Goodbye to democracy: An interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás about Viktor Orbán’s speech

Since there is a debate going on about the art of the translator, I am happy to publish a translation by George Szirtes, Hungarian-born British poet, writer, and translator. He has translated many important Hungarian literary works into English, including such classics as the nineteenth-century verse play of Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, and novels of  Gyula Krúdy, Ferenc Karinthy, and Sándor Márai. His last translation, Satantango [Sátántangó in Hungarian] by László Krasznahorkai, received the Best Translated Book Award in 2013.

So, enjoy both the translation and the thoughts of Gáspár Miklós Tamás or, as he signs his publications in English, G. M. Tamás. The interview took place on Egyenes beszéd [Straight talk] on the television station ATV on July 28. The original interview in Hungarian can be seen here. This dramatic interview should help foreign observers realize the seriousness of the situation in Hungary.

Only today two important editorials were published. The New York Times calls on Jean-Claude Juncker to act more forcefully because otherwise “the commission would diminish its credibility.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that the “West’s victory in the Cold War led to a complacency that the liberal idea was triumphant–that it was ‘the end of history,’ in the fashionable phrase of the day…. Western Europe needs to set a better example of what freedom can achieve by reviving economic growth, and the American President who ostensibly still leads the free world ought to break his pattern and speak up on behalf of the liberal idea.” 

I’m grateful to George Szirtes for allowing me to publish his transcription and translation. The text originally appeared on his blog.

* * *

GOODBYE TO DEMOCRACY

‘On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy.’ 

[My transcript is very close but here and there I have cut a passage for brevity or shaped a phrase in what I believe is a faithful fashion.  In it TGM [TGM here since Hungarian puts the surname first] argues this is the beginning of a very dark chapter in Hungarian history.

I am somewhat amazed that the UK press hasn’t picked up more on the Orbán speech. It is, after all, quite something to declare the end of liberal democracy and to suggest that the prime minister should not be answerable to other state checks and balances. GSz]

one-to-one
Interviewer recounts views of other parties on Viktor Orbán’s speech then turns to Gáspár Tamás Miklós. She asks if there are any points in Orbán’s speech that the opposition and the press have left undiscussed.

TGM replies that this is a speech of extraordinary importance. He credits Orbán with being a highly  intelligent man, a significant historical figure and a charismatic politician, one whose place is assured in Hungarian history. This, he claims, is the proclamation of a new political system, the seeds of which had already been sown. The speech was clear and simple to summarise. 

TGM counts on his fingers and summarises.

TGM:
1. He is building an illiberal state. This is demonstrated by his rewriting of the constitution and by his ending of the separation of powers. He joked about this saying that if there were any attempt to impeach or obstruct him that would mean he wasn’t the leader of the country. In other words he knows what the game is, as do I.

2. His stated his doubts about democracy

3. He announced that the concept of human rights is out of date. That human rights are finished

4. He declared  the country must abandon any notion of social support (or welfare state)

5. He declared that his preferred state models were Singapore, Russia, Turkey and China.

6. He declared that all NGOs working in the cultural or social sphere were foreign agents, traitors paid by alien powers

Gáspár Miklós Tamás

Gáspár Miklós Tamás

Interviewer asks which of these six points was new.

TGM`: Every one of them.

Interviewer doubts that but TGM insists that they are completely new. Was it not just a matter of actually articulating them in a new way? asks the interviewer.  TGM repeats that it was utterly new, in every respect

TGM: Yes there was this kind breast-beating before but that’s not important.

He goes on to Orbán’s idea of the state founded on work, the ‘work state’, the ‘illiberal state’ the ‘populist state’ the ‘national state’ etc.

TGM: This is a complete break with the post-1945 consensus as espoused by what we call the free world, not only with 1945 but with the less-free post-1989 political, social and moral consensus. Its abandonment of social responsibility represents a break with the ideas of freedom, and equality. What does a ‘work-based state mean?  It means a non-social state, a non-welfare state, a state that offers no support or aid – it is a case of arbeit macht frei isn’t it? It means that work is what people do not because they want to but because they have to so that capitalists may prosper, the kind of work the unemployed would be forced to do against which, in a free country, there would be mass demonstrations….

