Hungarian lament by S.K.

My post last week has elicited quite a few rebukes.

The general tenor of criticism was, on the one hand, that the situation is not grave enough to justify my assessment, and on the other, by being as tough as I was, I am actually stooping to the same level as my mark, Fidesz.

Well, fair enough, if it engendered such reaction in my critics, the posting was probably more radical than was expected based on the facts.

I am not prepared however to accept the criticism yet without explaining my reasons.

It was not that long ago, in the 1930s in Hungary, when in the throes of the great depression, under economic and political pressures, there finally gelled a modest, but valuable middle class. It was small, quite parochial, and strictly urban, but exactly because of the multitude of pressures, it was also resilient and immensely valuable. The constituents of this small middle class were not so much business people, but mostly corporate bureaucrats, public servants, teachers and generally people of modest means, with civilizatory impulses. Although the rate of unemployment was staggering, pay for those lucky enough to work was modest and the “things” that a middle class person could do was limited, nonetheless, this was an incredibly fertile period culturally speaking.

Some of the best art, literature, the best theater, and the best music practically ever was conceived and propagated in Hungary in those years. Families often gathered to play chamber music. Marvelous literature was coming from every direction. More and more theaters were opened and were full every night. Cabarets and coffee houses everywhere, newspapers by the dozens serving every possible taste, and large companies of families and friends were roaming the forests and hills around Buda in the spring and fall for picnics and outdoor entertainments. My parents were this kind of people.

The organized middle class didn’t stop at the family level, there were countless organizations, social and professional, clubs for artists, journalists and all manner of other professions, for example acrobats, providing ample field for interaction.

The communist takeover of the country in 1948 put all that into deep freeze, but the people didn’t change, only the circumstances did. It was nearly impossible of course, to speak openly, social organizations were expropriated, just like industry and businesses were, and while those willing to howl with the wolves remained members of these instruments of state control, the others, like my parents, withdrew into private life hoping for the best. Although the postwar economy was barely bearable, the old civic habits never died; food was rationed; yet families still went out for picnics and concerts and the theaters were still full despite the heavily tilted, Soviet-influenced repertoire. The children of the frozen middle class still received their extracurricular music lessons, fencing and athletic training. The middle class prevailed, albeit reduced in numbers, and outlasted the forty-five years of oppression.

The euphoria of 1989-90 was not only similar to that of 1956, but it was more intense and more universal. At the same time it was completely devoid of violence, more typically gleeful. The bastards were all on the run, the source of oppression itself, the “great” Soviet Union was heading for the exit, beaten and humiliated. The middle class, true to its tradition, was standing by to take over; writers, journalists, even rabbis and priests were entering parliament, ready to do finally what was yet undone, the organizing of civil society.

The first “civic” government, that of József Antall, hastily embarked on restoring the prewar anomalies of the society, smuggled back the aristocracy and clergy into the positions they never again were supposed to occupy and from which they were barred by law and by horrendous collective experiences. No wonder that when Viktor Orbán stood in Parliament and accused the fumbling government of lying, there was some sympathy towards him. This was a seminal moment. Not only was it open defiance in the face of authority, but also the breaking of tradition of civility in Parliament. There was nobody at the time to point out that abandoning civility is detrimental to civic society. It was downhill ever since.

The ravages of time and the intentional destruction of civility by Orbán and Fidesz continued ever since. The willful works of this uncivilized crew of blowhards, undermining the little that was left, augmented whatever destruction was not carried out by the economic decline. The philosophy of Fidesz rapidly proved to be the abandonment of the traditional nineteenth-century liberal, patriotic, ethos which most of society looked up to as exemplary, instead it became a mere technique to wrench power from anybody who had it and wrest it by whatever means to themselves, regardless of the consequences.

Fidesz, the “new voice” of present-day Hungary, has realized from the beginning that they have no excuse to be in the “power business” unless they apply every trick ever invented to grab that power. They had no principles to adhere to, they cared not a wit whether it was helpful or harmful to the country, they boldly pressed onward to the unchartered territory that, as it suddenly turns out, is not as unchartered as it seemed before. In fact those ignominious predecessors, Mussolini and Hitler, have very well chartered it.

