How a State gets Captured

From the early 2000s onwards, Hungary was to become a leading indicator of what politics was to largely become everywhere in the 2010s. My film ‘State Capture – the story of Hungary 1988-2018’ tries to dissect the underlying causes for Hungary’s current political domination by the authoritarian Right.

There are some different cultural factors at play. Hungary doesn’t have a strong democratic tradition. There was only very limited suffrage as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, whilst the chaos following the end of the First World War generally only served as a cautionary tale, with a Red Terror swiftly followed by a still more brutal White Terror. The interwar years saw a gradual choking of free political activity, with increasingly managed elections (open ballots in the town square, anyone?) There were three years of full democracy before 1989, from 1945 to 1948, which saw an effective but increasingly pressured coalition of Smallholders and Social Democrats pick up the tab for post-war reconstruction. And then there were some years of Stalinist communism, followed by a few precious months of glasnost in 1956, followed by three decades of a more conciliatory, and ultimately quite absorbent form of communism.

But the overall picture which emerges, is that the democratic and constitutional goals of 1989 were only vaguely and partially understood by the public, and therefore relied on a liberal civic culture which didn’t actually exist. The 1989 opposition was driven by a highly educated elite vanguard of liberal opposition figures, whilst the technocratic leadership of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party was, to put it simply, intelligent enough to see which way the wind was blowing, and required a quick exit. 

Hungarian democracy became fatally compromised by a few factors, but at its core is the dilemma of what being a liberal, and a liberal democracy, might mean. In 1989 liberalism in the former Eastern Bloc was often interpreted quite crudely, as meaning free markets, Thatcherism in all its glory, combined with freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Serious analysis of how Thatcherism, and neoliberalism, differed from either classical liberalism, or the social liberalism of the 1960s, was lacking. This was to become crucial. Neoliberalism, as we know, has a particular relationship to the state: it relies upon the state very closely to create, frame and pump-prime a number of markets and businesses on behalf of what it describes as ‘the public good.’ 

The years following the first free elections in the 1990s saw a continual switching, between left-wing and right-wing governments. As the film indicates, despite the apparent success of the Socialists at that time, Hungarian politics during the 1990s was increasingly to become a discourse between liberals and nationalists. In practice, the Socialists (the successor party to the communist-era state party) tended towards liberalism. The economic backdrop of an unequal post-communist economy followed a re-interpreted neoliberal pattern of ownership and distribution: where political connections were the leverage which allowed a national capitalist class to emerge. From this, came a layer of politically engaged oligarchs. Additionally, from the mid-2000s, a new generation of nationalist right-wing activists, some of them centred around Jobbik, were to successfully challenge the basis for the 1989 settlement.

There were many valid criticisms that could be made. There had been no reckoning with the crimes committed in the aftermath of 1956, with the security state apparatus having destroyed almost all of its records. The whole process of the 1989 transition, and the Opposition Round Table negotiations, were conducted by a small group of people, with only minimal democratic participation or legitimacy. The economic crisis in 2007 only inflamed a political situation which was already extremely unstable.

Viktor Orbán is a clever yet almost debilitatingly cynical politician with an instinctual sense of the national psyche. His move to a more populist direction in the 2000s allowed him to effectively square the circle between nationalism and a social welfarism which had been practically vacant since 1989 – despite him always being an elite figure, and an advocate of neoliberal economics. The post-1989 settlement had been critically weakened by the time he won his supermajority in 2010. Few people wanted to defend all of the existing 1989 constitution, itself a progressive, but heavily-amended version of the communist-era constitution. Still fewer people thought the social outcomes of the post-1989 settlement were worth fighting for. Therefore Viktor Orbán had a free run to develop a constitution exactly as he pleased, including an electoral system which allowed him free reign at gerrymandering, provisions to include his favoured constituencies in neighbouring countries and establishing a religious-national basis for regressive social legislation, whilst including industrial-level quantities of historical revisionism. Never one for self-restraint, his almost-total domination of the politics and economics of Hungary, giving free reign to a hierarchy largely based on stupidity and loyalty, is as unsurprising as it is tragic. 

I’d suggest there may be two lessons for us, if we seek to avoid a similar fate: that in a battle between narrowly construed market liberalism and populist nationalism, the liberals tend to lose, and secondly, that it is absolutely crucial that all of the population somehow understands and participates in civic democratic culture, and the rules under which this might function and allow citizen participation. Perhaps these are both debatable points, but I strongly suggest that this is a very good time for such a debate – the model of authoritarian capitalism established in Hungary is adaptable to other countries and other contexts.. In line with Robin Cook’s political legacy, we must always consider whether our constitution, the fabric upon which politics is conducted, is robust and inclusive enough to withstand those who would capitalise upon economic and cultural resentment and who would further divide society to satisfy their own bigoted and financially-driven intentions.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and writer based in Budapest, Hungary, you can watch the abridged version of his documentary State Capture: The Story of Hungary 1988-2018 on YouTube.

You may also like

Labour needs to Forge a New Consensus within the Party and Country by Andrew Ryder | 10.11.22 | In: Comment I am a Labour member living in Hungary but still able to participate in the party through Labour International, a constituency Labour Party set up for members... Read More
Open Democracy: A Genuinely New Politics by Open Labour | 21.04.16 | In: Comment By Russell Razzaque / @MindfulRussell People have lost faith. There was a time when the public were prepared to defer to politicians and accept their... Read More
The Panama Papers are revealing the misery of the neoliberal system by Open Labour | 18.04.16 | In: Comment By Marie Paglinghi / @PMamacita The Panama Papers story has been received in a flurry of outraged comments. The intensity with which citizens in various... Read More
Finding direction by Open Labour | 01.01.16 | In: Comment By David Purdy Since the post-war settlement was overturned and capitalism was unleashed via the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, profound transformations... Read More