liberalism

Lajos Bokros: Is he a liberal-conservative?

Since there seems to be total confusion over Lajos Bokros’s political and economic philosophy, I thought it might be useful to go back to an article he published on January 2, 2014 in Élet és Irodalom. On the one hand, it is a critique of the “lost decade” and, on the other, it is a program. What should a new government do to move Hungary forward in both political and economic terms? All this is enumerated in 140 points. Although Bokros keeps describing himself as a conservative or a liberal-conservative, a careful reading of this article reveals that his ideas are anything but conservative in the ordinary sense of the word. I will not try to cubbyhole him. Instead, I will summarize his ideas, which ought to spark some discussion among us.

Bokros spends 40 points on the “lost decade,” which for him means the period between 2001 and 2010. His critique of the Hungarian economy during this period is practically identical to what other “orthodox” economists say about the economic sins of the successive Hungarian governments. His critique of the second Orbán government is in no way different from what we call a “liberal” interpretation of the Orbán-Matolcsy duo’s economic and financial policies. There is nothing inherently conservative in these first 40 points.

After this section, he explains his ideas about the future. “What kind of Hungary would we like?” Here I will translate certain key passages. “We would like a Hungary where the constitution, inspired by European values, will defend the freedom of individuals, families, small communities, enterprises, churches, cultures, peoples and nations even against the state.  We want a state that guarantees the totality of rights of people and citizens.”

The modernization that began after the regime change, he argues, came to a halt in 2001. For a new government that modernization process must be restored.

What does Bokros understand by “modernization”?  After explaining that modernization is a concept that appeared during the transition period between feudalism and capitalism, he turns to the “societal foundation” of modernization which, in his opinion, is “the market economy’s independence. Its ideological base is the renaissance, the reformation and, above all, the enlightenment…. [From that time on] the economy, the law, culture and science were no longer subordinated to religion or some kind of ideology but followed their own inner logic and lived according to their own laws. In a wider sense modernization means the separateness of society’s activities from the state and becoming self-contained (although not independent).”

liberal conservative

“In a modern society the independent, free, and responsible person can blossom. Individualism is a modern phenomenon…. Individuals build and create society from the bottom up, not the state from the top down. If the key actor of a society is the respected and responsible individual, then these strong, self-respecting individuals are capable of creating a society that is separate from the state. A modern state is increasingly democratic…. A modern democracy is always free-thinking, meaning it is a liberal democracy. Illiberal democracy, meaning a democracy that limits the rights of the individual and minorities is no more than the unlimited rule of the majority, which cannot be the lasting foundation of a modern society.”

Finally, Bokros talks about another important ingredient of a modern society: the market economy. For him the market means freedom of choice. Without the existence of a market economy there can be no democracy or rule of law. Quoting Friedrich Hayek, he warns that the lack of a market leads to servitude. “In a modern economy and society the state is not the opposite of the market but rather is its framework. The state is clever and small, limited and supervised, and not stupid and weak.”

The rest of his treatise deals with some of the tasks a new government should immediately tackle as well as certain long overdue economic reforms that should be introduced. Liberals would agree with most of these recommendations, but there are a few that most likely would be controversial, which should not surprise anyone. Several of the recommendations would hurt certain interest groups, but if Bokros is right without these reforms the Hungarian economy will not be able to crawl out of the hole it found itself in over the last few years.

In any case, Bokros at the moment is running for mayor of Budapest, not to become the next prime minister of Hungary. As mayor he would presumably have to worry more about potholes than political and economic philosophy. Therefore his lengthy list of recommendations is not a campaign platform. I just chose the passages that explain what Bokros means by “modern Hungary” and by “liberal-conservative” so that we can better understand who he is.

Did Viktor Orbán backpedal in his address to Hungarian ambassadors?

The consensus seems to be that in his address to the Hungarian ambassadors Viktor Orbán retreated from his previously articulated doctrine of illiberalism. In so doing he followed the lead of several right-wing analysts and journalists who tried to downplay the significance of the radical speech he delivered in Tasnádürdő/Băile Tușnad. In fact, they went to great imaginative lengths to explain the “true” meaning of the word “illiberalism.”

A friend called my attention to an editorial by Matild Torkos of Magyar Nemzet who argued that Orbán’s criticism was not of liberalism per se. What he meant was the kind of liberalism that existed in Hungary before 2010 when the Hungarian state did not defend state assets, when it did not recognize Hungarians living in the neighboring countries as part of the Hungarian nation, and when it allowed the country to be indebted. Or, there was an editorial by Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, according to whom Orbán was not talking about the elimination of liberal democratic rights but only about people who make their living by work and not by welfare payments.

Tamás Fricz admitted that the choice of the word “illiberal” was unfortunate because since 1997 it has been equated with autocracy and semi-democracies. He even had a suggestion about a better way to describe “the new state and social model.” It should perhaps be called “national democracy,” where the emphasis is on the community as opposed to the individual.

George Schöpflin, formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, is Fidesz’s “political philosopher.” He gave some learned answers to questions posed to him by HVG. For Schöpflin “liberalism” is a dirty word because “it seeks to coercively impose its ideals on the whole world.” In his interpretation, “Orbán was referring to economic liberalism, to market fundamentalism and the damaging impact that this has had on the Hungarian economy.” Later in an interview which is still unavailable in its entirety online he argued that in the United States “illiberal” has a different meaning than it does in Great Britain and therefore “its use was unfortunate.”

