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In the age of Putin’s Russia, George Orwell’s 1984 is stiflingly relatable today

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This year, I spent a suffocating four months living inside George Orwell’s “1984.” I didn’t know what I was getting into when a Moscow publisher suggested that I translate the classic dystopian novel into Russian, so I agreed too lightly. Vanity was part of the reason, but I did feel that “1984” had grown relevant to Russians, again.
I’m still coming up for air.

It’s not just me. The eminent translator Viktor Golyshev, whose Russian version of “1984” has won the most acclaim, spent a year on it in the late 1980s. He remembers being chronically sick for a year after finishing it.

“Nothing serious, just a runny nose,” Golyshev, who is 82 now, told me. “But there’s some contamination in this thing. It’s a poisoned book, perhaps because Orwell himself was sick when he wrote it.”

It was probably more than that. Reading “1984” closely — as a Russian, a journalist, and a believer in Russia’s potential to overcome Putinist despotism just as it defeated the Communist variety — is both sickening and cathartic because so much is instantly recognizable. Like my Soviet birth country and Russia today, Winston Smith’s world is both lawless and full of rules, incomprehensible from a human point of view but perfectly logical as a system, indiscriminately cruel and privately lyrical or even heroic.

Most of all, Winston Smith’s world is enclosing, hermetic, stifling. I remember the same feeling from school during the Brezhnev years. I never thought it would be back, not with such force. I felt sorry for Winston, but I knew I was feeling sorry for myself.

Becoming a Nonperson

The novel came out in English in 1949, but was banned in the Soviet Union in any language until 1988. To the best of my knowledge, my Russian translation will be the fifth to be published officially. That’s a lot of translations, even for so famous a literary work.

But they’re all different, and not just because rendering Orwell’s newspeak into Russian, along with his descriptions of life on Airstrip One, formerly known as Britain, requires difficult linguistic choices. Each version also reflects its time and its purpose, two factors that are far from trivial when it comes to “1984’s” history in Russia and in Russian.

Orwell himself determined the fate of his work in the Soviet Union. In 1937, the editor of a Moscow literary journal asked him for a review copy of “The Road to Wigan Pier,” a book about the plight of the English working class. Orwell sent back a copy along with a polite note pointing out his association with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, or POUM, an organization whose Barcelona workers’ militia fought in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell, who’d fought with POUM in Spain, knew the organization had fallen afoul of the country’s Stalinist Communists, influential in the Republican government trying to put down General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion. He didn’t think, therefore, that the Moscow journal would want to touch his work. Sure enough, the secret police advised the editor to write Orwell that getting in touch with him had been a mistake, since Trotskyite POUM was “part of Franco’s fifth column behind the lines of Republican Spain.”

The “Trotskyite” label stuck to Orwell, and his work was shunned in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In 1945, Orwell made things worse by writing “Animal Farm,” his dystopian fairy tale mocking the Russian revolution and then, two years later, a preface to the Ukrainian translation. The translation by Igor Shevchenko, called “Kolgosp Tvaryn,” or “Animals’ Collective Farm,” was circulated among Ukrainians in displaced-persons camps in occupied Germany. In his preface, Orwell wrote:

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there. But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930, I had seen little evidence that the U.S.S.R. was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class.

The Soviet occupation authorities demanded that “Kolgosp Tvaryn” be confiscated. According to a 2014 Orwell biography by historians Yuri Felshtinsky and Georgy Chernyavsky, the U.S. authorities collected 1,500 copies from the displaced Ukrainians and handed them over to the Soviets, but some of the books remained in circulation. There’s a copy in the Library of Congress.

Orwell became a nonperson in the Soviet Union. Mentioning him in print, even to criticize him, became dangerous, as literary critic and translator Eleonora Galperina (pen name Nora Gal) found out in 1947 after her piece titled “Debauched Literature” — in which Orwell was described as a “confused and slippery theorist” — was declared a “serious political error” by functionaries in the Soviet Writers’ Union.

That meant, of course, that a translation of “1984” could not be published in the Soviet Union. In 1958, according to the historian Arlen Blum, an expert in Russian censorship, the Ideology Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party actually ordered a translation and a print run of several hundred numbered copies (the translator’s name wasn’t mentioned), strictly for distribution to high-ranking party officials who were supposed to know the enemy better than the masses — to the Inner Party, as Orwell would have said.

But the book was present in the Soviet Union, anyway. There were two main ways to read it: In English, if someone sneaked a copy past linguistically challenged border guards (Golyshev first read a dog-eared paperback of “1984” some 20 years before he did his translation) and in the first Russian translation published overseas. First serialized in the emigre magazine Grani in the mid-1950s, it appeared as a book in 1957 in Frankfurt, courtesy of Possev-Verlag, a publishing house run by the People’s Labor Union, an anti-Soviet emigre organization. The group got the rights and even a subsidy from Orwell’s widow, Sonia.

