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Friday, November 9, 2012

No-Growth Europe, Global Shifts

Barry Eichengreen has recently argued that the European Union must grow so that grossly antidemocratic forces cannot gain more of an upper hand than they already have. He doesn't quite spell it out what kind of antidemocratic forces he has in mind--my sense is that this is clearly true with respect to the extreme-right. And just what that might mean for the societies of Europe, we can easily imagine: all we need to do is read some 20th-century European history.

I agree with Eichengreen that the EU's inability to grow is a huge political risk. And it is a global risk, given the deep historical linkedness of west European societies to the rest-of-the-world.

The trouble is, setting Europe on a course of economic growth may not be possible. As historical evidence indicates, a chronic inability to grow has been the EU's curse throughout its existence. Managing the problems of geopolitical power arising from this chronic size-impairment is, as I have documented in my book, in fact the main rationale for the EU's creation. It is this chronic inability to grow beyond a certain global share that the EU's repeated enlargements were designed to mask, and they did so with remarkable effectiveness--until recently.

However, masking is not the same as fixing. Enlargements only swept historical structural issues under the rug. I have made this argument several times; last time using this graph:

In the graph, EU-enlargements appear as the upward-pointing "jumps" in the line representing the EU's share in gross world product. More important, we see a clear downward-sliding tendency during the years that did not involve enlargements.

A somewhat more puzzling question is why we talk so much about the EU's lack-of-growth nowadays. I can think of two, more or less simultaneous, reasons. First: The EU is pretty much running out of credible "accession" candidates, given the criteria for admission (having a particular kind of political system, predominance of a "European identity", whatever that means, etc.). This is especially the case for states the EU needs most--i.e., ones that are large enough to provide more resources--i.e., most important, cheap, qualified labor--for economic growth.

Second, all this is hitting the EU at a time when its longue-durée objets-de-désire and geopolitical nemeses--especially China, India and Russia-- (as well as such other, not-so-tiny societies as Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil) are growing remarkably fast, much faster than 'Europe', wherever one might want to draw its boundaries, or even "the west" (e.g., see the direction of the line representing the US in the graph above). In other words, west European capital's (and, hence, by political extension, west European populations') shares in the global pie are slowly and, as far as I can see, unstoppably, shrinking. And along with those declining shares in global value added, we see the erosion of west European influence over the global system as a whole. (Hence, e.g., the psychosis about "China's meddling in Africa.") Part and parcel to all this is western Europe's growing economic dependence on these societies, not just for raw materials, energy and labor, as throughout the history of capitalism, but also for affordable finished products and services. These are the principal processes that create the current concerns--which are, hence, obviously about much more than small technical issues of "European growth" and domestic politics in the less-well-off European states.

The current discussion about "European growth" is, thus, about the character of the emerging, new global order in the most profound sense of the word.

There is of course a solution: a slow and resolute process of cultural change whereby European societies would gradually learn to live at less than 3 times the world average per capita GDP and not treat the rest of the world as their own private corporate playground. But that of course would require "soft power" and "civilization" on part of the European states and the European Union--the two things their political systems sadly lack, in spite of all the rhetoric to the contrary.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Global Effects, Local Votes

As Joseph Stiglitz has recently argued, the US election has very wide-ranging implications for the rest of the world. The US is, clearly, a military, technological, economic and political superpower, and a very meddlesome one at that. It is one of the historical inadequacies of what is conventionally referred to as "global governance" that powers that can have long and determinate impact on the lives of people world-wide are governed by a tiny (in the case of the US, smaller than 5%) minority who constitute their citizenry.

But the US is by far not the only such case. By the same token, China, India, Russia, Germany, Britain, France, not to mention the supra- and pseudo-state of the EU itself, are all political powers that have a decisive influence on the world. Come to think of it, even small(er) size may not prevent states from influencing life for huge numbers of people beyond their borders.

But even that's not all. States (and the EU) are not the only large actors with a global impact. Corporations have, clearly, a similar impact, especially if they are large, if they have unique technologies that are in great demand (e.g., pharmaceutical molecules), if they are able to control important resources (from oil through gas and, increasingly, drinking water), or if they are able to influence people's ways of thinking without most of them even noticing, like the media, especially the commercial visual media, or (what is increasingly overlapping with the former), the entertainment industry.

I hate to say this: I have no idea how to fix these concentrations of power with no public supervision.

Friday, October 12, 2012

EU: Nobel Peace Prize

Today the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union. In order to arrive at this decision, the Committee had to perform three cognitive operations, each of them making their perspective on the world narrower, more prejudiced, more Eurocentric and, looking at the end result, simply plain old cultural-racist.

The Noble Peace Prize Committee had to, first, ignore the fact that the European Union's actions cannot be understood by looking at "Brussels" alone. I feel like a broken record as I keep repeating (as in a paper co-authored with Mahua Sarkar and its various subsequent versions in English, Magyar and Belarusian, not to mention the book to which this page is devoted, as a whole, plus my most recent blog entry below) that the EU is not a self-standing, self-contained and fully "self-made," singular actor but a network entity. Just like you cannot absolve from criminal responsibility the crime boss who sits in his villa in Florida while his minions execute his every command for violence, say, in Chicago, it makes little sense to separate the EU from the points where its laws, decrees and, more broadly, its geopolitical interests, are enforced. Mahua Sarkar and I identified four separate mechanisms through which the EU does this. Among them, the most obvious is the fact that the EU enforces its laws / interests through the activities of its member states. This is really not so difficult to see. "Brussels" per se has no executive apparatus of its own. What it has is a set of contractual relationships to its member states: Becoming a member (actually, to a large degree, even applying for membership) implies, basically, that you have to agree to execute the EU's decisions as your own. This is called, in EU-lingo, the "sharing and pooling of [the member states'] sovereignty." The acquis communautaire--the EU's eighty-thousand-plus-pages-long body of laws and regulations--is designed essentially to determine how this is to be done.

The timing of the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize gives a particularly vicious ring to all this. We are living in times when the domestic law enforcement agencies (i.e., the police forces) of the member states are routinely involved, as I pointed it out in my post a few days ago, in acts of violence against their own fellow citizens because those citizens protest the content of the laws imposed on them due to what is referred to as the "sharing and pooling of sovereignty."

The second is that in order to be able to even think that the EU is a proper recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize you had to look at a very narrow interpretation of European history, observing events exclusively on the inside--specifically, from within (predominantly: continental) western Europe. The justification that the EU's great achievement is pacification of the historical animosities between Germany and France is not only an age-old trope but, as numerous observers have pointed it out, also factually plain wrong. Going with the slightly exaggerated allegory of the mafia boss, the "eternal peace between European powers" argument is equivalent to saying that he deserves a peace medal because he managed to unite two local mafias to terrorize the locals more effectively. This inside-conversation about the EU as "essentially good" is, as Iain Martin describes it, "beyond parody" in another historical sense. In his succinct summary,

Daftest of all is the notion that the EU itself has kept the peace. It was the Allies led by the Americans, the Russians and the British who defeated and disarmed the Germans in 1945. The German people then underwent the most extraordinary reckoning, transforming their country into an essentially pacifist society. The EU had very little to do with it. Throughout that period it was Nato, led by the Americans and British, which kept the peace in Western Europe. The American taxpayer picked up most of the resulting tab, and the British paid a significant part of the bill too.