Fidesz analysts came to the conclusion that the word “illiberal” should be avoided, and indeed Orbán used the word only once in his address–by now available online–to the ambassadors. Orbán talked about the necessity of raising the number of the actively employed. In this context he said: “Our labor policy cannot be considered liberal because it does not give primacy to the individual but wants to have an equilibrium between individual and community interests. In plain language that means that we will not be able to provide social assistance to someone who is able to work and is offered a job by the government but is unwilling to work . This is an illiberal point of view. György Schöpflin is right that this word should be avoided because the Americans’ understanding of the word is different from that of the Europeans.” Of course, what Schöpflin claims is nonsense. Americans and Europeans have the same negative understanding of the word “illiberal.”

Suggested reading on "illiberalism"

I think it’s fair to say that as far as “illiberalism” and the admiration for authoritarian states or outright dictatorships are concerned, Orbán backpedaled in his address to the ambassadors. In fact, he stressed that “his country is anchored firmly in Western culture and political institutions.” As Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság wrote today, Orbán must have listened to the critical voices coming from conservative circles and changed his tune. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he has given up on building an illiberal state, a project that has been going on for the past four and a half years. He has no intention of abandoning his goal. He just realized that it is not a good idea to talk openly about his plans.

The speech was crafted to avoid controversy. It was basically a pep talk to the ambassadors urging them to encourage foreign investment. There was relatively little about foreign policy, which in Orbán’s opinion has lost its importance.

When it came to the question and answer session, however, Orbán was less guarded. He addressed the subject of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in response to a question from the Hungarian ambassador to Bratislava. And he offered a view of immigration that will undoubtedly raise hackles in Brussels.

European and American politicians are accustomed to Viktor Orbán’s “peacock dance.” At home he is belligerent while in Brussels he rarely raises objections and votes dutifully with the majority. Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination was an exception and turned out to be a mistake. It is very possible that if it comes to further sanctions against Russia, Orbán will again support the majority. And the “peacock dance” continues.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at the XXV Bálványos Free Summer University and Youth Camp, July 26, 2014, Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő)

I’m grateful to the editors of  The Budapest Beacon, an English-language news portal, for allowing me to republish their translation of the by now infamous speech of Viktor Orbán. I summarized its main points earlier, but to have the complete text allows the readers to have a fuller understanding of the issues we have been discussing in the last four or five days. The original can be found hereHungarian Spectrum’s blogroll has a link to The Budapest Beacon.

   * * *

Good day to all of you! Respectful greetings to everybody!

When we saw each other here a year ago, I began my speech by saying that we are at the last Tusnádfürdő meeting before the upcoming Hungarian national elections. Now I can say we are on the first Tusnádfürdő meeting after the past Hungarian election, and I can announce the good news that we won the elections. Actually, we won twice. Because we did not only win the national elections, we also won the EP elections. Everybody here may know that the third elections will happen on 12th October this year; these are the municipal elections, which have weight and importance on Hungarian state life. Allow me to start my speech with citing an unworthily overlooked movement of the last national election. As a result of this election in Hungary the governing civic, Christian and national power, Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party gained a two-thirds majority – by only one mandate. I do remember – we chatted about it years ago – how beautiful would it be, how noble a form of revenge, if the political forces who voted against the re-engaging of the Hungarians living outside the borders of Hungary would be deservedly punished if a majority, or even a two-thirds majority, were gained by the votes of the Hungarians who live outside of the borders of Hungary. I announce that there is a strong suspicion that after all there is a moral balance in politics. We have good reason to doubt it.  However, sometimes this belief is affirmed. For example, now what happened is that the votes of those Hungarians who live abroad were needed to gain the two-thirds majority of the national forces in the Hungarian parliament. Thank you everybody, providence, the voters, the Hungarian lawmakers, and finally those as well who turned against us and provided the chance to win. Because if there is no bad, how could good get mastery over the bad?

Ladies and Gentlemen!

My speech today is not connected to the elections. Our acting president introduced us as regime changers, and did it by recalling the regime change. This represents well that for our generation the regime change is the generational experience to which we compare everything, against which we measure everything, from where we start to define everything that happens around us. It seems natural, although it is rather a disadvantage for us, not an advantage. The regime change as an experience is very valuable because politics – in spite of what people sometimes think – is not a speculative genre. It has to be built from experimental facts and experiences. And today the situation is that – acknowledging that experience is valuable – at the same time the same scale of change is happening in the world, as it was in the experience of the regime change. So the task in an intellectual sense waiting for us is that regime change is to be referred to as an experience but not a reference point in the debates on designing the future paths. We should much rather consider as a starting point the financial, global economic, global power and global military power shift that emerged in 2008. This is the task we should accomplish. We are helped by the fact there there are people who were born later than us. And for them it has long been a hardship to consider the regime change as a reference point, because, let’s say, those who were born in 1985 were five during the regime change in the ’90s, and this was not the same experience as it was for us. They frequently stay out of political discussions because they do not even understand the references in the interpretations of the present and the future from the older ones. I believe that it would have several advantages to consider the regime change a completed historical process, the factbook of experience, and not the starting point in case of thinking about the future. The starting point when we think of the future, because – if I get it right – our task every year is to try to somehow understand mutually what is happening around us, to grab its essential movements, and maybe see what is going to happen to us in the future. So if this is our task, I would suggest to shortly remind ourselves that in the 20th Century there have been three major world-regime changes. At the end of World War I, at the end of World War II, and in 1990. The common points in these were – I might have mentioned this here once – that when the changes manifested it was clear for all of us that we are going to live in a different world overnight. Let’s say it was very clear here after Trianon, just as it was in Budapest after World War II as well. If the people looked around and saw the invading Soviet troops they knew that a new world was about to begin. In ’90 when we succeeded in breaking and displacing the communists, it was clear after the first parliamentary elections that a new world had arrived for us: the wall in Berlin collapsed, elections were held and this is another future.