The Treasure in the Closet

I first learned of the existence of “1984” when I was 11 or 12 years old. Digging around in a closet in our Moscow apartment, I stumbled upon a sheaf of yellowed Possev magazines, full of stories of brave dissidents and Communist oppression. My scandalized mother discovered me sitting on the floor engrossed in the forbidden literature and took the magazines away lest I brag about it at school. But I’d already seen the list of books the publishing house was selling — “1984” was on it — and memorized the titles so I could ask around for the unofficial bootleg copies known as samizdat.

The translators’ names were, according to the cover, V. Andreev and N. Vitov. Both are pseudonyms, one of a White Russian emigre professor, the other of a former Nazi collaborator. Their product doesn’t read well today, whether or not you’re familiar with the original. It doesn’t appear that the translators had a good enough command either of English idiom or of proper literary Russian. The writing is stilted. “Big Brother is watching you,” is rendered as “Starshy brat okhranyayet tebya,” or “Big Brother is guarding you.” The word “telescreen” is merely transliterated. The linguistic annex on newspeak at the end, which holds the key to the entire novel because it implies that the totalitarian regime of Oceania fell at some point, is simply missing. No wonder; it’s the hardest part of the book to translate.

But the Andreev-Vitov translation served its purpose. So did various amateur versions one could stumble upon, and so did the second professional one published as a book, in Rome in 1966. Done by Soviet writer and journalist Sergei Tolstoy from the French edition of “1984” — and therefore woefully imprecise — it had mysteriously leaked to the West and then back to the Soviet Union.

Not many people cared about style when they only got a barely readable typescript or photocopy for one night. As the late dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya recalled in 2009,

Orwell was the treasure of Samizdat. When I first saw [“1984”] in the early 1970s, it was a cumbersome, disheveled folio in a worn, cardboard cover, on tissue paper. The translations were bad, clearly homemade. Some had “teleekran,” some “telekran,” some even “telescreen.” But it was clear that it’s a TV camera, an eye that never sleeps, a watcher. “Alike and alone,” we got it.

She remembered that in some versions of the translation, Big Brother was rendered as Starshiy Brat, which translates literally as “Older Brother,” in others the more size-conscious “Bolshoi Brat,” but said “it was clear he was Stalin,” or a fearsome figure like Yuri Andropov, the KGB boss who rose briefly to national leadership after the 1982 death of Leonid Brezhnev.

Novodvorskaya went on: “Orwell was worth his weight in gold, or in blood. Not every kind of Samizdat landed you in prison under Article 70 of the Criminal Code, and Orwell did. It was worth more than life: We believed that once people read ‘1984,’ totalitarianism would fall.”

Orwell’s novel did something important for its Soviet readers: It described the reality around them as something abnormal, and that made it tolerable. Suddenly, it wasn’t their fault that they saw it all as both criminal and surreal. They were no longer part of the evil. In 1977, writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, by then an emigre, explained this in a Radio Liberty broadcast:

“It didn’t happen,” they say of something that happened. Before, I used to get really excited when I came across this. But after reading George Orwell’s “1984,” I calmed down somewhat about it. It was a philosophical kind of calm, probably not wisdom, more like self-defense, otherwise my nerves would get too frayed.

Meanwhile, the Soviet regime, still thoroughly Orwellian in the way it handled information, gradually grew more vegetarian, or perhaps simply less bloodthirsty. In 1982, there was even an entry about Orwell in the official Soviet Encyclopedic Dictionary; written in a kind of newspeak with characteristic abbreviations, it probably would have brought a grim smile to Orwell’s face:

Engl. writer and essayist. From petty bourg. radicalism, moved on to bourg. liber. reformism and anti-Communism. Antirev. satire “Animal Farm” (1945). Dystopian novel “1984” (1949) depicts society succeeding capitalism as totalitarian hierarch. system. Petty bourg. radicals consider O. a “new left” precursor.

By the time 1984 rolled around, it was perfectly fine to mention Orwell in print, and Melor Sturua, a top Soviet foreign correspondent and propaganda guru, penned a grandiloquent piece in the government newspaper Izvestia explaining that while Orwell had meant his novel as a “caricature of our system,” he ended up predicting the West’s moral bankruptcy.

“No, this isn’t the ideal of socialism, this is the daily routine of capitalism,” Sturua wrote. “The animal existence of the proles is its goal.” It was in the decaying West that the rich surveilled and oppressed the poor, the Pentagon preached that “War is peace,” Augusto Pinochet brutalized Chile and the apartheid government of South Africa erased the truth and vaporized truth-seekers.

