Translation of Peter Lendvai’s interview with former Raiffeisen CEO Péter Felcsuti appearing in fuhu.hu on November 27th, 2017.
For most European countries democracy is as natural as air. We Hungarians, however, like an airless country, says Péter Felcsuti, economist and one-time president of the Hungarian Bank Alliance. He believes we feel good with a leader who–and Viktor Orbán does this perfectly–works on resentment, pettiness, provinciality, and boasts of his own accomplishments. Felcsuti claims that Orbán is a perfect power engineer whose values know no compromise, only defeating the opponents, and regards everyone outside his immediate family as such in a broader sense. The economist believes that lean decades will characterize our economic situation, as well as our social relations, which will remain this way unless the country experiences shock, if only because the democratic opposition has deeply underperformed politically, intellectually and morally.
How do we live these days?
There are those who live well and many who do not. Hungarian society today is seriously divided in the sense that part lives well in a material sense and is satisfied with what it experiences; they constitute a sizable minority. A larger part of society lives poorly, but their circumstances are such that they have no way or desire to contemplate what the cause of this is and what can be done to change it. And there is a third group that cannot be ignored that, regardless of their material situation, is very unhappy with what is happening in the country.
Do you seriously believe that there are people in the country that are not in a position to reflect on what is happening around them?
Yes. I am not only thinking about those living in dire poverty, but the hundreds of thousands of those who have fallen from the middle class, with diploma in hand and poor-paying jobs, who worry whether their household’s money will last through the end of the month and whether they can pay their utility bills or credit installments coming due.
In order for a society to mobilize itself, is it necessary for the upper classes to also be dissatisfied and to live badly?
No society is homogeneous. It is a mistake to approach this question by assuming the existence of common values or interests. There are none, or there are only few, and those only last a short while (as in the case of the national pride in those rare moments of sports success). For this reason it is really possible for a bad balance to form in which a politically active social group is satisfied with its situation while others who are not are not active enough, or organizations or leadership are not good enough to be able to offer an acceptable alternative.
The regime maintains this imbalance with clever politics that divide social groups with rewards and punishments and the creation of enemies.
A number of economists, yourself included, continually predict that the politics followed by the Orbán government will bankrupt the country . . .
With due respect, I do not think that is the situation, which I support here with a quote from something I wrote together with my son that appeared on index.hu in 2011.
“We often think that there are two conditions in which our country operates: either it is flowering or it is in crisis. In reality a third state–stagnation–is also possible. It is precisely this danger which Hungarian society is facing today. More precisely, we are threatened with vegetating for another decade, having progressively slipped towards the periphery of the European Union.” Perhaps we erred at the end in thinking that it would only last a decade.
Is this the era of vegetating?
I think this is the case both economically and socially. Growth depends on money called down from the EU. In any case this will not be enough to close the gap (with the more developed countries-tran.). An even greater problem is that in looking at society as a whole, prosperity, consumption, health, life expectancy, and the life prospects of future generations, which is actually the goal of economic growth, is either not improving or seriously unbalanced.
Might the Orbán government have followed a different path?
That is entirely for sure. One might be deeply conservative and nationalistic and still, for example, believe in European nation-states and oppose political integration. Who could doubt Great Britain or Sweden’s commitment to democracy? Illiberal democracy, the Soros campaign, and corruption must not necessarily accompany nationalism.
It is also perfectly legitimate following the 2008 crisis if somebody talks about rethinking the role of the state, or raises the issue of to what extent foreign capital plays a positive role in a developing economy. It is possible to hold a worthwhile debate about this, or for voters to choose conditions for changes to political economy.
However, that is not what we are talking about in our case, tragically. Orbán represents a different kind of values. I think there is a given family, naturally in a broader sense, and that anyone outside the family is the enemy, that connections and loyalty should be the bases, and that a strong hierarchy is needed where there is a boss and subordinates, and where the boss takes care of his subordinates, even if they make mistakes, so long as they remain loyal. Well, this is also a kind of value system, which others call a mafia state. I don’t really like the latter term. But one must acknowledge that this politics has a social and cultural embeddedness in Hungary. Many subscribe to the concept that you should reward those who stand beside you and punish those who turn against you, and that every match is a zero sum game in which either you or I am the winner, and that there is no such cooperation that results in both of us winning. In answer to your question I might even say that we have hard luck. We could have had a Viktor Orbán arriving on the political scene with a different type of cultural determination, say with the value system of a József Antall (it’s ironic how nostalgically the left wing thinks back on József Antall, but his commitment to the west and its value system cannot be doubted), coming not from a small settlement but a large city with an intellectual background, but regardless of that possessing a world view accepting of others built on nation-state concepts.
You said you were mistaken when you foresaw only a decade-long slump, that it would be better to make peace with it to have even a new ten years…
I don’t mean for this discussion to be so dead serious, but it’s important to speak about this. Many are inclined to view society as a relatively simply structure. Society, however, in which ten million people struggle ten million ways every day connected with one another, is a very complex organization that does not move in a linear manner but is rather characteristically unpredictable and cannot be modeled. For a long time nothing happens, then comes an unexpected shock that changes the conditions. So when I speak about the stagnation lasting longer than ten years, then I assume there won’t be any unpredictable shocks. By the way, a shock can be anything. It can arrive from abroad or internally. The point is that it upsets the organism from its state of rest. However, unless something like this happens, then I think the Orbán regime is sustainable during this period. Incidentally, another reason I speak of only ten years is that in the meantime a new generation comes of age that does not know how to react to what it sees happening around it. It can also react by leaving the country, and we can already feel a preface to this, and from this follows the shock. But those born into this can also accept the current situation as given and then everything can remain as it is.
I see that you are somewhat more permissive of the Orbán regime than, say, the European Union.
I don’t think I’m permissive. I rather seek to understand it. I do not want to accept that simplified point of view driven by feelings and desire often experienced on this side. By the way, if I understand what is happening, then perhaps I can live more easily with these phenomena.
What is clear is that if I am seething helplessly every day, as many people are by seeing and hearing about petty crimes, I don’t get very far, and it can even make me sick. As the country gets sick, and there are more and more pathological signs showing–see the tragi-comical events that have taken place in certain villages.
You mentioned two things: understanding, and the pathological reaction. But there would be a third, and that is struggle . . .
Naturally, struggle is important. In my own way I try to do so in a manner consistent with my conscience. I think I have made the most of the opportunity for struggle that is offered to me. I write, speak out, and if given the opportunity I protest if there is a reason to do so, and I cooperate in the domestic publication of important social policy books. If opportunities for political struggle were to open that offered any hope, I would certainly not stay in my room. However, at present there are none.
I consider the greatest disaster the manner in which the democratic opposition deeply underperforms politically, intellectually and morally. They say of the current situation, of the Orbán regime, that it is an authoritarian system whose main characteristic is that it allows formal democracy but cannot be replaced using democratic means. This what János Kornai, who I greatly respect, says, and he is certainly correct, but I think this assertion has yet to be proven. If the opposition parties were able to defeat the governing parties in an election either together or separately, and those governing parties were to employ every means to obstruct a change in government, then that would be real proof of this. For the time being, however, that is not the case given that support for the opposition does not come close to that of Fidesz and the fact that the ability and willingness for cooperation is completely missing.
So you are saying there is no chance of there being a change in government?
Yes. But I think the main reason for this is because the opposition does not avail itself of the opportunity that the regime has left it.
Is the European Union completely powerless in the face of such autocracy?
I think so. On the one hand, because it is struggling with its own political and economic crisis, and on the other hand it is not prepared for someone simply discarding the democratic value system it considers axiomatic. For the vast majority of European countries, democracy is air itself, and it is natural that they exist in it. It is impossible for them to grasp what is happening in a country they believed to be democratic which in reality is sliding into autocracy.
The conclusions from this is that we are happy living in an airless country as this is what we managed to create for ourselves “over the past forty years.”
That is so.
Countries have historical lines of development, just as our country would try from time to time to break out, but it systematically returns to this condition, that is, progressing with difficulty, looking inward, working on the basis of resentment, provinciality, viewing the outside world with suspicion, and boasting of its own accomplishments.
There have been wonderful moments in our history, but we always fall back to the state about which I am speaking. In this regard we are not alone in the world. If we look around there are a lot of countries that bring constant failure.
So from time to time we find a leader that takes the country in this direction.
That’s right. I am convinced that in a different kind of world, a talented politician like Viktor Orbán would be a leader deeply committed to democracy, but now he is saying what the Hungarian people need and giving it to them because he needs power and, not least of all, money, not what is needed to advance the country. This is what differentiates Orbán, the excellent power engineer, from our Ferenc Deák or even Nelson Mandela, who had moral strength and courage to say no to their own people.