Someone sent a Czech cartoon to my wife the other day. A man saying to another: “It was better under the communists. We had a place we could escape to.”
A perfect illustration of the zeitgeist.
A conundrum disguised as a paradox wrapped in general malaise. The situation on the edges of the Union indeed seems unsolvable and inescapable. It is so, because nobody seems to have a good idea about the way out. Well, there are ideas a plenty but none too good and somehow, deep down, everybody knows that – hence the malaise. While I do not know much about the Poles, the Slovaks and the Rumanians, I have some interactions with the Czechs and the Hungarians and I think their woes represent fairly the general perception of politics and economy in the region.
Hungary is a depressing place today. The country is both in economical and existential crises.
A few months ago a friend of a friend (Gáspár Miklós Tamás) came to a lecture tour to North America talking about “The Failure of Liberal Democracy in Eastern Europe…and Everywhere Else”
This linked interview provides a fair representation of his subject.
Tamás introduces himself as a Marxist. His basic thesis is that what he terms to be ‘liberal democracies’ are not only failing, but they are also beyond the hope of reform, therefore we need another Marxist ideology inspired revolution. (He is a little fuzzy on the details)
Sometimes later I received an article by István Csurka, written only weeks before he died on the 4th of February 2012. Csurka is on the other end of the commonly understood political spectrum.
The quote from Tamás in Csurka’s NewYork Times obituary non-withstanding, Csurka was a fascist in the true meaning of the world. Not mainly because of his anti-Semitism and racism, but because of his firm belief in the need for strong centralised power with a strong charismatic leader under the guidance of strictly defined ‘national interests’ antagonistic to all outsiders and seeking success in conquest and domination.
Even my ex-boss, Elemér Hankiss, the 83 years old doyen of Hungarian Sociology is somewhat conflicted about the situation. On the one hand, he is the main sponsor of events such as “Citizens’ participation week” and the “Reinvent Hungary Movement” making the case for the value and virtue of self-organizing civil society in the face of untrustworthy governments during economic hardship, while on the other hand bemoaning the lack of EU imposed regulations of minimum wage and basic social services standards.
He sees the times we are living in as a transitional phase in the evolution of capitalism where we have to find a way to mitigate the problems created by globalization the same way western democracies managed to find a way to temper the excesses of the robber baron capitalism through the creation of the modern welfare states. He sees globalization as the cause of the present problems experienced by western democracies and hopes for a global order to set it right.
I would consider him to be at the centre, and with the other two, representing about 95% of Hungarian public opinion and probably the same percentage of the East European political ideology landscape.
The statist left and the statist right sees the answer in violence. The elimination of “wage labour” for Tamás and chasing the IMF goons and their Jewish supporters out of the country for Csurka.
Hankiss, who is in the ideological middle, seems to agree with them as to the cause: globalization, although he hopes for a peaceful transition to a new global order where all humanity will voluntarily comply with the new standards of global social responsibility.
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How did we get here? How is it possible, that the entire political spectrum is clueless?
After the fall of communism, the people of Eastern Europe felt cheated as their former rulers pointed to the new cleptocracies they created saying “See? This is the true face of the capitalism and the freedom you asked for.”
Neither was this notion too difficult to sell after 40-50 years of Marxist indoctrination painting a picture of capitalism as a world where the little guy always gets screwed. The social evolution of the east European societies and economies crossed path with the western world while still struggling with the burden of the ingrained communist notions and attitudes.
The people in the communist countries were looking up at the west as the fortresses of freedom standing up against the barbarity and economic insanity of communism for decades. In their eyes “the West” and the kind of capitalism they practiced represented the right way to do things. The right way to manage the economy, the right way to allow economic freedom while also providing high quality social services.
At the same time, the left on the west was incessantly labouring on bringing about the economic insanity of more regulations, more meddling in the economy and ever increasing levels of income redistribution in their own countries. By the time communism fell, all west European countries were in fairly advanced stages of the ultimately incurable welfare society cancer.
After the fall of communism, as the former communist countries were looking for good model to imitate, all they were able to see were countries with high level of income redistribution, and heavily politicised economies.
It is understandable how these new democracies came to believe that these elements (high tax to GDP ratio, extensive economic and social welfare, high levels of regulations and constant meddling with the economy) are all inevitable components of a modern society and a functional economy.
The former communist countries were aiming for freedom but they were swept away by a larger global movement toward socialism. No wonder they are confused. No wonder they are lost. Some countries in the world are already looking for a way out. The countries in Eastern Europe are looking for a way to just about anywhere.
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From the three movements identified above only the far right ‘knows’ the answer: beat up the Jews.
The left is totally clueless, the center is dreaming of miracles.
The reason, I suspect, is the lack of economic considerations. Just as they see the state as the provider and guarantor of positive rights, they also see it as the only possible guarantor of economic order and ‘social justice’. They see everything that is happening around them in social and political, not economic terms.
Tamás says in the end of his interview:
We don’t have the innovative and imaginative way of people in the 19th century to invent new political forms. I think we all should furiously think about what kind of guaranteed free forms of political struggle to invent, because we seem to be clueless, myself included.
I agree 100% with the last part of his statement. He is clueless. I do not see, however, why we should look for “new political forms”. For as long as human history exists, we are playing on variations of two: freedom and coercion; played out on the twin planes of economic and social life.
What is missing from East European political thought is the realization that:
Only society can fix the problems of society (not the state);
only the free market can solve the problems of the economy (not the state)
the only legitimate function of the state is to guarantee the unhindered functioning of the above two.
Any political and economic problem anywhere in the world, not just in Eastern Europe and not just in Liberal Democracies can be explained as being the result of ignoring the above principles.
Our three intellectuals along with the rest of the Eastern European societies most certainly ignore them. They all seek the answer in some sort of political authority with the monopoly on power making their vision of a good society forced on the rest. Freedom does not enter into the picture.
Until there is a movement in Eastern Europe recognizing the importance of the highlighted statements these countries will remain clueless.
Until there is a movement to replace (or at least bypass) failed government institutions with self-organized private ones social problems will persist.
Until there is a movement recognizing the paramount importance of INDIVIDUAL freedom they will have no chance to find any other type of freedom either.
Until there is a movement recognizing the need to reduce the role of the state to an absolute minimum, there will be no possibility to gain individual freedom.
What are the chances of any of that ever happening? On that point, even I am clueless.
Notes & references
Gazsi’s interview in Montreal
If you think our own Naomi Klein is confused, wait until you see this:
The “aggresszió” article from the MIÉP web-site (in Hungarian)
New York Times obituary
Gazsi’s obituary (in Hungarian)
(All in Hungarian)
Beszélgetés Hankiss Elemérrel az állampolgári részvétel fontosságáról
Az állampolgári részvétel hetének védnöke
where he explains the importance of citizens’ participation and social self-organization, crediting the economic crises as the catalyst of some positive changes in this respect.
Freedom needs courage
“You cannot receive freedom. You have to work for freedom; you have to fight for it. You need courage for freedom because freedom is scary.”
This is an excellent interview that should transcribed and translated
The world is not just
(A világ nem igazságos)
……which turns into a praise of the EU.
Without the moderating effect of the European Union, political life in Hungary would not be civil enough to function. The EU does not care about minimum wage – although it should; it does not care about the number of unemployed – although it should – about the elderly who are not getting adequate home care – although ……… you get the picture