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Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt: The Cultural Political Economy of Working-Class Neo-Nationalism


Abstract and Figures

Nationalism is back with a renewed force. Hungary is a virulent example of the new nationalist ascendancy. As the country was a former liberal star pupil, Hungary's neo-nationalist turn has been puzzling researchers for years. This study goes beyond the entrenched polarisations in the literature by highlighting the dynamic interplay between culture, structure and identity. It proposes to conceptualise Hungary's neo-nationalist turn as a Polanyian countermovement against commodification, globalisation and deindustrialisation. The article presents the results of a thematic analysis of 82 interviews with workers in four towns in Hungary's rustbelt and highlights how the multiscalar lived experience of commodifying reforms violated an implicit social contract and changed workers' narrative identities. In the absence of a class-based shared narrative and lacking a viable political tool to control their fate, working-class neo-nationalism emerged as a new narrative identity to express workers' anger and outrage.
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Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt: The
Cultural Political Economy of Working-Class Neo-
* Department of Social and Political Sciences, Università Bocconi, via Guglielmo Rontgen 1, Milano,
20136, Italy. | Email:
This is the accepted manuscript version of the article, made available following SAGE’s open access
policies under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license |
Copyright © The Author(s) 2020.
Cite as: Scheiring, Gábor. 2020. Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt: The Cultural Political
Economy of Working-Class Neo-Nationalism.Sociology 54(6):115977.
Nationalism is back with a renewed force. Hungary is a virulent example of the new nationalist
ascendancy. As the country was a former liberal star pupil, Hungary’s neo-nationalist turn has been
puzzling researchers for years. This study goes beyond the entrenched polarisations in the literature by
highlighting the dynamic interplay between culture, structure and identity. It proposes to conceptualise
Hungary’s neo-nationalist turn as a Polanyian countermovement against commodification, globalisation
and deindustrialisation. The article presents the results of a thematic analysis of 82 interviews with
workers in four towns in Hungary’s rustbelt and highlights how the multiscalar lived experience of
commodifying reforms violated an implicit social contract and changed workers’ narrative identities. In
the absence of a class-based shared narrative and lacking a viable political tool to control their fate,
working-class neo-nationalism emerged as a new narrative identity to express workers’ anger and
countermovement, cultural political economy, deindustrialisation, Hungary, narrative identity, neo-
nationalism, working class
Gabor Scheiring (PhD, University of Cambridge) is a Marie Curie Fellow at Bocconi University, Milan
and former political economy research fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.
His research focuses on the political economy of health, the human price of globalisation and the role of
class in illiberalism. His work has been published in The Lancet Global Health, Sociology of Health and
Illness, Geoforum and International Sociology, among others. His book (The Retreat of Liberal
Democracy, Palgrave) investigates the political economy of illiberalism in Hungary. He served as a
member of the Hungarian Parliament between 2010 and 2014.
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
For two decades after the fall of socialism, Hungary was heralded as a champion of liberal
reforms. Nationalist mobilisation before the second half of the 2000s remained outside of
the mainstream. Centrist parties dominated the political landscape. The Hungarian Socialist
Party (MSZP) represented the left, while Viktor Orbán’s party, the Alliance of Young
Democrats (Fidesz) the right. Changing the party’s name to Fidesz Hungarian Civic
Alliance, it gradually took over the place of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF),
the party that led the first right-wing coalition government after the fall of socialism. Despite
the existence of a nativist undercurrent harking back to the dissolution of the Hungarian
Kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the majority of workers did not embrace it
until the second half on the 2000s. However, in 2010, following eight years of
SocialistsLiberal coalition, Orbán conquered the parliament with a sweeping electoral
success, building a regime that he infamously labelled the ‘illiberal state’, elevating neo-
nationalism to the centre stage of politics as a crucial component of the new right
hegemony (Fabry, 2019; Kalb, 2018; Szombati, 2018).
Debates on the rise and mainstreaming of neo-nationalism in Hungary follow the
divisions of the broader literature, which can be divided into culturalist, political elite-
oriented and economic strands. The cultural approach (e.g. Skidelsky, 2019) faces the
most significant challenge explaining the nationalist-populist revolt in Hungary. Table A1
in the online appendix shows that even though the support for capitalism declined
profoundly in Hungary, survey research also found strong support for liberal values
before 2010 (Pew Research Centre, 2009), exceeding the levels of every other country in
East-Central Europe. However, Hungary has witnessed the most severe nationalist backlash
in the region. Although nationalist undercurrents were pre-existing, theories that describe
nationalism solely as inherited cultural baggage cannot account for the dynamism and
mainstreaming of neo-nationalism.
Accounts focusing on the political elite provide a better understanding. Research has
demonstrated that Fidesz had an active role in elevating neo-nationalist discourses to the
centre of politics in the second half of the 2000s (Bocskor, 2018; Buzogány and Varga,
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
2018; Halmai, 2011). Competing with the radical right-wing Jobbik (The Movement for a
Better Hungary), Fidesz learnt to use the nation as a mobilising framework to attract rural
and urban, middle-class and working-class constituencies (Szombati, 2018). However,
some elite-oriented accounts focus solely on the modes of behaviour of political actors and
conclude that fearmongering demagogues, informal politics or the lack of a liberal
commitment among the elite are the primary cause of the neo-nationalist turn, whereas
perceived social problems are only constructed from above (Dawson and Hanley,
2016; Rupnik and Zielonka, 2012).
