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19 November 2018

What if?

"The European Parliament has decided, Hungary has been referred to Council under Article 7 of the TEU and the left is celebrating. We can leave to one side the questions over the voting procedure, given that politically the weight of the voting is what counts. The joy unconfined on the left is understandable. After all, the left has long regarded Hungary as the seat of everything that it detests – it has devised a narrative that includes no rule of law, no judicial independence, no free media, no free anything really and presumably a nation of sheep who will vote for Fidesz because they are sheep. Quite some narrative. And those who contest it are automatically disregarded."


The European Parliament has decided, Hungary has been referred to Council under Article 7 of the TEU and the left is celebrating. We can leave to one side the questions over the voting procedure, given that politically the weight of the voting is what counts.

The joy unconfined on the left is understandable. After all, the left has long regarded Hungary as the seat of everything that it detests – it has devised a narrative that includes no rule of law, no judicial independence, no free media, no free anything really and presumably a nation of sheep who will vote for Fidesz because they are sheep. Quite some narrative. And those who contest it are automatically disregarded.

Pay no attention to the proposition that the evidence that Hungary has gone over to the dark side is weak, indeed all too often absent. Ignore the fact, for fact it is, that the sources of the Western left’s concerns frequently have not a leg to stand on. They have been constructed by journalists who do not know enough Hungarian to buy a bar of soap, who seek out leftwing Hungarian sources and only those – which are sincerely committed to blackening the government’s name. So, when citing the work of a think-tank the aforementioned journalists will never add that it is leftwing body, not committed to purveying objective information. And then, there is the distinctive Hungarian habit of heaping exaggeration on hyperbole. Hungarians are used to this, but translate the sentiment into English or French, to an outsider it will sound like an end-time alert.

This is served up to Western readers in undiluted form because it makes great copy, except of course the Western readers cannot know about the distorting mirror, about the tainted reporting, so they accept it as the unvarnished truth. It is far from exaggeration in this instance that it has become “a truth universally acknowledged” in the eyes of many that Hungary is an autocracy. All too often, such truths universally acknowledged are wholly erroneous, but that does not stop journalists from repeating them.

So forget about the Hungarian realities that are ignored by the media, like the hapless, fragmented political opposition which has still to work out what being leftwing means, apart from detesting Orbán. It was just a few years ago, that a senior adviser to the pre-2010 leftwing government was quoted to the effect that “the worst non-Orbán government is better than the best Orbán government”. Not a lot of nuance there.

In the same way, ignore any evidence that is positive as far as the Fidesz government is concerned. The EU Commission’s Justice Scoreboard is one of these, Hungary comes out not too badly at all, mostly in the top third of the 28. Some of what the Venice Commission has said about Hungary has been critical, but far from all, some of their findings have been supportive. Much the same can be said of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency.

Well, of course, these must be ignored, because they get in the way of the narrative on the basis of which the 448 MEPs voted for the Sargentini report. What we have, then, is a well-established European value propagated by the left – a Manichean view in which the left attributes all virtue to itself and all vice to Fidesz, or to any other political movement that questions the bearers of light to the left.

If you add all these together, then the Sargentini report is a dystopic fabrication. Dystopic because it looked only for the worst (and found it) and fabrication because it ignored all the contrary evidence. Something wrong with the application of European values here, no?

The word “vice”, used above, is not there by accident. The liberal hegemony has increasingly acquired many of the qualities of a secular belief system – unconsciously mimicking Christian antecedents – with a hierarchy of public and private evils. Accusations substitute for evidence, but one can scourge one’s opponents (enemies, increasingly) by calling them racist or nativist or xenophobic. Maybe the Inquisition would be a better metaphor.

Absolute evil is attributed to the Holocaust, hence Holocaust denial and Holocaust banalisation are treated as irremediably sinful, even criminal in some countries. Clearly, the entire area is so strongly sacralised or tabooised that it is untouchable.

Not quite as far-reaching in the catalogue of evils is colonialism and slavery. Note by the way, that only European slavery counts. The many centuries-long Arab slave trade between East Africa and Araby is ignored. The pursuit of post-colonial guilt is arguably tied up with the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, as an instrument for silencing any voices that might be audacious enough to criticise Third World immigration.

Coming close to the foregoing in the catalogue and with intensifying emphasis is the condemnation of nationalism. Note a number of things here. First, the West has unilaterally declared itself post-national, though on what basis has never been made clear. It just sort of happened. Note too that in the real world this has not actually made the French less French or the Dutch less Dutch, but it is good to pretend otherwise. And, while we are at it, Brexit is unquestionably fuelled by a certain sense of injured Englishness.

Then, because one cannot be a post-national without there being a national – one cannot have a positive polarity without a negative – the bad nationalists are still around, but they are in the uncivilised east, something that EU membership has been quite unable to transform, hence the regular assaults on the Central European member states. The Sargentini story is just one among many.

The fear of the national, and it seems to be that, a fear that the universalism of the liberals is under a mounting threat, has begun to generate fascinating counters, namely the slow, quiet, almost clandestine rehabilitation of empires. Trump and Brexit have been obvious triggers. Anything is better than a nation, it would seem.

