Miklós Haraszti: Countering illiberal usurpations of democracy

In my post about the visit of the European Parliament’s rapporteur to Budapest, I noted that coincidentally, in Brussels, there was a book launch for a new work by NGOs from Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. The title of the book is Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe. The study is now available online in English, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. It documents the workings of illiberal governments through the experiences of the most important NGOs in the various countries. Hungary is represented by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The book has five chapters dealing with various aspects of the problems facing civil society in these countries: traditional values and illiberal trends, a case study of illiberal governments, human rights and the rule of law, practices and strategies to inspire civil society, and laying foundations for civil society to resist.

Miklós Haraszti wrote the foreword (“Countering Illiberal Usurpations of Democracy”) to the book, which is republished below. Haraszti is an author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University. In the past he wrote two articles for this blog, and, since he is a faithful follower of Hungarian Spectrum, he often contributes discerning comments to our discussions.


In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.

The spreading of these restrictive regulations is a clear sign of the degradation of the freshly attained liberal constitutionalism toward illiberal or outright authoritarian governance. It is more than just a side-effect: the crusade against “unofficial” civil associations is basic household cleaning for illiberal regimes. They have set out to transform democracy from a cooperative and pluralistic enterprise into a disguise for a game where the winner sets the rules.

The illiberals have a reason. Civil activism is the nearest thing to the raw energy that fills and regenerates freedom in any society. Citizen activities are both the beginnings and the finest fruits of a democracy. When we see them purposefully hindered, cynically vilified, and even criminalized, this is in fact done to stop them from reaching out to society or from monitoring the government. We should remember that both these public roles are inherent in their independence.

Because populist power grabs are ‘democratically’ justified (“we have elections, don’t we”), it is not immediately clear for the public just how central the assaults on civil society are for the illiberal outcome. The watchdogs need to be silenced so the illiberal actions can go on: the elimination of transparency in the use of public money; the subordination of all branches of power to the executive; the systematic thwarting of autonomies; the streamlining of the judiciary; and the curtailing of the rights to free assembly, association, and media pluralism.

I suggest we take the rage of the illiberals against independent civil society at surface value. When the illiberal rulers stamp NGOs as foreign agents, they do not simply seek to diminish criticism using a nationalist ideology. The illiberals want the citizens to see the government not just as temporary and partial representatives of the nation – they want the government to be identified with the nation, and squeeze out independent activism as alien and even hostile to the nation.

So let’s react accordingly. Civil power, unhindered NGOs – just as a pluralistic media –are the ultimate frontiers in defending freedom in society. Unfortunately, under illiberal regimes, the traditional political process is not anymore able to correct the systematic distortion of competition rules, or put checks and balances back to work. This is because the populist illiberals and autocrats have utilized those very guarantees to first get to the top and then to eliminate the built-in barriers to absolute power.

Where can help come from, when the economy has been turned into a nepotistic fiefdom, political parties into parliamentary padding, and the media into mere decorations of preordained elections? Change could only come from the remaining unchecked, globally rooted social forces, the mercurial civil society, and its increasingly Internet-based communications strategies.

Importantly, the freedom of civil society and free media are growingly the same cause as internet-based connectivity becomes a fact of life. Can you tell apart what the illiberal rulers are angrier with: the fact-finding activities of the watchdog NGOs, or their communications-based ability to actually convey their findings to all citizens, despite that the rulers have occupied all traditional media? Russia’s Alexei Navalny or Hungary’s Márton Gulyás have practically reinvented public-service media, as part of their civic activity, illuminating the way to a reinvented, post-illiberal democracy.

One main weapon of the illiberals is the slogan of ‘internal affairs’, the notion of sovereignty utilized to push the management of global developments back into a territorial matter. Think of the laws aimed to domesticate the global Internet or sometimes simply to stall the growing bandwidth.

The illiberal regimes wage a two-level battle against any form of international togetherness of worldwide civic aspirations. One is, paradoxically, through the established intergovernmental organizations and legal instances. In such fora, they perfectly team up with all other governments that want to send internationalism back to hell. But the words they internally use for mobilization belie the elevated arguments about sovereignty. Domestically, the illiberal rulers are just plain nationalist populists. Their science consists of enhancing and weaponizing the explosive force of age-old basic instincts: ethnic or religious exclusivism and xenophobia.

Therefore, all international friends of civic freedom have to remember what is at stake here: the fate of universal human rights and ultimately, the guarantees of peace. Immanuel Kant, the reclusive philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), is right on target, more now than ever. His triple formula of ‘eternal peace’ suggested that, for global peace to materialize, it is necessary but not sufficient to have democracies in all countries. Not even an international alliance of democracies will be enough to secure that goal. The final guarantee of peace must be, he said, the international enforceability of individual human rights.

