EssaysFeature

Censorship or Right Wing Infighting or Both?

Hungary in 2018

Issue #88 of the conservative journal Századvég (End of Century) was already been posted on the website of the journal, but at the order of the government-friendly foundation which finances the journal, it was removed from the website of the journal, and if hard copies were already printed they were ordered destroyed.

The editor (Tamás Demeter, a distinguished and conservative philosopher) and his editorial group were fired. As far as I can tell the last time an issue of a journal was destroyed to prevent its circulation was in 1984. Do we see the return of the past; is this a case of censorship? Yes and no.

It is not, since Tamás Demeter was told that the journal, as he is editing it, is not in the spirit of the foundation. The board of the foundation wants the journal to take a new direction and advocate the policies of the government. Demeter, who is not seen as a friend by Hungarian liberals, had high academic standards and tried to be open to all contribution that met high standards, irrespective of their politics. And indeed, Századvég became a good journal in this respect under Demeter’s leadership. But a foundation which funds a journal has the right to change the orientation of its journal. There is nothing wrong with publishing journals that advocate a certain political position. Demeter himself would not want to have the job in such a new journal.

So, this seems to be just fine, but this action still smells of censorship. OK, the foundation wants a new direction for the journal and does not believe the editors are suited for this new orientation. But why could not the already completed issue, which resembles many previously published ones, and fits the earlier scholarly orientation, still be distributed? Was there something wrong with issue #88? Péter Mihályi, accomplished Hungarian macroeconomist, and I authored the lead article “The Role of Rents in the Transition from Socialist Redistributive Economies to Market Capitalism,” It was already published in English in Comparative Sociology, 2017, 16: 13-38. Did I do something terrible when I translated this article into Hungarian?

The article begins with an examination of Ricardo’s theory of rent and its interpretation and generalization by Aage Sorensen. Sorensen identifies rent as income, which is higher than income one could have earned on a competitive market. Mihályi and I offer a value-neutral conception of rent. There is nothing wrong with rent or rent-seeking behavior per se. There might be good economic or social reasons why one may want a deviation from incomes earned on competitive markets, but if and when rent-seeking (licensing, credentialing, monopolies, oligopolies, cartels and governmental regulations of markets in favor of clients of political bosses etc.) becomes dominant, it can cast doubt on the meritocratic nature of society, and cause substantial damages to economic efficiency. We also suggest that during transition from socialism to market capitalism we can spot cases when rent-seeking, particularly governmental intervention into the economy, to enrich clients, became overwhelming. To put this with Pareto: Yes, a capitalist economy needs foxes (speculators) and lions (rentiers), but there can be social and economic trouble if there are too many lions and not enough foxes.

We illustrate this especially with the cases of Russia under Yeltsin and Putin. Yeltsin sort of “appointed” a new grand bourgeoisie and created a large class of oligarchs. By the end of Yeltsin’s rule, the oligarchs began to “privatize” the state itself. Putin changed the course. He wanted a system in which “politics is in command”, and submitted the oligarchs to loyalty tests. Those who failed had an option to choose between jails in Siberia or exile. Under Putin the property of disgraced oligarchs was distributed to those new rich, who did not have political ambitions, and professed loyalty to the political boss.

Did this analysis upset the Russians and they intervened (as they did in the 1984 case when they demanded the destruction of another Hungarian journal, since it printed already published articles by Trotsky)? Unlikely. Why would the Russians care about an article published in Hungarian, and not read by many people? Well, Mihályi and I went further, of course, and we concluded that the Putin model, what the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called — in my view appropriately — illiberalism, has attraction in other post-communist countries, among them in Hungary.

Indeed, rent-seeking has played a substantial role ever since the transition began (and given the urgency to change property relations in countries where domestic capital was not accumulated). This inevitably led to some degree of clientelism, during the post-communist “enclosure of the commons,” i.e., privatization of state-owned property. But we also claimed that the role of rent-seeking became especially significant after 2010, after the radical patriotic Hungarian party, FIDESZ won two third majority in the Hungarian parliament, and therefore could do virtually whatever it wanted to do.