By dragging Orwell out of nonpersonhood, the late Soviet ideologists — who still considered him an anti-Soviet propagandist — were gradually making the official publication of “1984” inevitable. It was one bit of evidence that the Soviet system was fraying.


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Opinion | The distressing disconnect of the Davos Man today

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In January 2020, the Davos elite, a group of privileged people, companies and institutions, will meet for the 50th time in as many years. The World Economic Forum (WEF), as it is officially called, has over these years served the interests of the 1,000 firms that are its members rather well.

The deregulation of economies espoused by the WEF opened the floodgates for large corporations as they rushed to invest and dominate businesses across the globe. In the last 50 years, corporate power and market share has got increasingly consolidated among fewer companies in most industries, often to the detriment of consumers and workers. For these mega corporations, membership of the WEF has paid off handsomely.

India too made its big splash at the summit in 2006. It was a coming-out party for an economy that was growing at around 8%, much to the delight of the world, and the Indian publicity campaign, dubbed “India everywhere”, saw the movers and shakers of business and Bollywood shaking a leg under the watch of policy mandarins. At Zurich airport that January, visitors who landed were greeted with huge billboards which trumpeted the “world’s fastest growing democracy” as a counterpoint to China’s growth.

In the following decade, the promise of India has considerably dimmed, even as China seems to have gained from the WEF’s charter. In 2006, India’s rank on the WEF’s annual Global Competitiveness Index was 43, while China was at 54. By 2019, India had slipped to 68 while China has risen to 28.

Next year again, Indian CEOs, celebs and officials will be present at the mega show. It is debatable if anything useful will come of their presence, though business individuals still find it a convenient place to network. But beyond an expensively mounted getaway for the rich and powerful, Davos’s appeal as a forum where the world’s problems are debated and resolved is in question.

Much of the criticism over the years has been directed at hedge fund billionaires and CEOs with million-dollar pay packages flying into the alpine resort in private jets to discuss such issues as climate change and growing inequality. Beyond the irony of that, there is a far grimmer reality. The world in the 1970s, roiled by an oil shock induced by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and dominated by oil and automobile companies like Exxon Mobil, General Motors and Ford, looked vastly different from the one today, in which the most valuable companies, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, operate in areas that existed only in the realm of science fiction then. Somewhere along the way, Davos Man (Samuel Huntington’s delicious term for the archetypal attendee of the annual gathering in this Swiss resort town) lost touch with developments on the ground, even as capitalism, the very bedrock of the lobby group, increasingly came under pressure.

Indeed, if its original objective was a commitment to “improving the state of the world”, it is clear the forum has failed to deliver. Even Klaus Schwab, its visionary founder and executive chairman, has been forced to concede that “people are revolting against the economic ‘elites’ they believe have betrayed them”. With good reason.

At this year’s Davos meeting, Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, presented a report claiming that the gap between rich and poor had only increased. Titled Public Good Or Private Wealth, it stated that the fortunes of billionaires increased by 12% last year—or $2.5 billion a day—while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their assets decline by 11%. Byanyima was scathing in her assessment of this concentration of wealth: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system.”

Next year’s conclave is focused on the “fourth industrial revolution”. Ironically, the Davos corporate elite is facing its biggest challenge from these very disruptors who continue to poop the party of big business in ways they seem unable to anticipate when they ponder the future at such events. The gig economy, the very fulcrum around which business fortunes turn today, is the creation of men and women who have barely heard of Davos.

The problem, of course, is that today’s disruptors quickly turn into tomorrow’s establishment. In 1999, Wired magazine placed Jeff Bezos in the “arriviste” category of its listing of Davos attendees. Within two decades, he was right up there. In 1997, when the Davos theme was “Building the Network Society”, Bill Gates and Andy Grove were its two major “digital revolutionaries.” Today, a whole new generation of such revolutionaries is taking centre stage.

As for debate-worthy subjects for the world’s elite, wealth is increasingly coming into focus. At a recent New York Times DealBook conference, Bill Gates took on US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s proposal of an additional 3% levy as wealth tax on billionaires, saying: “When you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over.” That Gates, whose generous philanthropy has gone some way in making the world a better place, should be conflicted about the issue is itself revealing.

A reordering of the world’s wealth to make it more equitable is not a simple matter. It is what you would expect the WEF to discuss at Davos. Instead, the theme next year is a rather dull, “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World”.

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The fountainhead of India’s economic vitality

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The Modi government has restored the social fabric of trust that had eroded in the UPA years

A new India has risen from the ashes of old India. This new India is bold and forward-looking, an aspirational country soaring on the hopes and energy of 1.35 billion people. And as this new India rises, it leaves behind the corrupt, discredited practices that bedevilled old India.