Finally, historical-structuralist political scientists have linked voters’ disillusionment
with the transition to liberalism’s failure to deliver (Ágh, 2016; Krastev, 2016). However,
economic processes never produce nationalism automatically. We have to trace the
mechanism of identity construction and the multiscalar lived experience of class carefully
to link the global to the local. Qualitative sociologists and economic anthropologists have
offered in-depth insight into this mechanism (Hann, 2007; Kalb, 2009; Kalb and Halmai,
2011; Szalai, 2002; Szombati, 2018). They highlighted how the political weight of the
working class eroded with the transition from socialism to capitalism. Analysing
interviews conducted with workers in the early 2000s, Bartha (2014) showed that workers
grew suspicious of foreign investors as well as domestic political elites involved in the
privatisation of socialist companies. Bartha (2011a: 97) also argued that this experience
rendered workers ‘susceptible to neo-nationalist populism’.
Despite the significant headway that the research has made, a large part of the literature
remains polarised into elite, culture and economy-oriented camps without paying enough
attention to how working-class identities and the economy are dynamically interlinked
(Ausserladscheider, 2019). Dominant approaches are ill-equipped to account for the depth
and stability of neo-nationalism and might yield misleading political conclusions. Simply
denouncing ‘populist demagogues’ and popularising liberal political culture are
ineffective strategies against the pervasive neo-nationalist challenge. In response to this
hiatus, the present study extends on the existing qualitative sociological scholarship
through analysing the neo-nationalist turn of working-class voters in Hungary’s rustbelt.
Although the article focuses on the working class in Hungary’s rustbelt, other classes
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
also played a role in the rise of neo-nationalism. First, Fidesz facilitated the emergence of
a new hegemonic class alliance between the national bourgeoisie, transnational capital and
the state, using neo-nationalism as a legitimation strategy (Scheiring, 2019). However, to
explain the stability of this new hegemony, we have to take into account that it is rooted in
the lived experience of the working class. Second, between 2006 and 2010, the post-
peasantry and the rural middle class in villages and small towns also embraced neo-
nationalism (Szombati, 2018). However, except for 1994, when the right was very
fragmented, the left never dominated villages, whereas the industrial working class was
historically the political backbone of the left, and industrial towns acted as its regional
strongholds. The changing narrative identity of the working class in regional centres of the
Hungarian rustbelt is thus a critical factor, though not the only, behind the rise and
stability of neo-nationalism.
The Cultural Political Economy of Neo-Nationalism
To grasp the mechanism that links the experience of global economic change to
neonationalism, this article proposes to start with Karl Polanyi’s (2001 [1944]) notions of
embeddedness, commodification and countermovement. Polanyi’s theory can be adapted to
the context of contemporary financialised capitalism at Europe’s eastern periphery to
explain the tensions of dependent capitalist democracies (Scheiring, 2016). However, the
functionalist traits of Polanyi’s reasoning (Hann, 1992) led to a lack of a middle-range
theory between his grand narrative of the countermovement and his detailed historical
analyses. In his debate with orthodox Marxism, Polanyi was also too quick to eschew
class theory. This deficiency of Polanyi’s theory was mirrored in the majority of the
literature on post-socialist democratisation, which neglected the aspect of class and rejected
class analysis (Gagyi and Éber, 2015; Ost, 2015). Remedying this gap, the article
combines Polanyi’s ideas with recent insights from cultural political economy (Sum and
Jessop, 2013) and relational class theory (Kalb, 2015).
The integration of former socialist economies into the global capitalist economy
fragmented the national solidarity community socially and geographically. This social
fragmentation entails a rise in income inequality as well as cultural differentiation, which
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
undermines the stability of democracy (Tilly, 2007). Globalisation increases the distance
between the working class and the credentialed, liberal and cosmopolitan elites who can
integrate into the global networks of production, while less skilled and manual workers
remain entangled in localised modes of production and the concomitant closed lifestyles
(Friedman, 2003). Globalisation also polarises in a spatial dimension, increasing the
concentration of capital in the new growth centres of metropolitan areas (Smith, 2010).
These ‘urban vortexes’ (Hall and Savage, 2016) suck human, physical and financial
capital out of old industrial areas. Deindustrialisation erodes working-class industrial
lifeworlds, which affects workers’ identities both immediately and in the long run
(McQuarrie, 2017; Strangleman, 2017). In short, workers experience the social
disintegration induced by globalisation, deindustrialisation and commodification as a
class dislocation.
As Polanyi’s theory predicts, commodification triggers a countermovement. However, we
cannot deduce the specific form of the countermovement from Polanyi’s abstract
historical-functional framework. The countermovement is rooted in the lived experience of
the working class, a group of people defined by their position in the social division of
labour with continually changing and renegotiated but shared interests and experiences.
Contemporary theories of class do not assert that economic structures fully determine
political and cultural processes, although they are strongly influenced by material class
relations (Devine et al., 2005).
Workers make sense of global economic integration through the symbolic field, which
provides the framework for the expression of the lived experience of class dislocation.
The histories of local political struggles define the availability of shared narratives and
collective identities which shape how workers react to the erosion of their class status. In the
absence of a deeply rooted working-class political culture, it is challenging to express the
lived experience of class dislocation in a class-based language. The availability of
different political symbols is, therefore, one of the critical mediating mechanisms between
global economic change and working-class responses.
To analyse how the experience of class is translated into different countermovements,
this article proposes the notion of the ‘implicit social contract’. As defined by Barrington
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
Moore (1978), the ‘implicit social contract’ comprises moral codes about the hierarchies of
authority, the division of labour and the distribution of goods and services. The implicit
social contract refers to informal, everyday moral codes that represent changing,
contested, fragmented, but genuine and agonising aspects of lived class. People interpret the
antagonistic class relations they inhabit via these ethical standards inherited from the
past as moral memories. The violation of the implicit social contract leads to anger and
outrage that can be expressed in various forms (Moore, 1978). This multiscalar experience
of class provides the context of workers’ changing narrative identity, formed in a
‘network of relations that shift over time and space’ (Somers, 1994: 607). The rise of
neo-nationalism is rooted in this multiscalar experience.
