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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 6, New Delhi, January 23, 2021

The COVID-19 Crisis and the Fascist Class Politics in Hungary | Attila Antal

Friday 22 January 2021

by Attila Antal [1]

There is a misunderstanding about Hungarian government which says the novel coronavirus outbreak created a new dictatorship in Europe. In fact, the coronavirus crisis did not bring on or finalise the authoritarian turn in Hungary. Rather the conditions for authoritarian rule preceded the crisis and were certain to define how the government would respond to the crisis. It is beyond question that by introducing the so-called Enabling Act, which grants absolute power to the Prime Minister, the Orbán government has become an authoritarian political system. Nevertheless, the unholy use of the coronavirus situation is just the latest stage of exceptional government in Hungary. The main social and political outcome of this permanent state of exception is the subjection of society to the forces of neoliberalism. Along with the new Enabling Law the neoliberalization of public services also put the Hungarian society in an incredibly difficult position to handle the threat of the epidemic. Moreover, the main cause behind the emerging Fascism is the class politics of the political system, which is based on the compromise of the upper middle-class and national bourgeoisie. I propose here that the main aim of Orbán is to maintain the post-pandemic world by the unnecessary extension of state of exception.  [2]

According to Giorgio Agamben there is a seminal transformation in conjunction with the idea of government, “which overturns the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects. Since governing the causes is difficult and expensive, it is safer and more useful to try to govern the effects.”. [3] Authoritarian populist regimes have started to manage the effects of the crisis made by them and this is a considerable change not just in the concept of government, but in penal politics. The emergency measures in normal circumstances are far not unknown in Hungary. The government during this biopolitical hate campaign against refugees and migrants introduced and prolonged the formal state of exception. The Orbán regime is constantly using the extraordinary measures since 2015 to maintain its political power. This puts the current Enabling Law upon the pandemic case into a different light, because the real danger, in my view, is not just the indefinite power of Orbán and the rule by decree, granted by the new regulation, but the fact that he gained nearly half a decade of experience in exceptional governance. Which is worrisome in this situation, on the one hand the dangerous way how the regime handles the epidemic crisis and made a political crisis from it, on the other the neoliberal measures applying before and during the crisis.

Fascist Class Politics in Historical Scales

To examine the effects of the social crisis on the coronavirus and how this could contribute to the intensification of the Fascist tendencies inherent in the Orbán administration (which do not manifest themselves in repressive dictatorship, rather in deliberately operating state power against the poorest members of society), it is worth first referring to the class relations that point to the fundamental peculiarity of Fascism(s) throughout history. In his book, Fascism and Dictatorship, Nicos Poulantzas examined the emergence of Fascism in Italy and Germany between the two World Wars, with reference to the class relations that created these systems. [4] Poulantzas, who argues that the Fascist state is an exceptional capitalist state, assumes that there is a bloc of power in the functioning capitalist state, in Gramscian sense, by which the capitalist class or a faction thereof exercises hegemony. Fascist regimes are embedded in the political disintegration of the dominant German and Italian classes (i.e. neither the bourgeoisie, in possession of the means of production, nor the working-class have succeeded in gaining hegemony in society, and thus this hegemony has disintegrated) and the fact that a revolutionary breakthrough of the working-class has failed, the bourgeoisie had not been defeated before the Fascist takeover. This double failure liberated smallholders, traders, and paid employees, that is the petty bourgeoisie, to function as an autonomous social force in Fascist parties. [5] For Poulantzas, then, Fascism is the political organization of petty bourgeoisie that restores the hegemony of monopoly capital — in several phases: in the first period, Fascist forces form loose alliances with individual members of dominant classes; then comes the alliance of petty bourgeoisie and monopoly capital; and then, under the Fascist forces that come to power, petty bourgeoisie becomes the dominant class, while real power falls into the hands of monopoly capital, which eventually becomes the ruling class of society. [6] Thus, according to Poulantzas, the Fascist party becomes the organizational tool of petty bourgeoisie (from which much of the party’s personal apparatus comes from) as they become disillusioned with the previously supported social democracy after World War I, which did not represent their interests effectively. As petty bourgeoisie gradually separates from the working class, it begins to approach the big capitalists more and more. Thus, in Poulantzas’s analysis, “the historical role of fascism was to achieve an alliance between big capital and petty bourgeoisie” [7]

