Disrupting Illiberal Democracy: Gender, Boundary Crossings, and the Possibility of Kinship in Hungary
An Interview with Orsolya Lehotai

In terms of the movement of labor, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs [Peter Szijjártó] recently said that “Hungarians are not migrants,” claiming that we are not migrants going from one EU state to another. This is a particularly ironic dismissal of the reality of many Hungarians who went to the UK and western Europe to work under better economic conditions. Just ask about their experiences of being perceived and treated as the eastern European other there.

There is a certain level of socio-political planning to appear as the savior of the Nation, of Europe. They declare that, “The West is declining, all of these immigrants are coming from the East, and Central Europe is the proper Fortress Europe who solely defends real European values.” Of course they’re not saying exactly what they mean by “European values.” One can assume certain things, since they play on deeply gendered, sexualized, and racialized lines, but they are purposefully vague at the same time, which also enables them an additional space to deploy their othering practices.

With both the new minimum wage legislations1 and the way that the Public Works2 program is organized in more rural areas particularly, the public and private spheres are intimately entangled, whereby the government builds on municipalities to organize their employment structures in the name of supporting local governmental politics. Literally bread for votes. Local municipalities are over-politicized, and people highly depend on them. These kinds of kinship relations are based on a logic of, “I’ll give you something if you give me something.” It creates a certain co-dependence, not in terms of caring for each other but in terms of policing each other, that is based on a certain distance between people. And people do feel alone and super dependent on Public Works programs and local mayors. The abuse of power is normalized in these circumstances. For example, there have been several stories reported from different news outlets about how people were attacked in villages if they didn’t vote for the local mayor, or that they were not allowed to get any kind of benefits. Another recent story from a southern village of Hungary involves a woman who was asked by the local mayor to provide sexual services in exchange for lending 15,000 Forints [approximately fifty US dollars]. Upon fulfilling these expectations, they made fun of her, video-recorded the case, and then spit on her. The banality of evil can be captured in the politics of these local frontiers.

It’s especially strong in smaller places, and the government does build on that. So in some way they do build something like a localization of the state, of a certain type of hierarchical state relations.

ZACH: I’m curious about your observation that the state maintains the precarity of its citizens—and thus creates tension and turmoil—that it then exploits. In a recent article for Mérce, you write that critiquing Orbán either from a legal-institutional position, or hoping for the EU or international groups to intervene will not remedy the situation…That something else is needed.3 A way you offer forward is by addressing the psychic-emotional elements that have lain the groundwork for Orbán’s policies to be so successful in a way. How did you arrive at this intervention that seeks to fight back by understanding the deep structures that produce certain psychic-emotional positions in the first place—isolation, loneliness, anger, fear, resentment, hatred?  And how it has somehow allowed…

ORSOLYA: The kind of affective relationship with the leader, yes. A certain kind of frustration came from the opposition in Hungary. First off I do think that what the opposition did surrounding the “slave law,” that was great. I think that is in some way an effective way of obstructing the system, that you go into their face and confront them. And if they don’t respond then you still have a certain affective relationality to that. But I felt, and I still feel, that talking about how democracy is over, and about how we need institutions, and, “Oh but we should think about human rights,” and all of that—I just…I don’t find it useful to directly turn to the discourse of human rights, while keeping systemic abuses on the individual level. Of course, the Europeanization process in general brought about a different kind of understanding of citizenship. For instance, for myself as a queer person, the repercussions of the process have changed how we understand gay marriage or registered partnership. I do acknowledge that legal positionality and legal tools can be important in multiple ways. But, rights can be taken away at any time, and they have a tendency to create a certain assimilationist strategy in order to keep those top-down given rights, instead of imagining futures outside of these categories.

On the other hand, right now attacking the system based on procedurality and legality is just not useful. It doesn’t confront people. It doesn’t go deeper to think about how these new institutions came about, or how these amendments came about, or how it is possible that in the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution they were able to put an anti-homeless legislation—in a constitution! What does that say about the regime? What does it say about us? How can you create any kind of inclusive community based on that and after that? What is the way back? How is it possible to not go back either to what happened after the political transition [in 1989]? Then it was all about civic values, it was all about NGOs, it was all about self-organizing individuals, and emphasizing political individualism. This was the whole idea of open society, and based on these values liberalism and conservatism could, even if in a limited way, hold hands together—that was some way of having a certain consensus after the system change, a consensus with capitalism and market logic. But is it really what we have to go back to now? The common narrative is that it was the golden age, that we were on such a good path. I’m just not sure I buy it. It was the very same system that allowed this current regime to come about, that produced the current state and order of things.