Following Gingrich and Banks (2006), this article uses the term neo-nationalism to
denote a contemporary form of nationalism that uses old nationalist notions of kinship and
cultural sameness to construct identity but emerges in reaction to the current phase of
globalisation. As opposed to traditional nationalism, neo-nationalism is not bound to the
project of state-building but to the project of protecting the state against globalisation.
Neo-nationalism is less inclusive than classical nationalism and operates along a
‘tripartite ideological hierarchy’. Neo-nationalism’s culturally essentialist form of us’ is
positioned in the centre and is contrasted against two groups of ‘them’: internationalised
power-holders ‘above us’, and lower-status socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic minorities
‘below us’ (Gingrich and Banks, 2006). Neo-nationalism also differs from other forms
of right-wing ideologies in its rejection of neoliberalism and support for the welfare state, at
least for the ethno-national ingroup. This ideological mixture is particularly attractive to
those below-the-middle working-class electorates who fear downward mobility (Eger and
Valdez, 2014).
Data and Methods
I selected four towns that experienced varied but significant levels of deindustrialisation:
Ajka, Dunaújváros, Salgótarján and Szerencs, as shown in Figure 1. Online Table A2
presents a summary of the towns’ basic socioeconomic characteristics. Ajka is a town in
north-west Hungary with a long tradition in coal and bauxite mining and related industrial
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
activities. In the 1990s, the town could attract some new private investors mostly due to
its geographical location. Its ‘moderate’ level of deindustrialisation (moderate by
Hungarian standards) encompassed a 36.1 per cent decrease in industrial employment
between 1989 and 1995. Dunaújváros is a town south from Budapest. It is the youngest of
the four municipalities, the home of the last significant ironworks still operating in
Hungary. Dunaújváros also experienced ‘moderate’ deindustrialisation in the 1990s
(27.6%). Salgótarján is a town in the north of Hungary, a regional centre with significant
glass industry and machinery plants. It experienced a 50 per cent loss in industrial
employment between 1989 and 1995. Finally, Szerencs is a town in eastern Hungary, the
smallest town in the sample, a regional centre of sugar and chocolate manufacturing.
Szerencs also underwent severe deindustrialisation during the 1990s (51.2% decrease
between 1989 and 1995).
Figure 1. Fieldwork map.
Deindustrialisation in Hungary was massive by international standards. The most
severely deindustrialised US towns, such as New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and
Chicago, lost around 30 per cent of their manufacturing labour force between 1972 and
1987 (Wallace et al., 1999: 115). In Western Europe, the most severe deindustrialisation
was observable in the UK, with a 25 per cent loss of total manufacturing employment in the
1980s. In Hungary, over a few years after 1988, employment in manufacturing fell by 40 per
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
cent cumulatively on average nationwide. Thus, the scope of deindustrialisation in
Hungary is comparable to the worst regional cases in the north of the UK and the
Midwest of the USA, albeit at a much faster pace. This deindustrialisation amounted to a
massive social shock leading to an increase in unemployment, mortality and a decline in
population. The Socialist Party dominated these towns until 2006 in national elections
relying on the industrial working class. However, from the end of the 2000s, Fidesz and the
radical right (Jobbik) made significant advances, and the Socialists never gained a seat in
the parliament in these electoral districts since then.
With the help of research assistants, I conducted 82 interviews with workers in these
four towns between September 2016 and January 2017. The goal was to have a reasonable
variation in individuals’ demographic and economic characteristics and compare their
experiences before and after the transition. As a result, those born in the 1980s or later
were excluded. This strategy follows Bartha’s (2011b) selection of interviewees. We
established contact with interview subjects through interpersonal networks, mainly using
the snowball method, with additional interviewees solicited randomly at local markets and
pubs and interviewed later in their homes. The interviews were based on a semi-structured
questionnaire and lasted 120 minutes on average. Online Table A3 provides an overview of
the questions. The total corpus of the 82 interviews is 816,118 words long encompassing
2000 typed pages. Interviews were conducted and analysed in Hungarian; only selected
interview quotes are translated into English.
Table A4 in the online appendix provides an overview of the interviewees’
demographic characteristics. The majority of them are skilled manual workers; we
conducted no interviews with farmers, high-level managers or technicians. Most of the
interviewees fit Goldthorpe and Erikson’s (1992) class category III (routine non-manual
workers), V (lower grade technicians), VI (skilled manual workers) and VII (semi- and
unskilled manual workers). Interviewees are better educated and have higher than average
social capital compared to the national population average. However, this means the results
are conservative estimations; the shock of the transition affected less educated and more
isolated people more adversely.
I analysed the interviews with computer-assisted qualitative thematic analysis (Guest et
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
al., 2011) using NVivo 11. Following multiple rounds of reading and keyword-based text
search, I applied theory-led coding, identifying the most important themes, topics and
sub-topics in the interviews. Figure 2 provides a thematic map of the interviews. I
identified every section of the transcribed interviews that revolve around the topics and
sub-topics shown in Figure 2. The frequency refers to the percentage of the interviewees
that discuss the topic or sub-topic. The thematic units and the quotes are not random or
marginal; they represent significant elements of workers’ experience based on the 82
interviews. In addition to the quotes below, the online appendix provides a further 25
interview quotes.
Figure 2. Thematic map of the interviews.
