27 September 2013

Hungary’s Transition: Liberalism for the Few?

How can we explain the failure of Hungarian liberalism in a country that was expected to be a model of liberalisation? That is the basic question which Umut Korkut, the noted political scientist at Glasgow’s Caledonian University, discusses in his recent book on Hungarian politics. Liberalization Challenges in Hungary: Elitism, Progressivism and Populism, published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan, is based on extensive personal researches conducted in Budapest. As a former student of the Central European University, Korkut is well acquainted with Hungary and speaks Hungarian well. It is an asset few foreign researchers can claim and it should command the attention of those Hungarian intellectuals interested in how a perceptive foreign observer evaluates the recent history of our country.
His starting assumption can be summarised as follows. During the change of system in 1989–1990, liberalism, having contributed to the demise of communism, enjoyed a unique historical opportunity to influence the transformation of the country. In the early 1990s scholars and politicians alike declared almost unanimously that liberalism was the only possible path forward for Central and Eastern Europe. Liberalism soon had to face mounting challenges, however, because it was unable either to maintain consensus on its virtues or to deliver on its promises. The liberal dream of 1989 soon dissipated. Yet mainstream literature on the political transition in Central Europe rarely ponders why liberalism failed or how it alienated society and led eventually to a sharp right-wing reaction.
Korkut does pose these questions, focusing both on Hungarian liberalism and liberalisation. Let us first point out two things, however:
First, liberalism is a protean concept at the best of times. There is a sense in which we are all liberals in that we believe in free speech, free enquiry, free association, and in the other ideas associated with the revolutions of 1688 and 1776. Later “liberalisms” of right and left are more divisive insofar as they require controversial state action to realise either unfettered economic competition or the freeing of people from local customs and traditional beliefs. And as the examples of 1688 and 1776 suggest, some societies find liberalism a more natural philosophy than others. Hungarian liberalism was influenced from the first by foreign examples, British Whiggery in particular, which means that it is always vulnerable to the temptation (and accusation) of elitism. And it is Hungarian liberalism that is the topic of this review – though, as we shall see, its lessons apply more widely.
Second, though liberalism and liberalisation are closely related, they are not quite the same thing. The latter is defined by Korkut as the process of winding back the state, i.e. diminishing the extent of state control. Hungary demonstrates in his eyes that liberalisation, though it may be a departure point for liberal societies, is not a “cumulative” self-generating process that leads automatically to democracy. “Liberalisers” simply misconceived the course of what they considered to be “progress”. History provides many examples of a marked tension between liberalism and democracy; and there is a continuing discussion in political science literature about the linkage between “liberal” and democratic”. Thus Korkut is right when he stresses that liberalisation and democratisation may each inhibit the other’s progress. Indeed, in his reading of our recent history that is precisely whathappened.1 So the question inevitably arises: how did the programme of liberalism, which was in principle a programme for expanding liberty, turn into an elitism that curtailed both freedom and democracy?
Korkut’s explanation is clear and logical. Distinguishing between two forms of liberalisation, namely the economic and the political, he argues that after the fall of the communist regime, liberalism concentrated all its attention on the economy, assuming that the formal creation of democracy would entail political liberalisation too. Political liberalisation is defined by two well-known political scientists – Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter – as the process of making effective certain rights that protect individuals (and also social groups) from arbitrary acts by the state. In Korkut’s view this resulted in a lopsided reform programme. Simultaneously liberalising both the economy and the political sphere speeded up the former at the expense of the latter, and this in turn undermined the expectation of a linear trajectory between the development of capitalism and democracy. Political liberalisation accordingly became a secondary matter for liberal reformers for whom the neoliberal market economy was a predominant ideal. The two aspects of liberalisation thus came into conflict. This train of thought carries readers to the crucial conclusion that the fundamental cause of the failure of Hungarian liberalism is that it became “elitist”.
Korkut does not share the present writer’s conservative scepticism towards liberalism. On the contrary, he thinks that the process of liberalisation is “morally justified”. But he also recognises that liberalism is responsible for the evident failure of the transition process. He acknowledges that “liberal politics tailored as traitjacket for societies in new democracies with its ‘there is no alternative’ propaganda and branded those who failed to appreciate the virtues of liberalism”.2
And he is especially critical of the tendency of liberalism to look upon all differing opinions as irrational and illegitimate.
