“This Generation Has a Flash of Realization in the Middle of a Crisis”: A Discussion on the Student demonstrations in Hungary

In December 2012 students started a series of demonstrations against recent government reforms of higher education. In Budapest and many other towns the students set up discussion forums, organized strikes, and occupied streets, squares and bridges. Besides the slowly reacting official national and local Student Union (HÖK, HÖOK), the newly organized Student Network (SN, HaHa) has had a major role in organizing events. SN aims to be a horizontally, bottom-up organized body representing the interests of students. On December 10, at the forum of SN, students accepted a list of six major demands. While the official student union was attempting to negotiate a compromise with the representatives of the government and the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the SN presented an ultimatum to the government: unless they meet the demands by February 11, the students will use all means to exert pressure. The six points of SN are the following:

 

1. We demand the comprehensive reform of public and higher education.
2. The limit of the number of students enrolled in a particular institution must be kept at least at the level of the 2011 numbers.
3. Stop budget cuts and return the denied funds.
4. Cancel “student contracts” and do not limit movement of graduated students abroad.
5. University autonomy is to be kept intact.
6. The comprehensive reform must ensure that underprivileged families have the chance of sending their children to get higher education.

 

The following discussion took place on January 14, 2013 among activists of the Student Network and members of the Public Sociology Working Group „Helyzet”.

 

Participants: Gergő Birtalan (GB), Márk Áron Éber (MAE), Ambrus Fatér (AF), Ágnes Gagyi (AG), Csaba Jelinek (CSJ), András Szépe (ASZ), Fruzsina Márta Tóth (FMT)

Notes taken by: Gergő Pulay

Edited by: Ágnes Gagyi, Gergő Pulay

Translated by: Tibor Meszmann T.

 

List of Acronyms, in order of appearance

SU, Student Union – Hallgatói Önkormányzat, HÖK

NSU National Conference of Student Unions – Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája, HÖOK

SN Student Network, Hallgatói Hálózat, HaHa

CASSTCollege for Advanced Studies in Social Theory – Társadalomelméleti Kollégium, TEK

IAL Interest Association of Lágymányos – Lágymányosi Érdekképviseleti Közösség, LÉK

ELTE  EötvösLórándUniversity, Budapest

EN  Educators’ Nework – Oktatói Hálózat, OHA

CHR  Conference of Hungarian Rectors, – Magyar Rektori Konferencia, MRK

TDTU  Teachers’ Democratic Trade Union  – Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, PDSZ

 

The Beginnings and the Waves of mobilization

 

ASZ: In 2010 Fidesz won elections securing an absolute, two-thirds majority in the parliament, and then reforms in the higher education started. In winter 2010 limitations were instituted in the jurisdiction of the constitutional court, and then we organized the first small protests against proposed reforms in higher education and the closing of CorvinusUniversity, and we also convened the first university forum. This initiative then died out: from then on, people organized themselves only informally. In addition, the original group split into two. Some considered taking action within the legal institutional framework, as they were concerned about the rule of law. In our view, however, this was a neoliberal austerity measure, which then limited of the rule of law.

CSJ: Already in spring 2011 some SN founders from the College for Advanced Studies in Social Theory (CASST) came to the conclusion that the austerity policies of Orbán were necessarily intertwined with degradation of the rule of law, that is, that the problem of democratic deficit cannot be separated from the management of the economic crisis, or the economic policies that increase inequalities. However there was a need for permanent balancing both within the SN and for the more general public in terms of the level of radical formulation of our all-encompassing criticism and its application into practice.

AF: The crucial starting point was in January-February 2012. Then the issue was that they will close down universities. The reason students could be mobilized so easily was that the future was at stake. The leftist message was not channeled in, instead it was shouted down at the time. The simplest thing to do was to claim that they want to take away the universities.

GB: If we would ask all the participants one by one for their reasons for joining in, they would give us various answers. The common thing was the demand for self-organization and democracy, in other words to allow ourselves to become active.  Why has this happened exactly now and why was this the threshold of response? Everybody asks this. We need events. Many reached the point of being fed up only now, which can bring us another layer of people.

