András Lányi: We are living through the most dangerous moments of history

·2020.05.01

The recently introduced emergency measures will hereafter recur and become more or less permanent. Face masks, social isolation and the terror of new, hitherto-unheard-of diseases will become normal parts of our lives. So will virtual life, constituting a trade-off for the miserable realities of our existence’, writes András Lányi in his essay sent to Válasz Online. We believe that the writer and philosopher has created a key text about the effects of the virus on Europe and the West, with a detour into the conditions in his native Hungary. What can we expect life to be like if it cannot continue in the old way? Translation by Sára Liptai.

I. Attention: the 21st century has begun!

When the waves of the current epidemic have subsided and the world attempts to return to its old ways, it will become obvious that it is no longer possible to do so. The era culminating in globalisation has reached its peak: from here it is downhill all the way. Destructive human intervention is leading to the slow collapse of the structures that maintain life on Earth. The signs are more and more obvious; one has to be deaf and blind to miss them. Extinct species cannot be brought back to life; the exhaustion of non-renewable natural resources is irreversible. The size of the human population far exceeds the levels which the planet can sustain: life can only continue if we live off resources that belong to future generations. Unbridled burning of fossil fuels has brought about dramatic changes in the climate. The ceaseless stream of millions of people and products has unleashed new and devastating diseases whose consequences are, for the time being, incalculable – and perhaps just as well.

What Green activists have demanded for decades, the coronavirus appears to have achieved in an instant: it has caused a drastic reduction in traffic between countries and continents, and has brought a temporary halt to the economic expansion that constitutes such a great challenge to nature’s limits of resilience.

Both governments and the governed have to consider for the first time in their lives what they can do without, rather than what else they can buy or sell.

What we are experiencing is not a one-off incident. It is the realisation of long-anticipated consequences. The recently introduced emergency measures will hereafter recur and become parts of the landscape. Face masks, social isolation, day after day spent in front of computer screens and the terror of new, hitherto-unheard-of diseases will become normal parts of our lives. So will virtual life, constituting a trade-off for the miserable realities of our existence. Those who grow up under such conditions will find it natural – not having known, and possibly not even being able to imagine, a better, freer and healthier way of living. In any case, their imaginings would be of little use: any rebellion against technological discipline and the necessities of an economic system predicated on growth would invite tragedy, because it would upset the fragile social stability. The current system functions through the unscrupulous squandering of natural resources. For it to continue to work in the post-virus era the entire world has to become a marketplace again, and people have to carry on living as before, even if they know both that this system is unsustainable and that its maintenance makes no sense.

Reference to tragedy is not an empty threat. The tragedy may well have been set in train already. The process can lead to either catharsis or collapse – or both can be delayed somewhat, in which case the unfolding plot is not so much a tragedy as a melodrama, with the hero facing insurmountable odds. Which of these possibilities turns out to be realised is up to us, the people of today. We are confronting difficult decisions that can no longer be avoided: inaction, too, constitutes a choice. And the consequences are irreversible. We are living through the most dangerous moments of history.

The plot for the delaying tactic will unfold as follows: states and banks will put all their (that is, our) funds into restarting the cycle of production and consumption. This cycle will bump up against a series of new obstacles – as a consequence, for example, of the extra costs associated with fighting new epidemics, the scarcity of raw materials, worldwide pollution, loss of agricultural production due to soil destruction and climate change, and so on. The gain from expansion will increasingly be negated by the additional costs. Those in power will not wish to burden the balance sheets of their ailing economies with these costs. Instead, they will pile them onto their taxpayers and people in general, through their deteriorating health, their worsening living conditions and their weakened human rights; for we should be under no illusion: governments will use ever more ruthless means to secure our willingness to pay up. The efforts of the leaders will not be in vain: economies will flourish again in an ever more afflicted world. The main source of wealth will no longer be added value, just as it has not been for quite some time; it will be the rapid amortisation of natural and social capital. The signs of this are more difficult to ignore each day.