Interviewer returns to her earlier question. ‘But what is new in all this?’ Again TGM replies: everything. The question is what is to come?

TGM: So what is to come? What is new is that this has become a political programme to be enacted by the state. On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy. The prime minister, the autocratic leader of the country, has declared that he is opposed to civil society. Have you noticed we no longer have a governing party by the way? When was the last time we heard anything of Fidesz as a factor, a genuine player? – all we have recently been hearing is a state apparatus in which not a shred of democratic process remains and when we see the Secretary for Defence using a violent thug [a named army officer from Hungarian history] as a role model for new army recruits we may be certain what kind of violent, thuggish, and repressive state is being promised to us… a state that, since the prime minister’s speech was given in Romania, believes in provocation, [a speech] that did in fact elicit a storm of protest in the Romanian press and many declared that they had had quite enough of Hungary.

So here we have, in this truly terrifying speech, given to his friends and a highly enthusiastic audience, one of the darkest moments in Hungarian history, a moment of darkness provided by Viktor Orbán. Meanwhile everyone goes, ‘oh dear, there he goes again, isn’t that just the kind of thing he tends to say ‘ But that’s not what is happening here. It is time to take Viktor Orbán seriously so that we can take up arms against  him and save Hungary. I don’t despise him, I don’t look down to him. What we have here is an almost fully achieved dictatorship.

In any dictatorship the person of the dictator is important. Viktor Orbán is not going to let power slip from his hands now. All dictatorships depend on the dictator so now we have to concern ourselves with the kind of person Orbán is.

He told us that he will not be removed by elections. [That means] that those who are against him must be prepared for the grimmest struggle. Either that or he remains in office as long as his health permits, directing the affairs of the country by his own authority, while the country descends ever further into darkness in every possible respect in economic, political, cultural, social, or moral terms until we become a waste land, a wreck, a terrible place, a black hole in the map of Europe, a place more backward and more tyrannous than any of our Eastern European neighbours, and we will have to start envying the Bulgarians and Macedonians who will be in a far better condition, far freer, more cultured.

Interviewer asks what happens if Orbán refuses to be voted out through normal elections.

TGM: Blood and chaos. That’s the way it usually goes when elections don’t work. It’s what happens when people’s social plight becomes ever more desperate. Our social circumstances are bound to worsen and there will be people desperate and violent enough to bring down the country in the process.

We really can’t take this seriously enough. What was said in that speech is highly dangerous.

Interviewer asks whether people are in the mood to rise in defence of such high ideals.

TGM: Not at all, not at the moment. This is a browbeaten society that has utterly bought into [the Orbán persona?]. But it won’t always be so. Nothing lasts for ever. At the moment there is no ideology to confront this dark chauvinism, this cult of the state, this cult of force, full of anti-democratic sentiment.

Interviewer: Why isn’t there?

TGM: We are exhausted. We Hungarians are too tired to argue. You can’t expect people to sacrifice themselves without a hope of success. People are resigned. Like it or not, they accept they can’t change it.

Interviewer:  So what hope is there?

TGM: [Thinks] The one hope lies in continuing to uphold the ideals of freedom and equality as long as we can. The hope is that, despite everything, we don’t give up on the ideals of 1918, 1945 and 1989. Those  [ideals] belong to us. No one can take them from us. We might have to prepare for a long and very bad period. I myself might not live to see the end of it. Who knows? The fact remains that if we wish to live a moral life and to protect the culture of freedom we have to maintain a cool but obstinate resistance and to repeat our own commonplaces.

Interviewer: How can you maintain these high ideals when the prime minister offers hard facts? When he takes banks back into Hungarian control? When he forces banks to pay back what they owe. Has anyone ever made a bank pay us? So he doesn’t go on about ideals, about constitutional details.