Right. Of course they didn't do that out of sheer "goodness" either--that's the nature of geopolitics. As a truism (attributed variously to Palmerston, Churchill and de Gaulle) states, "a state has no friends, only interests." In general, I sprout physical symptoms when a notion of essential goodness is inserted into geopolitics.

Third, there is the bewildering practice of personifying organizations. This, to me, is a faint contemporary European echo of the disastrous nineteenth-century series of logical fallacies committed by the United States Supreme Court that eventually gave full legal personhood to corporations (a source of an inordinate amount of suffering and political complications in the U.S. today). In a cognitively analogous manner, states and supra-state organizations have cropped up here and there on the list of Nobel Peace Prize recipients as if they could be attributed intentionality, coherence, morality and dignity in the same way in which individuals can. I find that this fudges the whole idea of the prize. Individuals are not like corporate actors in any way, and vice versa. If the Committee wishes to honor states and supra-state organizations, it should establish a special prize for them, or drop the idea of giving the award to individuals. Otherwise, it runs the risk of the entire enterprise becoming a (tasteless) joke.

Of course, having awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the chief executive of a global superpower with an active "kill list" makes the whole thing not really (or, if you view it that way, far too) serious. The way things look, war is peace, and peace is war, definitely.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

EU "Soft Power": Not So Soft at All

As news of the Spanish or Greek police cracking down on their own citizens protesting against their own governments' monetary policies keep pouring in, I can't help recalling some academic arguments a few years ago. These are, BTW, quite interesting crackdowns: Greek police beat up and apparently, also torture, Greek protesters whose main demand is reinstatement of economic sovereignty to their own government (i.e., that sovereignty which the police swore, ostensibly, to protect).

Mahua Sarkar and I argued 7-8 years ago, and the book develops the argument a few steps further, that the EU should properly be understood as part of a network arrangement for political power. (Chapter 2 in the book actually reconstructs the emergence of this network principle over 5 centuries of global geopolitics.) This implies that much of the "dirty work" of executing the EU's policies is done by other organizations (in this case, the local state). The availability of a set--currently: twenty-seven--fully developed executive apparatuses makes it really easy for the EU to portray itself as a polity without an executive apparatus. For scholars to accept this view, all you need is a little myopia (not looking beyond your nose in "Brussels".)

As a matter of fact, all the talk about "soft power" (especially in those parts of the social sciences that address themselves to the European Union--we can perhaps call them EU-logy) is, essentially, a new form of the "Europe=goodness" argument. In its initial form, that was of course an argument put forth to "prove" the deep "superiority" of 'Europe' in the colonial context--i.e., it was a cultural tool used to justify the political disempowerment and economic oppression of other societies. Today, "soft power" constitutes a breathtakingly imprecise argument that serves a few immediate purposes, e.g., to distinguish the EU from the USA (as if the two didn't operate in tandem everywhere in the world), as well as to reproduce an old European superiority worldview, this time vis-a-vis the "culturally non-democratic," etc. societies outside the Euro-American axis.

That argument is only possible because scholars who pursue it are willing to ignore how essential its network-character is for the EU. The EU is not an actor "without hard power": Its power is in fact quite "hard"--it is just that, technically, there is a one-step network removal between the EU's centers of power in Brussels and the points where that power is used. In other words, "Brussels," by itself, is doing no dirty work per se; the EU's member states (as well as, in other contexts, the US military and the other NATO-member militaries) do it for the political and economic interests congealed in "Brussels." And "Brussels" uses this power quite freely when it comes to issues that really matter.

What are those issues that "really matter"? Survival and well-being of the currency in which substantial investments and savings of the west European capital-owning classes are sunk (hence the crackdowns against the protests in the Mediterranean member states). Survival of capitalism as the militarily protected logic of global economic integration. Prevention of the emergence of even a mildly redistributive mechanism to correct the worst excesses of the breathtaking global inequalities created, under "European" geopolitical leadership, over the last two centuries. And, finally, protection of the economic, political and social space of western Europe from "outsiders," as in the enforcement of the exclusion principles of Schengen.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

EU, Borders, "Revision"

A member of the Hungarian Parliament, representing the ruling party (I will withhold the name, for reasons of taste), speaking at a meeting in Romania, has recently pondered about the possibility of a revision of the border between Hungary and Romania. In other words, he revived, again, a by now over 90-year-old territorial demand on part of the Hungarian state against Romania. This of course is bound to upset the Romanian state--after all, it's the principle of sovereignty that is being toyed with here. On this level, this is just a really, really boring, hyper-conservative nostalgia trip. At the expense of Hungary's neighbors. Cheap and stupid politics.

Meanwhile, there is this thing called the European Union. Both Romania and Hungary are members of it, for better or worse. The border between Hungary and Romania is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and with Romania's (and, btw, also Bulgaria's) imminent entry into the Schengen system, the whole thing will be pretty much completely meaningless. (To get a sense of what's going on on the ground: Since the introduction of visa-free access to the west European parts of the EU for Romanian citizens, the real problem for the Hungarian labor market is not the massive influx of informal labor from Romania, but the opposite, its disappearance. Romanian citizens, who had been a fixture in seasonal agriculture as well as the construction industry until about 5-10 years ago, have more or less moved to richer EU-member states.) Be that as it may, the border is all open, especially for Magyar-speaking citizens of Romania.

All this border revision talk is basically a red herring.

So, OK. I think I get it: the guy is a provocateur, he thrives in stirring irrational sentiment. Just ignore him.

What I don't get is why he does not get ridiculed out of politics.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Plunder of Last Remaining Public Assets Imminent in Hungary

It seems that privatization of some of the last bits of collective assets in Hungary, the Budapest Public Transport Company, and the State Railways, is imminent. I have arrived at this conclusion from a number of observations.

To start with, it is almost impossible not to notice the striking negligence with which the government has intentionally bled these companies of investment, creating a public transport infrastructure that is embarrassingly run-down, unreliable, dirty, environmentally polluting and overall a real shame. And this from a status quo ante until the early-to-mid-nineties that was actually, for the country's level of economic performance, quite acceptable.

