Monday, December 12, 2011

More on Hungary

Courtesy of Marginal Revolution, here's more on Hungary's disturbing right turn:

The EU has to deal with a government that came to power democratically and uses its power to dismantle the democratic institutional system. Fidesz' ‘solutions’ are desperately wrong. But the problems are real. Europe can only offer attractive alternatives to its peoples, if it finds viable solutions to these problems. What happens in Hungary is not the internal affair of 10 million Hungarians. It is a litmus test for Europe's capacity to defend its basic democratic values.

Hungary’s choices one year on: in the land of ‘Revolutionary Voting Booths’

As a greeting, Varkonyi says: “Well, have you already met with all of your liberal contacts? Are you finished with the Jewish mafia?”

With his hair combed back and his rimless glasses, he looks like an aging model pupil. Varkonyi, who is from an old aristocratic Hungarian family, studied film and marketing in Sweden and the United States, and he has a degree from a college in Cleveland. But his native Hungary was always in his heart. The self-proclaimed “fierce patriot” explains the Jobbik philosophy. It’s a crude blend of inferiority complex and megalomania, coupled with a clear set of bogeymen, including the Jews, Gypsies, globalization, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Jobbik supporters hate anything and anyone seeking to control the country, and anything that threatens to deprive the Hungarians — who were, in fact, late arrivals in Europe after migrating to present-day Hungary from the Ural Mountains, and who have often been sidelined by their more powerful neighbors — of “their rightful place” among Europe’s leading nations. According to this construct, Hungary is the eternal and unjustly punished loser. The Treaty of Trianon is especially symbolic of this trauma. The 1920 treaty, signed at the Trianon Palace in Versailles outside Paris, deprived Hungary, one of the losing powers in World War I, of more than two-thirds of its territory.

The Jobbik party dreams of this Greater Hungary. “More than half of our brothers live outside their fatherland, and we want to bring them back,” says Varkonyi. For Varkonyi, the Orban government’s proposal to offer a Hungarian passport to all ethnic Hungarians living abroad is a first step, but he doesn’t understand why many see this as a provocation. A father of three, Varkonyi is worried about the low birth rate among Hungarians, saying that all of Europe is being taken over by foreigners. According to his calculations, by the year 2050 “gypsies will already make up half the population in Hungary.” Jobbik, he says, is fighting for a “spiritually healthy society based on Christian values.” In the terminology of the right-wing extremists, Jews are referred to as people with “foreign hearts.”

The Jobbik campaign manager occasionally rages against “subjugation by international financial capital.” But for the most part, he chooses his words carefully and speaks in the quiet voice of an aesthete. Is he an anti-Semite? Of course not, he says. He prefers to leave the use of coarser language to people like former police psychologist Imre Posta, who likes to appear at Jobbik party conventions, where he says things like: “The Jewish people are violently invading aggressors who threaten the existence of the original Hungarian land.”

Budapest Experiences A New Wave of Hate

Compare the essential tone of the rhetoric above to that of Hitler upon the passage of the Enabling Act of 1933, effectively nullifying the Reichstag and giving Hitler's inner cirlce the power to pass laws directly:

By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life. The advantages for the individual which may be derived from compromises with atheistic organizations do not compare in any way with the consequences which are visible in the destruction of our common religious and ethical values. The national Government sees in both Christian denominations the most important factor for the maintenance of our society. It will observe the agreements drawn up between the Churches and the provinces; their rights will not be touched. The Government, however, hopes and expects that the task of national and ethical renewal of our people, which it has set itself, will receive the same respect by the other side. The Government will treat all other denominations with objective and impartial justice. It cannot, however, tolerate allowing membership of a certain denomination or of a certain race being used as a release from all common legal obligations, or as a blank cheque for unpunishable behavior, or for the toleration of crimes. [The national Government will allow and confirm to the Christian denominations the enjoyment of their due influence in schools and education.] And it will be concerned for the sincere cooperation between Church and State. The struggle against the materialistic ideology and for the erection of a true people's community (Volksgemeinschaft) serves as much the interests of the German nation as of our Christian faith. ...The national Government, seeing in Christianity the unshakable foundation of the moral and ethical life of our people, attaches utmost importance to the cultivation and maintenance of the friendliest relations with the Holy See. ...The rights of the churches will not be curtailed; their position in relation to the State will not be changed.

And closer to home, I came across this interview with Bruce Judson, whose book "It Could Happen Here" I read a couple years ago. Given the above context, it seems even more scary today:

BC: What does inequality mean for the middle class, which is the foundation of our country’s economy?

BJ: Early America lacked the class barriers then prevalent in Europe: Everyone mixed with each other. This led the more fortunate to have empathy and a visceral understanding for the problems of the less fortunate. As economic inequality has increased, we see far less mixing among people at different income levels. Now everyone has less of a sense that they are part of one large community and that we have a responsibility to each other.

