Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Hungarian Uprising?

Here's my article on current developments in Hungary from The Guardian.

According to the standard neo-liberal version of history, the last 18 years in Eastern Europe have been years of unbridled success, as largely state-run economies have been transformed into dynamic "free market" ones. The reality is rather different. The adoption of the neoliberal turbo-capitalist model has caused misery for millions across the region, and in Hungary - a country whose living standards were, 30 years ago, among the highest of all the eastern bloc countries - its impact has been particularly severe.

In 2005, a Unicef report highlighted Hungary as a particularly dramatic example of the worsening situation of children, with child poverty now over 20%. And last month, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that 200,000 people in Hungary, including 20,000 children, were under-fed. Around one in 10 Hungarians lives below the poverty line, with leading sociologist Zsuzsa Ferge recently warning a conference of the European and Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network that next year's planned price rises could push a further three million people into poverty. These depressing statistics are a shocking indictment of the hardline policies of what is arguably the most dogmatically neoliberal government in the whole of central and eastern Europe.

Prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose personal fortune of $17m was made from controversial privatisation deals in the early 1990s, is the darling of the US embassy and foreign capital - not just for his support for the Iraq war, but for his zeal in following a textbook neoliberal agenda which has involved selling off more than 170 state enterprises, imposing VAT on medical prescriptions and abolishing a tax on stockmarket profits. "Gyurcsany's a socialist, but he's our kind of socialist" is the view of one US junk bond trader, while the verdict of former US ambassador to Hungary George Herbert Walker III (who is George Bush's cousin) is: "Hungary's immediate future is in safe hands."

But while Gyurcsany and his government are toasted in the boardrooms of investment banks and finance houses across the world, his administration is not so popular with those he is supposed to represent. Gyurcsany's MSZP (Socialist Party) ratings are down to just 20%, while their coalition allies, the rabidly pro-capitalist SZDSZ (Free Democrats), whose leaders' views on the economy would make Margaret Thatcher seem like a social democrat, are down to just 3%.

Faced with falling living standards and swingeing cutbacks in welfare and state provision, people are taking to the streets. On Wednesday, several trades unions organised a day of industrial action, which culminated in a rally in Budapest's Kossuth Ter. The strikers were protesting not only about the government's plans to close large chunks of the country's railway network, but also about the planned part-privatisation of health care and reforms to the state pension.

The most interesting thing of all was who was supporting the Day of Solidarity. The anti-government action was not only backed by the unions, the socialist left and communists. It was supported by health service professionals, civic groups, farmers, religious groups and the country's conservative opposition. Zsolt Semlyen, chairman of the staunchly Catholic Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) said earlier in the week that his party would give "all theoretical and moral support to those who are arranging the protests of the Day of Solidarity".

It's not the first time the left and the right have come together to protest against neoliberal extremism in Hungary. Back in 2004, the communist Workers Party (Munkaspart) and the main conservative opposition party, Fidesz, cooperated in a successful campaign to force a referendum on the privatisation of the health service. Such an alliance would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier, given the country's history. But faced with a despised and discredited government, one which governs only in the interest of foreign multinationals and Hungary's own class of super-rich, old foes are forgetting their past differences and are coming together.

Viktor Orban, the leader of Fidesz, once called Hungarians who lived under communism "the lost generation". Now, even he admits that for the majority of Hungarians, life was easier under the benign "goulash communism" of Janos Kadar than it is today.

What Hungary shows is that the real divide in the world today is not so much between traditional socialists and conservatives, but between those who support the neoliberal globalist agenda of privatisation, tax cuts for the rich and running the economy for the benefit of global capital, and those who believe that maintaining economic sovereignty and safeguarding the interests of ordinary working people should come first.

As neoliberal "reforms" become ever more severe and unpopular all over the world, we can expect this new, left-right anti-globalisation alliance to gain even greater strength.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Niel,
our PM name is Gyurcsany (Gyurcsány) - just would be a good idea :) to write his name on a correct way so his officers can find your article easily ;)
best regards
nikk

Neil Clark said...

thanks for spotting the typo, Nikk. It was correctly spelt later on in the piece.
ps my name is spelt 'Neil'!

VASARHELY2002 said...

I ACCEPT THAT YOUR BLOG UNDERTOOK ONLY TO FOCUS UPON THE ECONOMIC ISSUES INVOLVED AND IGNORED THE RATHER EXTREME POSITION OF THE RIGHT-WING PARTIES, EXEMPTING MDF, ON ISSUES RELATING TO SOCIAL QUESTIONS. NOR HAVE YOU SUGGESTED THAT FIDESZ AND ITS ALLIES HAVE A COHERENT PLAN FOR ELIMINATING THE NATION'S DEFICIT WHILE RETAINING THOSE BENEFITS THREATENED BY THE MSZP PLAN.

Charlie Marks said...

Another great article, Neil. The parties of both the left and right who have a popular constituency - rather than being focused on the rich elite and foreign investors - are natural allies in the fight against neoliberalism. An example from Western Europe would be the campaign against the EU constitutional treaty in France. I would hope that if the general public here were offered a referendum on the current "reform" treaty, a similar alliance could take place.