the acceptance of dictatorial and authoritarian measures and practices by the exhausted, frightened and puzzled population.

The adroit government propaganda does not do anything else. It just shifts the blame for the general dissatisfaction with the disastrous results of ‘transition’ or ‘régime change’ after 1989, with the ravages of de-industrialisation, with the galloping inequality and with the collapse of the welfare systems, to ‘the foreigner’, in this case to the European Union. The amalgam of the rule of the market, of social and cultural decay, corruption, poverty and uncertainty together with the rhetoric of human rights, constitutionalism, minority rights, pluralism and toleration, the empty ‘European’ platitudes and pseudo-cosmopolitan proclivities of the vanishing liberal élites (‘pseudo’ because Budapest liberals are exhibiting symptoms of nationalist hostility towards Orthodox nations such as the Russians, Greeks, Romanians and Serbs) combined to form a formidable target for the ethnicist and authoritarian discourse. The massive purges in state institutions (including higher education, the arts, research and so on) have made the intelligentsia extremely vulnerable and little inclined to resistance and protest. Large parts of civil society, among others, trade unions and churches, have abandoned their critical stance, and more and more opposition figures are in the habit of announcing their support for the Orbán régime, maybe with a few formal caveats. The most popular opposition party is of the extreme right, now outdistanced in xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and racism by the notionally ‘moderate’ government and thus losing its influence. Nevertheless, the likely Orbán triumph at the referendum (I am writing this a day before the actual voting) in all probability will mean the peak of right-wing ideological hegemony – which of course might mean the strengthening of police methods and the further undermining of legality, accountability and transparency, in the absence of real opposition and of free media, not to speak of the rampant corruption that goes hand in hand with the replacement of a professional and politically neutral public administration with incompetent and rapacious oligarchic groups which are already in control of local government. At the same time, the Hungarian state is careful to have good relations with transnational corporations, keeps the deficit and the debt low, has introduced the single tax, has practically suppressed almost every kind of social assistance (except to some carefully selected sectors of the middle class), so it is a model pupil of Western neoliberalism – against which its leaders are wont to thunder on state television. As long as this régime presents no challenge to the economic and the military system influenced by the Western powers (and it does not), it is quite safe. After all, its anti-Islamic hate campaign – in the absence of any Muslim minority and with zero immigration – is not so dissimilar from what we hear from ever more influential Western political forces and leading politicians, albeit, sounding much more radical. It is rare for Western politicians to agree in public with Oriana Fallaci and Thilo Sarrazin – popularised here by the state press and state media – but many agree with them in petto. Nevertheless, it would appear that the popularity of the ethnicist régime has peaked and now what we’ll see is a slow and ugly dissolution. As it is going to be concomitant with a similar dissolution of the European Union (and much else), Orbán’s approaching local defeat (not in electoral terms, but in terms of hegemony) may not be noticed at all.

LeftEast: Regarding the launch of the campaign period for the 2018 election year in Hungary, you and other commentators have pointed to the significance of 1) the lack of considerable opposition press and 2) the accommodation of opposition parties and politicians to the Orbán regime. Can you comment on the details of these situations and their significance?

G.M.Tamás: It is true that the opposition media are extremely weak, especially with regards to the still dominant television and radio (private stations have been robbed of advertising revenue as businesses don’t dare to be associated with the ‘foreign-hearted’, ‘unpatriotic’ Left – which is, in fact, centre-right – and then were bought up by right-wing oligarchs close to or simply created by the government). The printed press and the internet are somewhat freer but similar tactics have begun to deplete their numbers, too. Similarly, some opposition parties have been either intimidated or partially bought, former Socialist and Green politicians are given plush diplomatic jobs, people close to the opposition parties have cozy deals with shady half-state agencies and state-instigated business ventures and investments. Opposition talk – with the exception of a small number of near-invisible micro-parties – is ever softer and more ‘patriotic’ or stops altogether. Leaders of NGOs and of social movements are busy announcing that they are not of the Left, that they want only technical and professional improvements in some areas, and so on. Fear also plays a part as purges in the cultural and academic realm, scandalous appointments of far right militants and ignoramuses in leading positions, plus the mass firing of civil servants (especially in the provinces) are threatening the job security of the middle class. Foreign support for various institutions of civil society, especially for human rights groups are under constant attack by the state and the right-wing media and by officials including ministers. ‘Soros-financed NGOs’ are a prime target. All this is is quite similar to the Putin and Erdoğan régimes but without arrests and assassinations. Intellectuals are cowed. More people protested openly in Hungary in 1977 and 1979 (that is, under a system called by everybody, even by itself, a dictatorship) against the arrest of Václav Havel than against the persecution of the refugees at our borders in 2015 and 2016. Although this is as much of a contravention of international rights covenants and treaties as that case was, only the victims are more numerous now. Even such left liberal world celebrities as the writer György Konrád announced their support to Mr Orbán’s barbed-wire fence at the Hungarian frontier. But fear and bribery would not be sufficient. And Mr Konrád is neither a coward, nor is he corrupt. He is a brave and honest person. But like him, more and more people, formerly in opposition, are convinced that the régime is right. Part of this is, of course, conformism: some people like to be of one mind with what they perceive as their community. The pressure of public opinion is enormous. Another part is genuine fear of the unknown personified by the Muslim migrant, by the terror threat, and the old European fear of the Orient strengthened by the 1989 identification of liberty with the West. Westernising late liberalism was not universalist and authentic enough to be able to offer intellectual and moral weapons against the new wave of racism and ethnicism. And the proper Left is too weak. It should be said that figures of the small independent Left were very economical with Zivilcourage, too. There is a general shift to the right, independent of Mr Orbán and his crew and which will survive him politically.

