The State of Things

Photo: Peter Župník

The privatization carried out by Hungary’’s first democratic government, which regarded itself as the custodian of the 19th century ideals of freedom, immediately paved the way for the latest modernization of Hungary, following two previously interrupted attempts. The government knew what it wanted, yet it failed to take into consideration the legacy of dictatorship, including the shadow economy and illegal employment. Within this framework a secret, pro forma privatisation had already taken place, although it could not be de iure recognized under Kádár’’s legislation. What it basically amounted to was that local fiefdoms, based on profitable enterprises functioning in the framework of cooperatives, could not be made inheritable, which would have in principle enabled entrepreneurial segments of the village population to embark on a prosperous bourgeois lifestyle. The Kádár administration strictly limited the legal investments of the cooperatives in an attempt to ensure that cooperative property did not outgrow state property and thereby forced de facto financial flows underground. In this manner the administration forced nearly everyone involved in clandestine trade back to barter. Contractual relations were replaced by oral agreements, and written documents and bank transactions were more or less banned. Everyone was aware of this informal economy, virtually everyone benefited from its blessings and participated in its anomalies, yet hardly anyone spoke about it openly. The silence was basically in everyone’’s interest and ensured that this unfortunate situation was maintained. For decades giving one’’s word or giving a receipt had no validity in business relations. If an illegally given word was not kept, you couldn’’t (and still can’’t) go to court and the only way to retaliate was by murdering someone or blowing up something. After forty years of socialism the difference between the meaning of the words “‚yes”‘ and “‚no”‘ was practically eradicated from the Hungarian language. People used a doublespeak, in which the word “‚no”‘ had to be said in such a way that it could equally be taken to mean “yes”‘, and vice versa. The word “receipt”’, for example, acquired a downright negative connotation. Anyone requesting or demanding a receipt or complaining about the lack of one has to this day been regarded as some kind of an undercover tax inspector or the kind of evil person who refuses to take part in the tribally or generationally justified and moral act of stealing and cheating, and must therefore be treated as a pariah.

At the time of the regime change society was starved for legal property, yet it was totally unprepared to accept the commitment arising from saying yes or no. Having developed a tradition of nurturing doublespeak in language and double standards in life in order to survive, society was not ready to take on the responsibility entailed in ownership, investing, accounting, paying taxes or looking after property. The existing and virulently flourishing structure of society did not correspond to the model it wanted to follow. However, the thread of modernisation could not be picked up again, indeed progress itself was no longer possible, without privatisation in some form or other. Consecutive governments decided to continue the modernisation tradition to enable Hungary to develop into an equal partner of the great industrial nations in the foreseeable future; that was precisely why they chose to preserve the structures of dictatorship. They built on the structures and leading lights of the shadow economy as well as the informal sector and illegal work if for no other reason than that they knew no other way and no one else to rely on. Prime Minister Orbán, when he was a young party chairman, failed to understand the significance of this strategic decision for years, regarding the double standard and doublethink associated with it as morally unacceptable. In principle, of course, it would have been possible to carry out the kind of privatisation that accorded preference to the public good in the republican sense, but in order to achieve that the actors would have had to be at least partly familiar with the rules of the game of democracy and to oblige themselves as well as others to observe these rules. But where could they have learned them? I can’’t remember a single political grouping that could have offered society this option, i.e. that of transparency, with checks and balances, obligations and rights, the right relationship between prices and services. Such a grouping would have had to offer a strong state.

Orbán’’s party, the Union of Young Democrats (Fidesz) was the first to be embroiled in a corruption scandal. Later the Union of Free Democrats (SzDSz) failed to offer as much as an explanation by way of compensation when its own corruption scandal broke, leaving all the officials responsible in office, and as a result it lost almost its entire electorate at a stroke. When I asked writer István Eörsi, who was at the time a member of the party’’s executive, why they hadn’’t taken what would have been the politically inevitable action, he answered that this was the only way they could prevent the party leadership from falling into the hands of a member of the executive who had already managed to acquire a large portfolio of property by stealing and had been unstoppable in his zeal. Right from the start, every new or resurrected party wanted to operate in the twilight zone, to go fishing in murky waters, regarding this as the only way to thrive. Those party members whose moral scruples forced them to leave parties that had sunken into the quagmire of corruption would not dream of making their knowledge public. If a single exception had existed among the parties founded during the third Hungarian republic, it would have had to distinguish itself from the others by wanting to contribute to the public good rather than wanting to profit from it. So powerful had the longing for property become during the forty years of dictatorship that even the Christian churches and the Jewish community were only interested in getting, not giving, not a penny, not to anyone. In response to the new phenomenon of homelessness and extreme poverty it was foreign rather than home-grown bodies that launched the first aid initiatives.

