The state versus the nation: Viktor Orbán’s speech in Romania

This was one of the themes of Viktor Orbán's speech on Saturday in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad, Romania. The reporter for MTI, the Hungarian news agency, realized the importance of the relationship between nation and state in Orbán's rambling and mostly self-delusional speech. The headline was: "A successful state can be built only with a strong nation behind it."

In Orbán's formula the nation has primacy. It is the result of a natural, organic development while the state is an artificial construct. The exact relationship between nation and state in this formula is not really clear, and I'm almost certain that even if one pressed him on its exact meaning we wouldn't get any closer to a coherent description of the relationship between "nation" and "state." In the first place, both in English and in Hungarian the two words can be used interchangeably. For example, in "the nations of Europe" and "the states of Europe" both refer to "the countries of Europe." Or, state and nation can be used together as in "nation state," meaning a political unit  inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language. So, what does this juxtaposition of state and nation mean in Viktor Orbán's often nebulous vocabulary and thought processes?

"State" in its stricter meaning is "a politically organized body of people occupying a definite territory." It is precisely this "definite territory" that is so distasteful to Viktor Orbán. Because the state of Hungary, whether Orbán and his fellow nationalists like it or not, has jurisdiction only within the country's current borders.

Behind a state stands, in modern political theory and practice, not the nation but the totality of its citizens. These citizens, regardless of national origin, have certain rights and privileges granted by the power of the state. But if the relationship between state and its inhabitants is not the usually accepted state-citizen connection but some abstract notion of nation, then the whole modern structure of state collapses right in front of our eyes. Who belongs to this nation? Do the Gypsies, when in ordinary parlance one hears more and more often the distinction being drawn between Hungarian and Roma? The Roma themselves refer to their non-Gypsy fellow citizens as "Hungarians," indicating that they don't view themselves as belonging to the privileged majority. The Hungarian far-right wants to send the Roma back to India and the Jews to Israel. Certainly the far-right doesn't consider either of these groups Hungarian. And the great majority of the population would like to close the door to all foreigners.

Orbán claims that the "strength of the state springs from the nation" and one needs a strong Hungary (anyaország) because without it there can be no strong "Hungarian nation in the Carpathian Basin." He envisages an entirely new economic and perhaps political era in which Hungary will have a leading role to play. (More about this fantasy land of his a little later.) In some unspecified, and let's add unfathomable, way the arrival of a new era will result in "the growing together of the Hungarian nation." He uses the noun "összenövés" which is rarely used and then mostly in medical literature; it means two or more organs spreading and growing into one. Thus, this vision presupposes a demographic turnabout. Although birthrates are low both in Hungary and among the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, Hungarians will spread and will grow together into one mass. I guess in order to make this statement less frightening to the neighboring countries, he added that as a result of this great economic revolution that will take place in Europe, "the whole of Central Europe will grow together … and will be the economic center of the new economic era." That will be a historical first, because as long as there has been written history the eastern part of Europe has always lagged behind the west.

And here we have arrived in la-la land. According to Orbán, the whole world is at the threshold of an entirely new world order which will be born on the ruins of the old. A complete collapse is unavoidable because of the inordinate indebtedness of the western nations. In this new economic era "the state will have an entirely new role to play," but unfortunately Orbán doesn't elaborate. Or rather he added the following sentence: "The sovereign debts can be paid back only with the instruments of state." My first reaction was: "Well, that is brilliant. Who else will pay back state debt if not the state?" But then I stopped and became suspicious that perhaps Orbán means here the kind of state capitalism that Putin introduced in Russia. Perhaps what he was alluding to was the nationalization of certain sectors in the economy. After all, the Hungarian state purchased 21.3% of all MOL shares not long ago and there are rumors that they are negotiating with E.On, the German gas company, to buy its Hungarian holdings. Thus, it is very possible that Orbán thinks that profitable state firms will produce enough revenue to pay back Hungary's current debts.

