Friday, 05.05.2023

Can We Move Past 1989? - Post event report written by Károly Tóth

An event called Two Different Stories – Neoliberal Transformation in Romania and Hungary was held in Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár on 4 and 5 March, 2023, co-hosted by the Budapest office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the journal új szem or new eye. The two-day event, held at the headquarters of, aimed to investigate the paths taken by the two countries before and since 1989, taking into account their similarities as well as their distinguishing features (among the latter, as the moderator pointed out, were Hungarian ‘market socialism’ and the isolationist economic policy of Romania). In addition to presentations by two experts, attendees could also participate in various workshop discussions and a city tour with an unusual perspective. In addition to the group of current and former FES scholarship holders, heightened local interest meant that more than fifty local residents, mostly university students, also participated.

The first day, Saturday, opened with half an hour of input from Cornel Ban, associate professor of international political economy at the Copenhagen Business School, on the topic of “Capitalist Transformations and the Labor Question in Hungary and Romania”. His online presentation attempted to compare the two countries according to three main criteria: capitalist growth model, economic performance, and the matter of workers themselves. According to Ban’s findings, in the Hungarian economy, which performs better in terms of economic indicators, employees are more exploited than in Romania (or, to use his own expression, they are “squeezed”). The main characteristic of “Orbanomics” has been defined as low minimum wages, but in addition, other factors such as the low percentage of workers in organised labour unions were discussed. According to his final conclusion, although Hungary’s economy still performs better than that of Romania, and income distribution remains less unequal – the Hungarian growth model still “squeezes” the labour force much more, and decreasing social, educational and health expenditure implies that greater income inequality can be anticipated in the future.

Áron Márk Éber, associate professor of Eötvös Loránd University, also gave a presentation in English (“Capital, Labor, and the State – Changing Relations and Transforming Class Structure in Hungary”) in which he undertook to outline the events of the past half century in terms of the degree to which Hungarian class relations have changed since 1973, as well as the role of the state in moderating the opposition between labour and capital. After his brief global historical introduction – in which he touched upon the neoliberal turn that took place in the West as a result of the oil crises of the 1970s – Éber went on to discuss the peculiarities of state structure in socialism as it existed, the first and second “waves of indebtedness,” and the capitalist restoration that came with the post-1989 change of regime (which entailed the country’s deepening external dependence, deindustrialization and, of course, high unemployment). According to Éber, since then, Hungary has been characterized by semi-peripheral dependent development, but he specifically highlighted the “rebellion of the national bourgeoisie,” which resulted in the formation of a new political-economic bloc between 2000 and 2010, and defined the new ruling class as an authoritarian version of capitalism. He concluded his presentation with some thoughts familiar from his book A csepp or The Drop (Napvilág, 2020), criticizing the concept of the middle class and emphasizing the importance of reorganizing the working class.

Of the English-language panel and workshop discussions that followed the two lectures – which were thematically focused on Romania and Cluj/Kolozsvár, with particular regard to the structures and institutions affected by local neoliberalism – I can only provide a more detailed report on the ones I chose to attend (due to time constraints, it was not possible to participate in all of them).

In his workshop, sociologist Sorin Gog, Babeș-Bolyai University (BBU) assistant professor, focused on “subjectified” neoliberalism (“How Is Neoliberalism Subjectified?”). After an exhaustive theoretical introduction, the focus shifted to the sharing of practical experiences. Curator Miki Branişte, president of the Colectiv A Cluj art centre and teaching assistant at BBU, examined the local relationship between independent cultural institutions and neoliberal urban development, primarily from a historical perspective, while future perspectives were also discussed during the conversation. Poet-translator Örs Székely, who works at new eye, thought about the “poetic economy” of the Előretolt Helyőrség (or Frontier Garrison) poetry group that appeared in the 1990s.

In addition to the events I chose, poet András Borbély, former program coordinator for Caritas Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár, spoke about the integration of socially disadvantaged people in Gheorgheni/Gyergyószentmiklós and Miercurea Cius/Csíkszereda, and on the relationship between NGO models and Roma communities (“How the Social Service Market Replaced Social Policy”). Workshops were also led by Tamás Kiss, a researcher at the Cluj-based National Minority Research Institute, on the stalled modernization characteristic of Hungarian reorganization efforts in Transylvania, and by Enikő Vincze, a lecturer at BBU and an activist with Căşi sociale ACUM! / Szociális Lakásokat MOST! (Social Housing NOW!), who gave a talk on “The Financialization of Housing and the Smart City”.

Sunday saw the final activity of the event: a “neoliberal” tour of the city, starting from Piața Abator, as part of which students from the SZEMinárium drew attention to changes in the cityscape taking place in the decades since the regime change, including the tower block being built at the starting point of the tour, the ill-fated Clujana shoe factory, and even a half-walled-up “Proletarians of the world unite!” inscription.


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