Viktor Orbán and the “western type of capitalism”

Viktor Orbán, it seems, lovingly embraces inconsistency. There is first of all his inconsistency over time, well documented in József Debreczeni's second book Arcmás, published last year. Debreczeni painstakingly collected important Orbán quotations that show his about-face from radical liberal to radical right-winger. Orbán, by the way, would most likely vehemently deny both labels because he now claims that he and his party are beyond "ideologies."

Of course, one could say that no one can expect absolute consistency over time. Times change, a person's outlook changes. Moreover, we all know that once Orbán realized that on the liberal side of the political spectrum he would always play second fiddle to the well established and weightier SZDSZ leaders, he turned toward the right, especially since with the staggering loss of MDF in 1994 the field was wide open.

But Orbán exhibits not only the inconsistency inherent in changing sides. He also flaunts the rules of logical consistency. He is quite capable of saying in the same speech that the "economy is in ruins and needs total rebuilding" and two sentences later that the country's financial situation is stable.

Particularly interesting to my mind are some of his latest turnabouts and his incoherence. On ideological grounds he was fiercely anti-Russian until about a year ago. This anti-Russian attitude came from a typical Hungarian gut reaction to anything Russian. After all, without Russia Hungary might have won the war of independence of 1848-49 against the Habsburg Empire. The Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1944-45 also left a bitter taste in Hungarian mouths. Everybody knew that without Soviet backing the Hungarian communists couldn't have established a one-party dictatorship. So, on one level his reaction was understandable, but rationally every politician ought to know that it behooves Hungary to establish a cordial relationship with Moscow. Yet Viktor Orbán while prime minister conducted a decidedly anti-Russian foreign policy, and later during the Gyurcsány period he accused the Hungarian prime minister of being too friendly, perhaps even subservient to the Russians.

About a year ago all that changed. By now, it almost seems that a Russian-Hungarian friendship will be the cornerstone of Hungarian foreign policy.

A similar change of heart took place with respect to China. While he was in office he completely neglected China. It was Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány who made overtures to the world's fast growing economic giant. By now it seems to me that Orbán unabashedly declares the superiority of an economy in which the state has the guiding role. Orbán thinks that the secret of Chinese economic success is the combination of the one-party system and political dictatorship and an economy that is based on market forces but controlled by the state.

Or at least this is what he seemed to suggest in his speech at Tusnádfürdő (Bǎile Tuşnad) in Romania. Every summer Fidesz holds a "free university and student gathering" in Tusnádfürdő. This was the twenty-first such get-together of Hungarian students from Romania and Hungary; they spend a week in this very picturesque little town famous for its spa. Viktor Orbán always attends, and in the past the whole country breathlessly awaited what kind of message he would send back home from Romania. In 2006, for example, it was here that Orbán first talked about the lies of Ferenc Gyurcsány and the illegitimacy of his government. Therefore, in retrospect one suspects that Orbán already had the tape of the Gyurcsány speech in Balatonőszöd in June, although it was released by him only in late September, just before the local elections.

But let's get back to the "crisis of the western type of capitalism." Surely, Orbán considers this the essence of his fairly long speech because this is the title of the speech when it was published on his website. This "crisis" is more than a more severe recession typical of the business cycle; it in fact marks the end of western capitalism. On the other hand, the Chinese economy grows 10% a year. This is not just a temporary financial hiccup but the demise of a capitalist system that has been in place in Europe for "the last 100 or 150 years." Why exactly these numbers, don't ask me. The trouble lies, according to Orbán, in the fact that the "speculative movement of money came to the fore instead of a capitalism based on work and on value."

But there are other problems as well. "The market must not only be effective but it must also be based on morality." Once upon a time "morality originated in faith in God, but as the world changed and enlightenment arrived, instead of belief in God humanity turned to a kind of code of behavior based on religious teachings." Surely, says Orbán, one must return to the kind of morality that existed earlier and which precludes speculation in the market.

In European countries there are signs that governments are rethinking their mode of behavior that led to the "heart attack" of western capitalism. The first recognition is that "ideological questions have been pushed to the background." (Where he gets this from I have no idea. Most likely he stuck this sentence in because it is his hobby horse. If there are no ideological differences, then there is a new order of unity he himself established after the elections.) So one doesn't need ideologies but "the rehabilitation of moral values." European countries have begun to think along these lines, but one must pay attention to and imitate the East.

