It is no secret for any observer that democracy is under threat, and from within. The weakening of the labour movement has given free rein to authoritarian market forces, and nowhere is this as true as in Eastern Europe. Here’s a fabulously interesting interview on the new authoritarian regimes, mostly about Hungary, but it applies equally to Poland and a number of states undergoing similar developments. In a recent meeting though, I met a Hungarian activist who told me, in the current conditions, the only thing we can do is constructing commons infrastructure, as local politicians are desperate about the increasing decay of pubic infrastructures and momentarily leave us alone.
This post by Jaroslav Fiala was originally published in Czech on A2larm.cz; the English version is from politicalcritique.org and reposted with permission to republish and digitally distribute, with the full support and consent of the A2larm team as well as their editor in chief, author Jaroslav Fiala.
Jaroslav Fiala speaks to about the brutality of capitalism, Orbán’s Hungary, and the failure of the European system.
Jaroslav Fiala: Recently, Europe has been experiencing dangerous times: the crisis of the Eurozone, terrorist attacks, the rise of the far right, Brexit, and so on. Is liberal democracy in peril?
Gaspár M. Tamás: Nobody can say that liberal democracy has not liberated some people and that some kinds of servitude have not been obliterated. But the current system has run into a number of contradictions. We are experiencing a serious crisis of liberal democracy, which coincides with the “death” of socialism. The necessary condition of liberal democracy was the existence of the workers’ movement. It was the result of a compromise in which, in exchange for inner peace and stability, social democracy had given up some of its revolutionary demands and had become part of the bourgeois state. As a result, the lower classes were represented. The inner balance between classes within Western welfare states, with privileges for the proletariat, its trade unions, social democratic and communist parties and the international equilibrium between reformed and limited capitalism and the Soviet bloc led to what we today call “liberal democracy”, which existed between 1945 and 1989. Western European labour legislation has followed Soviet and socialist legal patterns from the 1920s, so have legal measures concerning gender equality and family law. This is proven by recent legal-historical scholarship.
Paradoxically what is lacking from liberal democracy today, is socialism. This is the reason why there is no countervailing force that keeps liberal democracy democratic. Today’s ruling classes are not threatened from within. Thus, they can do what even fascists wouldn’t dare to do. They are smashing real wages, pensions, welfare systems, public schools, free healthcare, cheap public transport, cheap social housing and so on. Who will stop the ruling class?
Is it possible to save liberal democracy?
I don’t think so. Liberal democracy was an extremely complicated system. The ruling classes in liberal democracy were limited from the left by the workers’ movement and, from the right, by the forces of the past – by the remnants of the aristocracy, of the church and of monarchy. Liberal democracy on its own is unlikely to survive. In spite of what the liberals think, the far right is no danger for capitalism. Danger for life and limb, but not for capital and not for the state. Don’t forget that Adolf Hitler was considered to be the saviour of Western civilization from communism. Even people who despised him, such as Friedrich-August von Hayek – the free market zealot, who was after all an anti-Nazi émigré – claimed that Hitler might have been a monster but that he had saved Europe from communism. For people like Hayek, fascism was a preventive anti-communist counterrevolution. Which it was. That it ruined and exterminated half of Europe? Pity. Do you think the bourgeoisie would hesitate now? I don’t think so.
Paradoxically, what is lacking from liberal democracy today is socialism. This is the reason why there is no countervailing force that keeps liberal democracy democratic.
You live in Hungary. Many from the outside world are horrified by the government of Viktor Orbán, who is annihilating liberal democracy. On the other hand, some people see a certain alternative or an “interesting choice” in Orbán. What would you say to them?