There are several problems with this great scheme, if it is what Orbán has in mind. First and foremost, the Hungarian budget is in terrible shape. Mihály Varga, former minister of finance and now head of the prime minister's office, a few days ago indicated that the state might have to sell some or all of the MOL shares it just purchased from the Russians. He also admitted that the figures for the convergence program, the Széchenyi Plan, and the Kálmán Széll Plan might have to be recalculated and a period of even more severe austerity might have to be introduced. With an empty treasury one cannot buy up firms or purchase shares in large and profitable companies.

Orbán wants the state to occupy a central position in social and economic matters. It will be the state, according to him, that will solve the unemployment problem. Moreover, it will be the state that will reorganize the economy. Neither of these tasks belongs to the state in a free-market economy and in a democracy. One can only hope that Orbán's solution to the unemployment problem is not the public works projects, which will mean thousands of dislocated poor people working with shovels building soccer stadiums and dams under the supervision of former policemen and retired soldiers.

Orbán likes to talk about "an economic system based on work," and a lot of people don't quite understand what this can possibly mean. No wonder, because all economic systems are based on work of some sort. But perhaps the mystery is solved if we read in the description of Orbán's speech that "the economic system based on work" will replace the welfare state. So, no work, no check.

And finally, Orbán emphasized at the end of his speech that "it was Hungary that before any other country in Europe gave the right answers to the imminent arrival of the new era." Every time I hear Orbán and Matolcsy boasting like that I think of the American idiom about the man who is whistling in the dark when he is actually scared witless. It is becoming more and more obvious that the revolutionary new economic policy is in deep trouble. Whistling won't help make the figures add up.

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Member

Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce, …
One thing I can’t get out of my head from Orban’s speech is his constant reference to the West vs. Hungary. Maybe this is just a reflex from my part, from somebody who grew up in the 70s and 80s in the thick of the communist propaganda, but I have the impression that he doesn’t think of geographical categories. This is the same evil West the Kadarian propaganda machine was referring to all the time. This “West” means a “system” for him. Something successful, prosperous and therefore inherently disgusting for some. A system that is not suitable for “his nation”. This is what sends tingles down my spine: just to what extent he thinks that Hungary should differ from this “West”?
For those who started to feel depressed at home, here is a quote from my sister’s Facebook page:
“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~William Gibson

Odin's lost eye
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It has happened! I knew one day it would! The Mighty One has fallen out of his tree! They will really have to start giving him the ‘Dried Frog’ pills again. It will all end up as ‘tears before bedtime’! As Joe Stalin said to Raksoi “the question of the Carpathian Basin is settled”! His expansionist ideas are that the Hungarians will grow like a cancer (to use his own medical expression) throughout the Carpathian basin driving all the non Hungarians before them. Shouts from off stage “Egy Nep!, Egy Nemzet! Egy Vezeto! Gyerunk Gyozlem! Viktot Viktor” etc ad nausiam. If I were the prime minister of one of his neighbouring states by now I would be eating a working breakfast with the Minister of Defence and the Head of the Secret Service. I would be making my chiefs of staff burn much midnight oil over Hungary’s new expansionist policies. Professor you ask who will pay off the Sovereign Debt if not the state. I fear you have fallen into the old trap of thinking that states have money. States do not have money only those who do productive work to create the wealth which gives rise to money. It… Read more »
Member
Firstly on the economy: I think that there is some substance to the claim that an economy can only be based on work. We do have a situation in some European countries, where an illusion of growth has occurred due to public or private borrowing, think of the PIIGS in the Eurozone. The big problem with the Viktor solution is that he still sees the economy in Communist terms, he doesn’t appear to realise that the economy must produce first and redistribute second. The state can only spend the money it gets from the private sector in taxes etc. State led growth might work in a country like Russia or Suadi Arabia, where the state has masses of oil and gas to sell, but I cannot see how it could be effective in Hungary where it doesn’t. On nations and states. I think the idea of a nation being a prerequisite for a state is not particularly exceptional. It was a fairly standard view in 19th century nationalism. As I noted in another thread nationalism and communism have a lot of similarities; the main one being a theoretically based utopianism. Apply the theory and all of life’s problems disappear. Reality… Read more »
Member
Mutt Damon: ” This is the same evil West the Kadarian propaganda machine was referring to all the time. ” I was thinking exactly the same. THe first time I went to the “West”, it was 1982 or 1983, I was shocked. I was expecting to see all the poor people on the street, the empty shelves in the stores, and all the downfall of capitalism, but there it was the West, rotting capitalism with colourful displays in the store windows, well stacked shelves in the grocery stores, IKEA, and Ligne Roset. Did I live a sheltered life until then? You bet. David, Ireland wanted and fought for independence,and the “movement” was driven from within. Also, Ireland’s population is not an “extension” of a an existing country. I did sympathized with “getting back the Hungarian territories” prior to the formation of the EU. As HUngary willingly enjoyed the EU, and most European countries are moving that direction, I do not see the validity of such efforts. We (Hungarians) either believe that the EU is a good thing and countries who are members are equal grounds or step out. (On the other hand listening Orban’s double speaking depending who the audience… Read more »
Wondercat
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On labour camps: In the United States, during the 1930s, government undertook Works Progress Administration projects. (There was no “welfare net” to catch those falling after jobs disappeared.) Railway tunnels, municipal swimming-baths, even the lion house at the Philadelphia Zoo were created through the WPA. Need for the WPA lessened, as I understand it, when the United States began to arm against the Axis — the same government spending, but channelled through private munitions-makers. If the Hungarian “welfare net” is to be un-knotted, and employment rather than benefits provided by the government, I’d rather that Hungary employ earth-movers, not rifle-carriers.