AF: There are many first year students who have already signed their student contracts.

FMT: That is, now there is a unilateral contract, and you signed an agreement that in exchange for receiving education you cannot leave the country.

ASZ: Why did the wall break down now? It is because the government started to do more outrageous things, and the group did not need to start from zero. The people feel they have influenced something, there is an expansion now because many are experiencing democracy. Since the movement is still in formation, everyone feels that he/she has an impact, and this builds up a community. At the same time, everything is covered by the media, so the whole thing is a huge dose of adrenalin. Such things materialize, which are unknown to this country. Students are marching on the streets and they do not know where to. Some organizers of the protests in 2010 at the time were even against the previously announced demonstration against the authorities, and now this has happened. After the action in early 2012 when we occupied the university, I felt that there was no issue, and that is the reason why we could not organize. Now it seems possible that the impetus will remain.

AF: During last year’s attempt, 3 people went out to other cities outside Budapest to engage in organization. It was impossible. We didn’t take the thought seriously that the issue needs wider publicity. Now the situation is different, as many people have been working on this continuously. So far we have not dared to bring issues into the public discourse, we only reacted. There were too few of us to engage in actions. Even at the protest organized because of the plagiarism scandal of the President Pál Schmitt there were only 20 of us. It is also significant that last year it was the members of the CASST who started to organize, a closed and homogeneous intellectual millieu that cannot really accommodate other people. In 2012, the role of the Interest Association of Lágymányos (IAL) from the ELTE Sociology Department increased. ICL was way more interested in practical activism. We had watched the Croatian documentary “Blockade” on the university occupation in 2009, then they (ICL) started to organize the strike. We got a new impetus after the strike, but few former SN members joined. Now we are at the stage where the government has received an ultimatum which states that if demands are not met, then there will be a demonstration on February 11.

CSJ: We can describe the activities of SN as alternations between proactive and reactive phases. During the formation of SN we could only react to the government’s reforms in higher education that is only to some of its elements. But we gathered enthusiasm from this, enthusiasm which we could then channel into building open space, proactivism, organizational work and defining the agenda. The organizational forms, the personal networks and know-how that emerged during this period enabled SN to operate with much shorter reaction time. Therefore the proactive phase was much more efficient. In December 2012 there was an SN meeting convened exactly on the day when the most outrageous governmental announcement was scheduled. Thus events have picked up speed.

 

Generations

 

AF: The group became larger and accommodated new people. The critical thing was that there were no significant ideological debates, there was a flow which we accepted. The people from ICL were more open to this – they’ve had a pro-movement attitude for years, half-way to a theatrical performance or way of life. The guys from CASST have been more rational, among them the mind has dominated over the heart.

CSJ: The age difference is important, even if it consists only of a few years. When the guys from CASST started the SN, they were part of other civil initiatives too. Those who get into this as first year students or at age 20 are quickly absorbed, they do not think that much about their use of time. When I was 19 I went to the protest against the WTO, and I saw there only old Marxists. Maybe twice a year there was a protest, even if it wasn’t so leftist at least there were many of us. That was approximately what revolutionary romanticism meant at that time. Therefore those few years are of decisive importance, and also to what environment of movements and infrastructure one could get socialized into in one’s youth.  Because of this the few years of difference matters so much.

FMT: It has simply an absorbing effect, because you can talk about issues about which you always wanted to talk. This is a community experience, it is about many people who share the same problems and they empower themselves individually and also each other.

GB: Such individuals, who’ve now made a move, are the ones who were otherwise occupied with issues of class performance or with the quality of their job interview. And now they say “the forum was so great, I even went out to the bridge, but later I had to fix some food for the cat.” For them this is like an amusement parka new adventure, a sort of sensation.

FMT: People feel that they should help and that they should join. We cannot describe what they felt, but on the third day they were sitting here at Frisco club. People did not change their way of thinking after the 1989. Now a generation in their twenties has appeared who have grown up completely in this world.