Orbán is doing exactly what you dislike in your own country but since he is doing it without resistance, he seems to be more coherent and successful. There are some admirers of Viktor Orbán in Eastern Europe who wouldn’t put up with his system in Hungary for a single day. They admire his talk about national pride, they find it funny that he would “brutally” attack America, the EU, and so on. In reality, Hungary is sustained by Western European, mostly German capital. We have low taxes for big business, there are “sweetheart deals” for Mercedes and Audi, which aren’t exactly anti-Western or anti-capitalist forces. Orbán destroyed the social system. The hospitals are empty because there are no doctors and nurses. People are dying on the corridors. My little daughter goes to an elementary school in the centre of Budapest, and there is no toilet paper and no chalk to write on the blackboard. Orbán is a miserable failure in all respects. And a neoliberal failure at that. The budget is balanced, the debt is down, and the lower forty per cent are starving. Problems are solved just by silencing criticism.
Why Orbán has been successful as a politician then?
The majority of Hungarians are apathetic, indifferent, and devoid of hope. My country is a very sad place where people say that they can’t do anything in order to forward their aspirations or to change anything. Mr Orbán knows that the secret of success is to support this passivity and apathy. He realized that he should put a stop to the quasi-totalitarian mobilization of society. The first phase of his rule was to mobilize crowds with xenophobic and ethnicist slogans and use extreme militant groups. Now all the mobilization networks have been disbanded, as they could become a voice of social discontent. Orbán has destroyed functional bureaucracy, too. Public administration hardly exists, regional administration is officially and openly and completely terminated. Experts, intellectuals, “enlightened bureaucrats” are fired by their thousands. Inner controls don’t exist anymore. Cultural institutions, publishing, periodicals, research, higher education, quality press, good museums and theatres, art cinematography have been destroyed. So have independent media. The result is a dysfunctional state. So, when someone tells you that dictatorship means “law and order”, you should laugh. It means corruption, disorder, total chaos. And it also means the bitter hopelessness of the body politic, which is the true secret of Orbán’s power.
There has been a lot of criticism of East-Central European countries because of their refusal of solidarity with refugees from the Middle East and Africa. But if we look to the West, there is a lot of racism and resistance towards the refugees as well. What has happened in Europe?
The same causes that explain Western racism have appeared immediately in Eastern Europe and have caused identical phenomena. First, the multinational states of East-Central Europe like Masaryk’s and Havel’s Czechoslovakia and Tito’s Yugoslavia had vanished. We have created small, ethnic, monocultural, monolingual non-republics, in which we are supposed to live.
After 1989, it seemed to us that in this part of the world, the normal shape of a state is one that is inhabited by a single ethnic group. Still, Prague and Budapest are full of rich but non-white people, tourists and business people settle here, and nobody is objecting. They are not beaten up as racial inferiors. There is no racial antipathy. Rich people don’t count as aliens, as Muslims, as blacks, as migrants…
You mean there is also class hatred…
For the European poor, refugees are competitors on the labour market. They are considered “welfare rivals”, and the result is social and moral panic. But the anti-refugee hysteria is not totally crazy. The mass influx of refugees would be a great burden on the welfare system, especially in Central-Eastern Europe. These are poor countries. Of course, the problem could be solved. But when you see that our welfare system as it is now cannot take care of our own populations, can you imagine what will happen? The current Hungarian government is not able to sustain railways, post offices, elementary schools that have existed for two hundred years. People know perfectly well that their states are not functioning. The panic is explained by the conservative intelligentsia in culturalist or openly racist terms. Although the problem is the depletion of the welfare state and of social solidarity and a rigid, anti-popular class politics. Racializing and ethnicizing social inequalities is the oldest tactic of the bourgeoisie. In America, “unemployed” has been made to mean “black”, in Eastern Europe, “unemployed” means “Roma” or “Gypsy”. Recipients of “welfare”, of unemployment benefit, of social assistance of any kind are classified as “criminal elements”, “single mothers” (i. e. “immoral women”) and, again, coloured people. Even indigents, members of the underclass are tolerant of the destruction of the welfare structure which is clearly advantageous to them, because it hurts racial aliens.