The path to collapse has neither a set script, nor winners; yet it cannot be ignored as a likely outcome when considering the irreconcilable antagonisms that set the protagonists against each other, and the vulnerability of the institutions that try to mediate between them. In terms of sustainability, one thing is certain: in the future we will not be able to use a chainsaw as if it were an axe or a supersonic airplane as if it were a sailing boat.

If humanity continues not to understand what is already known – that is, if people’s ethical thinking fails to catch up with technological development – the consequence will soon be the disappearance from the planet of the basic conditions for a life worth living. To be clear, we are talking about cultural conditions; the destruction of nature already under way serves as ample evidence for this woeful process.

„The path to collapse has neither a set script, nor winners.” Photo: AFP/Imagine China/Xiao Hu

On the face of it, the cathartic solution has a chance. Why should we not manage to adapt flexibly to the changes, as did our ancestors who survived the ice age, along with every successful civilisation since? It might transpire, for instance, that if regions and countries made an attempt to produce at least the most basic necessities – first of all foodstuff – a great deal of travel and transport could be eliminated, while a large numbers of jobs would be created, which could act as a stimulant for the economy. (In any case, there is plenty of work even now for diligent and generous people, though the pay for such work is not high enough for most people to want to do it.) It is true that in the meantime the profit-share of the financial sector and the anticipated capital gains would be much reduced, and the powerful vehicle industry and the entire logistics sector would be greatly weakened. By contrast, the real economy would, on the whole, benefit from being freed both from the compulsion for continuous expansion – the most deleterious corollary of globalisation – and from the side-effects of the never-ending pursuit of greater efficiency (for example: monocultural cultivation, poor quality standards, ever increasing quantities of untreatable rubbish and damaging emissions, and excessive digitalisation). In time it might become clear that the output of an economy should be measured not in what is used up in materials, energy and human labour but in what is added to the world. This could make the economy truly economical. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people who are already forced by either poverty or extreme wealth to migrate from one continent to another, seeking either a livelihood or, conversely, ways of using up their excess funds and their leisure time, could discover a smaller world that they are able to consider their own and in which they could make a comfortable home; a world to which they contribute not as consumers but as co-creators. Within such worlds they might discover partners, rather than competitors. Finally, in order to be able to collaborate effectively, people might need to restore politics to its original sense of the culture of peaceful disagreement.

Over the decades that follow, experiments are likely to be conducted along all three routes outlined here. Whether a particular country ends up with the option of deferment, collapse or catharsis will not be a matter of chance. When Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that each nation has to construct its future by understanding the stories of its past, he is not talking about ancient history but about the relationship between the people of today and their traditions – that is, their relationships with themselves as communities. 

If this is so, then spare a thought for poor Hungary!

II. Hungary 2020

In order to establish the direction of travel, it is not enough to have a destination and knowledge of the path to it. First of all, one has to understand where one is starting from. One’s assessment of the situation will immediately become part of the situation itself. 

In Hungary the challenge of the disintegrating world is being faced by a nation terminally split in two. What do we mean by ‘split in two’? What do we mean by ‘nation’? Each phrase is self-revealing in that it assigns the speaker to one of two opposing communities of present-day Hungary, constituted by a shared sense of injustice, hatred and fear. It is an even bigger problem that this feud, which turns the public forum into a circus ring, does not even revolve around the big questions of our time but around topics that the leaders of each faction toss into the political arena as bait for their aroused followers.

The current situation is far too dangerous for us to be able to put off the reckoning and to entrust politics to the politicians.

Let’s try to understand these politicians, so we know what to expect. Once we have done this, we can examine the efforts of the Hungarian government to see whether they constitute a suitable response to the changes that are currently germinating throughout the world.

Over two decades, the leaders of Fidesz have experienced what it is like to be entirely powerless as members of the opposition against a government created from the bond between former-socialists-turned-unbridled-capitalists and their apologists, the liberals (along with their foreign backers). The elite of the late Kádár era kept a tight grip on economic and cultural life, and held key positions in the administration. They did their best to prevent everyone else from participating in the construction of market economy and a new middle class. The traumatic experience of being completely shut out explains Viktor Orbán’s later moves. He just could not believe that with the support of civil society he could get rid of his opponents; instead, under the guise of manufacturing new laws responsive to the needs of the day, he deprived his opponents, essentially by force, of their resources, networks and entitlements.

His means have corrupted his end: the quality of the people Orbán has managed to recruit for the execution of his unlawful measures, for predation masquerading as government policy, and for the policy of intimidation and corruption, has been getting worse all the time.

Having rendered the state apparatus impotent, chaotic and forced into blind obedience, Orbán had no option but to exercise ‘manual control’ by gathering all forms of authority, information and funds into his own immediate circle. Orbán is an excellent politician: he handles the tools of gaining and keeping power masterfully, and this includes making his governance appear successful in the eyes of the majority. As a statesman, however, he is without talent: the path he has taken, for fear of losing power and to exercise revenge, is proving to be the wrong path for the country and a straitjacket for himself. All further steps along this path can only hasten the country’s decline.

A big challenge facing the Fidesz government at the start was to secure sufficient funds for its politics while maintaining the illusion of free market competition. Happily for them, joining the EU enabled an unparalleled concentration of developmental resources; the only remaining task was to ensure that these resources would exclusively benefit the most loyal supporters of the governing alliance. In spite of all appearances there is no corruption, at least not at the highest levels: the few dozen closely networked enterprises that run the overwhelming majority of the economy serve effectively as an extension of state power. Their wealth is, in reality, under the control of the head of government. It is unusual for a state to use stooges but, in this case, it is necessary in order to evade the EU’s rules on competition. This is the secret of what Orbán has been able to present as successes (existing mostly on paper), while the economy has experienced failures in practice. The situation has given the prime minister almost unlimited space for political manoeuvring; a political space undreamt of in countries with a functioning parliamentary system, whose financial resources are restricted to tax receipts and other, publicly verifiable, sources.

The real terrain of Orbán’s Pyrrhic victory is, in fact, not the economy but foreign policy. In order that he could declare his political opponents to be enemies of the homeland, he himself has had to appear as the saviour. Unfortunately for him, Hungary has not been facing any threats. Therefore he has construed the EU, the secret machinations of international capital (personified by George Soros) and, lately, the migrants as enemies – with considerable success. Meanwhile his arbitrary measures at home have serially broken the Europe-wide principles of the rule of law and parliamentarianism, and he has created a philosophy to support his actions. Sporting the colours of a champion of illiberal democracy, claiming to act on principle (but hoping for financial gain), he has openly approached eastern despots who are hostile to the EU – namely the leaders of Russia, China and Turkey. He correctly judged that he would be allowed to continue without repercussions by the EU as long as he provided a cheap and disciplined workforce, a favourable legal environment and enormous support packages – extracted from his country’s economic resources – for the German motor industry and other international companies operating in Hungary. He has become isolated from his western allies, and has not profited financially very much from his eastern ties, but as the bad boy of European politics he has acquired a degree of notoriety. Over the long term, he has done no favours to the international standing of his country.

„Claiming to act on principle (but hoping for financial gain), he has openly approached eastern despots who are hostile to the EU.” Photo: Anadolu Agency/Turkish Presidency Handout/Murat Cetinmuhurdar

Hungary’s prime minister neither understands, nor has anything to offer in response to the big questions of the 21st century. He continues to fight the battles of the previous century. His cultural policy aim, from the look of public squares to school textbooks, is to rekindle the spirit of official Hungary before 1938: an era whose self-comforting lies, unfair structures and hatred-filled atmosphere could only be excused, even by sympathetic contemporaries, with reference to the then-fresh trauma of Trianon.

III. What can be done?

1. Before the catastrophe of Mohács, and even afterwards, ‘between the lion’s teeth’, Hungarian noblemen spent their time considering how they could draw advantage for themselves – at the expense of others of their ilk – from the perils that had beset their country. Today’s situation is akin to civil-war footing again: there is no common goal or conviction that could overcome the mutual hatred between the congregations signed up to either the governing alliance or the (fragmented) opposition. Nothing matters: neither the law, nor human lives. Across the world the watchword for development over the next decades will be ‘from our own resources’, but wherever these resources and energies are employed to annihilate each other, ruin ineluctably follows. Let’s just consider for a moment how far Hungary has already sunk, even in comparison to neighbouring countries with comparable historical trajectories: where have our political culture, school system, health service, rail network, our good name gone? And yet, mutual hurts and, in their wake, justified fear of enemy reprisals, keep piling up.