The stunning rise of new India baffles those left behind. In a recent article, “The fountainhead of India’s economic malaise” (November 18, The Hindu), former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh states that “The tearing of our social fabric of trust is the fountainhead of our current economic malaise.” In fact, the reality of new India is quite the opposite: the restoration of our social fabric of trust by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the fountainhead of our current economic vitality. And while Dr. Singh writes about a climate of fear, he surely recognises that those living in fear are the wrongdoers who flourished during his time as Prime Minister.

A rising superpower

I say this not as a member of the party in power, but as a citizen of the country and a student of business. Note that India is the fastest-growing large economy in the world — long-term trend GDP growth rate is steady at about 7%. Inflation, fiscal deficit, and current account deficit have finally been tamed. Primary employment has grown from 433 million to 457 million in the past five years. India’s foreign exchange reserves are at record levels. The country has vaulted from 142 to 63 in the world in the Ease of Doing Business rankings; corporate tax rates have been slashed and are now among the lowest in the world; and India leads the world in new industries such as renewable energy, fintech, and affordable healthcare. The stock market is at a record high, doubling in the past five years, creating more than ₹50 trillion in investor wealth. Foreign Direct Investment is humming along at $40-50 billion per year. Venture capital and private equity are booming, with investments running at thrice the rate during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years. Our start-up ecosystem is now the third largest in the world. India has been churning out unicorn companies: there are 20 unicorns right now, and another 30 are expected in the next few years.

Growth has moderated recently. This may happen in an open $3 trillion dollar market economy driven largely by private enterprise and buffeted by geopolitical vicissitudes and creative destruction. However, pragmatic business people do not extrapolate from cyclical troughs; instead they build their businesses on the basis of long-term, durable trends. And the trend is clear – India is fast on its way to becoming a $5 trillion economy and is well-positioned to becoming a $10 trillion economy. We will soon be the world’s third largest economy and, quite genuinely, a rising superpower.

Billionaire Raj to People’s Raj

All this has been achieved by Prime Minister Modi’s government in the past five and a half years. India has been transformed politically and economically, but most importantly, the social fabric of trust has been restored. During the UPA years, society had lost trust in government and the rule of law. We began to doubt India’s future. Terrorists attacked the country again and again. Wide swathes of the country were controlled by Left-wing extremists and brigands. Shadowy, extra-constitutional figures ran India. The national government was in a shambles with each Ministry pursuing its own agenda. Government permissions were handed out in hotel lobbies and massive loans granted through phone calls. Crony capitalists feasted on government largesse and there was rampant corruption. Economic growth plummeted while inflation and the fiscal deficit mounted. With India on sale, the UPA years have been labelled the Billionaire Raj. Who dare forget those tragic, desperate times?

Prime Minister Modi’s government has restored the rule of law, trust in government has been rebuilt, and the country is moving forward with new-found confidence. Banks have been forced to come clean on their bad loans. Rickety business empires based on irresponsible lending are collapsing. Crony capitalists, unable to compete, are failing. Skeletons are tumbling out of the closet as investigations proceed, and the guilty are confronting jail sentences. Those who fled the country to avoid prosecution now face extradition. Note that all these investigations have been undertaken while following legal due process and are fully subject to judicial review. The Billionaire Raj has been dismantled and replaced by the People’s Raj.

The wide-ranging reforms initiated by Prime Minister Modi’s government have transformed the Indian economy and made it more globally competitive. While much of their impact is still working through the economic system, and some disruptions are inevitable, these reforms have already profoundly reshaped economic behaviour. Reforms extend across every aspect of the economy but can be grouped into five major areas: (1) establishing a transparent, rules-based economy free from crony capitalism; (2) restoring and maintaining macro-economic stability; (3) building a robust social safety net; (4) improving infrastructure to world-class levels; and (5) strengthening the financial system. Capital is flowing to innovation-driven businesses and well-governed companies with real cash flows.

Reaching growth targets

Our globally competitive, innovation-driven economy will easily reach its growth targets. With GDP at $5 trillion, GDP per capita will be over $3,600 and at $10 trillion, GDP per capita will reach $6,200 (population growth at 1.2% as per United Nations estimates). At these levels, India will be among other upper-middle income countries. The more prosperous States in south and west India will reach upper-middle income status sooner. India has seen an astonishing reduction in extreme poverty with the total number of such people declining rapidly. There are probably no more than 70 million people living in extreme poverty in India today. With GDP reaching $5 trillion, India will eliminate extreme poverty forever.