AG: In Hungary, typically only the circle of liberal intellectuals are concerned with the abstract issue of democracy. How it possible, that so many young people is interested now in democracy?

GB: A political counter-culture is in the making. This is a generation which is seeking its identity, which does not have its own defined concepts, its own political culture. People identify with this initiative not because they already have a common identity but because this is something completely new. Something that gives hope. Whatever is beyond this will occur much later. Also I see myself at the beginning of this process. I don’t know how this generational experience will develop further and what turns, directions it will take. On February 15, 2012, during the occupation of the university I was sitting there, and I felt that, damn, the task is here, this is what we’re supposed to be doing! But this was present only among organizers, and not the public, which is still a different feeling.  We talk little about feelings within SN, but as more and more join, this is changing too. There is a general direction, but the exact details of it are changing with every single person who joins, everyone brings in something new, something different. The waves of expansion are changing the group. After the forum in December, the group doubled in size – new faces previously unknown to us appeared and remained in the group.

 

Ideology and simple experience

 

AF: Ideology is forming and together with it also the direction of our fundamental message. And this has not developed into a policy direction. The SN recognized, that it cannot break out from a policy framework as it also cannot break out from a movement’s ideology. We realized that we need to find a frame to which many issues could be linked. Public education and the general question of education are those kinds of questions, since they can be expanded and could include almost everything.  It helps creating a democracy supporting movement even when the ideology behind it is not equivocal.

CSJ: During the first forum in December, there was an uproar, but there was no clear conception of what to do. Strangely enough, at one point it seemed as if the organizers were less radical than the participants. Then at another point someone said, let’s go to the bridge! Marching onto the bridge did not happen because of ideological reasons, but only because people got going. These are spontaneous things that come from gut. The question is what ideology will match it. Our experience is that not rational but emotional persuasion matters. This brings us to a novel way of engaging in politics, in which the form and not necessarily the ideology defines joint thinking. We don’t say that we want to subvert neoliberalism. Instead, a simple experience of an event in itself negates the established order.

GB: In principle it was not a question of ideological persuasion, but only of immediate action: act and then figure out what you want! In building up the movement we are still at the fundamentals. We still need an appropriate base. Our conclusions are for the time being of a technical nature only.

AG: There is no ideological consensus even among the organizers?

GB: This is probably like Occupy, as it demands real democracy.

AF: The forums are meaningful since everyone can have a say and a voice, this should work as long as it works. Otherwise the movement is obviously oppositional, but not only against the present government but against the whole current political elite. This political elite is bankrupt, it has no credibility, we need a system change in public discourse.

ASZ: I felt that many were outraged by Orbán.

GB: This was one of the mechanisms, and of course we’re waiting for the elections in 2014, but for us Orbán is not the key figure. We need to get over it, the mood of the crowd is already demanding this. Overthrowing Orbán would not imply overthrowing this whole system. In other words, the same stuff would go on, so this becomes trivial.

AF: The issue of education is always fragile, they can always reallocate funds from here. Therefore we need action not only against Orbán, but against the political elite.

CSJ: We’re building a new subculture. Although everyone reaches it from a different millieu, the subculture has already got its own pub, its own blog, maybe it will soon have its own music, too.  This is a greater achievement than an organization could have ever achieved.

 

Distrust and autonomy

 

AG: In the fora, as at the University of Technology[1], many have experienced the “flesh” of participation, but who was protesting in front of the parliament?

GB: At the parliament the group was more specific. They are outraged, they live in the same insecurity as many others. Now there is a promise that security and predictability is achievable. They want to achieve this.

AG: That is a tough revolutionary slogan, that students in front of the parliament demand security and predictability.

AF: I see chances for a breakthrough. Those who are getting organized at the university are fed up with waiting for promises and security from others. The young students today are fed up with being told what to do, what to expect, what things will be like. They started to rely on themselves – “I have the brain to understand what is happening here, you cannot dupe me!” They don’t wait for peace and predictability; they’ve realized that they embody predictability themselves.