Political theorists, going back to Aristotle, have all concluded that a vibrant middle class is essential for a vibrant democracy. The members of the middle class hope to move up, so they want mobility to remain a desirable option, but they also fear moving down, so they are more likely to support a social safety net. In essence, the middle is the group that ensures stability as a barrier to legislative extremes that unduly reward the wealthy or harm the poor.

Unfortunately, inequality that chips away at the middle class can lead to violence. There was violence that occurred in the Depression, with riots in the Midwest. People also started to take the law into their own hands. In penny auctions, after your farm was foreclosed on, you showed up at the courthouse with all of your friends — farmers who had their rifles with them — and took over the bidding and bought back your farm for penny. As income inequality increases, the dispossessed may start to feel they have been treated unfairly and things can get ugly.

BC: Your work also predicted revolution. What’s your current take?

BJ: The book did not predict revolution. The book said that if we allow income inequality to continue growing unchecked, then we would face a high risk of political instability or revolution. We discussed earlier how the book detailed a series of stages, or a narrative, for how growing economic inequality can lead to social upheaval. Unfortunately the narrative I detailed seems to be happening.

My best estimate is we have now passed through 60 percent of the narrative. A lot needs to happen before the risk of political instability becomes a reality. I am hopeful that with inequality now on the national agenda, we will see the reforms needed.

BC: You’ve lately been focused on the dysfunctional aspects of our economy, particularly housing. What are their implications?

BJ: My take on much of the dysfunction in our economy today is that we have lost sight of what I call “actual capitalism.” Instead, we have a strange system that people have variously described as crony capitalism, socialism for the rich, and corporatism. This shift is destabilizing our economic system as well as our democracy.

The housing crisis is even more significant because of its potential impact on our social fabric. Foreclosure can be one of life’s most traumatic events. The 14 million people expected to face foreclosure will have lost their down payment, their dignity, their sense of belonging to a community, and their way of life. Do policy-makers seriously believe we can foreclose on one-quarter of all the mortgages in the nation without any social backlash?

This is a national tragedy. It is also a potentially dangerous brew. It would be natural for many of these millions of people, who are reading about bank malfeasance and enormous salaries in the financial sector, to conclude that they unfairly lost their homes so that a privileged few could realize enormous incomes and remain above the law. What happens to that anger? How will all of the children in these families believe in the American Dream?

What is striking to me is the lack of energy or creativity that has been applied to the problem. To fix our economy and society, we need to prioritize keeping homeowners in possession of their homes. This was one of the main goals of the New Deal, and as a result all kinds of valuable, creative financial mechanisms were created. The 30-year mortgage was effectively invented as part of the New Deal (at the time mortgages typically ran only five years), and the Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934. We absolutely can develop innovative solutions. But we have allowed a dangerous sense of complacency and inevitability to take over.

BC: Does the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement make you more or less hopeful for the nation’s future?

BJ: It absolutely makes me hopeful that we will start to see some meaningful reforms. The Occupy movement is casting a bright and unforgiving light on some of the unacceptable practices in our society that, sadly, have become commonplace.

I believe the Occupy movement is not going away. The reason it grew so quickly is that it was the flashpoint for the country’s anger and widespread feelings of unfairness. It’s almost inevitable that in some way it will expand to include people who feel they’ve been unfairly foreclosed on, the record numbers of Americans experiencing long-term unemployment, and many of the unemployed in general who feel they’ve been cheated out of the opportunity to work - mainstream America.

The danger is that if the Occupy movement does not succeed, and nothing takes its place, we will move further along the narrative I described.

BC: We are heading into the presidential election season. What kind of leadership will be needed to reverse growing income inequality?


BJ: In Senator Jim Web’s terrific book A Time to Fight, he noted that no aristocracy in history has given up its power willingly. Unfortunately, I believe that to change course will require a knockdown drag-out fight. And it’s not going to be about consensus. It’s going to require political leaders with courage who stand up and fight for what is right.

We certainly saw the need for this kind of conflict in the era of the New Deal. FDR was called a “traitor to his class.” During his reelection campaign, he spoke at Madison Square Garden and said that never had the forces of “organized money” been “so united against one candidate” and “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” This kind of language gives you a sense of the antagonism that arose when Roosevelt worked to reverse extreme economic inequality.


Bruce Judson on the Social Dangers of Income Inequality

At the end of the interview Judson talks about his new book which outlines policy steps which may ameliorate our trend towards inequality and the rending of the social fabric. None of them have a cat's chance in hell of ever being implemented, of course, for the exact reasons Judson outlines in his interview - the rich control all of the levers of power. They're not going to pass reforms that gore their own ox, not when they have the power of the state at their disposal. Rather than making him hopeful, the brutal crackdown on Occupy ought to tell him what's coming.

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