“A new kind of right-wing extremism is on a roll in Hungary”

József Böröcz, a professor of sociology at the Rutgers University in the US, talks about the characteristics of the government and politics of Victor Orbán in Hungary and the possibilities of resistance

December 01, 2019 by Muhammed Shabeer
Hungarian politics
Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party continue their dominance in Hungarian politics, riding a hyper nationalist and Euro-skeptic campaign in the country. (Photo: DailyNewsHungary)

Hungary has been in the news in recent times, both due the relentless right-wing policies of the Fidesz party government of Victor Orbán and the minor yet promising success of the opposition against him. The working classes, students and academic community, and other progressive sections in Hungary have often registered their opposition to several of these policies. However, Orbán and his party continue their dominance over the Hungarian polity, riding on hyper-nationalist and Euro skeptic sentiments in the country. In recent local body elections, a united opposition made some electoral gains in the major cities of Hungary, even as the Fidesz party managed to maintain its overall edge. Peoples Dispatch (PD) spoke to political analyst and academic, József Böröcz, who hails from Hungary and is a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, United States, about the impact of Orbán’s policies on the various sections in the country and the characteristics of his political campaign.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): Why does Viktor Orbán intend to control the autonomous research institutes in the country? What will be its implications and why should it be opposed?

József Böröcz (JB): Indeed, Orbán’s government has used its legislative majority essentially to take over direct control of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Like all erstwhile state socialist societies, Hungary’s Academy of Sciences is a hybrid institution. It is the collective body of the country’s greatest natural scientists, as well as scholars in the humanities and the social sciences – established as a replica of the Academy of France in the early 19th century. Most of the country’s current research institutes were either created, or brought under the “umbrella” of the Academy of Science in the early years of state socialism, by government decree. So, the Academy began functioning, partly like a largely symbolic community of scholars, partly much like a “Ministry of Science,” providing stable funding for research and channeling the state’s interests, wishes, needs, strategic emphases, etc. to the country’s research establishment. With the collapse of state socialism in 1989, this “hybrid” arrangement remained intact – in fact, it was expanded. A series of post-state-socialist laws in fact set aside government funding for the Academy research institutes, while also guaranteeing their autonomy.

Over time, many things had changed. With the country’s entry into the European Union in 2004, Hungary became eligible for infrastructural subsidies from the EU’s central budget. The amount of these transfers from the EU to Hungary, and all other middle-income societies of east-central and south-eastern Europe, of course dwarfs in comparison to the profits taken out of this region by foreign Big Capital in the west European member states of the EU. But the subsidies are significant enough to have created their own “universe,” a context in which being able to participate in competitions for, and win, EU subsidies became the extremely rich resource for domestic private capital. In Hungary, an astonishing percentage of such subsidies coming from the EU are routinely won by a handful of capital groups, many of which enjoy excellent informal network ties with the prime minister’s immediate family. One of his childhood friends, a former plumber, is widely considered to be the country’s richest businessman. His father, as well as his son-in-law, starting a generation ago from very humble beginnings, are both owners of companies listed among the 100 richest businesses in Hungary. 

The government of Hungary has argued that there were three main political problems with the research infrastructure of the Academy of Sciences. First, there was, the government argued, too much of a divide between basic research and applied, profit-making research. Second, the autonomy of the Academy had effectively provided academic freedom: it shielded many scholars critical of the government from the government’s wrath. Third, the government has had little to no influence on the structure and the areas of the research done in these institutions. The government’s representatives have repeatedly indicated that there is too much emphasis on the humanities and the social sciences, as well as other high-abstraction fields. So, the government has decided to alter the legal environment in which the Academy institutes work, such that they lose their autonomy to a government-appointed oversight body. I should point it out that the idea of taking away the financial security and substantive autonomy of the research network of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was not the current government’s invention. Plans that were remarkably similar had been drafted by earlier, neo-liberal governments. The only difference is that the current government has actually managed to implement such neo-liberal reforms.

In the process, the government has collectively humiliated the entire Hungarian research infrastructure – I should add, quite a remarkably high-quality one at that, for a country of under ten million people – as well as the current president of the Academy of Sciences, a world-renowned mathematician.

The removal of the autonomy of the research institutes means that those institutions will now be subject to radical neo-liberal restructuring and that those products of their work that are suitable for “marketization” will now be converted to for-profit products, most likely with EU monies, and most likely to benefit the already oligarchic close circle around the prime minister.

PD: What was Orbán’s problem with administration of the Central European University (CEU)? What is the current status of that issue and in what way has it affected the academic prospects of the university?