CSJ: This is not necessarily a discrepancy. They take their own destiny into their hands, they rely on themselves in order to demand predictability from the state. They demand from the government that they not be kept in insecurity. The point about solidarity also refers to this.

GB: They want an independent identity, this is what drives them, and I hope that this is what they want to provide for themselves. The fight against insecurity and distrust are the driving mechanisms. The political elite does not provide acceptable answers to these issues. During the 1990s, people expected to get the same as what is in the West. People were waiting not for democracy but for a better car instead of a Trabant.

MAE: And now the slogan of the students has appeared that we are the ones we have been waiting for all along.

 

Allies and foes

 

ASZ: Those who participate in the work of SN do not always pay attention to other actors. What is the relation to them? How has the behavior of NSU changed after the emergence of SN? At first they did not even react, but now they are cooperating. They also made a move, they saw that they needed to act differently in this situation. Rectors also brought in SN against the government. The appearance of the SN thus has an effect on the stability of the whole system.

GB: This approach is wishful thinking.

AF: They turned down the parties in the opposition, and there are no strong ties with interest groups representing university managers (such as EN, HRC, TDTU). The main contact is the NSU, the first meeting on political self-positioning happened with them. The relationship was difficult from the very beginning and it went hand in hand with disputes, but it was good since we had to adopt a standpoint. Recently we feel that we need to become proactive, but the NSU is replacing us, as it negotiates with the government and engages in dual discourse, what leads to tensions. They are negotiating, we’re doing something different.

GB: This is an important question for everyone who deals with organizing. In all our meta-discussions the issue of NSU’s fossilized system and hierarchy comes up. This is a system that built up its own counter-selective, corrupt network over decades. It has ties to the party, which always means the party in power. This system has a great inertia and impotence, as it selects people who think along these lines, who are careerists, opportunists, and to whom everything else compared to these principles are of secondary importance. I don’t expect more from them.

FMT: The present SU system is quite untransparent. First, on the faculty level the students directly elect the delegates, who then form the assembly. From then on students don’t have a say in elections, since the delegates’ assembly elects the president of the SU. The elected president appoints presidents of various committees (if I’m well informed, at ELTE there are 8 committees like this). The next level is the university level SU (USU), which is elected only by and among SU members. Thus students are not involved in elections directly. The SU president then appoints presidents of various committees at the university level. If that’s not complicated enough, then the national level SU (NSU) starts from here. Students cannot identify with this system precisely because they do not directly elect even presidents of the SU at the faculty level. The electoral turnout among students is ridiculously low. Elections are often repeated when the turnout doesn’t reach the 20% threshold. I know of a case where students got bars of chocolate if they voted. So you could buy a vote with a bar of chocolate? This is quite bitter. On the other hand, to me it is impossible to comprehend that the NSU president is supposed to represent the interests of the students as an elected representative. The system is terribly closed, those who get in have to stay for years in the NSU in order to reach a position. This is probably the reason why the members of the NSU presidency are so old (age 26-28). Interestingly, the members of the SU transfer in a much easier way from student status of tuition fee payer into a tuition waver, state supported status, plus they get subsidies, bonuses, a sort of extra payment. It is not surprising that they don’t want to leave the system. It’s sad that during the last 20 years we were not able to make even the interest representative system at the universities more democratic. If this is so, what can we expect from the state and politics?

GB: By the time you reach the end of the procedure, you are corrupt.

