Questions at dusk or, the reciprocity of progress and regression – Part 1

Democratic elections may not be the sole prerequisite for democracy

Péter Nádas
21 October 2015

Why does the grass grow only to die?

why does it wither, only

to grow again?

Mihály Babits, A Question at Dusk

Back when Berlusconi’s populism was raging, I made several attempts at quizzing my Italian acquaintances about just what it was that fed the Cavaliere’s popularity. If only to understand, because you can’t vote out the electorate, however much the long-suffering members of the Politburo would like to do so. Secretly, of course, what I was interested in was how populism would fare in Hungary. Populism as a phenomenon has been with us since classical antiquity; the passions of the free Athenians and free Romans were also liable to twist and turn, and their orators twisted and turned to find their favor. What they had approved of one day – say, democracy, for example – they rejected the next. It seems that not much has changed, and dictatorship inevitably follows democracy. If one believes in the sovereignty of the people, how could one not respect the will of the people? It’s another thing altogether whether one understands what drives them, yet another thing whether one approves. And if one does not approve, because one detests tyranny in all its forms, then what is one to do? That, too, is a burning question at dusk. I can maybe understand the elements behind the popularity of Putin, who is pursuing the interests of Greater Russia with the most underhanded secret-service methods; just as, years ago, I believed I understood the popularity of Slobodan Miloševiċ. The overwhelming majority will, on occasion, choose itself a dyed-in-the-wool crook with a pathological propensity for lies.

This means that democratic elections may not, in themselves, be the sole prerequisite for democracy. A believer in popular sovereignty cannot avoid this issue when examining the roots of a local, or even the global, shift towards populism and the lessons it carries for democracy itself. If the majority of electors now and then get fed up with a chaotic system underpinned by a mass of thieving oligarchs, fed up with the corruption that robs the treasury blind and breaks down the state itself, and wants instead a dictator, a strongman, an autocrat to make things right, then the regressive turn is upon us. One might think that the chances for democracy lasting would be higher in highly developed industrial societies. Where there is a lower level of urbanization, and where democratic institutions have been built up not as the result of revolution, but of necessity (for want of anything better, in the middle of the dissolution of a dictatorship), the functioning of democracy, it seems to me, is merely formal – even in a progressive stage of development. Or rather, it maintains its form only until the systems of corruption, directed by the so-called democratic parties, do not have at it; do not devour its very innards. These underground networks rely on the active help of the police, public prosecutors, and the judiciary. And if yesterday they were beneficiaries of that help (in return for some baksheesh), because for a certain percentage of the profits, their businesses could count on the active support of the democratic parties, no one should be surprised that Hungarian democracy is nothing more than an empty shell by now. Democracy needs democrats, after all.

One fine day, the corrupt citizen – who would prefer to present himself as innocent – wakes to find that though the apparatus of the state has been expanded to embrace everybody’s friends and relations, its direction was taken over, ten or more years ago, by organized crime. He himself has been left out of this criminal system. The early bird gets the worm.