Prime Minister Modi’s government is set to deliver one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements. We will have brought peace and prosperity to India’s 1.35 billion citizens, lifted everyone out of extreme poverty, resolved long-standing disputes that had cleft the nation, and enabled Indians to live dignified lives. All criticism is welcome in our open democracy, but make no mistake: the Modi decade is enabling India to realise its full human potential and positioning it at the forefront of nations.

Jayant Sinha is the Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Views expressed are personal

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A New Kind of Right-wing Extremism is On a Roll in Hungary

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Hungary has been in the news in recent times, both due the relentless right-wing policies of the Fidesz party government of Victor Orbán and the minor yet promising success of the opposition against him. The working classes, students and academic community, and other progressive sections in Hungary have often registered their opposition to several of these policies. However, Orbán and his party continue their dominance over the Hungarian polity, riding on hyper-nationalist and Euro skeptic sentiments in the country. In recent local body elections, a united opposition made some electoral gains in the major cities of Hungary, even as the Fidesz party managed to maintain its overall edge. Peoples Dispatch (PD) spoke to political analyst and academic, József Böröcz, who hails from Hungary and is a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, United States, about the impact of Orbán’s policies on the various sections in the country and the characteristics of his political campaign.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): Why does Viktor Orbán intend to control the autonomous research institutes in the country? Why will be its implications and why should it be opposed?

József Böröcz (JB): Indeed, Orbán’s government has used its legislative majority essentially to take over direct control of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Like all erstwhile state socialist societies, Hungary’s Academy of Sciences is a hybrid institution. It is the collective body of the country’s greatest natural scientists, as well as scholars in the humanities and the social sciences – established as a replica of the Academy of France in the early 19th century. Most of the country’s current research institutes were either created, or brought under the “umbrella” of the Academy of Science in the early years of state socialism, by government decree. So, the Academy began functioning, partly like a largely symbolic community of scholars, partly much like a “Ministry of Science,” providing stable funding for research and channeling the state’s interests, wishes, needs, strategic emphases, etc. to the country’s research establishment. With the collapse of state socialism in 1989, this “hybrid” arrangement remained intact – in fact, it was expanded. A series of post-state-socialist laws in fact set aside government funding for the Academy research institutes, while also guaranteeing their autonomy.

Over time, many things had changed. With the country’s entry into the European Union in 2004, Hungary became eligible for infrastructural subsidies from the EU’s central budget. The amount of these transfers from the EU to Hungary, and all other middle-income societies of east-central and south-eastern Europe, of course dwarfs in comparison to the profits taken out of this region by foreign Big Capital in the west European member states of the EU. But the subsidies are significant enough to have created their own “universe,” a context in which being able to participate in competitions for, and win, EU subsidies became the extremely rich resource for domestic private capital. In Hungary, an astonishing percentage of such subsidies coming from the EU are routinely won by a handful of capital groups, many of which enjoy excellent informal network ties with the prime minister’s immediate family. One of his childhood friends, a former plumber, is widely considered to be the country’s richest businessman. His father, as well as his son-in-law, starting a generation ago from very humble beginnings, are both owners of companies listed among the 100 richest businesses in Hungary. 

The government of Hungary has argued that there were three main political problems with the research infrastructure of the Academy of Sciences. First, there was, the government argued, too much of a divide between basic research and applied, profit-making research. Second, the autonomy of the Academy had effectively provided academic freedom: it shielded many scholars critical of the government from the government’s wrath. Third, the government has had little to no influence on the structure and the areas of the research done in these institutions. The government’s representatives have repeatedly indicated that there is too much emphasis on the humanities and the social sciences, as well as other high-abstraction fields. So, the government has decided to alter the legal environment in which the Academy institutes work, such that they lose their autonomy to a government-appointed oversight body. I should point it out that the idea of taking away the financial security and substantive autonomy of the research network of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was not the current government’s invention. Plans that were remarkably similar had been drafted by earlier, neo-liberal governments. The only difference is that the current government has actually managed to implement such neo-liberal reforms.

In the process, the government has collectively humiliated the entire Hungarian research infrastructure – I should add, quite a remarkably high-quality one at that, for a country of under ten million people – as well as the current president of the Academy of Sciences, a world-renowned mathematician.

The removal of the autonomy of the research institutes means that those institutions will now be subject to radical neo-liberal restructuring and that those products of their work that are suitable for “marketization” will now be converted to for-profit products, most likely with EU monies, and most likely to benefit the already oligarchic close circle around the prime minister.

PD: What was Orbán’s problem with administration of the Central European University (CEU)? What is the current status of that issue and in what way has it affected the academic prospects of the university?