So what are other ways of organizing a community? And ways of fighting back that are not only about confronting Fidesz supporters [by saying] that, “Oh you are a fascist because you agree with this,” but also understanding what made people support Fidesz in the first place. I mean, I’m not interested in the psyche of Nazis (laughs), but there are also a lot of Hungarians who vote for Fidesz who would not identify with the Far Right, and who see in Orbán something different. Also, I’d rather not fetishize the figure of Orbán. He is an effective politician in many ways, but I don’t like those arguments saying that he is such an amazing and strategic politician. Yes, people say the same thing about other authoritarian leaders, but let’s not do that comparison either—it does not allow us to understand what makes Orbán’s system particular from a socio-economic and global point of view. He definitely found a certain way of approaching people. He does play with emotions and he does play upon precarity that he strategically creates himself through low wages, precarious work conditions, and a pervasive media spectacle of danger. By the latter I mean that the public media and governmental media platforms construct the world and Hungary according to the binary of extreme danger versus dominating victory over others. According to Orbán’s imperial logic, you are either dominated or dominate others. So in some ways the alleged danger and victory are co-constitutive elements of these othering processes, whereby he’s very strategically playing different minorities against each other. He claims to be defending European values, and according to him, if all these immigrants from Muslim countries come in, then, they are going to endanger “our women, our Jews, our gays.” It’s a weird type of homo- and femo-nationalism, where Hungary’s xenophobic past is seemingly redirected in the name of defending certain groups in the present from the future danger. They maintain this in-between position: we’re protecting you, but also only if you support our exclusionary politics, so what kind of “protection” does that really mean and at whose expense?

The same logic is involved with women and women’s rights. One of those [government-funded propaganda] billboards actually said—in Hungarian! addressed to an imagined “foreign” group—that “If you come to Hungary, respect our culture!” They also had some statement about how violence against women is higher in many Muslim countries, and they put a certain random percentage there as “proof.” This “We are here to protect our women,” and “our women” discourse is where I see the politics that connects this “protection” discourse with the new family planning law4 Just recently—actually last Friday, on International Women’s Day—Zoltán Balog, the Hungarian commissioner for Roma integration (he was previously the Minister of Human Resources, which is also a lovely title), basically said that the people who the government wants to plan families are those who live for their children and not from> their children. The latter, meaning people who are perceived to be benefiting from having children economically, which, in the dominant imaginary, refers to the Roma community. This “living from”/“living for” is very strategically deployed. According to this new family planning law, desirable women with desirable children (white Hungarian middle-class heterosexual and married women) don’t have to pay a certain amount of taxes. Which ironically also means benefiting from or, in other words, living from your children, right? But they articulate this distinction on politicizing “care,” namely that a certain kind of child caring is desirable, which eventually leads me to think that it is rather about caring for “us,” the imagined nation, than caring for children in general. When they say that, “Oh the Roma…but these children are already born in this country,” they create this narrative of “we own you,” and the concern is not really that you are there but mostly about how the state benefits from you—how certain bodies, queer bodies, racialized bodies, are actually essential for the state in order to be the referent against which they create the idealized notions of citizenship. And to me this is just an exact example of the Foucauldian state racism and biopolitical shift to the “making live and letting die” concept.

ZACH: Are you writing about Roma rights in your academic research?

ORSOLYA: Yes, but I’m more thinking about othering processes in general. I’m interested in the forced mobility and migration of the Roma community from northern Hungary who have claimed asylum in Canada. On the general level, I’m interested in how does one become a public charge, what kind of discourses inform that, and how does that play out on bodies, and what bodies. Especially in relation to the so-called refugee crisis—in some way I was fascinated by, I mean this with the greatest irony, how the government effectively creates a certain image of security and insecurity against a community that hasn’t even ever lived in the country.