But systems of corruption can corrode democratic institutions even in a highly developed industrial society. Another question at dusk might be whether America’s famous democracy is still functional at all? The enduring extra-legal workings of hedge funds, derivatives traders, and investment banks do not differentiate between night and day, between secret and public. They direct the stock markets with computers and algorithms, or even automatically. Their software is designed by the finest mathematical minds. This impersonal, inter-continental system publicly robs the American and European taxpayer of sums so astronomical that they make domestic corruption in Hungary look paltry. If one person makes a profit in a pyramid scheme, it is necessarily to the detriment of the others. Economists can produce their impressive theoretical turns all they like, but they still can’t divorce the financial markets from actual economies. And the extra-legal functioning of the financial markets does not have a cleansing effect. Quite the opposite, in fact – the markets’ isolated raison d’être serves to increase the distance between appearance and reality. With the various constructions known as financial products, the economy legitimizes criminal activity, or at least extra-legal activity, and forces governments into accumulating more and more debt. When the time comes to pay interest, the by now fully-fledged populist governments of enlightened nations take the interest payments due on these astronomically increasing sums from the least well-to-do sectors of the population. No one will ever be able to pay off the debt entirely. Or rather, they make this daylight robbery up to their own people by stealing most of the money they lack not from their own poor, but from the poorest of the poor – those in the Third and Fourth Worlds. And when the deed is done, when, say, they have devastated an entire continent with their profitable endeavors (for example Africa), they surround their borders with barbed wire and give the coastguard the order to fish as few of the shipwrecked out of the sea as possible. Living things, of course, invented daylight robbery a long time ago. There’s nothing new in the principle of “might makes right.” At most, we could say that there is something new in American biologists using evolution to justify the all-powerful nature of exploitation. The populist governments of the most enlightened powers have had one new idea and no more. They won’t build inflation, for that would provoke their darling hordes of investors (choosy and quick-to anger), but are resorting to deflation to take the required sum from people’s modest savings. However, the electronically organized hordes of investors are not grateful for this consideration; they make faces instead and ratchet up the debt spiral. If today we’ve managed to blackmail governments, we’ll do so even more effectively tomorrow. They now shake the political stability of not only individual countries but also entire regions with their threats. This is their way of forcing democratically elected governments to give them guarantees of payment, behind which there is no work and there are no reserves – in the same way that the investors’ money is also purely virtual. Theatrically speaking, it’s a bluff. But everyone on the stock exchange breathes a sigh of relief that the dear investors are reassured and are back once again. If the investors don’t invest this afternoon, then by morning it will become clear that their money vanished into thin air long ago, for the populist governments promised as collateral nothing more than thin air, or rather the future slave labor of the masses who work like slaves.

Similarly, one could hardly include within the rulebook of democracy taxpayer-financed institutional snooping on the private conversations of citizens, or their storage and processing according to secret criteria. Or the financing, from this same secret purse, of a global web of surveillance and interception, neither regulated nor authorized by a single international organization or national parliament. There is no institution capable of keeping tabs on it. There is no way that these inconceivably large networks – opposed one against the other, each with huge apparatuses at their disposal – could not shake the foundations of the rule of law in democracy. They not only shake it, they create the image that in the end, everyone has to be secretly watched because everyone is a criminal or evildoer. The only difference between people being, then, that few of them can afford to be criminals publicly. Whoever can’t afford to be doesn’t count for anything. On the global level, populism means the legalization of criminality. According to the rules of my own profession, it seems to me that this is the more dangerous element among the shocks to the humanist political tradition. The rates change on the stock exchange, but the way the rates work nonetheless remains more permanently in the consciousness than the facts of a particular operation or another.

Because I can understand why so many people of a peaceful evening in the bosom of their family need such an inordinate number of tales of criminality and infantile horror stories to consume along with their beer and crisps. I can understand the source of the renaissance of these fantastical genres. They prepare everyone’s mind for the legitimation of the realities of a dual society in which a general and all-pervasive criminality is the only master. People are criminals, the fantasists cry. Which might even be true, if it weren’t a self-absolving illusion. Meanwhile, these very same bedtime stories reinforce the population’s belief in that magical illusion – far more ancient than this genre itself – that people with god-like abilities, using their powers of rational thought and with the help of modern technology, are able to see through and uncover this criminal activity. Which is something not reinforced by national statistics anywhere in the Western hemisphere. The number of unsolved crimes is always far higher. In a psychological sense, however, the genre itself has become an apologia for criminality and an important tool in the infantilization of society. It is now not only the toolkit of the Enlightenment that can be swept aside, but sinking even deeper, the toolkit of humanism itself.

But I could not – could not – understand what the Italians, renowned the world over for their intelligence, were expecting – in their highly industrialized and industrially well-differentiated country – from such a fantastically face-lifted fool. The uncouth shadow of the Duce sat on Berlusconi’s shoulders, and his popularity was therefore doubly unseemly. I also could not understand why their meaningful response to this was the ranting of a professional clown, Beppo Grillo. My distinct impression was that my Italian acquaintances didn’t understand either. Or at least, they had no really convincing ideas. Either that, or they didn’t want to share them with me, because it would have reflected poorly on their nation. As discreet patriots, they could hardly come out and say that among their beloved and famously intelligent people, the idiots were now in the majority. It’s not something I’d like to come out and say, either. They mused on the deficiencies of their understanding of democracy, the deficiencies of democracy itself, but even that in a general sort of way, awkwardly, by the by. I actually quite liked their embarrassment and reticence. It made clear what a trying task it is to remain a democrat in the midst of an infantile consumer mass with no historical awareness.

