Momentum Movement: The Boys from Pest

The Momentum Movement (MoMo) is bound to succeed. It is deeply embedded in the zeitgeist.

This can already be seen from its utterly meaningless name. It is easy to remember and foreign media don’t have to translate it; although in English “momentum” means something entirely different than in Hungarian [“moment” – Transl.]. But this doesn’t matter at all, because it’s a brand name like Nestlé or Pull & Bear. The names of the other “young parties,” such as Jobbik, Párbeszéd, or Együtt [meaning, respectively “the better one/the one more to the right;” “dialogue;” and “together” – Transl.] don’t mean anything either, but they lack the connotation of being dynamic and a sense of being in the present, so cleverly utilised by the marketing-minded founders of Momentum. At the same time, the term is equally neutral, so the potential voter can imagine and project anything onto it. Momentarily.

There are similar parties in the region: the Romanian USR is a bit to the right of its Hungarian relative, while Poland’s Razem is well to the left – however, in line with the local political culture, they are much more explicit and committed, even though their generational character is also quite strong.

This generational character is not a new element in politics. The Giovine Italia movement was founded in 1831 in Marseille by Giuseppe Marzini, Junges Deutschland, the literary equivalent of the Vormärz, the revolutionary movement that led to the events of 1848, was banned by the Bundestag in 1835. The idea of “youth” has been associated with the ideas of creative imagination and change ever since German Romanticism – the root of which, of course, is the Christian notion of childlike innocence. “Youth”: a new beginning, starting anew, novelty, progress, change. At the same time, the most famous journal of the Hungarian “pre-emptive counterrevolution” and the following years of White Terror and state racism between 1913-1944 was also titled “New Generation.”

The most well-known Hungarian generational party used to be Fidesz.

The most well-known Hungarian generational party used to be Fidesz [Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége, “Alliance of Young Democrats” – Transl.] which, contrary to popular belief, evoked the strongest feelings of enthusiasm and hope in the wider circle of liberals during the democratic transition. There was even mention of an idea for Fidesz to merge with SzDSz [“Alliance of Free Democrats,” a now defunct liberal party – Transl.]. The idea later disappeared, together with Hungarian liberalism entirely.

But the political tenderness towards youth has never weakened. It’s a deep and solid European tradition and not only a political one at that: it’s a basic form of hope and trust in the future. In European metaphorology, a rejuvenated, renewed world equals a better, happier world. From theology to advertisement, its use is ubiquitous and universally applicable.

MoMo is using it too but more smartly than others: although they are a “party” (which is usually a hindrance, considering that Hungarian public opinion is consistently averse to pluralism and ideologies), they unite the reactionary cliché of “neither left, nor right” with the symbolic signifiers of “novelty” and “youth,” whilst simultaneously seem to be rising above the old conflicts and infamous divisions. At the same time, they connect this with the cliché of hypermodernity and “the twenty-first century.”

Yet they enable an instant identification of an anti-Orbán oppositional public opinion, which is tired of struggling in vain, especially the students mobilized in the wake of CEU’s and the NGOs’ harassment and the middle-class youth of the capital. (But even in these cases, MoMo doesn’t make a clear or open statement – very wisely).

Momentum’s most important characteristic is that they take no position in conflicts.

Momentum’s most important characteristic is that they take no position in class conflicts, ethnic conflicts, or gender conflicts. They are compassionate to both the poor and the rich by subtly referring to the conservative idea of “national unity” and its faint rhetorical copy: the all-time response of the all-time ruling classes to the challenge of egalitarian movements.

Hurting no one, helping no one. Optimising the congruence or synergy or whatever of potential donations they receive. They are attacking the Fidesz government as being outmoded and obsolete, “twentieth century,” and the ageing opposition as not being “national” enough (which is not true, but never mind), while formulating their own “positive national consciousness” in a way which rejects all historical forms of Hungarian nationalism, and naming a coyly neutralized multiculturalism as “a healthy national consciousness.”