Liberal critics of the FIDESZ government shout “corruption” and claim there is no “rule of law any longer.” We see the point in such analysis, but we are careful in using value loaded terms like “corruption” or “elimination of rule of law.” Clientelism and the domination of rent-seeking are the essence of the illiberal post-communist regimes. And there are laws. Since the dominant political party controls the legislature, they can always pass laws, what makes whatever they want to do legitimate.

Péter Mihályi and I just completed a short monograph under the title Rent-seekers, Profits, Wages and Rents: The Top 20% forthcoming shortly by Palgrave. The book elaborates the major themes of the article, which was supposed to be published by Századvég.

One might say we went overboard with this, and thus of course politics had to intervene and remove an article of this kind from circulation. However, if this was their aim, they actually failed. Since this issue of Századvég was removed in the second week of September from the website, it has begun circulating on the web, even on Facebook. More, and more diverse, people have now read it than would have if it were just published in a conservative scholarly journal. Nevertheless, it is indeed an instance of censorship, and such a brutal one we have not seen probably since 1984.

It’s conceivable that our paper has nothing, or not much to do with the foundation’s decision. The editor asked two economists to comment on our paper. One of them is Péter Ákos Bod. Bod was a Minister of Industry and Trade 1990-91 in the first freely elected post-communist conservative government of József Antall. Later Antall appointed him as Governor of Hungarian National Bank in 1991, but when a socialist-liberal government was formed in 1994, he was dismissed and replaced by an economist more in line with the socialist and liberal economic policies. But what could be wrong with him for a government that calls itself conservative (even Christian Democrat)? This is indeed a puzzle, but a puzzle not that difficult to solve. Bod, like quite a few conservative politicians around Antall — a good example is Géza Jeszenszky, Antall’s foreign minister –, became bitterly disappointed with the FIDESZ government, which they see as a right-wing populist movement. These conservative “dissidents” began to mobilize themselves, and try to recreate a conservative center. They can claim they are the real conservatives, the real Christian Democrats. They can be seen as a real political challenge. In a conservative country like Hungary, they may garner substantial following, and one of them could even be a future prime minister. Mihályi — a liberal economist — and I — an old style left-leaning sociologist — are not political, and we have no political ambitions. We are non-entities politically. So, it is conceivable, the target of the suppression was not us, but Bod. The comment he wrote on our article was friendly, but critical. If indeed he was the one who was targeted, the targeting was not about what he wrote, but about who he is: a political opponent.

If this story is about Bod, one may say this is not really censorship, but an internal struggle within the political right. As FIDESZ was shifting further and further to the political right, it might leave space in the center and in the moderate right for a new political movement.

So, let me return to the initial question. Was it an instance of censorship or was it not? I already wrote 1,300 words and I am still hesitant. It’s most likely the fate of Issue #88 is the result of a mixture of political infighting and censorship. I am particularly intrigued, since between 1971 and 1975 I could not publish at all. Editors after 1971 knew that I am not OK, so they did not publish me. They did not have to ask a censor, so there was no need to remove an issue of a journal from circulation after it was printed, since no journal would print what I wrote.

But the story how I became persona non-grata in 1971 in Hungary is a rather interesting one. My friend, George Konrad, and I wrote an article on “Social conflicts of under-urbanization” for arguably the most popular social science journals. The editor knew this could be trouble so he asked an eminent historian to write a rather critical response in the same issue. The editor did not go to the censor; he just published anticipating moderate displeasure from the communist party. He just printed our paper. There was indeed “displeasure,” several articles were solicited to attack us and they had a lasting impact, and in the end they let me go in 1975 to England. Is this not interesting? In high communist times censorship, at least in Hungary, operated in a rather smooth way. They did not have to remove already printed work. They just banned authors, including me. So, there are lessons to be learned by post-communist illiberals. Let those trouble makers go to California and cause trouble there, and leave us alone, so we do not have to worry about what they write.

Was this censorship or was it not? I still don’t know. Do you?

Iván Szelényi is a noted Hungarian-American sociologist, as of 2010 the Dean of Social Sciences at New York University Abu Dhabi. 

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