Viewed from a global perspective, of course this makes perfect sense. As I have argued repeatedly, an apparently "essential" feature of the post-state-socialist governments' economic strategies, irrespective of political orientation otherwise, was a full commitment to privatizing assets and institutions in its possession (essentially neglecting the responsibilities to the public that place those assets and institutions in the hands of the government pretty much everywhere in the world). Since almost everything has in fact been privatized in Hungary, it takes hardly rocket science to predict what will happen to the remaining assets. Those remaining assets, in today's Hungary, include the health, culture and education infrastructures, the road system, the existing railroad infrastructure and the companies that operate those assets. Then there is the air, the water and the country's geopolitical and -economic location. That's just about it.

Trouble is, these assets are exceedingly difficult to privatize--for many reasons, one of which is that they most are actually necessary for the reproduction of society. Hence public sentiment regarding the state's actual performance in operating those assets is key to determining the order in which they will be privatized. It is not enough intentionally to run down these assets. There needs to be a public conversation that is hyper-critical of them, and it needs to be concluded that the state is essentially unsuitable to provide public services through institutions it owns and manages.

That public conversation is pretty much everywhere in Hungary--but, the fact that I got reminded of all this has to do with an op-ed piece, published in the "liberal" daily today, arguing that corruption is a necessary part of state-provided services, and that a municipally owned public transportation company has no right to exist in Budapest.

There is only one set of questions--who the lucky winners are to be. Of course this is the point about which there have been slight disagreements between the middle and right wing governments in the past. I really don't want to guess this, but if I had to, I would say I expect a combination of some of the most powerful "oligarchs" in the Hungarian economy and multinational capital, most likely from the EU. That's it. Game over.

What the subsequent governments will be able to plunder (to strengthen "their" own capital groups, etc.) is of course an open question. But, given the legendary creativity of Hungarian society, I'm sure they will find something.

Monday, July 30, 2012


A recent post on the Carnegie Europe site contemplates the possibility that the EU will be transformed into a state. I have two quick observations about this.

First, if such a transformation were to happen, it would imply, logically, that so far it hasn't (become a state), rendering that--vast--part of EU-scholarship which applies political-science-inspired models of quasi-statehood to the EU invalid. BTW, we know that the EU is not a state since it does not have what is considered the conditio sine qua non of statehood, at least since Max Weber: a monopoly over the means of coercion over a given territory. What it does have, instead, is a creative, fast evolving system of distributed execution, utilizing a network principle (borrowed, incidentally, from the state of the art in the management of large corporations). Mahua Sarkar and I wrote about this in some detail in 2005, and the book also includes a similar analysis.

More interestingly, second, this raises the question of just what the point is. I mean, the point of the EU as a historical project in the longue durée, (see the last chapter in my recent book ;-)) seems to have been that, by inventing the EU, post-war west European states managed to find a reasonably creative solution to some of their deep structural problems of geopolitics. Those problems were caused, partly, by the loss of most of their colonial empires (causing a very significant drop in their control over global resources of all kinds) and a modern war universally perceived as very destructive. What was needed was a mechanism that would give them a field in which they can exercise a high degree of coordination, and eliminate armed conflict, among themselves--without forming a pan-European state.

Pan-European statehood has pretty much been an anathema for many powerful historical reasons, the biggest of course being that that was, pretty much exactly, the essence of the nazi Europa-Projekt, and that even given a largely democratic Germany, so far as that goes, the latter's overbearing influence within a pan-European state could easily unleash a complete nationalist reaction elsewhere. Not to mention of course the possibility that a future German leadership could have sinful thoughts and try to convert its initial position as the most powerful member state into a long-term structural advantage, ensured not only by the power of the German economy but also the by then pan-continental state.

Non-state-ness has worked reasonably well for the EU so far--especially if we consider that it is an absolutely new (i.e., completely un-tested) kind of geopolitical entity. For example, it has allowed the EU to engage a geopolitical strategy I have called the elasticity of weight: It allows the EU and its member states to appear in global geopolitical fora of all kinds either as a single entity (with a considerable weight if that is what is needed, working as an extremely effective cartel vis-a-vis small states dependent on trade with western Europe) or as a loose conglomerate of 27 states (with the appropriate number of votes in international organizations, for instance). A transition to conventional statehood would threaten that elastic strategy.

Full statehood would undeniably provide advantages a host of advantages to a number of European actors, of course. E.g., a common state would help reduce the much-discussed "democracy deficit" by making it possible for citizens of the European states to feel "closer" to Brussels (although I'm not entirely sure they would enjoy that closeness :-)). It would also make it possible to manage, and perhaps even avoid, crises of the Greece-Spain-Italy-Portugal kind, not to mention the fact that a federal state would provide a straightforward and matter-of-fact structure for the efficient and effective application of development resources, reducing regional and cross-state inequalities. Once that happened, it would also become possible to talk about a truly shared pan-EU social policy, etc.

And yet, because of the above historical legacies and the overwhelming power of the geopolitical considerations in the construction of the European project, my bet is that the EU will continue its current strategy of self-suspension in quasi-(supra-)statehood for as long as it can pull it off.

When that becomes impossible, then things will get really interesting in Europe--and the world at large.

Monday, June 18, 2012

I'm very pleased to see that a recent blog entry by Paul Krugman is making essentially the same argument as my post "Greece: Crushed by Common Currency" on February 13, 2012.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Out-Migration: A National Catastrophe for Hungary? Hardly--At Least Not Yet

One of the current, alarmist themes in the liberal middle of the Hungarian media, and a large part of what I see from FB traffic, is the apparent "departure" of "our youth," ostensibly in search for opportunities of study and work "abroad," (which of course means western Europe and/or north America in that context). All this is because of the bad conditions in Hungary, caused by policies of the current, right-wing government.

I have absolutely no quarrel with the criticisms of the government. I have been doing a fair share of that myself. But I find the alarmism about the "disappearance of 'our' youth because of the current government's policies" frame is far too simple.

For one, a vast majority of the people who say they want to go abroad will not end up going--this is just the nature of migration.

Second, the free movement of labor is, no doubt, the most ambitious of the four "pillars" of the joint market of the European Union. It is participation in this migratory flows that the applicant societies _wanted_. Now, with an unfair delay of seven years, they finally have it--I'm not sure what the point is, at least from a liberal point of view, which is the perspective of most Hungarian critics.

Third, migratory flows are rarely caused by government policies alone. As, by now, a good two generations' worth of scholarly research has shown, (see a more than twenty year old summary here) there are a host of specific macro-stuctural conditions conducive to migrant outflows e.g., size of respective populations, availability of sellable skills among those prone to move, the existence of legal opportunities to enter foreign lands, or, perhaps most significant in the global history of migration: previous penetration by forces of multinational capital as well as foreign states, into the structures of the would-be migrant releasing state. Without such specific history of penetration it is impossible to even begin to address migration as a social phenomenon. This is the state of the literature one generation ago.

