Orbán Is All About Cash

Michael Ignatieff, former Rector of Central European University in Budapest, author and former Canadian politician, on how Viktor Orbán rose to the top of the Conservative International and created a new Hungarian bourgeoisie.

Aleksander Kaczorowski: Your last book is called On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. Do you think that consolation is something that we need most in our times?

Michael Ignatieff: I think we do need consolation because we experience suffering that has no good cause or reason. The innocent are punished. The malignant and malicious get away with crimes. Peace is obviously preferable to war and yet we are choosing war everywhere we look. In other words, there is a whole set of circumstances of human life that we cannot change, we cannot fix, we cannot improve. They are just the facts of life. And what do we do in the face of disagreeable facts of life that we cannot change? We seek consolation, that is, some meaning that allows us to understand, accept, and bear that experience. So that’s why we need consolation.

To give a personal example, I’ve had a wonderfully happy life spared of many of these forms of suffering. But I did see my mother contract Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62 and die 10 years later at the age of 73. And I watched a wonderful human being slowly crushed by illness. And you do need to be consoled for that, because it’s senseless. I couldn’t possibly believe that God had any hand in it, so I just thought it was malign fate. And facing malign fate, you have to find some way to console yourself. That example tells you that consolation is very difficult.

I’m not sure there is consolation for this. So I’m interested in consolation precisely because it’s at the limits of what we can understand about the human situation. And when we try to console others, it’s at the limits of human solidarity. As is known to anybody who’s had to try to console somebody who’s lost someone they love, it’s very, very difficult. All the words seem false and ridiculous. Does that answer your question?


Yes, it does. But the protagonists of your book are intellectuals or poets and writers, like Václav Havel, for example, or Czesław Miłosz. Why not religious leaders?

Consolation is a religious word. I think I’m a religious person, but I don’t have any religious faith. That is to say, I’m intensely interested and drawn to the wisdom of religious faith. And the book starts with the Old Testament, with the trials of Job. And it spends quite a lot of time with St. Paul.

I think the issue about consolation is that we live in what we think of as a secular society that has put God and faith aside. And yet we can’t do without the language of religious consolation. A few secular people like me end up going to funerals where we all sit and listen to the 23rd Psalm or a passage from the Bible. The old religious language is the only language that we’ve got. Occasionally, someone will read a poem or play a beautiful piece of music, but we can’t do without religious language. And there’s a problem here, because there are some religious people who say that secular people who don’t believe in the proposition can’t possibly use religious language, that it’s illicit somehow to use religious language and derive consolation from it if you don’t actually believe in salvation and the promise that Jesus Christ brought to the world.

To be frank, I want to use anything that helps. And for a complicated set of reasons that possibly have to do with having had a religious father and having had religious language in my childhood, I connect to it. But I’m aware that this is not a satisfactory answer. A Catholic theologian would say, excuse me, but you have no right to use this language. Perhaps the problem is not that you don’t have the right, but that you don’t understand what Christian consolation is. Christian consolation is the literal promise that through God’s mercy you may go to heaven and see your loved ones in Paradise. It’s a serious promise. So if you don’t believe that this promise is going to be fulfilled, what are you doing walking around in our churches? My view is that God works in mysterious ways.


You are a liberal thinker and author of the biography of Isaiah Berlin. Did you find some help in liberal thinking on the topic of our discussion? Is it really possible to find something about existential issues in the liberal tradition? Because generally it is more about freedom, society and the individual.

What liberalism means to me is Isaiah Berlin, basically. And Isaiah was not religious. He attended synagogue on the high holidays. He believed that this was part of his identity. And he took religious belief immensely seriously, because he understood that these are beliefs that move men and women and drive history. But I think he would have been surprised to see me write a book about consolation, frankly.

I loved him and spent twelve years in his company. But I think he thought as a liberal that there was no metaphysical consolation for the things that happen to us. Liberalism works in a world that simply accepts life as it is, and I think it’s the great strength of Isaiah’s liberalism. It has a very large place for tragedy. Human reason is fallible. We have to make choices. Politics is about making choices. We can make wrong choices, and they can have tragic and terrible consequences.

Liberalism is a political doctrine that puts human freedom first, that’s the core of what a liberal believes, and we constantly misuse our freedom. We are constantly in conflict with others about the use of freedom, and some of these conflicts end tragically.

