The conspiracy worldview
Hungary, history and an introduction to Political Capital
In this short interview with Peter Kreko, Director of the Hungarian think-tank Political Capital, we explore the context of contemporary conspiracy theorising in a country grappling with an extremely difficult set of social and political issues. Peter also provides an introduction to our organisation’s joint research and advocacy project.
Counterpoint Tell us about Political Capital
Peter Kreko We are an independent political think-tank in Hungary with an extensive regional network and six years experience of examination of radical tendencies.
We are currently witnessing a time of significant economic and political turmoil in Hungary. President Viktor Orbán’s government is assailing the integrity of the constitution at every turn, and is increasingly unable to raise the funds the country requires. With its bonds having been downgraded to ‘junk’ status, Hungary is now also experiencing real criticism from foreign governments and international bodies such as the IMF and EU (of which Hungary is a member state). But how do you think Hungary perceives its place amongst the great powers today? What is the role of Hungarian nationalism in this, and how might it cause trouble for those wishing to use their leverage on the direction Hungary is taking ‘from the outside’?
Increased market and political pressure from outside launched an offensive rhetoric on the governmental about the “colonisation” of the country by foreign forces – a framework of conspiracy theory used to put the responsibility for this conflict entirely on the European Commission and IMF. The government is trying to play a “freedom fighter” role, and says the country should walk its own way instead of accepting the pressures and constraints coming from outside. This rhetoric became very loud at the commemoration of the 1848 revolution (against the Habsburgs) on the 15th of March; spectacular at our national celebration. Viktor Orbán is playing with these nationalist sentiments: almost all of the great heroes were freedom fighters (of different kinds), who were fighting against oppression (of the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, or the Soviet Union). He draws a parallel between the Hungarian uprisings against the Habsburgs and the Soviets and with the ongoing conflict we are seeing with international organisations. In the short run it seems to be a successful strategy: Fidesz could broaden its voter base again with this strategy (taking away support from the ultranationalist Jobbik party, the main threat to Fidesz), but on the middle and long run, it can seriously backlash for at least two reasons. First of all, the government will finally have to make compromises with the same institutions they are “freedom fighting” against (the European Commission and IMF). Second, the conspiratorial rhetoric of the government can destroy the trust in the overall institutional system, a consequence that will hardly be fruitful for the government.
Do you think that the history of Hungary in the region, before communism and before World WarII, can shed any light on today’s troubles?
A “siege mentality”, a feeling of that everyone is against Hungary, is deeply rooted in Hungarian nationalist identity because of its past, as I said, and the memories of the Trianon Treaty in 1920 (when Hungary lost 72 per cent of its territory), and the conflicts with the Allies in general and the neighbours in particular. Therefore, it is easy to fuel these sentiments in domestic discourses, and the right-wing camp is extremely receptive to such rhetoric. The history of Hungary is the history of tragedies, oppressions and national frustrations and the nationalist politicians play with this. But this is not just a genuinely Hungarian phenomenon: in Central Eastern Europe, the conspiracy rhetoric is quite widespread in every country, but with changing content (for instance in Poland, the idea of the Germans and Russians conspiring against the country before World War II is an experience that can be exploded in nationalist populist discourses).
Beyond cultural nationalism, in what ways do you see the historical memory of ‘communism’ featuring in Hungary’s political drama today?
MSZP, the socialist party is the successor of the Party during the state socialism. Harsh anti-communism is the central element of the ideology of Jobbik, and to lesser extent, Fidesz (even if both parties have some politicians in their own camps that played important role in the pretransitional era). This is a good basis for identity politics, even if the communist/post-communist cleavage is not the most important for the majority of voters. Furthermore, the myth of “unsuccessful transition”, the country’s ambivalent experiences with democracy and the free market in the last 20 years, and the dissatisfaction and anti-establishment sentiments as a consequence, gives momentum to Jobbik on the one hand, and, on the other hand, helped Fidesz to completely re-draw the institutional system in the way that serves its political interest.
Do you think that the far right may have contributed toward pushing Orbán and his Fidesz party from being generally conservative toward outright ethnocentric populism, and how do you see the connection between such attitudes and the current political situation?
The success of Jobbik is a huge political challenge for Fidesz; it’s really difficult to deal with. 2009 (the first success of Jobbik on the EP election) was a spectacular failure of the “one flag, one campo” strategy that wanted to maintain a united right-wing camp in order to try and hamper the rise of a more radical right force. In the last one and a half years Fidesz fulfilled some of the electoral promises of Jobbik (for instance introducing the Trianon Commemoration Day, putting extra taxes on banks and multinational companies, etc. to try and suck away the voters of Jobbik) but we think it won’t be a successful strategy (similarly, it has not been successful in France either).
We have already seen signs of popular protest in Hungary. What future do you see in these, and do you think that Hungarian civil society has the resilience to sustain them without constitutional or legal protection?
In Hungary, the general sentiment is political apathy, but there is a hyperactive group both on the left and right that is involved in various pro and anti-government marches. Furthermore, it seems like that the only thing that can pull out voters from their apathy is a strong Enemy. Fidesz, with its strong anti-EU rhetoric could take away some voters from Jobbik. But in the long run, strengthening this conspiracy worldview will just broaden the social base of Jobbik as it strengthens the ideologies that aim to undermine the political system itself. At the end of the day, the government can become the victim of its own conspiracy theorizing. Generally, the government’s side still have much stronger mobilising power than the opposition. The fate of the anti-government marches does not depend on the legal obstacles (these organizations can freely express their thoughts and protests), but on their ability to turn political resentment to political anger, and direct this towards the government.
This project aims to do research and raise awareness of conspiracy theories, which we regard as one of the greatest challenges to trust in a democratic institutional system nowadays.
We are about to embark upon a two year project studying how conspiracy theory operates as a resource for often dangerous political narratives. Could you tell us a little about the project, your hopes for it, and why you think it is an important subject today?
This is an international project including the Zachor Foundation for Remembrence, Center for Research on Prejudice in Poland and the Institute of Public Affairs from Slovakia and is supported by several international organizations (Open Society Institute, International Task Force for Holocaust Education and Research and International Visegrad Fund). It aims to do research and raise awareness of conspiracy theories, which we regard as one of the greatest challenges to trust in a democratic institutional system nowadays. The current upsurge of populist radical forces in the East and the West – quite different in nature and ideology – have at least one common feature: they are building on a sense of betrayal by the liberal elites, who are “hiding the truth” (on the EU membership, on immigration, on the Roma issues etc) from the people. The idea of conspiracy of the elites (politicians, bankers, experts) can be a vehicle of radical right ideas and prejudices toward minorities. There is therefore a growing need in Europe for strategies that tackle conspiracy theorising with efficient demand-reducing strategies. In the first year we will focus on research, and the second year we will pilot several strategies for challenging the credibility of popular conspiracy theories. We will communicate our findings via several channels, for example Political Capital’s newly launched project website deconspirator.com
Research supported by the OPEN SOCIETY FOUNDATIONS