There are more and more sociologists, historians, political scientists, even psychologists who are trying to find answers to the obvious disorientation of the Hungarian people almost twenty years after the change of regime. A few days ago there was even a conference dealing with the topic. One obvious source of the disconnect is that the change of regime took place at the top of the political pyramid. Ninety-nine percent of the people just watched the events unfold, and most of them didn’t understand what was waiting for them or the country. They were certainly not prepared for massive unemployment, for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture and industry, and for capitalism. Even today people avoid the word "capitalism." It sounds too sinister. Instead they talk about the "market economy" or (although nowadays a little less so) "social market economy." And instead of looking at each other as competitors, they consider each other "enemies." This is most evident in politics, but one can observe the phenomenon in other walks of life as well.
While Ferenc Gyurcsány, at least in the past, spoke of the necessity of competition both in Hungary and globally, Hungarians are not crazy about competition. They realize that capitalism is based on competition, but, if they could, they would forget about it. I read an interview with a psychologist, Márta Fülöp, in which she explained that she and her colleagues interviewed 200 top business managers. Many of them considered themselves competitive, but about one-fifth of them confessed that competitiveness doesn’t come naturally to them. The psychologist (an associate professor at ELTE) added that "if an American business leader were to say such a thing, people would surely think he was crazy."
Apparently there are differences between generations concerning their attitude toward competition, but even among the middle-aged business leaders who are today’s decision makers, there are quite a few whose attitude toward capitalistic competitiveness is ambivalent. Apparently this ambivalence is common in transitional societies such as Hungary. Our psychologist also thinks that competition is fiercer in smaller economies where opportunities are more limited. In Japan the competitor is respected. In Hungary he becomes an enemy against whom one can be aggressive. According to Márta Fülöp that is one reason Hungarians tend not to be law-abiding citizens. "Not only that the rules of the game are ignored. The situation is much worse. The competitors ignore the accepted rules of competition, they lie, they say awful things about each other."
In Hungary, continues Márta Fülöp, only the winners garner respect. And among them only the gold medalists, not the silver or bronze winners. Losing is really fatal for most people because they don’t know how to bounce back and start again. That is one reason they are afraid of competition in the first place. They think that losing is the end of the world. That is the big difference between those Hungarians who lived all their lives in Hungary and those who left the country and became businessmen abroad. Many of the latter returned to Hungary and began business ventures there. My favorite is a man who does his own ads on television: he sells diamonds, gold, and jewelry in general. He was interviewed the other day, and he cheerfully talked about how many times he went bankrupt and went on to start another business. I think that would kill most Hungarian businessmen. And I think that the situation is similar with politicians. While in the United States a former politician is an easily marketable commodity, in Hungary a politician has nowhere else to go. Or at least politicians think they have nowhere else to go.
Finally, Márta Fülöp was aked about self-respect and self-confidence. Apparently there are problems here too. ‘"That’s why we like to place the reason for failure outside ourselves. This is easier than looking at our faults. Hungarian society’s self-respect is precarious. Either I look down on everybody with whom I am in competition or look upon them as if they were semi-gods. We don’t have a stable self-image that would prevent us from thinking either that ‘he is stupid and I am perfect,’ or that ‘I am incapable of doing this or that while others are so much better.’ "
I have no idea whether this psychological analysis has any validity. I don’t know whether the reasons enumerated by Fülöp can explain the Hungarian aggressiveness, both verbal and physical, that is apparent even on the streets. However, these hypotheses are at least thought provoking.
And finally, I would like to add a picture I found in a Hungarian paper of the crowd listening to Ferenc Gyurcsány on May Day. I can’t really judge its size, though it seems substantial to me. According to one of our readers who was there, however, the crowd was small.