What should be the reaction of the left to this state of panic?
If we had a compassionate and egalitarian welfare system, we could enlarge it, and accept refugees. But at the same time, let’s be fair to ourselves. Am I or are you responsible for the dismantling of the welfare system? The responsibility rests with the ruling classes and political elites of the last thirty years. And if someone says, “You cannot just open the frontiers because you will destroy the fabric of society”, you can reply, “The fabric of society has already been destroyed, and this is why it is so difficult to welcome refugees. And this is the fault of the establishment”. Unfortunately, it is my generation that created this 100% capitalist utopia in East-Central Europe that does not exist anywhere in this radical form, certainly not in the West. The Czech Republic is more of a market society than Austria or Britain. Unlike what the liberals say, the rule of the market in East Central Europe is absolute and complete. If we are so-called serious intellectuals, we have to be objective, and recognize that our societies are facing insoluble problems. How can people show solidarity in a system which is not solidary at all, which is selfishness itself? Many politicians in today’s Europe, especially on the far right, promise some sort of welfare state, but only for “hard-working”, home-grown, respectful white people.
But the point is that they won’t do it. This is just talk. These are middle class movements that fear and despise the lower classes and the poor. They are open partisans of the class society – class warriors from above. They aren’t proposing anything new, they are just defending the repression, the exploitation and the injustice of today. Look at the situation in Poland or in Hungary. Have these societies had become more generous, more cohesive, and more collectivist at least within the white middle class? Of course not. This is just rhetoric.
Why do the people still believe in their promises?
There is no real left. A famous quote says: Every extreme right victory shows the failure of the left. And the remnants of the traditional working class have changed as well. 90% of the Austrian industrial working class voted for Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate. But this is only 10% of the whole working population in Austria. This has become a relatively privileged group, which is defending its own class position against competitors on the labour market – against refugees, against the unemployed, against migrants and against women who’d work for less. Voters are blaming women, ethnic minorities and migrants, instead of demanding to be integrated into a higher wage/dole/pensions system. But for being integrated into a higher wage system, you need a strong left social democracy, which does not exist.
We need a countervailing power to present-day capitalism in order to insure, simply, the survival of humankind. Capitalism left on its own obviously cannot and will not do it.
Could a strong left-wing social democracy be created again?
Hardly. If a new left of any kind will come into existence, it will have to represent and to mobilize not only the remnants of the old industrial working class, but a much larger mass of people, the complete proletariat-precariat without capital property. If not, these people will become something like the ancient Roman proletariat. They will be kept alive by gifts, state donations, and spectator sports. They might become a reactionary force serving the interests of tyrants. That was the role of the “proletariat” in the late Roman republic and the early Roman Empire. We may end up in a society torn apart by competing class egotisms that will be uglier than what we have now. We are sitting here in the beautiful sunshine of Prague, it is quiet, pretty, and still there is peace. But so it was in June 1914. It was also very peaceful. The crash of whatever nature may not come today, it may come in ten years. But the system is highly unstable. That is the lesson of all of this.
Who are the main enemies of Europe today?
All governments of Europe, without exception. The riders of the apocalypse. They don’t know what they are doing. The conservative leaders of the past, however nasty they might have been otherwise, had some traditional sense of what you “don’t play with”. You do not play with your country, however defined, just for the hell of it. Look at people like David Cameron, François Hollande, Miloš Zeman. These people have no idea, they’re just blundering around. This is really serious. Then look at all the decadence around us – the falling intellectual level of most institutions, the general cultural crisis and illiteracy of the middle class, including so-called professionals and so-called intellectuals. We need a countervailing power to present-day capitalism in order to insure, simply, the survival of humankind. Capitalism left on its own obviously cannot and will not do it. This is not the old and bad bourgeois system. It is much worse. We must create new political structures, if there is still time for it. I am not at all certain that there is.
Photo credits: MTI/Mohai Balázs