László Tőkés and Viktor Orbán in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad Source: aradihirek.ro

László Tőkés and Viktor Orbán in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad
Source: aradihirek.ro

The statement intended to be the basic point of my talk here is that the changes in the world nowadays have the similar value and weight. We can identify its manifestation – that point when it became clear – as the financial crisis of 2008 or rather the Western financial crisis. And the importance of this change is less obvious because people sense it in a different way as the previous three. It was unclear in 2008 during the huge Western financial collapse that we are going to live in a different world from now on. The shift is not that sharp as in the case of the three previous world regime changes and it somehow slowly resolved in our minds, as the fog sets on the land. If we look around and analyze the things happening around us, for six years this has been a different world from the one we lived in.  And if we project the processes for the future – which always has a risk – it is a reasonable intellectual exercise, and we see well that the changes will only have a bigger impact.

Well, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, for the sake of illustrating the deepness of this change, without any particular order, I assembled a few sentences, ideas from the Western World, as well as one or two from the Eastern World, too, that are stunning. If we assessed them through the lens of the pre-2008  liberal worldview, we would be shocked. Yet if we do not view it that way but understand from these sentences how long a way we have gone in terms of public speech, topics and their articulations in these last six years, then these sentences to be quoted will help us understand how profound the change is that is taking place in the world today.

Very briefly: In America, the President of the US has made numerous and repeated statements regarding how America has been engulfed by cynicism, and the task for American society and the American government is to declare war on cynicism originating from the financial sector. Before 2008, such a statement would have resulted in exclusion from gentlemanlike international discourse, additionally because of the characteristics of the financial system, it would probably have even been tainted with as being sinister, making any utterance of such sentences extremely perilous. Contrary to this, these ideas constantly appear in the American press as of late. The US president says that if a hardworking American constantly has to choose between career and family, that America will lose its place in the world economy. Or the President openly speaks about economic patriotism. He says such sentences that would still earn beating and stoning in today’s provincial Hungarian public life. For example, he openly speaks about how companies employing foreigners should pay their fair share in taxes. Or he openly speaks about how companies employing Americans should be supported before anyone else. These are all voices, ideas and sentences that would have been unimaginable six or eight years earlier.

To proceed further, according to a well-recognized analyst, the strength of American “soft power” is deteriorating, because liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence and with this liberal values discredit America and American modernization. Also, the Open Society Foundation published a study not long ago analyzing Western Europe. In this, we could read a sentence which says that Western Europe was so preoccupied with solving the situation of immigrants that it forgot about white working class. Or the British prime minister said that as a consequence of the changes happening in Europe, many became freeloaders on the back of the welfare systems. One of the richest Americans, who was one of the first investors in the company Amazon stated that we are living in a society that is less and less capitalist and more and more feudal, and if the economic system does not reform itself then middle class will disappear, and, as he puts it, “the rich will be attacked by pitchforks”. Therefore, he thinks a middle-up economic model is needed instead of a top-down model. It is not my intention to interpret these sentences, simply to cite them here in order to show the novelty of these ideas that were impossible to talk about only six years ago. Or, similarly from America, the number of unemployed youth has drastically risen, and in the case of the most promising career options, children from families with affluent families receive a far greater advantage – this is said in the homeland of social mobility. Or to cite something else: another respected analyst said that the internet, understood by the liberal world as the greatest symbol of freedom for many long years, is being colonized by big corporations. His statement suggests that the big question is whether great capitalist companies, meaning international corporations, would be successful in doing away with the neutrality of the internet. Going forward, to quote a development that is both dear and unexpected for us, the English prime minister, who awkwardly avoids his party being identified as Christian Democratic, stands up in before the public stating that Christianity is a core principle of British values, and despite multiculturalism, Great Britain is a Christian country in heart, and this is a fact to be proud of.

Honorable Ladies and Gentleman … and I could enumerate these for a long time, if you allow, me I will not waste more time with this.

The question is whether numerous changes surrounding us could be attributed for the sake of understanding to one explanation? Can one-two-three essential aspects be grasped of what is happening around us? Well, they can be grasped – many are thinking and even more are writing about this nowadays. Numerous books have been published on this topic. I would only like to recommend to you a single one of these world-interpreting ideas. In my opinion, the most provocative and exciting question surfacing in the Western world during the last year can be summarized as follows, applying necessary simplification: competition existing among nations in the world, competition existing among alliances, and forces of the world has been supplemented by a new element. Everyone was only talking about competition in the world economy. Globalization on the international scale made it necessary to do a lot of talking, writing and analysis about it, and this phenomenon is known in details. We can more or less know why a major economic interest group, for example the European Union, is competitive, or why it is losing its competitiveness. However, according to many, and I belong to them, today this is not the principal question. It remains an important question. As long as people live off money and economy, this will remain an important question. Yet there is an even more important race. I would articulate this as a race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful. As the state is nothing else but a method of organizing a community, a community that in our case sometimes coincides with our country’s borders, sometimes not, but I will get back to that, the defining aspect of today’s world can be articulated as a race to figure out a way of organizing communities, a state that is most capable of making a nation competitive. This is why, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful. Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia. And I believe that our political community rightly anticipated this challenge, and if we think back on what we did in the last four years, and what we are going to do in the following four years, than it really can be interpreted from this angle. We are searching for and we are doing our best to find – parting ways with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them – the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race.

Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen

In order to be able to do this in 2010, and especially these days, we needed to courageously state a sentence, a sentence that similarly to the ones enumerated here was considered to be a sacrilege in the liberal world order. We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy. Moreover, it could be and needed to be expressed, that probably societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organize a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they will be able to substantially reform themselves.

Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen

As the matter stands, if we look at the surrounding events from here, we can consider three ways to organize a state that we so far knew, as a starting point: the nation state, the liberal state and then the welfare state, and the question is, what is coming up next? The Hungarian answer is, that the era of a workfare state could be next, we want to organize a workfare state, that – as I previously mentioned – will undertake the odium of expressing, that in character it is not of liberal nature. What all this exactly means, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, that we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world. I will only mention two dimensions of this, I do not want to get into a longer lecture here, and I only want to touch on them, so that the importance of the matter could be sensed. In the aspects of relationship between two human beings, the fundamental view of the liberal way of organizing a society holds that we are free to do anything that does not violate an another person’s freedom. The twenty years of Hungarian environment preceding 2010 was founded on this theoretical, conceptual starting point. It accepted a principle that is otherwise a general principle in Western Europe. In Hungary however, it took us twenty years, until we can articulate the problem, that this idea, besides being very attractive on an intellectual level, yet it is not clear, who is going to tell, where the point is when my freedom is violated. And as this does not come without understanding, then it has to be set, decided by someone. And as nobody was appointed to decide this, therefore everday life experience suggested us that it was the stronger party decided this. We constantly felt that the weaker were stepped upon. It was not some kind of an abstract principle of fairness that decided upon conflicts originating from a recognition of mutual freedoms, but what happened is that the stronger party was always right: the stronger neighbor told you where is your car entrance, it was always the stronger party, the bank, that dictated how much interest do you pay with your mortgage, changing it over the course as they liked. I could enumerate the examples that was the continuous life experience of vulnerable, weak families that had smaller economic protection than others during the last twenty years. Our suggestion for that, and we will try to build the Hungarian state in this, that is should not be the organizing principle of Hungarian society, we can’t make a law on this, these are principles, that you are free to do anything that does not violate other’s freedom, instead the principle should be that do not do to others what you would not do to yourself. And we will attempt to found the world we can call the Hungarian society on this theoretical principle, in political thinking, education, in the way we ourselves behave, in our own examples.

If we put this idea in the dimension of the relationship of the individual and the community, so far we were talking about the relationship between two individuals, then we will see that in the past twenty years the established Hungarian liberal democracy could not achieve a number of objectives. I made a short list of what it was not capable of. Liberal democracy was not capable of openly declaring, or even obliging, governments with constitutional power to declare that they should serve national interests. Moreover, it even questioned the existence of national interests. I did not oblige subsequent governments to recognize that Hungarian diaspora around the world belongs to our nation and to try and make this sense of belonging stronger with their work. Liberal democracy, the liberal Hungarian state did not protect public wealth. Although now we are hearing about the opposite, as if some acquisitions – I will get back to that, as the Hungarian state recently even bought a bank – and the interpretation of such acquisitions is that the Hungarian state could acquire such pieces of wealth, that surpasses behavior accepted in Europe, whereas if we look at – for example the recent Financial Times list of how big the proportion of public property in individual countries is, then we can see that Hungary could be found at the very-very-very end of the list.  Every other country – no counting maybe two – has higher proportion of public property than Hungary has. So we can safely state that in Hungary liberal democracy was incapable of protecting public property that is essential in sustaining a nation, even compared to other countries. Then, the liberal Hungarian state did not protect the country from indebtedness. And – and here I mostly mean FX loans system– it failed to protect families from bonded labor. Consequently, the interpretation of 2010 election results, especially in the light of 2014 election success can acceptably be that in the great world race that is a race to come up with the most competitive way of organizing state and society, Hungarian voters expect from their leaders to figure out, forge and work out a new form of state-organization that will make the community of Hungarians competitive once again after the era of liberal state and liberal democracy, one that will of course still respect values of Christianity, freedom and human rights. Those duties and values that I enumerated should be fulfilled and be respected.

Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen,

Consequently, what is happening today in Hungary can interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals – that needs to be acknowledged – with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.

Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen,

After all this, I have to talk about what obstacles we should get over to achieve these objectives. It can well be that what I am saying is self-evident for many here today.  We have to elevate this on the level of political work and program. I will address only some of these obstacles, more precisely two of them. These are not necessarily the most important but the most interesting: the relationship between professional politicians and civil organization members. The state needs to be organized by elected and professional statesmen and lawmakers, yet NGOs and civil organizations will always appear on the fringe of political life. Now, Hungarian NGO landscape shows a very particular image. Ideally a civil politician as opposed to professional, is an individual who is organizing bottom-up, financially independent and the nature of his work is voluntary. If we look at civil organizations in Hungary, the one that appears before public, now debates around the Norwegian Fund brought this on the surface, then what I will see is that we have to deal with paid political activists here. And these political activists are moreover political activists paid by foreigners. Activists paid by definite political circles of interest. It is hard to imagine that these circles have a social agenda.  It is more likely that they would like to exercise influence through this system of instruments on Hungarian public life. It is vital, therefore, that if we would like to reorganize our nation state instead of the liberal state, that we should make it clear, that these are not civilians coming against us, opposing us, but political activists attempting to promote foreign interests. Therefore it is very apt that a committee was being formed in the Hungarian parliament that deals with constant monitoring, recording and publishing foreign attempts to gain influence, so that all of us here, you as well will be aware of who are the characters behind the masks.