Building a power basis on the basest and lowest instincts of the population, making policy out of nothing but the craving of power and negativity did not serve the country at the time of the anti-reform referendum, for example.

The meager forces of resistance, those small islands of civic virtue, the intelligentsia and the business class, have little to hang onto. They can either join, and perhaps benefit from the deception, as did the German oligarchy at the time of Hitler, or try to resist at the risk of its own peril.

Except for a handful of people courageous and intelligent enough to understand this some years ago already, there is nobody left to resist and protest. Even the authorities, whose job would be to enforce the law, are cowering in the face of the onslaught. Just witness the farce surrounding the statue of the “Turul” in the twelfth district of Budapest, the recent personal clear-cutting in the public television, or the ludicrous dithering about the Hungarian Guard. Need we say that all these manifestations of institutional cowardice are ample proof of the absence of civic society and its presence anywhere? The courageous handful are feebly protesting and the rest is meandering between fear and hope.

That fear and hope is the source of the criticism I received for my last week’s posting; perhaps if we don’t call a spade a spade, they will not notice us, we shall go on for another day. This was the attitude of the communist era as well. For some it did work, for others it was no help at all. Eventually everybody was intimidated, abused and ultimately robbed.

So, my conciliatory friends, you just go on relying on those fine distinctions and precious attitudes, hoping that the upcoming trials and tribulations of the impending Fidesz government will turn out to be not quite as bad as it could be, but I am telling you, it will not only be as bad, but worse than you can imagine. There is an almost hundred years long period of experience and the Fidesz has already done things worse than ever expected, and they haven’t even grabbed power yet. Pretty soon however, “the black soup” is on its way.

So what, you might say, what’s the big deal?

Oh, well, there will be no chamber music played at family gatherings for some time to come. How long can that time be, you ask. Well, if the predictions of Orban are any indication, how about twenty years?

Can you afford it?

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Öcsi
Guest

S.K. wrote:
“So, my conciliatory friends, you just go on relying on those fine distinctions and precious attitudes, hoping that the upcoming trials and tribulations of the impending Fidesz government will turn out to be not quite as bad as it could be, but I am telling you, it will not only be as bad, but worse than you can imagine. There is an almost hundred years long period of experience and the Fidesz has already done things worse than ever expected, and they haven’t even grabbed power yet. Pretty soon however, “the black soup” is on its way.”
Do you think Orbán is evil? Or is he seriously misguided?
By the way, I agree with the gist of your posts.

icr
Guest

“Oh, well, there will be no chamber music played at family gatherings for some time to come.”
That world is gone forever-swept way by the tide of Americanization. Even the Nazis have their hip-hop songs.

Sandor
Guest

To Ocsi: frankly, Ocsi, I think he is neither. Or may even be both and a lot of other thins to boot. We don’t do the practicable thing by trying to evaluate him within the parameters of our own reasonable philosophy. He couldn’t care less, his interests and concerns are outside of the reasonable. He is mainly concerned about his power within the party and winning as much power as possible without. That is not misguided, nor is it evil, but it is something else entirely than what he should be doing, if he wants to be a respectable politician. But he doesn’t care to be “respectable.”
To icr: yeah! and punk. This is exactly what I bemoan, this is what the bastards have wreaked on society. However, americanization is not at fault, they still have an admirable social life in america, unlike in Hungary. But perhaps not quite forever. I have yet a modicum of hope for the troglodytes.