See the new Berlin Wall erected: the ‘foreign agent’ type anti-NGO regulations. This time, the divides are built of legal provisions, not concrete and steel. But their function is the same: to eliminate the indivisibility of human rights, proclaimed by the international community after WW2 – and in fact, the main lesson of WW2.

I hope this handbook will help us deeper cultivate the rationale for civil society: freedom in peace, at home and worldwide. And that it will make us more mindful in countering the illiberal usurpations of democracy, at home and worldwide.

January 14, 2018
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Live long and prosper
Guest
Live long and prosper

How excellently put. I hope this is widely distributed in Hungarian, as it is the Hungarians without access to independent media who most need to read and understand this.

Farkas
Guest

A brilliant and suberbly written, tightly coherent and highly impactful piece of liberal democratic advocacy that is no doubt thoroughly convincing for liberal democrats like myself. The question is the extent to which it would also be capable of influencing in the slightest a Szabó Jancsi bácsi in Röjtökmuzsaly or a Varga Mari néni in Nagykáta, or their children and grandchildren – or for that matter the countless (Christian) nationalist (public) intellectuals, politicians and media people – steeped as they all are in the same sharply counterproductive Hungarian nationalism as their forebears were eight decades ago. Yet they and their kind right across Hungary will actually decide the outcome of the general elections, and thus the near-term fate of internationalist civil society initiatives in Hungary, as much by voting for Fidesz as by abstaining from participation in the elections.

\'56
Guest

I am shocked that the Kremlin part has not attracted any comments:

“The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.”

The Kremlin is describing itself so ridiculuously well: Foreign Agent!

The readers of the Balogh blog can be grateful to Haraszti for this visionary observation.

Farkas
Guest

The last part of the last sentence seems to have dropped out in the post above:

“. . . (at least in those relatively rare cases where they would have harboured oppositional sentiments toward Fidesz).”

Jean P
Guest

I have used an online readability calculaor to analyse the readability of Miklos Haraszti’s text.

https://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp

The answer was that a formal education of 17.89 years was required in order to easily understand the text on the first reading (Gunning Fog index). It was recommended that six out of seventeen sentences be revised to improve readability.

Guest

Your index essentially counts the number of words per sentnce and the number of syllables per word – not very illuminating. By just introducing more full stops you get it much lower!

Jean P
Guest

“By just introducing more full stops you get it much lower!”

Yes, and you make it more readable.

Farkas
Guest

Hm. I didn’t see any problems whatsoever with the readability of the text. On the contrary, I found it quite translucently clear. In any case, I don’t think that its readability would make the slightest difference to its most likely thoroughly hostile reception by Hungarian nationalists, whether they be peasants, workers, media people, (public) intellectuals or politicians.

Jean P
Guest

The language is fine if it is written for the inhabitants of the ivory tower. I don’t live there myself as I am educated in natural science. I don’t raise the problem because I have trouble reading the text. I just want to point out that the text is unlikely to be read by people who might become wiser from reading it.

Istvan
Guest
Jean at this point in time unfortunately most written text internationally, with the exception of sports journalism and celebrity tabloids, are written for an ever declining university educated audience. We here in the USA of course have a President who openly admits to not reading books and gathering his news from network and cable news sources in a hyper fashion watching three TV monitors in bed. In fact the book itself, of which the essay is an introduction, on the suppression of civil society in Central Europe is in fact written for the university educated, not the unwashed masses to use Shakespeare’s phrase. This is a massive problem I experienced the entirety of my military career in relationship to communications with most enlisted and NCOs in the US Army.Writing what we call Training and Doctrine manuals for soldiers was immensely difficult. Some things to be honest were simply considered to be incomprehensible to the ranks. For example one publication aimed at officers starts with this: “Doctrine is dynamic and changing based on lessons learned in current operations and training, adaptive enemies, and changes in force structure, technology, and social values. This publication provides the basic information necessary to understand Army… Read more »
Farkas
Guest
I understand. But my point is that in order that one “might become wiser,” first of all one has to be WILLING to become so. It is my sense however, that Hungarians are simply not willing, and would not be willing even if Haraszti’s piece contained only three letter words and five word sentences. It would still be met with a thoroughly hostile reception by Hungarian nationalists – who would presumably have to be the principal target audience for “becoming wiser” by reading and understanding it – and by a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders even by most Hungarians on the left side of the political divide. In other words, it is the Hungarian mentality that is the basic problem and not readability. And this basic problem does make all such well-intentioned missives, like Haraszti’s, into just so much “falrahányt borsó” or “casting pearls before swine.” Which does not of course mean that the good people of the internationalist liberal left should not try and try and try again, because maybe one day far into the future their message would, after all, stick even with Hungarians, even though I myself am not particularly sanguine about their prospects of success with… Read more »
Istvan
Guest
Let’s recall that once Nazis Germany was defeated and imperial Japan was defeated what took place was enforced re-education. In Germany it was called de-Nazification, there was a similar process in Japan. There was no similar process done in Central Europe and Russia, there were minor attempts made to import the ideology of markets. But the truth be told that resulted in the ransacking of collectivized property and numerous get rich quick schemes. We here in the USA that fought the ideological war against communism and won are largely responsible for this reality as I said before. Apparently President Regan in his dotage believed the magic hand of the market once unleashed would just fix it all. Instead we now have Putin and Orban along with gangster capitalism, we also have full State capitalism in China and Vietnam under the control of a bizarre communist bureaucracy. When I discuss this with many university educated Americans they are purposely oblivious. When I discuss this with many people involved with US foreign affairs, for example the Chicago Council on Foreign Affiars, they say it’s pointless to look back, just deal with what is in front of us. But the problem is they… Read more »
wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘ I don’t raise the problem because I have trouble reading the text. I just want to point out that the text is unlikely to be read by people who might become wiser from reading’

