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Viktor Orbán Versus the Enlightenment

In Viktor Orbán's Hungary, anti-immigrant paranoia reigns and basic democratic rights are under assault.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in September 2017. EU2017EE Estonian Presidency / Flickr

Out of 199 seats in the newly elected Hungarian parliament, 159 are now in the hands of the far right (133 for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and 26 for the once-neo-Nazi-now-“national-conservative” Jobbik party in opposition). The rest are divided among various small center-left and center-right parties.

The elections were farcical. Citizens largely received their information from Orbán’s formidable propaganda machine (the media is mostly in the hands of his far-right apparat), with a minority getting their facts from invective-filled anti-Orbán websites (more amusing than persuasive) and from communiqués issued by the squabbling and ineffective opposition parties.

The electoral system is designed for two main blocs, which does not fit the political structure of the country, and there were seven “major” opposition parties competing, so the result was never in doubt. Half of the popular vote went to Orbán. The other half was split between small groups. Opposition party leaders have resigned en masse — not that it matters — and anti-Orbán demonstrations have sprung up, with EU and Hungarian Nazi (Arrow Cross) flags and demands for new elections.

But this is nothing compared to the political (or, more accurately, non-political) character of the “election campaign.”

Orbán, the wily ruler of Hungary — and as a result of his statesmanlike endeavors, rumored to be one of the richest men in Europe, his huge fortune managed (and, formally, owned) by dummy companies and shady middlemen; his family, retainers, flunkeys, and servitors buying up ducal castles and vast landed estates, hotels, harbors, factories, restaurants, tourist resorts, shopping malls, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, internet journals; his firms building motorways, railway lines, sports complexes and restoring palaces and town halls at the public’s expense — achieved victory running on a very substantive policy platform. Regarding the economy, society, health, education, public transport, trade, taxation, etc. his electoral manifesto consisted of one sentence: “We’ll go on as before.” He does not give interviews and participated in no debates.

This was his message to Hungarians:

  1. Hungary will not allow dark-skinned Muslim refugees or immigrants to enter the country, and will resist all forces of “mongrelization” (masquerading as “multiculturalism,” “internationalism,” and “cosmopolitanism”), which seek to destroy “White Christian Europe”;
  2. Hungary will not disarm in the face of “political correctness,” which is nothing more than godless communism;
  3. “Mongrelization,” or the dilution of Hungary’s racial stock, is pushed by the “international Jew,” George Soros, who bankrolls the anti-national, liberal-Bolshevik Hungarian opposition and who will even harm the only kind of Jew we like, the religious Zionist. Our dear friend, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, agrees with us as he, too, hates the Yids;
  4. The European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the western press, the social-democratic, liberal, and Green parties are simple tools in the hands of George Soros — that is, of rootless cosmopolitan Jewry;
  5. Pope Francis is an internationalist liberal Bolshevik;
  6. “Gender madness” or “genderism,” radical feminism,” “human-rightsism,” gay marriage, the Istanbul treaty (which prohibits domestic violence against women and children) — all of these will suppress the Christian family and make “faggotry” the new model of morality;
  7. We shall save Europe from itself, which allows Muslim terrorists and hard-left rioters to plunge it into chaos, unlike the true allies of Christianity like Erdoğan, al-Sisi, Berdimuhamedov, Aliyev, and the rest;
  8. The Roma people — just like Muslims — cannot be integrated because they do not like to work. They ought to be disciplined, separated, segregated, and, if need be, resettled;
  9. Freemasons, illuminati, cultural Marxists, stock-exchange speculators, anarchists, and sundry intellectuals wish to convince us to renounce anti-Romanian revanchism and irredentism because they have, of course, no understanding of our souls;
  10. Our main enemies are journalists and human rights groups in the pay of You-Know-Who.

You may think this is a joke. But it isn’t. It is similar, in a way, to the 1930s, but it is a pastiche, a parody.

A few weeks ago, in a small town in Hungary, two Catholic nuns were stopped on the street and berated by people yelling, “Migrants! Migrants!” After pushing the old ladies a bit, they called the police, believing they had seen Muslim women in a burqa and hijab. The police saved the nuns from the Christian crowd.

A few days earlier, in another small town, a local woman left the hairdressers’. It was raining, and she did not want to ruin her new hairdo, so she covered her head with a shawl. Within a few minutes, a small crowd had gathered in the street, crying, “Migrant! Migrant!” and began shoving the poor woman against a wall. She protested loudly that she was Hungarian, that she could not speak anything but Hungarian, and that she had lived all her life in that little place. Some passersby recognized her and tried to rescue her, but to no avail. Finally the police came and people calmed down. But her hair was ruined.

There are no refugees in Hungary. The country has a zero-immigration policy, and a huge barbed-wire fence sits at the southern border, patrolled by police and the army. Would-be immigrants are kept in detention. The few black people one sees are American or French tourists.

This quotidian hysteria is taking place against the backdrop of mass hysteria launched by the state media and Orbán himself. The Orbán government’s first legislative move is the Stop Soros Act, which will force human rights groups to register as foreign agents and submit to regular police surveillance, fiduciary controls, and punitive taxes. Groups that have absolutely nothing to do with immigration — those looking after Hungarian citizens’ human rights, advocating education and prison reform, representing the homeless and ethnic and religious minorities, etc. — will be persecuted. And this comes on the heels of the shuttering of the biggest newspapers and radio stations and the shanghaiing of television and the largest-circulation internet journal.

You might expect that the opposition tried to block such moves and combat Orbán’s racist propaganda. But no. He was met with a bit of resistance, but was certainly not contradicted.