And there is no consolation for this situation. Isaiah enormously valued community and cared about human beings. He thought it was possible for us to comfort each other. Comfort is not consolation, as I say in the book. Comfort is just being together, going through something together and supporting each other. He believed in that passionately. The best a liberal society can do is comfort us for our losses, for our conflicts, for our failures. All of this is built into the liberal situation. And the liberal situation is that what is wonderful and intrinsically valuable about the human situation is our freedom. And we then have to design political institutions to maximize human freedom. When we do this, however, we cannot escape the tragedy of conflict, error, mistakes, failure, and above all death. And the loss of those we love. So there’s no intrinsic consolation in the liberal Weltanschauung and liberal metaphysics.

Liberalism was paired historically with the view that history was progress, meaning that all this confusion and battle over freedom would eventually lead to economic, technological and scientific progress. And that had a terrifically hard time in the twentieth century. Polish history in the twentieth century was tragic, terrible, with unmerited suffering inflicted on the Polish people for a considerable period of your history. And so it’s not obvious that you can think of history as a story of progress. And someone like Isaiah, who lost members of his own family in the Holocaust, and who lived through and reflected deeply on the Gulag and the tyranny of the Soviet system, thought that all this paired away his liberalism from the story of progress. He just thought you couldn’t sustain liberalism on a story of progress. And if that is the case, we have a second reason that liberalism does not offer consolation. It might offer hope, but it doesn’t offer consolation.


I do remember that, after 1989, Viktor Orbán was a new hope for Central European liberalism. You had the experience of being the rector of Central European University in Budapest and you were forced to quit Budapest and move to Vienna, where you are now. What’s your understanding of this tragic story of Hungarian liberalism as personified by Viktor Orbán?

It’s such a difficult question, because although I’m married to a Hungarian and I’ve lived in Hungary on and off for 25 years, it would be ridiculous to try and persuade Polish readers that I understand a country where I don’t, for example, speak the language.

I think there are a bunch of things explaining that. There is the historical legacy. Hungary had an unusually terrible twentieth century, beginning with backing the losing side in the First World War, then suffering Trianon and the dismemberment of the country, which is a permanent open wound.

Poland regained its national sovereignty in 1918. Hungary’s experience was that it lost almost half of its territory. And that determined the politics of the next twenty, thirty, even fifty years. Hungary had an authoritarian anti-Semitic leader from the 1920s to the 1940s. Then it had the Communist tyranny, rose very courageously in the streets in 1956 and got crushed by Moscow. It therefore learned that it was a small, vulnerable country that had a very small margin of manoeuvre. And so it had to make peace with Communism, and it had a second big authoritarian leader, János Kádár, who managed to give them some kind of life. And people have enormous nostalgia for Kádár’s period.


So already in the twentieth century you have two dominant figures, Horthy and Kádár.

And now we’ve got the third. There’s a deep continuity in the political culture of Hungary. Orbán didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s giving you Kádár 2.0 and Horthy 2.0. The second reason is that although Orbán is alarming for all of Europe, he understood a paradox that everybody in Hungary, just like everybody in Poland, wanted to get into Europe. There’s a deeper pro-European feeling in Eastern Europe than anywhere else.

The French are disillusioned with the Germans, the British have just got out, but as Jacques Rupnik has said very often, the last people who really believe in Europe are the Eastern Europeans. So they pushed their countries into Europe and then nationalist politicians quickly understood the opportunity that this presented them with.

It provided an income stream, that is transfer stream, that would sustain their regimes. But it also allowed them to play on small Eastern European countries’ resentment of Western Europe. And they very cleverly picked up that Western Europeans condescended to Eastern Europe. You’ve been Communist, you’re backward, you’re impoverished, you’re all desperate to make money working in our countries, the Polish plumbers, the Hungarian waiters, et cetera. And that creates tremendous resentment, a sense of “We’ve joined Europe and we’re constantly being humiliated by Europe as being the poor, the backward ones, and we’re the people who believe in it most and yet we were never at home in Europe.”

Nationalist politicians picked up on that and on one other anxiety that was triggered by Europe, which is that Poles want to be Europeans, but they want to be Poles first. The primary allegiance is to the Polish national experience. Hungarians feel the same. So a nationalist politician could exploit anxieties that something crucial would somehow be lost about Polish and Hungarian identity if the federalizing ambitions of the Western Europeans were achieved at the expense of Poland and Hungary.

Orbán is the master, the political genius of this complicated strategy. He runs against Brussels Monday to Friday, calling it the new Moscow, unbelievable. And on Saturday and Sunday, he cashes the checks. And the checks sustain the project, which is to create a national bourgeoisie entirely dependent on state power for its economic success. He’s created an about two-million strong national bourgeoisie.