That’s interesting. Strange though we have been given personages who in their lives created and revelled in ‘high’ thoughts such as Emerson, Montaigne, Jefferson, Keats, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, Goethe and last but not least perhaps the greatest of them all Shakespeare. All still around. All still read. All dealing with words, words, words. Yet some think they are ‘high falutin’ meaning being on another plane of understanding.

All humanity so far still sees and feels its nature and soul in their works. We are like moths driven to bask into light. With the writers, style of writing and substance are intertwined. But substance can always be retrieved from the ‘style’.

And that ‘substance’ is what makes us all human so that we all can understand ‘words, words, words’. With Haraszti his eloquence is telling as he makes a plea for one and its the undying quest for human ‘freedom’. Really there is much enduring substance in his style.

Jean P
Guest

Thomas Jefferson: Letter to General Washinton. Gunning Fog index: 14.56
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The conduct of life – Fate. Gunning Fog index: 9.34

wrfree
Guest

A little fun.
I put in ‘I am the Walrus’ lyrics by the Fab 4. I let the GFI ride… 59.77! Absolutely ‘foggy’ to the uppermost. Yeah but oh what a ‘fog’ to be in…and getting a bit of music in too. 😎👍

Guest

From the NYT – a bit OT but telling:
On the racism and xenophobia front Eastern Europe is just following Trump!
Several European heads of government were proudly xenophobic in their responses to a refugee crisis in 2015, when more than one million asylum seekers arrived by boat on European shores, prompting a surge in support for far-right parties and nativist rhetoric — particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

Prominent among them was Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, who criticized non-Christian migrants and then built a wall to stop migrants from entering Hungary.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/world/europe/trump-immigration-outrage.html?te=1&nl=morning-briefing-europe&emc=edit_mbe_20180115

PS:
I always find it funny in a way when Poles and Hungarians (and the other V4) insist on being “Central Europeans” when everybody else considers them as part of the primitive and backwards Balkan …

\'56
Guest

why do you insult the good people of the balkan with such a generalization?

why do you compliment the bad guys in v4 with such a grade?

Guest
It’s not me who generalizes – it’s them claiming to be a part of Central Europe which for me suggests minds like Goethe or Shakespeare … Of course there are many Hungarians and Poles and Serbs who do better than an average Brit or German (or US citizen …) – but the state of society here in the East is abominable! When you talk with “average people” you feel like on a journey in time 50 years back – or even more nowadays … Rather OT again: But on the other hand – I’ll never forget the day that I was introduced to my wife because that common friend of ours insisted that she was the perfect woman for me and I would be the perfect partner for her, though we didn’t really speak the other’s language. After I nice dinner and pleasant smalltalk I drove her home and while she looked for some mineral water for me I had a look at her bookshelves: Of course a lot of Hungarian authors, most of the names meant nothing to me. And then I saw authors like Sinclair Lewis, Isaac Asimov and other science fiction greats, Thomas Mann and D H… Read more »
Guest

My wife just started laughing – then she told me the joke she found on the ‘net:
O is in a hospital bed, Szijartó standing next to him and says to him:
Luckily I don’t have to buy toilet paper for you – Mészaros will be here soon …

wrfree
Guest

Hehe..good one.

Re: library of 60 yr old Hungarian woman coming from a small town in Eastern Hungary

I’d bet she must have sacrificed a bit to get them considering that books would have been relatively expensive.

You know in my recollections of the homes of the rural people I came into contact with in the reign of Kadar I don’t think I ever saw bookshelves nor books. Of course there were other ‘priorities’. We must praise the ‘exceptions’ who took the leap into other fascinating worlds!