I will mention another example that is another obstacle of reorganizing the state. When I mention the European Union, I am not doing this because I think it is impossible to build an illiberal nation state within the EU. I think this is possible. Our EU membership does not rule out this option. It is true that many question formulate, and many conflicts develop, you could follow this in the past years, a lot of battles have to be fought. Now I do not mean this, but rather another phenomenon unfamiliar to you in this form. When the contract, fixing financial contacts between Hungary and the EU for four years expired this year, we are about to fix the contract for the next seven years just now, then a debate erupted. Then, I needed to look up a couple of facts to understand the nature of this debate. What did I see? I saw that that we are talking about hundreds of people here that deal with distributing resources of economic or social development from the EU that Hungary is entitled to (these resources do not come as a gift–as I said we are entitled to them) receive their salaries directly from the EU. Consequently, an extraterritoriality-situation came about in Hungary. Then it turned out from the numbers, that these salaries are 4-5, but often 8 times more than what employees in the Hungarian administration. This means that Hungary was living for 7 years, that such people decided on the majority of resources at the country disposal, who were paid by other people, and received a multiple of what Hungarian administration employees would receive for that job. Similarly, out of 100 forints going from there to the Hungarian economic life 35% could be invoiced as so-called “soft expense”. So for expenses that were not closely related to the objective of the grant, but only connected to it: preparation, analysis, planning, and all kinds of things, advising, for example. There is a debate going on between the EU and Hungary, because we changed this system, and the government decided, that whoever decides on these EU funds, in the new illiberal state conception has to be employed by the Hungarian state, and could not receive more than the Hungarian administrational employee of the same classification. And it is not possible any more to spend 35 forints of every 100 forints on “soft expenses”, because in the next seven years this shall not exceed 15 forints out of 100 forints. These are all decisions that appear to be political decisions in themselves, but in reality it is not the question of one or two political decisions. This is about the ongoing reorganization of Hungarian state. Contrary to the liberal state organization logic of the past twenty years, this is a state organization originating in national interests. Conflicts that erupt are therefore not coincidental, do not originate in ignorance, well maybe only sometimes, but these are debates that necessarily accompany the rebuilding and self-definition process of a new state.

Now, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I would like to tell you that if we are curious about the future  then I would like to tell you something that might seem insufficient from somebody in a high official position: The essence of the future is that anything could happen. “Anything” is hard enough to define. It can happen that a commercial plane is shot down in the airspace of a country neighboring Hungary. It can happen that several hundred die for no apparent reason as a consequence of an, let’s name it for what it was, an act of terrorism. It can easily happen that, I have seen it in the news yesterday, that in the United States, maybe it was the Senate or the Senate and the Congress together decided to sue the President for continuous encroachment of his power. And if I look at the background of this news, it turns out that the President is not only sued, he has actually been sentenced a couple of times for exceeding his power. Imagine this in Hungary, if Parliament sues the prime minister for encroaching on his power, and the court even sentences him! For how much time can I stay in power in a situation like this? I only bring up these examples for you so that you see that we are living in a world where anything could happen. It can even happen that after the judiciary processes end hundreds of thousands of Hungarians will receive money back from banks, money that should not have been taken from them, and even this can happen, honorable ladies and gentlemen.

With all this, I would like to point out that punctual or nearly punctual forecast of events to come is impossible. Just to cite another refreshing example as a conclusion, the government winning the Hungarian elections declares that at least 50%-of Hungarian banking system should be possessed by Hungarians, not by the state but by Hungarians. Three months pass after the elections and this is already a reality. It became a reality that the Hungarian state bought a bank back, a bank that should have never been sold to foreigners. With this acquisition the proportion of Hungarian national property exceeded 50% within Hungary. Now the only question that remains, honorable ladies and gentlemen, and it is a question that I am not entitled to answer, that in times like this, when anything could happen, should we be afraid, or should we instead be hopeful? Because the present order of the world is not exactly to our taste, that this future, although it is uncertain, it could even cause huge trouble, it also holds opportunities and developments for our Hungarian nation. So instead of seclusion, fear and withdrawal I recommend courage, prospective thinking, rational, but brave action to the Hungarian communities in the Carpathian basin but also throughout the world. As anything can happen, it can easily happen that our time will come. Thank you for your honorific attention.

 

Viktor Orbán showed his cards and thus his critics can do the same

It is positively liberating that we no longer have to be careful about what we call Viktor Orbán’s brave new world. Until now even the fiercest critics of Orbán’s regime were reluctant to describe the political system introduced in 2010 as non-democratic. They did not want to be seen as crying wolf, especially when foreign journalists and political analysts described Fidesz and the Orbán government as “conservative” or “right-of-center.” It is true that as the years have gone by it has become more and more obvious that the Hungarian political system introduced by Orbán is anything but conservative. So, then came a new turn of phrase: Viktor Orbán’s government was dubbed conservative-nationalist while at home the  adjective “autocratic” became fashionable. Autocratic as the Horthy regime was autocratic. But this description is also wrong. The politicians of the Horthy regime were true conservatives, and Viktor Orbán is anything but conservative. He is the same revolutionary he was in 1989, but then he wanted to transform Hungary from Soviet-dominated state socialism to a liberal democracy whereas in the last few years he has been busily working on turning a liberal democratic state into a one-man dictatorship. One no longer has to be careful about using such strong terms. He himself said that he wants to dispense with liberalism in favor of an illiberal state.

It seems that not only Hungarian commentators are liberated but foreign correspondents as well. Now he is called “Hungary’s Mussolini” by Newsweek, and Deutsche Wirtschafts compares Orbán’s Hungary to Putin’s Russia. After all, it was Viktor Orbán himself who announced his plans for the future. Let’s call Orbán’s Hungary what it is.