JB: Central European University (CEU) was established as an US-accredited graduate school in the social sciences. It relocated physically to Hungary, after its initial tri-city (Warsaw-Prague-Budapest) arrangement failed, about a generation ago. Calling it a “university” is somewhat imprecise as, under Hungarian law, an institution is a university if it has not only MA and PhD-training but also undergraduate (BA) programs, which CEU does not. Several plans were drafted to transform it into a private BA-granting institution but all of them had been abandoned, at least until now. Beyond this technicality, there was also a problem with the fact that CEU claimed to be “a US university” while it had, for quite a while, basically no demonstrable presence in the US, other than formal accreditation with the state of New York, and perhaps an office address. CEU has also established its own mirror institution in Hungary, a non-profit registered under the same name as Central European University – only in Hungarian. The newly created mirror organization conforms to all rules and regulations that apply to all Hungarian universities (a nightmare of bureaucratic hassles). CEU decided to re-double itself partly to make a gesture to the Hungarian government, partly in order to be able to issue diplomas that are automatically valid within the European Union (while a US degree is not, making it slightly more complicated for its graduates to attain jobs requiring graduate degrees in the European Union), partly to make itself eligible for the sizeable research funding schemes established by the European Commission, applicable only to institutions registered within the EU. This “mirror” organization is alive and doing reasonably well, given the circumstances. 

Trouble is, the bigger and much more powerful, US-accredited CEU became the object of concentrated harassment, vicious lies and bureaucratic tampering on part of the Hungarian government, leading to its self-removal to Vienna (250 km west of Budapest). It has just opened its first semester in Vienna a few days ago. So currently, there exist two CEUs, one registered as a Hungarian institution, physically in Budapest, and another, run as a US-accredited institution, issuing MA and PhD-programs, granting US degrees, based physically in Vienna. The Vienna-based unit has begun renovating a large and very grand looking sanatorium building in the outskirts of Vienna. Until it is finished, it will function in a rented space a few blocks from Vienna’s main railway station.

Much more important, the reason why the current extreme-right government has decided to harass CEU was that it saw it as a “liberal stronghold.” By “liberal” they mean – as it is done conventionally in east-central Europe by “liberals” as well as their opponents – a political ideology that takes the concept of “liberty / freedom” out of the context of the triple slogans of the French revolution, in essence ignoring the ideas of equality and fraternity, and produces a very powerful conversation focused on human rights, taken out of all economic contexts. The government is convinced that CEU was, or had become, an alien body, an ideological facility that trains talented young east Europeans to be liberal activists, promote civic rights, such as ethnic, “race”, gender / sexuality, religion, etc. To what extent that is actually the case is not clear. To be sure, the government adamantly opposes those ideas (except of course privileging those identity categories that the government itself promotes, in proper fascist fashion—white, Christian, single-ethnic Magyar, straight, male). What makes all this rather absurd is that Orbán, the head of the current government, had benefited from study grants from George Soros, CEU’s founder, a couple of decades ago, and that the current government’s chief spokesman himself holds a US-accredited PhD in History from CEU.

PD: Why is the labor reform law of the Orbán government being mocked as slave law? In what ways is it going to affect the Hungarian working class?

JB: Hungary is a small, middle-income country in the heart of Europe, with excellent rail, river, road and air connections to western Europe. At the time of the collapse of state socialism in 1989, it was the most indebted country in Europe on a per-capita and per-GDP basis. The sell-off of the erstwhile socialist state’s assets – factories, store chains, energy production facilities, state farms, subsidized housing, public buildings, etc. – happened at extremely, almost absurdly low prices. The state pushed privatization not only for ideological reasons, but also, in this case much more important, because it was facing a severe debt crisis. Most of Hungary’s state debt was owed to private banks. This makes Hungary quite different from Poland – the other deeply indebted socialist state at the time – since the latter owed the majority of its debt to states. As a result, more than half of Poland’s debt could be – and was – forgiven by the lending states, in 1991, when it became clear that it had abandoned state socialist rule for good. Post-socialist Hungary re-paid all of its debt to the last penny, with full interest. 

The source of those repayments was raised by selling the country’s productive assets. With the news of Hungary’s and the rest of former-state-socialist eastern Europe’s impending admission to the European Union (it formally happened in 2004), the advantageous geographical location, the high quality, disciplined and flexible labor force inherited from the socialist era, and the low wages and other costs for business, the country suddenly looked very attractive to foreign direct investment beyond privatization.

As a result, by the time the country finally became a member of the EU, an astonishing proportion of its total GDP was “realized” by foreign capital, mostly Big Capital from the western member states of the EU. Subsequent governments – not just the current one – kept promoting foreign direct investment through a whole slew of measures, from generous infrastructural investments into prospective production sites through very persuasive tax incentives for new investment. Consequently, Hungary has become essentially a large assembly plant, more dependent on west European capital than ever in its modern history. 