To provide an overview of how workers talk about commodification, I analysed the
frequency of words in the parts of the interview corpus that revolve around the theme of the
market transition. After eliminating filler words (such as connectives, prepositions,
pronouns), I created unified concepts for words that have a similar meaning. For example,
the words ‘worker’, ‘labourer’, ‘employee’ and so on are condensed into a single word,
‘worker’; words referring to the new economic system are condensed into the concept
of ‘capitalism’. The actual interviews thus rely on less abstract concepts. I then counted the
occurrence of each condensed concept using NVivo and created a word frequency table to
quantify the way interviewees talk about the transition.
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
The Experience of Class Dislocation
Late socialism in Hungary was a welfare dictatorship based on a redistributive mixed
economy (Bartha, 2011b; Szelényi, 1991). Growing incomes and extensive redistribution
pacified the working class after the 1956 revolution. Economic reforms also introduced a
degree of marketisation allowing for additional incomes, but market exchange remained a
secondary social coordination mechanism, embedded in redistributive social institutions.
This strategy allowed for a stable, predictable environment, the fulfilment of basic needs
and low inequalities (Hann, 2019). Socialism, especially in the regional industrial
strongholds, resulted in a complex industrial lifeworld with the working class at its core,
which institutionalised a particular implicit social contract. This encompassed norms about
authority (caring management and the symbolic appreciation of workers), the division of
labour (workplace security, mutual trust between workers, communities, right to work)
and the distribution of goods and services (equality, state redistribution and social
security). These moral memories serve as the benchmark against which workers evaluate
the transition from socialism to capitalism.
The interviews revealed that workers despised the lack of political freedom under
state socialism. The majority also had the unambiguous opinion that the economic model
was not sustainable (theme companies, sub-topic overemployment). However,
interviewees also pointed out many positive traits of state socialism, without regard to
their age. Permanent employment, low inequality, company and council housing provided
for a solid material base of life (theme companies, topics employment and security).
Beyond the material side of security, interviewees frequently talked positively about local
and company communities, company and local identity and a less top–down, more
caring leadership style (theme companies, topic community).
However, Hungary’s mixed-economy socialism could not compete technologically with
advanced market economies; thus, the programme of radical marketisation prevailed over
gradual reforms at the end of the 1980s (Fabry, 2019). As reforms emancipated the market
from its secondary role and Hungary integrated into the global capitalist economy, social
relations were profoundly commodified. Some interviewees recalled new opportunities
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
(theme cognitive evaluations, topic opportunities). Political democratisation, getting closer
to the West and joining the EU evoked hopes (theme cognitive evaluations, topic hope).
Many expected that the situation of their company would improve with the market
transition. Many regarded foreign investors with positive expectations:
When Nestlé arrived in 1990, buying the local chocolate factory, everyone was celebrating. Everyone
believed they would earn 300 thousand forints [around 1000 euros] a month. There was this street
festival welcoming the company with bouncing castle and whatever. There was a massive march,
Mayday, everything you can imagine. (Secretary, Szerencs, OTP Bank (National Savings Bank))
Despite this, the market transition was a negative experience for the majority of
interviewees. The loss of jobs or the fear of job loss were not the only problems (theme
cognitive evaluations, topic hardships). Even those who did not lose their jobs talked about
a decline in their living standard. Negative experiences related to the market transition go
beyond material deprivation, and encompass insecurity and the loss of subsidised
services, such as company housing or holidays:
Before the regime change, life was better (laughs). You knew you had a safe job, secure income, a way to
make a living. You knew you could go on holidays. You were not stressed. You had no debt. Do you
understand? You lived normally. I have not been on holiday for a long time; before the transition, we
went on holiday each year from the Alumina Factory. To Balatonalmádi, or Balatonfüred. Yes, they
had a holiday home, and we went on holiday twice each year, for two weeks. Since I became an
entrepreneur, I have not even been on holiday. Nowadays, we are under tremendous stress. . . . I can
hardly get any sleep these days. My hands, my feet are often numb. (Small business owner, one-time
skilled manual worker, Ajka, Alumina Factory)
The collective stories affecting the towns or the companies represented another crucial
issue (theme local community, topics cohesion and companies). Increased precarity and
competition for declining resources contributed to the deterioration of company
communities. Even those companies that survived the transition eliminated their cultural
and sports facilities (theme companies, topic privatisation). Interviewees perceived
privatisation as large-scale theft or pillaging of the company assets (theme companies,
topic privatisation).
Interviewees are more lenient towards Hungarian capital and think the problems with
Hungarian companies emanate from bad management, not from the fact that they pursue
profit. By contrast, several interviewees talked about injustices, slavery and colonialism on
a systemic level concerning the practices of foreign companies (theme cognitive
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
evaluations, topic injustice). In the case of ‘multik’, the Hungarian short term for
transnational corporations, it is not just bad management, but the very logic of their
operation that interviewees see as problematic:
Now the situation is that we were sold as cheap slaves to the West. Isn’t it us, who produce? What
sort of transition is, and I mean economic, that before that 90 per cent of people worked for Hungarian
companies? Now anybody, who can work, 90 per cent of them works for foreign firms. (Skilled manual
worker, Ajka, Alumina Factory)
The fate of companies intertwined with the future of the settlements. Deindustrialisation
caused the collapse of the identity of a whole town (theme local communities, topic
companies). As the companies were shut down, children with families disappeared,
restaurants and other entertainment facilities also closed down, while earlier iconic
buildings became abandoned: ‘Children used to play football and hide-and-seek in the
neighbourhood. You could hear children playing. Now it is entirely silent’ (Skilled manual
worker, Salgótarján, Steel Factory).