It is an “emblematic feature of liberalism”, he writes, to resolve contradictions by dividing societies into two groups of people, the enlightened and the unenlightened. The enlightened are the liberals themselves, the only people who have understood the truth. The liberal is a “persuader” – someone who knows more than we do.3
As a consequence the liberal elite in post-communist Hungary not only lost contact with society but even alienated it deeply because it proved totally insensitive to those social groups which thought their vital interests were threatened by neoliberal economic reforms. The liberal dream failed to deliver welfare for the majority. We are led to the conclusion, therefore, that elite-led liberalisation destroyed the quality of the democracy that had been consolidated after 1989. Here it is worth quoting the words of the great Spanish–American conservative thinker, George Santayana: “the nemesis of liberal society is its self- destruction by liberal ideology…”
One can agree with Korkut’s view that liberalism consciously strove to disempower” society. His analysis – and it is a sophisticated one – shows that disempowerment of the general public set the tone of liberal politics in post-1989 Hungary”.4 Indeed, disempowerment of the public turns out to be an organic element of liberalisation – in contrast to its professed aims. To achieve this result the liberal elite employed two methods: on the one hand it drastically limited the scope of social redistribution, on the other hand it institutionalised the hegemony of the market, primarily by large-scale privatisation. And as Korkut reminds us, this political disempowerment was completed and entrenched by a discursive disempowerment too. A liberal intelligentsia exploited its cultural capital to provide legitimacy for liberal reforms. The present writer is convinced that the primary target of economic liberalisation was the demolition of the state itself – and by the time the socialist government was ousted in 2010 this goal had been by and large achieved: the Hungarian state had lost its capacity to fulfil its functions.
All in all, this book provides an excellent overview of the history of Hungarian liberalism. Korkut finds its past “fascinating” in a country gifted in general with a rich intellectual history. He dates the golden age of Hungarian liberal politics to the last third of the nineteenth century, beginning with the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. A major feature of Hungarian liberalism – which, let us add, has been preserved up to now – consists in its commitment to social and economic reform. Liberalisation has been a guiding principle of Hungarian liberalism and thus historically connected with the efforts at modernisation for centuries. As a sharp-eyed analyst, however, Korkut calls attention to two factors that were to weaken the strength and attractiveness of liberalism. One of them was the materialism involved in its economic thought; the other and more significant factor was “the lack of social essence in the programme for modernisation”. Liberalisation always tended to consolidate the role of the elites at the expense of the wider society.
While largely agreeing with Korkut’s analysis, I doubt that the tradition of political liberalism is as deeply rooted in Hungarian society and politics as his work suggests. My own view is that it is no mere chance that the achievement of the liberal parties has been consistently weak for the past hundred years. Let me concede, though, that Korkut’s portrayal of the so-called New Economic Mechanism – the economic reforms in the second half of the 1960s – might be fairly described as the manifestation of the tradition’s vigour. Along these lines he offers a thought-provoking hypothesis: in the period of the Kádár-era it was the reform-economists who played the role of the internal opposition (“Ersatz-Oppositionist”) and even the role of a “satellite-party”. Admittedly, economic liberalisation could not be combined with political liberalisation within a communist framework – and this fact may have led to the belief that the success of the former does not need the implementation of the latter.
Writing about the liberalism of the post-1989 period, shaped as it was both by globalisation and European integration, Korkut again cuts deep in his analysis. He points out that although the commitment of the pre-1989 samizdat opposition to the idea of civil society and the insistence of the neoliberal technocrats on the introduction of the free market seemed to have little or nothing in common, that was not in fact the case. After the fall of the communist regime both groups recognised that “what seemed so different were merely two sides of the same coin that is, liberal capitalist society”.5 (A very similar conclusion was reached in June 2007 in the liberal journal Beszélő by Zoltán Miklósi: “The new Hungarian liberalism came to be consolidated on the basis of the rapprochement of the democratic opposition and of the reform economists roughly by the time of the regime-change.”6)

To put it briefly: like their 19th century predecessors, the liberals of post-1989 Hungary came to look upon themselves as the predestined leaders of transformation. The belief in the superiority of the elite all but defined the leading liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which soon morphed from an original social-liberalism into a neoliberal orientation. It sacrificed social solidarity for the sake of the unlimited free market. Though it might seem paradoxical to someone unacquainted with Hungarian political life, the communist party’s successor, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), also became a dedicated agent of liberalisation. Indeed, as Korkut puts it, the Socialist Party initiated an especially “harsh” type of modernisation. In the author’s reading, attitudes to the liberalisation process came to be the defining cleavage in Hungarian politics. It was along this cleavage that socialists and liberals forged an alliance against the right-wing camp.