As a result, and with the opening up of opportunities for unencumbered movement for east-central European, including Hungarian, labor all over the territory of the European Union, a sizeable part of the most well-trained, young and ambitious parts of the labor force have already taken up employment in western Europe. Consequently, foreign investors, especially industrial assembly plant-style operators, face a new problem: scarcity of labor. This is particularly exacerbated by the fact that the government has, until recently, revealed strongly neo-fascist commitments to preventing the importation of “guest labor”. This is particularly a problem in the automotive and other machine assembly industries whose market demand tends to fluctuate strongly, creating debilitating labor shortages at peak periods. (The government’s anti-labor-importation policy may be on the way to changing: It has just been announced that Hungary will accept up to 75,000 foreign workers, with regular work permit visas, a scheme advertised mainly in Ukraine, China and India.)

The law pushed through by the government, using its two-thirds majority in Parliament, referred to as “the Slave Law” relaxed the limits on how much overtime employers can order their workers to work. It also made it possible for employers to not pay overtime wages until the end of the given calendar year. That is a particularly powerful provision as it allows employers – as I mentioned, mainly west European Big Capital – to choose when to pay their workers. This forces the workers of such factories essentially to lend the overtime portion of their salaries to their employers, for unpredictable lengths of time – perhaps a week, perhaps 8 months – at zero interest, until the management finds the company’s finances, as well as the international financial market situation (i.e., the exchange rate between the currencies in which they receive their incomes and the Forint, the Hungarian currency in which they are supposed to pay their workers) convenient and economically advantageous. And, of course, the law also means that it is possible to increase the length of the workday, and deny the constitutionally guaranteed free days per week, with a unilateral decision by management, on a short notice.

What is particularly significant about the story of the Slave Law is that it was pretty much the first time since 1989 that worker resistance reached the level of national politics. Of course, the protests did not quite manage to force the government and its parliamentary majority to abolish the Slave Law, but it taught at least some parts of the Hungarian working class that, in the future, it might be able to muster enough strength to make its demands not only “heard” but also force the political elites to act in their interests.

PD: Why is there a surge in right-wing populism in the region? Does that indicate the recent crisis of the center-right/left social democracy in the region?

JB: I prefer not to use the term “populism” in this way, as it is imprecise. It is too broad. I would in fact quite strongly welcome a left populist turn in east-central European, indeed global, politics. What is happening in Hungary and at least some of the other societies of the former-state-socialist, now brashly, roughly capitalist parts of the world is the emergence of a new kind of extreme-right politics. The government of Hungary is showing virtually all elements of a fascist orientation, except for two historical conditions that are not present in Hungary: First, the government has not been able to destroy the procedure of voting as a way to choose who will rule the country. As a result, even with the restrictions on the functioning of the opposition parties, the government still faces competition every five years. Second, they do not (yet?) have the wherewithal to impose total rule over society by general violence. Similar developments can be observed elsewhere in the former-state-socialist world. Because those two elements of the conventional notion of fascism are not in place, some political analysts refer to the Hungarian “model” as a “hybrid regime” where though more or less contested, multi-party voting continues, and general political violence does not quite exist, but it is fascist in just about every other regard.

Why is this happening? The most important thing, in my opinion, has to do with the state socialist legacy of these societies. Or, to be more precise, the way in which state socialism ended. The politically active segments of late socialist Hungary were taught by their successful, and rather well to do intellectual elites that socialism as an idea was impossible. The resistance to state socialist political practice – which came, initially, clearly from the left, i.e., critiquing the state socialism of the time as not being socialist enough – turned into a liberal direction by the mid-seventies, i.e., a good half a generation before the collapse of the system. In other words, by the time the USSR’s leadership would be forced to drop its political control over east-central Europe, a palpable anti-socialist conviction had already taken hold in most of these societies, including not only “dissidents” and opposition intellectuals, but also a very wide strata of society in general. A neo-liberal denial of not only the practices, but the very possibility of socialism was, by the mid-80s, becoming a dominant “faction” among party members as well. Of course, as we know in retrospect, that time, the 80s, was the period of the global hegemony neo-liberalism, a political doctrine that regards for-profit production, the control of government by capital, and the diminution of all realms of society to the imaginary forces of “the market” as the normal, generic model of human life. What is relevant from this are two indisputable things. First, the most peaceful, most prosperous and overall most socially sustainable era in Hungarian history was the period of state socialism between the early sixties and the mid-eighties. The truth of this claim is reflected, for instance, in opinion poll results. Second, equally powerful is the fact that any kind of a conversation about socialism, in any form, cannot take place in Hungarian culture today. Of course, the police won’t take you away if you utter such ideas. There is no need for the police as the notion of a peaceful, not only environmentally but also socially sustainable form of social organization, one that would be based on a constitutional ban on the private appropriation of the product of other people’s labor is essentially made impossible by the institutions that organize public conversation, and the most prominent intellectuals who dominate public life. If you utter such things, the media as well as the all-powerful intellectual circles, not to mention virtually the entire sphere of party politics, will immediately abandon, avoid, essentially boycott you. 

