Sunday, 15 March 2009

Szabadság: Pt. I

As one gets closer to the Danube, the intersections of streets and boulevards in Districts VII and VIII will suddenly provide a long view, across the river to the Gellért Hill, where the snow has not yet melted. Invariably, our line of sight is interrupted by the Szabadság (Liberty) Monument at the southern end of the hilltop, an allegorical figure who flings her arms open back over towards Pest and working-class District IX, Ferencváros.

If the IXth sounds familiar to the British ear, it is almost certainly because of the football team of the same name who play there, their stadium a few miles down Üllői út plausibly the object of Liberty's gaze. 'Fradi', as they are popularly known, were a famous name on the European scene until the mid-1990s, and most recently made English headlines when drawn to play Millwall in a UEFA cup tie in 2004, thus allowing two of Europe's most unreconstructed sets of supporters the opportunity for an unfriendly get-together. Fradi won the tie, but were soon to experience domestic ignominy for the first time, being relegated to the second tier for financial irregularities in 2006. Because of a promotion bottleneck - only one team from each of the 'B' Liga's regional sections is allowed to go up - they have yet to return to the top flight, and their generally conservative fans have hinted darkly at a conspiracy on the part of the Socialist (read: high-taxing modernisers with a paradoxical faith in Thatcherite deregulation) MSP government of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Ferencvárosi TC encapsulate, at this moment in time, the problematic nature of the EU at the close of the 00's. Owned by British businessman Kevin McCabe, whose prize football asset is Sheffield United, and managed by ex-Leeds striker Bobby Davison (who uses McCabe's other team as a source of young English loanees), FTC's recent history seems to mirror the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe to Western investment and management philosophy. McCabe's company has big ideas for the club, involving a stadium redevelopment and a medium-term plan to see the boys in zold and fehér playing for big money in the Champions League, another footballing institution which is representative of early 21st century European economic trends. But Fradi have an older symbolic value. Like Chelsea in England, they're a side who have traditionally represented the socially conservative section of the working class, and since 1989 they have been a rallying point for elements of the Hungarian far right.

The Hungarian far right agenda might be summed up according to three key principles. Firstly, it is hostile towards both Jews and Roma, although its phobias are not limited to its principle scapegoats. Secondly, it is irredentist. A popular graphic symbol amongst its members is a map of Hungary - actually, the portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire sublet to Budapest - prior to the Treaty of Trianon. Parts of modern Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine, and most of Slovakia, are incorporated into 'big Hungary'. Thirdly, like the British medium-to-far right, it is adamantly anti-European.

Ferencváros thus find themselves in the curious position of exemplifying the conspicuous mobility of capital in post-2004 Europe and embodying an attitude which might be said to be its antithesis. As hostility towards Gyurcsány and the MSP swells due to Hungary's modishly collapsing economy, one might grasp in the situation a worrying indication of the dominant tendency in European dissent in 2009. The financial crisis - it seems glib to use the word 'present' here - has loosened the cap, never altogether sealed tightly, on the resentments of immoderate conservatism across the continent. A number of commentators, often liberal or leftishly inclined, have predicted a 'hot spring' for Europe this year and for the nations of the 2004 accession in particular. Romania, the Baltic States - one of which, Latvia, has already pegged its currency to the Euro - are seen as likely flashpoints of civil disturbance. Bulgaria is extremely unstable. Demonstrations against Gyurcsány wouldn't be a new thing here, but we can expect more of the same as the year wears on. Western Europe, however, seems just as liable to witness unrest. France we already know about, but Italy, Ireland, and even the usually timid UK seem to be approaching the red part of the thermometer. Greece and Iceland have already reached their internal tipping points.

It's absolutely crucial to note here that what we stand to see is anything but a repeat of '68 or, for the former communist states, '89. In the West, the recent history of civil disturbance offers only France and Greece as examples in which the voice of dissent was (broadly) leftist. The 2006 Dublin riots and a series of particularly nasty, racially-driven outbursts along England's M62 corridor share much in common with the nihilistic outbreaks of joyriding and vandalism that erupted in the likes of Blackbird Leys and Benwell in the early 1990s. In these cases, no progressive political argument was being made. Frustrations that might have been harnessed by the left - bad housing; unemployment; the neglect shown by successive governments to former industrial areas - came out anyway and attached themselves to specific targets within the disaffected community. Does anyone really believe that the 2000 Paulsgrove riots were really about paedophiles? Why did they not take place in, say, Cheltenham? My inclination is that the right are slowly getting the first dibs on resentments that, ideally, might be addressed with an entirely different mode of analysis.


As ever, we are hampered by our inability to think ourselves into history. 9/11 remains the cardinal example of this in recent memory: few can honestly say that the attacks prompted anything byt a mixture of objectless anxiety (a vague, 1939-esque premonition that Things Would Never Be The Same Again), and a childlike faith that a benevolent agency would act as the invisible hand of stability. Eight years later, we're still twiddling the same abacus. History is elsewhere, a set of past tenses which were eventually recuperated as the just-about-inhabitable present. Teaching a humanities subject at a university can provide a salutary crash course in this weltanschaung, which can't quite be described as apathy. Progress and security are interpreted as the ability to make judgments about things that happened a long time ago: we are invited to assess the value of Heart of Darkness according to our certainties about the wrongness of colonialism. Each text allows a new opportunity to rate ourselves a historical (allegedly disposed-with) demon: Hitler, Idi Amin, Field Marshal Haig, postwar austerity. First year students, unwittingly, are the 21st century's premier proponents of Whig history. Given that their lecturers, and a still-sizable number of their secondary school teachers, cut their teeth on Marx, Althusser, Adorno, and Derrida's seance with Marx, one has to wonder where this guarded optimism is coming from. Repeatedly, politics is displaced into parts of the world where Whiggish benevolence might still be seen to be required: Palestine, Sudan, Tiber, Iraq. Borrowing a notion half-remembered from Slavoj Žižek, it might be said that their appeals are made to the grace of the system, the capacity of which for discretion is read as some Darwinian zenith of political possibility, rather than directly against it. Anything wrong is interpreted as a malfunction within the system, which must be normalised, rather than as an inherent flaw. I've resisted writing about this so far, but the well-intended jubilation surrounding Barack Obama's victory is the categorical example of this: as if Obama's incessant realpolitiking during the election campaign were not enough to make us suspicious, we should remember that the new president is opposed on principle to certain rights that a significant number of his worldwide admirers believe should be inalienable. Labour's 1997 victory - which is not the same thing as a victory for Labour in 1997 - should have served as a cautionary reminded about this kind of triumphalism. In each case, the victory of a nominally left leader acts less as a prompt for real advancement and more as (spurious) proof of our own political perfection. We have no sense of ourselves as historical beyond vague platitude's about the electorate's capacity to 'make history'.

Meanwhile, the right persists with its own unpleasant brand of selective historicism. I've talked at length about the wolf in lamb's clothing of the conservative commentariat, whose assumption of the voice of 'sensible opinion' has allowed for the propagation of opinions which are, quite simply and irreducibly, extremist. Most troublingly, the likes of Richard Littlejohn have been allowed, time and time again, to play the wounded party as they reduce all left-wing critique to the analysis of a crypto-Stalinist 'metropolitan elite'. Absolutely everything they disagree with is dismissed with the wholly unearned seen-it-all-beforeness of a Phillip Larkin poem: they are allowed, like Nick Griffin is, to represent themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of the free- and right- thinking. In spite of the fact that they have a variety (and the majority) of established media platforms to speak from, they are permitted to claim that they are subject to a left-wing conspiracy which aims at their silencing.

To be continued...

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