The experience of injustices violated the implicit social contract; however, it did not
result in wholesale desperation among the majority of the interviewees in the 1990s
(theme cognitive evaluations, topic hope). For the accumulated experience of injustice to
turn into hopelessness, workers also had to feel a complete lack of control, powerlessness
against these injustices (theme cognitive evaluations, topic control). While some reported an
increased control over workplace affairs, the perception of losing control over society is
unambiguous (43 per cent reports lack of control at a social level opposed to the 5 per cent
who felt having control). Interviewees often mention ‘conspiracy’ and ‘external powers’,
demonstrating the experience of powerlessness.
In contrast to the mood of the 1990s, the majority of the interviewees recall the second
half of the 2000s as a period of desperation. Several interviewees complained that without
material security, the newly gained political rights do not mean much:
Do you know what one of my elderly patients said? He was 92, the one I looked after the last. He said
they unleashed the dog, but the dog hasn’t got any food to eat. That is freedom: no chains but no
food either. (Salesperson in a pharmacy, caretaker for the elderly, Ajka)
Several interviewees reported that they got into severe debt to ensure their housing in the
2000s (theme cognitive evaluations, topic hardships, sub-topic inflation and debt).
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
Figure 3. Capitalism word cloud.
Although access to urban housing was also unequal before the transition, the socialist
state invested significantly more resources into securing housing for the masses. This
social policy intervention ceased to exist after the regime change.
As a summary of the topics discussed in the section, Figure 3 depicts the frequency of
words used in relation to the transition from socialism to capitalism, as described in the
methods section. Without expressing their feelings in ideological terms, workers readily
connect their negative experiences to the economic transformation.
The most frequent word in those paragraphs of the transcript that revolve around the
market transition is ‘exploit’. Verbs like ‘sell’, ‘steal’ and ‘make (money)’ are also
frequent, which shows the importance of the topics of privatisation and living standards.
The most frequent nouns include ‘West’, ‘hope’, ‘people’, ‘slavery’, ‘misery’, ‘wages/
salary’, ‘workers’, ‘peasants’, ‘capital’, ‘profit’, ‘rich’, ‘wealth/fortune’, ‘boss’ related to the
new economic system. These words convey a message about the combination of high hopes
and a variety of negative experiences described above.
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
The Rise of Neo-Nationalist Narratives
Although the majority of interviewees have a shared experience of class dislocation,
there is no connection between individual fates and the problems affecting society on a
systemic level. This lack of group identity is prevalent even among interviewees who
were members of some non-governmental organisation, party or trade union. There is no
intermediary collective identity covering the level between the totality of the nation and the
The lack of shared identity is most apparent from the answers given to questions on the
working class (theme politics, topic working class). The majority of interviewees knows
precisely what the working class is, but thinks that as a class with a collective identity, it
ceased to exist: ‘There is a working class, as I am part of it. However, we do not call it the
working class. We do not call it like that’ (Skilled manual worker, Duna Steel Works,
Dunaújváros). Many interviewees also connected the weakness of the working class to
the fault of the trade unions:
A long time ago, the trade union, the working class was more powerful. There was stronger
cooperation, and they could enforce things. With strikes, and everything. Now there is no
cooperation. This is the problem. Everybody is occupied with their little problems. Because people
are afraid of losing their jobs. (Skilled manual worker, Ajka, Alumina Factory)
A final important factor behind the weakness of the working class according to several
interviewees is the unwillingness of the Hungarian Socialist Party to represent workers
(theme politics, topic Socialists). Some approached this from the organisational
Practically there is no force that would hold workers together. For instance, within the Hungarian
Socialist Party, when I look at Salgótarján, I don’t know, I will tell you a number, the organisation has
150 members, and there are about 10 workers in it, I don’t know. And even those, they are rather
pensioners, so they only used to be workers. Those who are still working, they are not there. (One-time
government middle manager, Salgótarján)
The majority of interviewees does not have such an insight into politics. However, they
still connect MSZP to the ill-fate of the working class. There are two groups of those
disappointed in the left. One group encompasses left-wing voters who are in apathy. The
other group consists of workers who do not vote for the left anymore; they either turned to
Fidesz or do not vote at all. They frequently express their view that the left is not left; it
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
does not represent the workers: ‘You heard it well; there is no left. No left. The left says it
represents traditional values, workers, the interests of ordinary people via democracy, so
there is no left in Hungary’ (Skilled manual worker, Ajka, Coal Mine). Interviewees not
only blame the Hungarian Socialist Party for abandoning the working class but also for
their shady dealings during privatisation and their firm embeddedness in the economic
I voted for the, what’s their name, Socialists, because I thought as a worker, from birth and on a social
level, erm, I am left-wing, and they were a so-called workers’ party. I went and voted for them. When I
saw, and not mentioning, I got this book, about the oil mafia. These so-called socialists got into power,
with what, erm, sort of money, well, I, from then. . . Moreover, most of all, in this town, which they
destroyed, and what I experienced myself, personally. So, I turned away from them. And I didn’t find
anybody else to vote for. . . . So, this was the first time I voted for Orbán. For Fidesz, not for
Orbán, for Fidesz. (Skilled manual worker, Dunaújváros, Steel Works)
The significance of ‘stealing’ company holiday homes and community houses is more
significant than we would first think:
The Alumina Factory had a small wooden house. We worked a lot on it. The factory also had a trade
union holiday home in Balatonvilágos that workers also helped to keep in shape. And then it was sold,
and we were kicked out. What we built up, they destroyed. (Skilled manual worker, Ajka Alumina
Factory, Ajka)
Interviewees mostly blamed MDF and MSZP for the failure of the transition. Fidesz
formed a government for the first time in 1998, and many believed they had been left out
from the accumulation of assets in the early years of the market transition. Therefore,
many regarded Fidesz as a power that may be able to correct the failed transition.