It’s a solid voting base that understands that they may not like Orbán, they may think he’s an ignorant country boy or whatever they think, but he has made it clear: you play with us and you will do well. You don’t play with us and we will take you apart. And they play along. So it’s a ruthless use of economic power to produce a national bourgeoisie that constitutes the voting base for this regime.

My wife comes from a town on Lake Balaton and we see this national bourgeoisie in the summer. They are driving BMWs and taking the latest model buggies out of their trunks to push their children along the beach. They’re doing very well. And that’s the third and final lesson, which is that the period between 2010 and 2022 was the period of the sharpest rise in GDP growth in the history of Hungary. And so this worked. You dose the economy with internal subsidies. You use the subsidies to create a national bourgeoisie. You enrich the national bourgeoisie, and you build an absolutely solid electoral base that can’t be taken apart.

And then the final thing, and this is where the Central European University comes in: you think to yourself, I need an enemy, this politics needs an enemy.

The way you rouse and mobilize an electoral coalition is to defeat an enemy. What’s the biggest enemy I can find? The biggest enemy is George Soros. Why? Because he’s the richest and most prominent Hungarian in the world, and the biggest liberal on the planet. So you pick his university and you go after that.

He couldn’t care less about CEU, and we did not seek to provoke him. We were not a political organization. We were a little graduate school that happened to be doing a pretty good job. But we were then transformed into a symbol of the cosmopolitan, liberal, secular mindset, gay liberation, the whole complex.

That had an enormous international multiplication effect. He’s put himself at the head of the conservative international around the world. That’s a pretty amazing political achievement. And it’s an extremely dangerous one, because it’s providing models for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and for American politicians. And the point is it bears no relation to the conservatism of the European post-war, because it’s essentially anti-constitutional authoritarianism.

I’m a liberal, but let’s be honest, it was conservatives, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, who built today’s Europe. We liberals have got to wake up and acknowledge the enormous contribution that constitutional conservatism played in the creation of the post-war world. It was a religious conservatism, Christian democracy. But what Orbán and the rest promote has nothing to do with that. This is a new form of conservatism, which is basically anti-liberal authoritarianism. And it’s a danger across Europe.


And this is why he found a friend in Vladimir Putin?

Absolutely. It’s a matter of astonishment to me that a country with a historical memory of tanks in the streets of Budapest should be doing this. Okay, it’s geostrategic manoeuvring, part of Orbán’s campaign against Europe. Europe used to say, Orbán will always come along because he’s got nowhere to go. Orbán heard that and said, I do have somewhere to go. I can go to China and I can go to Russia. So don’t mess with me. You have to listen to me. You have to pay me off, because I can go somewhere else. I can get my gas and oil from Russia and I can get my development money from China. So you can go to hell. You want a Hungarian exit, you can have it, because I can go somewhere. That’s the crucial nature of the game.

I don’t think it’s tremendously popular in Hungary, except that it works politically. Orbán says, I’m keeping you out of the war. These crazy Poles are in the war, but I’ve kept you out. The Bulgarians are in the war, but I’ve kept you out. That’s electorally popular. But I think it basically serves to give him geostrategic manoeuvring room, so he can leverage more resources out of the EU. And he’s doing it as we speak. He is negotiating with Brussels some kind of deal that would give him more structural subsidy in return for granting the Ukrainians some of the aid that they desperately need in order to keep their government operational. It’s a dirty game, but that’s how he plays it.


And Europe has to allow itself to be blackmailed? What do you think of the idea of depriving Hungary of its voting rights in the Council of the EU?

With the change of government in Poland, Orban finds himself more isolated, and this may have been one reason why he walked back his threat of withholding financing for Ukraine. He is a blackmail artist of the first order, but he’s not an idiot: Hungary needs the structural subsidies as well as inward investment, and so, for the moment at least, the EU needn’t consider withdrawing voting rights.


You used to be both a journalist and a politician. And in Poland we’ve got quite a lot of examples of former journalists becoming politicians. What would be your advice to journalists who aspire to become Polish Prime Minister?

Don’t follow my example. It didn’t turn out so well. It’s difficult. I think the mentality required for being a politician and being a journalist are just two different things. Journalists don’t play team sports, and that’s why I was happy to be a journalist. Journalists are competitive, individualistic, they’re very proud of their own opinions, their orientation is to challenge authority and to find out facts for themselves. That is not the mindset of an effective politician. An effective politician has to have power as their goal and to understand that to achieve power, you have to play as a team. That means you have to button up your lips and speak the team speak to get where you want to go.

