Now us? Now what? Time to take responsibility

Amidst a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Budapest, a well-known Hungarian community organizer and the father of the Critical Mass movement is disappointed that so much of the debate revolves around PM Orbán. Instead, Hungarians should get over blaming the others, wake up from individualism and start talking about better society finally.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ jd {redjade}

After listening to all the speakers at the latest demonstration NowUs! (MostMi!) my thoughts were confirmed: there are no new supplies of opposition; we have to start from zero. In a concealed manner several of the speakers mentioned this, and I liked that, because it is very close to what I think about the situation.kur

Hungarian society, or at least the leftist part of it, lives in an era of consequences: they think they deserve more, they want more, but their fate is more strongly dominated by the consequences of their earlier actions – or the consequences of their missed actions. It can be likened to exams after a semester of partying, or old age on a minimum wage pension.

The apolitical, short-sighted, value-free period of the past 25 years, which lacked any sense of community has suddenly brought its fruits: leaving us with no reserves to help us through this democratic crisis without much trouble. We have even lost that which we never valued before, and have only spotted the treasure, our future in it, when it has already slipped out of our hands. I still hope our generation will get this missed opportunity back, but it is not yet certain. This is not a Sunday afternoon movie cliché with a happy ending. No, it can get still worse. As one of the speakers said, there is no magic knight from a fairy-tale, who is going to step up and save us. Those who imply this, deceive themselves and all others hoping for something better. No, we cannot save ourselves the hard work of self-reflection.

That disappoints me is that we are still talking about Orbán – pros or cons, everything revolves around Orbán. After one speech the crowd became still, and everybody thought ‘Ok, but what is next?’, somebody started to shout ‘Orbán to hell’, and it dissolved the tension caused by the question. However, I believe all sober participants knew, and some speakers even said aloud that there was no substitute. In other words an alternative is not ready yet – not ripened in time. And this is our responsibility.

Time to talk

I actually liked most what many probably saw as the weakest, or least meaningful proposal of all: that ‘now we need to talk’.  I also believe we should start from here. Of course, it would be great to suddenly discover a champion of truth and a real statesman, a perfect speaker lifted on a shield, but unfortunately there is nobody. There is no consensus on whom to regard as a leader, or goals for that matter, and we do not even know what mandate they would get. I personally like this situation, because it means we are only one step away from recognizing our own responsibility. We are so close to this that it may occur any minute. This will be ground zero, which can be a turning point for the Hungarian soul, and a recovery can finally start then. Without this, however, only the ‘to hell’ remains.

Of course, this will certainly take more than one or two years after 25 years of nihilism and the consumed, wasted years of a whole generation that was just partying. I was there, at just 15, when the third Hungarian Republic was proclaimed on October 23rd, 1989, and it was my generation who should have filled these past 25 years with principles and ideas.

Unfortunately, we were there only accidentally, and we did not understand what was happening. We saw some happiness mixed with fear on our parents’ faces. Another mixed emotion came with the “Gorenje fever”, as we joined the rat race of consuming: video players, CDs, DVDs, flat TVs, travel, car, mortgage. This consumer happiness that followed the transition left more and more people with increasingly hard work and debts.

In the beginning there were “teachers and preachers”, who used to have long, boring discussions for hours on late night TV. They understood the nature of the transition, they drew historical parallels, chewed on the experiences of other countries, but the simple people in their homes were already asleep.

After forty years of the “commons”, people were finally thinking about themselves; there was no experience or even need for organizing for a community-based society, or any kind of society for that matter. This did not get packed into our baggage when our generation left home to establish our own families and boost the consumer rat race. This knowledge has not been here for decades, and it seems we cannot transmit it to our successors. Maybe the luckier ones can pass on some wealth, but not a happy country.

We did this to ourselves

Thus, our point zero is really close, and that is recognizing our own responsibility – the fact that we failed, and it was us who failed. We entrusted our politicians with the country, but we should have entrusted them with the representation of our principles in a democracy. However, we had no principles – only desires, and unfortunately, we also had some serious moral problems – from banal to tragic ones, even at the level of the national economy.

We were fare dodging on the metro and trains, we had fake student cards, we copied everything and even had cheap decoders for the cable TV. When we grew up we worked (or made people work) on minimum wage, part time, or “bought” an invoice and did not ask for a receipt; we paid or received bribes or gratuity money, bought disabled cards, fiddled with the sick leave benefit, did black work while being on the dole, or worked white while playing truant; we bought smuggled cigarettes and Slovakian number plates, abused welfare benefits, phoned down or up and ripped off our bosses or our employees.

It is impossible to list the hundreds of tricks. When the business started to take off, we tendered “the smart way”, overpriced goods and services, with a kick back as our own share; we then shifted to offshore when we could, bribed and paid back a percentage, and when that all did not work, we simply filed bankruptcy with the debt.

If we did not or could not do it ourselves, we turned away and let our colleague, friend, relative or neighbor do it. In the meantime, we trashed corrupt politicians, but we also would have failed if we were in their shoes: we would have also let our friends do it. We did not even realize that before the transition we had the “right” to do it, for the past years we elected our own politicians again and again.

Actually we also made politics “the smart way” (okosba). We did not vote on principles and ideas, but for those who promised cheap or free stuff.  We never voted for politicians who wanted to balance the budget, no matter if they came from the right or from the left. The budget? It was just that thing that others pay into and we take out. The European Union? We never, even for a minute looked at what we might contribute to it, but only what we could gain from it. It seemed to be worth it, so we joined “to catch up” with the West. I remember how we marched across the Danube in 2003, tens of thousands of us, on an ugly temporary military bridge, and this was a symbol of accession.

We reached the other side of the river and now we are standing here alone. We have no teachers and preachers anymore, although they are really needed now. Politics, state offices or death took those we had. We still have some great thinkers, but they either live abroad or they sold their brains to business. It is somehow understandable that they do not wish to be part of the “to hell” movement. For the reasons said earlier, everybody has something to hide. So our tax system is based on this – we cheat and they cheat: ‘The rich fears the poor, the poor fears the rich. Cunning fear governs, not phoney hope.’ 1

What now?

We have to realize that we are not alone: there is a nation, a city, a village, a street, a profession, a family, and so on, and we can get further together than we can alone. Even if gravitation decreases and we start to develop, this country will pull us back until we start to pull it up ourselves.

And finally, the most painful thing, which we refuse to admit, because at first sight, and in our current state of mind it is unacceptable: it is not even certain that it will be better in our own lifetimes, but it can be better for our children.

But it will only happen when we switch off the flat screen TV that we just bought and admit our failings to ourselves at last, and then explain to them what we did wrong and what they should do otherwise. When there is this recognition, there will be a lesson, and our children will not be the newer, even more lost generation. We have to explain to them how lucky they are that they can vote, they can organize for their neighborhoods, cities, for cycle paths, for the poor, the sick or simply for each other, because our parents were not allowed to do that.

Thus our mistakes can become their wisdom, and for us it can be real happiness. Therefore, however stupid it may seem, we have to talk. We have no fight with Orbán or Gyurcsány, but we are all our politicians. They will change as we change and will result in a dictatorship, or in freedom. When we are afraid of either of them, we are afraid of ourselves. Every system is the product of the people, even if they don’t like it later.


  1. Attila József: Fatherland (József Attila: Hazám)
Gábor Dezső Kürti

Gábor Dezső Kürti

is the main organiser of the Critical Mass in Budapest.