Faces of hope for Hungary

A discussion with Bálint Misetics, an outstanding young intellectual and radical activist, one of the few representatives of the “new left” in Hungary.

Photo: Márti Mészáros


There are some exciting critical, radical, leftist and alternative movements in Hungary and the region. However, a critical mass is still missing: the number of these young activists, educated in the West, bringing back attitudes painfully missing in the current political spectrum is very low. These young social innovators are marginalized in public discourse. I asked him why.

Where are the others?

There are a few others, but I agree, not that many social scientists or intellectuals make the effort to go beyond publishing in academic journals, and get out to work as activists, like we are trying to do at The City is for All, 1 working together with homeless people. It is a rather small activist group, but it is very important as an experiment in mutual learning. We get to learn a lot about the actual experience of homelessness, and we bring in return our social scientific knowledge, which is instrumental in the formulation of alternative critical understandings of, and solutions to, poverty and homelessness.

This is one of the first things you learn at any UK university: credible social science cannot move to ivory towers. We not only describe the world but change it – it is a basic moral standard for western social scientists. All my professors in Bristol do activist work. Where is it in Hungary? Do you think young people simply can’t afford to volunteer? Or do they fear that their career is at risk?

I wouldn’t idealize the Western academia that way: I don’t think that this is only a problem in Hungary or the region. I do agree however that we could use a lot more of a certain civic (or activist) understanding of what it means to study social sciences or to be an intellectual in general. There are also those, of course, who stay abroad after their studies, or just haven’t returned yet.

Come on, I left for my first US scholarship in 1990 – it has been 25 years since we started going abroad to study and came back.

Sure, but I wouldn’t restrict this problem to those who had the privilege of studying abroad. Most of the important things one can do, as an intellectual does not require a foreign education. The issue is much broader than that, but in general there is certainly a financial, existential risk. Many risk a lot if they speak up. People in various positions have a lot to lose, not only as individuals, but they might be also responsible for their institutions, departments – they can’t go out and participate in radical anti-poverty demos because the next day their work at the university would be at risk, which then risks the education of their students as well.

Another source of such social activism could be political science students, but here in Hungary at least, this discipline was mostly turned into a rather uncritical and unimaginative subject called “politológia” which is studied by a lot of students, but has few discernible effects on anything.

They are breeding schools for parties, mostly…

Yes, partially, I suppose. Another reason is that it is hard to take on a public role as an intellectual when your arguments are completely ignored, even if a professional organization – i.e. the Alliance for Social Professionals – makes a statement, based on purely professional concerns, it is swept down as “politically motivated”. It used to be that these statements had some weight, and governments at least used to respond. These days even speaking at a government organized conference brings up moral dilemmas for distinguished scientists as it may be seen as collaboration with an anti-democratic or anti-poor regime. The same goes for the case of segregation: if the official position of the ministry is that segregation 2 is acceptable, in fact desirable, then there is not much room for an intellectual dialogue.

In the UK, the government still turns to universities if they want to make evidence based policy decisions. They commission studies, consult, ask for evaluation from independent scientific bodies. This has never really existed here but now it is just unthinkable.

That is true. Unfortunately though, we also have a shortage of critical intellectuals or activists in the opposition media. How ironic is it when the live coverage of a student protest by a major liberal media outlet is commented on by former PM Gyurcsány or former Minister of Interior Kuncze?

A lot of things can be blamed on the government, the quality of public discourse in the liberal media, not so much; so that needs to be changed. My friend and fellow activist Tessza Udvarhelyi and I are trying to do our part in this with a radio program called “A Breath of Air!” 3– a program about oppression and resistance.

There is still a way to reach a compromise, reach across the aisle, at least among civil society actors. But these are rare. A radical leftist youngster comes home from the West, full of ideas and dedication and there is simply no dialogue. His/her ambitions are frozen. How will Hungary benefit then from his/her knowledge and commitment?

I don’t think that real social change ever came, or can ever come from experts or intellectuals, alone. But in terms of these roles, there is obviously no point in assisting government propaganda. We do go and attend government conferences sometimes, but not to speak – to sabotage instead. The framework set up by government bodies leaves no room for true dialogue in the intellectual or moral sense. However, when there is a local situation, for example in a Budapest district, Zugló, where power relations are more balanced and we are asked to work with the local authorities, I am happy to participate, in this case, in the development of a new system of local social policy. The poverty discourse and policy decisions have so badly gone to the right in Hungary that it makes it easy for leftist and liberal policy experts to work together on such a project. The point is that power relations must be more balanced in order to have real dialogue. Now this is simply not given at the national level.