I should make it clear that after a six-year career in politics, which ended in failure, I left that world with enormous respect for politicians. If you’re a journalist and want to become a politician, you’ve got to take your head off and put a new one on, because it’s a different experience.

And I think that there are some very good politicians out there. One of the best is Joe Biden. Old Joe who’s been around for 50 years, knows every game, knows where every skeleton is buried, knows how to play and work the system. These people are essential to the functioning of a democracy. I just wish we had more Joe Bidens, I just wish he was 15 years younger. But he’s an effective politician, and this is a skill and an art, and I don’t want to join anybody who starts trashing politicians. I wasn’t a good one, but I learned to respect a good one, and he’s a master.


What are your feelings about the future of American democracy? The next presidential elections will probably be a new duel between Trump and Biden.

Yes, it does look like a duel between Trump and Biden. I have nothing of any interest to say about this that doesn’t just repeat what I read this morning in The Economist or The Financial Times. So I think I shouldn’t say anything, not because I’m afraid of having opinions, but because I think my opinions are probably worthless.

I would say one thing though. I was born in 1947. I am exactly the generation of Biden and Trump. And I think it is terrible that my generation didn’t train the next generation to take their place and that our generation has hung on to power too long. I think this is the message I would draw. It’s a generational story. We were the largest birth cohort in history up to that point. And the world was ours for 50 years, but it’s no longer ours. It’s terribly important that you judge leaders by how they train up their successors. Joe Biden has been a good president, but it will be a terrible judgement on him if his successor is Donald Trump, just as it will be a terrible judgement on Macron if his successor is Marine Le Pen.

And we could go around Europe playing this game.

That’s the lesson about leadership that I take from this episode. American politics has enormous capacity for reform and self-renewal. I don’t think it’s in a permanent downward spiral. I don’t think the American empire is coming to an end.

I think America still commands the leading technologies of the world. It provides essential guarantees of European security as it has done for 60 years.

It is a crucial guarantee of Polish freedom. The American economy is unbelievably resolute. Stories of American decline are wrong. The US does have a systemic problem that it cannot reform its politics, because it can’t change its constitution. That’s a big problem. And it’s got some doctrines about politics that for me as a Canadian are insane. One of them is that money is speech. Money is not speech, money is power, and money needs to be controlled in politics. So these are structural problems, but this country can solve them. I don’t think the American century is over by any means, but I do think that this generation, my generation, failed to create their successors, and that’s the problem at the moment.


What is the biggest challenge for this year, for America, Europe, the world?

I think this year it’s of geostrategic importance that Ukraine survives and is not forced into an armistice or a peace, and that it continues to fight, doesn’t lose further territory, is reliably equipped by the West and goes into 2025 ready to mount military operations that give it the upper hand.


Do you think that it’s possible that Putin’s regime will collapse?

No, I don’t think so at all. I think the regime is stable. I don’t see any internal forces that would crack it. I don’t see any external opposition forces strong enough to crack it. And frankly, I don’t see a battlefield situation that would produce a catastrophic defeat for Russian forces either. So putting all that together, I don’t foresee the collapse of Putin’s regime.

The best we can hope for in 2025 is that Ukraine comes out of 2024 rearmed, re-equipped and able to defend its country more effectively and to begin to develop its own capacities of self-defence, military production, etc. And that the Western alliance doesn’t fragment and shatter over this.

But there’s an obvious linkage with the situation in the Middle East. We can pray that the Netanyahu regime will fall, that a new Israeli government will be willing to reopen negotiations with the Saudis and achieve an agreement between the Arab states and Israel, a security pact conditional upon the granting of a Palestinian state. Everybody can see that it’s possible, but it requires a substantial change in Israeli politics. This is a traumatized society that’s been brutally and savagely attacked. And so an outsider giving advice like me had better be aware that there’ll be substantial internal resistance to any change in the Israeli position. But if the Israeli position could change and they could inch towards a deal with the Saudis and other states in the region to offset Iran and marginalize the axis of resistance, that would be enormous. It would make everything easier, including Ukraine, including the global situation, including the Taiwan Strait. All of these things are interconnected. And all of it depends on political wisdom, on people with wisdom, and wisdom is always in very short supply.


Michael Ignatieff is a Canadian author, academic and former politician who served as the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2009 until 2011. He was Rector and President of Central European University from 2016 until 2021; he is now a professor in CEU’s history department in Vienna. He came to CEU after serving as Edward R. Murrow Chair of Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Earlier, he was Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine and a broadcaster and journalist in London. His books includeIsaiah Berlin. A Life (1998) and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004). His latest book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (2021).

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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