In contrast to class, the nation frequently figures at the centre of a shared narrative
identity. The nation acts as the prime subject of the traumas and the grievances and as a
public narrative framework of a shared story about the transition, which relates the
individual to the totality of the nation:
I am saying to you if one can do that to a nation what they did in the past 20 years, it is not a nation
anymore. When people are in such an impossible situation and praise those who made their situation
impossible like sheep, this is not a nation anymore. (Skilled manual worker, Salgótarján)
The term nation evokes the ideas of integration, pride and solidarity. Several
interviewees regard the nation as a large community suitable to overcome everyday
divisions and animosity, to counterbalance the decline of communities and the lack of
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
solidarity. For people feeling left behind, it also provides a sense of belonging. The
concepts of the nation, the state and redistribution often mingle; that is, interviewees regard
the nation as institutionalised solidarity:
The nation is a special group of people with a shared goal and shared understanding in their souls,
with love imprinted at its core. And loving means caring for the other. . . . The nation is like a giant
chain. Every link in the chain has to be strong, and then even the weakest link is strong. This is what a
nation is. (Former bank clerk, now social worker, Szerencs, Day nursery)
The nation is not an abstract cultural concept. It is about the economic security,
cooperation and solidarity of those living within the borders of the nation-state. The
purpose of the nation as a community is to protect and promote the material interests of its
members. This type of nationalism with material overtones resonates even with ex-MSZP
voters, especially those living in deindustrialised areas with a perception of being left
Well, at that time, I voted for MSZP. In 2008 and 2010 also, even until ’1213, I voted for them. But . . .
in 2014, I voted for Fidesz, yes, in ’14 I did. . . Orbán is right; we should not let people in from other
countries. No matter what their religion is, or other, because what can we hear, what do they do? They
steal even from each other. Initially, when they came, it was not so bad.
. . . They say we should let in some, who could find meaningful jobs. But what jobs? There are no jobs
for them here. Everything was destroyed here. (Unskilled manual worker, Miskolc Bus Factory,
Defending the nation as the guarantor of the implicit social contract, as a way to
restore solidarity towards each other, is related to workers’ increased competition for
scarce assets available within the borders of the country only:
The concept of the nation? Our Prime Minister Orbán says power is in the nation, in unity. The nation is
about solidarity; our strength lies in our unity as a nation. It’s about dealing with our own problems
first, not with the world’s. First, improve our lives, and then deal with others. I have the same opinion.
We should unite. People should keep together more. We are alienated. Nobody knows in the block of
flats who is their neighbour. There is no contact. We are afraid of each other. (Miner, Ajka, Coal Mine)
Some interviewees not only see migrants as a threat to the nation but domestic minorities
as well. That is, this type of nationalism is not universalist; it is tightly connected to a
workfarist, welfare-chauvinist definition of a ‘good’ member of the nation:
Well, those who did not want to find work, because their unemployment benefit was too high, almost
70 per cent of them became alcoholic. And to tell the truth, I do not feel sympathetic [towards them],
to tell the truth, I was also unemployed for a month, but I didn’t drink, I sought work. There were people
who did not want to work. (Skilled manual worker, Ajka, Alumina Factory)
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
As channels of mobility are blocked, the easiest way for workers to maintain their
dignity is by distancing themselves from those below. This allows interviewees to represent
themselves as ‘good’ members of the nation worthy of appraisal. Workers also very often
criticise the corrupt elites formed during the transition, especially connected to the Socialist
Party; as well as liberal intellectuals who only talk about rights without any meaningful
assurance of actually being able to practise those rights.
Concluding Discussion
This article presented the results of a computer-assisted qualitative thematic analysis of
82 interviews in four mid-sized towns in the Hungarian rustbelt. Extending Polanyi’s
theory of commodification and the countermovement, the study followed a geographically
and culturally sensitive class concept and relied on Barrington Moore’s (1978) notion
of the implicit social contract to capture the complex entanglement of economy, culture
and changing narrative identity. The results show that socialism institutionalised an
implicit social contract comprising morals regarding authority, the division of labour and
the distribution of goods and services. This moral framework embedded workers’
everyday experience of class dislocation during the transition from socialism to
Confirming existing research (Bartha, 2011b), the article showed that in the early
1990s, the majority of the interviewed workers accepted capitalism and expected their
living standards to improve with the arrival of transnational corporations. However, the
majority of the interviewees experienced commodification as a violation of the implicit
social contract, including the relatively well off. Individual-level perceptions are entangled
in the changing economic geography of particular locations, cross-cutting general
perceptions of injustice in the context of geographically uneven development (Hall and
Savage, 2016; Smith, 2010).
The liquidation of socialist companies hastened the dissolution of local communities,
local cultural and sports life and eroded workers’ place-based identities. The long-lasting
shock of the ‘half-life of deindustrialisation’ was strongly felt in the four towns even long
after plants were shut down. This echoes workers’ experiences in deindustrialised towns in
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
the West, where research has found a similar long-lasting degradation (Strangleman,
2018). The results are also in accordance with the research that has shown that the
expansion of the private sector has led to a rise in income inequality (Bandelj and
Mahutga, 2010; Mahutga and Jorgenson, 2016) as well as mortality inequality (Scheiring
et al., 2018).
The interviews also revealed that workers’ sense of control waned. This is in accordance
with the results of large-sample surveys carried out in the first years of the transition (Simon,
1993: 232–234). This sense of powerlessness is also similar to the experience of workers in
Western Europe and the USA: for example, as the slogan ‘taking back control’ during the
Brexit campaign shows. The combination of the multiscalar perceptions of injustice, the
feeling of being left behind and powerlessness fuelled workers desperation and overall
disappointment with the transition from socialism to capitalism in the second half of the
2000s (Pew Research Centre, 2009).