Photo: Gabriella Csoszó

Photo: Gabriella Csoszó

Does it also mean that you consider the current parliament illegitimate? That should be the place for policy debates at the national level.

Yes, the only morally right decision from the perspective of a consistent political philosophy would have been to boycott these elections. Of course, the opposition is nowhere near the necessary moral state of mind or organizational capacities to do that. If they were, they could also win an election. While the work of most opposition MPs are not visible, some are using their office more efficiently, which is important even if it has no immediate material effects. For example, András Schiffer, the leader of LMP, has spoken around 200 times since 2014, often reaching part of the wider public with important issues, while former PM Gyurcsány has not once.

It also shows what you can expect of the various opposition parties in a normal, functioning parliament: how much they will invest, care and work.

Many of us chose to withdraw: to the library, to field work, some to street protest. Do you think a new left will grow out of these scenes? Will these bright, engaged young people break through the wall of complete apathy on both sides if they are so few and weak? How long will it take?

I can only speak for myself. For me, withdrawal is not an option. So I use these rare windows of opportunity like Zugló to do whatever is possible within the actual constraints, through some sort of “radical incrementalism.” I don’t know where a new left will grow from. Personally I think that it is some sort of broadly understood “organic intellectual” role that is most promising in this respect. For us, it is both a great source of inspiration and a reality check to work directly with homeless people.

It should be a normal function of NGOs: you do advocacy work which is fertilized by field work – and provides feedback to it – a mutually fruitful relationship.

Well this more political approach is not so widespread, because in Hungary, NGO work has usually concentrated on taking over the defunct activity of the state, without forcing it to provide that function. Like the after school clubs for Roma kids: they partially take over the key function of providing a decent education, which is extremely important, of course, but at the same time the state avoids this responsibility and continues segregating Roma students. The same goes for homelessness, where a whole shelter industry has emerged, while the structural causes of homelessness remain unaddressed. So our work is looking at the long term – at the structural changes.

Back in the 90s I was already criticizing that instead of building up advocacy NGOs, US donor money was simply being spent on services. When they exited, we were left with no functioning civil society. Now we see the results: right before our eyes, the spine of democracy is broken exactly because we lack a strong, genuine civil society. Instead, we have a professional, institutionalized nonprofit economy, service providers but no civil society. The fabric of an existing civil society would not have allowed what is happening in Hungary.

Absolutely. In terms of constitutional democracy, the 4th amendment of the Constitution 4 was the final stab. There was a protest against it in the form of civil disobedience – known by the slogan: “The Constitution is not a plaything” – which was organized by a handful of us. If a few strong, respected NGOs stood up and protested each issue that was affected by the amendment, a massive protest could have resulted; and even if it was ineffective, it still would have mattered, because it is partially through these very protests that the political culture of the post-Orbán era will be formed. If there is anything positive about the regime, it is that it had some positive effect on the way we think about poverty, homelessness, migrants, women, or even the flat tax, which used to be the liberals’ flagship policy proposal. It revealed the social consequences and moral corruption of certain approaches, and we can no longer think about these issues the same way as before Orbán’s government.

Are you saying that not only politics but also policy can by shaped on the streets? Does that really hit the threshold of people’s interest? Do they care about the homeless? I don’t see that. Poverty maybe, as the middle class feels they are slipping down, but it creates hatred against the underclass, rather than solidarity. But even if they care, how will this change the regime?

I think that what people care about is not only the precondition of political action but also the consequence – the stake of it. Even some people who participated in our civil disobedience action against the 4th amendment asked us first what it was all about. Yes, you need to explain why it matters that the regime restricts the power of the Constitutional Court, because it is not self-explanatory. This work cannot be helped, but this is not an excuse for not doing anything because, for example, “people do not care about the constitution.” This is what politics is all about.

Of course this sense of urgency concerning the ongoing abolition of constitutional democracy, or the well-founded worries about how detrimental Fidesz’ policies are does not come without unfortunate side effects. One of the things it has led to is the survival, politically speaking, of the pre-2010 political elite. Orbán saved the neoliberal “socialist” party and its leaders from an even more serious collapse and marginalization.