Like ninety percent of Hungarians have never met any refugees or migrants, at least not according to these given legal-political categories. The government’s politics capitalized on the suffering of people on the move to redirect its nationalist stance to a politics of “care for us.” The government’s propaganda was all about mediation: on the public television and radio, in social media and the Facebook portal of the Hungarian government. It uses an imagined enemy in a way that strongly positions the government as the only solution to “protect” you against people that are…not here. How can this approach constitute a political community based on literally negating the suffering of others? So far this seems very efficient, but it makes me wonder what else does it do to politics, does this imaginary work for the long-term building of their nationalism, and in what directions? Their inhumane stance certainly worked to criminalize homelessness in Hungary.

This made me think about Étienne Balibar’s interpretations of “interior frontiers.” That actually this distinction of “external” versus “internal” others is not necessarily useful to understand the politics that allows the Hungarian state and society to render certain “foreign”/“queer” bodies disposable. That maybe those power relations that enabled migrant bodies to be mobilized by exclusionary politics comes very much from the so-called “inside,” from the banality of everyday interactions, from those stories that are not being told or are being told in a certain way for certain ideological reasons. Then my concern becomes very crudely relevant in contemporary Hungarian politics when one asks what kind of political work occurs when leftist parties align to various degrees with the government on their anti-migration propaganda. How does that stance work when they call out the government against their treatment of the homeless and the Roma community? Can emancipatory politics against the government effectively work through redrawing the “inside” and the “outside”?

I feel very strongly that it is not possible. And that those seemingly leftist politics that try to do that very much reiterate this perceived “dangerousness” of the confusion between the internal and the external. Any politics that has anxieties about confusing the boundaries of given political categories is not emancipatory in my view.

ZACH: This seems to relate to the endless state-run propaganda campaigns of billboards, mailings, and referendums, whose repetition works to render the migrant population, Roma population, the homeless population, the EU, George Soros, and so on, as something like national threats. Relatedly, I’m interested in how you see “gender” being mobilized as a threat from the outside that poses a security risk to the nation?

ORSOLYA: Yes, it’s really interesting how all of these things come together. When the government talks about diversity or pro-migration policies or discourses, they say that, “No, for the national identity you need to have clear boundaries, you need to have clear values.” And what Soros does—because they keep referring back to him and the Popperian notion of open society and all of that—is confuse borders, confuse boundaries regarding national identity, citizenship, gender identity, sexuality, etc. When the anti-gender studies legislation started, namely the discussion to withdraw its academic accreditation, the president of the National Assembly, László Kövér, said—and he used the referent object of “they”—“they” first confuse the borders, and then “they” confuse our national identity, and then “they” confuse your gender identity.5 So he actually spelled out their frustration regarding potential emancipatory politics.

ZACH: Who is the “they,” in this scenario, those who confuse the borders?

ORSOLYA: He used the word “the colonizers,” those who colonize your territories. This “they” is usually used as an empty signifier that at the same time operates along gendered, sexualized, and racialized lines. So he actually made this very strong connection that their alleged issue with gender studies is about confusing boundaries and borders, that according to the government’s stance you’re either born a woman or a man and there’s no other way around it. Also when they talk about “gender,” they don’t really talk about gender—they talk about sex. For them, there’s no such thing as gender. There’s only sex with “fixed meanings” according to them, and then you have certain characteristics based on biological determinism. They use “gender” to further alienate people from the concept as it is a seemingly “Western” concept in their interpretation. Gender studies is about confusing borders and boundaries, and that’s something that threatens this “healthy” national identity. The governmental media also medicalizes any subversion of gender from their fixed notion of sex, and the “healthy/desirable national self” is also positioned against the “unhealthy, foreign, confused” other.

ZACH: As you said, there’s been kind of a systematic thing since Orbán’s election in 2010—in 2011, there were the media and constitutional reforms; in 2015, there started the anti-immigration propaganda campaign, which helped Orbán and Fidesz in the elections quite a bit; now, since 2017, there have been these attacks on higher education: forcing CEU out of Hungary, revoking university accreditation for gender studies, the politically motivated change in funding to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences [Magyar Tudományos Akadémia] that would dismantle its political autonomy; the “slave law” and family planning laws introduced in late 2018 and early 2019…Specifically, in the case of the government’s justification for banning gender studies, you write in a USA Today op-ed that they said gender studies is not economically viable.6 Could you speak more about this event?