Relativisation and neutralization can also preserve Momentum’s two greatest victories. The first being the genius overthrowing of the Olympic project, which was immediately neutralized and made acceptable to the spectator-sports-mania – the main collective ethical ideology of late capitalism – by only saying that the Olympics would be too expensive (which is true), thereby avoiding conflict once again.

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The second, their Mayday mass demonstration’s huge success, was also indebted to the implicit appropriation of the date’s “progressive” spirit, all the while saying nothing about workers on 1 May. In his brilliantly conceptualized and delivered speech received with exultation and cheers, chairman András Fekete-Győr did no more than synthesise the clichés and epithets of left-liberal rhetoric, by simply but successfully reversing Orbán’s.

Fekete-Győr ignored all the problematics of late capitalism as well as the structural elements and local particularities of the Hungarian semi-dictatorship and its civilisational, economic, social, and cultural deterioration. Instead, he positioned only external factors at the centre of his rhetoric, equating the Hungarian right with “Russia” and “Putin,” while naming “Europe” as the correct position. Thus, he cleverly replaced the traditionally Hungarian anti-Western nationalism with a pro-Western liberal nationalism, whilst giving it all a “progressive-contemporary” frame. This, nevertheless, still retains the neutralised reminiscences of the anti-Sovietism and anticommunism of the Communist regime’s conservatives.

Gaspár M. Tamás
is a Hungarian philosopher, politician, and publicist. Before 1989, he was a dissident who protested against “real socialism”. He has lectured at English, French, and American universities, and was briefly an MP. Today, he is one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals and a critic of Viktor Orbán’s government.

But beyond these reminiscences, Fekete-Győr surpasses liberal nationalism, since he is, after all, much more modern than that: what he’s doing is called, to quote Edward Said’s notorious book (Orientalism, 1978), ‘orientalism.’ Since 1848, in Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “the east” has not so much meant the colonialised and Muslim, but rather the Greek-Orthodox east. The entire Hungarian journalistic tradition – including the political writing of 1945-1989 – has equated backwardness with Orthodox Eastern Europe: “the Balkans,” “Byzantium,” “phanariotes,” and so forth.

However, since 1848, in Hungary this has mainly translated as anti-Romanianism and anti-Sebianism (anti-Russianism has always been weak here).“Little Entente” is one of the worst insults and the Danube Confederation is considered to be treason, while pro-Germanism isn’t: Merkel is disliked in Hungary not because of the hegemony of German capital, but because of her pro-refugee policies. (N.B, in Hungary there’s no particular hostility towards our former oppressors or occupants, such as the Turks, Austrians, Germans or Russians but rather it is directed towards those whom our own ruling class and state have oppressed and discriminated against – the Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Gypsies, Jews: all the more so.)

By deploying liberal anti-Putinism it is possible to lend “Europeanness” a nationalist tint.

And now, by deploying this liberal anti-Putinism (and there is no doubt that the Putinist autocracy is terrible – but terrible first of all for the Russian people, regardless what kind of schemes Putin sets up to cause trouble abroad), it is possible to lend “Europeanness” a nationalist tint which makes it acceptable even in the eyes of those for whom “Europe” is too liberal, too social, too feminist, and not racist enough. (Although the readers of this publication know all too well just how racist and chauvinist it really is.)

Furthermore, it fits into the “spirit” of the Fidesz-KDNP-influenced public opinion, according to which all ills come from abroad (case in point here are the law targeting NGOs and the Soros-myth), which is radicalised by saying that, in fact, Fidesz-KDNP also “comes from abroad,” in so far as they “represent” the interests of Putin and the Russian state, in unelaborate and untested ways.

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But this is also only a tool. Articulating ideologies along “cultural-geographical” lines exempts Momentum from taking a genuine political stance. However strongly Orbán is affiliating himself with the eastern autocrats (Putin, Erdoğan, Duterte, Aliev, etc.), the contemporary anti-freedom, racist far-right is not an eastern phenomenon – and its effects are pushing the leaders of the western establishment to the right, as has been seen in Austria, the Netherlands, and even Germany – but, on the contrary, very “European;” not to forget to mention Trump. By utilising orientalism, MoMo can say that the poor and uncool Russia is lame and therefore, from the iPhone-generation’s point of view, we can’t follow in their direction, but we have to “catch up with Brussels” … whatever that means.