Mark
Guest
“It was not that long ago, in the 1930s in Hungary, when in the throes of the great depression, under economic and political pressures, there finally gelled a modest, but valuable middle class.” While I recognize much of the truth of what you say about the social dimensions of middle class culture, I can’t help but feel that you are idealizing its reality. Naturally in terms of its political response to the pressures of the depression this middle class was far from homogeneous, but the dominant and predominant stance – among the “Christian” middle classes – was an increasing anti-Semitism. I’ve read probably too much of the provincial, local press from this period for my own good, but it is impossible not to be struck by the wave of complaint, that if only those jobs in public administration, or the professions, and all those profitable business could be wrested from the hands of the Jews and transferred to the stewardship of the “good” “Christian” people then their middle class existence could be placed on a surer footing. It is impossible not to examine the implementation of anti-Jewish legislation in the economic sphere and not see it as an inefficient, paternalist/clientelist,… Read more »
Pistefka
Guest
Its a little off topic but I’m always struck by the lack of a middle ground when it comes to culture in Hungary. There is often a lack of recognition that “pop culture” does actually produce culture of some worth – (I say pop culture, but such “quality” music, film and literature tends not to be all that popular.) I think it is accepted in many European countries that being cultured and appreciating the arts does not necessarily mean going to the theatre or listening only to (live) classical music. These are pre-20th century art forms. To dismiss all modern pop or rock music is rather akin to ignoring all literature or film since World War 2. The key is of course to be discerning. Unfortunately, though it is much easier to appear to be “cultured” by simply sticking to the opera, theatre and classical music – no-one can deny their cultural value. Especially if you are a busy professional who doesn’t really have the time to cultivate an appreiation of the arts. (Cinema seems to be a special case – everyone knows that it can produce “high art” – and of course it never existed before the 20th century.)… Read more »
NWO
Guest
Mark’s characterization of the middle class is key. If he is correct, this cohort of people certainly feel very vulnerable and rightly feel that the political system and the parties have not “protected” their saftey net. Of course, I believe, no party could have done so, but that is another matter. Nevertheless, what do these people really want? A steady job, an occassional vacation to Austria to ski or Croatia to swim, better household appliances and oppotunities for their children. While FIDESZ can play for the election on the resentments built up in this cohort against the incompetence and the REAl and perceived corruption of the Government, these people by in large want to be part of a broader European experience and not even more marginalized or radicalized. The imperative for FIDESZ will be to move towards the center [look at what pragmatic guys like Pokorni and Antal have done as Mayors of the XII and V. districts]. Of course, it will not be easy as their will be forces pulling Orban in a number of directions and he has proven than his political judgment is warped. The ultimate international vindication for Orban, however, will be able to take Hungary… Read more »
Mark
Guest
NWO: “Nevertheless, what do these people really want?” If this were an entirely rational world, I would agree with you. I also think there is a point at which people have to believe that within a particular political constellation their aspirations can be realized. I think for many – especially for those on very low salaries relative to their qualifications, which is a substantial group in Hungary – the dream of joining a “European” middle class seems in 2009 to be further away than it has ever been. Therefore, I would maintain, the argument that sustained stability in the 1990s – that if Hungary sought integration with the rest of Europe, and pursued painful but necessary market reforms, then the majority would be rewarded with a more secure future – is no longer credible to many people. A vacuum has been created which has been filled by those who advance different versions of the neo-Gömbösite vision of the “purposeful national state” (which both FIDESZ and Jobbik subscribe to). I think we can both predict with certainty that this formula is not going to meet with a great deal of success. The issue then becomes one of where the logic of… Read more »
NWO
Guest

I guess it is how we see as the crucial political cohort among the middle class in Hungary. If the key people in terms on political control are those nearing retirement (between 50-60), then think there is a risk of some radicalization. If the key group are those between (25-40). I think the risk is frankly less. These people may not have much faith in Hungarian institutions, but I think they still have not given up all hope (unlike those of the same age cohort but who are largely uneducated).
And while this blog makes its point to try and pin most of the blame for Hungary’s problems on FIDESZ (and as you know I am no fan of FIDESZ and particulalrly Orban), I think it is fair to say that MSZP must shoulder much of the blame for the disallusionment of the middle class (particulalrly outside of Budapest). The MSZP policies have really been focused on areas of interest to either the economic elite or the elderly.

