"The neoliberal order brings right-wing elites into power"

Interview with Attila Melegh

August 05, 2019

The Hungarian sociologist, economist, historian and renowned analyst of the authoritarian turn in Eastern Europe, Attila Melegh has been a guest researcher at the MPI for Social Anthropology for the past five months. He is a professor at Corvinus University, Budapest, and senior researcher at the Demographic Research Institute, Budapest. As he is the founding director of the Karl Polanyi Research Center for Global Social Studies at Corvinus University we wanted to know how he sees the current political development in Europe and to what extent Karl Polanyi’s writings could help to analyse the situation. And of course, another good reason for this interview is the publication of Polanyi’s famous The Great Transformation exactly 75 years ago.

Attila, what is your current research about?
I look at classical sociological problems from a global point of view. In particular I am interested in the development of global hierarchies and uneven development within neoliberal capitalism during the last 30 years.

That’s a big topic! Could you describe your research in more detail?
Specifically, I am interested in analysing the various population discourses connected to population development. That means that I am looking at how elites construct categories like, for example, population, development, migration, integration and how these constructions are linked to ideas of a “balanced” development. Among other things this might be the balance between resources and population or optimal zero-growth development. Such ideas might include the need to import labour when local resources are seen as inadequate. This kind of discourse shows, for example, how utilitarian values are increasingly dominating the elite’s understanding of migration.

You mean that migrants are not treated primarily as human beings, but as reinforcement for the labour market?
Exactly. In the public discourse – heavily influenced by the interest of elites – migrants are seen as commodities. If migration is promoted, it is mainly because of the potential economic benefits for companies or for economic growth in the abstract. The population decline in Europe has to be counterbalanced by migration, that’s the core of the current utilitarian debates.

This assessment reminds me of Foucault’s writings on biopolitics.
Yes, in fact, Foucault is one of the scholars who are important for understanding population discourses within capitalism. But he fell short in understanding the structural and historical conditions of such development. It was Karl Polanyi who showed how market liberalisation is responsible for the transformation of human labour into a fictitious commodity. The global fictitious exchange of labour is one of the main characteristics of the development of capitalism in the last 30 years. And in my view this neoliberal turn is largely responsible for the rise of right-wing movements all over the world.

Do you think Polanyi foresaw this threat to the democratic system?
Yes, he did. And alongside other scholars like Gramsci, Lukács, and Bloch, he analysed the authoritarian turn of capitalism and the ideological reactions to the crises of the liberal world order. And he very incisively and farsightedly pointed out that this would happen again if elites push too hard for realizing “market utopias”. This is so nicely pointed out in the new book by Chris Hann, Repatriating Polanyi, which analyses the transition in Eastern Europe.

And how do people react to that threat? Is there a general pattern?
People are becoming dissatisfied and beginning to resist. And this resistance can result in what he called a “countermovement” which could be utilized by radical right-wing elites who strove to get into power at the expense of previous elites. That’s what we can observe all over the world at the moment: The massive advancement of right-wing political parties. We see this in India, Turkey, Brazil, Japan, the U.S., and many Eastern European countries.

But is the uneasiness in Eastern Europe not mainly caused by the influx of migrants fleeing crisis regions?
It is true that the nationalist discourse in Eastern Europe is radicalised against people fleeing wars created by local and global powers. But at the same time there is also this massive labour outmigration caused by neoliberal liberalisation of the local economy. Statistics show that at present 25 million people from Eastern European nations do not live in the country where they were born. Their labour has become a product that is traded internationally within the super competitive neoliberal system. This uprooting is one of the main reasons why Eastern European elites have found it an easy matter to mobilise people against European migration politics and one of the reasons why we are witnessing this authoritarian turn, which leads to new forms of intolerant nationalism.

There are even fears that the authoritarian turn you described could foster a renaissance of fascism in Europe. Isn’t that a little far-fetched?
I think it is very clearly visible that the neoliberal order leads to multiple tensions that allow elites to come into power with a radical right-wing ticket. But in my view this is not enough to characterise these regimes as fascist. Even though in the public discourse they use patterns and statements widely used between the two World Wars. These regimes try to manage globalisation and maintain free trade and the movement of capital with new political techniques of nationalist rhetoric.

So how do you see the future of Europe? Are we on the way to an authoritarian political order?
We have to be aware that respect for human rights and democratic practices is currently facing major challenges. This is mainly caused by the clash between global markets and national politics. In my view it would be justified to describe the authoritarian regimes as fascist as soon as they successfully manage to start destroying key elements of the liberal state and economic order. At the moment they are just playing with words and utilizing informal techniques. But these on-going attacks on human rights and on the liberal media have to be taken very seriously. And we have to be aware that there is no guarantee whatsoever that the institutions of a liberal democratic order will hold out against this threat forever.

So there is no hope for a liberal future in Europe and elsewhere?
We cannot see the future. During my time at the MPI since February this year I have had the opportunity to get insights into anthropological research on various local problems that have emerged with the advancement of globalisation. And some forms of resistance also seem to have emerged. There are also trends towards regaining democratic control over labour, land, and money. This is exactly what Polanyi was hoping for and what he tried to show by analysing the development of capitalism.

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