What is this, if not the reincarnation of moderate nationalism?

What is this, if not the reincarnation of moderate nationalism, which is merely replacing racism with “culturalism”? Already during the late years of Communism, the anti-nationalists who were fighting the classically anti-western late-Bolshevik nationalism with contemporary Marxist tools, switched to a pro-western liberal nationalism. (And, as opposed to what Momentum maintains, the official Hungarian left has always been “national” – meaning “nationalist.”) The seminal document here is the work of Jenő Szűcs’s The Three Historical Regions of Europe (1983), which is the root of liberal nationalism developing not out of the democratic opposition, but out of the establishment, with the mediation of orientalism and orientalising historiography. This predominantly the ideology of the contemporary Hungarian liberal intellectual sphere, as opposed to the Danubian patriotism, Eastern-European-consciousness, or the anti-capitalism of the former communist, socially democratic people’s left.

The tedious, unproductive, and false opposition of “East” and “West,” which has been poisoning the Hungarian intelligentsia at least since the Reform Era of the 19th century, has been resurrected, in its emptiest, most misleading form to date. I can attest to its success. The Orbánite propaganda posters saying, “We have to stop Brussels!” have been replaced in hundreds of places in the Budapest metro with ones now saying, “We have to stop Moscow!” It would be impossible to sink the intellectual level of Hungarian politics even further.

Of course, Putin isn’t “the cause” of Hungary’s terrible crisis, however characteristic it is of the Hungarian government to sympathise and cooperate with him. Momentum saves us the efforts we would need to exert to understand our backwardness, and, in accordance with the general tone of Hungarian reactionism , it summarises the national problems under the label of “the damned foreign influence.” It doesn’t matter whether this means Brussels, Moscow or “the New York–Tel Aviv axis,” the dialectic unification of modernity and xenophobia has been accomplished. As if denouncing Russian poverty and backwardness would claim that poverty and backwardness are political programs. But even Orbán can’t be accused of this. He wants autocracy, tyranny, servitude and development – simultaneously. You can’t even say this is impossible. The example of Southeast Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and to an extent Japan) illustrates the possibility of repression and economic development under late capitalism. This should be surprising only for those naive losers, who, for whatever reason, thought that capitalism and democracy are somehow connected. As if fascism had never happened. As if colonialism and the synonymic racial genocide had never happened.

Momentum don’t push for change, but advocate a cautious adaption to the appealing western standard.

The rhetoric of reaction – according to which any change will harm the situation, or is pointless, or dangerous – is a part of modernity, and has been the same since at least 1945. Because of the issue’s unpopularity, Momentum (and anyone aspiring for political success) can’t say that they want to restore the state of transitional rule of law, which preceded Orbán’s constitutional coup d’état (naturally, in a cleaned-up, corrected version), and for this reason they only mobilise public opinion against the authoritarian-repressive “excesses.” They don’t push for change, but (cautiously) advocate “restoration” and adaption to the appealing western, “European” standard. This is also the point of the similarly reactionist rhetoric of “neither right nor left.” When András Fekete-Győr says to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that he supports “both gay marriage and border control” (meaning the border fence erected by Orbán to keep the refugees out), he positions his party within the complex status quo – but with a “new,” streamlined “hipster patriot” foundation. At the same time this evokes the typically stupid reaction of the widely despised KDNP [Fidesz’s Christian democrat partner party in government – Transl.], which strengthens Momentum’s position even more. At the same time, with mild anti-migration sentiments,  they attract the casually racist and/but neoliberal young bourgeois voters, who were drawn to Jobbik, but who didn’t quite feel comfortable there.

Don’t misunderstand me – I do not expect Momentum, or similar, fundamentally right-wing parties to deny their true nature. Only that they declare this nature. In other words: that they don’t blatantly deceive their naïve public.