The idea occurred to some people years ago

The idea occurred to some people years ago

Some people might think that comparing him to Mussolini is an exaggeration and that if the opposition uses such language they make themselves less credible. However, there is no question in my mind that Orbán would be a second Duce and, like Mussolini, would use force if he had the opportunity to do so. But surely in today’s world he could not introduce a full-fledged fascist system based on the model of Mussolini’s Italy.

As Gábor Horváth of Népszabadság rightly pointed out, however, even a “softer” dictatorship is still dictatorship. The question is whether the European Union will meekly accept this “illiberal state” offered by Viktor Orbán, one that lacks the ingredients of what we call liberal democracy– individual rights, separation of powers, the rule of law, equal protection of human rights, civil liberties, and political freedom for all persons. For the time being there is no official reaction, but Jonathan Todd, the spokesman of the European Commission, tried to belittle the significance of the speech. After all, he declared, it was uttered at a summer camp. Surely, he continued, Hungary is not planning to violate the terms of the agreement with the European Union that Hungary signed. I personally beg to differ. He will violate it without any compunctions unless, of course, very strong action is taken. But even then he will do his best to circumvent all the restrictions imposed on him.

And finally, some of you watched the dramatic interview with G. M. Tamás a couple of days ago on the subject of Viktor Orbán’s speech. There was even a lively discussion of it to which Mr. Tamás himself contributed. Here is a short English synopsis of his thoughts on the subject that was originally published in Romanian in Criticatak.

  * * *

Mr Orbán’s régime is not fascist. Not yet.

Mr Orbán in his speech delivered in Romania – where he fancies himself to be a sort of co-ruler of Transylvania – has declared that

(1) his régime was building an illiberal state which will dispense henceforward with constitutionalism, the separation of powers and basic rights;

(2) that the idea of human rights is finished, it is obsolete as a basis for government and policy;

(3) that the welfare state is obsolete, too – in other words, he broke with (a) the rule of law, (b) with liberty and with (c) equality;

(4) that his political ideal was the present state order in Singapore, Turkey, Russia and China;

(5) that the West is dead;

(6) that the white working class in Europe should be defended against coloured immigration;

(7) that NGOs and human rights organisations are enemy agents paid by foreigners in order to subvert our national state;

(8) that the communitarian and ethnic Hungarian state is a work-based state, i. e., any social assistance would be offered only to those who are willing to work (there is already a labor service in the country replacing unemployment benefits, which means that many people work in their former workplaces for less than 20% of their former salaries, otherwise not being entitled to the dole);

(9) he wants autonomous, ethnic Hungarian enclaves in Transylvania (which has already provoked a storm of indignation and anti-Hungarian nationalist feeling in Rumania, congrats).

In short, Mr Orbán has decided that he and his government and his state which he rules single-handedly, are definitely of the extreme right, which is also shown by the rehabilitation of the pre-war authoritarian régime, elevation of anti-Semitic and otherwise racist public figures to high positions and a savage ethnicist discourse against (a) the West, (b) our neighbors, the ‘successor states’ and against (c) the Roma and the Jews.

Mr Orbán’s régime is not fascist. Not yet.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: “An illiberal democracy”

Now at last we have the road map for Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As László Szily of Cink wrote, the Transylvanian air has a strange effect on him because it is usually there at this time of the year that he delivers a visionary sermon about his plans for the future. The mostly middle-aged audience listens to him in awe, not realizing the true meaning of his words.

This time he was brutally honest. He is in the middle of introducing a different kind of political system: illiberal democracy. This simple message was couched in pseudo-scientific language, giving the false impression that he has both a wide and a deep knowledge of the world. This knowledge leads him to great discoveries, which sooner or later will bring spectacular results to the Hungarian nation. “Our time will come,” he added at the conclusion of his speech.

So, what is illiberal democracy? The concept became popular in political science circles in the late 1990s after Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-born American journalist and author, published an article in the November-December 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it he argued that in the West “democracy meant liberal democracy–a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and property. This bundle of freedoms which might be termed constitutional liberalism is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” In his scheme “democracy” is very narrowly defined. For him democracy simply means “free and fair elections.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obviously agreed with Zakaria when she told the leaders of the Hungarian opposition in Budapest in June 2011 that as long as there are free and fair elections Hungary is a democratic country.

But in Zakaria’s view “constitutional liberalism” is what gives real meaning to Western democracy. He calls this liberalism constitutional because it rests on the rule of law that is a defense of the individual’s right to life, property, freedom of religion and speech. This is what Viktor Orbán wants to abolish in Hungary. There will be elections (more or less free though not fair), but the real backbone of our modern western political system, checks and balances, limits on the actions of the government, will be abolished if it depends on Viktor Orbán. And, unfortunately, at the moment it does depend on him.

Orbán was very careful to avoid defining liberalism as a political philosophy because if his audience had any knowledge of what liberals believe in, it should have been patently obvious to them that his plans involve depriving his fellow citizens of their individual rights. Instead, he invoked a popular saying about the extent of an individual’s liberty that in no way touches on the essence of liberalism: “one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins.” The cliché apparently has its origin in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s claim that “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Explaining the inexpicable Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

Explaining the inexplicable
Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

From this saying Orbán derives far-reaching conclusions about the meaning of liberalism. In his view, in such a system the stronger always wins. In his world, the idea that “everything is allowed” cannot be an organizing principle of the state. Instead, he suggests another concept: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” In brief, the state should adopt as its organizing principle the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity. (That would be a tall order for the current Hungarian government.)

