The Oct. 2 Hungarian Referendum as Cultural Policy

By Alexandra Kowalski, CEU


A journalist from Democracy now requested quotes from me on cultural policy in Hungary and its impact on the referendum of October 2, in which citizens of Hungary are asked whether they approve of the EU’s deciding about quotas of refugees for member states. I am not sure what will happen of the answers I gave to his questions on the DN side, but here is my twopence on the subject, following the journalist’s questions:


Firstly, do you think current cultural policy would have any impact on the referendum. As in, the prevalence of television, investment in state television, at the expense perhaps of potentially dissenting voices in contemporary art? 


Of course, policy plays a key role in orchestrating public response to the referendum. It will most probably secure a solid support to the government’s nationalist ideology as a matter of fact. And by the way, the referendum itself is part and parcel of the machinery that produces nationalism in this country, it is the cultural policy you evoke in your question…

But to answer your question specifically—the way dissenting voices are excluded from the public sphere in Orban’s Hungary is interesting because it’s a little more complicated than one would imagine, especially in Western countries where people often caricature the Fidesz rule as a crude form of authoritarian rule.

So how does this work concretely? It does start with assuming direct political control over an oversized, overfunded state-owned public media. There’s also a measure of intimidation going on—not so much threats to people’s physical safety, as in Russia for example, but investigation journalists working on sensitive issues do sometimes face direct threats to their and their families’ reputation, privacy etc.

But the interesting part is that this direct form of power is crucially complemented through indirect control of the field as a whole—of its economy and of it norms, both in principle still autonomous. The watchdog Mertek contributes to this part of the answer in a clear and nuanced way. First, the investment of large amounts of public money in advertisement makes a handful of formally independent media conglomerates actually dependent on state monies. Those are as a consequence dependent on a party with which the state is more and more identical. Second, there is no public sphere to speak of. The public sphere in liberal democracies is usually defined by independent professional standards of journalism and investigation, themselves supported by an autonomous economic infrastructure of subscribers and diverse and numerous advertisers. In contemporary Hungary the community of media professionals is split, let’s say, in four. First there’s the strategic allies of the government–those are the powerful corporations mentioned above, that are economically dependent but strive to stay away from political issues. Then there’s the ideologically subservient ones—those are symbolically dominant but also benefit economically from their ideological support to the state-party, of course. Then there’s a number of outlets representing journalistic excellence, and often political dissent. It’s a rather vibrant, courageous and relatively free opposition press that does a respectable amount of investigative work, but they have neither symbolic capital (i.e. access to the public at large) nor the kind of economic power that would improve the symbolic/access deficit. These small companies often rely on a business model that combines public and NGO funding with readers’ subscription and some advertising revenue. These outlets include Atlatszo, Direk36, 444 and few others. There’s remarkable, courageous, creative people there. The culture of dissent from the socialist years is in this sense quite alive. But these voices are not heard or included in a national debate, the structure of information flows simply short-circuit them. Finally there’s a number of mainstream media, especially in the written press part of the field, that sometimes do a decent job of independent investigation but that is often paralyzed by forms of self-censorship enforced by fearful managements and funders. A window onto this was offered most recently by Budapest Business Journal editor Tom Popper’s testimony about his protest resignation from the position.

State control of media and of the public sphere of discourses is thus often indirect, and is largely effected by and through the private sector and the capitalist economy. Which doesn’t mean that the state-party doesn’t produce coarse forms of ideology and direct pressure as well, on the old fashioned propagandist model that have defined authoritarian regimes across history. The blue billboards that have covered the country with hateful messages and false information since the beginning of the referendum campaign illustrate this combination very well.



I wondered what elements of the course syllabus you sent me were relevant to what is happening in cultural policy now in Hungary. Are there any particular theorists that are particularly pertinent in this regard? I wonder whether we could fashion this response into one quote. 

