What is Orbán's secret?

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What makes Orbán's regime tick, why does it seem to be set in stone, how do they acquire support from the majority of the population, while so many are dissatisfied? To get an answer, one must step beyond the usual clichés of the opposition, and a deeper understanding is required about the workings of the Hungarian society, the loyalty of the middle class, the muffled underclass and the system of power. That's precisely what the largest sociology study in quite some time, carried out by the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA), attempted to answer. We spoke to the leader of the study, Imre Kovách, to find out whether Lőrinc Mészáros (Orbán's favourite oligarch) is the regime himself, why the left has nothing substantial to say, and what the historic crimes of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are.

In April 2018, Fidesz won their third consecutive parliamentary election, while more than half the electorate wanted a change in government. The System of National Cooperation (NER for short) seems stable even after eight years. For some, this seems natural, others find it deeply puzzling. The reasons go beyond the political map, but even beyond personal factors: there is a power structure which can only be understood with a perspective on the social order of Hungary. Those who think it's all about Orbán are deeply wrong, says Imre Kovách, the sociologist spearheading the research on Hungaran society, carried out by MTA TK's Institute of Sociology. We discussed the political ramifications.

The Hungary that emerges from your book shows a society integrated top-down, with a significant disintegrated portion that is the lower third of society. The aim of politics is to pacify the disenfranchised masses, and to transform the distribution of property to their liking.

The critical opinions on today's Hungary all share one basic flaw. The feeling of “all is bad” is not accompanied by an attempt to understand why it is all bad, or why this society functions the way it does. The historically cyclical responsibility of the middle class plays a role in this: a lot might grumble, but still, they are accepting a situation in which they are still privileged relative to others. Orbán's creation – with all its arguable flaws – offers consequent answers to a lot of the ailments of society – even if they are refutable. In that regard, it is quite like the order during the Kádár-regime (János Kádár was Hungary's communist leader from 1956 through 1988) – Kádárism also offered some consequent solutions to the great problems in the society of its time.

What do you think is the essence of this regime?

For one, it perpetuates disintegration, since those on the bottom stay there, the regime closes the doors on them, and resources are being directed from them to the middle class. But this also has a strong integrative function. Many are resigned to the fact that the parliamentary supermajority is not threatened by anything, despite approximately 60% of the population refusing the current system.

How do we know that the system is stable? Do the election results in themselves validate that claim?

Even if there are huge problems in Hungary, I have never heard about the defenestration of a corrupt mayor for, let's say, misusing the money allocated for public workers. They've had hunger riots in Slovakia, we didn't. I see the Hungarian society as suffering the painful consequences of disintegration, but still having a kind of stability. Even those who dislike the conceit of the powers-that-be support Fidesz with their votes. The middle- and upper classes did not produce any substantial movements or activism, despite their anti-Orbán sentiments. Saying that the government does not provide funds to NGO-s, therefore there is nothing to be done does not equal civic engagement. There are examples of those better off helping people in poverty, but on societal levels, those on top accept their privileged status even if they hate the characteristics and the representatives of the current regime. There is some money leaking here and there, but the circles in possession of the social capital necessary to overthrow the system don't do it. The responsibility of the political elite cannot be overemphasized in this story, but it must be said that the upper and middle classes are acting the same way as they did multiple times throughout the twentieth century.

Did politics buy their loyalty?

The leaders of Orbán's regime probably think somewhere along the lines that drip-feeding resources to those with the potential to resist, taking over the media, suffocating independent institutions will provide that. This can only be done by giving to some, but starving others. Due to the potentials of the Hungarian economy, there is no way to help three million people in a manner that would actually improve social mobility instead of the now-prevalent occasional one-time aids. With that in mind, significant structural changes are in fact against the interests of the middle class, since they are aware of the fact that providing more to the poor means taking away from others.

So this means there is no room for movement, there is no way of giving more to the impoverished without a significant redistribution of wealth?

Some may not like this, but the policies of the Orbán-regime are in fact realistic from their perspective. Besides providing wealth for their new national bourgeoisie, the nomenclature and relatives, one of the chief goals of their politics is a society which stomachs this and lacks any radical changes. With these goals, with the resources given, any politician could only resort to this kind of politics. To bring about change, one would need to point out from where to take resources away. Bringing those responsible to account, which is the main promise of the opposition, is simply not enough to remedy this.

Taking it all from Lőrinc Mészáros and giving it back to the people is not really an option then.

Well, take what, and give it to whom and for what? It doesn't work like that. The notion of forcing some radical changes and thus catching up with the West is merely how the inertness of the Eastern European elites manifests itself, and it is a well-known phenomenon from the past 200 years. There is a reason why opposition parties are not really trying to talk about what to do with the poor. These issues are completely eclipsed by the topics Fidesz offers up for the opposition to criticise.