But of course they won’t.

This is precisely their advantage: this dynamic meaninglessness. The reference (once again related to the zeitgeist) to the local, means that their politics will be shaped by asking (in their own “national consultation” [The author refers to the government’s National Consultation, whereby every citizen received a survey with loaded questions per mail – Transl.]) the local focus groups what they find interesting, productive, popular, appropriate. That’s apolitical politics. (Which they falsely appropriate to the old democratic opposition: the defining tendency there was not the apoliticism of Havel and Konrád, but the pro-human rights, social, democratic, and liberal program of Saharov, Orlov, and KOR, the Polish ‘Workers’ Defense Committee’.) Extending the scope of law or preserving privileges? Pluralism or autocracy? Rule of law or “developmental” dictatorship? Equality before the law or racism and sexism? These are serious dilemmas even within civic politics, and many of us have already moved on from civic democracy and liberalism but, obviously, we will not make unrealistic demands to such bourgeois parties as Momentum. Obviously, if asked, Momentum would respond with progressive clichés in order to win left-wing voters, even though silence would be the wisest response.

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It is tragic that more and more people, including to us congenial individuals and groups, will support and see this contentless nihil as a way out from the severe crisis that Viktor Orbán’s clique has pushed Hungary into. Momentum is not a remedy for this crisis, but one of its symptoms.

They will thrive – precisely because of this.

It is undeniable that there is plenty of talent, willingness, and dynamic individuals within Momentum. They are attracting the hope of the hopeless. It’s quite certain that by being honest and conscientious they would lose a lot of votes. Their tactics are excellent. Their rhetoric and style are chosen superbly. With a bit of luck they can determine the course of the next general election.

They will be successful. They are successful.

They want to discuss everything under the sun, except for their own “values” or “goals.”

I have no doubt that the founders of Momentum united selflessly, enthusiastically, with a willingness to make sacrifices, and with worthy intentions – several of them left behind lucrative jobs abroad – in order to help our poor old country, having had enough of the helpless and subpar parliamentary opposition. Undoubtedly, they are disgusted by the provincial, narrow-minded brutality, decadent depravity, irresponsibility, and authoritarianism of the Orbán regime. From the point of view of conventional morality, Momentum is – at least for now – spotless, and it is likely they will remain so. At the same time, by concealing their goals and hiding their basic principles (if there are any, which is uncertain) they radically contradict the contemporary democratic consensus; not with conspiratorial intentions but to secure votes and popularity. They want to discuss everything under the sun, except for their own “values” or “goals” (these terms are theoretically problematic, misleading, and unclear but at least they are understandable in their soft elasticity; so I use them in inverted commas). They want to “gather” these from “the people” and to begin with localized approaches to local issues. I detest the term “populist,” which is used for everything it does not fit (such as Orbán, who is the stark opposite of a “populist”). However, this is populist strategy in the classic meaning of the term. And, as always, it’s the struggle between “volonté de tous” and “volonté générale” (the “will of all” and the “general will” – Rousseau).

However, perhaps, the “volonté de tous” ought to be read as “hidden agenda.” And perhaps this “agenda” isn’t “hidden,” but non-existent. The neutrality of the employed middle class, euphemistically called the “intelligentsia” and “bourgeoisie” (entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, spies, teachers, police officers, engineers, lawyers, marketing- and advertising-experts, entertainment and media-industry workers, academics, NGO-bureaucrats, etc, etc.) is the victim within the context of class conflicts of the attraction of governmentality’s (Foucault) certain formations. In the logic of media and communications this appears as the “free” and “cool” youth, who are beautiful, attractive, future-oriented: the Pest boys.

Ever since the Enlightenment, similarly to “youth” and “novelty,” “West” has been a synonym of progress and change in the underdeveloped East. But this symbol is more and more hollow – which is not MoMo’s fault. The novelty is not new: it is 250 years old.

Indeed, there is a way out of Hungary’s deep crisis. A way out into nothing.



This article originally appeared on Kettős Mérce.
Translated from the Hungarian by Anna Azarova.