What Comes After Neoliberalism? And Is It Worse?
Andrew Keen on the Alarming Political Realities of Hungarian Nationalism
Tourists make the pilgrimage to historic Mitteleuropa to observe the past. But I’ve spent the last few days in the Hungarian city of Budapest gazing into the future. Hungary might not be Silicon Valley. It certainly isn’t pioneering cryptocurrency or any of the other disruptive technologies of today’s Web3 revolution. And yet the future has already arrived on the banks of the Danube. It’s here, in the heart of old Central Europe, that we can begin to perceive the blurry outlines of a radically disruptive new politics that, I fear, might come to shape the first half of the 21st century.
I’m not alone in my pilgrimage. This small central European country, with its freshly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his triumphant Fidesz party, has become the darling of contemporary conservatives, attracting the fawning attention of Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. Seventy years ago, the central European economist Friedrich Hayek reinvented 20th century conservatism with his fetishization of the free market, a theory we now call neoliberalism. Today, Orban’s Fidesz is replacing neoliberalism with a new kind of conservatism which replaces the cult of the free market with the cult of political power.
Last week on Keen On I talked with the Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle about the rise of fall neoliberalism. He argues that we’ve been living in what he calls a “neoliberal order” for the last half century. Neoliberalism conquered the intellectual world, he believes, successfully seducing not just conservatives like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also liberals like Ralph Nader, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But, Gerstle reminds us, progressive neoliberals always trailed behind the conservatives. First, it was Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators, Clinton and Blair. Always in that order.
It’s ironic, of course. Conservatives are supposed to conserve rather than innovate. But, according to the British writer Edmund Fawcett, the author of two acclaimed intellectual histories of liberalism and conservatism, modern conservatism has always been more intellectually energetic, more forward thinking, above all, more innovative than liberalism.The truth is more sinister than this cartoonish critique. Orban is perfecting a quasi-legal Machiavellian model of amassing political power.
“Were politics chess, liberals had white; they moved first,” Fawcett wrote in Conservatism: The Fight For a Tradition. “Conservatives had black; they countered liberalism’s opening moves. In time, the initiative changed hands. Conservatives, who began as anti-moderns, came to master modernity, for the right was in telling ways the stronger contestant.”
Edmund Fawcett’s argument about modern conservatism dominating this great intellectual chess game is certainly true in the case of neoliberalism. First Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators Clinton and Blair. But Gary Gerstle’s new book is about the Rise and Fall of the Neo-Liberal Order. And it’s the contemporary collapse of neoliberalism—the general loss of faith in the free market amongst both conservatives and liberals—that Gerstle believes defines our current political malaise.
It explains, of course, the success of Donald Trump who is anything but a loyal follower of Friedrich Hayek’s economic theories or Ronald Reagan’s distaste for big government. And it makes sense of iconoclastic conservative thinkers like the Silicon Valley billionaire and chess master Peter Thiel who, his biographer Max Chafkin explained on Keen On, is an ideologue of monopoly rather than free market capitalism.
So what, exactly, comes after neoliberalism? Where can we find the opening moves in Edmund Fawcett’s great chess game between left and right?
The game has already begun in old Mitteleuropa, with Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party. Over the last few months, we’ve done a number of Keen On shows about the Orban phenomenon: on “Ordonationalism,” for example, and on his crusade against the LGBTQ community. And, of course, his name is always prominent—with Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Duterte and Bolsonaro—in that gang of political hooligans seeking to smash democracy. So Moises Naim, the author of the excellent new Revenge of Power, recently argued on Keen On, that Orban is primus inter pares in this hall of shame of neo-authoritarian bad boys.
But I think that categorizing Viktor Orban with Putin and Xi is wrong. The Hungarian elections last weekend, in which Orban and Fidesz absolutely crushed a united opposition movement, were relatively free and fair. Not completely, of course. Especially in the way that Fidesz now monopolizes the Hungarian media. But even this isn’t strictly illegal. And there remains a partially free Hungarian media and relatively open expression in the country, particularly compared to Russia, China or even Turkey. Indeed, judging by the ubiquity of Orban posters on seemingly every wall in Budapest, he clearly took the election very seriously. After a few days in town, even I began to think of him familiarly.
No, turning Orban into Putin or Xi or some sort of Orwellian Big Brother is too convenient and reassuring. It’s like calling him a fascist or a Nazi. But the truth is more sinister than this cartoonish critique. Orban is perfecting a quasi-legal Machiavellian model of amassing political power. Just as Peter Thiel aspires to monopoly capitalism, Viktor Orban is seeking to become a political monopolist. That doesn’t necessarily make him authoritarian or even anti-democratic. But his goal is the monopoly of what Marxists used to call the “state apparatus.” He wants to transform the Hungarian bureaucracy into a political and economic profit center for his clients and supporters. It’s Leninism without Bolshevism. Or Trumpism without Trump.
This was underlined to me by the conversations I had with a number of critics of Orban in Budapest this week. Renata Uitz and Laszlo Bruszt are co-directors of the Central European University’s Democracy Institute which remains headquartered on the Pest side of the Danube. Both Bruszt and Uitz, who also recently did a Keen On show with me about Ukraine as an illiberal war, are fundamentally hostile to Viktor Orban. But they are also in awe of his political skills. Uitz described Orban to me as “smart and ruthless”—particularly in contrast with the opposition in last weekend’s election which, she says, was “incompetent” and “invisible.” On relations with the EU, on energy policy, on Ukraine and Russia, and on his demonizing cultural politics, Uitz told me, Orban intimately knows his Hungarian audience and exactly how far he can and can’t go.
Laszlo Bruszt, who knew Viktor Orban personally in the late 80s and 90s, also describes him as a Machiavellian “monster.” Orban learned his anti-constitutional constitutionalism from the communists, Bruszt explains. In contrast with the communists, however, Orban gives the people everything they want—from subsidized chicken legs to distributing cheap gas and electricity. It’s as if he’s a successful reincarnation of Janos Kadar, the father of “goulash communism.”
So let’s go back to Edmund Fawcett’s great ongoing chess game between left and right. In our post neoliberal world, the Orban model of acquiring a political monopoly through taking over the state has impressed “conservatives” like Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. Peter Thiel has even moved to a $13 million mansion in Washington DC to presumably bankroll this new Leninist cadre of the Republican party.
“Conservatives, who began as anti-moderns, came to master modernity, for the right was—in telling ways—the stronger contestant,” you’ll remember Edmund Fawcett writing. The chilling message coming out of Budapest is that mastering modernity might actually involve doing away with it. Or at least undermining many of the liberal achievements of modernity, particularly the autonomy of the state, in the exclusionary language of ethno-nationalism.
But there’s another chilling message coming out of Hungary. In the history of neoliberalism, you’ll remember, it was the conservatives who made the first moves in the chess game. They played white. First Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators Clinton and Blair. What happens if the Orban model is pursued successfully by the Republicans in the United States or by Marine Le Pen in France? Might it be a strategy that “liberals” will be tempted to imitate? Could Orban’s cult of political power fill the ideological void in our post neoliberal world?