“The rich shall pay!” (A campaign slogan of the fallen socialist candidate for Prime Minister László Botka.)

And Botka had disappeared from the scene in a couple of weeks. I don't see the great visions of structural change anywhere. The lower third is without political representation since 1990, even on the level of slogans. The old small-holders' party or Jobbik could only address the lower middle class, not the actual underclass. After the fall of socialism, the lower classes saw almost exclusively the downsides of the political transition. Hundreds of thousands became unemployed, losing the security of their livelihood, with resignation and apathy emerging as a side-effect.

What is the size of the disintegrated group?

The underprivileged segment of society is 38%, which is more than the estimated size of impoverished people. The thing that really surprised me though was how much the so-called “individualisation” is present even in this segment. Besides the consumption individualisation of the higher segments, an atomisation is taking place in the lower classes with horrible consequences. In the old times, the “respectable poverty” allowed the impoverished to retain a sense of honour. The disenfranchised and the impoverished agricultural segment of society was set in motion after 1945, and fought tooth and nail to move upwards. Today the impoverished do not even believe they can be anything but miserable. This sort of energy was lost, and it shows how wasteful the present system is.

In the meantime, the numbers from the Central Statistical Office (KSH) show poverty to be diminishing.

It is no accident that KSH stopped doing minimum wage calculations years ago. What they say instead is that employment is rising, and incomes are improving. That is of course true in a way, but it does little to change the situation of the poor. It is possible that all ranks of society move up a bit due to the elevator effect, but those on the bottom stay on the bottom.

A couple of years back it was quite popular to talk about an impending civil war, with the common prophecy of the lower classes soon reaching their breaking point.

There is indeed a latent tension between the poor and the rest of society, but there are mechanisms in place to break that tension which, up to now, localised these problems successfully, freezing society. The significance of the public work program has to be stressed. It is a message to the voters on one hand, saying “we do not give handouts, you have to work for it”, which is in line with the views shared by the mostly conservative Hungarian society: “one has to work even for the unemployment check”, “we provide public work opportunities to those whose mouths stay shut and behave themselves well” and so on. Despite all this, the poverty is heart-wrenching and unacceptable, but this sort of drip-feeding, along with mechanisms built on fear and defencelessness, seem to be enough to keep real political radicalism from taking roots. It is easy to play on fears of falling even lower.

Though the countryside is unable to sustain even its current population, one of the new phenomena in your research is the rather large countryside middle class.

This is a typically small-town group. They are well-off, they hold formal parties and events, and they are way more numerous than we thought. They do not regard the cultural elite in the way they did during the Kádár-era, the intelligentsia is no longer an arbiter of taste for them. This is a group of people with their own cultural and material capital, going their own way.

To what extent does this group adhere to the ideological definition of the “national middle class”, how much do they constitute the base of Fidesz?

We will have further studies on the political preferences of this group, but one thing is for sure: they do not lean towards radicalism. Even though the roots of their emergence date way back, the current regime more-or-less satisfies their interests and lines up with their identity.

The movie which caused quite a stir at the Hungarian Film Awards, “Kojot”, presents a kind of neo-feudalism in which we are determined by lord-vassal relations. This is a quite common way to look at the countryside from Budapest.

And it is not entirely false either, since defencelessness is a determining factor everywhere, but it would be a mistake to insinuate the re-emergence of the pre-1945 society. Feudalism and servitude are mostly fantasy, there are no “lord peasants” who could be branded as “kuláks” as it happened under the communist regime. The overt, violent practice of power has no place in today's small towns and villages. One of the notable characteristics of the past thirty years is that a new elite was created, and wealth was conveyed in a manner that required no obviously violent means.

Your study confirms the proverbial phenomena that the majority of regional development funds coming from Brussels actually end up in Budapest and other big cities instead of where they were meant to.

As it is evident even in government reports, the EU programs aimed at creating jobs and diminishing regional inequalities are not particularly effective. There is a lot to be changed about EU policies, but this is one of the most important areas to reform. The European Union accepted us, Eastern Europeans as members without taking the special problems of post-socialist countries into consideration. There are no substantial EU funds for effective social politics. It is not only the Hungarian government that let the hands of the lower third go, but the EU as well.

What is the problem with the EU's financing system?

Politicians are distributing public funds in these projects; therefore, some legitimisation is required one way or the other. They can't say “Hey, Lőrinc Mészáros, pop by the Central Bank, oh, and bring a big bag as well, we'll be filling it with money”. There must be projects, about which the political elite decides.

Is Lőrinc Mészáros an anomaly, or is he the system himself?

