“This is a strange world we live in. For the overwhelming majority, the coronavirus and the future of the economy constitute the central problems of the day. There will always be exceptions, though this exception does not prove any rule whatsoever. If anything, this exception erodes the rules of logic and rationality. The reference in this connection is to the European liberal left, the Euroleft. We know that over the last decade Hungary has evolved into a key target for left-liberal disapproval, there is no real need to rehearse the reasons, they are well known.”
This is a strange world we live in. For the overwhelming majority, the coronavirus and the future of the economy constitute the central problems of the day. There will always be exceptions, though this exception does not prove any rule whatsoever. If anything, this exception erodes the rules of logic and rationality.
The reference in this connection is to the European liberal left, the Euroleft. We know that over the last decade Hungary has evolved into a key target for left-liberal disapproval, there is no real need to rehearse the reasons, they are well-known. What is new, though, is that the left has now clearly, incontrovertibly declared that the facts do not matter. Yes, the left has abandoned the Central European proposition that assessment should be based on the facts of the case. This was openly stated in the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee on 23 April.
This is bizarre. There can be no valid assessment of reality without the facts, including the context in which those facts are assessed. Now I have long waited for an opportunity to use the rather arcane word oneirataxia somewhere. This refers to a situation where someone is unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but here we are dealing with something else – with the deliberate ignoring of the facts, with the insistence that the facts do not matter. Sadly oneirataxia may not be the right word (or maybe it is). It is not the inability to tell, but the deliberate refusal to do so.
This is dangerous territory. It is properly called arbitrariness. It means that the Euroleft has consciously, deliberately built a fantasy Hungary and this they will not change, regardless of the facts, circumstances and data. The Euroleft has constructed its own reality, even if they cannot make facts on the ground, though I am morally persuaded that if they had a detachment of Euroleft Riflemen to command, they would be seriously tempted to have them surround the Parliament building in Budapest and arrest Viktor Orbán in this office at the former the Carmelite Church.
As far as I am concerned, this is an open acknowledgement that the Euroleft has abandoned the absolute requirement that factual evidence is a fundamental necessity of justice and the rule of law – the rule of law to which the left makes constant reference. How can there be legality if evidence is disregarded?
The Euroleft has built an impenetrable wall of virtue around itself, meaning that it is always right and anyone who disputes this is eo ipso in the wrong. If it so declares, a fact becomes an unfact. At least in the Communist world, they used a more colourful formulation. There were the Great Truths of Socialism and petty veracity.
So much for the political left, but there is also the media left working in close cooperation. Now the media legitimates its activity by declaring sonorously that it exists to speak truth to power. Sometimes it does. But often enough it speaks falsehoods to power or idiocies or errors or just platitudes. One can add the immortal characterisation that what the media do is to simplify and then exaggerate. And they are proud of it.
In the case that follows what we have is the media speaking incompetence to power. There is an NGO called European Stability Initiative (ESI) that works primarily on the Balkans, but recently decided to have a go at Hungary and the EU. As anyone could have told the ESI, this is treacherous territory, full of pitfalls and traps for the unwary, especially where figures and money are concerned. Nothing loath, they saw a figure that under the CRII (the wonderfully bureaucratically named Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative) the EU was disbursing €5.6 billion to Hungary and only €2.3 billion to Italy. What a disgrace, they must have thought, that Orbán’s semi-authoritarian regime was so favoured. And, yes, the media lapped it up.
Der Spiegel and the Financial Times both ran the story and, this boggles the mind, did so without checking the story with the EU. Was it simply an error, a mistake by the ESI? A case of an NGO overreaching? Possibly, but if the media are still in the truth to power business, then the egg on their faces is many centimetres deep. In sum, the ESI misunderstood the basis on which the EU’s residual funds, from the 2014–2021 budgetary period, are to be distributed among the member states. Those member states that have already allocated their structural and cohesion funds would, obviously, get nothing. Hungary was one of these. The ESI could not get its head round this. (The full story, with links to Spiegel and the Financial Times, can be found on portfolio.hu, see in the notes below.)