TGM: I never said he was an unsuccessful politician. He is that, among other things. He is the only man who can give us hard facts because he is in charge of the government.

Interviewer: So there you are, hard facts. Isn’t it better to have hard facts than to be dreaming about ideals?

TGM: Are you talking about those four million people currently in desperate straits in this country? Do you think they like it? Do you think they don’t believe in ideals such as a better life? That too is an ideal: they believe their own children deserve as much as the better off, the middle class and the rich. That ideal is called equality.

It’s not the way they refer to it every day, of course. But that is the proper word for it. These things are connected. These ideals are not a matter for a few specialists divorced from reality. Equality means that the bottom four million have a right to food, electricity, to a heated home, to read, to enjoy their pleasures. That is an ideal but it’s not the reality.

This ideal concerns the poverty of four million people and the servitude of ten million,  and opposes the torrent of state funded lies with which Viktor Orbán and his underlings flood this small country. Yes, there are ideals in which people believe, that, for example, they should be able to live a decent honourable life. That ideal has roots in Christianity, in liberalism, and in socialism. That is not something they are obliged to know, but they know it. And Viktor Orbán is telling you directly, in your face while laughing at you that that is what you have to live without.

And if, dear fellow Hungarians, that is what you accept that is what you’ll get. There’s nothing anyone can do for now except to regard this terrible speech with hatred and contempt. Because society is weak but it is possible for it to know these things.

  * * *

[That is the end of the interview. It is a very dark vision of Hungary’s future and TGM is clearly angry.  It is fascinating – and liberating – to hear a man talk of socialism with such conviction. It is fascinating that he should include Christianity and liberalism in the struggle for freedom and equality.

What that shows is that TGM is not an old-system communist. He was part of the opposition to the pre-1989 order. He is part of the spectrum that any democratic society should be proud to represent. It is the spectrum Hungary is on the point of leaving. GSz]

 

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LwiiH
Guest

There is no way OV can claim to have a mandate for carrying out anything that is included in this speech. The WSJ is right, it’s time for Brussels to stand up to these bullies.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

(In Czech) Approaching the subject in terms of labancok / kurucok:

http://ehl.blog.ihned.cz/c1-62576210-co-chce-kuruc-viktor-orban

Istvan
Guest
I don’t think the EU is going to stand up to Orban or the content of his speech. This report appeared this morning on the Budapest Business Journal website: “The European Commission decided not to comment on the recent controversial speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who declared the end of liberal democracy in Hungary, EC spokesman Jonathan Todd announced on Wednesday. EU agreements bind all members to maintain democratic values and the commission sees no reason for making early conclusions based on a speech made at a summer university course, the spokesman added.” It should also be added that the speech is apparently now close to official government policy because it is posted on the state website at http://www.kormany.hu/hu/a-miniszterelnok/hirek/a-munkaalapu-allam-korszaka-kovetkezik The EU and in particular Germany finds Hungary a very useful little country to produce various products cheaply in and then make them appear as if they are German. The Audi A3 being a case in point. While the EU could begin proceedings to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the suspension of voting rights of a member state that is at serious risk of breaching the values listed in Article 2, including the… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest
Marcel, Eva: I have my doubts about the suitability of such “explanations”, too “poetic” so to speak (I wonder whether Martin Ehl would discuss some differences between Bohemian and say Moravian approaches with the prevalence of Hussites. Probably not.) In today’s Hungary, there is a clique of people who have exploited the modern state and the modern world of media to control most of the country’s resources. The methods are quite known from other examples of democracies slipping into authoritarian regimes. There is a public insufficiently trained in political matters, and burdened too much by a complicated past, which is not 300-400 years ago but much less. OV has just used in his speech ideas that have been rather popular in the European far-right. To speak about it as something entirely specific to Hungary is kind of buying into Orban’s world: we are so different, nobody can understand us, nobody can see the wisdom of our confused ideas. We the kuruces are fighting our long fight with some labances, and that is unique to us. Do not even try to understand (or consider this a mere power struggle). So I do agree with Mr Tamas that this speech has indeed… Read more »
petofi
Guest