Several interviewees saw the working class as the victim of the transition, abandoned by
the Socialist Party and trade unions. The collapse of companies and the concomitant
erosion of place-based identities and company communities further contributed to the
disintegration of the working class and the decline of the sense of control. As the Socialist
Party was perceived to be deeply involved in implementing the commodifying reforms,
trade unions were weak, and the symbolism of the class language lost its power, workers’
shared experience of class dislocation did not lead to the development of a shared
classbased narrative about the transition.
The nation became the collective narrative identity that not only provided a sense of
community and belonging for those feeling left behind but also gave workers a language to
tell their stories about the transition in the first-person plural. The nation as a moral
community involves rules about the distribution of power, assets, status and rewards, and
thus has the potential to act as a discursive container to hold the elements of the implicit
social contract. Therefore, the nation as a signifier has moral overtones that allow it to
function as an outlet for the experience of class dislocation. Qualitative research among
white Londoners has shown that English nationalism is also associated with a sense of
cooperation and community (Leddy-Owen, 2014). Nationalism is a powerful tool to create
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
a perception of commonality of interests and bridge working-class subcultures in
different regions, acting as a robust master frame.
Despite the associations between nationalism and solidarity, the interviews revealed a
two-pronged exclusion as proposed by the theory of neo-nationalism (Gingrich and
Banks, 2006). First, different types of elites appear to threaten the nation as a solidarity
community from above, such as transnational capital, liberal elites and corrupt
politicians. Workers also assessed national and international capital differently. This
moral double standard might explain why workers can empathise with the revolt of the
national capital against transnational capital, even if it involves the redistribution of
resources to the top at the expense of workers (Scheiring, 2019). The post-2010 alliance of
transnational and national capital and nationalist politicians can exploit these
ambivalences of working-class neo-nationalism.
This study showed that some workers grew increasingly hostile also towards the
unemployed, migrants or various minorities. Leddy-Owen (2014) also found that
distinctions along ‘race’ and class go against the more inclusive aspects of white English
nationalism. Thomas et al. (2017) found a similar tension between inclusion and exclusion
in white working-class communities in a small English town. However, as Flemmen and
Savage (2017) also pointed out using survey data, the nationalism of the ‘disenfranchised’
is anti-establishment nationalism, which is not strongly racist. The interviews presented
in this study also show that anti-elite sentiments and the experience of downward mobility
are intertwined with the cultural distinctions that workers are making. The distinction
between worthy and unworthy workers is a tool to achieve recognition.
Fidesz also had a constitutive role in creating a new hegemonic alliance between
national and transnational capital and the state, exploiting workers’ disillusionment
(Scheiring, 2018). Szombati (2018) highlighted that the competition between Jobbik and
Fidesz profoundly contributed to the mainstreaming of avant-garde fringe-nationalism
into a hegemonic culture in Hungarian villages. The migration crisis that hit the country in
2015 also provided an opportunity for Fidesz to connect global economic and migratory
turbulences (Bocskor, 2018; Fabry, 2019). Workfare and pronatalist family policies also
serve to entrench the moral hierarchies between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ citizens,
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
undermining the emergence of a broad social coalition among the victims of Orbán’s
authoritarian capitalism (Scheiring and Szombati, Forthcoming 2020). Finally, the
favourable economic environment also contributed to the legitimacy of the new
hegemonic alliance. However, the interviews presented in this study have shown that the
neo-nationalism is an ‘emplotted narrative’ (Somers, 1994: 614) built on the lived
experience of the working class as the implicit social contract was violated during the
transition from socialism to capitalism. Neo-nationalism is not just constructed from above
by demagogue politicians but is rooted in workers’ lived experience of class dislocation.
Kalb’s (2009) fieldwork among Polish workers uncovered similar factors behind
working-class neo-nationalism, including the stress on community decline, outmigration,
criminal privatisations, the perception of powerlessness and the betrayal by formerly
trusted elites. Gökarıksel (2017) and Ost (2006) described the same process focusing on
the increasing gap between trade union organisers and increasingly anti-labour liberal
politicians. Shields (2014) also showed that neoliberal policies in Poland contributed to
working-class populism and the rise of the illiberal right. These processes allowed for the
upscaling of illiberalism and a shared East-Central European project against the liberal
status quo (Kalb, 2018). A new strand of qualitative research in the wake of the Trump and
Brexit shocks also showed that working-class populism in the USA and UK is connected to
rising social and regional polarisation, the sense of being left behind as new regional
economic centres emerge (Hochschild, 2018; McQuarrie, 2017).
At the intersection of global processes and local political-cultural path dependencies,
local instances of the neo-nationalist countermovement take various forms. However,
reading these works together, it becomes evident that Western and Eastern European
neo-nationalist populisms share similar roots related to the lived experience of class in the
context of globalisation. As most Eastern European states went further in adapting avant-
garde neoliberalism (Appel and Orenstein, 2018), they are now the avant-garde of the neo-
nationalist countermovement, but the roots are similar. Sadly, this makes the article
relevant in many countries across the globe.
Scheiring (2020) Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt
I am grateful to the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) for their financial support that I
received as a Political Economy Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of
Cambridge. The European Research Council’s funding for the Privatisation and Mortality research
project contributed to the costs of the fieldwork. The Reagan-Fascell Democracy Research Fellowship of
the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) allowed me to spend half a year in Washington, DC,
which proved to be an invaluable opportunity to discuss the rise of authoritarian nationalism with other
experts and refine the theoretical framework. I would like to thank Milán Falta, Ágnes Fernengel, Péter
Harsányi, Eszter Mátyás, Eszter Turai and Boglárka Vincze for their superb research assistance. I
would like to thank all interviewees who spoke to us. I am also indebted to numerous colleagues at
Cambridge and beyond who provided much appreciated critical feedback at various stages of my
The project received funding from the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) and
European Research Council (Grant number 269036).