Photo: Alkotmány nem Játék

Photo: Bálint Misetics

But doesn’t it worry you? That they can come back without the tiniest little change or any self-reflection? People simply vote them back in without forcing them to think and act? Fidesz will help them come back.

The fact that ex-PM Bajnai is perceived as a savior is thanks to Fidesz. But I think that is over now; the 2014 elections was a huge failure for the opposition – at that point it was not the return of the “socialists” that I was worried about, but the continuance of the Orbán regime. The current liberal opposition seems to be incapable of overturning this regime. And of course there is Jobbik as well.

Yes, at this point we have to talk about Jobbik. I think all of these forces are backing Jobbik, both in terms of a lack of ideas and energy. As I see it, intellectuals are simply afraid of imagining the real option of Jobbik winning. 5 I don’t think people see the real danger. Jobbik has a kind of movement that is missing around the left.

Even if there was a strong new leftist movement, it would not guarantee any change of the discredited “socialist” political establishment. I think a new party would emerge before any movement could make the “socialists” change. As for Jobbik? Yes, Fidesz actually implements many of their demands. Just look at segregation in the schools or the detention of migrants. You don’t even need Jobbik for that. Part of the extreme right’s support probably comes from the anger, frustration, and anti-establishment sentiment that could and should be channeled by the left.

As opposed to the pre-1990 state capitalist regimes, where it was rather obvious who was politically responsible for the economic or social woes, capitalist democracies’ power relations are more obscure and politics is, to a large extent, about channeling this frustration into appropriate channels and toward egalitarian ends. Not only is poverty extreme in Hungary, even in comparison to the other Visegrád countries, widespread material insecurity is prominent, affecting around the three-fourths of the population. So there is a lot of frustration and justified anger, and the question then is what or who is responsible for it? The welfare-scrounger, the unemployed or the Roma? The Banks? The immigrants? Capitalism? Gyurcsány? Or Orbán and the disastrous economic and social policies of his regime?

That is a huge difference. There is a big leap from personalizing this anger expressed by the slogan “Orbán to hell” to a more abstract level; “the system is to blame” is not a slogan. Yes, this is a task as well: take this anger closer to reality and then away from the person. It is not the minister of education but the system of education, even if the minister symbolizes the system.

Yes, the personalization of political agendas is dangerous. But the key issue here is that those who are frustrated by the social conditions, and hate the establishment have to be provided a constructive way to express their sentiments, pointing out real responsibilities.

Voters now say that Jobbik was not part of the past, that it is radical, and that it is becoming more and more acceptable and presentable. Why not vote for them? It seems obvious for me that the masses will get to that point soon and I know that even in the elite districts of Buda, they will put an X to Jobbik if they are unhappy with Fidesz.

Yes, we should try to build up an alternative against that on the left.

In other words: you have no answer to Jobbik.

(Silence.)

My answer is that if there was a strong left, then first of all, we would have a potent opposition, not only to Fidesz, but to Jobbik as well; and some of these people with anti-establishment sentiments could perhaps also find their political home there, and not at Jobbik.

And, in lack of it?

The task is to create one. It is very hard. There is hope that Jobbik’s Russian affiliation will turn people away, and that they can’t maintain this dual image of being a decent mainstream conservative party but constantly spewing stories of Nazi talk, Nazi tattoos on candidates, etc.

Photo: A Város Mindenkié

Photo: A Város Mindenkié

What if Ózd becomes the Zugló of Jobbik?  6 What if they are able to show that some radical policies actually “solve” some of the issues? OK, not really, but seemingly that makes locals happy: send the Roma to forced public labor, clean up streets with an extreme police presence, etc.

I don’t think that it would work in the longer run, even politically, because you cannot make Ózd more livable this way. They might make a point, but it will not make Ózd more livable for most of its residents. And even without Jobbik, Roma Hungarians are pulled aside and fined by the police for 50.000 HUF for not having a safety visibility vest or a helmet while riding their bikes. Pure pointed harassment. You don’t need a Jobbik mayor for that, it is business as usual in certain parts of the country.

Many say that Hungary has been a laboratory for testing some “unorthodox” policies. What’s the lesson for the V4 region?

