"Hungary comes first with us." Victor Orban electoral campaign poster in Miskolc, Hungary, March 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved. The last couple of years have seen a worrisome trend of rising illiberalism across democratic societies. President Trump’s victory, the Brexit vote, emerging right-wing forces in Germany – these are all examples that the liberal democratic consensus is in serious crisis.
The case of Hungary, whose fall into illiberalism starting in 2010, preceding all others, offers key lessons to understanding the causes of this crisis. After gradually coming to terms with the nature of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime, the international community has once again been shocked by the results of the Hungarian elections in April. However, most observers seem to utterly miss the angle that makes the story of Hungary's last decades a case-study with international implications. Most observers utterly miss the angle that makes the story of Hungary's last decades a case-study with international implications.
Viktor Orban’s electoral victories did not happen in a vacuum – they were direct consequences of the disillusionment that most Hungarians felt after 20 years of democracy. In the wake of the fall of communism, the early 1990s made Hungary the poster child for the post-communist transition: free-market capitalism backed by democratic institutions was swiftly adopted, and after a sluggish start, the economy experienced stable growth.
All this change was led by urban, technocratic elites, who as ardent followers of the neoliberal orthodoxy, promised people that Hungary would catch-up with the west in 15 years. As good students of the then dominant deregulation theory they focused all their energy on creating a textbook neoliberal wonderland: austerity measures, privatization, deregulation, and courtship of multinational corporations ruled the land. As a result, the country consistently ranked high in international rankings. So what went wrong, what made people turn to a rising autocrat? As a result, the country consistently ranked high in international rankings. So what went wrong, what made people turn to a rising autocrat?
In fact, not far under this enthusiastic surface a different story entirely had been developing. While on a superficial level Hungary looked like a fairytale of a free-market transition, the social conditions of the majority of the population entered a spiralling decline.
As unchecked privatization and deregulation gave all the fruits of growth to multinational corporations and their small upper-middle class workforce, austerity measures took a heavy toll on the education and health-care systems. Accordingly, social mobility froze, and millions found their dreams for a better life crushed. The biggest victims of these trends were working-class and small town communities. Forsaken by the triumphant public discussions, these people’s everyday reality was steadily rising mortality rates, crumbling hospitals, and schools, structural unemployment, and status anxiety.
Meanwhile, the ruling liberal elites seemed to be living in a bubble – they arrogantly denied even the existence of these severe social problems and viewed struggling communities as groups of backward Joe Six-Packs. No wonder that further strained by the global recession, voters wanted radical change. Enter Viktor Orban, whose illiberalism brought total state capture and wealth accumulation in favor of his inner circles. Meanwhile, the ruling liberal elites seemed to be living in a bubble – they… viewed struggling communities as groups of backward Joe Six-Packs.
So an illiberal turn has the following ingredients:
– neoliberal deregulation led by a technocratic elite living in a bubble of detachment;
– masses left behind in their struggle and despair putting all their hopes in a rising strongman;
– hatred for the distant and ignorant elites and their cultural norms.
In the light of President’s Trump rise to power, this may sound profoundly familiar. My personal experiences confirm this: in 2016, just days before the presidential elections, I spent some days in the small working-class towns of Southern Iowa. The stories I heard from locals strongly echoed the ones I heard several times in the Hungarian countryside. Popular resentment rooted in economic anxiety, and strengthened by a hatred for the distant and ignorant elites and their cultural norms, are all symptoms that could be observed in such different countries as the US and Hungary. Thus, while democratic traditions and a healthy middle class may provide shields against undemocratic turns, they are unable to halt the threat if social cohesion is severely undermined as has happened in the US and other western countries. Neoliberal practices open the door to undemocratic forces.
Because the best environment for the rise of illiberalism is unchecked, deregulated capitalism, the final objective of neoliberalism. By ruining the social fabric and postwar consensus of modern western societies, neoliberal practices open the door to undemocratic forces. Hence, capitalism without oversight has the inherent possibility to destroy democracy – no matter how long it has been functioning in a given country.
So the lesson is clear: unless we create socially and economically inclusive societies, our freedoms will always be exposed to the attacks of extremist strongmen. In the last eight years, my country has been learning this lesson the hard way. I hope that her example will help others avoid a similar fate.