Illiberal Fantasies: Hungary's Viktor Orban Embraces Authoritarianism

A dark turn for the post-communist nation.

Viktor OrbanThe signals did not cease to arrive. Viktor Orban is the man who, in June 1989, gave a speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial ceremony that would endure forever in the history of Eastern Europe. He was one of the founders of the anti-totalitarian youth party Fidesz and his intellectual mentor was the well-known dissident and critical former Marxist, György Bence. And now, Orban has shifted towards a collectivist authoritarianism with pointblank xenophobic inflections.

Orban's recent speech in Transylvania has led to worried comments from commentators, such as Fareed Zakaria in "Washington Post," David Brooks in "New York Times," and the Princeton professor Jan-Werner Muller in "Foreign Affairs."

Many things in politics are born out of resentment. Orban is unmistakably a man of tremendous intellectual prowess. Yet those he perceived as some sort of urban aristocracy – the Hungarian Democratic Opposition leaders, including, first and foremost, János Kis, Gábor Demszky, and Miklós Haraszti – always gave him a strange complex. He regarded the Alliance of Free Democrats as an exclusive liberal club that he felt he was left out of. Other members of the Fidesz leadership shared the same neurotic feelings. In addition, Orban was attracted to classical liberalism and was distrustful of any form of internationalism, even a liberal or neo-conservative one.

Endemic corruption associated with a socialist government radicalized Viktor Orban’s phobias and apprehensions. He started to entertain more intensely the idea of populist conservatism – which in Hungary is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate from anti-Semitism. The media close to Fidesz (which in the meantime had become an ever more traditional and traditionalist party) excelled in insinuations against those who supposedly did not pass the test of pure Hungarianness. When Jobbik – a downright fascist party – was born, all it had left to do was merely intensify as forcefully as possible topics which were already implicit in Orban’s rhetoric, including the idea that the radical left was somehow genetically constituted.

The Orban team began to insist on a majoritarianism that was increasingly intolerant of the opposition. The unassailable victories obtained in the elections made​ Orban less and less willing to acknowledge his own fallibility. Hungary has become gradually more provincial and ethnocracy has begun to stifle democracy. What a quarter of a century ago was the superb promise to reinvent politics through a revival of civic liberalism, now seems destined to turn into a neo-authoritarian nightmare.

And now, Viktor Orban announces that liberal democracy is on the skids. He has taken it upon himself to become the champion of an authoritarianism which glamourizes the Putin-inspired police model and the Chinese "market Leninism" (a term proposed by Soviet expert Peter Reddaway). Those interwar tenets endorsed by the prophets of fascism are being revived. A consistent and "ethnically" healthy body politic is being exalted. Liberalism is seen as rotten, corrupt, and decadent. This is the hour of the “magic savior,” akin to the demagogues described by Erich Fromm in his classic book on the escape from freedom.

What Orban seems to ignore is that NATO and the EU are not only political, military, and economic institutions, respectively. They define, as Václav Havel put it, civilization options. The battle between the open society and its enemies continues. Yet another mask has fallen, which, after all, is far from being a tragedy.

We might imagine that liberal democracy is built on a deeply rooted historical and intellectual foundation, but such a belief could not be further from the truth. Before 1945, the very idea of ​​“liberal democracy” was very much anathematized. In times of crisis (both moral and economic), democracy is attacked from the left and right alike. Be it critic Vladimir Lenin, critic Georges Sorel or critic Robert Michels, they all claim to stem, to a certain extent, from the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and draw on the self-proclaimed image of the “genuine democrat.”

Orban is now such a “true democrat” (also read “original”), who nonetheless does not stumble on civil liberties or consensual-parliamentary type of deliberations. For the Hungarian prime minister, liberal democracy – with all its intermediary institutions, intermediate bodies, and parliamentary games – makes a terrible mess of the final and irretrievable fusion between – as Carl Schmitt explained in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy – “the identities of the governed and the governing.” At the core of this “redemptive” political view stands none other than the mythological idea of unity (in this case, one based on ethnicity).

In a populist translation of Orban’s political message, the masses are looking for identification. The economic crisis had deepened this existential anguish. His promise, which also sounds like a prophecy, comes to provide precisely this redemptive identification. According to a very judicious remark by political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac, all the flaws of liberal democracy “were skillfully reinterpreted as virtues of liberal democracy. In an almost Orwellian manner, weakness was turned into strength.” This is exactly what Viktor Orban is doing. Then, to use one of Albert Camus’s phrases, “it transforms a spontaneous burst of energy into a concerted action.”

What the Hungarian Prime Minister is essentially saying is that liberal democracies are reversible. That the counterpart of democratization is what we may call de-democratization (see also the summer of 2012 in Romania when only joint EU and US pressured could prevent the fulfillment of a parliamentary putsch). This, obviously, is not a complete novelty. What is actually new has to do with the metamorphosis of a politician who reached the pinnacle of power as a partisan of liberal values ​​and who morphed into an advocate for the opposite values.

This might sound rather harsh, but the Orban case is reminiscent of Mussolini’s conversion, a century ago, from an internationalist socialist into a nationalist fascist..At this point in his inner evolution, Viktor Orban seems “condemned to condemn.” When, in 2002, Fidesz had lost the elections, he thundered that “the nation cannot be part of the opposition.” As historian Balázs Trencsényi aptly observed as well, “Franz Joseph, Miklós Horthy, and János Kádár have all established their authority by way of terror and all have become fathers of the nation[.]”

Let us hope, however, that we will not slip towards what René Girard called the mimetic circle of violence. In this version of “goulash authoritarianism” towards which Orban’s Hungary is heading, Europe is “oppressive,” but its funds “necessary.” Unfortunately, the entire fate of Europe’s political culture depends on such increasingly frequent antidemocratic outbursts. How it will manage to resist the virus that Orban is spreading remains to be seen.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century," published by the University of California Press in 2012 (paperback, 2014).

Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist interested in revolutions, political ideologies and the transitions from communism to democracy. This essay came out on the Romanian online platform "Contributors" and was translated into English by Monica Got.

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