LeftEast: You have coined the term post-fascism to refer to a degradation of the idea of universal citizenship within the present crisis of global capitalism. Can you address how this term applies to Hungary, and what are its wider repercussions regarding present-day European and global politics? 

G.M.Tamás: It refers to Hungary, too, where – like in other places – citizenship is clearly a privilege, no ‘birthright’. I wrote that essay in 2000, and it has been proved right, alas, by the refugee and immigation crisis in the clearest fashion. Citizenship – even in the stunted form of a permitted presence and minimum chance of survival in a given territory, at a given point of inhabited social space – is denied to masses whose salvation is only this. Racial, ethnic, denominational (religious) and gender discrimination is worse everywhere than it was in 2000. When Jeremy Corbyn still affirms his belief in such a banal principle as the free movement of persons within Europe, even after England’s departure from the EU, he is criticised by The Guardian as a naïve tyro who doesn’t get it, yet. The inequality between rich and poor states, between states and stateless populations and between established and marginal groups within nation-states is a classical cause of and reason for war. This is not the ‘European civil war’ of the past (to wit, between socialism and capitalism or, if you wish, between communism and ‘European civilisation’, to quote Goebbels), it is the terminal decay of the modern international state system where there is no unifying common enemy for ‘liberal capitalism’ as it was the case from 1945 to 1989. True citizenship (that is, full rights, civic ‘empowerment’) is sold not by states but by capitalist corporations. Citizenship-as-privilege will probably end as no citizenship for anybody. Political subjecthood is becoming blurred, vague, unfathomable. Silly tags such as ‘populism’ and such won’t do it justice, the parallel disintegration of the political state and of civil society, foretold by Marx, will end in regressive matrices, with many revivals of archaic forms. The quasi-universal onslaught on women’s freedoms and dignity, the hatred of female sexuality from India to the Islamic world to Poland is a case in point. When you hear the Pope being called a communist (and, of course, in the pay of the Jews) you can realise the extent of the chaos. And all this can, and will, coexist peacefully with neoliberal global capitalism, as the concept of post-fascism allows.

LeftEast: Regarding Hungary’s right-wing government and its treatment of migration, commentators tend to refer alternately to “Hungarian government” and “Hungarians”. How do you see the relationship between “Hungarians” and the regime in the present context?

G.M.Tamás: No nation can be identified with a system of government. Governments are institutions ruled by certain ideas and, historically, identical with them. The majority of Germans have once made their peace with Nazism, and Germany today is the model country of an authentic liberalism, albeit in defensive. The majority of Hungarians today do support Mr Orbán’s semi-dictatorial, authoritarian, chauvinist, ethnicist and sexist régime based on clear-cut class politics favouring the middle strata, although that majority is yellowing at the edges. Mr Orbán will remain Mr Orbán, but the Hungarians will change. Post-fascism is no fatality, as no government and no state ideology is eternal, the question is only how long will it last.

G.M. Tamás, a Hungarian philosopher and a prolific writer of essays, was born in Kolozsvár/Cluj (Transylvania, Rumania) in 1948. After a brief spell as an associate editor of a Hungarian-language literary weekly, he was blacklisted from publishing and harassed by the secret police of the Ceauşescu régime. Forced to emigrate to Hungary in 1978, he taught for two years at the University of Budapest (ELTE), then he was fired for having published (and signed openly) illegal tracts in samizdat. He had subsequently become a leading figure in the East European dissident movements. From 1986 to the present day, he has held a number of visiting appointments (at Columbia, Oxford, Wilson Center, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Chicago, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Georgetown, Yale, New School etc.). He was elected to Parliament in 1990 and elected Director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1991. In 1994 and 1995, respectively, he has stepped down from both.  His views on political philosophy and political theory shifted gradually to the left. He is said to belong – with Žižek, Badiou, Kurz, Negri and others – to the company of heretical European Marxists.  Professor Tamás’s works (in Hungarian), are numerous: among others, an essay on Descartes (1977), Törzsi fogalmak (Tribal Concepts, collected philosophical papers, 2 vols, 1999), others had been translated into fourteen languages (or written directly in English), e. g., L’Oeil et la main (1985), Les Idoles de la tribu (1989), ‘Telling the Truth about Class’ (Socialist Register 2006), Innocent Power (2012), Postfascism şi anticomunism (2014), Kommunismus nach 1989 (2015) and so on. He has four children and lives – mainly – in Budapest, Hungary. He is in the habit of writing for newspapers and of speaking at demonstrations and left-wing gatherings.