Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Profits Come First

Here's my piece, from yesterday's Morning Star, on the sad impact the introduction of cut-throat capitalism has had on Hungarian society.

Neil Clark

What would you call a political party who, in office had sold off more than 160 publicly owned enterprises, imposed VAT on medical prescriptions, abolished a tax on stock market profits and had sent troops to Iraq in support of the illegal US/UK invasion? A party whose leader was one of the richest men in the country and who had made his fortune from buying privatised state assets on the cheap in the early 1990s.
Whichever word you use, it is unlikely that the word ‘socialist’ would be among them.
Yet the official name of the party which carried out such policies is the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which together with its ‘Free Democrat’ (SZDSZ) party allies has just been returned to power.
The Hungarian Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose personal fortune currently stands at $17m has been labelled ‘the Hungarian Tony Blair’. There are certainly many similarities between the two. Both have shifted their respective parties sharply to the neo-liberal right, and for doing so have earned the plaudits of ‘business leaders’, western financial institutions and US government officials. ‘He’s my kind of socialist’ was the verdict of one Bank of America debt trader on Gyurcsany; ‘the immediate future seems to be in safe hands’ was the view of the US Ambassador to Hungary, George Herbert Walker III- who also happens to be George W Bush’s cousin.
Less important to the emissaries of global capital is the effect neo-liberal solutions are having on the lives of the Hungarian people. Twenty years ago, Hungary enjoyed not only one of the highest standards of living in the socialist bloc, but also benefited from the priority given by the government to education, the social services, the arts and transport. Heating, electricity and essential foodstuffs were all subsidised, while the Hungarian government operated the most comprehensive- and generous- maternity and paternity leave programmes in the world.
‘Under the strong Communist Party leader Janos Kadar, Hungary has developed a uniquely progressive brand of socialism, whose vitality is immediately apparent to the visitor’ - the words not of an official Communist Party publication, but the 1987 edition of the American travel guide ‘Let‘s Go Europe’. Seventeen years on from the ‘regime change’ of 1989, most of the achievements of the socialist era have been dismantled.
Hungarian society, previously so cohesive, is fragmenting under the effects of the harsh monetarist policies adopted at the behest of global capital. Crime and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, while inequalities in wealth have dramatically increased. The public health service is being run down prior to privatisation, while the state-run sanatoriums, whose services were available free of charge to all citizens before, have been turned into rest rooms for the wealthy.
Living in Hungary from 1994-99, I saw at first hand the impact the economic ‘reform’ process, so beloved by the EU, the IMF and Western financial ‘experts’, has on a country and its people. Antoine De Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, wrote that it is only with the heart that one can see clearly- ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye’. And so it is when a society changes from a collective, socialist ethos- in which solidarity and co-operation are encouraged to a competitive, capitalistic one. Let me give you a personal illustration. In 1995, I was in a bank in Budapest waiting to withdraw money to buy a flight ticket back to England for Easter. Unfortunately I was unable to withdraw any money as I had bought the wrong card- and as my flight needed to be paid for that afternoon, I was at my wit’s end. Behind me in the queue was a middle-aged lady. On hearing of my predicament she offered to lend me the amount (over £130). She wrote down her address and said I could pay the money back when I returned to Hungary after the holiday. I was taken aback by the trust the lady had placed in a total stranger.
We can measure the impact of the changes from socialism to capitalism in many ways. But the kindness of the lady, brought up in a society where solidarity and helping others mattered more than personal gain, brought the difference home to me more than any GDP statistics or real income figures.
Would such an incident occur in Hungary today? Sadly, I very much doubt it.
Modern global capitalism does not encourage kindness, co-operation and trust- but selfishness, competition and deceit. Where altruism does exist today, it is not because of the economic system, but in spite of it. Powerful corporate interests- concerned only with profit maximisation encourage us to put number one first, and to hell with the other man/woman. And having constructed such a cut-throat and inhuman economic order, we then pay ‘experts’ to advise us on why we are so unhappy!
It is sad that instead of progressive, solidarity-building socialism, the Hungarian Socialist Party and their coalition partners will only be imposing on the Hungarian people more of the same failed neo-liberal policies. That they were re-elected says more about capitalistic control of the media and the divided opposition- than it does about any real public enthusiasm for the MSZP’s programme.
Over twenty years ago Mrs Thatcher came to Budapest to lecture the crowds about the benefits of a ‘market economy’. Back then, there was such a thing as a society in Hungary. Very soon, thanks to so-called ‘Socialists’ following the Iron Lady’s prescription, there won’t be.

1 comment:

1defender said...

Sadly it is the same in all the countries of Eastern Europe. It is the great give away bonanza with publicly owned property. Hungary is not alone in this predicament.