In these terms--because of its small economy being so wildly dependent on foreign actors, especially west European capital--Hungary has been quite migration prone since practically the outset of capitalism in central Europe. This--and of course the diligence of a vast network of recruiters--explains why Hungary featured so prominently in late-19th-century migration to north America, for instance. In this sense, the state socialist period, with its only partly permeable borders (and what was perhaps even more difficult, the likelihood that it would not be possible to return after a "stint" abroad without drawing harsh penalties on oneself and one's family) was more of an exception.

Then there is more recent work on migrant transnationalism and a host of complex arrangements that more or less invalidate the entire world view of "nation-state-society" isolates that exist in a tenuous, "thin" relationship to each other. Instead, what we see is that there is an increasing proportion of people who, one way or another, incorporate the experience of working away from their country of citizenship for a while. This is of course always under some kind of a "pressure," but that's just how life under capitalism is: pressures and counter-pressures, until the whole thing boils over.

All this is entirely missing for the Hungarian discourse. The Hungarian elites still exist in a state of national bliss. They still think, in a quintessentially 19th-century way, that a "normal" life course is one where one's employment is within the same district, let alone same town, county or country, where one is born. This is of course politics, and, as such, there is not much to talk about, other than register one's frustration with it.

By way of a little clue, here is a factoid snapshot about out-migration from Hungary. One indirect measure of the degree of the insertedness of a particular state in the global system of labor migration is the share of migrant remittances in the national income. One great thing about this indicator is that the World Bank actually provides fairly exhaustive over-time statistics about it in its World Development Indicators Data set. Here is a little graph, derived from the WDI data.

The graph shows three lines. The one on the bottom is the ratio of all world-wide remittances to the Gross World Product. It shows a very slight increase from ~.3% to .75% over the course of a good thirty years or so. The line on the top part of the graph is the unweighed, country-to-country average of the remittances as percentages of the GDP of the migrant-emitting country. This shows a much more dramatic upswing form 1.3% to 5% during the last forty years.

Data for Hungary are only available in this data set for the last 15 yars or so. This shows a (red) curve that goes from an extreme low -- around .33% of the GDP -- to the middling 1.7-1.8% range by 2004, and stays there.

Two things are clear from this. First, Hungary is not (yet?) among those states of the world's most dependent on migrant remittance flows. This is all the more astonishing, considering how high the "exposure" of the Hungarian economy is to transnational flows of commerce, capital and profits, and given Hungary's earlier history of out-migration.

The second thing is that what there is by way of an upswing happened in 2004--i.e., under the middle-of-the-road liberal government (and the year of Hungary's accession to the EU, although without the right to work in most of the EU, except Britain and Sweden, if my memory is right).

So, even if there is a dramatic upswing this year (that we will know from the WDI data set approximately two years from now) that is unlikely to put Hungary much higher than the world average (around 5% of the GDP). This is not a small thing considering the fact that some of Hungary's fellow-erstwhile-state-socialist states already have significantly higher remittance dependence.

Is all this good or bad? I'm not sure. But it is definitely not a situation that merits crying about a national catastrophe, not by itself, not in the simplistic manner in which it is discussed.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tatra vs Ural: Corruption and Competition in Military Exports to India

So, here is a little gem of a scandal for everybody: east Europeans, west Europeans, Indians, economic sociologists, aficionados of global issues, students of geopolitics, people working on representations, everybody.

A few weeks ago, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, V.K. Singh came out with the astounding allegation that he had been offered (and turned down) a bribe of "14 crore rupees" (for non-Indians: that's 140 million INR, i.e., 2.74 mUSD at today's rates; put differently, that's 1400 months' [!] worth of salaries for full professors at state universities in India, at least according to the Sixth Pay Commission's numbers from a few years ago) for which he was supposed to agree to buy 700 "substandard trucks" for the army. This created a furor in the Indian Parliament, not to mention the defense establishment, structured partly as a row between the government and the military, partly as a series of demands for Singh's "forced removal."

I read about this scandal while in India. I left a week or so ago, and have just checked the news again. There are a couple of interesting developments. First, as it turns out, the offer was recorded on tape, making denial quite a bit more difficult than otherwise.

More fascinating, the company whose "lobbyist" offered the bribe to Singh is none other than Tatra Trucks, more than 90% of which is owned by Tatra Holdings, a company registered in Kopřivnice, the Czech Republic. Tatra traces its origins into the mid-19th century; recently it was a state-owned vehicle manufacturer, one of the leading companies in the erstwhile Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. After the regime change, it was privatized, went "close to" bankrupcy, was transformed into a holding, and bought up by a series of other companies, with controlling interest in the hands of a UK-based Indian businessman Ravi Rishi. In other words, Tatra and its complex, and murky, ownership structure is a typical example of a privatized, foreign-owned, post-state-socialist, former-state-owned enterprise. Because of this history and the ownership structure, the European Union is deeply involved in this case.

So, to recap, the allegation made by General Singh is twofold. First, that Tatra Trucks--which has been selling vehicles to the Indian military since 1986--has been shipping vehicles that cannot handle some of the rough terrain in the Indian army's area of operation; and, second, that Tatra Truck's representatives tried to bribe him into continued purchases of the putatively defective trucks.

As always in cases of sudden revelations about bribery and corruption, it might be informative to learn who Tatra Trucks' competitors are. And here is the ironical twist. The main competitor is none other than a company called Ural. According to The Hindu, "Led by Kolkata-based businessman J.K. Saraf, Ural is a joint venture between Russian firm Uralaz and Mr. Saraf's Motijug ind., which manufactures heavy vehicles at Haldia, in W Bengal." To be remembered is that V K Singh is rumored to be close to the nationalist populist chief minister Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamul Congress party that has recently ousted the CPI(M) government of West Bengal after nearly 30 years in power.

So, we have a cut-throat competition between two former-Warsaw-Pact-based companies. One is located squarely in the EU; the other has the might of Russia, and some Indian capital, behind it. Both are working feverishly to supply India, the world's largest import market for military equipment. What a powerful story about the intertwining of the power of history, geopolitics and crime--in short: "business!"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Two New Items Out

Two new encyclopedia entries, co-authored with Mahua Sarkar, are out. They are in the Sage Encyclopedia of Global Studies, and you can read them as follows: Colonialism, and Empires.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

new review of the book

A new review of the book is out. It is the featured essay in the latest issue of International Sociology, an extremely perceptive and deeply ambitious piece by Attila Melegh. I am very grateful to Attila for this work. You can read it at https://sakai.rutgers.edu/access/content/user/jborocz/Provincial%20Europe.pdf.

Friday, March 9, 2012

European Values in Action

On my way to a small gathering last night, I saw this fine example of openness as a "European Value". (Sorry about the dark tones; it was way past sunset, and Stadt Berlin is rather parsimonious with street lights around here.)