Civil war can only be stopped by stopping it. Anyone can initiate the cessation of hostilities by not hitting back.

Stopping the feud does not serve the interests of those in power: their raison d’être and their economic well-being depend on the maintenance of a war footing. It is for this reason, rather than as a rejection of the party system, that citizens should grasp the political initiative. Everyone is a citizen who recognises him- or herself as one. Their joint action could reconfigure the political arena: on one side will be those who lash out, and on the other those who don’t hit back. The latter will become the majority because there are many more of them. It’s that simple.

The current regime must urgently be sent packing because it exercises an exceptionally paralysing effect on the creativity of Hungarian society in all spheres of life. The country cannot afford to allow this state of affairs to persist. The Fidesz government has terrorised the state apparatus, causing its standards to deteriorate; it has over-regulated and underfunded the school system; it has enabled appalling figures to acquire key positions in the country’s cultural life; its arbitrarily-created billionaires are not capable of holding their own in the marketplace; its new landowners know nothing about the land or its appropriate cultivation. Restoration of professional autonomies, proper valuing of genuine attainment, promotion of talent, regulation of the legal position of the civil service and of the branches of public authority, extension of the remit of local government and support for citizen’s initiatives are all essential measures for our survival. All this is diametrically opposed to the practice of the current government, which is characterised by deep suspicion of social partnerships, all independent initiatives and, especially, the intelligentsia.

2. Over the past few years the successes of the Hungarian economy have mostly existed only on paper; in reality, outgoings have been presented as takings. The competitive sector of Hungarian industry is largely dependent on German car-makers. If this serious risk to the Hungarian economy – along with the total burden of the direct and indirect inducements extended to the multinationals – were to be treated as liabilities and expenditure, the economic picture would look rather different. There is no upper limit to the achievement curve of the construction industry, because the barefaced overcharging on state commissions is not simply an option, it is a compulsory requirement. The billions sunk into cement and steel offer negligible social benefits; their effect on stimulating other parts of the economy is zero; the cost of their future maintenance is depressing to contemplate. Nevertheless, a significant percentage of their income will find its way back to the pockets of the government and the party elite. All this explains why the inner circle of enterprises that produces the economic ‘successes’ consists exclusively of reliable or, at the very least, blackmailable Fidesz oligarchies; and this secretive circle soaks up almost the whole of the EU’s developmental funds. By contrast, those entrepreneurs who are to some extent independent of the state constantly struggle to survive. The large number of the unemployed is hidden in the published figures under the headings of state-sponsored community service and home-making. Anyone who aspires to more, especially graduates, seek a better livelihood abroad. Due to the changing circumstances, caused by the virus, some of their number will be forced to return home, while others will settle abroad, permanently lost to the Hungarian economy.  

It will be easy to blame the foreseeable economic crisis for the ever-increasing difficulties of the next few years. Previous sources of livelihood will dry up; however, the Hungarian government will make remarkable efforts to mitigate the social fallout from the crisis – from what sources, who knows? To be honest, it would not be easy to renew and invigorate the foundations of the economy, because these foundations have been whittled away or neglected for the last 30 years. They include:

  • Utilisation of the benefits of small and medium-size enterprises in agriculture, essential for food sovereignty and export-quality food production, characterised by high employment standards and a varied range of produce, adapted to local conditions; as well as making full use of the many advantages of a short food-chain;
  • Production of everyday consumer goods, for which Hungary is now almost entirely reliant on imports from wealthier countries; 
  • Exploitation within the country of the fruits of outstanding Hungarian innovations; special support for the sectors of high-level scientific expertise;
  • Connected to the previous point, establishment of a modern school system that produces young people capable of creative thinking, independent initiative, self-knowledge and co-operation;
  • Stopping the continuous, expanded reproduction of people incapable of study and work; integration of the large group of paupers, whose maintenance is an enormous burden, into society;
  • Exploiting Hungary’s natural advantages in producing renewable energy.