All opposition parties, including those ostensibly of the Left, have solemnly declared that they would not remove the “race-protecting” border fence and that they reject the EU’s refugee quotas like the Central European right and far right everywhere else (a far right that includes sometimes nominally communist and socialist parties). Protest against round-the-clock Islamophobic and anti-African, racist hysteria has been less and less intense in what remains of the erstwhile left-liberal press, except against the clearly anti-semitic nonsense that presents Soros as the mastermind behind the mass demographic war against white Christian Europe (and against white Israel, of course: Zionism and anti-semitism are becoming perfectly reconcilable).

Similarly, they might criticize the style of the Orbán gang — which expresses open contempt for the poor and, especially, for the Roma — but measures ending segregation or reestablishing scrapped unemployment benefits were nowhere to be found in the opposition’s electoral manifestoes, and some were in favor of keeping the flat tax and repressive labor legislation.

The other main plank of opposition politics, both in Hungary and elsewhere in East and Central Europe, has been “the struggle against corruption.” In Romania and Slovakia, protesters have demonstrated en masse against corruption and political criminality. But these protests are conspicuous for their apolitical (or even anti-political) character. Noble moral energies are squandered on social problems like corruption and crime which have no exclusively moral solutions, and this otherwise admirable moral passion helps to destroy the little that remains of parliamentarism (in Romania, where social movements do little but prop up public prosecutors and the secret services behind them) or to usher in even more dubious parties than the reigning ones (as in Slovakia or in the Czech Republic).

This does not mean that the ruling cliques are not dirty. They are. But in Hungary, this is hopelessly confused with the structural elements of Orbán’s “deep state.” Orbán’s semi-dictatorship (with its purges, blacklists, and suppression of the media), unlike its post-Stalinist predecessor, is not statist or centralizing. Its guiding principles are arbitrary, capricious rule and, above all, informality. The real centers of power in Orbán’s Hungary are formally independent institutions (state foundations, semi-private companies, purportedly private firms living on state credit) that are outside the control of normal government administration and of judicial control as well. Meanwhile, regular administration is being dismantled and well-trained civil servants are being thrown out in droves. Drafting of bills happens behind the backs of ostensibly leading politicians and bureaucrats, and rushed through parliament — usually without discussion. Capital goods are distributed to loyal retainers, which then finance various political maneuvers that will not appear as government expenditures. The frittering away of state power to the advantage and the profit of an informal group of power-holders has created a unique system where pre-capitalist forms of personal dependence are triumphantly returning while the actual policies are ultra-capitalist — a peculiar combination of neoconservatism and mercantilism.

Outside the halls of power, workers’ resistance and popular protest have been replaced by mass emigration, which has given rise to a crazy combination of high unemployment and workforce shortages while contributing to the aging of the population. The flight of doctors and nurses from the country has helped bring the health system to near-total collapse.

In East Central Europe, the demiurge of progress has always been the state: religious toleration, secularism, elimination of the nobility’s privileges and prerogatives, and an end to serfdom were the work of the enlightened absolutist police state of Joseph II and Leopold II against the desperate resistance of the Estates; as late as 1906 the Habsburg court at Vienna attempted a coup d’état in Hungary, in cahoots with radicals and socialists, to force universal suffrage on the reluctant local aristocracy and gentry, who would not allow social-democratic workers’ and “unreliable” national minorities’ (Slavs’ and Romanians’) representatives to sit in the Diet; at the time 6.58 percent of the population had the vote. Land reform, industrialization, literacy, hygiene, public health, properly codified law, a modern transport, and education system were the work of communists.

This kind of enlightened, bureaucratic, anti-democratic but philanthropic and egalitarian regime, born aloft by universalist, anti-nationalist elites, was taken over by “real socialism” in the spirit of Ferdinand Lassalle, who said that socialism was the “fusion of proletariat and science.” Science, technology, planning, unified legality, centralization, a faith in expertise and formal education, careful planning, archives, written documentation, top-down emancipation (equality before a uniform law), impersonal authoritarianism: this is the Austro-Hungarian tradition realized by various universalist elites such as the Catholic Church, the imperial (as distinct from regional) administration, the imperial army, freemasonry, financial capital and, finally, social-democratic and communist parties and the Habsburg Empire’s feeble successor, the European Union.

Anti-communism, in this context, does not mean hostility to revolution, but enmity toward the Enlightenment, that is, to a combination of orderliness, civic equality, hyper-rationalism, and Öffentlichkeit — the public character of politics for which freedom of expression is the ineluctable precondition. (The hated intelligentsia, threatened by the cessation of its livelihood, is mostly silent now, scared to death.) For the Right, rationalism and universalism are to to be opposed, as are class, race, and gender equality; the post-1945 anti-fascist, UN-type covenants of “human rights”; and everything that smacks of the supra-ethnic, including old-style liberal-democratic nationalism and anti-colonialism.

In such a situation, Marxists — fierce critics of the Enlightenment — are left to defend, at least provisionally, such obsolete ideas as natural rights, rational legislation, and Öffentlichkeit. Because even the possibility of a liberal, representative democracy is under assault by quasi-totalitarian, post-fascist propaganda (a mixture of myth-mongering, conspiracy theory, and the latest digital marketing and advertising methods).

Rulers in Europe, especially since 1914, have renounced the Enlightenment and have been using ethnicity against class and ethnic supremacy against equality. Against this, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukács, and Korsch all saw internationalism as the specific trait of socialism. Enlightenment cosmopolitanism and federalism are not identical with this, but there is a link. Fighting for this link is a rearguard action, certainly (we aren’t likely to see another Joseph II soon or perhaps ever), but the case of Hungary proves that even decrepit old Enlightenment is better for the Left than the relativistic, postmodern worship of every ethnic superstition in the name of a faux egalitarianism — which is nothing more than romantic exoticism and Orientalism.