But it was not much longer before I was in the same boat as my Italian acquaintances. “What on earth’s come over the brilliant Hungarians?” I was asked. Why have they lost the plot so dramatically? Where is their army that strikes fear into the hearts of the enemy? Where have they been hiding their massive natural resources until now? There were many ways I could have replied, but when one has a lot to say, one can never do so on the spur of the moment. And I didn’t really want to, either. The Americans and French and Germans who were asking, mostly wanted to hear what they themselves happened to think about this already. The actions of the Hungarian government are endangering not only democracy in Hungary, but are also a threat to the security of the region. Which is true. But then what are we supposed to do with the results of the democratic elections? Or if in a democracy it is not electoral results that guarantee the legitimacy of a parliament, then could they please tell me what guarantee there is for democracy at all?

In a world that is compulsively centered on success, another person’s incapacity to act becomes proof of my own success. All at once, the reflection in a distorting mirror shows me how well this democracy of mine is working. Only my Swiss and Swedish acquaintances were more careful, or at least devoid of all-too-human schadenfreude. And in response, I really did produce the same awkward hemming and hawing as my Italian acquaintances had before. “How should I know?” “I’m just one of many.” “I’m not now, nor have I ever been, the Hungarian government.” “Don’t ask me, ask José Manuel Barroso, or Angela Merkel; ask the European People’s Party – it’s they who support and defend the Orbán government’s policies in the interests of their blessed party politics, not me.” But after all, why would they understand the cyclically returning Hungarian affliction that is this adoration with a religious fervor of suffering and failure? The several centuries-old misguided cult of the sinking, dying nation, of uniqueness and supremacy. The story of three interrupted processes of modernization, two terminated by world wars. Why would they feel, as it were, upon their own backs, the centuries of permanently low levels of urbanization? The criminally low level of public health and education? The passion for accumulating real estate? The chronic lack of capital and a culture of investment? The chronically low level of general culture and the incredible cornucopia of techniques of indoctrination? I could hardly begin by explaining about the font of Hungarian constitutionalism, the Tripartitum, or the defeat suffered at Mohács at the hands of Suleiman the Magnificent, because then I would have to explain about the Turks: how many they were, where Mohács is, who Werbőczy was, where the Csele stream flows from, how it floods, how the last Hungarian king drowned in it and how they found him; and how the Turkish occupation destroyed the monastic tradition of work and reflection.

If people ask me, I reply, but I can still only offer pre-fabricated phrases. The original accumulation of capital is hardly possible in the age of the global flow of capital, especially not in the space of twenty-five years. Without a prosperous middle class, bourgeois society cannot function. The response to two decades of unfettered robber capitalism was restoration of the pre-Modern. Thus, the development of Hungarian society once more reached a regressive phase, throwing itself back – as it were – into an earlier state. That is something I’m not happy about, because I am not a believer in regression; but at the same time, I have to accept as reality that that’s the way it happened, and the majority of my fellow-countrymen are pleased at this turn of events. The role of the loser, with all the illusions that that entails, is a familiar one. We will spend a goodly amount of time in this recidivism, though – strange as it may seem – it still doesn’t mean we will reject the necessity of modernization. The need for modernization has been one of the most important subjects of general agreement since the period of great reforms in the 19th century, even though it can’t be reconciled with the needs of pre-Modern restoration. Mind you, it was hardly reconcilable with the tenets of robber capitalism, either. And it would be a pity to lose sight of the weighty reason for that. The arbitrary and heavy-handed ideas now widespread among the population are a brake on the pace of development, and may even demolish the infrastructure of development previously erected. It is the very same population that desires this process as the one that hopes to benefit from the myriad blessings of the highest state of modernization; nonetheless, it prefers illusions to a pragmatic understanding of reality. I can’t help any of that; it’s a cyclically returning paradox that has been around for centuries. At most, I can try and deal with it to some extent in my own work.