A clear-cut distinction must be made here between overseas empires (bad) and landward empires, like the Russian, the Ottoman and the Austrian empires; these were “good” empires, because they kept nations and nationalism down. I have not yet seen any attempt to rehabilitate the German empire, presumably because it is too closely associated with Nazism.

The first time I came across a positive use of empire was in the report issued by the Polish Batory Foundation, the high citadel of liberalism in Warsaw, with the title, “A Normative Empire in Crisis” (2017). I must confess that I blinked several times when I saw this, not least because the norms favoured by the report are those of democracy to me empire and democracy are incompatible – and because I would hardly have expected a good word for empire from a Polish source. Still, we live and learn.

But there is more to come. Krishan Kumar published his Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World in 2017 and he really does seem to think that the Austrian empire was benign, and only benign. Sure enough, he quotes the Clementia Austriaca,the native Austrian mildness and clemency”. Predictably, there is no reference to Haynau, to the hanging of the 13 Hungarian generals in Arad and Kossuth has one mention, in exile as a propagandist. Indeed, the Hungarian element of the empire is all but invisible in this account.

The Russian empire is approvingly described as a multicultural state where liberal reforms after the 1905 revolution (barely mentioned) were putting the country on the right track. Not a word about the post-1905 imperial pacification – over two thousand executions in the Baltic lands alone and at least as many floggings. Very liberal, indeed.

Pieter Judson (The Habsburg Empire, 2016) deals only with the Habsburgs and, like Kumar, anything that does not support his positive account is omitted. For Kumar, Bach is primarily the composer; Alexander Bach (of the Bach era) is listed as an imperial official. Judson takes it further, yes, Bach’s methods were on the crude side, but after all, he was only promoting the Austrian mission civilisatrice during the absolutism of the 1850s in Hungary. A British imperial official praising the administration of India could not have put it better. A review of Judson in the London Review of Books (30 August 2018) proudly liberates the cat from the bag. Judson is right, it asserts, because the Habsburg empire kept nations, nationhood and nationalism down and it was the right thing to have done. Just imagine someone saying something similar about the colonial wars, like the one France fought in Algeria.

All this suggests that Sargentini is the tip of the iceberg. The liberal current has established its triad of evils and has projected these eastwards. Poland, Hungary et al. are the site of the mounting challenge to liberalism (as currently argued) and are an encouragement to anti-liberals in the West.

And all this raises a further question. Is the EU susceptible to the temptation of empire? It is not difficult to read the Sargentini report as having imperialist overtones, determined to eliminate any view of democracy that contains a national component. Are democracy and nationhood really incompatible? Are Europe and nationhood now to be defined as mutually exclusive? And, a hard question, does a former empire ever get over its imperial past, its civilising mission, even if the murderous methods of Belgium in the Congo are no longer acceptable? Can the West ever come to terms with those parts of Europe that were subordinated to imperial rule and, hence, have no post-colonial guilt?

But what if?

What if there is more to the picture than what has been sketched so far? Above all, what if the liberal wave – no more than two-three decades old – has peaked? What if the Third Way of the 1990s is coming to its end (nothing lasts for ever) and Europe is entering a new era in which left-liberalism will be just one way of doing politics among many?

What if the accession process has not really delivered on its promises, that of unifying Europe, bringing the West and the East together on fully equal terms? If so, then the resurgence of trust in one’s national identity is more readily understood. Indeed, these were the terms on which accession took place, that the EU had competence only where conferral of power had taken place. There is nothing in the treaties banning nationhood.

For the moment, the left-liberal approach is enjoying its hegemony (yes, Gramsci’s word), but there is mounting evidence that for growing swathes of opinion the liberal hegemony is no longer exemplary, let alone binding. If we look at the evidence, the real stuff, we get a different picture, at the heart of which the triumph of liberalism is contested – contested with increasing force.

All those dismissed as “populists” are saying no, we want something different, above all, we want a political order in which our voice is heard on equal terms with that of the hegemony which calmly accepts the mounting inequalities that contaminate democracy in Europe.

Nationhood has something to say about this, because it insists on the members of the nation having a certain parity of status. Modern nations emerged in the late 18th century on the argument that all the inhabitants of a given territory were members of the nation with equal rights of political participation.

Besides, this “populism” business is quite odd, if you think about it. Here are people who are regarded as perfectly respectable citizens, upright members of society as members of the demos, but then, when they exercise their democratic right to vote as they choose, they are dissed as “populists” or – to quote the immortal saying by Hillary – they are “deplorables”. All it needs is the flick of a switch and out you go, off to the dark side.

It is always difficult to see tectonic change that one is in the midst of, but the shifting plates of the European order are ever harder to deny. But this is where Fidesz comes in. The liberal hegemony was always weaker in Central Europe, supported by maybe 10 per cent of the voters (on a good day), so that is where the challenge to the hegemony emerged and the alternative was formulated, not least by Fidesz.

As Milan Kundera once wrote, one of the functions of Central Europe is to serve as an early warning system for Europe as a whole. In insisting that liberal free markets generate inequality, Fidesz issued a warning that the free movement of capital and people had negative consequences for states on the semi-periphery. Equally, by blocking the migratory pressure on Europe in 2015, Fidesz demonstrated that a small country could exercise agency even in the face of Europe-wide disapproval. This is what Fidesz has got right and that is why it is so widely detested. Nobody likes a successful prophet, after all.




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