Emerging Fascism and the Regime’s Class Politics in Hungary

The potential Fascist threat inherent in the Orbán system has unfolded gradually, and this, as is was pointed out in the January 2012 workshop of Eszmélet [Consciousness], was embedded in the 2010 authoritarian turn. [8] Behind the administration there is a socially formed and politically coerced class compromise, like those described by Poulantzas. Before analysing this, let me briefly examine the social philosophy behind the class politics of the Orbán system. The social policy of the administration (tax policy, family policy, family support systems, reduction) is based on an unprecedented redistribution of public goods in favour of the middle-class and upper middle-class, to the detriment of the poorest. Nor could this be changed... They can’t, but they don’t want to work, and the job market doesn’t ask for them either.... And for these people we also have something to say. Viktor Orbán sees this trap, he just can’t talk honestly about reality. It cannot be revealed that, unless a miracle happens, a cruel future awaits them in order to keep those who still have a chance.” [9] This approach thus conceals a very serious class politics, which was described by another ideological constructor of the system, Gyula Tellér: “The political leadership, which (by shifting focus of the redistribution) creates stronger-than-usual remuneration-performance-remuneration cycle and by successfully applying this continuously increases the part of the performing society, must protect this otherwise fair way of redistribution...” [10] The Orbán administration expects unconditional political and social loyalty from supported classes.

Authors on the class politics of the Orbán government have confirmed that behind the system’s capital accumulating state there is a social conglomerate like the alliance of big capital and petty bourgeoisie described by Poulantzas. [11] This is nothing more than an alliance between the “national big capital” faction and the upper middle class. Eszter Bartha recognized this very early: “Thus, strong doubts were expressed among Hungarian workers about both the regime change and the new democracy. However, these doubts did not point in the direction of a general critique, but rather in favour of a specific Hungarian path, where the state plays a kind of balancing role between, between the multinational companies and domestic producers on the one hand and the interests of the working-class and capitalists on the other. The spectacular exclusion of the working-class from politics and the weakness of advocacy may also have contributed to the majority hoping only for a state...” [12]

The Hungarian political left, because of its liberal and neoliberal orientations and pathological compliance constraints, did not represent the interests of working-class, and from the second half of the 2000s, workers began to orient towards the (far)right. Gábor Scheiring is arguing that due to the absence of a left-wing political project it was possible for national and local political entrepreneurs to channel the frustration, fear of the future and slippage of the working-class people through the strategic application of historically prepared cultural narratives. This gave the political right the opportunity to mobilize the fears of the working-class abandoned by the left. [13] It is worth clarifying that the workers did not at all legitimize the authoritarian turn in their ultimate despair; the operation of authoritarian capitalism relates to the state appointment and conquest of the national capitalist class. The ‘neo-feudal’ class of national capital has no interest in democratizing the work, instead “[c]ompanies participating in labour-intensive production, or production that does not require technology, have a vested interest in an institutional structure that enhances the vulnerability of the labour force and decreases the tax burden, as they do not require skilled labour, nor do they use complicated technology.” [14] The danger of Fascism emerging under the Orbán administration can be seen in the reallocation of enormous social resources in favour of national big capital and its allied upper middle class, while these resources were taken away from the most vulnerable social groups, whom the system literally abandoned. In addition, the government made a pact with the international capital and financial sphere, which also provided huge subsidies to the expense of Hungarian society.

So even before the outbreak of the epidemic, significant progress had been destroying the lower middle-class and other social groups lagging behind. The Orbán governments after 2010 is, in fact, based on the dual recognition that, on the one hand, the Eastern European semi- peripheral form of global capitalism can be operated in an authoritarian way, and on the other hand, the capitalist system of the centre will contribute to this. Orbán’s concept can be seen as the most serious assassination of society, as people are simultaneously exploited by the national bourgeoisie and global big capital, while all of this is legitimized by the upper middle class, and the system seeks to pacify abandoned social groups with institutional hatred. The destruction of workers’ interests, trade unions, the right to strike, and the new Labour Code, which serves the interests of employers, are related to the positioning of the national capital class and the international capital. This was argued in the editorial resolution in Eszmélet [Consciousness] 124: “The essence of the new far-right is socially similar everywhere: traditional anti-capitalist leftist tendencies have been replaced by forces competing with and subordinate to global big capital, but also protecting ‘national capital’, in the name of ‘national resistance’. Their declared goal is to broaden their voting base in order to retain and gain power, also addressing those social groups that, after World War II, traditionally formed the social base of the left.” [15] Basically, we can say that the Fidesz took over the far-right political position of Jobbik.
As Poulantzas described in connection with petty bourgeoisie, Fascist regimes can only be organized and survive in the interest sphere of big business. Accordingly, the Orbán model is also based on the betrayal and extreme exploitation of workers, as “Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 in the wake of the countermovement of the working class, yet the measures of the accumulative state alienated much of the working class and poorer segments of society while benefiting the economic elite and big business. [16]