The contrast and reciprocity of progress and regression work more strongly in the eastern parts of Europe and less strongly in the western. No one has managed to bridge Europe’s regional differences, neither those between the North and the South nor those between the West and the East, although in theory many people would like to. The short bursts of progress, devoted heart and soul to modernization and the rule of law, are followed by various kinds of regressive periods. These last longer, and want to undo almost to the very last every little accomplishment of progress. They rarely succeed; this is my only hope. There is no idiot who can’t tell a German refrigerator from a Hungarian. The need for modernization is stronger. Everyone would choose a German fridge, although only a few would accept the complete system of values that produced it. Regression will happily chase away the most dynamic principles of progress; the response to this is another fall in the country’s general level of culture. Nonetheless, I see the cyclical recurrence of the need for regression and the restoration of the pre-Modern as a regional ill and not something unique to Hungary; although it is true that in Hungary, regression really has ended up being emblematic more than once.

Because of its regional nature and security implications, it is nonetheless better not to judge the regressive phases hastily, en bloc, and from a purely party political standpoint. It is better to try and approach regression descriptively, if for no other reason than to enable us to see that it is something that has been with us for centuries. But in the age of electronic modernization and the global movement of money it has become threatening – as in, for example, the chronic and cyclically problematic lack of capital. Where there has been no original capital accumulation, there is no capital. Or rather, what little there is simply cannot compete in the global market. The obstacle facing Hungarians with wealth on the international stage is not one that can be overcome by native wit alone. Where the moneyed class that had developed over time was robbed blind by two regressive regimes, killed, and dispersed, there is no bourgeoisie; and where there is no bourgeoisie, where there is no middle to society between its extreme flanks – there is no bourgeois society. The lack of one can be got around in the short term, however, only with populist political ideas of various portents.

Original capital accumulation, insofar as it happened at all in the first fifteen years of the progress following the transition to democracy, happened without a culture of investment. That is to say that what capital was accumulated flowed immediately away, left the country, or went to the purchase of real estate. As a result of this less-than-intelligent process, the entire population of Hungary was restructured for the third time in a century. This was too much for it, and the way it happened was hardly how anyone, based on their ideas or illusions, had ever imagined it would be. It was not the way the newly-minted industrialists – the nouveau riche, throwing their money around unthinkingly – and the old head thieves imagined it; nor was it the way theKádárist petit-bourgeoisie, driving out to their weekend houses in their Trabants, belching poison, imagined it. In the last phase of its experiment with modernization, which is to say its third, Hungarian society stepped out of the framework of state socialism, and in a quarter of a century has become somewhat more differentiated; this is really is a great step for it to have taken, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is no middle to society. It has no bourgeois middle class with capital to invest and savings. Its governments until now have also failed to notice how dangerous that is from a political point of view. They have not helped, but hindered small enterprises, which seemed hard to tap by corrupt means. They were also occupied with the building up of their own systems of corruption. But without a bourgeoisie, bourgeois society looks just like a democracy without democrats. The richest Hungarians, with the fortunes they’ve amassed using their systems of corruption at the expense of the poorest taxpayers, can rub their hands in glee, it’s true, but they cannot compete on the international market with their small sums of capital. But the success or failure of the development of a Hungarian bourgeoisie is dependent, even in this second go, on how they are able to invest, whether they can withstand global competition, and whether they can go out into the wider world and develop systems of production and import that, with perhaps decades or even centuries of hard work, will yield a bourgeois middle class with capital to invest. In other words, it is dependent on whether they are able to consolidate the positions of power they’ve so forcefully carved out for themselves at an international level. I trust they can. Either that, or with all their stolen riches, they will one by one go to the wall – quietly or amid great fuss – and then the common weal will have suffered at their hands not once, but twice. That’s the worse alternative. At the moment, they’re still ruling the roost, but too many of them know too much about piling up real estate, while far too few know anything about investing in agriculture or trade. It’s as if they were all clamoring that they want no competition, either at home or in the wider world. They want to stay capitalists, but they don’t want a global market. It’s crazy talk, but it has its logic, and the Hungarian government has served and maintained this crazy talk for the third electoral cycle now. The Hungarian government is using EU money to place these new Hungarian rich above all others. Its anti-capitalist, Eurosceptic, and anti-American rhetoric – meant for internal consumption – responds to the disappointment and perpetual desire of the impoverished, and in certain layers, destitute population, to resist.

Part two of this essay will appear tomorrow.