JB: Central European University (CEU) was established as an US-accredited graduate school in the social sciences. It relocated physically to Hungary, after its initial tri-city (Warsaw-Prague-Budapest) arrangement failed, about a generation ago. Calling it a “university” is somewhat imprecise as, under Hungarian law, an institution is a university if it has not only MA and PhD-training but also undergraduate (BA) programs, which CEU does not. Several plans were drafted to transform it into a private BA-granting institution but all of them had been abandoned, at least until now. Beyond this technicality, there was also a problem with the fact that CEU claimed to be “a US university” while it had, for quite a while, basically no demonstrable presence in the US, other than formal accreditation with the state of New York, and perhaps an office address. CEU has also established its own mirror institution in Hungary, a non-profit registered under the same name as Central European University – only in Hungarian. The newly created mirror organization conforms to all rules and regulations that apply to all Hungarian universities (a nightmare of bureaucratic hassles). CEU decided to re-double itself partly to make a gesture to the Hungarian government, partly in order to be able to issue diplomas that are automatically valid within the European Union (while a US degree is not, making it slightly more complicated for its graduates to attain jobs requiring graduate degrees in the European Union), partly to make itself eligible for the sizeable research funding schemes established by the European Commission, applicable only to institutions registered within the EU. This “mirror” organization is alive and doing reasonably well, given the circumstances. 

Trouble is, the bigger and much more powerful, US-accredited CEU became the object of concentrated harassment, vicious lies and bureaucratic tampering on part of the Hungarian government, leading to its self-removal to Vienna (250 km west of Budapest). It has just opened its first semester in Vienna a few days ago. So currently, there exist two CEUs, one registered as a Hungarian institution, physically in Budapest, and another, run as a US-accredited institution, issuing MA and PhD-programs, granting US degrees, based physically in Vienna. The Vienna-based unit has begun renovating a large and very grand looking sanatorium building in the outskirts of Vienna. Until it is finished, it will function in a rented space a few blocks from Vienna’s main railway station.

Much more important, the reason why the current extreme-right government has decided to harass CEU was that it saw it as a “liberal stronghold.” By “liberal” they mean – as it is done conventionally in east-central Europe by “liberals” as well as their opponents – a political ideology that takes the concept of “liberty / freedom” out of the context of the triple slogans of the French revolution, in essence ignoring the ideas of equality and fraternity, and produces a very powerful conversation focused on human rights, taken out of all economic contexts. The government is convinced that CEU was, or had become, an alien body, an ideological facility that trains talented young east Europeans to be liberal activists, promote civic rights, such as ethnic, “race”, gender / sexuality, religion, etc. To what extent that is actually the case is not clear. To be sure, the government adamantly opposes those ideas (except of course privileging those identity categories that the government itself promotes, in proper fascist fashion—white, Christian, single-ethnic Magyar, straight, male). What makes all this rather absurd is that Orbán, the head of the current government, had benefited from study grants from George Soros, CEU’s founder, a couple of decades ago, and that the current government’s chief spokesman himself holds a US-accredited PhD in History from CEU.

PD: Why is the labor reform law of the Orbán government being mocked as slave law? In what ways is it going to affect the Hungarian working class?

JB: Hungary is a small, middle-income country in the heart of Europe, with excellent rail, river, road and air connections to western Europe. At the time of the collapse of state socialism in 1989, it was the most indebted country in Europe on a per-capita and per-GDP basis. The sell-off of the erstwhile socialist state’s assets – factories, store chains, energy production facilities, state farms, subsidized housing, public buildings, etc. – happened at extremely, almost absurdly low prices. The state pushed privatization not only for ideological reasons, but also, in this case much more important, because it was facing a severe debt crisis. Most of Hungary’s state debt was owed to private banks. This makes Hungary quite different from Poland – the other deeply indebted socialist state at the time – since the latter owed the majority of its debt to states. As a result, more than half of Poland’s debt could be – and was – forgiven by the lending states, in 1991, when it became clear that it had abandoned state socialist rule for good. Post-socialist Hungary re-paid all of its debt to the last penny, with full interest. 

The source of those repayments was raised by selling the country’s productive assets. With the news of Hungary’s and the rest of former-state-socialist eastern Europe’s impending admission to the European Union (it formally happened in 2004), the advantageous geographical location, the high quality, disciplined and flexible labor force inherited from the socialist era, and the low wages and other costs for business, the country suddenly looked very attractive to foreign direct investment beyond privatization.

As a result, by the time the country finally became a member of the EU, an astonishing proportion of its total GDP was “realized” by foreign capital, mostly Big Capital from the western member states of the EU. Subsequent governments – not just the current one – kept promoting foreign direct investment through a whole slew of measures, from generous infrastructural investments into prospective production sites through very persuasive tax incentives for new investment. Consequently, Hungary has become essentially a large assembly plant, more dependent on west European capital than ever in its modern history. 