The Embedded Neoliberal Nature of Epidemic Crisis Management

It is to say that the direct help of working people is not the priority of the Orbán government at all. The main explanation behind this are the mentioned workfare concept and the neoliberalization of public services of the past years. This neoliberalization goes hand in hand with the ultimate political power, because the emergency power is required to maintain the neoliberal agenda which characterizes the Orbán system. As it has been argued here, the government has always been much more afraid of the economic consequences of the crisis than of its epidemiological ones. The neoliberal and state-capitalist approach have always been decisive after 2010: strengthening the private health sector, a significant withdrawal of funds from public health, downsizing the epidemiological administration (a large number of Hungarian doctors and nurses work abroad), in addition, the system began to dismantle the universal insurance system and expelled the poorest from the healthcare services. These are well-known phenomena and reveal how neoliberalism intensifies deep social-economic problems.

This “embedded” neoliberal atmosphere remained essential from the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis and most of the government’s economic measures are to save the employers and capital, instead of protecting the workers. States are helping with wage subsidies to avoid mass unemployment across Europe, except Hungary. In most countries, at least half of the wages are taken over by the state, in many places 80 percent or more is paid. It seems that the Orbán’ administration waits till the last minute to help people (health workers will receive a one-time wage supplement so far). This attitude has already sparked significant social tensions and contributed to the hopelessness of people who lost their jobs due to the virus. The tax exemption for small businesses [17] and the moratorium on loans will hardly be enough to save the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian workers who became unemployed and have no savings. [18] While this rigor may be surprising, it fits exactly into the system’s neoliberal workfare concept, which has been introduced by Orbán in 2014 as a counter-concept of social-welfare systems, and it seems to be that the epidemic crisis is an excellent opportunity to eliminate the remnants of the welfare state. [19]

Epidemiological, health and social destruction shows the increasingly authoritarian nature of the system, but the economic crisis management program put together by the Orbán government is just as tragic. The essence of this is a neoliberal policy with the main goal of directly helping capital and large corporations, while the state provides direct help to workers only as a last resort. Behind this is the rather hypocritical, wild capitalist statement of Orbán that “there is no going back to a social aid-based economy”. Thus, in an authoritarian system serving the interests of capital, any help for working-class can only reach workers through the filter of capitalists. This is exemplified by the 70 per cent wage support for part-time work announced on 7 April 2020, [20] but this measure represents only about 10 to 35 per cent of public wage subsidies in terms of total wage costs. “In return”, the Orbán system introduced the Slave Act in the event of an epidemiological emergency by providing employers with a freely ordered 24-hour working time frame (meaning that anyone can be required to work overtime in telework at any time). Thus, neoliberal tendencies continue to strengthen in all areas.

Conclusion: Ruling of Post-Epidemic World

The main arguments here are the following, because of the permanent state of exception the authoritarian moment is not the Enabling Act in Hungary, moreover, the “embedded” neoliberal character of the regime unfolding in the last years strongly maintain how the Orbán regime deals with the pandemic situation. This does not mean that the Enabling Law is not a fundamental turning point, it is in three senses. Let’s make it clear, Orbán has always governed alone, so the law was not needed to ensure this, but to intimidate his uncertain political fractions. Secondly, the Enabling Act put the Hungarian society into a political quarantine. The situation is extremely paradox, because every social uprising can weaken the epidemic control, but without a strong protest movement the permanent Enabling Law will define the post-epidemic situation. This is the greatest danger of the situation, by the Enabling Act Orbán is able to maintain the state of emergency even when it is no longer required. Finally, Orbán has found a way to accomplish all its political aspirations that do not serve to tackle the epidemic, but to build a post-epidemic world. That is why the regime started to implement its political agenda amid epidemiological measures: strip powers from mayors (which was eventually withdrawn); forcing the continuation of a debated construction investment project in Budapest; as part of the ongoing cultural war the government occupies the theatres; classify public data about a Chinese-funded railway for a decade (in which Orbán’s most important oligarch, Lőrincz Mészáros got involved); continue to place state universities to foundations; financially plundering the opposition parties and municipalities in a rather hypocritical way; denying state recognition of gender transition. None of these measures relates to the management of the epidemic, moreover the regime detected remarkable few coronavirus cases with one of the lowest test rates in the European Union. It is to say, Orbán is trying to rule the epidemic crisis politically, because his aim is to get comparative advantage evolving the post-epidemic world in which the state of exception remains the most important equipment of the government. The epidemic crisis, of course, is not made by Orbán, but he has made a political crisis from it with the aim of being able to dominate.