According to Orbán, the time of liberal democracies has come to an end. Something else, something better will come that will ensure “competitiveness” in this global economy. Orbán mentioned a few countries worth imitating: Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia. What a happy prospect in the center of Europe!

Surely, he himself must have wondered whether he will be able to dismantle the rule of law in Hungary given the country’s membership in the European Union, but he convinced himself that he will be able to do it since the EU grants broad powers to the governments of the member states. And, after all, so far his building of an illiberal democracy, which has been going on for the past four years, hasn’t had any serious consequences.

Index‘s report on the speech bears the title: “Orbán is building an illiberal state and he is proud of it.” Cink is convinced that “not even Putin is as much of a Putinist as Orbán.” Indeed, it is unlikely that Putin would openly admit that he is building, or has built, an illiberal state.

Close to the end of his speech Orbán listed a number of unexpected global occurrences. For example, no one would have ever imagined that Barack Obama could be sued by Congress for repeatedly encroaching on Congress’s power. He expressed his utter astonishment and continued: “What do you think, how long could I stay in office if parliament could sue me for overstepping our authority?” Viktor Orbán does not even pretend. He tells the whole world that he has unlimited power. He has no shame. In fact, he is proud of it.

Foreign journalists should no longer have to pretend either. They don’t have to use milquetoast adjectives like “conservative,” “right-of-center,” and “conservative-nationalist” anymore. Call it what it is. A one-man dictatorship with more or less free but unfair elections.

Back to the Middle Ages: Viktor Orbán at the Christian Democratic International

I have been wondering for some time when it is that the media “experts” in the Prime Minister’s Office decide to publish his speeches in full on his own website and when they are satisfied with only a summary. Lately I’m coming to the conclusion that they opt for a summary when the exact words that were uttered are not really suitable for a wider audience. Or perhaps when the prime minister’s speech was delivered at a conference where others also had a chance to talk and might have voiced opinions that are not in line with those of Hungary’s prime minister.

I suspect the latter may have been the case with the speech delivered by Orbán at the conference (“On the Road to a Stronger Europe”) of the Christian Democratic International held in Budapest on October 11. At the core of the speech was Orbán’s belief that “the denial of work and prayer is the reason for the decline of Europe.” Or at least this is what the Prime Minister’s Office decided was worth promulgating.

According to the prime minister, Europe will be strong again if Europeans return to the path of Christianity and work. In fact, he talked about St. Benedict’s dictum “ora et labora” upon which medieval monasticism was based. In the early Middle Ages the Benedictine monasteries were indeed key centers of cultural life, perhaps the only centers. Church and state were one and the same, and the king, for example, Orbán’s idol, King Stephen I, could force his people to attend church every Sunday. But many centuries have passed since then and the world has changed a bit. Orbán, however, longs for the days of “ora et labora.” He went so far in this speech as to claim that the economic crisis that befell the world was caused by modern man’s abandonment of his inherited faith, which is the basis of all good in life: human dignity, freedom, duty, work, family, and nation. Including nation on this list is truly odd because, after all, the Catholic Church stands for universality as opposed to particularism.

The Rules of Saint Benedict / Wikipedia.org

The Rules of Saint Benedict / Wikipedia.org

Not only is it the case that Europeans in the western half of the continent are faithless but there is “today a veritable manhunt against those, mostly central-European politicians who dare to talk about the values of Christian Europe.” Surely, Orbán here is talking about himself. In this connection he mentioned the fact and called it a “gross falsification of history” that the European Constitution make no reference to the Christian heritage of Europe. But as Ferenc L. Lendvai, a philosopher, rightly pointed out, the EU Constitution doesn’t mention the humanism of antiquity either, although it is equally part of Europe’s heritage.

Orbán’s other complaint was that European countries, including naturally the European Union’s superstructure, have no leaders of quality. The institutions they head run on autopilot or, as he put it, they “resemble computers which work very nicely as long as the programs are good.” The world is still “waiting for the mathematicians with their new programs.” I suspect he now thinks of himself as a computer scientist of great mathematical skill. Europe needs leaders who can make brave decisions and who exhibit real commitment. He concluded with the pronouncement that “Europe must be liberated from the mistrust of the liberals and from the grips of greed.”

It looks as if other speakers didn’t quite agree with this not at all Christian Democratic speech. How could they when it is a commonplace by now that in Western European countries there is little difference between the left and the right when it comes to social policy? In this respect both the socialists and the Christian Democrats are “liberals.” So, attacking liberalism is not necessarily popular in parts west of Hungary.

Moreover, Viktor Orbán’s “teachings” have nothing to do with conservatism. He offers up hard right-national talk masked with fake religiosity in the belief that this will be enough for him (and Fidesz) to be accepted in the family of conservative European parties.

I’m almost certain that the majority of European politicians, including those sitting in the European People’s Party’s caucus, are sick and tired of the lectures Orbán frequently delivers. I also wonder what they think of his ill-disguised self-praise of his political abilities and the sharpness of his vision. As if he had the answers to all of today’s economic and social problems which others lack. This must be especially annoying to those who are familiar with the meager achievements of Orbán’s government. Starting with an inherited 1.5 percent economic growth, he led the country back into recession by 2012. Admittedly, if he keeps lying about economic figures abroad, just as he did in London only a few days ago, perhaps the truth can be hidden for a while. But not for ever.

