April 17, 2020

The Martian View of Europe, liberalism, Hungary

Patrolling police officers are seen through glass n a park during lockdown due to the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Budapest, Hungary, 11 April 2020.
Patrolling police officers are seen through glass n a park during lockdown due to the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Budapest, Hungary, 11 April 2020.

If the Martians had a university where there was a department of European studies, they would be scratching their heads in a thoroughly perplexed fashion. Here is Europe facing its most serious crisis in a hundred years, Covid-19, one that is transforming society, the economy and much else, yet in the midst of it, the Hungary issue erupts yet again as a major source of political argument.

It’s not that Hungary is a particularly important country in the European perspective – indeed, our Martians had trouble finding it on the map. Geostrategically it is a secondary, landlocked state which plays no irreplaceable role in anything, other than in these rather regular politically driven outbursts.

What is noteworthy about these political moments is that they do not change. For a decade the left of the political spectrum in Europe has united to censure Hungary. The language used to do this does not change in essence, though there may be occasional variations. The condemnations are static in that they remain restricted to a few areas of Hungarian life, primarily “breaches” in the rule of law in a democracy. No counter-argument is allowed. If any is made, it is ignored.  Now this is odd, our Martians might say. Europe prides itself on being the legatee of Enlightenment rationality, on the centrality of scientific objectivity and on evidence-based argument, relying on conjecture and refutation.

So, asks the puzzled Martian team, why is contrary evidence ignored? After all, isn’t this what Europe stands for? Yes may be the answer, but the role of Hungary in left-wing politics has acquired a different rationality of its own. From the outside, it has the shape a legal disagreement – is there or is there not a functioning rule of law in Hungary? The answer could be decided without much trouble, but it hasn’t been, so the solution to the puzzle, as the Martians came to realise, lies well below the surface.

The same goes for comparisons, that if a particular practice is regarded as deplorable in Hungary, the Hungarians are not permitted to point to another EU country and say, but why don’t you condemn the same practice there? When there is an answer, it is usually the one word, “whataboutism”. This basically denies that any comparison can be made, because it hints – does not demonstrate – that such a comparison is illegitimate because one is trying to compare two things which are too unalike to be compared, like apples and pears, a category error.

Add to this, that the constant censure of Hungary had no effect on Hungary itself. Policies were not adjusted, space was not made for the demands of the liberals, and the strategies of the Fidesz government were pursued as if the liberal castigation was not happening. Indeed, if anything the repeated attacks were counter-productive in that they strengthened Fidesz’s resolve and placed the (defeated) Hungarian left-wing in an invidious position of dependence on their Western confrères and not Hungarian voters.

All the same, think the Martians, there are still puzzles to be solved here. A hardworking research assistant from the Martian team has collected hundreds of these condemnations and they note with some perplexity that the language, vocabulary, sentiments – the discourse – of these statements has been entirely static. The same words, the same formulations, the same phrases are repeated again and again – illiberal, populist, corrupt are used frequently – if not invariably.

The team is forced to several conclusions. First, the discourse of Hungary is entirely static, hence it cannot be evaluated by its content. It is neither analytical nor explanatory. Their attention is drawn to a cadre of French researchers who have developed the concept of langue de bois, wooden language, language that does not resonate, does not communicate what the words say, but is a metamessage, which is as much about blocking other kinds of alternative messages as anything else.

The term langue de bois was taken over from Russian by the French, but here is a Russian assessment. Alexander Yurchak’s view is that Soviet-type language amounted to a routinised hegemonic representation, a standardisation of an authoritative discourse, which was structured around an idea or dogma. The discourse is separated from and superior to all other discourses, which must defer to it; it is immutable and beyond questioning, it is a text that cannot be interrogated. To anyone who has lived in a Soviet-type system, this all sounds very familiar indeed.

But surely Europe, the EU, democracy, liberalism are meant to be the polar opposite of communism? Well, yes, but here we would do well to recall Nietzsche’s “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster”. Those who participate in the regular condemnations of Hungary have come to believe that they are doing battle with a monster, the monster that questions the legitimacy of their version of liberalism. Which Hungary does.

But why, then, do those who fight the Hungarian monster not engage with its arguments? We have seen that they do not, so why keep repeating the same propositions in the same way? Because what we are witnessing is a ritual, not a political debate. The Martians are a step ahead of us here. If it were a political debate, then the arguments would have changed, the evidence would have been evaluated not ignored, the lion would lie down with the lamb, conjecture and refutation would flourish and everyone would be putting flowers on the grave of Karl Popper.

Manifestly this is not the case, so another explanation is needed. It’s ritual. Much of mainstream political thinking, the media very much included, is minded to dismiss ritual as pointless flim-flam. They couldn’t be more wrong. All human institutions rely on ritual to secure solidarity, to sustain a consensus that is taken for granted (not debated) and to establish propositions that all those inside the magic circle accept as an unquestionable fact. Why else have anniversary celebrations, say?

Ritual necessarily requires a ritualised language, one that is unchanging, immediately familiar to the participants and feels like langue de bois to outsiders. It does so because it is disconnected from reality and constructs another, with moral content – good and evil, right and wrong, monsters and those who fight them – from which outsiders are excluded. And more than anything else, the exclusion is total when it comes to the purported monster. The technique of ritualised language is easily diagnosed – the Martians took French lessons – “there is no verifiable information, no argument that may be contradicted, but unsupported declarations, immobile assertions, flawed evidence”, wrote Christian Delaporte.

A few minutes with the anti-Hungarian discourse will show that we are dealing here with a copybook example of a well-established ritual, which then answers the question of why evidence and rational counter-argument are met with glazed eyes and ignored. The ritual and its language are immutable and beyond challenge.

All this explains the mechanisms and some of the reasons why. But not all. Why did this ritual arise in the first place? In sum, because when the ritual began to emerge around 2010, the first winds of what later came to be dismissed as populism came to be felt. The political opponents of populism were and are those who insist that democracy must invariably be liberal and, for that matter, that liberalism is inherently democratic.

Furthermore, and this is a key piece of the puzzle, that an ever more tightly integrated Europe was the most effective guarantee that the successes of liberalism could not be rolled back. Note that these successes, even if self-attributed somewhat, are considerable. They include the toppling of religion as exemplary and binding, the marginalisation of nationhood, and the defeat of fascism and communism. Hence it was logical on the part of liberals that theirs was the future, much as Fukuyama declared (he was in error). And as the evidence of growing questioning of this liberal triumph became more palpable, there was a closing of the liberal ranks. Every group does this, pressure, challenge, attacks promote cohesion.

One further question, why Hungary? Basically, because it was convenient. It is relatively small and uninfluential, no one knows the language, and by chance in 2010, the voters elected a government that was committed to putting maximum distance between itself and the failed liberal government that it had defeated at the polls. Besides, from the liberal perspective, it was odious enough that a liberal government should lose power, but for an avowedly centre-right, nation-friendly party to gain a two-thirds majority and to use it, well, that was intolerable. It was an overt challenge to the message of historical inevitability that was increasingly assumed by liberals. So Hungary rapidly became the ready-made negative other, the evil figure that had to be kept at bay through regular observance of the ritual.

Ah, thought the Martians, quidquid latet apparebit (words taken from another ritual).