Eva S. Balogh
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Wondercat: “I’d rather that Hungary employ earth-movers, not rifle-carriers.”
While in general you’re most likely right but you must admit that preparing for war against Hitler was a necessary and beneficial move on the part of the US government.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Wondercat: “On labour camps: In the United States, during the 1930s, government undertook Works Progress Administration projects.”
One cannot compare the WPA project with what the Hungarian government is proposing. In the United States the program was voluntary and people felt privileged to be accepted.
In Hungary the government blackmails the unemployed and people on assistance by withdrawing their monthly stipend.
You wouldn’t be talking so lightly about the subject if you read a former journalist’s heartrending description of her situation. She is a single mother with four children. For years she has been trying to find work without any success. She no longer has any savings and the family is literally starving, especially now that she no longer gets her monthly 28,000 Ft. assistance.

Pete H.
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Wondercat let’s just for arguments sake say you are right about the similarities between WPA and OV’s labors camps. The WPA was a program that occurred 80 years ago. I can think of all sorts of ways the US has progressed in the last 80 years including not having OV style work programs to deal with unemployment. And the WPA didn’t force soldiers and police out of retirement to “supervise” a mostly minority workforce. OV is setting up an extremely volatile arrangement.

Member

I don’t think Kitty wanted to put an equal sign between the WPA and the Orban government’s public works project idea. The comparison is actually very good to highlight why these guys are idiots and f* up everything needlessly.
First of all they should have handled separately the cutbacks in welfare and the public works projects. They should have said that we need cutbacks because the GDP is low and we need money elsewhere, education healthcare, etc. Sorry. Then, unrelated, they should have started public projects to help people, WPA style. Instead of this these arrogant pigs told these people that we are fed up with you, lazy bums, go get the shovel 100 miles from your home and be happy that we at least pay you peanuts. By the way the WPA’s budget was 6-7% of GDP. The wages were set according to customary wages in each area. I’m not this smart, I read it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mutt Damon: “The wages were set according to customary wages in each area. I’m not this smart, I read it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration
Not long time ago I saw an excellent documentary on the subject (National Public Television). They interviewed several of the participants still alive. They all talk about their experiences in glowing terms.