Korkut also demonstrates that liberalisation has had a European dimension. Arguments for “Europeanisation” centred around the “there is no alternative” rhetoric of the elite and thereby gave external help to liberalisation. And as soon as the accession of Hungary to the European Union was achieved, the left-liberal intelligentsia portrayed the euro as the guarantee of a “bright economic future” and even as a “symbol of civilisation”. Indeed, it was this “forced march” character of liberalisation, its disappointing social message, and its “cold language” that together led to the appearance of populist features in Hungarian conservatism.
Korkut emphasises that this conservative reaction had both pragmatic and populist foundations. And in describing the post-1989 history of Hungarian conservatism he employs a distinction elaborated by this writer, i.e. the crystallisation of two variants, the “patrician” and the “mobilising-populist”. He is mainly concerned with the latter, however. He stresses that the Fidesz government of 2010 has attempted to reverse the liberalisation process and make up for the losses caused by it. As for the populist elements in the conservative strategy, they can mainly be traced back to the elitism of the liberals. Indeed, it would be difficult to doubt the causal connection between the liberal elitism blaming for all its failures the “unenlightened” mass and the emerging populism of the Hungarian right. That said, we cannot explain the peculiar characteristics of Hungarian conservatism solely by reference to its attitude to liberalisation. The analysis should also extend to the complex phenomenon of “post-communism”, i.e. a term that cannot be easily translated into English, encompassing as it does the persistent legacy of communism and its imprint on Hungarian society. It has played a dogged and crucial role in the last two decades in Hungarian politics. Yet Korkut somewhat underrates the relevance and importance of this dimension.
That is not meant to deny that attitudes to liberalisation were an important component in the development of mobilising-populist conservatism. According to the Fidesz narrative, as Korkut points out, since the left-liberal elite had corrupted Hungary with liberalisation policies, the country needed a complete reorganisation. This task fell in 2010 to Fidesz which looked upon the liberal tradition as alien to Hungarian political culture and sought to remedy the bad practical consequences of liberalisation. The conservative right succeeded in enclosing this opposition to (neo)liberal economic reforms within a larger discourse of morality. And Korkut introduces an important theme when he argues that in Hungary the battles of ideas usually take place via confrontations on the ownership of morality.
Thus he argues that since winning the election in April 2010, Orbán has pursued a policy consisting of the “juxtaposition of virtue and terror”. The reference to terror is an exaggeration, even if the methods of Fidesz do represent a break with consensus-politics. Where I can agree with him, however, is that we could be witnessing a “unique conservative re-conceptualisation of politics”. This has already manifested itself in making a new Constitution in an assertive and defiant manner and implementing an “unorthodox” economic transformation to tackle the basic problems of the Hungarian economy, especially the extremely high level of national debt.
Korkut also notes a seeming contradiction: Fidesz is a staunch advocate of austerity and welfare cuts while at the same time being also committed to a significantly greater role for the state in the economy. Fidesz rejects deregulation and privatisation. This unusual mix of austerity and plebeian-populist politics poses a thorny theoretical question: can austerity and populism go together? The answer of the book is that apparently they can. Fidesz looks able to raise support for its austerity programme through populist politics and tactics. The daunting consequences of the global economic crisis and, in particular, the lessons of Greece are skilfully utilised by Orbán’s government to evoke the spectre of an eventual loss of financial sovereignty. Though some aspects of the ideology of Fidesz remind Korkut of the British and American New Right, it has certainly not become a variant of Reaganite–Thatcherite neo-conservatism because it has formed a fundamentally different view of the role of the state in the sphere of the economy.