Mark
Guest
NWO: “And while this blog makes its point to try and pin most of the blame for Hungary’s problems on FIDESZ (and as you know I am no fan of FIDESZ and particulalrly Orban), I think it is fair to say that MSZP must shoulder much of the blame for the disallusionment of the middle class.” What is clear is that much like Italy in 2008, the huge swing to the right we expect next year is not due to anything FIDESZ has suddently started doing, but to the collapse of the left-liberal side. Politically the game has been up for a year now. It is time to recognize though that this isn’t just because of policy mistakes on the part of either the MSZP and the SZDSZ, but because of a systemic failure of their broader political strategy. It is no longer possible to believe that the pursuit of European integration and market reform will bring prosperity (and, however, necessary these things were in the 1990s, they were never going to produce the kind of material improvement that is needed to consolidate political democracy – and I’ve not come to this view recently; I first wrote it in a… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

Mark, I read your arguments with the greatest of pleasure, not to mention your lovely English I also savour.
But, (damn it!), your conclusion is a bit of a red herring, sorry to say. What use, in the world, would be even the most attractive alternative in the Hungary of today, where the political hysteria is the prevalent mood? The “philosopher kings” Janos Kiss and TGM and all those once and for ever politicians who were instrumental in the establishing of democracy twenty years ago, have departed in disgust long time ago. Let that be the lesson that in the climate of hatred there is simply no room for “proper alternative.”

Sophist
Guest

Mark,
“they were never going to produce the kind of material improvement that is needed to consolidate political democracy”
By 2006, the $ per capita GDP of Hungary had grown to 4 times its 1989 value. The equivalent UK figure is just 2.6 . The expectations I formed in 1993 of Hungary’s material growth have been trumped again and again, even now I just can’t see the hardship I guessed this recession would bring. The problem is not the economic delivery but expectation management, when I argue economics with Hungarians they can’t understand why their lifestyle isn’t like that of the Germans.
It would be interesting to see median income figures to see if the man on the street has benefited from this economic growth as much as that of the elite.

Mark
Guest

Well, all I’d say is the right is very loud, but they do not speak for all those who are silent. There are lots of people in Hungary; I know a few of them, some of them read this blog, who don’t like the climate of hysteria, and who despair for what is likely to happen to the country. An alternative is about giving those people a voice, and something they can use to stand and fight for something better.

Mark
Guest
Sophist: “By 2006, the $ per capita GDP of Hungary had grown to 4 times its 1989 value.” I don’t where your statistics are coming from but your GDP ones are wildly wrong. The OECD has calculations for Hungarian GDP calculated according to PPP in US dollars at year 2000 prices going back to 1991. They show that in 2008 Hungarian GDP was only 1.59 times its 1991 level (given that both 1990 and especially 1991 were years of substantial contraction in Hungary if we are looking at a 1989 baseline the increase would be less than 1.5 times). If you go through the figures carefully Hungary has held its position relative to the western European core since 1991; its position has deteriorated, not improved, since 1989 (if only slightly). On real median incomes the information we have from the OECD is more imprecise, and we only have it to the middle of this decade (so before the 2006 austerity package). They show that even at the peak of the boom (in the mid-2000s) these were only 8.9% above their 1990 level. Therefore I think we can assume – based on what we know about what has happened since 2006… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
The ‘Hungarian lament’ –“woe, woe and misery me” seems to be a Hungarian national pastime. In many ways the Hungarians are like the medieval penitent who would go on a pilgrimage with dried peas in his shoes. The only problem is that unlike the medieval penitent, the Hungarian has not got the sense to boil the peas thoroughly first. Almost every great misfortune which has befallen Hungary can be laid directly at their own door step and the impending election of Fidesz is another. Mr S.K. you write * “Fidesz, the “new voice” of present-day Hungary, has realized from the beginning that they have no excuse to be in the “power business” unless they apply every trick ever invented to grab that power. They had no principles to adhere to, they cared not a wit (not one jot nor tittle ?) whether it was helpful or harmful to the country.”. Here I think you have hit the nail on the head. The way in which one man has come to dominate and control the party shows that this man wants only two things power and control over every one and every thing. Orban Victor does this to prevent any one… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