This list is easy to expand. Its constituents regularly reappear in election manifestoes, but never in the practice of elected governments. The present moment, which is revealing the risks and the unsustainability of past economic policy, could be the moment for the rethinking of priorities. However, such rethinking will be sabotaged by both the long arm of the profiteers of global free trade and by the interest networks of Hungary’s party vassal system. Their decisive argument will be that moving in the direction outlined above would not increase ‘competitiveness’ and revenue. One should not have to explain again and again that the manipulated trade figures say little about economic health, the sustainability of processes and the general state of public welfare. To those who are hung up on these figures we would like to suggest: in the interest of the recovery of the patient, please throw away the thermometer.

3. In respect of Hungary’s place in the commonwealth of nations, the historical parallel is all too obvious. In the face of the unsympathetic West and impotent democracies, it is not for the first time that Hungary is drifting towards successfully expanding and aggressive major powers, believing such a move to be a lesser evil, and using the country’s geopolitical position as justification. When history presents the bill, our excuses will cut no ice. Somehow Hungary has lost its way yet again, becoming a traitor to Europe.

However, the Europe of today is unfaithful even to itself: it is not held together by solidarity or some kind of common European values (which, in any case, are interpreted differently by every member). The only tie seems to be economic gain. Is it possible to find a third way in foreign policy, between the Europe of multinationals and the despotic empires of the east? The current crisis is giving us the answer. Does shared interest in survival overcome imperial ambitions, the value judgements of the stock market or religious prejudices? Of course it doesn’t.

The laws that make the current world order work do not change. Therefore they will not be able to respond appropriately to the fundamental shift in circumstances. At most, the dominant powers will fight more frequent wars for diminishing resources against each other and against victims of the enforced world order, and perhaps groups of victims will fight each other, too.

Decisive changes will occur not in the behaviour of China, Russia, Iran or the US: they will take place in the trenches of the long-drawn-out wars between them. The selfishness of the global powers and the impotence of international bodies will force the victims of the global ecological crisis to defend themselves, not in the name of a new ideology, but simply driven by the instinct to survive. These local initiatives will end without bloody anarchy only in those places where desperation, abject poverty and hatred do not yet have the upper hand. And the only places where such initiatives might survive are the ones where the subjects are not forced into obedience by tyrannical regimes. 

The great variety of its terrain and its cultures has made Europe particularly suited to democratic set-ups. The tradition of the rule of law is strong enough here to resist the paralysing force of business, technological and bureaucratic networks. Hence the alternative to the existing Europe is the birth of a different Europe, and Hungarians have a fundamental interest in being part of such a renaissance. Between a cosmopolitan left and a chauvinist right this is possibly the third way that make the largest number of friends and the fewest enemies for Hungary. The chance for the success of such an alternative vision of Europe within, or in place of, the current Union, entangled as it is in its own irresolvable contradictions, is provided by the very things that are causing the crisis of the current EU: its diminishing competitiveness in the global marketplace, as well as its waning political and military might. The leaders of Europe can’t, and no longer need to, chase illusions of global power-play. It is quite possible that for this very reason the intellectual initiative could be restored to Europe.

However, the fundamental principles of integration need to be established well in advance. Groups of people co-operate in response to three possible motives: compulsion, interest and solidarity – or an appropriate combination of these. The last thing Europeans need is a dictatorial super-state, enforcing measures over their heads. Europe’s characteristic feature, and the basis of its historical successes, is its great variety. It has always shaken off attempts at empire-building in its territory, and will do so again. The peoples of Europe have had shared interests; unfortunately, it is not these interests that have prevailed but the influence of large European companies. Rather than oft-mentioned nationalism, it has been cold business calculation that has stood in the way of collaboration based on mutual support and respect. Yet, the realisation of their shared interests is the one thing that can justify the Union in the eyes of the people of Europe. 

IV. What can we hope for?  

People all over the world are beginning to wake up. They are beginning to realise that the triumphant march of progress has not taken them where they had expected to go. They can see that what has been considered to be the good life entails an unprecedented degree of exposure to the demands of technology and to the merciless logic of the economy. They realise that on the present route there is no longer any prospect of worthwhile work, healthy environment and secure livelihood. They want change, but they realise that the initiative has slipped from their hands. Therefore, unless they are satisfied with enthusiastic petition-writing and pious green utopias, they have to seriously consider three major obstacles in the way of change.

