G.M. Tamás, a leading Eastern European thinker, recently paid a visit to Bratislava during a demonstration against the march of Slovakian neo-fascists. On the eve before the protest, Lukáš Likavčan held a conversation with him about the Momentum Movement in Hungary, populism, solidarity, the betrayal of the left, and the possibility of left-wing movements in contemporary Eastern Europe being unique, historical developments.
Lukáš Likavčan: In Hungary, a young anti-Orbán grassroots movement, the Momentum Movement, recently claimed a major success in its campaign for a referendum on the country’s Olympic bid. Do you believe that this movement can be a game-changer for Hungarian politics?
G.M. Tamás: They [the Momentum Movement] are not likely to win the next elections, but they represent a new brand of politics. These people are taking from the right most of its prejudices without accepting all its policies, and taking some of the policies of the moderate left and of the liberals, without confessing that they are either on the moderate left or that they are liberals. There are similar movements emerging all across Europe, such as the USR movement in Romania – already quite successful and in Parliament – and the movement of Emmanuel Macron, who seems to be the most successful candidate for the French presidency.
Take this for an example. The leader of the Momentum Movement says in all his interviews that in the last elections he voted for Mr Orbán’s party, to show that he was not some sort of “foreign agent,” Judeo-liberal or Commie. Many people in Hungarian civil society (e.g. the teacher’s movement) did the same. It gives them a clean bill of health in the eyes of the majority, as it were. They would also curse all the parties that since 1989 have played a role on either the left or in the liberal middle, therefore conforming to the common prejudice that there are indeed some anti-nationalist forces operating, destroying the backbone of our nation, and selling us off to Europe, liberals, feminists, egalitarians, vegetarians or some other diabolical things of this kind.
People from the Momentum Movement conform to this common prejudice and at the same time, they go against the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-egalitarian measures of the government. But they do it very carefully. They would say: “We don’t have any ideology. We’re neither right nor left, but we’ll go to every single town and village in Hungary and ask people’s opinions. Problems shouldn’t be approached by any theory,” and so forth. This is their Neanderthal theory of politics – namely that there are no political concepts at all, only experiences and interests and prejudices. These movements have also a very strong generational and class bias. Everywhere the young are told to be young, untainted by the curses of the past, either by communism or by the democratic system of the last quarter of a century. They speak of the past with a tone of voice that suggests some mysterium tremendum of evil. The past is a crime, but our national traditions must be venerated. Also, they are cool.
So you would say there is not even a tiny piece of populist strategy involved in such a political movement?
If you consider populists as being those who are courting public opinion, then yes, they’re very good at it. But I don’t want to paste any label on them. What is tragic is that these people think that political theories are invalid by the virtue of being theories, and that all what we need is an efficient public administration and a healthy national consciousness. It’s very interesting that the campaign against the Olympic games didn’t address problems linked to professional sports (corruption, chauvinism, the spreading of the worst spirit of competition: a metaphor for both capitalism and war) or to mass tourism. It was all about the Olympics being too expensive. No other aspect of this was touched upon, because that would have been controversial – and they don’t court controversy, they want just consensus and, hence, popularity and, hence, electoral success. Momentum appeared in the name of the smallest common denominator, devoid of any ideas.
In your recent article, you have argued against the widespread discourse that claims the politics of Orbán, Fico or Szydło/Kaczyński are populistic. Could you clarify your position on this?
It’s very paradoxical that now it is egalitarians who are accused of being the elite in virtue of the simple fact that they happen to be a minority at the moment.
Historically, there is no kind of populism that wasn’t based on the popular majority feeling resentment towards the elite, whether imagined or real. Hungary and Poland are authoritarian regimes, and as elitist as any, they want the support of the voters – which is nothing new – just as does anyone who wants to win an election. But to simply want to win an election is not populism. Even Charles de Gaulle wanted to win the elections. So? If someone considers populism a system excluding popular participation in favour of the most extreme versions of inequality, that’s silly. As an example, consider that Mr. Trump has been accused of being a populist. Well, he’s a demagogue – and not all demagogues are populist. Certainly, he wanted a majority and he’s got it. But it turns out his voters were, on average, wealthier than the voters of his opponent; most of the policies he has proposed are not advantageous to the popular majority; and he and his milieu are composed of some of the richest people in the world. But the latter wouldn’t be so important if their appointment wouldn’t be consonant with the anti-popular measures he’s proposing. He does not, in any sense, represent the interests of the popular majority.
It’s very paradoxical that now it is egalitarians who are accused of being the elite in virtue of the simple fact that they happen to be a minority at the moment. But were utopian socialists in the 1830s the elite? I think the Paris bankers and Saint-Simonists and Orléanists were the elite, and the fact that utopian socialists were a small minority didn’t make them elitist. So it is totally ridiculous to consider, for example, liberal and leftist university people in America as being the elite. The elite is on Wall Street, in the secret services, in the military, in Washington DC. Those are the people who have the prestige and power of traditional elites. Putting everything upside down – and not in fact, only rhetorically – is not a very valuable method of political analysis or social theory.
But we can conversely ask whether there is a necessary connection between populism and emancipatory politics?
This link is contingent, but there is a greater chance for an egalitarian movement to have some emancipatory content than for an anti-egalitarian movement.