What is the work-based society coined by the Hungarian Prime Minister based on? A closer examination strongly suggests that it is not a coherent social construct to be followed consistently in good times and in bad. Rather, it is a tool of political communication.
In August 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered a remarkable speech in Bálványos[i], Romania. In this speech he coined the term work-based society: „in accordance with Hungary’s response (to the ongoing crisis of capitalism) we look forward to the era of a work-based society; our intention is to organise a work-based society …which by its nature is not liberal.”
Indeed, at the time of his speech, most of the substantive elements of liberal democracy in Hungary had already been removed.
It is worth examining the work-based society (WBS) in modus operandi during an unprecedented social crisis such as the current one.
Viktor Orbán’s customary mantra – „we do not hand out dole” – is unfair and false even in regular times as it denies support for those living on the peripheries of society. But it is particularly cruel in a situation where hundreds of thousands of contributing members of the WBS, to use his term, have lost their jobs and their only source of income in a textbook case of force majeure.
In other words, the damage is severe and happened through no fault on the part of those concerned. It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances more conducive for social solidarity, and yet, Orbán’s WBS remains unresponsive.
Take another one of his slogans: „for every job the crisis destroys, we shall create a new one” – which is no less hypocritical. Jobs are being destroyed today. New jobs will not be created for months or years, if ever. Those who have lost their livelihood do not have the luxury of waiting for new jobs to be created. Their missing income needs to be replaced now without delay.
And finally let us examine the prime minister’s most recent statement: „we need to preserve the health of our budget and national debt, lest the country becomes vulnerable to foreign powers and speculators”.
It is breathtakingly absurd and bordering on, dare I say, paranoia reminiscent of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the long-ruling communist dictator of Romania. In the 1980s, haunted by similar delusions of external threat, Ceaușescu decreased the country’s foreign debt at an unsustainable rate resulting in economic calamity and extraordinary reduction in living standards for the Romanian people.
What then is the work-based society after all? The aforesaid strongly suggests that it is not a coherent social construct to be followed consistently in good times and in bad. Rather, it is a tool of political communication. An oral magie, if you will.
Coupled with the rejection of the values of liberal democracy, the WBS is a characteristic feature of nearly every modern authoritarian regime ranging from the most extreme (fascism) to the so-called hybrid democracies of the present time.
Of course, it needs not to be so. The work-based society could be a coherent social model and then would be characterised by the following features:
- work is the source of every and all kind of income
- everybody has employment and therefore nobody is in need of a handout
- rent-seeking is rejected and persecuted by the government
- income from work is proportional to effort versus marginal productivity
The above interpretation of the work-based society invokes the original ideology of communism which, of course, Viktor Orbán wants nothing to do with.
Italian source of inspiration
While not directly relevant to the key assertions of this article, it is nonetheless interesting to examine Viktor Orbán’s decision to legitimise his program by invoking the ideas of the Gombos government[ii] of Hungary in the 1930s.
Gombos had a great deal of sympathy for Mussolini’s fascism, adapting a number of concepts from the Italian ruler.
According to Dorottya Szikra, a renowned researcher of this field, the Gombos government „systematically discriminated between the various social groups with respect to the provision of social services, thereby deepening the divide that already existed between these groups”.
One can only speculate that Viktor Orbán pursues these divisive policies for the sake of historical continuity and to change the values of the Hungarian society, which he deems necessary for a long term rule.
Be that as it may, since the 2014 speech, WBS has become a permanent fixture of the Orbán regime’s propaganda.
In search of a definition
As with all successful political products, WBS is particularly useful insofar as it lacks an exact definition. Thus, it can be adapted flexibly to ever-changing political conditions. (Recall Humpty Dumpty’s expression: „When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”).
The lack of an exact definition of the work-based society gives ample room for many of Viktor Orbán’s followers to expand it into directions not necessarily present in the original concept or the pronouncements of its author.
Viktor Orbán’s key messages of WBS are as follows:
- work entails any activity that is valuable for the nation, therefore rent-seeking can be acceptable, if it is deemed useful by those at the top
- work so defined, combined with the national commonwealth is a force forging a sense of community that places all „workers” on a common platform. Consequently, workers by definition include hard-working and/or rent-seeking millionaires as well as equally hardworking, but not-so-affluent factory workers, shop assistants or hospital nurses
- thus, society is divided into „workers” and „lazies”, or „worthy” and „unworthy”. The first group deserves respect and support. As for the second group, the stern, but the virtuous state is willing to provide support to those who make an honest effort to join the group of worthy. If they cannot or will not do exactly that, then the government will not provide support and these unworthy members of society should suffer the consequences of their own fault
- conversely, the government will provide support to the worthy ones through the tax system and other channels. As a result, government support is commensurate with income: those with high income receive large support, those with small income receive less. This distribution of support is deemed fair since those with higher income are assumed to make a greater contribution to the well-being of the nation
- income derived from work is virtuous, whereas income earned without work is not and, thus, should be disapproved of by the government (see the case of Roma students in Gyongyospata where the payment of duly awarded compensation for discrimination upheld by the court was denied by the government)
- the nation organised around these interests and values is constantly threatened by external enemies (migrants, financial speculators, financier George Soros, the European Union, etc.) against whom constant war must be waged to protect the achievements of WBS
The above list is a clear illustration of how well the work-based society serves to underpin Orbán’s social policies which, much like the Gombos program almost a century ago, do indeed discriminate between various social groups, supporting some, while penalising others.
As Szikra points out, Viktor Orbán’s toolkit is an eclectic mix of neoliberal, étatist and traditionalist components lacking not only liberal but even Christian-social values.
Track record of struggle
Thus, we have a political product at hand which is eminently suitable for extrapolations especially in the context of Hungary’s checkered history of xenophobia, antisemitism and discrimination. These hidden messages may include the following:
- financial speculation and trading are not considered work but are certainly conducted mostly by Jews
- gipsies loathe to work, their women bear children only to con the government for a handout. Many of the Roma men are criminals. Their children’s mental capacity is below average, therefore, it is justified to segregate them in school (see „segregation with love”, a grotesque expression used by former Fidesz minister Zoltán Balog)
- despite its many achievements and contributions (from János Hunyadi[iii] to Nobel laureates and Olympic gold medalists), Hungary is the victim of repeated unfair treatment by the rest of the world (from Trianon on to the present day). „We Hungarians” are exceptional but can only count on ourselves
As the track record of the struggle against populism attests worldwide, it is very difficult to successfully tackle such oral magie. Therefore, it is not surprising that the response of Hungary’s democratic opposition to the slogans of Orbán’s work-based society has been lacklustre at best, only seldom engaging in unequivocal condemnation.
This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the work-based society offers attractive stereotypes for several social groups, which transcend the usual government versus opposition line of division.
But the time has come to speak up. Viktor Orbán’s lack of empathy towards the most vulnerable of society in this crisis demands sharp and principled condemnation. There can be no interpretation of WBS which is consistent with abandoning large groups of the Hungarian society in dire need.
The democratic opposition must emphasise a real sense of solidarity, a genuine willingness to provide support, and the need for greater contribution by those with the means to alleviate the hardships of people hit hardest by this crisis.
[i] A village in Transylvania, Romania, the venue of annual political-cultural summer schools for Hungarian youth living in Romania. The event features senior Fidesz politicians and is regularly used by Viktor Orbán to express his strategic views.
[ii] Gyula Gombos (1886-1936) Hungarian far-right politician
[iii] János Hunyadi (1406-1456) Hungarian military leader whose victory at Nandorfehervar (today Belgrad) in 1456 set back the advancement of the Ottoman empire into Christian Europe for 70 years.