[1Attila Antal (1985) is holding a PhD in political science. He is a senior lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Law Institute of Political Science [in Budapest]. He is a coordinator at the Social Theory Research Group at Institute of Political History. He is editor-in-chief at Hungarian Marxist journal Eszmélet (Consciousness). He is doing his contemporary research in political theory of populism, social and critical theory, theory of democracy, green political thought, ecological Marxism, constitutionalism, political history. Email: antal.attila[at]ajk.elte.hu Web: http://www.antalattila.hu/

[2This paper is an actualized and edited version of two previous paper of the author: Attila Antal. “Orbán’s Enabling Act: Ruling the Post-Pandemic World,” accessed November 4, 2020, https://www.brexitblog-rosalux.eu/2020/04/07/orbans-enabling-act-ruling-the-post-pandemic-world/ and Attila Antal. “The Orbán Administration’s Class Politics and the Spread of COVID-19,” Berlin Journal of Critical Theory (BJCT) 5(1) 2021. 131-149. http://www.bjct.de/files/Issues%20of%20the%20BJCT/BJCT_1-2021.pdf. Moreover, I relied on my previous book on the Orbán regime: Attila Antal. The Rise of Hungarian Populism: State Autocracy and the Orbán Regime (United Kingdom, North America, Japan, India, Malaysia, China: Emerald Publishing, 2019c).

[3Giorgio Agamben. “From the state of control to a praxis of destituent power,” ROAR Magazine accessed November 4, 2020, https://roarmag.org/essays/agamben-destituent-power-democracy

[4Nicos Poulantzas. Fascism and Dictatorship. The Third International and the Problem of Fascism (London, New York: Verso, 2018).

[5Poulantzas (2018), 237-268.

[6Poulantzas (2018), 87.

[7Poulantzas (2018), 250.

[8Péter Szigeti and Tamás Krausz and György Wiener and Eszter Bartha and György Földes and Gábor R. Kállai. “A társadalmi, gazdasági és politikai rendszer jellege a 2010 utáni Magyarországon — Műhelykonferencia,” [“The Nature of the Social, Economic and Political System in Post-2010 Hungary — Workshop conference,”]. Eszmélet [Consciousness] 93 (2012) 53-83. https://epa.oszk.hu/01700/01739/00079/pdf/EPA01739_eszmelet_2012_93_tavasz_053-083.pdf

[9László L. Illisz. “Túlfosztott világ. Interjú Bogár Lászlóval,” [“Over-pillaged World. Interview with László Bogár,”] Heti Válasz accessed November 4, 2020, http://valasz.hu/itthon/tulfosztott-vilag-59207

[10Gyula Tellér. “Született-e »Orbán-rendszer« 2010 és 2014 között?” [Was the »Orbán System« Born Between 2010 and 2014?”] Nagyvilág 2014, 346-367

[11Márk Áron Éber and Ágnes Gagyi and Tamás Gerőcs and Csaba Jelinek. “2008—2018: Válság és hegemónia Magyarországon,” [“2008—2018: Crisis and Hegemony in Hungary,”] Fordulat 26 (2019) 28-75. Gábor Scheiring. The Retreat of Liberal Democracy Authoritarian Capitalism and the Accumulative State in Hungary (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[12Szigeti et al. (2012), 57.

[13Scheiring (2020), 187-216.

[14Scheiring (2020), 327.

[15A Fidesz — az új szélsőjobb. [The Fidesz is the New Far-Right.] Eszmélet [Consciousness] 124. sz. (2019) 183-184)

[16Scheiring (2020), 294.

[17Viktor Orbán. “We have organised containment effort on four fronts; further small businesses granted tax exemption,” March 23, 2020g. accessed November 4, 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/we-have-organised-containment-effort-on-four-fronts-further-small-businesses-granted-tax-exemption

[18Mihály Varga. “Further relief measures for debtors,” March 25, 2020. accessed November 4, 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-for-national-economy/news/further-relief-measures-for-debtors

[19Viktor Orbán. “The era of the work-based state is approaching,”. July 29, 2014. accessed November 4, 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/the-era-of-the-work-based-state-is-approaching)

[20Source: “Main points of the economy protection action plan,” accessed November 4, 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/en/news/main-points-of-the-economy-protection-action-plan

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