Lest there be any confusion, a “work-state” devolves rather quickly into a “slave-state”.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Will Hungary be a state like France under Petain? Travail, Famille, Patrie
Will Work, family and Homeland substitute liberty, equality, brotherhood?

chandlerozconsultants
Guest

Reblogged this on hungarywolf and commented:
Interesting… but I’m still not convinced. There are no references here to neo-liberal economics, which I believe is what Orbán was mainly critiquing, and no reference as to whether the translator transformed ‘not liberal’ into ‘illiberal’.

Guest

A literary digression.

“So here we have, in this truly terrifying speech, given to his friends and a highly enthusiastic audience, one of the darkest moments in Hungarian history, a moment of darkness provided by Viktor Orbán.”

Tamas is describing Orban’s speech in the style of Stefan Zweigs “Sternstunden der Menschheit” albeit with a negative sign.
Zweigs famous collection of essays has recently been lauched in a new English translation under the title “Shooting Stars”.
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/29/shooting-stars-stefan-zweig-reviews

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest
@Istvan: At the moment, there is no European Commission. And no EP session. We’ll see. @Kirsten: As I do not believe in mono causality , I don’t believe in the kuruc/labanc cleavage being the explanation. However, I do think that the popular myth has been exploited in Hungarian politics for a couple of centuries, and that OV’s attitude contains yet another variation on the theme. And since you mentioned French politics, it would be a mistake there as well to overlook the myth of Joan of Arc when dealing with populists and nationalists (incidentally, there are numerous similarities beetween the two stories). Such ‘national tales’ exist in every country. Hence, I don’t think evoking their existence actually bars outsiders from understanding the debate (though this is how Martin Ehl introduces his piece, I think it’s more of a catching figure of speech, op-ed style). But of course, I agree there are also more rational points to be made. PS: unless a violent crisis strikes France, Le Pen is lightyears away from ever winning the two-rounds presidential election. In the meantime, OV is in his second consecutive mandate as PM, and will probably be elected PR for eight more years after… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

Here is the biography of the Orban’s ideologist Gy. Tellér, whose ideas Orban aped in his Transylvanian speech:

http://magyarnarancs.hu/belpol/megalvadt-gondolatok-82385

cicamica
Guest

Monday, August 4th, 2014:

Hungarian Forint? -10%.
Hungarian Stock Market? -30%
Banks? Stormed.
Ethnic hostilities? Attacks on Roma.
Trains? Delays. Cancellations.
Food Supplies? Inflation.
Gas price? Up.

Gellért
Guest

The speech is actually more about denouncing the western civil liberties than denouncing democracy, in my opinion. Orbán should always be suspected of delivering a double message, one that critics outrageously respond to (and keep them occupied), and one that allows him to make again a little step in a direction of his liking.

Denouncing civil rights, just along the lines of the 1997 article of Fareed Zakaria, is I think his real move. The article about illiberal democracy is already mentioned by Eva: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/53577/fareed-zakaria/the-rise-of-illiberal-democracy

Kirsten
Guest

Marcel, I understand that national myths are easily exploited and probably are also part of the whole story in Hungary currently. And yet I disliked the way how it was presented to the Czech reader. As if similar ideas about democracy as the embodiment of the majority’s will, the interest or not in an inclusion of Roma, or xenophonia and homophobia were not present in Czech discourse also. With respect to Marine Le Pen I have no doubts she us far from the Elysee palace. But explain that to people who do not have much experience with longer established democracies. The myth of Joan of Arc in French politics sounds interesting, I will have a look at it.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

@chandlerozconsultants

There are no references here to neo-liberal economics, which I believe is what Orbán was mainly critiquing, …

That’s how some Fidesz people are currently trying to spin it. But there’s no way it can work, for the speech makes it clear: Ez azt jelenti, hogy a liberális társadalomszervezési elvekkel, módszerekkel és egyáltalán a társadalom liberális megértésével szakítanunk kell..