The shadowy traditions

Yet the tradition of capitalist economy wasn’’t entirely alien to Hungary. The problem was the same as with the understanding of democracy. In the course of the attempts at reforming the socialist planned economy and strengthening the shadow economy in the late 1970s Hungarian society had basically forgotten the previous anomalies of Hungarian capitalism, just as it had forgotten its own workers and peasant movements. It wasn’’t long before the consequences of this amnesia made themselves felt. Society developed an interest in the model of the developed social market economy with which it wasn’’t familiar and whose previous circumstances it did not want to remember. It preferred illusion to reality. With its illegally flourishing shadow economy Hungary had come closer to the capitalist economy than any other Warsaw Pact country, without however coming to resemble the orderly, social market economy in which excesses of egotism are regulated by means of laws and institutions and a democratic division of power but rather the kind of disorderly, lawless economies that tend to nurture family, clan and tribal egotism, recognize only secret deals and barter trade and understand the law only through loopholes, avoid written agreements like the devil avoids baptismal water and consequently, in asserting their interests, tend to fall back on the idea of an authoritarian social organisation rather than the spirit of progress, relying instead on a provincial tribal and clan spirit.

This preserves, so to speak, the patriarchal spirit that used to unite small landowners and gentry, lordly servants, farmhands, day labourers and aristocracy. To use a term coined by Radomir Konstantinović: “‘a parochial spirit”’. The parochial spirit abhors autocracy, yet it buys a little security by loyally serving the next master. It doesn’’t strive for higher virtues, doesn’’t like universality in anything, not even in the church, and is happy to be constrained by clan and family. Consequently it does not understand individualism, treating it with profound disdain. It moves to the city, to its most expensive neighbourhoods, yet it hates the urban. All day long it pines for the destroyed province, having turned its back on it with disdain and having contributed to its destruction. It desires a weak government to make sure nothing can stop it from asserting the interests of family, tribe and clan which it has brought to the city at the expense of the taxpayer – that is, at its own expense. It is the enemy of everyone who won’’t serve it, forever ready to befriend anyone who does, albeit only as a favour, in return for services rendered. On this issue there is complete consensus between neoliberals, who have studied at US universities, and national conservatives educated at British and French ones. They all want a weak government, one that will, of course, serve exclusively them, their families, tribes, clans and parties, providing them with all the goods it has taken away from others. Political parties have carried out privatisation within a lethally weak state, incapable of checks and balances, on the basis of tribal and clan thinking, led by a parochial spirit. They were united in wanting a weak government. Otherwise the unfettered theft committed by everyone and the arbitrariness at the expense of the common good would have been unimaginable.

Hungary’‘s new authoritarian tradition was bred by this parochial spirit, based as it is on tribes and clans, showing little interest in the republic and even less affinity with human rights – by contrast, it has at its disposal a strong clerical network, helping its protagonists to restage the prewar theatre of feudal and authoritarian rule. Clericalism also nurtures the patriarchal and parochial spirit. At the same time, the obligation to follow and serve Jesus Christ is not at odds with a disdain for Christian universality. Clericalism speaks both languages at the same time, cultivating a national church in opposition to the universal one in order to allow the church hierarchy to serve the parochial spirit — although in both cases it is a purely theatrical language. Thus the doublespeak serves the hatred of everything alien, the disdain, exploitation and mockery of the Other, but first and foremost, it serves the hierarchy of affluence. It serves the major landowners against the smallholders, the smallholders against the farmhands. It is not beholden to the Eucharist and not even to the nation in its modern sense, but only to the clan, the tribe – a community into which people are born and from which they are are not allowed to rise, regardless of whether they are wealthy landowners or penniless farmhands. In this respect, of course, Christianity (whether it in its Catholic or Protestant manifestation) does not signify a creed but rather a negative declaration of belonging to a clan or a tribe. We are not Jews, this declaration says. In contemporary Hungarian usage, the word Christianity has become synonymous with this statement, which is understood as a code for a racial theory or at least as anti-Judaism. This coded declaration is not necessitated by the fact that the Jews, who form two percent of the total population of Hungary, play an excessively important role in the life of present-day Hungarian society, but rather by the desire of the tribal or clan spirit, which is on its last legs, to preserve sources of the hatred of the Other unclouded by the love of one’’s neighbour.

Translation: Julia Sherwood
This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in German in Lettre Internationale Deutschland, I 95, Winter 2011.