There is a very effective informal ban on “left” political speech in Hungary. Consequently, critiques of the existing, harsh conditions of semi-peripheral capitalism, the effective locking of vast swaths of the population into having no chance to live a life that would allow them to unfold their human potential, are forced in another direction, away from the left. A rather conventional, middle-of-the-road, “liberal” position, mixed with very depressing neo-liberal economic policies, characterized politics in Hungary in the first two decades after 1990. Much of this anger is directed toward that middle-of-the-road, “liberal” position, mixed as it was with neo-liberal policies. Since a “left” critique is not permitted, the popular discontent flows in the direction of anti-liberal political positions, politicians who shout extremely simplistic, nationalist slogans, who appeal to the most anachronistic, conservative elements in society. This is amplified by the new communication technologies to an extent previously unimaginable. Young people who face an impossible situation in their lives, who will never be able to afford housing until their parents die, who struggle even to learn a basic skill that would give them a livelihood, people who are vastly under-employed in their own country as well as elsewhere in Europe – this is bound to produce a situation of not only frustration and resentment, but also anger and violence. It is that energy that the political machine behind the current government is transforming into its own support. Add to this the sudden revival of old generations of educated conservatives, nostalgic of a peaceful society based on paternalistic, “peaceful” class oppression, people influenced by the most retrograde elements in the churches, as well as some of the offspring of the perpetrators implicated in Nazi violence during World War II, etc. This is the new political consensus in east-central Europe today. It won’t last forever, but I don’t quite see signs of a popular politics from the left yet.

PD: Does the EU really care for the economic and social integration of the former eastern bloc countries? Or do they just need the eastern bloc for geo-political and strategic interests?

JB: The erstwhile state-societies of east-central Europe – in other words, those former-socialist societies that are geographically closest to west European markets and had pre-socialist histories of domination by the same west European powers – are already as tightly integrated into the EU as they could ever be. It is just that the terms of their integration are, overall, vastly disadvantageous for them. This situation is just fine for west European capital, states and the vast majority of citizens. Consequently, it will not change by benevolent action on the part of west European societies.

Another group of former state socialist societies – those farther away, especially the successor states of the USSR – are of considerably less interest to west European capital and states. This may have to do partly with geography, partly with what Europeans call “cultural” issues (i.e., the fact that the latter societies are less used to being dominated by west Europeans, they are more attuned to Russian or Ottoman practices of oppression), partly with the fact that, in the capitalist transformation of the USSR, foreign capital played a much smaller role than in east-central Europe. Once the USSR collapsed, its most powerful member states were made capitalist primarily by members of their own political, economic and intellectual elites, leaving less “space” for west European competitors to enter.

PD: How do you explain Orbán’s loss of Budapest and a number of larger towns in the last regional elections?

JB: Overall, Budapest and Hungary’s other urban centers have always been more “liberal” than rural small towns and villages. In this sense, the more intolerant, more arch-conservative excesses of Orbán’s brash message have always had less of an audience there. This time, also, the sitting pro-Orbán mayor of Budapest, a good 25 years senior to his opponent, put up a considerably weaker fight than the opposition. So Budapest has now joined Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Bratislava – four capitals in the region – in having elected a non-extreme-right mayor, sort of in opposition against national political tendencies in the four countries.

What is most complicated about the Budapest situation is that the new mayor’s supporters include an explicitly neo-Nazi party (whose conflict with Orbán is not on ideological grounds—it is almost impossible to detect any difference there—but the fact that Orbán has refused to share the government, and his tremendous spoils through corruption, with them). As a result, the new Budapest mayor’s coalition spans a very broad political spectrum, from social democrats, middle-of-the-road liberals, greens – and an explicitly Neo-nazi party. The key to the political future of the Hungarian capital city will depend on the new mayor’s ability to manage this very odd coalition. It is also very clear from the municipal elections of October 2019 that Hungary still has a giant gap on the left of the political spectrum. So the opposition’s partial success in the municipal elections has more to do with the ability of local political forces to strike a short term, “tactical” electoral coalition, and nothing to do with a new, energetic politics on the left.

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