D7 democrat
Guest

I think there has been too much concentration on the “illiberal” side of the equation.
There is no argument that the Orban regime is “illiberal” to its core.

Orban believes there is a genuine democracy in Hungary?
A rigged election (yes, he would have still won in an open and fair one but the point is that he ensured it wasn’t an open and fair one), state control of 95% plus of the media, state control of the judiciary and legal system. Add to that corruption and mass abuse of state and EU funds and a complete and utter lack of transparency. The only difference with the situation in Turkey, Russia, China etc is that those who disagree with his regime are not being tortured and *disappeared*. But does that alone qualify Hungary as a “democracy”?

spectator
Guest

Gellért – and all the others:there is no such thing as “illiberal democracy”, you better get used to the idea. Furthermore, Orbán never used the therm in his speech either! He talked about “illiberal state” and only that. Read/listen the damned text, please!

In my opinion the usage of “illiberal democracy” is either wishful thinking – we may be able to sell this bullshit somehow – or deliberate misinterpretation of the Great Leader in order to hogwash the unexplainable.

There is no democracy without liberalism, you better learn this.
Either you accept the Orbanian illiberalism as it comes, – and it will never be democracy, so now you know, or turn against the LilliPutin (Thanks Wolfi!) and fight for your democratic rights.
Be a slave in your own country, enslaved by your own government, or you may want to be a free person, who don’t accept that a mediocre has been soccer player shaping your and your children’s future.
There is no other way dear Gellért, you better deal with it right away.

KekBolygo
Guest

It is not complicated.
Orban denied freedom to Hungary.
And the nation is too pathetic to throw out him.
Who needs an alternative leadership?
Every thinking citizen must rise up to defend freedom.

cheshire cat
Guest
Istvan I always look forward to reading your comments! I don’t think Germany’s (the EU’s) attitude to Hungary could be simplified as “little cheap-labour country making our Audis”. Not even into “little nation that buy our cheap products in Aldi”. Everybody is currently on holiday in Brussels, all the commissioners are leaving as soon as the new ones are voted into office in the autumn. The EU is looking at the whole picture when they decide not to act – they can’t afford losing political capital to remove a prime minister even if they knew Hungarians would swallow it (they wouldn’t). They can’t afford Hungary’s exit from the EU as Russia would flood into the political vacuum. Orban is a member of the council of heads of states, and as such, they need his vote here and there. The EU will act spectacularly if they think their inactivity threatens the “EU brand”, if they think other countries might follow Orban’s path or if his friendship with Putin gets excessive. This is not the case. Hungary, as always, is too small to matter. Other than that, they will just make life a little difficult for him quietly, withholding funds etc. and… Read more »
Szása
Guest

http://444.hu/2014/08/02/paks-bovites-titkosszolgalat/

How the Russians persuaded Hungary to go with Rosatom instead of Areva?

The comments are interesting too.

Perhaps, just as Miklós Németh (the last communist prime minister) intimated recently, because the real secret agent lists are to be found in Moscow, the Russians could give an offer to Orban/Kövér/Áder etc. which they could not refuse.