Why did China and India do so well economically? Surprise! Because "they stuck to certain values." On the other hand, Europe is losing ground, most likely because Europeans abandoned their values which are "rooted in Christianity."  So what are Europeans supposed to do?  "And it is at this point that we arrive at the role of Central Europe. It is perfectly clear that if Europe doesn't want to sink further, then somehow it has to make friends with Christian but not really European territories. Let's speak clearly: I am talking about Russia."  This is quite something. Christian Europe needs Christian Russia to be able to compete with China and India!

And in this great new friendship Central Europe, actually I would call it Eastern Europe but Hungarians don't like that term, will have a pivotal role. The East European countries will be the intermediaries in this new love affair between Western Europe and Russia. He did make a fleeting remark about past experiences when these countries were the victims of the power struggle between Russia and the West, but this time he is not afraid of such an outcome because the "fact that the Russians are Christians will be of enormous importance in this respect." I guess because all the countries are Christian the Russians will not turn against the Christian West or the Christian Eastern Europe. All nonsense, of course.

I really don't know what to say. I'm stunned because this is jibberish. It sometimes sounds like the rantings of a madman.

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Mark
Guest
“It sometimes sounds like the rantings of a madman.” These may indeed prove yet to be the rantings of a madman, but that remains to be proved. What I think is interesting is that we are actually being treated to Orbán’s bastardized version of a political programme that we are unused to hearing about – and indeed have not heard about much since the inter-war years. His philosophy in relation to work and value may sound quasi-Marxist, but in his hostility to the Enlightenment, his belief in the fall of western capitalism through immorality, and the threat to the “west” from the “rest” there is at least the echo of Oswald Spengler. I think too we are seeing an extraordinary form of Catholic political thought. This again seems unfamiliar because west of Hungary Europe’s Christian Democratic parties (the Hungarian one is something of an exception)accepted economic liberalism and political democracy after the Second World War. Yet in its belief in a “capitalism” purged of its unnatural “speculative” elements, and focussed upon the honour of honest work and morality, it resembles the tradition of authoritarian corporatism which formed a dominant tradition in the thought of Catholic parties in a number of… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “Although Orbán is not unintelligent he is no political philosopher, and we really do have to ask who is influencing his agenda.”
That’s a good question. I you don’t mind I will pass your remarks on to a philosopher of religion and ask him what he thinks.

Alias3T
Guest

It seems to me that this new Christian strain is a fairly organic outgrowth of a style of thinking that has been present since 2002. That it should now be stated in more explicitly Christian terms is surely more a result of the growing influence of the KDNP, and in particular people like Lazar and Semjen, within the Fidesz coalition.
Because the style of thinking dates back to 2002, in the attempt to rationalise away the election defeat of that year. That’s when Orban first started using phrases like “a haza nem lehet ellenzekben” – clearly stating that there were deeper categories of justice and legitimacy that transcended the democratic party system. His more recent, Christianity-infused comments are merely providing an ideological framework for that assertion.

Mark
Guest
Alias 3T: “That it should now be stated in more explicitly Christian terms is surely more a result of the growing influence of the KDNP” Certainly if you talk to KDNP members and activists they will not be shy about their influence, arguing that through giving Orbán the language of a political Catholcism based upon Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” Encyclical they have driven FIDESZ’s ideological renewal. Actually, if you want to see where Orbán is getting some of his social and economic ideas from the Encyclical is well worth reading: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html I have perhaps been too ready to discount the KDNP, given their failure to register as an independent party in public opinion polling, but given the numbers that now sit in their parliamentary group, and the numbers of those that do not who have past KDNP associations this was probably a mistake. The “Christianization” of FIDESZ may however be a separate process. Dissident factions of the pre-1998 KDNP were an important part of the FIDESZ coalition, even under the last Orbán government, but something else was probably going on too. For most of the 1990s FIDESZ were happy to let everyone believe that their name was simply an… Read more »
Alias3T
Guest

In retrospect, it’s clear that Semjen’s success in 2006 in obtaining a separate parliamentary fraction for the Christian Democrats was the first sign of the party really flexing its muscles. It was widely interpreted as a procedural manoeuvre allowing Fidesz to obtain more committee slots – but it was obtained over Orban’s objections, and it meant that Semjen was entitled to appear alongside Orban as a kind of junior partner at all kinds of official party events. With hindsight, it looks a bit like a coup.
Now, KDNP has, proportionately, an even greater share of the seats resulting from the joint list’s victory in the elections. When this government runs into serious difficulties, it seems at the very least likely that the really forceful internal opposition will be coming from the KDNP wing. Leaving aside the country’s relationship with the foul speculators of international finance, I’m not sure this bodes at all well for personal freedom in Hungary.
Szingli hordak?

