Research & Studies

Farewell Enlightenment Rationality – Black Swans on the Blue Sky Series by iASK

Leading article by György Schöpflin (Head of the Advisory Board of iASK)

Setting the scene

The starting position is that the Hungarian government proposed and then enacted into law an emergency package of regulations in connection with COVID-19 that would be in force as long as parliament so decides. In other words, the regulations would not have a sunset clause. This was unacceptable to the opposition, which then voted against, even if the government’s two-thirds majority could not be overridden.

This triggered off an entirely disproportionate, wholly negative reaction from a wide range of actors, who – using massively exaggerated language – envisioned the introduction of dictatorship in Hungary. The Financial Times leader, entitled “Hungary is no longer a contestable democracy” (…/0029e6e2-7344-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) is a characteristic example. Note that these responses were not based on a thorough analysis of the Hungarian Law, but on leftwing accounts of it and these could be characterized as indisputably one-sided.

Note too that the Hungarian government’s reply has been widely ignored. It can be added that the condemnations of the Law have been political and not legal. In other words, while the nominal concern has been focusing on fears of violations of the rule of law, the legal fundamentals have been ignored, presumably because taking the legal arguments into account would have undermined the political narrative.

Thus the provisions in the Law regarding the Constitutional Court as the de facto guardian of legality have been swept aside on the purported grounds that the Court has been filled with Fidesz loyalists. This assertion entirely ignores the record of the Court which is marked autonomy, the legal professionalism of the judges, the solid international reputation of the Court and its total commitment to constitutionalism (see the interview with the president of the Court, Tamás Sulyok…/

The butterfly effect

The process so far nicely illustrates the butterfly effect. A relatively small cause, the emergency measure, triggered off a massive response, illustrating the dynamic disequilibrium that has arisen.

A quick look at the actors mentioned above helps to explain some of the reasons for the dynamic process. Hungary has a fragmented and disunited opposition-held together not by a common ideology or political program, but by the all-exclusive objective of overthrowing Orbán and Fidesz. This corresponds to Laclau’s “single logic” politics, which, he argues, is the central characteristic of populism.

There is, as one would expect a parliamentary opposition, but in some ways even more important is the oppositional ecosystem – NGOs, advocacies, think tanks, lobbies, sections of the media and influencers. The oppositional party Momentum has no parliamentary representation. These bodies have voice, influence, political power, but questionable legitimacy. And they are extensively embedded in the international networks, giving them quite a degree of significance in the shaping of the political narrative, albeit with zero accountability.

A key point about the Hungarian political system is that it is polarised, confrontational and the opposition’s objective is to transform the entire political system. In a democracy, it is idiosyncratic when the opposition’s aim is not government change, but system change. This makes the minimum compromise necessary for democracy near impossible to attain and explains why the opposition invariably gives the most negative possible reading to whatever the government does (see the opposition media ubique). This negative reading has been wholly accepted by the Western left.

The scapegoat

This is the background to the Western left’s tsunami of condemnation of the emergency Law and, while I can’t prove it, if it hadn’t been the absence of an exit clause, it would have been something else. Orbán, Fidesz, Hungary have become the scapegoat for the failure of left-liberalism which has overseen intolerable inequalities, a slowing of upward social mobility, mounting dissatisfaction with marginalization (Brexit, gilets jaunes, Lega, AfD). But, so goes the implicit narrative, “things may be difficult here, but look how much worse they are in Hungary”. And, need one add, this is an imaginary Hungary, about which everything and anything can be said because what we’re dealing with is a constructed, dystopic fantasy that functions as a ritual for the left with the aim of underpinning its declining attractiveness.

One final point. The tsunami of condemnation has not passed unnoticed in Hungary and for many, it is lived as yet another humiliation visited by the West in Hungary. That in turn activates the Simmel-Coser effect (, strengthens nationhood and is likely to play a role in the 2022 parliamentary elections, in favor of Fidesz, of course.

So there it. A textbook example of left-liberalism scoring its own goals, shooting itself in the foot and activating the most counter-productive political strategy possible. Farewell Enlightenment rationality.

Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).