The sticker is posted at the stop of bus M29 toward Hermannplatz, on the corner of Glogauer Str and Reichenberger Str. The "U" in this context (whom "Berlin" doesn't "'love'") are the mothers, mainly from somewhere between the Bosphorus and former-Soviet-Chinese border, who will be getting on the bus with their baby carts. And/or any and all flaneurs of the neighborhood. Understand this well: someone has designed and printed these stickers, paid for them, and distributes them in Kreuzberg--a part of Berlin that is really, really difficult to see as anything but a multicultural haven and a global artists' settlement. That takes thought, focus, preparation, time, effort, and a great deal of ill will. Bravo.

Then, at the party (in Schöneberg) the host relates the following story from yesterday morning. A neighbor--a Japanese woman with a Spanish husband and a small baby--goes downstairs to the ground floor hallway of the mid-bourgeois building she lives in, only to find the cart of their baby filled with--bouquets of flowers for International Women's Day?

No, not really. What then?



Thursday, March 8, 2012

EU "Reaching Target Audience" with Racist Geopolitical Video

Sometimes reality is almost too obvious.

Recently the EU Commission released (and later withdrew, I understand) a one-and-a-half-minute-long video clip. The video is a textbook example of racist geopolitical propaganda: Three non-European males displaying violent, threatening behavior toward a single, un-armed woman who "pacifies" them by suddenly multiplying herself and transmogrifying into the 12 stars symbolizing the European Union. The message conveyed here is age-old, that of European moral superiority in a global context depicted as irrational, violent and essentially dangerous.

Let's consider an experiment. Watch the video and ask yourself the following question: Would your least favorite racist ideologue (they are too many to list, so just choose one) have any problem with its "European goodness" message, its mixed dance-and-martial-arts visual language or the overtly racist taxonomy of characters?

When a friend forwarded the link to the video to me, at first I had some questions regarding the genuineness of this material, it being so obvious. As it turns out, at least a recent article in Der Spiegel suggests this visual text was indeed produced (I assume under contract) for the EU Commission. (The EU Commission is the only credit that appears in the video, at the very end.) The goal was "reaching young people," and the commission think that "they have reached their target audience." The essence of racism is an ontological claim: the attribution of moral superiority to humans delineated from the rest of humanity by surface appearances. This video is a well-produced--and because of the quality of its production, spectacularly glaring--illustration of racist discourse.

Furthermore, one wonders, if the Commission still thinks it has reached their target audience," then why is the video not marketed widely? Also, why is there no artist attribution? No director, no producer, no music, costume, etc. credits. Interesting.

As I said it many times: In a truly striking fashion, the European mainstream (and that includes the liberal and the so-called "left" as well as the right) is almost completely "open" toward racist taxonomies, cultural discourses of superiority and inferiority, and identity claims based on cultural geography. Impervious to critique, fully oblivious to the implications, for this location, the notion of the "freedom" of the market is expected to smooth over five hundred years of the history of physical, moral, economic, social, and symbolic violence that constitutes the "European project" in the first place.

Well, it doesn't.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Race" to the Bottom

Kertész Ákos is an octuagenerian writer of reknown, especially for his strikingly critical work on the conditions of working-class life in Kádár's Hungary. His novel, Makra has been sold in 1.2 million copies (in a country with ten million citizens--i.e., approximately one in three Hungarian households is likely to own it). Kertész has received just about all high state awards that are available for a writer in Hungary.

On February 29, Kertész followed thousands of Roma citizens of Hungary (including, e.g., former Member of the European Parliament Viktória Mohácsi) in applying for political asylum in Canada. He decided to do so, his press statement explains, because, for the recent year or so, he has been subject to ceaseless harassment and physical threats for a piece he had written for a Hungarian-language newspaper, published in the USA, in which he suggested that Hungarians must be "genetically inferior," otherwise they would not have tolerated a series of dictatorships over their heads. (Having been called upon by the Hungarian government to do so, Kertész later recounted his statement. In spite of that, the conservative majority in the Budapest municipal council revoked Kertész's title as "Honorary Citizen of Budapest". The extreme-right party in Parliament has initiated a number of procedures against him, including a motion to revoke all his state awards.)

I have two small comments about the whole affair. First, it is obvious that such turns of phrase are absolutely commonplace in Hungary today, making just about any conversation, television or radio discussion, or even a trip by public transportation, quite unpleasant for those of us with a normal sense of humanity. Everyday racism is all over the place. What sets apart Kertész's statement is of course that it is applied to "Hungarians" in toto, i.e., a sacred object of devotion for extreme nationalist rhetorics. The prevalence of the 'race' discourse does not absolve Kertész of the responsibility for what he puts on paper (see my comments on that below), but helps us contextualize his point. It also helps us understand how it is possible that such a thought, if it can be called that, once penned by an author, should be able to pass through the hands of newspaper editors and all other people involved in the production of a newspaper and a website, apparently without raising an eyebrow. To me, that is the real clue regarding this matter.

Second, the racist slur used, as it is here, against "Hungarians" as such only makes sense, given the context, if we take into account the fact that Kertész himself is a "Hungarian," i.e., if we recognize that the absurd statement is, at a minimum, self-deprecating. The whole point is that of a desperate self-deprecation. With this, Kertész makes a very powerful literary allusion to a (not particularly pleasant, but still powerfully present) topos in Hungarian literature, that of lamentation and self-castigation over the tragic failings of the "nation." But understanding that allusion would require a sympathetic mind and a basic familiarity with Hungarian culture--both of which are woefully missing from the attitudes of the right-wing hacks who gave Kertész a Nazi reaction, thereby implicitly confirming the bigger point Kertész was trying to make with that ill-chosen metaphor.

To me, the worst thing about all this is the repeated realization--something I am getting with alarming frequency in, and with respect to, Hungary nowadays--that members of the culture behind the speech community, including many of those who label themselves as "left" and/or "liberal," have basically no idea how retrograde, antisocial and, overall, how suicidal their ignorance about the implications of the "race" discourse is.

The tragedy is not the racism of the extreme right. The ultimate tragedy is the implicit "openness" of the "liberal / left" position to such racist imageries. This truly is the end of a culture, as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Town Run by Foreign Bank

The quaint town of Szentendre, 15 km north of Budapest, has made news today. Its municipality elected a new vice mayor, entrusted with the reorganization of the municipal authority, nol.hu reports.

As a creative move, the new vice mayor was proposed by Raiffeisen Bank--an Austrian consumer bank with a significant market share in Hungary--and half of the new vice mayor's salary will be paid for by the bank. According to the town's mayor (representing the party currently on government in Hungary, promoting itself through a fervently nationalist, "anti-bank", "anti-EU" rhetoric), this "partnership" makes sense because Raiffeisen not only handles the town's accounts, but also holds the town's bonds [sic].