cheshire cat
Guest
Kirsten @ no5, I think you summed it up well in the first para. I also think that these “followers of the west” and ” Hungarian patriots” tendencies have been part of Hungary’s history. Starting from King Stephen: shall we ask in the German knights and become a Christian European state and save the nation from perishing? or shall we insist on our own tribal traditions and independence and save the nation from perishing? through the compromise with the Hapsburgs creating a dual monarchy, giving up some of Hungary’s independence in order to prosper and develop in peace. Up until now: shall we follow exclusively the liberal democratic path of Western EU or shall we fight for our independence where we can? shall we become slaves to the WEst or stay proud independent people? etc But you are right: OTHER countries have also had these dilemmas, including Russians (the “zapadniks”, Westerners, and “narodniks”, the patriots). And interpreting everything along these lines gives it a taste of unavoidability: it has always been like that, it will remain like that. Consider Finland: if you manage to turn down the volume on “we won’t be slaves, and we are so special, everybody looks… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest
Cheshire cat, and what would be particularly useful also for Hungarians to take notice of is that doubts about the desirability and practicability of democracy have existed (and do still exist) in all countries including those with the longest established modern democracies. In all countries there are groups of people with ideas that resemble those of OV. (Which is why he gets support also in countries where you “would not have expected that”, so in Britain, in France, probably also in the US, and in Germany and in the Central European countries anyway.) But even more importantly, you can find criticism or doubts about “democracy” also of a less pointed nature than that of the far right. Nowadays when it is nearly impossible in the “West” to suggest ideas that are “not democratic” (using the word) you will find these ideas somewhat “hidden”, for instance in doubts about the “wisdom of the crowd” (where the choice of word for “electorate” already hints at the feelings about democracy), the criticism towards politicians who do not do what “is good for the people” or “what people want” (all apparently homogenous in their preferences), the idea that unpolitical or “expert” government is best… Read more »
sunyilo12
Guest
Eva and all, Orban is stirring the very same pots that lead to the most unspeakable horrors of European history – the two WWs, even if bigger powers did the stirring those times. If Hungarian history has taught anything to the world: don’t expect Hungarians to stand up to the ideals of democracy; no one will stop a genocide against minorities or perceived internal enemies in Hungary if opportunity presents itself. I completely understand the cry of TGM. This course can easily end in another historic tragedy for Hungarians.One of those who have spoken up to a similar interpretation of recent Hungarian history is Andras Bruck who is publishing quite a powerful prose on ES.hu on a semi-regular basis. I think the course of events in the last five years have pretty much justified his premonitions. I believe the EU needs to make a decision very soon. Either to expel Hungary, or keep Hungary in temporarily under effectively an economic embargo strictly tied to adherence to democratic standards under the threat of expulsion from the EU. While procedural standards might not exist for these scenarios they are better to create these as soon as possible. Today’s Hungary is much closer… Read more »
cheshire cat
Guest

Kirsten, yes.
Ignorance about other countries, particularly about the west.
Even more surprising how little Hungarians know about other Central Eastern European countries, how they face up to the same problems, what solutions they come up with. How is Estonia growing so well economically?, how did Poland manage to establish to be so respected within the EU? how did Slovakia manage to get into the eurozone before us? etc. Lots of examples to learn from – instead, many prefer to keep saying “we Hungarians are so special and extraordinarily talented, but the West is only using us and won’t allow us to become rich because [insert latest conspiracy theory]”….

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

SzásaHow the Russians persuaded Hungary to go with Rosatom instead of Areva?

My guess is Vincent Jauvert’s article was referring to Finland, not Hungary.

tappanch
Guest

Fukuyama made the following remark on August 1:

“Hard to believe that a European leader would openly call for illiberal democracy as Viktor Orban has done”

https://twitter.com/FukuyamaFrancis/status/495231120489725952

Mr Fukuyama might not know that Orban does not consider himself European, but half Asian.

Gellért
Guest

@spectator. You accuse me of something I never did: I do not claim that Orbán uses the term “illiberal democracy”, I say Fareed Zakaria wrote an article about this. Then you feel free to simple assume that I did not read or listen to Orbán’s speech, which of course I did. You also assume I am Hungarian, you assume I am unlearned and that do not fight your ‘LilliPutin”.

These are not constructive starters and a very unwelcome response to my first comment on this blog.

buddy
Guest

Noticed that the WSJ editorial you linked to is behind a paywall after the first few lines. Anyway, I doubt there’s any point in reading it as you can tell what it’s really about even from the first few words: “One consequence of America’s retreat from global leadership…”

That pretty much says it all. In true WSJ editorial style, they’re just using Orbán as a foil to make Obama and the Democrats look bad, as usual.

As if Orbán would be behaving any differently if we had a President Romney or McCain in office! Or if either of those two gentlemen would any ability to stop him.

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