Ágnes Heller — philosopher, disciple of György Lukács and later his assistant and co-worker — has been one of the major thinkers of the ‘Budapest School.’ She was born in 1929 in the Hungarian Capital, survived the Holocaust, and today she is one of the most vocal critics of Viktor Orbán. Heller is well-known in the West for her theory of radical needs and of the revolution of ordinary life, and for her anthropologic and anti-economic reading of Marxism. Among her work translated into Italian: Marx’s theory of needs, 1974; Radical philosophy, 1978; and Moral philosophy, 1990.
We spoke to her ahead of the Hungarian elections Sunday.
Let’s assess the last few years of government.
In the last four years, the government focused on concentrating power into its own hands and to control dissent. In a nutshell, it tried to wipe out opposition. One just has to bear in mind Orbán’s speech last March 15 [a Hungarian national holiday], in which he talked about repressing those who oppose him, against parties and civil society organizations who oppose his policies, against the organizers of anti-government rallies and against journalists who criticize him. He promised repercussions. The situation got worse, the press has not been free — its freedom has been progressively limited over time. Furthermore, government propaganda lies 100 percent, just like four years ago, when the government promised to reduce the cost of utilities.
The government emphasized the issue of migration a lot in the last three years.
Yes, and today Orbán says the opposition wants to allow millions of migrants into Hungary, suppressing the country’s cultural specificity and its Christian identity. None of what the government accuses the opposition of in this sense is true — opening the country’s doors to everyone: to Africans, to all migrants, inviting them to come to Hungary without exception and to give everyone a house, a place to stay for free. This is one of the pillars of government opposition today.
The other major theme of Orbán’s propaganda is the character of George Soros.
The theme is linked to the question of migrants and uses the same mechanism. For the government, Soros is allegedly the man orchestrating all of the demonstrations to damage the country. The man pulling the strings of opposition parties, which the government claims do not represent Hungary’s interests, but rather those of an international conspiracy. According to the executive, Soros co-ordinates this plot; he’s the spider catching everyone in his web. The Orbán government plays the role of defender of the country against all external dangers, including Soros. The latter is almost a mythological character: he is Lucifer, Mephistopheles, the devil tempting everyone and trying to do the same to Hungary in order to destroy it. Viktor Orbán alone rises to defend the country, protecting it from these threats. This is, more or less, the government’s narrative.
The opposition accuses the government of corruption.
I think corruption is the wrong term. Corruption is when a businessman pays a government representative. When politics influences the economy. When the business world influences politics. That is corruption. It’s not exactly what happens in Hungary, so I don’t think we can technically talk of corruption. There is a party, and this party creates the Hungarian elite, whose members get money and a share of power and meanwhile commit to remain faithful to the party and to support it. Viktor Orbán is their boss and it’s as though they were part of a family. Some called the system ‘mafia-state,’ and it might be a good term. We could even call it feudalism, with a lord rewarding his subordinates with land. This happens within the boundaries of the law. With this system, between 20 and 30 percent of EU funding is pocketed by the government and the people closest to it.
What do you think of the opposition?
The opposition could win this election if it had the generosity and common-sense of having fewer quarrels and in-fighting. In 2014, the Fidesz party was a minority and still obtained a two-thirds majority. Everything becomes more complicated if the opposition doesn’t create a structure with only one candidate and the various parties within it continue to raise doubts, fuelling the electorate’s lack of trust in other political forces who also oppose the government. Perhaps voters are more intelligent than the parties and know what the country needs better than them. But it is also true that many are not interested in the Left or the Right, and might just place an X over a symbol without reflecting on the consequences of it.
What do you think of Momentum and of the Two-tailed Dog Party?
Momentum is a party of young people, many of whom studied abroad. At first they didn’t know much about what was happening in Hungary from abroad; now they’re beginning to understand what is going on and realizing you cannot understand what is happening clearly from abroad. Now they’re starting to deal with it and to conduct politics in a respectable way. The Two-tailed Dog party is an ironic party, which will be voted for by people who do not believe in any other political force and believe everything is rotten. But they will certainly not get into Parliament.
Jobbik decided to change its identity a bit.
Jobbik changed much and is following a reverse path to Fidesz, which started as a liberal party, turned to the Right and is now far-right, including the racism that often characterizes the far-right. Jobbik started in the far-right, then realized there was no space there anymore after Fidesz occupied it. So Jobbik had to find an alternative collocation on the political spectrum. Where? Just in the center. Today, Hungary doesn’t have a moderate right or center-right party after Fidesz’s transformation, so Jobbik took advantage of that gap. It saw its best opportunity was there.
Some say Orbán’s decline has started. Is this an optimistic view or a grounded one?
I don’t think it’s an optimistic view: it’s a fact. His speeches now focus only on this alleged million migrants ready to invade. He doesn’t have much else to say. The opposition could take advantage of the situation. Four years ago, it was different. We could not have talked of a decline. But the situation has changed, Orbán lost much of the confidence he had and the opposition parties could take advantage.