Why stop there? This opens up a host of new possibilities. East-central Europe continues to be the source of creative experimentation. So to speak.

Welcome to capitalism without even the surface appearance of democracy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Crisis Management," European Style

There is a true crisis in Europe--and it has been going on for five hundred years. The five-centuries-old story has to do, of course, with the inability of west European societies to create and sustain units of public authority that would be able to compete successfully in a world controlled by non-European competitors. Today, this longue-durée condition is foregrounded by the inability of the west European supra-state (created for the very purpose of giving western Europe geopolitical power in the world) to maintain its global economic weight. In fact, the EU is losing its economic sway in the world, and has been for most years during its existence. This is an argument I explore in the book to which this blog has been devoted.

The crisis is particularly biting today for two main reasons. One is that, no matter how the EU and its member states twist or turn their economic policy, their regulations and their global strategies, growth is just not happening, even in relative terms (forget shares in the world economy, growth is not noticeable even when we compare the EU to itself over time). The other is that the United States, which has, for the period since the beginning of the Cold War until very recently, played a dynamic cooperative strategy with western Europe, is not only in trouble itself, but it is also betting on other players as well, not just western Europe any more. If these factors together do not give jitters to the decision makers in Brussels, then they are really losing it.

There are many possible alternative scenarios that the EU could pursue. It could open up new, and radical, avenues for innovative, long-term projects creating multilateral cooperation strategies with multiplicities of actors worldwide, including not just the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and BRICs, but also those states that are--for some reason incomprehensible to me--not looked at as rapidly growing, such as Indonesia or Vietnam. My emphasis is on the long-term, meaning longer-than-a-human-lifespan.

There is absolutely no reason why there are no, generously supported R&D facilities working on the toughest issues for humankind (not just the concerns of white middle-class west-European / north American men), from health to international security, from climate change to malaria eradication, the new Great Transformation to replenishable energy, etc., utilizing world-wide talent. Where are the new, intellectually sound, creative and progressive multiversities for the medical, physical and social sciences as well as the humanities, with Chinese, Indian, South African and EU monies, faculties and students, with generous provisions for the circulation of professors and students, located everywhere? Why not build new multiversities in places that have suffered? Former-Soviet central Asia? Sub-Saharan Africa?

What exactly is the "European" vision for the future?

Instead of innovating in bold and creative ways, the EU has somehow chosen to focus inward. It is nowadays engaged in a complex rhetorical offensive against "misbehavior" on part of its poorer member states. So what if the fiscal balance of the poorer member states is in peril? Weren't such disequilibria among the unspoken expectations at the time of the creation of the common currency? (If nobody had actually expected such problems, that suggests that incompetence was gaining epidemic proportions among the planners of the Euro. If such problems were foreseen, why are we suddenly acting as if we were surprised?) So what if Greece has a budget deficit in excess of 300 bn USD? How much exactly has the EU spent on subsidizing its banking sector? What exactly is the magnitude of the hidden, implicit transfers from the poorer to the wealthier states, especially to Germany, through the vehicle called foreign direct investment or, in a language sprinkled with more righteousness, "the freedom of movement for capital"? Who will ever draw the balance sheet for such accounts?

The two recent scandals--occasioned by the collapse of the Greek government budget and the near-random, passive-aggressive behavior of the Hungarian government (a curious, somewhat raw combination of neoliberal sadism and neocon self-admiration, ingredients that are, btw, plentiful in Brussels)--have given a set of splendid opportunities for Brussels to talk about these phenomena that are, from the perspective of the future of the world, essentially non-issues. This also has allowed the EU to direct its moral attention, again, more toward the inside, and fall back on a default strategy of selective, arbitrary and morose kind of xenophobia and exclusion vis-a-vis the rest of the world. The world is watching the senseless destruction of Greek society, listens to the revived, neo-colonial stereotype of an "eastern totalitarian personality" with respect to Hungarian society. That seems to be the European model of crisis "management."

Meanwhile, EU public funds are appropriated for drones to patrol the southern and southeastern perimeters of the EU.

Wow. How sad.

Malév "Hollowing-Out" Plot Thickens

http://atlatszo.hu now offers some additional details about what I see as a recent case (that of the national airline carrier) in the ongoing robbery of public assets in Hungary. I wrote about it here and here.

It appears that there are extensive social network ties between company X--appointed by the government to serve as bankruptcy guardian for Malév--and the one-person microenterprise that had precipitated the bankruptcy proceedings in the first place. And at least some of those links have emerged from cooperation in the bankruptcy-cum-privatization of erstwhile public assets.

There is a, by now very distinguished, literature on corporate social networks. In "interlocking directorates" that literature has coined one of the earliest concepts through which critical work on late-20th-century capitalism and the emerging new technique of social network analysis have gained intellectual traction. By now, this is fairly standard material in, say, third-year Economic Sociology courses.

What is interesting about the Company X link to the one-person micro-firm has to do with size. The corporate networks literature focuses, understandably, on linkages among some of the largest (i.e., most powerful and most complex) economic organizations. Here we have a slight variant, with a tiny spot of a company serving as the mosquito that delivers the Dengue fever virus in the body of the corporation that is to be dismantled.

From public court records on company ownership and board membership, atlatszo.hu also reconstructs some interesting details about techniques whereby previously state-owned companies have been "hollowed out"--still valuable pieces transferred to private owners at steep discounts and with the elimination of open competition or public oversight--through bankruptcy. (I wrote about this about twenty years ago, in a piece entitled "Simulating the Great Transformation: Property Change under Prolonged Informality in Hungary," published in the European Journal of Sociology. Subsequently, I have argued extensively about the significance of informal arrangements in the post-state-socialist transformation.

I often wish I had been wrong.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

First Clues on Malév Bankruptcy

On the morning of February 14, the investigative journalism site http://atlatszo.hu published a piece about the bankruptcy of Malév, the erstwhile Hungarian Airlines, with a few remarkably interesting points.

When a corporation goes bankrupt in Hungary, an administrative procedure sets in motion, and a computerized, random-selection procedure appoints a bankruptcy commissioner who takes control over the failed business. Obviously, the purpose of this rule is avoiding possible collusion between any combination of sitting management, the state regulator agencies, creditors and the would-be liquidator.

On December 30th, 2011, however, a bundle of three pieces of legislation were passed by the Hungarian Parliament. One regulates some aspects of the liquidation of companies "of strategic significance;" another appoints one particular liquidator company (let's call it company X) as the default bankruptcy commissioner for such firms; and, a third one regulates the procedure of how to declare a particular firm "a company of strategic significance."

- On January 30th Malév was declared such a corporation of strategic significance;

- on February 4th, it went bankrupt (as a result of a bankruptcy procedure initiated by a tiny company, with one /1/ employee);

- on Feburary 5th, Company X--to be more precise, the CEO of Company X--is appointed as liquidator of Malév. According to this CEO has political connections to both political forces involved in the repurchase and subsequent collapse of the airline.

Stay tuned for more, I'm quite sure more is coming.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Greece: Crushed by Common Currency

I am writing this on the morning after the legislation on the austerity pack for Greece has been passed (at a remarkable margin of 199/74/27) by the Greek parliament. The international press is preoccupied with the "looting," arson and general mayhem that followed the vote; some even make an attempt to decipher the details of the deal struck, after months and months of posturing, negotiation and arm-twisting, between the IMF, "Brussels" (i.e., the EU Commission), the European Central Bank, as well as the German and French governments, on the one hand, and the subsequent Greek governments (I am saying this in plural as one government has already been ousted on this issue).

As for the "tragedy" reading of the drama, I am somewhat skeptical. Here is a visual explanation why.

This graph compares two sets of data. The red line is an estimate of the world mean per capita GDP for the period of 1999 to 2008; the blue one is the same for Greece. (Both come from estimates of economic performance provided by economic historian Angus Maddison here.)

Two things are clear from this. One, Greece is not among the poor countries of the world. It's per capita GPD has been, throughout the period of the existence of the Euro, at least twice the magnitude of the world average.

Second, Euro-membership was hardly an economic disaster for Greece; quite to the contrary. Its per capita GDP grew at a speed faster than the growth of the world average, such that, beginning at just a notch below 200% of the world mean, by 2008, it was around 215%. This is not an economic horror story at all. The problem lies elsewhere.

The heart of the problem is that, even with a per capita GDP that is more than twice the world mean, Greece was still among the relatively less wealthy members of the Eurozone. It is also among the smallest in economic weight in the Eurozone. A globally quite privileged society, that is among the relatively poorer and less significant than many of its main trading partners with which it is locked into a currency union--well, this is a textbook prescription for a serious process of unequal exchange and its main corollary, external dependency.

This situation is extremely similar to the predicament of economically less well-to-do regions within states. There is one crucial difference, however. The institutional and ideological practices of modern European states (on both sides of the erstwhile Iron Curtain, btw) have been, to a large extent, all about providing stable, predictable and sustainable mechanisms for transmitting tools to less wealthy regions for economic growth, in the form of a multiplicity of subsidies of all kinds. To a large extent, that is what modern European statehood is all about: These states are basically mechanisms of enforcing a particular kind of a complex social contract, in which the means of faster economic growth are provided to less wealthy regions in exchange for "national unity," i.e., a willingness to participate in a size- and, by implication, global-weight-making process called modern European statehood.

It is this element of matter-of-fact redistribution that is sorely missing from the project of the EU. In the absence of a pan-Europan supra-state, neither the institutional structures, nor the ideological wherewithal are present that would provide for effective subsidies for regions that perform less intensely than others in an economic sense. Meanwhile, the currency union allows member states, including the relatively less wealthy ones, to adjust their social policy provisions to mimic those of the wealthier states. It is difficult to blame them for this: the mechanism (the currency union) is there, the incentives are enormous, the enforcement has been tenuous. As a result, you have the mind-boggling paradox of a tremendous over-borrowing crisis on part of the government, in spite of commendable economic growth. The funds generated by private capital in the booming tourism and shipping sectors of the Greek economy do not get re-routed to finance the social safety net, infrastructural expenditures, and various other social provisions that the society has expected the state to provide. Domestic capital refuses to finance the Greek state, and within-EU, non-Greek capital also refuses to finance the Greek state.

Voila, the predicament of Greece.

And one final note. I was doing fieldwork on the "eastern enlargement" process in the EU headquarters in the late 1990s--i.e., at the time when the Euro, including Euro-member-state status for Greece, was being established.

There were not one, but two occasions when I was told by pretty high-ranking officials of the European Union, working at the time on "eastern enlargment," that one of the widespread concerns in Brussels about the possible inclusion of a set of east European erstwhile-state-socialist economies was that, and I quote pretty close to literally, "nobody wants more Greeces" in the EU. When I asked what they meant by that, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that there was widespread knowledge that the Greek government takes whatever it gets by way of funding, fails to implement required reforms and provides false data about the economy. That happened before the Eurozone membership of Greece.

I have, thus, a hard time accepting the argument that "everyone in Brussels was surprised" about the lack of honesty on part of the Greek government. No. Greece's admission into the Eurozone was the result of a much more complex process of complacency that occurred on, pretty much, all levels of the EU, not just the Greek state.

Whether that should be an issue or not, is an open question. It need not be: If there were economic growth in Europe, none of this would matter, at least not this much, I suspect. The trouble is that, now that austerity has hit Greece, there will definitely be less economic growth--something that would be desperately needed in a region composed of increasingly frustrated, waning powers.

Good luck with that.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Flying Low--Very Low

On February 3, Malév, the sixty-six years old Hungarian Airlines—a private company in which the Hungarian government has a 95% (or, according to other sources, 99.5%) stake—went into bankruptcy, forcing it to cease all operations. Mass layoffs and crowd scenes at Budapest Airport were the news of the day. This prospect has been in the news for some time—and yet, travelers kept buying tickets until the night before the collapse. Clearly, whomever the management and politicians will fault for this collapse—the non-existent “Communists” or the very real, but hands-off “EU” are two prime candidates—they cannot possibly blame a lack of faith on part of the Hungarian public.

Until a few years before the collapse of state socialism, Malév was considered a reasonably profitable airline in its size category. Its decline and eventual demise today thus stand out as a particularly striking example of the fallout of post-state-socialist transformation in Hungary. Could there have been another outcome? The question points at issues far beyond the concerns of Malév or even Hungary per se.

So far, each of the six post-state-socialist governments of Hungary (not counting the various changes of Prime Minister within a given ruling coalition) has managed to find some public assets to privatize. This was done, primarily, in order to satisfy its specific client capital groups (residing both in- and outside Hungary). The financial windfall from such theft would be used partly to repay the debts for under-the-table financing of the political process, especially the election campaigns, and partly to buy the future good will of those capital groups.

All this was always facilitated by the prevailing post-"Communist" rhetoric that posited private capital ownership, under just about any conditions, as akin to the second coming of Christ, while state ownership was imagined as a form evil to be purged. As Tamás Sárközy, the Minister of Justice of the last state socialist government (no relation to the current French President) put it on the occasion of his submission of the Act on Company Transformation to the Parliament in 1989, "the worst capitalism was better than the best socialism". Given this, let’s just say, somewhat simplified view of the world, assets of the socialist state had to be sold off as fast as possible. It is perhaps only now that some Hungarians are realizing the full implication of what Sárközy may have meant.