Guest
My wife toldme that under Kadar books were actually rather cheap. Though the paperbacks were printed on really cheap paper – I’ve seen quite a few of them. Also scientific books, often translated from the Russian, were relatively cheap. A bit OT: In East Germany the situation was similar. As a student in the 1960s I got many Russian books on maths and physics translated into German and published in East Germany from a friend who had come to the West. He kind of financed his studies by selling these books. And after I started work in IT I was in Frankfurt often and near the university I found a “communist bookshop” which also had many classic titles published in East Germany at goodprices. Of course they also had Marxist/Leninist propaganda – but i didn’t buy that … And even more OT: My wife also spent a lot of money to visit a concert by Louis Armstrong (!) in Budapest! So when we went on holiday to New York City in 2009 we of course had to visit Satchmo’s house in the Bronx which has been made into a really lovely museum. So there were ways and possibilities in Kadar’s… Read more »
wrfree
Guest
Re: books ‘ rather cheap’.. Wow that was sure in contrast to my experience growing up. Always went to the library to get my reading ‘fix’ after getting some ball playing in. My mother could not afford to buy the books. Hey it was a myth the West’s streets were paved with gold..😎 But she made it up once ‘splurging’ on an encyclopedia. With me to this day as reminder of her sacrifice. I gained tremendously from her lack of education. She too was an ‘exception’ as she realized and became more aware coming from a ‘szegeny’ country that having an education provided one to experience ‘freedom’. Great that you saw Satchmo’s house. You weren’t too far from where I grew up in the city where Magyars and Germans and Czechs and Irish and Poles and Croatians all lived and worked. When you’re in the ‘States’ Trianon was a world far far away as they got on the IRT express or local every day to make a living. And that ‘communist book’ shop. Reminds me of a student in another class and this is grammar school mind you. He had this habit of carrying around Mao’s ‘Red Book’ and showing… Read more »
Farkas
Guest

I too find it quite hilarious the way Hungarians – psychologically and in behaviour so very much the denizens of the Balkans – keep insisting on how “genuinely” “Européer” they are in their mentality and ways.

Observer
Guest

Resisting the ills of non-democracy is what many of us are doing here.
To make it even more readable, let me spell it out – these “models” (even if not designed in Kremlin) are variations of fascist dictatorship in their respective growth phases.

We are resisting the fascists, opposing their ulterior, evil deeds (see bullet points of the study ).
Marty, is this simple enough for the “nép” ?

Observer
Guest

Farkas
I live here now and giving up/doing nothing is not an option in my book. I treasure my belonging to the caste of homo sapiens, and, I have to admit, get something from the vikings’ attitude to die sword in hand, if it comes to that.
And, talking about persistence, you are actually in the lead pack here, contributing with a lot of info, so don’t be modest about it.

wrfree
Guest

Re: the Viking attitude dying sword in hand

Also reflected earlier in two Greek words which will always act as defiance across the great centuries:
‘Molon labe’.

Farkas
Guest

And all credit to you for trying, Observer! Kudos indeed, and I really admire your persistence and the persistence of your fellow comrades-in-arms back in Budapest. Sadly however, I myself had given up on East Europeans in general and Hungarians in particular a long, long time ago.

Observer
Guest

\56
Small and poor countries can’t tackle head on, such must court allies and compromise, i.e. negotiate and yield something to Vienna, Berlin, Moscow (don’t know why bring up Washington).
Since the Hungarians are poor diplomats and strategists, they often stuff it up and then God strikes the Magyar, too often, they complain, but don’t learn.

`56
Guest

Observer,
Thank you for your reply.
Hungary has been the victim of foreign oppressors and their local allies under the Habsburgs, Horthy, Rakosi, and Orban.

Have you absorbed the message of Haraszti?

“In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the KREMLIN. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.”

Let us be honest, the model has not only been designed, by forced on Hungary by the Kremlin.

\'56
Guest

Nobody should give up on Hungary.

It is just as important that the fate of Hungary has been always infuenced or often defined from Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Washington.

Jon Van Til
Guest

Haraszti’s introduction is characteristically clear and powerful. And the concrete action suggestions for citizen and civil society organizations
contained within the report (pp. 44-52) are persuasive, viable, and comprehensive.

blinkyowl
Guest

Impeccable!

Miklós Haraszti
Guest

I enjoyed the comments and especially the *readability* debate – that word itself reads hard below some special training:) But here is the proof my text has a devoted audience which does not miss the meaning:
http://magyarhirlap.hu/cikk/108246/Univerzalis_kiskate_kormanybuktatasra
Enjoy…

Miklós Haraszti
Guest

Since the morning, it evolved into an all-out smear campaign, mobilizing all state and private media available for the central propaganda, repeating and mixing and adorning the same lies, but of course never providing the link to the actual stuff they decry. One can chronologically follow how such a campaign is done here: http://hirvonal.hu/hir/1250151?elso=1910129