Hungary’s Immovable Object

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on her re-election. And to the cynics, all I have to offer are facts. Ten years under the Workers’ Party have rendered Brazil’s per-capita output and its middle class is larger than ever, and, while inflation may not be at the level of developed nations (about that…), it is now far more stable. The nation’s macroeconomic fundamentals are not perfect, sure. But they’re a far cry from the constant currency revaluations of the 80s and 90s. Best of luck, Dilma, and stay the course.

Now, to the point. Over 100,000 Hungarians have risen up in the past few days to protest Pres Viktor Orbán’s institution of an internet tax (which he apparently didn’t tell his MPs about). While an internet tax is itself a very poor policy idea, amounting to little more than a tax on the freedom of information, the tax itself is not the whole issue. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, have recently come under increasing international scrutiny due to their increasingly undemocratic practices. Orbán freely admitted in a speech earlier this year that the era of Western-style liberal democracy is ending, and that he aims to look eastward (i.e., to Russia and Turkey) to find a model for leadership. More so than a domestic protest on a bad policy idea, these protests seem to be a statement of dissatisfaction on the part of Hungarians (who, famously, aren’t known for taking things sitting down) directed at Orbán and the Fidesz government in general. In light of Orbán’s recent turn, the internet tax seems a lot more sinister.

Referring to Fidesz as “Orbán’s party” is reasonable and accurate. Budapest is increasingly dominated with pictures of Orbán’s face and his party’s unsettling slogan “Only Fidesz!” Orbán was a founding member of Fidesz, which originated shortly after the fall of Communism as a small, youth-oriented party with strong capitalist/pro-democracy leanings. Fidesz (with Orbán as its media-savvy representative) initially sought to ingrain democracy and further the spread of capitalism in Hungary, a nation that had always had a greater tolerance for free markets than the rest of the Soviet bloc as a result of its official policy of so-called Goulash Communism. Fidesz’s meteoric rise didn’t begin, however, until the mid-90s, when the party (now under Orbán’s full control) began incorporating elements of Hungarian nationalism and more populist economic policies. The party continued to grow throughout the 2000’s, but did not reach the stratospheric, supermajoritarian heights it now commands until after the Great Recession hit.

“Good story,” you might say. “But why does any of it matter?” Well, economist (and Hungarian) Karl Polanyi, who I seem to be plugging quite a lot on this blog, explains in his seminal work The Great Transformation that when people feel abandoned by the dominant socioeconomic systems, they seek alternatives. Nazism, for example, was born during Germany’s bout of hyperinflation, nearly died afterward, and was reborn after the Great Depression. In the early years of democracy, Hungarians embraced their new freedom wholeheartedly. But Hungary, despite being fundamentally in a much better position than many former Soviet bloc states, still suffered from the same destroyed expectations. They were faced with a global liberal democratic hegemony that had become increasingly dominated by financial markets, a development consensus that imposed upon them shock therapy, structural adjustment and flat taxes. In essence, they were more or less in the same, largely powerless position- largely ignored by the larger powers while they played war games in the Middle East. Presumably, it is this alienation that has made so many Hungarians vote for Fidesz, a party which espouses doctrines little removed from the Goulash Communism of old.

Hungary matters for the same reason Ukraine matters. It may not be as visible, but it is exactly Orbán sly, underhanded tactics that make him so dangerous. Many of us didn’t even hear about him until he’d already largely finished the job. Orbán and the rest of his ilk (i.e. Erdogan) are shameless opportunists and useful idiots: Frankenstein’s monsters whose strong-arm, dictatorial tactics should force us in the US and European core to think about how our international policies affect people in other countries. Rather than sitting here and thinking about how some people “just don’t want to be democratic,” we should be thinking about what we did to alienate them, and how we can fix that.

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