We should talk to each other more! There is so little exchange among Visegrád activists or intellectuals. The knowledge transfer is not so intense within the region as from the ivory towers of the UK and US universities and back. What a waste. Of course, these can also be useful, but we could learn more from each other I think. The Hungarian left especially should intensely turn towards the new leftist movements in the region. By the way, the cooperation of Danubian people has been a long-standing dream of the historical Left in Hungary.

I couldn’t agree more. In Hungary, my passion for V4 is kind of smiled at. It is not cool. We should facilitate knowledge exchange within the region, and beyond: between the Nordics and V4. There is so much to learn with such very concrete, tested best practices that could save us tons of trial and error. One of my greatest frustrations is that not even top intellectuals in Bratislava know the key people from Hungary: they still invite Konrád and Bokros 7 to explain what is going on here, which makes me want to cry and laugh.

Ironically though, the deeper we, in Hungary, slide into poverty and stupidity, other V4 countries are emerging as positive examples. I know it is sad. (Laughs) I think we could also learn a lot from movements in the region, such as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland.

Workshops around key issues with activists from the region would help the small Hungarian activist community, and vice versa. Well-designed seminars could be very useful: right to housing activists, anti-corruption groups, feminist movements, greens, etc. learning together and from each other. There has been some joint meetings like that recently, usually supported by the Böll Foundation, FES or OSI, but we would need more of that, and via our own initiatives.

Another important thing about activism is related to Bibó’s famous argument: if the handling of public matters is in the hands of unworthy people, it is because of a lack of initiative on the part of decent citizens. And it is not only true for those in power, but also for the opposition. Discredited, intellectually lazy politicians will only disappear from the scene if we realize that civil society and party politics should not be understood in dichotomous terms. I am referring to that apolitical misunderstanding of civil society, which I believe has played a significant role in getting us here. For example, what an amazing victory for civil society that a new party appeared in parliament in 2010 (LMP) without being part of the deeply rotten and corrupt party financing system!

We should finally get over this artificial distinction. It is quite comical to hear a trade union leader start his speech by saying, “We are not here to do politics,” and then in his next sentence start listing political demands, like raising the wages. This is a joke. Trade unionism and wage demands are politics. Taking part in politics is still looked upon with suspicion, which is very dangerous. If it wasn’t derogatory for István Bibó, Anna Kéthly, Oszkár Jászi, Attila József or Ottília Solt to be party members, then it shouldn’t be for us either.

I agree. The hatred is so overwhelming that most NGOs simply hate all politicians, regardless of what they stand for. If we had a Havel, it would be very different: he set a moral standard which continues to be a standard even for politicians.

As one of my fellow activists has said: when an activist becomes a politician it equals saying: “From now on, everyone, including my own friends can throw rubbish at me!” Unfortunately, this kind of hatred also washes differences away: how can you treat all the parties the same way, or even all the parties on the “left”? Of course it helps if there are many new and credible faces, which was the case in 2010, but not so much anymore.

Notes:

  1. The City is for All website
  2. Segregation of Roma kids in schools, recently backed by a court ruling
  3. “A Breath of Air” refers to a famous poem by Attila József, the proletarian poet of the 1930s. See the poem in English translation here, in German, French, Slovakian and Spanish translation here.
  4. This amendment criminalized homelessness, limited political advertising, defined marriage as unity between man and woman, introduced obligations for students to work in Hungary in exchange of the costs of their studies and restricted the authority of the Constitutional court among many others.
  5. The interview was conducted before Jobbik won its first SMD seat
  6. Zugló is a district lead by opposition mayor Karácsony, making news with some of their innovative social policies. Ózd is lead by a young Jobbik mayor, also introducing radically new policies.
  7. György Konrád, writer, 1933- and Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance, introducing an infamous brutal austerity package in Hungary in 1995
Katalin Ertsey

Katalin Ertsey

is a strategic advisor of the ICDT. She recently launched Capilano Women, which champions female leaders’ involvement on company boards.

Bálint Misetic

Bálint Misetic

studied social sciences in Hungary and the US and got his Masters degree in social policy at Oxford. He is a founding member of homeless activist group The City is For All, and has been also active in the pro-democracy protests of the past years. Misetics and his colleague Tessza Udvarhelyi was recently asked by Klubrádió, a popular channel of the traditional left to run a program devoted to new leftist ideas, reaching a mainstream public for the first time.