Screenshot: International Women’s Strike in Budapest organised by Rhythms of Resistance on March 8th 2017. Fair use.As queer-feminist activists we are used to dealing with the right-wing media’s attacks on our activities and communities. However, reading an article published on openDemocracy this April engaging in a similar kind of “critique” – was shocking. Not because transnational activism is, or should be, immune to criticism. Rather because the authors of “Virtue-signalling as a route to social status” engage in an under-researched, vehement attack on grassroots activist groups based in Hungary using misrepresentations of the local activist context aimed at burning the bridges of transnational solidarity meticulously built over recent years.
Therefore, we are writing this response to critically tackle several of the problematic claims the authors make and correct the falsehoods they have spread.
We contest the authors’ claim of an exclusive right to accurately represent the Hungarian context. We argue that this claim rests on two types of misrepresentation. First, they give an unsubstantiated caricature picture of local struggles. Second, their article misrepresents, sidelines, or straightforwardly denies the existence/importance of numerous cleavages, the salience of racism and a colonial past in structuring the current political context in Hungary. Finally, beyond the article’s effect in misrepresenting the activist communities we are part of and pitting political agendas against each other, this kind of argumentation is detrimental to a local context the authors persistently silence.
Misrepresenting activist communities: selective mobilisation of evidence
Fero and Bajusz’s article could almost pass for a leftist, anti-capitalist, or even queer critique of “western” appropriation of Hungarian activist politics, if it were not for some glaring inconsistencies that should alert the reader. It promises to present the voice from the semi-periphery; the subaltern can finally speak! But at a closer look, the authors appear to talk on behalf of ‘the majority of Hungarian women’. Do the majority of Hungarian women have uniform interests? Or is it inevitable that such an approach ignores the diversity of their identities, social and economic standing?
The authors are well-versed in theoretical language. They use Nancy Fraser’s work on recognition and redistribution, cite Jasbir Puar when talking about homonationalism, and employ the world-systems-theory framework to back up their foray into what is actually a small part of the local activist landscape. Nevertheless these critical theories are cited without any serious engagement with their genealogies, political positioning, implications, or laying out relations between them and not backed up by any empirical analysis; its sources comprise a selective reading of social media posts and random online conversations lumped together under big theoretical themes like “westernization,” “virtue-signaling,” “universalism,” etc.
Even the image used to illustrate the article is not from the public event they describe: not the International Women’s Strike in Budapest organised by Rhythms of Resistance on March 8th 2017, but from the Women’s March on Budapest that happened on January 21st 2017 in relation to the Women’s March on Washington and organised by a completely different group. [Apologies – flagged up early on by commenters, this misleading mistake was entirely due to the editor.]
The article directly attacks several related local initiatives for their transnational membership: Rhythms of Resistance, Klit, and the latter’s feminist self-defense trainings. Throughout the years, these activities have engaged people from many different backgrounds residing in Budapest, some Hungarian, some coming from neighbouring countries, some from the ex-ostbloc, including from countries where Hungary is already considered part of the “west” (Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan). Some of us are students (coming from CEU, ELTE or other local uni’s), some of us workers, some of us perfectly speak Hungarian as a native language or after learning it, some of us use English, always our second or third language.
Our collectives and extended network of comrades have consistently been under the scrutiny of far right groups, and sometimes directly attacked. The fact that we never publicized the address of our community space is not unintentional. The fact that we felt the need to train ourselves in self-defense techniques and ensure a safer space for other participants is not something to be taken lightly, either as a joke, or as a pretentious whim to show off our “virtues”.
In this context it is especially damaging that the authors in their conclusion directly link the (ongoing) right-wing attacks on reproductive justice, gender education, and other feminist initiatives to the International Women’s Strike. They blame the local branch of this grassroots movement joined by 54 countries worldwide – with the call for a general strike coming from Argentina, and inspired by the Black Protest in Poland – for the apparent exacerbation of anti-gender mobilization, especially that targeting the opening of the gender studies department at the Eötvös Loránd Science University and the Istanbul Convention (both addressed by local speakers of the demonstration).
The problem is that Fero and Bajusz confuse cause and effect. Right-wing media have been negatively reporting on both of those instances repeatedly. The accusation that any action taken against those discriminatory measures provides “the Hungarian right with an ample opportunity to forge their own political capital” – can only be destructive to the feminist/anti-fascist cause and crucial alliances that need to be forged in these times of an increased government crackdown on women, Roma, migrants, asylum seekers, workers, and most recently NGOs and universities.
Misrepresenting the Hungarian political context: selective historical memory and silencing of ongoing struggles
Although the authors spare much ink criticizing transnational activists for their apparent lack of knowledge about the local context of Hungary, their own standpoint on that context is too limited. It disregards many marginalised groups deemed insignificant for pursuing the kinds of feminist politics they want to rescue from the grip of “ideological constraints” of “westernization” perpetuated by what they consider “fashionable forms of intersectionality.” While non-Hungarian activists are labelled “western” colonizers, local Hungarian activists who do not share the authors’ views are either omitted from their narrative or presented as “self-colonizing.” You just can’t win.
They say Hungary was always occupied, but never an occupier (“Hungary having neither a sizeable black minority nor a colonial past”). But leaving aside Hungary's occupation practices during the Second World War, throughout its history as part of the Habsburg empire, Hungary participated in European colonial interventions. For example, the Habsburg Empire’s navy was under Hungarian command and was instrumental in colonial endeavours reaching as far as Mexico. Or take Hungary’s role in the occupation and administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late nineteenth century, or its establishment of colonies in China in the early twentieth century.