AF: The NSU, the university level political structures has the same political culture as the whole Hungarian political system. Politics and university level cadres are linked, since many political parties train their cadres there. Parties and universities are tied, as this is the same structure. Through NSU, you can get into the state apparatus. These small cadres are polishing the apple in the same way as those in the parliament. They employ the same dual discourse, for example when decisions are made after negotiations, during informal talks. We have an insight into how this system operates. Mr Balog, the Minister of Education is a theologian who also has a law degree, thus through the issue of human rights he might have a tiny bit of knowledge about the branch of humanities. But he is in charge of this whole sector, the four most problematic branches! He should have chosen a diplomatic career instead. During the negotiations he mostly doesn’t understand what is it all about, he comprehends financing higher education on the level of the tabloid media. The members of NSU are coming up with policy based texts, while he answers with party propaganda. There is an internal struggle among the ministries, and those who are supposed to represent education are pressured from above: by the Ministry of Economy, the cabinet for communication, and by Orbán himself. The members of the NSU sometimes get a statement on A4 paper that they need to read out. Among many sources of pressure, they don’t know how to decide, with whom to comply. In the meantime local SUs have started to act more autonomously, political opportunism and the struggle for internal autonomy is also characteristic of the local levels. It’s similar to the struggle among ministries. The NSU wants to tear apart the SN, to prevent a national level organization. But they are not only parts of the system, they are also its victims. This system is figured out for this kind of people, one has to be like that to become a SU member. If you join, you are a dead soul. The fundamentals of this system need to be destroyed. If we defeat them, we will also defeat the big players.

GB: All of this stuff is about the struggle of subsystems. Partly we exist because of this system, if this wasn’t the case then we also might not have such a great motivation. Ministries are fighting each other just like enterprises for state funds during the Kadar era. You start to see this as a student, and you say it cannot be like that. This brings motivation, from here the initiative takes off. Orbanism gets bankrupt here. These students are immune to this; it’s all the same to them which kind of bullshit they get – national cooperation and all the other incomprehensive concepts of the government. These youngsters see only that they get nothing, and therefore they do not trust those who exercise power.

 

Solidarity

 

GB: The political elite does not offer solutions, the middle class is going down, and those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, they don’t know what they are going to eat tomorrow. During this process now we can address broader and broader layers of the public, maybe after a while also those who are at the social bottom. It’s possible that they don’t consider going to the university, but we consider this as an option, we are in solidarity with them, it’s there in point 6.

MAE: The 6th point first contained the concept of the lower class, now it became the concept of the underprivileged. I was arguing for the concept of class, but they considered it too loaded in a negative sense, and that’s why we did not bring it in.

AF: Education provides us with a good common denominator, since it can bring in broad social layers, even those living in deep poverty. This thought brings the struggle into action that can be developed further, as many general social grievances meet here, among them those of today’s high school graduates. Education can nurture democracy. For example, it can teach us what the global economy or credit is, in case the government wants this kind of enlightenment too, and not to keep people in stupidity. Education needs reform in order to make democracy possible. Now they attempt to smash higher education, which was weak even until now. This is not a solution. We have a problem with the educational policy of the last 20 years: we would like to see reforms from the kindergarten up to all levels.  From here we can bring in the issue of deep poverty, which is due to segregation already present in kindergarten, but it is the strongest in elementary schools.

AG: We come to a point where it’s not a remote issue at stake, but a grievance that directly affects people. However, most of those who participate in protests are those who are not affected. Therefore the issue of solidarity is also important, as the protesters are also there for those who could not pay their tuition fees.

GB: Why does a society define its social guarantees and safety nets? This is the basis of consensus, since we all recognize that we can become socially disadvantaged, too, in the future.

AF: This generation is coming to its senses in the middle of a crisis. Even my own existence is not secured. What will become of me in a couple of years, or what will the value of my diploma be, will I have a job? The promise that remained from the Kadar-era, that a university diploma guarantees a job, has completely lost its validity. Today we think differently about unemployment. Although it is still present only on the emotional level and it isn’t defined rationally, it is still important. There were no ideological quarrels and there are no divisions within the movement. If it comes to light that someone understands the whole thing purely from the perspective of his or her own career, the group automatically pushes the person out.  Those people are individually sidelined. They cannot get enough space for self-promotion as we are full of charismatic people.


[1] Budapest University of Technology and Economics. The original Hungarian name of the university is Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem – BME.

 

Materiale video despre protestele studenţilor ungari: