Letter From Hungary

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The economic crisis has led to politicians blaming the poorest for society's problems, and the rise of the far right, writes G M Tamás

Hungary seems to be haunted both by the demons of its past and the ghosts of the ultra-capitalist present - and the two seem increasingly similar.

It is not only that the superlatively unpopular "Socialist" minority government, in contrast to at least feebly Keynesian attempts elsewhere, tries to pursue its failed neoconservative policies, aided and abetted by the International Monetary Fund, but the country does not feel able to follow its own fate with anything like sustained attention. The nation is gripped by an unprecedented racist paranoia.

We are witness to a peculiar rebellion of the impoverished middle class - but not against grand capital or the "neoliberal" global order. This is a rebellion of the relatively strong against the absolutely weak. When society appears to come apart at the seams, it is not solidarity or even sympathy that is invoked, but persecution of the poorest.

Public opinion turned against the state not because it harbours predators and panders to interests detrimental to the public good but because it is presented (alas, erroneously) as protecting the powerless and distributing wealth among the needy.

While an increasing number of people are in danger of starving and freezing, the vocal majority is clamouring for an end to social services. Uniformed fascist paramilitary battalions are marching through the poorest districts to keep their voices down and their own bark up.

How is this possible? It is simple: the oldest of all political recipes. Identify the oppressed with an unpopular race, in our case the Roma or Gypsy. Then the causes of oppression and exclusion are rehabilitated and justified as the gallant defence of the working majority against - let me quote the Hungarian right wing press - "genetic garbage", welfare-dependent, work-shy, crime-prone "sub-humans".

Last summer a number of village mayors decided not to fulfil their legal obligation to hand social assistance to the officially listed recipients unless the latter were willing to perform (generally non-existent) public works. A wave of enthusiasm swept over the country. Instead of putting a stop to this breach of law, MPs saluted this initiative. Early this year the idea was turned into law. It stipulates all sorts of absurd conditions to be fulfilled by aspirants to social assistance. This leaves local councils to decide who are and who are not the deserving poor. The bill was seconded by the government "Socialists" and voted for by nearly all (except a few liberals).

Next a farmer had wired his garden fence against thieves and put it under an industrial strength electric current. One thief died and another was paralysed for life. After a short arrest the farmer was freed, celebrated, offered free council housing and declared by a major conservative broadsheet to be a valiant Hungarian.

In the run down, former industrial town of Miskolc, the local police chief called a press conference. He declared that all robbers in that town were Roma and that "coexistence with our minority fellow citizens proves unfeasible". He was fired by the home secretary, whereupon a demonstration gathered in the main square with the participation of the local mayor who doubles as a "Socialist" MP, all parliamentary "democratic" parties, the extra-parliamentary fascists and the neo-Nazi Hungarian Guard. The government backed down and the police chief was reinstated the same evening. The right wing journals and magazines appeared with banner headlines trumpeting "Truth Has Finally Triumphed", "The Roma Are Criminals: Official".

In opinion surveys, 82 percent are in favour of some restrictions on Roma rights such as territorial segregation (school segregation is a fact already), forcible adoption of Roma children, etc. The main opposition party, allegedly "centre-right", proposes further penal measures and severe sentences. The fascists are campaigning with death penalty propaganda and organising various vigilante groups.

In this atmosphere very few venture to protest at the latest austerity measures. And who do you think are those, according to the right, who are timidly venturing to speak out against this war against the poor? You have guessed right. It is "the bloody Jews" again, that's who.


G M Tamás is a Marxist philosopher, a dissident before 1989 and a former member of the Hungarian Parliament (1989-94)