When Viktor Orbán is honest: The Hungarian constitution is not a liberal document

It was only today that I managed to find more than an hour to listen to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the honorary consuls who gather every five years in Budapest to reinforce their ties to the country they serve. An honorary consul doesn’t have to be a Hungarian national. For example, I learned that an American professor who teaches in a nearby college in Connecticut just became an honorary consul. Apparently Hungary has honorary consuls in 100 countries, only 54 of which have official Hungarian consular service. In the United States there are 18-19 honorary consuls strategically placed in different parts of the country.

The event took place on September 18 in the chamber that was the home of the Hungarian Upper House before World War II. By all descriptions the consuls found the prime minister’s speech elevating and, although his speech was not interrupted by periodic applause, at the end the audience gave Orbán a standing ovation.

The speech in some ways was quite remarkable. It was a curious combination of surprising honesty and unsurprising falsehood. I doubt that too many people in attendance comprehended the full significance of what they heard.

What did Orbán want to accomplish with this speech? To provide the honorary consuls with ammunition to defend Hungary against foreign criticism. Or at least to explain away Hungary’s bad press in the international media as based on misconceptions. He admitted that these consuls most likely had a hard time in the last three years. Hungarian nationals see their own country differently from those who look at Hungary from the outside. But he offered a few fundamental facts that might make the consuls’ work easier.

Orban konzulok2

First, Orbán tried to explain his government’s position vis-à-vis the European Union. Ignoring the fact that in the last years his anti-European Union speeches have multiplied and become increasingly antagonistic, he tried to convince his audience that he and his government are not euro-skeptics. They are only euro-realists. During the course of the speech it became crystal clear that Hungary has no intention of joining the eurozone and thus adopting the euro as Hungary’s currency. Of course, Hungary is required to join the eurozone eventually, despite the fact that the new constitution includes the statement that “Hungary’s currency is the forint.” Since Hungary is obligated to join the eurozone, avoiding this obligation can be accomplished only by leaving the European Union.

There was another issue about which he was brutally honest. He told his audience that the new Hungarian constitution is not a liberal document because, in his opinion, “a liberal constitution cannot be the basis of the economic renewal of the country.” He admitted that this is “a strong statement, perhaps even debatable,” but this new Hungary he is building cannot be founded on a constitution that emphasizes “the interests of the individuals.” This is a fact that he will not hide from all those countries whose constitutions are based on liberal concepts. One day other countries will come to realize that indeed a “new economic system” cannot be built on a liberal basis. He categorically stated that economic competition and liberalism are incompatible.

He admitted that questioning the validity of individual rights might have given rise to harsh international criticism and huge debates, but Orbán proudly announced that he managed to prevent such adverse reactions by “a political novum” called “national consultation.” I assume you all remember those 13-14 meaningless questionnaires sent out to 8 million Hungarian citizens. One of these inquired about the relationship between the rights of individuals and the rights of the community; 85% of those who answered agreed that both should be included in the new constitution. With that he avoided possible controversy over the new illiberal constitution, or at least so he said.

What can we learn from this speech about Hungary’s breakthrough economic system? Nothing new. Hungary will not be a welfare state but a workfare state. Hungary will handle the economic crisis differently from the rest of the world. Common wisdom holds that after an economic crisis there will be a slow recovery and that as an economy starts to recover investment will grow and with it job opportunities. The Hungarian solution will be the opposite of this sequence of events. They will start with work which will eventually solve the economic crisis. I don’t think that I have tell you how fallacious this argument is. If there is no private investment and the state doesn’t have money, as Orbán admitted in this speech, then only useless public work can be provided. And digging roadside drains financed by public money will never amount to anything. Orbán invoked the example of Roosevelt, but anyone familiar with economic history knows that the end of the Great Depression in the United States wasn’t brought about by FDR’s public work projects.

As I said at the beginning, the speech was a combination of brutal honesty and outright lies. Here are a few lies. In 2010 Hungary was in a worse economic state than Greece. Since then Hungary’s economic policy has been most successful. In the European Union only five countries managed to lower their national debt and Hungary is one of them. This, of course, is not true. In fact, the national debt has grown. It is true that the excessive deficit procedure was lifted by Brussels against Hungary, but the budget is so tight that there is a good possibility that Hungary will not be able to hold the 2.9% deficit currently projected. He repeated the lie that before 2010 only 1.8 million people paid taxes and now there are 4 million. And, not a lie but a conveniently undated forecast, Hungary will be the leading economic force in the region just as it was ten years ago.

And finally, a few interesting comments from the Q&A session. This is always the time that Orbán improvises and comes up with some interesting “facts.” All cities east of Strasbourg are “German cities.” Like, for example, Vienna, Prague, and and even St. Petersburg. There is only one exception: Budapest. The same Budapest where the majority of the population as late as the second half of the nineteenth century was largely German-speaking? Where first there was a German theater and only afterwards a Hungarian theater?

His thoughts on networking were also amusing. For Hungarians networking is a strange idea because what is networking really? Hungarians are friendly and hospitable, but networking is based on “calculation.” One does something for somebody in order to get something in return. This is really alien to the Hungarian psyche. But the world went a different way and, although it is nice to be old-fashioned occasionally, yes, Hungarians must learn the art of networking.

One final word on Orbán’s illiberal constitution. Yesterday, Károly Herényi, the second man in the Ibolya Dávid-led MDF, wrote an article in Galamus. Here is a man who is not considered to be a far-left liberal. On the contrary. He was a member of a moderate right-of-center party. And what does he say? There is no way that Orbán’s constitution can stay after a (possible) victory by the democratic forces. It must go. He considers any attempt by Gordon Bajnai to make a deal with Viktor Orbán a mistake. He suggests holding a referendum on the constitution right after the election to decide its fate.  I agree with him.