Mark: “Well, all I’d say is the right is very loud, but they do not speak for all those who are silent. There are lots of people in Hungary; I know a few of them, some of them read this blog, who don’t like the climate of hysteria, and who despair for what is likely to happen to the country. An alternative is about giving those people a voice, and something they can use to stand and fight for something better.”
Okay! Please tell them for me to show up for the vote at election time and don’t be stupid, voting based on their emotions. If they had just got off their doff, things would not have careened as low as they did. Nor should they swallow the siren songs of the ultra-right, just because there is a recession, because the recession will go, but the ultra right will stay. (and stay and stay and stay)

whoever
Guest
I think some people “just don’t getting it.” Sandor, democracy is more than casting a vote for a businessman-politician at an election. A lot more. The thin, murky layer of Hungarian democracy, with its limited, prescripted participation rates, was worn threadbare by the events of a few years ago. I read on this blog an acknowledgement, that the current system is dying a slow, lingering death. This is not just a result of whatever Fidesz has done. It is, as much, a result of the MSZMP’s all-too convenient rebranding into the MSZP, and their subsequent careers as Thatcherite privateers, enablers of mega-capitalism. It’s also about problems with the constitution, an accompanying inability to forge a genuine political dialogue to achieve timely, rational reform. The egoism of Orban, the weakness of Medgyessy, the arrogance of Gyurcsany, the biology-teacher-made-good from the countryside. History will see this as a “turning point.” But it may not be as negative as people think. The destruction of the SZDSZ and the crippling of the MSZP may turn out to be the best thing that has happened to the Hungarian left in a long time. It will take time for a new left to re-emerge into the… Read more »
Friend
Guest
Dear Sándor, There is this nice word for this kind of argumentation: fárasztó. Let me translate it like this: “So lacking in interest as to cause mental weariness”. Nevertheless, to show I am not willing to make concessions (“conciliatory friends”), I’ll respond. Do you really want to compare the dangers of civil resistance against Orbán to that against Hitler as you write about today’s Hungary “[…] there is nobody left to resist and protest.” in the same paragraph that you suggest that today’s Hungarian ” intelligentsia and the business class” behave like “the German oligarchy at the time of Hitler”? You don’t seem to mind flattering yourself: “Except for a handful of people courageous and intelligent enough to understand […]”, yet the ‘Gleichschaltung’ of the Nazi’s (from 1933 onwards) wasn’t about statues and public television. It should be out of respect for the resistance against Hitler (http://www.hdbg.de/dachau/dachau_die-ausstellung_02_Abteilung-03.php) that we don’t come up with this kind of nonsense. George Patton said: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”. Please, do think for I am interested in good reasoning. But don’t play the Nazi card and compare Orbán to Hitler. You cannot call a tea-spoon a spade, or a duck… Read more »
Öcsi
Guest

Friend wrote:
“But don’t play the Nazi card and compare Orbán to Hitler. You cannot call a tea-spoon a spade, or a duck a T-Rex, just on the bases that you hear them make the same sounds (last’s week post)! Such a comparison is contra-productive and in vain you quoted Matthew “by their fruit ye shall know them.””
When should the Nazi card be played?
It’s a serious question because, as you know, Hitler wasn’t “Hitler” until it was too late. The world treated Hitler just like any other quirky politician. Diplomatic relationships were maintained, Berlin got the Olympics and politics was politics as usual – until it was too late.
So, my “Friend,” when would you play the Nazi card?

Friend
Guest
“When should the Nazi card be played?” My first objection against the use of the Nazi card stems from the art of reasoning. It is bad logic. It is a standard ‘ad hominem argument’, attacking a person by appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, (rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim). It is clearly ‘guilt by association’ and the association with Hitler is so common that it has its own definition: Reductio ad Hitlerum. It reveals lack of argument, and that is why it is contra-productive. Then it carries its own evil. If on basis on this reasoning we fail to differentiate between Orbán and Hitler, we are heading in the wrong way. I believe the other contributions of last week were mostly on this line of thought. For this reason do I perceive the entries of Sándor as dangerous and I don’t object to the label “hate speak” that was mentioned. Sándor wants us to realize that Fidesz poses a real threat to society, but hasn’t history taught us exactly this: That to accuse a person or a group based on something associated… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

My dear Gellert, The comparison is not the same as equivalency. I do have the quotes to support my claim. here is a good one for instance:
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”
However, you are, or at least would be correct, had you pointed out that we are dealing with different degrees of the same phenomenon. Tha latterday Orban does merit comparison with the early day Hitler.
The question nevertheless, still remains: if the cannibals would eat more carrots, would they qualify to be vegetarians?

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