new
Guest
On the one hand, I think many of the above comments, particularly Mark’s well informed ones, have a lot of validity and are of course a source of serious concern for all of us either interested in or living in Hungary. I think it without question that Orban and his closest circle have decidedly ambivalent feelings towards true democracy. On the other hand, his comments on economics and capitalism (while also worrying) are probably (like everything he says) only in small part reflective of his real views and in larger part an effort at pure populism (in that respect, Orban’s rhetoric reminds me a lot of what is going on in the Republican party in the US). I know for sure that on economic issues, Orban’s rhetoric does not reflect a true consensus within FIDESZ. Large elements within the party are fairly conservative financial types who think Orban’s ravings are pure politics. Of course, if history is any lesson, when push comes to shove orban seems to win eventually all internal political battles within the party. Of course, he also, as Eva has shown, has the capacity to reverse course 100% if it suits him. Anyway, we are in for… Read more »
Gábor
Guest

One shoould not underestimate the importance of Orbán’s calvinist background. THe Hungarian calvinist thinking is very much impacted by integral, organicist nationalism (originating from the thirties) and prevalent even today. (It is not a coincidence, that Jobbik is attractive for many calvinist minister.) Moreover, Orbán is definitely not the cynical prgamatic many would like to see him, it is wishful rthinking. He is doing what he is doing regarding the “reorganization” of the community out of conviction and it is clearly more important for him than the economic issues he considers inferior. If he would be capable to restore the nation to its natural state it will automatically resolve economic problems, runs this line of thought. So, it is a serious error to see him as a pragmatic politician using populism in this sense.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gábor: “So, it is a serious error to see him as a pragmatic politician using populism in this sense.”
If he believes in this stuff that’s even worse.

Mark
Guest
Gábor: “One shoould not underestimate the importance of Orbán’s calvinist background. THe Hungarian calvinist thinking is very much impacted by integral, organicist nationalism (originating from the thirties) and prevalent even today.” My reading of these debates then is that while it is true that many Calvinists who participated in right-wing politics were attracted to integralist nationalism, there is less of a distinctive Protestant contribution (from both Protestant traditions) to neo-conservative social and political thought in the inter-war years. In developing the tropes of inter-war “Christian” nationalism it strikes me that the Catholics were the more innovative and influential. Furthermore, and what is important, was that the equation of the national with the “Christian” was central right across the spectrum of right-wing opinion, even for many Hungarists who sat on its extremist fringe. Certainly the ideology of the government is becoming clearer – a sort of voluntarist, leader centred version of “national Christian” ideology with more than a nod to corporatism. In the economic sphere New may well be right to suggest that we might see a gap between ideology and practice – authoritarian corporatisms in Austria in the 1930s, or (more successfully) Spain after 1959 have accommodated themselves to economic… Read more »
Gábor
Guest

Mark, it is not an issue of how things were developed in the thirties rather how they survived, are distributed today and reached Orbán and his circle. Ravasz, Makkai for example are still important elements of the calvinist tradition. Moerover, Fidesz is very much embededd into the minority milieu of Transylvania, where these traditions are even stronger given that people like Dezső László, Sándor Tavaszy, Lajos Imre developed an even more marked intergal nationalist ideology. However, it doesn’T mean these thoughts are coming from calvinist sources, the calvinisit background makes Orbán (and his counsellors and intimates) more inclined to embrace the whole ideology.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gábor: “the calvinisit background makes Orbán (and his counsellors and intimates) more inclined to embrace the whole ideology.”
Gábor, do we know anything about Orbán’s religious upbringing? I know that there is a Calvinist church in Felcsút but was he baptized? Did he attend church? I somehow doubt it.

Member

On the last point about Russia I recollect reading that Putin is now developing a “Christian Russia” theme in his speeches too.

Gábor
Guest

Éva, it is not necessarily a calvinist upbringing in a strict sense. He has a series of people around him – Zsolt Németh from the beginning, later Zoltán Balog – who are connected to the church directly or indirectly and who could have influenced him. Even if this happened later sometimes in the late ’90s. As far as I know he was baptized.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gábor, I was just curious about Orbán’s religious upbringing because originally he didn’t have a church wedding and they didn’t baptize the first two children.
In the discussion between you and Mark I side more with Mark who emphasizes the Catholic influences. Hungarian Calvinists are nationalistic but they don’t think in terms of Christian Europe or a close connection between church and state. After all, they were always against the establishment as a religious minority.