In this regard Korkut makes an interesting observation. While Fidesz has come to agree with the left-liberal camp on at least some virtues of economic liberalisation, there has emerged no agreement at all on political liberalisation. Interpreting this development Korkut draws the conclusion that the deepest cleavage in Hungarian politics has been actually created by political liberalisation. One may add: this assumption seems to be supported by those surveys which demonstrate that in Hungary – in sharp contrast to Western Europe – cultural- ideological issues are much more relevant than economic ones in marking the borders between right and left. Also a marked paternalism has been common to both left-liberal and conservative reform paradigms. So it would be difficult to argue against Korkut’s statement that Fidesz also employed elitism while acting in the name of the people.
Curiously original” is how Korkut characterises the strategy of Fidesz. He adds that it bears a remarkable similarity to the ideology of PiS in Poland. But Fidesz has never taken such a negative attitude to Europe as has Law and Justice, the party created by the Kaczyńskis. Though Orbán has sometimes compared Brussels to Moscow in defending the national interest, Fidesz does not reject Europeanisation itself, only its “liberal shape”. In Fidesz conservatism being “European” is not seen to be in conflict with the national interest; it rejects only the type of Europeanisation that the left-liberal parties pursued. And while rejecting the liberal tradition, Orbán identifies with the West’s national traditions, with sovereignty, and with Christian ideas of solidarity.
Korkut perceives – I believe, rightly – that Orbán craved for a new spiritual period in European politics in order “to reverse the period of moral relativism”. The originality of Fidesz’s rhetoric is that it aims at discovering the European credentials of its “revolution of the ballot boxes”. In Korkut’s eyes Hungary proves that the search for national sovereignty is indeed an effective policy for conservative governments, even if they do not oppose European integration. This judgement is in keeping with my own hypothesis about the central role of nation- building in the strategy of mobilising-plebeian conservatism.
Korkut concludes by expressing the view that for Hungarian conservatives the “organisation of society” has been “a means of an alternative modernisation to that of liberalisation”. Korkut has perceived a crucial motive of conservative action: a mobilising conservatism can very definitely be an alternative route to modernisation. This attempt has been accompanied by a political rationale that dismisses the liberal form of transformation as immoral and illegitimate. Hence Fidesz’s quest for renewal involved rejecting most of the achievements of liberalisation and going on to discredit the whole period of regime change, even the legacy of patrician conservatism.
Hungarian political science has yet to accomplish an even-handed evaluation of the achievement of political liberalism since 1989 – but Korkut’s elegant work greatly advances this venture. It might have a major impact on the approach to the fundamental questions of how liberalisation, alienation and elitism are related to each other and why, despite the favourable conditions of the regime change, liberalism failed so dismally in Hungary. An implicit assumption in the relevant literature holds that liberalisation accelerates democratisation; Korkut’s work now requires a critical re-evaluation of this thesis. But his book is much more than a thorough analysis of Hungarian liberalism. By presenting the actual results of a liberalisation narrative that is still offered by the liberal elite, it makes a general reconsideration of the role of liberalism in postmodern societies something like an urgent necessity.

1 Korkut, Umut: Liberalization Challenges in Hungary. Elitism, Progressivism and Populism, Palgrave
Macmillan, New York, 2012, p. 5.
2Korkut: op. cit., p. 2.
3 Roger Scruton commented upon this type of liberal mentality in the following words in his lecture
given at the invitation of Common Sense Society in Budapest: “I felt that the Budapest intellectuals… wanted to rescue Socialism as a kind of liberalism. A kind of freedom, but freedom nevertheless imposed by the intellectual elite. And not a freedom that would allow the ordinary person to really think and believe and act as he wanted but a superior kind of freedom that we the intellectuals would define…” Roger Scruton: “Political Transformation in Hungary”, 7 October, 2010, www.commonsensebudapest.com/en/resources/css-lectures/political-transformation-in- hungary-roger-scruton,
4Korkut: op. cit., p. 117.
5Korkut: op. cit., p. 127.
6 Miklósi,Zoltán:Azújmagyarliberalizmuskilátásai”[PerspectivesoftheNewHungarian
Liberalism], Beszélő, June 2007.

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