Monday, August 01, 2005

This summer I went back to Budapest, my home through much of the nineties, for a vacation of sorts. It’s a beautiful, if still somewhat ramshackle city in the heart of Europe, where East meets West and North meets South, full of the same plain-spoken, hard-living scrappy sorts I knew from my own working-class childhood. But as I drove into the heart of Pest from the airport, I was dismayed that so little of the urban landscape had changed over the past half-decade. It seems the frantic pace of the early days of freedom from Soviet rule, the euphoria that accompanied the collapse of the Evil Empire, has given way to a new and just as corrosive cynicism when it comes to the promise of democracy.

In Central Europe, the go-go ‘90s brought a crash-course in “rogue capitalism”. There was the lightning-speed redistribution of wealth, the shock and awe of an invasion of multinationals, an explosion in sex-tourism fueled by the internet, new and seemingly endless possibilities for organized crime. Those highly-placed in the Communist Party in the previous regime were poised to seize state-owned industries and became overnight millionaires. By the time Victor Orban, a young politician who’d made his name speaking out against the Soviets, was installed as Prime Minister in 1998, the new government apparatus was already functioning as a well-oiled money-making machine, benefiting a handful of the population at the expense of the rest. Orban squandered countless opportunities to create a more transparent government and a more open society, and in 2002, the Socialists, led, ironically, by a former Soviet spy, were back in power, where they remain to this day. Call them what you will, the new bosses are basically the same as the old bosses.

That the old-school party faithful were able to adapt with such ease to a new ideology diametrically opposed to the one they had pledged absolute allegiance to for half a century to the detriment of their own nation and people, says a lot about a certain kind of human nature. There were those who flourished under the Soviets while most merely maintained. The interesting thing is that in large part, under the new regime, those flourishing and those maintaining are essentially the same as before (though maintaining is getting harder), and a new category has been added: those barely surviving at all. Homelessness, unknown in the previous era, is dramatically on the rise.

Having seen first-hand the devastation wrought by half a century of Soviet rule, I don’t harbor any illusions about state socialism. Unfortunately, the so-called “third-way” approach favored by Clinton and Blaire in the nineties, which argues for a middle-way between socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, has fallen out of favor for not providing adequate perks to the ruling class. As a result, the optimism of those early years has curdled, and cooperation and cohesion has given way to meanness and brutality in the endless struggle for lucre. Sound familiar? It’s the same old New World Order.

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