As a result, and with the opening up of opportunities for unencumbered movement for east-central European, including Hungarian, labor all over the territory of the European Union, a sizeable part of the most well-trained, young and ambitious parts of the labor force have already taken up employment in western Europe. Consequently, foreign investors, especially industrial assembly plant-style operators, face a new problem: scarcity of labor. This is particularly exacerbated by the fact that the government has, until recently, revealed strongly neo-fascist commitments to preventing the importation of “guest labor”. This is particularly a problem in the automotive and other machine assembly industries whose market demand tends to fluctuate strongly, creating debilitating labor shortages at peak periods. (The government’s anti-labor-importation policy may be on the way to changing: It has just been announced that Hungary will accept up to 75,000 foreign workers, with regular work permit visas, a scheme advertised mainly in Ukraine, China and India.)

The law pushed through by the government, using its two-thirds majority in Parliament, referred to as “the Slave Law” relaxed the limits on how much overtime employers can order their workers to work. It also made it possible for employers to not pay overtime wages until the end of the given calendar year. That is a particularly powerful provision as it allows employers – as I mentioned, mainly west European Big Capital – to choose when to pay their workers. This forces the workers of such factories essentially to lend the overtime portion of their salaries to their employers, for unpredictable lengths of time – perhaps a week, perhaps 8 months – at zero interest, until the management finds the company’s finances, as well as the international financial market situation (i.e., the exchange rate between the currencies in which they receive their incomes and the Forint, the Hungarian currency in which they are supposed to pay their workers) convenient and economically advantageous. And, of course, the law also means that it is possible to increase the length of the workday, and deny the constitutionally guaranteed free days per week, with a unilateral decision by management, on a short notice.

What is particularly significant about the story of the Slave Law is that it was pretty much the first time since 1989 that worker resistance reached the level of national politics. Of course, the protests did not quite manage to force the government and its parliamentary majority to abolish the Slave Law, but it taught at least some parts of the Hungarian working class that, in the future, it might be able to muster enough strength to make its demands not only “heard” but also force the political elites to act in their interests.

PD: Why is there a surge in right-wing populism in the region? Does that indicate the recent crisis of the center-right/left social democracy in the region?

JB: I prefer not to use the term “populism” in this way, as it is imprecise. It is too broad. I would in fact quite strongly welcome a left populist turn in east-central European, indeed global, politics. What is happening in Hungary and at least some of the other societies of the former-state-socialist, now brashly, roughly capitalist parts of the world is the emergence of a new kind of extreme-right politics. The government of Hungary is showing virtually all elements of a fascist orientation, except for two historical conditions that are not present in Hungary: First, the government has not been able to destroy the procedure of voting as a way to choose who will rule the country. As a result, even with the restrictions on the functioning of the opposition parties, the government still faces competition every five years. Second, they do not (yet?) have the wherewithal to impose total rule over society by general violence. Similar developments can be observed elsewhere in the former-state-socialist world. Because those two elements of the conventional notion of fascism are not in place, some political analysts refer to the Hungarian “model” as a “hybrid regime” where though more or less contested, multi-party voting continues, and general political violence does not quite exist, but it is fascist in just about every other regard.

Why is this happening? The most important thing, in my opinion, has to do with the state socialist legacy of these societies. Or, to be more precise, the way in which state socialism ended. The politically active segments of late socialist Hungary were taught by their successful, and rather well to do intellectual elites that socialism as an idea was impossible. The resistance to state socialist political practice – which came, initially, clearly from the left, i.e., critiquing the state socialism of the time as not being socialist enough – turned into a liberal direction by the mid-seventies, i.e., a good half a generation before the collapse of the system. In other words, by the time the USSR’s leadership would be forced to drop its political control over east-central Europe, a palpable anti-socialist conviction had already taken hold in most of these societies, including not only “dissidents” and opposition intellectuals, but also a very wide strata of society in general. A neo-liberal denial of not only the practices, but the very possibility of socialism was, by the mid-80s, becoming a dominant “faction” among party members as well. Of course, as we know in retrospect, that time, the 80s, was the period of the global hegemony neo-liberalism, a political doctrine that regards for-profit production, the control of government by capital, and the diminution of all realms of society to the imaginary forces of “the market” as the normal, generic model of human life. What is relevant from this are two indisputable things. First, the most peaceful, most prosperous and overall most socially sustainable era in Hungarian history was the period of state socialism between the early sixties and the mid-eighties. The truth of this claim is reflected, for instance, in opinion poll results. Second, equally powerful is the fact that any kind of a conversation about socialism, in any form, cannot take place in Hungarian culture today. Of course, the police won’t take you away if you utter such ideas. There is no need for the police as the notion of a peaceful, not only environmentally but also socially sustainable form of social organization, one that would be based on a constitutional ban on the private appropriation of the product of other people’s labor is essentially made impossible by the institutions that organize public conversation, and the most prominent intellectuals who dominate public life. If you utter such things, the media as well as the all-powerful intellectual circles, not to mention virtually the entire sphere of party politics, will immediately abandon, avoid, essentially boycott you. 