Just in case anyone thinks that the ESI foul-up is a single instance and illustrates only itself, the picture is rather bleaker – bleaker if we give credibility to the truth to power business. The nature of the media has changed in the last 30 years. They were never wholly objective, that is close to impossible anyway, but there was a responsibility to giving readers a balanced account. Balance has largely vanished and has been replaced by a very widespread suppressio veri, omitting whatever does not suit the journalist’s narrative. I have experienced this several times personally. What I said did not suit the narrative, so it was quietly forgotten. Farewell balance is the outcome. And this has been exacerbated by the “gotcha” gambit, trying to trap the interviewed politician into saying something that can then be used as clickbait. Speaking fairy stories to power, more like it.
In any conventional analysis, all this could be written off as irrational clinging to power by the Euroleft and its media-NGO-think-tank ecosystem. But there is more to it. We have entered a world of radical uncertainty, not the kind of radicalism that the left likes, but one where societies have to confront a growing number of known and unknown unknowns. Understandably, even while the nostrums of the Euroleft are valueless, they try to construct a space of certainty, whether or not it is built on nothing. Hungary has become the keystone of this imaginary edifice. The Euroleft needs the kakistocratic Hungary that it has dreamed up. So, maybe, given that the Euroleft actually does believe in this fantasy Hungary, oneirataxia is, indeed, the right word.
Still, radical uncertainty is not overcome by fantasy and this is what the Euroleft thought-world is unable to recognise, let alone accept. Uncertainty here basically means that in a globalised world there are constant challenges to the established order, some of them clear, others decidedly less so. The recognition of these latter are not merely a matter of access to information – it is a platitude that we are living with information overload – but the cognitive capacity to assess it. This is where the dangers lie. The increasingly enclosed Euroleft world, enclosed as it is by its metalanguage and the constriction of what it regards as significant, is less and less able to see beyond the enclosure. Crucially, its adherents have long ago given up discussion and debate with those whom they place beyond the pale.
As best as one can make out, for the Euroleft world there is one overriding problem – populism, threats to the rule of law and democracy, and whatever else they choose to demonise. The narrowing of the metalanguage creates ever harder boundaries, ever more tightly defined, and the insistence that whatever does not conform should be treated as negative and illegitimate.
Structural resemblance to Soviet-type language is unmistakable. A vivid illustration is Yugoslavia, where by the late 1980s the Titoist code was less and less resonant and was replaced by national codes, which brought into focus the inability of the Communists to articulate an all-Yugoslav code and corresponding identity. Hence when the Titoist metalanguage failed, Yugoslavia failed with it. This phenomenon is also known as putting all your eggs into one basket; in more theoretical language, it is called monism.
So it follows, or should, that the Euroleft’s capture of the EU is dangerous for itself precisely because it has eliminated or exiled all other arguments and identities that are permitted to describe themselves as European or integration-minded.
The questions that follow should be: can this Euroleft centre hold or will it follow all the other phenomena that sought to preserve their power by hiding by a wall of virtue? Can a political project that insists on being democratic survive without an opposition, without checks and balances, without debate and evidence? Can it sustain its self-legitimation when it discovers that its language and ideas no longer resonate? When it is no longer a question of the falcon not being able to hear the falconer, but that the falconer no longer cares?
The direct links to Der Spiegel and the Financial Times can be found in the Hungarian portfolio. hu article at www.portfolio.hu/unios-forrasok/20200420/a-legnevesebb-nyugati-lapok-is-beneztek-mennyi-eu-penzt-huz-be-magyarorszag-a-koronavirusra-427242.
See also John Kay and Mervyn King, Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future (London: Bridge Street Press, 2020).
The term “wall of virtue” is from Geoff Mulgan, “Remembering Mary Douglas”, Prospect, June 2007.
Note that “falcon and falconer” are from Yeats, The Second Coming, and maybe indirectly from Rilke, Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen.