The Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, pupil of György Lukács: “Migrants are a resource. Faced with the fear of refugees they have sown terror and lies. In ’89 we dreamed of a Europe without barriers and borders. That revolution has been betrayed.”
We met the philosopher Ágnes Heller in her apartment in Pest to talk to her about how the Hungarian government is managing the migrant emergency.
What is Orbán’s policy on immigration?
Orbán started badly because, even before the migrants arrived, he had spread billboards throughout the city bearing messages capable of encouraging aversion against them. Just now, I saw some with texts stating that according to opinion polls over 90% of Hungarians do not want migrants, but that’s no surprise since the government has done everything it could to achieve that result. I can say that there is widespread prejudice against these people who have a different mentality and believe in another god, but I would add that a truly democratic government has the duty to arouse good instincts and willingness to help, not hatred. With these assumptions, people will continue feel an aversion against those coming from outside and have a clear conscience by saying that they acted in this way because the government said so. The thing was handled poorly from the beginning. There were no Arabic interpreters, the government filled the cities with these posters, and there was chaos even before the emergency itself started. No points were created for allowing people to register. Nothing was done in this regard, and this is dangerous for Europe. Then Orbán said that those who come here are not refugees but terrorists, or people who want our wealth and our jobs, which is not true. What I can say is that it is crucial to identify migrants, otherwise dangerous people can also cross the border. The country did not get organised in this way and a chaotic situation has arisen.
Can the policy of Orbán’s government actually be seen as a demonstrative act against the EU?
I would say that this policy has two functions: on the one hand it created a conflict between the centre and the periphery of Europe involving Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and on the other, in terms of domestic politics, it has launched a competition between Fidesz and Jobbik about who can encourage more aversion. I think it’s a tough competition, one that is able to overshadow the country’s real problems. If there was not this manipulation of the migrant emergency, people would realise that things are not going well in Hungary, but instead the campaigning on this topic has been relentless and attention that should be turned to domestic problems has been distracted.
Orbán’s policy towards Europe may also mean that other small countries in the central-eastern part of the continent say that if Orbán attacks the EU and nothing happens then they might as well follow his example. In fact, other countries in the region have embarked on this path.
After 1989, people expected a Europe without barriers, and now we are seeing the return of the fences with barbed wire at the borders.
Yes, at that time we truly dreamed of a Europe without barriers and borders, characterised by the free movement of people and goods, but that isn’t what happened. Now I’m going to Mexico to give a lecture on the subject of revolution. The question is: have revolutions been betrayed? I say yes.
When we met four years ago and we talked about Orbán, you described him as suffering from Bonapartism. And now?
I reiterate the idea. Orbán shows all the symptoms of Bonapartism. It is not a very popular definition in Hungary, where people prefer to apply the label of fascist or Nazi. I still say that the politics of the Hungarian Prime Minister is characterised by a Bonapartist attitude, but people do not understand me. But I must say that when I made the remark in Paris everyone understood.
How do you see the phenomenon of immigration?
As a philosopher, I think that it will continue. Perhaps it will experience a period of slowing down, but it will not stop. The recipes being thought up to stop it from continuing are doomed to fail. The global communications that take place via the web contribute to the phenomenon and there is no going back. A Syrian only needs a moment on the Internet on a computer or mobile phone to see how much a labourer in Germany earns. One of the solutions being discussed is to send the military to Syria, but I only see a succession of tyrants there, with one leaving as another comes, meaning the situation would not change. We are fighting against the traffickers of human beings who are trying to bring people into Europe, and it is an extremely difficult task. For 60 years we have fought against those who are trafficking drugs and we have seen the result. So we will not succeed with the solutions proposed today. Then there is the problem of coexistence. Europe is made up of nation states that in most cases have become more committed to assimilation than integration. This approach inevitably leads to a clash of ideologies.
Returning to the phenomenon of immigration, I still cannot say that we are facing a historic turning point, we will see with time. Besides, the migrants arriving are still 0.6% of the European population. We will only see whether we are entering a new phase in our history later. Once György Lukács said that entering into a new era is a bit like walking on the street and trying not to step in shit. I agree. We must be careful.
Orbán believes that this constant flow of migrants is a threat to European culture.
What culture? That of fascism and Nazism? Perhaps that of the First World War or the Second, that of the 6 million people in the camps, I don’t know. Or that of Bolshevism? Orbán can not make this kind of criticism because he is not liberal, he himself has said that he is anti-liberal. But I can make this criticism because I am liberal. There are certain values in Europe, which state everyone should be free and can do whatever they want. These are the real values. But to be honest, in our continent liberalism doesn’t even have deep roots in Western countries, let alone those in the East.
However, there is some concern among the people about the phenomenon of immigration.
Yes, people are afraid. Fear of the unknown is in all of us. But the important thing is that this feeling must not turn into hostility. We can also be curious. I am, for example, and I want to get to know those who are different. Often we go no further than sitting in front of the TV feeling sorry when we see African children dying of hunger or Syrians living under bombs. We don’t go beyond this, and we think that all things considered they are there and we are here. In this case, however, this feeling sorry is only aesthetic and does not transform into empathy.
Does the government say that the international press has launched a smear campaign against Hungary?
I must say that most of the time the media reported what happened in Hungary during this period correctly, but not in every case. Not all media organisations were objective. They spoke about Orbán, the closed borders, and the barbed wire but not about those who have helped and still help migrants by offering them drinks, food and organising other charitable initiatives. The behaviour of these people is not aesthetic but ethical.
Recently, Orbán proposed that migrants be received in refugee camps in countries neighbouring the war zones, under the supervision of the EU.
It is such an illogical proposal that it is not even worth thinking about. Here in Hungary we have desolate, almost empty, villages. Over half a million Hungarians have gone abroad to work and the average age is increasing, with older people constantly growing in number. Ten thousand people could come here to repopulate these villages and do jobs that we do not do any more. But what does Orbán have in mind?