So what are sociological theory and cultural policy theory good for, when it comes to understanding state power in contemporary Hungary in general… Thanks for this question, it’s a really great one.

The new authoritarian regimes such as Orban’s in contemporary Hungary seem to pose a unique challenge for us to understand and respond to. It’s a type of power that is ideological and contemptuous of truth, yet makes space for formally independent actors such as global corporations, NGOs, EU rules, and even some basic freedoms and rights such as the freedom of expression. Orban’s own concept of “illiberal democracy” sounds like a horrible contradiction to traditional political theory and to the liberal mind, and it’s hard to make sense of the reality the formula captures.

In fact, social theory and historical sociology have long suggested that “illiberal-democratic” models (that is, more rigorously, populist-authoritarian regimes) are normal outcomes of capitalist modernity—rather than horrendous accidents of global history. The concept of “cultural industries” coined by Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, for example, is uniquely useful to account for the fact that capitalism is highly compatible with, and can bring crucial support to authoritarian rule in given historic circumstances. The cultural industries (the media, mass education, the art world etc.) are simply machines that produce consent. They can be used in liberal or illiberal, in democratic or authoritarian ways. The case of Hungary today illustrates the collaboration between market and a strong state in the production of an illiberal regime. Calling such a regime “democratic” (as in Orban’s formula: “illiberal democracy”) is an abuse of language since democracy rests on solid constitutional grounds and on the rule of law, rather than on contingent popular support to a given party or group. The constitutional ground has been consistently scuttled in Hungary since 2010, with popular support.

Another useful concept to account for the current situation in Hungary is Bourdieu’s notion of social field. To put it in a nutshell, a social field is a sector of activity that produces its own norms of excellence and reward autonomously—mostly free from external pressure, whether political or economic. Such autonomy requires a degree of professional culture and organization, a degree of economic independence, and some political guarantees of basic freedoms. In order to understand the cultural power of Orban’s regime, one has to analyze and disentangle the complex threads that reduce the autonomy of the field of cultural production (of intellectuals and academics, artists, journalists etc.) vis-à-vis the political-economic machine that is the Hungarian party-state. I mentioned some of these threads above, and pointed out their complexity and diversity.



1 Comment

  1. This commentary on cultural policy, propaganda machineries and the “illiberal” state in contemporary Hungary, which is awaiting yet another poll on an outrageous referendum, yields a perspective, which is rarely being scrutinized even in more progressive and critical commentaries on the current situation. It sheds light on the immense apparatus that creates and controls what should (not) be known in the public sphere and how difficult it is to carve out spaces for oppositional discourses departing from the authoritarian position.
    The relations made between the “illiberal” state and a lack of democratic constitutionalism based on the rule of law, make me ask a few questions. Can EU-nation-states, or their governments, or styles of governing, or their cultual policies for that matter, be compared as if they were “just” nation-states (without the EU)? In other words, can we understand the development of populist-authoritarian regimes and societies, without contextualizing them within the complex power structures of an even greater governing body, such as the EU? My impression is, that the notion of the “illiberal” state is not meant to be understood as anti-liberal in the sense of anti-democratic (even though we see a decline in democratic processes taking place in Hungary at the moment). Rather, and this might be even more interesting to reflect on, it could be understood as a move against a specific kind of “liberal”, which is dictated from “West” or the EU. This “liberal” also means to constantly reduce labor costs and welfare costs, which weakens not only the social (-democratic) state, but rises the levels of precarity of those who need to work in systems of expanding flexibilities. Orban has an easy game in polarizing those who are on the loosing side of the financialization and flexibilization of the (labor) market. The socalled refugee crisis, which is yet another interesting figure to be analyzed in this constellation, might have arrived just in time to polarize the people even more against the “invisible hands” reaching into Hungary from the West.
    All this is not to say anything in support of the current Hungarian government, rather, my impression is that a comparision with a “more ideal” or “liberal” democracy might prevent us from seeing the interconnections between actors situated differently within structures of power.


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