Gábor
Guest

Well, instead some calvinists believe in a strong connection between church and nation. (More precisely, between God’s will and the existence of the nation.)

Gábor
Guest

Anyway, I don’t think one can find one and only source of this ideology, at least not in terms of succession of ideas. If one would like to find out its sources there won’t be a very distinctive one, neither catholicism, nor calvinism or some extreme rightist ideologies from the thirties. All of them influenced it and – not unsurprisingly – resulted in a strange mixture of paganism and christianism and nationalism. I’m inclined to think the real binding force is nationalism and it distorts and maims everything.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gábor: “. I’m inclined to think the real binding force is nationalism”
I think you’re right. It is a mixture with the binding force of nationalism.

Paul Haynes
Guest
As an outsider, but with something of an insider’s perspective (8 years married into a passionately Fidesz supporting family), I wonder if the only way to really understand Orban is to remember that he is a Hungarian – and a middle-aged one at that. This may sound blindingly obvious, but I suspect those who are Hungarians themselves or are closely connected to Hungary (i.e. most of the contributors to this blog) forget just how unusual Hungarians are and how that uniqueness affects their outlook and beliefs. I know this is all old stuff, done to death, but, like so much that is cliché, that does not stop it being true – and relevant. Attempts to analyse Orban invariably start from the assumption that he is a (fairly) normal politician, operating from a ‘normal’ European politician’s perspective. But this is far from the case. Orban is first and foremost a Hungarian, with all that implies in terms of history, culture, prejudice, perspective, etc. And his audience is also primarily Hungarian. When I first came to Hungary, I was overwhelmed by the ‘civilisation’ of life here, compared to the barbarism of England – the remarkably well behaved children, the doting parents, the… Read more »
An
Guest
Paul,I am a middle-aged Hungarian, just a few years behind Orban himself, and the Hungary you describe is just one segment of the society; provincial and nationalistic. True, Hungarians are tend to be pessimistic and proud, but that does not equate with the nationalistic undertones so prevalent in today’s Hungary. The Hungary today, what it has turned it into gradually since about 2004, is nothing like the Hungary that I spent my young days in the 1990s. The country then was progressive, democratic and western, in a very good sense. Today we seem to return to the 1930s.. and how that happened, it is so hard for me to understand and is very very disappointing. I remember my generation’s high hope in 1989. This is definitely not the bright future we were expecting… I wouldn’t have in my worst nightmares thought that we come to live in a country in which political power is so arrogant, intolerant, paternalistic, in its practical ways so similar to the Kadar regime and in its ideology bringing back the 30s. I had hoped for a modern European country, and I am quite sure I am not the only Hungarian turned off by the current… Read more »
John T
Guest
There are some excellent contributions on this thread. What saddens me most about Hungary today, is the country should be capable of so much more, but rather than look forward, it is heading backwards at an alarming rate. Paul’s comments were very interesting, though as a fellow Brit, I would disagree that Britain is a “barbaric” nation. Its simply that the actions of the minority spoil it for the silent majority, which I don’t see as being different from todays Hungary. But as you have said, there are certain traits in the Hungarian make up that are noticeable. To those you’ve mentioned I’d add:- *the inability to take constructive comment / criticism as anything but a personal insult. *to bear grudges for life over the most trival matters. *to sulk for days on end. *act on impulse rather than stepping back and rationalising. *Never take responsibilty for anything – it is always someone elses fault! So with someone like Orban and his colleagues, who have massive ego’s to go with all the other traits, the overall “mix” is exceptionally volatile. What has been more apparent over the last couple of years is that many people seem content to just drift… Read more »
Guest

This discussion (especially the last posts!) has been really enlightening, I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything written here.
I think there is still hope for Hungary when I look at and talk to younger people – of course only those who speak english or german, so they may be a privileged minority …
OT (and on a personal level):
Regarding the “culture” of Hungarians – that was the first thing that amazed me when I met my wife about for years ago – the number and the type of books she had in her library, from Thomas Mann to “lady Chatterley” – and oc course some lighter stuff like Robin Cook …
I was really surprised and thought: Interesting woman she must be – and so it all started, although we couldn’t communicate much …

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