These historical omissions not only posit Hungary as a victim of western powers and absolve it of any responsibility it has for benefiting from colonialism, but they also align the authors with a binary nationalist rhetoric instrumentalized by the Hungarian government.
More disturbingly, we learn that racism is not an issue in Hungary because “cultural codes are much more direct markers of marginality than skin colour or phenotype,” and that fascism is not a real threat these days (“whoever the fascists are supposed to be”). These arguments boil down to a peculiar quantitative approach in which issues of race, class, gender identity, sexuality are not relevant to an imagined “majority” of Hungarian women.
This approach completely wipes out the large Hungarian Roma community from the picture, as well other people of colour who do live in Hungary, and disregards the strong anti-migrant propaganda and measures employed by the Fidesz government based on white supremacist principles. The inhumane ways in which the authorities have handled the refugee crisis, border violence, and the introduction of harsher and harsher measures, detention and imprisonment of asylum seekers give a very different context for local organising than the one presented by Fero and Bajusz.
The authors state that transphobia and sex workers’ rights are issues “completely alien to the lived reality of most Hungarian women as they focus on tiny minorities from an individualist, identitarian perspective that serves to hide structural issues.” Already the use of terms such as “transgenderism,” or the reduction of trans and sex worker activism to “individualist” and “identitarian” stances shows ignorance of the lived realities of groups the authors themselves don’t identify with, helping to render their marginalization and oppression within society invisible, and downplaying the extent to which this is indeed about material conditions and class relations.
By completely denying how trans folks face more patriarchal violence, and by delegitimizing trans activism as an “alien” and “western” concept, the authors further reinforce oppression and erase hardwon organizing for trans rights and liberation, precisely against western colonial hangovers. This approach denies the ways in which cisheterosexist traditional roles have been an integral part of European cultures, including that of Hungary. Transphobia itself has been traditionally a European and Hungarian “value”, reinforced upon people and cultures that for centuries have been doing gender differently.
It is global capitalism that pushes the most exploited women, queer and trans folks, who are most often also racialized, towards the margins of society, allowing them to abuse and punish us, denying our existence, taking away our jobs, our homes, our communities. The fact that the authors reject a similarly urgent need to stand for (sex) workers’ rights is telling – it directly contributes to sabotaging some of our survival strategies and means of economic resistance. This is not to deny that exploitation happens in the sex industry, but rather that any push for criminalization and advancement of the prison industrial complex in the name of “saving” people further affect the lives of the most precarious.
The same abolitionist rhetoric the authors are employing, together with mainstream anti-trafficking (read: anti-sex work/ers) discourses, have been used in western countries to target the most vulnerable migrant sex workers – to be punished, incarcerated, deported. This is a reality sex workers in the east have longed talked about, and mobilized against. Incarceration and deportation of migrant sex workers in the name of “rescuing” and “freeing them from prostitution” equally speaks to nationalisms and anti-migration /anti-foreigners movements, reinforcing border violence and imperialism. Such political positioning and activism does nothing to stop the violence.
Local trans activists and sex workers’ rights activists in Hungary have suffered in the last years a long series of attacks from the far right. However more disappointing are the attacks from other people, mainstream feminist and LGBT groups and organizations that one would rather expect to act as allies. The two authors have a history of launching online attacks against local sex workers’ rights or trans activists.
Why misrepresentations hurt and what can be done
We have to ask who gets to speak for whom, whose voice is legitimized? Is being Hungarian/a non-foreigner, white of course, and perfectly fluent in Hungarian a strict prerequisite to understanding the context we live in, and the legitimacy of one’s political work?
Within the limited framework proposed by Bajusz and Fero and their claim to “representational legitimacy,” not only is transregional and transnational activism blamed for the prominence of the anti-gender agenda of the Hungarian right, but locals who are not part of the white middle-class cisgender “Hungarian majority” are silenced and dismissed. Every form of struggle and activism not pertaining to this majority is deemed as predicated on “westernized universalism,” or a form of complete co-optation by neoliberalism as the authors attempt to argue, based on Fraser’s work.
The authors also recycle the myth about identity politics taking over, lamenting the apparent imbalance between recognition and redistribution. But their accusation of “universalism”, paradoxically, comes from an universalist standpoint that renders invisible many lives and experiences.
The semi-peripheries is a largely under-researched terrain and a capacious sphere for projecting claims to authenticity and coopting different struggles, for example as homonationalist formations. But even the liminal semi-peripheries don’t exist in a vacuum and are critically depended on their relations to the centre and the peripheries. Those dependencies delimit the shape of regional and local politics and make transnational activism a necessity, rather than an obstacle, as was suggested by the authors.
In the current political situation in Hungary, as well as globally, we need to commit our energies towards building lasting alliances and finding ways of not only contesting, but also resisting the rise of the global right and its damaging effects on the most vulnerable communities. In knitting together this intricate web of complex interconnections there are no innocent positions: some nodes of power are thicker than others; some patterns of collaborations are tighter than others; the social fabric is never flat, nor fully horizontal.
As transnational activists navigating this intricate landscape we still need to engage in self-criticism, paying careful attention to systems of exclusion we are not immune to, in order to strive for better ways of engaging with each other. But we ought to seek out criticism that is generative, not spiteful. We need nuanced and methodologically sharp analyses of the semi-peripheries we live in, and their relations to the world order.
It is these meticulously interwoven solidarities and cross-border collaborations, in which “virtues” are not as much part of the vocabulary, that get us closer to dismantling the oppressive intertwined structures of global capitalism, racism, patriarchy, militaristic nationalism, and right-wing populism that affect us locally.