„The peoples of Europe have had shared interests; unfortunately, it is not these interests that have prevailed but the influence of large European companies.” Photo: Szabolcs Vörös

First of all, in the history of humanity there has never been such a concentration of military, financial and information-based power in the hands of such a narrow circle of people. The members of this circle, who often also play deadly chess games against each other, are the only ones in a position to engineer global change. Yet they are the ones who are least interested in making the changes happen. In order to hold onto their power, they will continue to sacrifice the natural and cultural resources for decent human existence without a second thought. They can, and will, do anything to make people believe that the steps they take are inevitable and the called-for sacrifices unavoidable. They cannot be defeated on the global level because they draw their justification from the logic of globalization itself. (By contrast, their vassals don’t seem to have a bright future to look forward to: the Silk Road crosses the land of the unfortunate Uighurs.) Whoever wishes to be free of the tyrannical power of the technological-economic world order has to conceive of a different system for the future.

Secondly, there is probably not a single country, either rich or poor, whose citizens in the majority are not astonishingly underinformed about the true nature of the unprecedented changes taking place around them. 

Dear Reader, you are part of a tiny minority: your fellow-countrymen (and -women) do not wish to face their situation because they have been made to believe that there is nothing they can do to change it, and that it is better for them to hand over the management of their future to those in possession of power and knowledge. 

Of course, it has always been the case that a regime stays in power as long as its subjects consider its rule inevitable. However, the extent of the success of the current regimes in hiding from people the everyday reality of their own lives is unprecedented, as is the degree to which the overwhelming majority of young people have become dependent on information technology and electronic mass culture. In order to be able to take any steps in physical reality, they first have to return home. Ecological politics begins with the exodus from the Egypt of digital slavery.

Thirdly, globalisation has not resulted in the dissemination across the world of the intellectual achievements of European enlightenment. It is only the scientific and technological innovations that have penetrated widely, lending terrifying powers to the enemies of freedom. Perhaps apart from a short period between 1939 and 1941, the conditions of humanity have never been so bad. There have never been such all-encompassing powers over enormous numbers of people in the hands of cruel and repressive tyrannies across the major part of the planet. Whatever one might think of western democracies, it must be acknowledged that it is almost exclusively in these countries – that is, in Europe and in several former British colonies – that the social causes and consequences of the global ecological catastrophe can be openly discussed. The real victims of globalisation in Africa and Asia are no longer in a position to take the initiative. A potential rebellion of European conscience does, however, offer a glimmer of hope, and could serve as an example for other continents.

The greatest historical changes have always taken place imperceptibly; given the magnitude of the obstacles in the way of change, this kind of a development can be our only hope. Change usually starts with the words of prophets and apostles, who might well be stoned or mocked for their fanciful ideas. Later it takes place in people’s hearts. Still later it affects the everyday practice of small and large communities. Repressive regimes are not usually toppled. When they are overthrown by force, their defeat is typically followed by even greater terror. The future is born not from such bloody improvisations but from the gradual expansion of the small circles of freedom. These eventually merge, and form a system that no-one had anticipated. And since they are at grass-roots level, they can’t be stamped out.

People want to save not the planet but their own land; it is their own lives they care about – or what they identify as the meaning of their lives. To this end, they are sometimes prepared to make sacrifices, and they are even prepared to co-operate – which they must find particularly difficult, having had it educated out of them. The local, workplace, professional and opinion communities created in this way are, of necessity, only parts – strongly interdependent parts – of a larger community whose institutional framework has been created by history. If people want change, sooner or later they will have to change their institutions. For this purpose, in their local context, they will apply political tools. 

As long as we are unable to see eye-to-eye with our neighbours, talk of global solidarity is merely self-deluding chatter.


Cover photo: MTI/Márton Mónus


Editor’s note: this essay’s original, Hungarian version was published by Válasz Online on the 3rd of April 2020.

Kategória: In English