ORSOLYA: They use both. Some politicians used this kind of economism, that the “national economy” doesn’t need this kind of degree without any data about what students even do after their studies. It was the first ever M.A. class of graduates, like maximum twenty students, and at the time they had not even graduated yet! The only source of data that was indicative against the propaganda was about the graduates of Gender Studies at the Central European University. Sociologists like Éva Fodor and others started to collect data about where graduates go, responding to this government falsification by saying that, “No, students actually do get jobs.”7 Of course, it could be important to clarify certain things, like what does gender studies really do? But, also, do we really need to explain all of this to people who actually very much know what gender studies is about, they just strategically pretend they don’t for political purposes? They very much know this and that’s why they’re afraid of it. This current contestation of gender studies is not about having a discussion with a random person on the bus who asks, “Oh, what does gender studies even mean?” That confusion is certainly there. My grandma didn’t know what that was either and that’s okay. It is important to talk about these things. But the government does see what is at stake and that’s why their opposition to it is so saliently and explicitly articulated.

I was really blown away by this connection that the president of the National Assembly made about the confusion of identities. Here’s the thing: my kind of activism was like, “Yeah, sure, it is about that! Let’s go into that!” I do think that we don’t have to be so afraid [to say] yes, in some way, that’s what we’re doing, confusing those boundaries and seemingly naturalized identities. And [to not be afraid] to have those difficult conversations about how does gender come about. How do we understand gender identity? What does biological sex really mean? How does that affect you? How is normative masculinity created right now in Hungary? And femininity? In terms of having a direct and uncompromised discussion, I feel like we didn’t go deep enough into that. That we are talking about the confusion of boundaries, and not trying to make gender studies more marketable or palatable.

  1. As of January 1 2019, the minimum wage in Hungary rose by eight percent, and will increase by another eight percent in 2020.
  2. Created in 2010 after Fidesz’s 2010 parliamentary victory, the Public Works scheme is a large-scale employment program ostensibly designed to help reintroduce long-term unemployed persons back into the labor market. However, as the program does not provide training or mentoring for successful integration into the mainstream labor force, there have been widespread criticisms that the Public Works rather creates a dependency on the state. Persons employed by the Public Works scheme earn well beneath the minimum wage. According to the European Commission, in 2016, the Public Works employed an average number of 223,470 persons. See Fruszina Albert, “Reforms to the Hungarian public works scheme,” European Social Policy Network Flash Report—European Commission, last modified June 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=17911&langId=en.
  3. Orsolya Lehotai, “Radikális kormányzati lépésekre radikális válaszok kellenek [Radical government action needs radical answers],” Merce.hu, last modified February 18, 2019,
  4. Introduced in February 2019, the Family Planning Law aims to help the “demographic tragedy,” as Orbán describes it, of the negative Hungarian birth rate. The law stipulates that every married couple under forty, that is “child-bearing age,” is eligible for low interest loans, the repayment of which can be postponed three years for every child born. If a woman has four or more children, she’ll never have to pay income tax again. Importantly, banks must declare families “credit worthy” to be eligible for these benefits, which effectively excludes Roma families. For more information, see Eva Balogh, “A Closer Look at Orbán’s Family Package,” Hungarian Spectrum, last modified February 17, 2019, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2019/02/17/a-closer-look-at-orbans-family-package/.
  5. “Kövér: A Kurultáj a magyar kulturális önrendelkezési igény kinyilvánításának legnépesebb fóruma [Köver: The Kurultáj is the most popular form of Hungarian cultural self-determination],” Origo, last modified August 11, 2018, https://www.origo.hu/itthon/20180811-kover-a-kurultaj-a-magyar-kulturalis-onrendelkezesi-igeny-kinyilvanitasanak-legnepesebb-foruma.html.
  6. Orsolya Lehotai and Anna Daniszewski, “Hungarian Officials Are Out to Get Gender Studies. That’s Our Field and They’re Wrong,” USA Today, last modified September 19, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2018/09/19/gender-studies-threatens-hungarian-government-funding-pulled-column/1335958002/.
  7. “Adatokkal cáfolja a kormány legfőbb érvét a gender szak bezárása mellett a CEU rektorhelyettese [Data from the CEU deputy rector refutes the government’s main reason for closing gender studies],” Hvg.hu, last modified August 24, 2018 https://hvg.hu/itthon/20180814_Adatokkal_cafolja_a_kormany_legfobb_ervet_a_genderszak_bezarasa_mellett_a_CEU_rektorhelyettese