A few days ago I wrote an article on a new phenomenon: the cautious, somewhat hesitant but discernible criticism coming from former Fidesz supporters. In a volume of collected essays titled A magyar polgár (The Hungarian citoyen) two such authors appeared among the many who certainly couldn’t be considered friends of the present regime. One was Péter Tölgyessy and the other István Stumpf. Because of time and space constraints, I could deal only with the short essay written by Stumpf. Today I am turning to the essay by Tölgyessy who, I must admit, is not one of my favorites. In fact, I wrote about him twice, once in Hungarian for Galamus and once in English on this blog. My Hungarian article’s title was “Tölgyessy Péter, a guru,” a title which ironically pointed to my disregard for Tölgyessy’s analytical powers. I should note, however, that most of my Hungarian friends disagree with me and think highly of his magic touch when it comes to political analysis. My view of him is also colored by his political career–from chairmanship of SZDSZ to a backbencher of Fidesz who for eight solid years, between 1998 and 2006, sat in parliament without opening his mouth once. Eventually, Orbán had enough and Tölgyessy was quietly dropped from the list.
Tölgyessy’s essay in this volume is mostly about Hungary’s backwardness in comparison to countries west of it, including the Czech lands and Austria, and the reasons for its lack of a robust well-heeled upper middle class without which, to Tölgyessy’s mind, no modernization can take place. It is only in the last three or four pages of the essay that he writes about the Orbán regime per se.
In Tölgyessy’s view, the greatest problem is the dominance of the state in the economic life of the country which favors its political clients from business to the arts. Indeed, we know that to be the case, but what can we make of sentences such as: “private concerns with close ties to the powers that be are being preferred, which is seen by those outside of the charmed circle as systemic corruption.” Is it corruption? Or is it something that those who are left out merely view as corruption? Tölgyessy is reluctant to commit himself. He also writes that “because of [these businessmen’s] lack of market competitiveness, they are in need of constant protection.” Does the Orbán government provide “protection” only to struggling businessmen? It’s almost as if he had difficulty understanding the proper meaning of words, which is surely not the case.
A couple of sentences later he expresses less veiled criticisms about centralization, indoctrination, and the creation of intellectual and artistic courtiers. He then goes on to assert that “the vision of Viktor Orbán is an original creation, but in its linguistic formulation and categories it contains the views fashionable between the two world wars in addition to the anticapitalistic theses of the Marxist seminars of the Kádár regime.” I don’t want to nitpick, but is the mishmash of right-wing ideas of the 30s and ideas picked up at Marxist seminars “an original creation”? Can we really treat the “linguistic formulation” of Orbán’s ideas as something separate from the ideas themselves? Tölgyessy criticizes Fidesz’s legislative practice of creating laws to fit the needs of specific persons, but at the same time he sees this practice as the instrument of a coherent policy coming from the center of power. The two are difficult to reconcile.
Here is something I think I ought to translate verbatim. “The Orbán regime despite its obvious internal tensions fulfills its primary task: in time of crisis it offers workable governmental stability to the country burdened by dangerous economic and societal pressures.” Mind you, Tölgyessy adds that this is done only through “methodical scapegoating and scare tactics.” Furthermore, he states that “following the western-type intermezzo after 1989, with the prime minister’s new regime Hungarian society has returned to its earlier history.” Something of which he doesn’t approve. “It is difficult to imagine that by going against centuries of western experience and the achievements of western civilization the country can move ahead. It is to be feared that what looks like a victorious march forward now will lead the country to a dead end, which was already experienced so often in the twentieth century.”
Tölgyessy doesn’t dare to say what is on his mind in a straightforward manner. He hedges and fudges with phrases like “it is to be feared.”
People find it difficult to admit that they made a mistake, that they served a false prophet, at least as long as that false prophet continues to rule. But even halfhearted criticism may ultimately be useful. It may embolden others. Think of Granovetter’s model of individual thresholds for joining the ranks of dissidents and being willing to take collective action. The tail can sometimes wag the dog.