peter litvanyi
Guest
“in glowing terms”- Dear Eva, I wouldn’t go that faaaaaar. However /an interesting subject/: WPA was a veritable venture; most of our infrastructure is there because of it, it saved countless of lives. Thank god for it /actually FDR is the name/. Of course it was WWII that pulled us out from that particular cruel Kondratiev cycle of capitalism…you know overproduction and so forth. A sad truth. “you must admit that preparing for war against Hitler was a necessary and beneficial move on the part of the US government” – I would like to send you back a Kurt Vonnegut quotation; alas I lost the book. Something about how WWII was the worst thing that ever happened to the American psyche; because the “enemy” was indeed the “devil incarnate”. Not so much since then. “One cannot compare the WPA project with what the Hungarian government is proposing” -that is the case, fully agreed. Dear Wondercat:”On labour camps: In the United States, during the 1930s, government undertook Works Progress Administration projects.”- how can you say that? “Labour camps”- is simply the wrong word. Somehow I don’t think you really meant to defend Mr. Orban half baked fascist idea…we all fell at… Read more »
Roman
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David: ” State led growth might work in a country like Russia or Suadi Arabia, where the state has masses of oil and gas to sell, but I cannot see how it could be effective in Hungary where it doesn’t.” Well, it is possible for a government to treat its own populace as “oil and gas” by squeezing money out of them through a forced savings scheme, and by turning the whole gamut of social services provided by the government into a hugely lucrative money-making schemes fleecing the very same people these services were supposed to benefit. Singapore does it. Everyone praises Singapore except its own citizens who (unless they belong to the ruling elite or the old money) have to survive on Czech median salaries trying to cope with a Scandinavian cost of living (except the properties – Singaporean properties are MORE expensive) and an almost total absence of a social safety net. I doubt it will work for Hungary though: such a system produces stagnant productivity growth which must be overcome by further labour and capital inputs. Unless you are China or India, cheap labour must be imported. So, either you play around with ethnic nationalism or have… Read more »
Wondercat
Guest
Dear Eva, Mutt, Pete H, and Peter L — Thanks for your comments and responses. Eva, I did not mean to speak lightly of anyone’s travails and on re-reading my post I think that I did not do so. I should like to learn more about the former journalist but in mousing over your text no link lights up. Please tell me more. Indeed to arm against the Axis was necessary and salutary. It also obviated, to some extent, the WPA. I think that governments can promote economic activity by purchasing infrastructure or by purchasing armaments. When US government spending shifted toward purchasing armaments, jobs in munitions factories lessened the need to create employment through infrastructure works projects (cf. Peter L and the Kondratiev-cycle reference). If I remember correctly, those selected for WPA jobs were grateful in part because *there was nothing else*; no “safety net”; no monthly stipend; a WPA wage was a life-line thrown to the drowning. As Pete remarks, in the eighty years since the WPA was set up many societies have woven safety nets for their members. OV is tearing great holes in Hungary’s safety net, no question (as Mutt points out, his error is to… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
Hungary has a problem. Neither Orban nor any of his coteries understand a simple thing. Machines cost money but can run 6-24 (they need servicing). People also cost money but can only run for 8 hours. Therefore it is better to use machines. You no longer need serried rows of machines with semi skilled labour pulling the levers in the right order. The days of the ‘dark satanic’ mill are over. Now days you do not need lights in your factories at all. If you do you carry them with you. The ‘powers that’ be cannot really understand a shovel and a wheel barrow is beyond them. They live politically and industrially in the past. The only work is either highly skilled (tool making) or assembly. The Chinese do this latter manually. The West we do it by machine. The quality of the manually produced goods is low (between 5 to 15% errors/omissions). Machine assembled goods contain less than 0.01% errors. These are usually due to either bad programming/testing or a ‘minder’ failing to put the right bin in place. The problem for the West has been capitalisation. Bankers/investors found that they could make more money in a shorter time… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest

Dear “Wondercat”,
atv.hu had many interesting interviews about the “Orban kozmunka” package. There is also Berki Judit /Batorterenye/ on facebook. She knows better than I do /I live in Colorado/.
If you speak Hungarian: these are the references off hand. I would be hard pressed to provide references in English howerever my cousin Kalman in Bonn might be an assistance here. Let me know.
Thanks:
Peter Litvanyi

Wondercat
Guest

Thank you, Peter. I’ve just been to Facebook — there must be twenty Berki Judit posting there! So atv.hu it will be.

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