Sunday, 2 August 2009

'Far stronger than the British would ever have tolerated'



Neil Ascherson in today's Observer, bucking the trend of 'twenty years later' style articles to act as if post-Soviet democracy is a uniformly good thing:

What most ordinary people wanted, at the end of 1989, seemed to be something like social democracy. In other words, freedom, a regulated market economy, and a strong welfare state - the "European" model. Not unreasonably, the public thought that they could combine the freedom and prosperity of capitalism with the social benefits they had learned to expect under communism.

They were wrong. The countries in transition imported an undiluted version of Thatcherism, far stronger than the British would ever have tolerated. Price controls were abolished, subsidies cancelled, currencies left to find their own level. Many state industries and services were privatised, often bought over by western multinationals. Huge gaps appeared between rich and poor: a new, predatory super-rich class on one hand, near-destitution for pensioners and the redundant on the other. Social services withered or vanished, like the elaborate network of free day nurseries for working mothers in East Germany.

Transition soon carried away the revolutionaries themselves. In Germany, Bärbel Bohley and Jens Reich of Neues Forum went back to teaching and painting. In Poland, a new tribe of "professional" politicians, including reformed communists, had replaced the Solidarity veterans by 1993. Even Lech Walesa, the first freely elected president, was out of office by 1995, replaced by an ex-communist. In Czechoslovakia, which broke into two states in 1993, most of the Charter 77 heroes were out of government by the time of the split. Isolated, Vaclav Havel stayed on as Czech president until 2003.

The shape of politics had changed. The poor - the losers in the shift to capitalism - were now championed by right-wing nationalists, not socialists. Against them stood the new urban middle class and the sanitised post-communists, committed to neoliberal economics and European integration. The old revolutionaries now retreated into academia, journalism or seats in the European Parliament.

This is not the world they hoped for, back then when they stood exhausted among vast crowds who kissed them and cheered them and waved national flags. Adam Szostkiewicz, who had been jailed in 1982 as a Solidarity organiser, remembers how his hopeful fellow prisoners were disillusioned by the new Poland. "They expected a revised version of an open, free people's democracy, which was not to be. The new Polish democracy was too liberal and not 'social' enough ... for me, with my middle-class background, it was all right, livable, promising. It may sound rather minimalistic. But in the light of the historical experience of our parents' generation and our own, we may be forgiven, I suppose."

A Czech friend, who didn't want to be quoted by name, was much harsher. "Nothing remains of our old spirit. The Czechs have become a nation of little white mice, jostling for money and biting each other. Nobody sane could want to go back to the communist days. Yet what freedom have we really gained? Back then, the Russians made our foreign policy; now the Americans do. Back then, we lived in a culture of communist lies and false promises. But isn't the capitalist media and entertainment culture just as false and manipulative?"

Miklos Haraszti, the best-known figure in the Hungarian opposition 20 years ago, now lives in Vienna as representative on freedom of the media for OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). He insists that he and his generation never had "perfect society" illusions. "I wrote a sober forecast then, saying we knew our democracy would be noisy, dirty, corrupted." His main regret is that Hungarian politics after 1989 became so partisan. "Our round table led to an idea of perfect liberal-democrat constitutionalism -almost too advanced. Reality pushed that over. We didn't want majoritarian, British-style politics, but something based on consensus, on a common denominator of our democracy. But populist instincts pushed towards a majoritarian style. This lack of the common denominator, the partisanship especially in the media, is creating something like the Weimar Republic. And that inevitably leads to totalitarianism unless we can find a substitute.

Until a few weeks ago, I went, every Wednesday morning, to the MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) building, a little beyond Vörösmarty utca metro station on Andrássy ut, to teach a man who deals with the logistical headaches of driver allocation across the network's six regions. When he left school, he worked as a locomotive driver on a Pannonian branch line in the years imminently preceding 'System Change'. Simultaneously, he studied for a degree in HR (or whatever János Kádár's laissez-faire communists chose to term this none-more-Blairish field), and this allowed him to enter into the post-Habsburgian labyrinth of MÁV's managerial pyramid. Recently, he completed a second degree, for which he submitted a thesis advocating a rethinking of the organisation's command structure: occasionally, he makes wistful references to Britain's 1990s rail privatisation, which he seems to me to have conflated with some mythical age of rain and steam. Given that senior MÁV employees receive a pan-EU fare waiver valid for roughly one week of every year, and an additional discount for family, he perhaps failed to notice the various atrocious consequences of privatisation in the UK when he visited.

As in many Hungarian businesses, and state institutions, there's a certain valorisation (or fetishisation) of the Thatcher-Blair 'achievement' which follows on from the 'undiluted' transfer of Thatcherism into Central and Eastern Europe that Ascherson discusses. MÁV's running of what would seem, to the average Briton, to be a relatively cheap, punctual, and well-used service, albeit one which is run at a net loss to the heavily indebted state, is regarded with something oddly resembling guilt rather than with the pride that success in the face of the severe limitations brought about by Hungary's first dust-up with the Invisible Hand should legitimate. It's almost as if the linguistic and material veneers of success and competence that impinge upon every bloody second of every bloody day in Britain (as a wag on a message board I read noted recently, it's virtually impossible to drive past any business HQ in the north-east now without seeing the words 'passionate about [insert name of product - crisps; hair gel; worming tablets - here]' emblazoned on a thirty foot long laminated banner on the outside) represent something to aspire to; something which would constitute a final act of supplication in the direction of Brussels and Washington. Boosted with seemingly unlimited finance from 'rich Central Europe' in the late 90s, there was a flash of the fur of a Magyar Tiger at the start of this decade: now, it seems that they're being asked to buy into the whole package precisely when it's the last thing they can afford to do in practical terms. Whether or not one accepts the notion that the subsidisation of public services is one of the main things that taxes exist for, it is hard not be struck by the uneasiness in the 'new democracies' as regards the absence of the superficial signifiers of prosperity - Pret a Manger, say, or a new set of sub-Fosterian offices for PWC - and the manifestation of this anxiety in a form of insistent, maddeningly limp corporatese flaunted throughout the glitzed-up bits of downtown Pest. Their own language honed in subtlety of expression (there are more than eight ways to express the basic information 'Eva likes flowers', each of which shifts the emphasis slightly to gesture towards something beautifully unvoiced), Hungarians labour awkwardly within the no-man's-land of Business English, where the quicksilver idioms and turns of phrase which characterise the parent tongue ossify as inflexible, de-ironised dictums, encumbered with grotesquely insincere conviviality. (Business English: a language invented, in an act of revenge, by the kids whose stories always came back covered in red ink: 'not a proper sentence, Richard.')

MÁV has now moved from its base of more than 100 years in the Terézváros to a purpose-built, sub-Fosterian HQ at Népliget, the vast park on the frontier between the Eight and Ninth Districts which is also the home of the similarly under-reinvention Ferencváros TC's Albertstadion. Andrássy ut, with its frighteningly steampunk paternoster and tatty, endless, dimly-lit corridors, is to be sold: one imagines that it will become a scmaltzily 'authentic' hotel or an apartment block for the well-heeled.

The top of the page shows a projected vision of the 'Corvin Strand', an act of regeneration that has so far consisted of packing the (largely Roma) inhabitants of this impoverished section of District Eight off to the distant suburbs and putting up a bunch of office blocks and flats that are, due to the economic crisis, too expensive to complete.

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