An anomaly that is resultant from the system. A project is a tool of power. Never before had politics such a huge power to intervene in matters of the economy, especially without the democratic checks. This plays a role in the fast erosion of public trust in the parliamentary institutions.

According to your book, these project funds constitute a part of redistribution. If we regard it as such, the Hungarian redistribution rate is exceedingly high.

It is so high, that it only gets higher in overtly totalitarian systems. The power of the political elite is comparatively high as well. After 1990, the roles of the state were largely diminished due to partisan interests, which, in my opinion, was a mistake in this extent. No other institution is capable of handling crises and balancing losses as much as the state can. One of the historic responsibilities of the Prime Minister is that when he had the chance to build a stronger state power to handle the economic-societal crisis, he used this chance to do things that history will simply not accept. Building political clientele hardly qualifies as the reinvigoration of the economy.

The ideology states that this all is serves the purpose of establishing the national bourgeoisie, the preference of Hungarian ownership.

Well, even if we take one of the most dynamic sectors, the construction industry, a fair share of the market goes to multinational companies. There is a political clientele instead of a national bourgeoisie, and I don't really see the commonweal in that. And in the coming decades, the central government is not likely to have another similarly large opportunity to affect the way economy and society works.

The opposition really likes to push Bálint Magyar's “mafia state” theory. Is this a scientifically valid theory? (Bálint Magyar is a liberal politician, former minister of education.)

As opposed to most instances of state capture, what's happening here is not that a strong business interest group took a hold on the government, but the other way around; politics had captured the economy. As opposed to the way a mafia operates, this was not done by illegal means, though even politicians may find it morally objectionable. The key to the Hungarian system is not mafia, but redistribution.

Do you agree with the usual talking point of right-wing intelligentsia about revenge, saying it was the left doing it before, now it's their turn, and the rot is symmetrical?

This is just as much a piece of political communication as its antithesis, the Orbán mafia state, which a researcher can analyse as a phenomenon, but it's better to avoid agreeing or disagreeing with such things. These days, politics are playing out more in a virtual space rather than reality. Politics has diverted from the actual situation of the society. Our study clearly shows that party preferences are strongly independent of the social status of an individual. This is a virtual space that Fidesz began shaping very well back before the turn of the millennia. The opposition manages to walk into this trap and goes into arguments about topics and themes placed in the public discourse by the government. I have a strong fear that the intellectual performances aiming to improve how social structures and systems work are missing just as much as they did before 1990.

What makes politics virtual?

There is a worldwide tendency where, using manipulatory techniques, politics diverge from the peoples' real interests. In the meantime, there is an identity crisis everywhere, and that is amplified here by the fact that the 20th century history of Hungary and Central Europe shattered the inherited identities many times. Orbán is successful in offering many patterns for identification, which makes many people forget all the atrocities of this regime and its failures to provide them opportunities for success. But that surrogate feeling should not be underestimated. The opposition fares much worse in this, at present all identity-politics are done by the conservatives. It's a phenomenon throughout Europe that the political left has much less to say about the world, and the identity panels they offer are weak.

How important is Orbán personally in the entire situation? These are systemic things.

Even if he has historic crimes, it would be a mistake to regard Orbán as a simple gangster who managed to ride on top of this society. The structural reasons must be accounted for.

What are these historic crimes?

He used state power for something (“the Lőrinc Mészáros phenomenon”), which does not have a functional explanation. The political culture of hate will have long-standing ramifications, and the mental manipulation consequences cannot even be foreseen. It would be one thing that he did not foster the emergence of the middle class, which he once held to be a great value. But his government is now working against it, since the rise of the middle class is a civilizational process that includes the extension of autonomy. And he is at the pinnacle of his power – no one can tell what would happen if his seat were to begin shaking.

What happens to those who can't find their place in this system? Going abroad, or inner emigration?

Hundreds of thousands have already left the country, and money is just one factor out of many in their decisions. They will not come back, and, quite obviously, they are not the least educated. The question is whether the sporadic growth of the middle class will make the country shed the current regime. Conformism is a big factor in today's Hungarian society. But there may come a time when the Orbán-regime can no longer finance its base, or when they set new boundaries that even the cooperating social groups will not tolerate. Such a change, however, will upset society. The challenge for the opposition is to outgrow being mere protest movements. And the main challenge for Hungarian politics is to organise at least a partial political representation of that lower third, who may be pacified now, but not included in the political nation. This is a 200-year-old problem as well, the conversations in the cafés and parlours of the 19th century reform-age were centred around these very same issues.

This interview is a slightly altered version of the original published in March 2018 in Hungarian.

Translated by Zoltán Kovács.