On accession to power in May 2010, the leadership of Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz party faced a new problem: There was almost nothing left to pilfer from the public. This was a real structural problem, and the new government acted with the verve and resolve that distinguished them in the post-socialist Hungarian politics. (This dynamism is what Martin Schulz, the current President of the European Parliament presumably referred to a few days ago when he described Viktor Orbán, the current Hungarian Prime Minister, “an efficient man.”)

The new government swiftly created some liquidity, for instance, and most shocking, by forcibly nationalising private retirement pension plans—one of the moves that gave the foreign media the idea of calling their economic policies "unorthodox." In sharp contrast to Nestor Kirchner’s Argentina—from whose script Orbán's economic team seems to have borrowed significant elements—the current government of Hungary made no effort to allay the rapidly escalating social crisis on their hand with those assets. Quite to the contrary, a remarkably consistent feature of its, otherwise quite polyphonic, policy has been insistence on maintaining, and wherever possible, increasing, social inequalities and class friction. This is true even in areas—such as access to higher education—where the current government's hyper-restrictive policies are clearly contrary to its, otherwise not too complicated, nationalist—i.e., within the bounds of “the nation,” universalising—rhetoric.) (My previous post talks a bit more about that, in a different context.)

So, instead of ameliorating the increasing suffering of those who lost out in the post-state-socialist transformation due to no fault of their own, the government used its newly obtained cash to re-purchase some, previously privatised (or, as in the case of Malév, privatised, re-purchased, privatised, re-purchased, etc.) erstwhile state-socialist companies. The argument was: these are key assets in “strategic branches of the economy.” Considering Malév’s putative “strategic” importance as a national carrier, it is somewhat unusual for a nationalist government to allow this state-owned corporation sink into bankruptcy. Surely the explanation must be elsewhere.

What can be a more effective way to steal from the public, but to bring the company to financial ruin and then sell it at a price that is even lower than its market value to carefully chosen client capital groups? It is devastatingly simple.

Whether Hungary's national airline is, or could be made, economically feasible or not, some significant forms of value must still be left in it—e.g., in its well trained labour force, its route system, its access to the EU airspace, its hub airport in within a Schengen state, the system of interstate agreements that have given Malév access to its specific set of destinations, Hungary’s strong tourism industry, etc. All that is being liquidated, as we speak. There is a noticeable crowding in the competition for the most profitable routes. Some blogs and FB comments suggest that the first "takers" appeared within minutes after the announcement of the end of Malév's operations.

Although the takers are many, a clear winner, for now, of Malév’s disappearance is a hitherto small private arline called Wizz Air. It is interesting to note that Wizz Air is not only owned and run by a former CEO of Malév, but it has on its board a recent Minister of Finance of the Republic of Hungary who has been involved, ex officio, in the various deals concerning the relationship between the Hungarian state budget and Malév, until his departure from power a little less than two years ago. The Hungarian press, eager as always to look for evidence of short-term, individual-personal gain on part of politicians, is very preoccupied with this personal link. In doing so, I'm afraid it misses the bigger picture.

The problem of post-state-socialist corruption is not "just" a matter of the sitting management and politicians entrusted with their oversight taking personal bribes and other unfair advantages out of an ability to block otherwise acceptable business deals. A much bigger issue—both in terms of the magnitude of the financial loss, and the political and moral damage involved—emerges if / when the common interests of the society in whose name the government is acting—in the case of state-owned assets, in a direct ownership role—is summarily ignored, if not trampled underfoot.

And what is the collective owner of Malév, the Hungarian public, doing? It is, for now at least, mourning the loss of a high-modernist symbol of the "national" air carrier. What nobody is talking about is protection of the collective interests of the society, the moral and legal issues surrounding management of collective assets, and the implications of the, by now, more than two-decades-long history of assets robbery.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What A Sad, Repressed Joke Reveals

Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary, grew up in Alcsútdoboz, Vértesacsa and Felcsút, villages vaguely in the agglomeration of the industrial town of Székesfehérvár in west-central Hungary. His paternal grandfather had moved to Alcsútdoboz as a farmer after World War II. His father has a college degree as an agricultural engineer and held mid-level managerial positions in the nearby, state-owned mining company; his mother has been a special education teacher, specializing in speech therapy. The family moved to Székesfehérvár in 1977, when Orbán was 14, and he completed his secondary education in a fairly well known high school, in a class focused on English, in 1981. (Here is a a link to Orbán's official Vitae, adorned with a photograph that appears to have been taken before high school graduation.) He attained a law degree in 1987 at the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest, and held a number of research scholarships before becoming a full time politician, including the prestigeous Soros Foundation fellowship to spend a semester at Pembroke College in Oxford. His wife is also a lawyer. Given that all this occurred in state socialist Hungary, of course there was no payment of tuition of any kind involved in this story.

The little we know about the mobility path of the Orbán family is of course hardly exceptional: The state socialist system's cracks, inefficiencies and various other contradictions notwithstanding, a fairly large proportion of today's educated strata exist in a one, maximum two-generation removal from the working-class. This is all not only fine; arguably, the legacy of this massive collective mobility is among the greatest contributions of state socialist history to social reality in Hungary (as well as in most other erstwhile state-socialist societies).

What is amazing, then, is that Orbán was able to crack the following joke in a meeting with party activists in the town of Eger last week, in response to a request for an explanation for the rationale behind decreasing the number of tuition-free slots for admissions to law school at state universities from 800 to 100:

"Indeed, it was a mistake to decrease the number of seats in law schools to 100. They should have been cut to zero."

I find this punchline, coming from somebody who is the product of a free educational system, from which he benefited because of his constitutionally guaranteed right as a citizen of Hungary, first and foremost unbelievably distasteful. It is actually quite impossible to imagine in today's Hungary that the son of a mid-level mine employee, the grandson of a farmer, could afford law school tuition.

Be that as it may, if this is how dr. Orbán (in Hungary, law school degrees are doctorates) feels, I'm sure the state Treasury will accept a lump sum repayment of the real costs of his education, from first year elementary to law school, with appropriate interest, of course. And the same goes for his spouse and five school-age children, all of whom have of course benefited from the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship right to a free education thus far.

Second, this hardly appears to be--as his liberal critics tend to put it--a "conservative" man. Nor is he a "populist moderate right wing" politician, as he described himself in an interview with a French newspaper recently. Nor is there much by way of particularly Christian or, for that matter, democratic, content to this idea.

IMHO this remark reveals a rather crude, neolib hack, with a really strong streak of repression, who sells himself to large segments of the public yearning for simple and obvious, small bits of what Colbert calls "truthiness," with a lot of nationalist posturing.

In short, I do very much agree with a recent diagnosis by social psychologist János Rudas: probably the most striking feature of all this gibberish is its inconsistency. That it is not dismissed for lack of coherence, is the interesting fact.

There you have it: the habits of the heart of a self-loathing, repressed post-socialist subject. Not a pretty sight.

cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta