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The ‘Big Government’ Cultural Conservatism of Central Europe by Gergely Szilvay

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Commentary

The ‘Big Government’ Cultural Conservatism of Central Europe

There is a fascinating debate currently raging about Hungary and Viktor Orbán, between pro-Orbán American conservatives like Tucker Carlson and Rod Dreher on the one hand, and anti-Orbán neoconservatives like David Frum and Bill Kristol on the other. Dennis Prager has also stepped into the fray, saying that, in his view, Central European countries like Hungary and Poland are fighting for the West. However, the reality is that U.S. conservatives, particularly neoconservatives and libertarians, do not understand the underlying differences between the American and European styles of conservatism.

Two years ago, Hungary’s secretary of state for economic strategy and regulation, László György, visited the United States. He met with Republican politicians and toured university campuses, explaining the economic policy of the Orbán government.

When he arrived home, he commented that he found the university audiences reasonable and was confident that he had been convincing. He did not find, however, the same openness among the ranks of Republican politicians. Inasmuch as the discussion had focused on social and cultural matters, they were in agreement, but they were unable to comprehend Hungarian economic policy, which they regarded as leftist, statist, and an example of ‘big government.’

The difference between the Hungarian and American approach to economics is symptomatic of a deeper divide between Central European and Anglo-American conservatism. Where American conservatism seeks to curtail government power, Central European conservatism harnesses state authority to accomplish its aims. 

Central European conservatism

To be clear, there is no single strand of Central European conservatism. Certainly, the region’s post-communist countries share much in common, but the politics of each are shaped by their distinct histories and particularities. Nonetheless, it is possible to speak in general terms about Central Europe’s emerging Right.

Hungarians and other Central European conservatives are more pro-state than Americans, and this is what Republican politicians simply cannot stomach. However, this is not merely a quirk of Central Europe; it is a characteristic of continental European conservatism more broadly. This tradition is despised by the European Union, which aspires to a U.S.-style federal management of its member states. We are small countries, and to support some version of ‘big government’ is not viewed the same way here as it is in the United States. We might compare Brussels to Washington from this point of view: similarly to favouring states’ rights in the U.S., you can support more governmental action at the member-state level and a much more limited role at the federal level. The parallel is useful because the United States is the example that federalist Brusselites emulate. Even the annual address by the president of the European Commission to the European Parliament is called ‘The State of the Union.’

Economic topics are less important in Hungarian and Central European conservative thought, but Hungarian conservatives have never been neoliberal free-market capitalists. In Hungary, capitalism was once regarded as imperialism at the hands of Western corporations. It was seen as having conquered the ruined post-communist economy of the country before it had even gotten back on its feet. Today, the rapacious privatisations during the post-communist era on the part of Hungarian businessmen and Western actors are still hotly debated in Hungarian politics. And the laissez-faire capitalism that facilitated those privatisations was mainly carried out by left-wing  governments. 

After the fall of communism, leftist governments in Central Europe were the ones that were more technocratic and neoliberal, compared to those of the Right. For instance, the socialist-liberal coalition which ruled Hungary between 1994 and 1998, almost ruined the still-weak middle class with its neoliberal policies, with wide-ranging privatisations and with the infamous economic restrictions of the ‘Bokros package’ of 1996. 

On the other hand, conservative governments in Hungary sought, through politics, to defend not only national interests but also family life and established civil society. Unlike their American counterparts, Hungarian conservatives are sceptical that the ‘invisible hand’ of the capitalist market will solve every problem. Rather than endorsing ‘small government,’ they hold that the state must be involved and must be strong. 

For example, Orbán’s economic policy can be described as capitalism operating in tandem with an active role played by the government. This has led to a significant reduction of the deficit, more prudent state management, a restructured system of taxation and the introduction of flat taxes, and a more meritocratic welfare state. Hungary still maintains a significant welfare system, providing aid to families—something that is opposed by left-wing parties—and it taxes corporations more than in the past. These policies actively protect and help Hungarian businesses.

Orbán generally receives two kinds of criticism for his economic policy. The Left characterizes the policy as ‘neoliberal’ due to its meritocratic and industrial approach, while technocratic ‘experts’ describe it as ‘social democracy.’ Neither of these characterizations is accurate. Essentially, Orbán chose a third way, which is sometimes referred to as ‘Orbanomics’—‘workfare’ instead of ‘welfare.’

The Central European approach represents not only post-communist suspicion toward free markets, but also an older version of conservatism, closely linked to the robust, more agrarian, and less Enlightenment-inspired vision of things; perhaps akin to that of Carlyle and his ilk. This approach is more closely represented by peasant’s parties, the Christian approach, and with papal social teachings. Compared to American conservatism, this approach can be viewed as being more corporatist and more traditionalist; encompassing more pre-modern values. There are, for instance, English conservative thinkers I would deem closer, in general, to Central European conservatism, such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis, among others.

Same roots, different approaches

The conservatism of Edmund Burke has many things in common with that of Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and François-René de Chateaubriand. All four are centred on a reaction to the French Revolution, but Burke’s was more secular and based on continuity. Continental conservatism has had to be more robust because of the disruptions caused by revolutions and radical governments. Notably, even the term ‘conservative’ was coined by the French. Le Conservateur, the journal of French monarchist conservatives—that was edited by Chateaubriand—was launched in 1818. Until then, nobody had used the term ‘conservative.’

American conservatism, with its Lockean roots, is—from a Continental point of view—not really conservatism, but rather, old-school liberalism. European conservatism—whether counter-revolutionary, reactionary, Christian democratic or something else—is not Lockean.

Also at play are opposing conceptions of natural law. Americans believe in its Lockean Enlightenment form (individualistic and rationalistic), whereas continental Europeans tend to accept the original, premodern, Aristotelian-Thomist version of it, which is communitarian and more pragmatic. And there are also some English conservatives who do not accept natural law at all, such as, for example, Michael Oakeshott.

To illustrate the point further: for American conservatism, ‘individual freedom,’ ‘individual responsibility,’ the ‘free market,’ and ‘small government’ are the key phrases. In the continental European conservative tradition, however, the key phrases are ‘nation,’ ‘security,’ ‘law and order,’ ‘cultural tradition,’ and ‘religious heritage.’

Central Europe’s social-cultural conservatism

Central European conservatives, compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, are more accustomed to using words and phrases like ‘right-wing’ and ‘national’ in their everyday lives, rather than ‘conservative.’ Neoconservatism has an especially poor reputation in Central Europe, as it is viewed as an unsophisticated and imperialistic ideology. Instead, we have more in common with American ‘paleoconservatives’ like Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson.

Central European conservatism, after the fall of communism, has been—and still is today—anti-communist and patriotic, focusing on national traditions and Christianity. It stands for national independence. For us, freedom means national freedom. Anglo-American conservatives, on the other hand, fear government intervention, in part because of its association with connotations of ‘social engineering.’ But how can a nation respond to decades of leftist social engineering, especially when it was as aggressive as communism? Using state power, communism destroyed our local, organic communities and our traditional elites. Today we have to use state power to rebuild those communities and create new national elites. Society will not heal itself—nor will the free market heal it. If your house is destroyed, you must actively rebuild it; it won’t be rebuilt by an ‘invisible hand.’

The legacy of 20th century history has left the Right in Central Europe questioning what we are meant to conserve after 40 years of communism. It appears that our task is not so much to preserve traditions, but to reawaken them and to establish new ones. This approach is more reactionary: it is not just about traditions (customs) but about the traditional (pre-modern) forms of thinking that underlie pre-communist life. In this sense, Central European conservatism is combative, because it has to be.

Conservative politics today

Today, the most recognizable representatives of what I have called Continental conservatism are Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party in Hungary, and Jarosław Kaczyński and his Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland. These leaders are using their positions in government to rebuild their respective nations after the many devastations of communist rule.

Obviously, the state cannot solve every problem of society, nor should it attempt to do so. But if you have a post-communist deep state, judicial system, and cultural and media elite in a small country with a small market, even 20 years of successive regime change is insufficient to reform these systems, when prior governments were too polite to interfere. Under such circumstances, those in power should attempt to do what they can to assist the nation’s healing through governmental action.

However, this healing process requires more than mere legislation. The bureaucratic class forms a type of post-communist deep state. This makes the task of a conservative leader nearly impossible, unless he actively works to transform these institutions. State administration and bureaucracy is not neutral; it is run by actual people. A leader must therefore promote public servants within institutions that act for the good of the nation. That is why the Hungarian government established the University of Public Service, which was initially treated as a pariah by academics, but has, in time, attained a good reputation.

There is also an attempt to reclaim Hungarian judicial institutions. In 2013, a law was passed that reduced the age of retirement of judges from 70 to 65. It was criticized by the usual actors as “undemocratic,” but this policy was really a modest effort to protect the democratic process from those judges who had been active during communism. The European Union, notably, condemned this new law.

Brussels also looked unfavourably upon Poland’s recent rule, under which Parliament appoints the members of a judicial committee to oversee judges. Opposition was expressed by the EU, despite the fact that many Western countries have similar rules in place. This is an obvious double standard: when the parliament of a Central European country decides that certain appointments (Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges, as well as leaders of other major institutions) will be made not by ‘expert committees’ but by democratically elected political bodies, EU and Western elites jump to condemn it, even though their systems work in the same manner.

Conservatism and the media

However, even after years of efforts to change the judicial system, Hungarian left-wing media and opinion makers regularly sue conservative media outlets—and they often win. Most of the judges who specialize in media law favour left-wing causes. They often operate on a double standard: they are more lenient with left-wing journalists and are stricter toward conservatives. In 2020, right-wing media outlets in Hungary lost 57 cases of press rectification lawsuits, whereas left-wing outlets lost only seven.

When Polish-American journalist Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic writes that 90% of Hungarian media has ended up in the hands of Orbán, she is wrong. About half of all Hungarian political media outlets combined are right-wing (and that does not mean they are controlled by the government), and six of the biggest ten political news outlets are left-wing. Hungarian media is relatively balanced—certainly more so now than prior to 2010, when left-wing domination was ubiquitous.

Everybody in Hungary is free to criticise the government. Conservative festivals, like MCC Feszt and Tranzit, and conservative outlets like Mandiner, where I write, regularly organize debates with politicians and experts from both sides. Our experience at Mandiner has been that it’s more difficult to get members of the opposition to accept an invitation. In Western countries, the media landscape is dominated by the Left and this is not deemed a scandal, whereas in Hungary, the Right is experiencing a media ascendency and this is immediately described as a threat to freedom and democracy. The hypocrisy is breath-taking.

Conclusion 

Central European conservatism is not as polite and diplomatic as its Anglo-American counterpart. Why? Because Central Europe has a more troubled history. When nothing else has worked—and that’s our experience of the Left here in Central Europe following the collapse of communism—you must fight actively and use the government for your purposes. After all, communism did not passively collapse; Orbán and others actively worked to help it to collapse, so to speak.

Rod Dreher likes to say that postliberal American conservatives need to look beyond the English Channel to broaden their minds about what conservatism means, or could mean, for them. They may learn that rather than curtailing the authority of the state, conservatives should promote and defend our cause through the government and its institutions. Maybe this is why Orbán’s Budapest is becoming an international capital for the next generation of Western conservative intellectuals.

Gergely Szilvay is a senior fellow at Mandiner. He earned his Ph.D. in political theory from Pázmány Péter Catholic University.

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