There is a very effective informal ban on “left” political speech in Hungary. Consequently, critiques of the existing, harsh conditions of semi-peripheral capitalism, the effective locking of vast swaths of the population into having no chance to live a life that would allow them to unfold their human potential, are forced in another direction, away from the left. A rather conventional, middle-of-the-road, “liberal” position, mixed with very depressing neo-liberal economic policies, characterized politics in Hungary in the first two decades after 1990. Much of this anger is directed toward that middle-of-the-road, “liberal” position, mixed as it was with neo-liberal policies. Since a “left” critique is not permitted, the popular discontent flows in the direction of anti-liberal political positions, politicians who shout extremely simplistic, nationalist slogans, who appeal to the most anachronistic, conservative elements in society. This is amplified by the new communication technologies to an extent previously unimaginable. Young people who face an impossible situation in their lives, who will never be able to afford housing until their parents die, who struggle even to learn a basic skill that would give them a livelihood, people who are vastly under-employed in their own country as well as elsewhere in Europe – this is bound to produce a situation of not only frustration and resentment, but also anger and violence. It is that energy that the political machine behind the current government is transforming into its own support. Add to this the sudden revival of old generations of educated conservatives, nostalgic of a peaceful society based on paternalistic, “peaceful” class oppression, people influenced by the most retrograde elements in the churches, as well as some of the offspring of the perpetrators implicated in Nazi violence during World War II, etc. This is the new political consensus in east-central Europe today. It won’t last forever, but I don’t quite see signs of a popular politics from the left yet.

PD: Does the EU really care for the economic and social integration of the former eastern bloc countries? Or do they just need the eastern bloc for geo-political and strategic interests?

JB: The erstwhile state-societies of east-central Europe – in other words, those former-socialist societies that are geographically closest to west European markets and had pre-socialist histories of domination by the same west European powers – are already as tightly integrated into the EU as they could ever be. It is just that the terms of their integration are, overall, vastly disadvantageous for them. This situation is just fine for west European capital, states and the vast majority of citizens. Consequently, it will not change by benevolent action on the part of west European societies.

Another group of former state socialist societies – those farther away, especially the successor states of the USSR – are of considerably less interest to west European capital and states. This may have to do partly with geography, partly with what Europeans call “cultural” issues (i.e., the fact that the latter societies are less used to being dominated by west Europeans, they are more attuned to Russian or Ottoman practices of oppression), partly with the fact that, in the capitalist transformation of the USSR, foreign capital played a much smaller role than in east-central Europe. Once the USSR collapsed, its most powerful member states were made capitalist primarily by members of their own political, economic and intellectual elites, leaving less “space” for west European competitors to enter.

PD: How do you explain Orbán’s loss of Budapest and a number of larger towns in the last regional elections?

JB: Overall, Budapest and Hungary’s other urban centers have always been more “liberal” than rural small towns and villages. In this sense, the more intolerant, more arch-conservative excesses of Orbán’s brash message have always had less of an audience there. This time, also, the sitting pro-Orbán mayor of Budapest, a good 25 years senior to his opponent, put up a considerably weaker fight than the opposition. So Budapest has now joined Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Bratislava – four capitals in the region – in having elected a non-extreme-right mayor, sort of in opposition against national political tendencies in the four countries.

What is most complicated about the Budapest situation is that the new mayor’s supporters include an explicitly neo-Nazi party (whose conflict with Orbán is not on ideological grounds—it is almost impossible to detect any difference there—but the fact that Orbán has refused to share the government, and his tremendous spoils through corruption, with them). As a result, the new Budapest mayor’s coalition spans a very broad political spectrum, from social democrats, middle-of-the-road liberals, greens – and an explicitly Neo-nazi party. The key to the political future of the Hungarian capital city will depend on the new mayor’s ability to manage this very odd coalition. It is also very clear from the municipal elections of October 2019 that Hungary still has a giant gap on the left of the political spectrum. So the opposition’s partial success in the municipal elections has more to do with the ability of local political forces to strike a short term, “tactical” electoral coalition, and nothing to do with a new, energetic politics on the left.