Supplemental material
Supplemental material for this article is available online.
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This chapter provides a historical introduction to the main factors that influenced housing and housing-related contention dynamics in Budapest and Bucharest, from the two cities’ modernization booms through their socialist and postsocialist periods, focusing on the role of urban development in the two countries’ world-economic integration, and the changing position of housing policy across different political regimes. We show that in both cases, structural characteristics following from the two capital cities’ relatively similar world-economic position constituted long-term conditions that informed housing-related tensions, housing policies and housing contention across presocialist, socialist and postsocialist periods. Besides such structural similarities, the chapter also highlights how national political regimes’ different reactions to the same world-economic pressures resulted in different economic and housing policies on the ground, as well as different political environments for housing struggles.
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This article presents and empirically substantiates a theoretical account explaining the making and stabilisation of illiberal hegemony in Hungary. It combines a Polanyian institutionalist framework with a neo-Gramscian analysis of right-wing hegemonic strategy and a relational class analysis inspired by the political economy tradition in anthropology. The article identifies the social actors behind the illiberal transformation, showing how 'neoliberal disembedding' fuelled the rightward shift of constituencies who had erstwhile been brought into the fold of liberal hegemony: blue-collar workers, post-peasants and sections of domestic capital. Finally, the article describes the emergence of a new regime of accumulation and Fidesz's strategy of 'authoritarian re-embedding', which relies on 'institutional authoritarianism' and 'authoritarian populism'. This two-pronged approach has so far allowed the ruling party to stabilise illiberal hegemony, even in the face of reforms that have generated discontents and exacerbated social inequality.
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Democracy is in crisis around the globe. Hungary was long heralded as a champion of political and economic liberalization in postsocialist Eastern Europe. However, the country recently emerged as a striking example of the current wave of autocratization. Starting from the premise that political regimes are the results of class compromises, in this paper, I argue that Hungary’s authoritarian turn is in part rooted in the reconfiguration of the dominant power bloc and the concomitant change in the state’s strategy. The aim of this article is twofold. Firstly, I analyze the socio-economic roots of Hungary’s authoritarian turn and propose a new, theoretically driven causal narrative challenging and extending existing accounts. Relying on macro-statistics and a new dataset on the economic elite, I describe how the collapse of the class compromise that sustained the post-socialist liberal competition state engendered the revolt of the national bourgeoisie and the rise of the new authoritarian regime of accumulation. Secondly, I offer a new conceptualization regarding the political-economic nature of the new regime: the accumulative state. I empirically identify the political instruments through which the accumulative state props up capital accumulation and the ensuing social conflicts. Instead of portraying Hungary as a divergence from liberal capitalist norms based on a textbook view of markets, I situate authoritarian politics in the logic of capital accumulation. However, I stress that the post-2010 accumulative state serves only short-term capital accumulation and fails to enact long-term structural transformation.
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Far‐right parties gain in electoral support across the globe. Studies describe this phenomenon either as a cultural backlash or as a reaction to growing economic inequality. The economic inequality perspective suggests that the transforming workforce in post‐industrial societies gives rise to economic insecurity among those who feel left behind. In contrast, the cultural backlash thesis argues that the increasing support for far‐right parties represents a rejection of values such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. More recent scholarship sought to show how economic and cultural factors combined increase the support for the far right. Most of these studies investigate public opinion polls, voting behaviour, and voters´ socio‐economic contexts. This paper reviews these studies and argues that the way in which far‐right political parties construct an interconnection of economic and cultural ideas in discourse is largely neglected in the existing body of literature. The paper concludes that the concept of economic nationalism captures how these two components are intertwined; economic nationalist discourse in far‐right political manifestos and speeches provides a more complete comprehension how public opinion is being shaped. This contribution offers a starting point for future studies to examine how cultural values, such as nationalism, reconstruct and influence articulation of economic policy.
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While the spread of neoliberal ideas through networks has attracted much attention worldwide, the ideational content of the recent counter-waves to liberal democracy has still received relatively little consideration. This article focuses on the ideational dimension behind the current illiberal backlash in Central and Eastern Europe. We ask how political conceptions critical of the Western liberal paradigm came about and what their main components are in Hungary, a country which is often seen as the avant-garde of the ‘illiberal backsliding’ in the region. The article shows that political illiberalism in Eastern Europe has intellectual underpinnings forged in conservative intellectual networks that have grown disillusioned with liberal democracy and neoliberalism long before the current illiberal political wave. Combining the reception of Western critiques of liberalism with a critique of post-communist liberals’ perceived lack of willingness to break with the communist past, these intellectuals have slowly but continuously extended their networks and influence since the 1990s. Our analysis suggests that the contestation of liberalism is not reducible to political parties and instead should be approached as a broader phenomenon.
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This paper considers the contemporary significance of white racism and its association with nationalist sentiment amongst a cohort late middle aged white Britons, using survey responses and qualitative interviews from the 1958 National Child Development Study. We have shown that although overt racism is very limited, a substantial minority of white Britons display ambivalent feelings which have the potential to be mobilised in racist directions. We argue against the view that disadvantaged white working class respondents are especially xenophobic, and show that racist views are not strongly associated with social position. In exploring the clustering of different nationalist and racist sentiments amongst economic and cultural elites, and comparing these with 'disenfranchised' respondents with little economic and cultural capital, we show that it is actually the elite who are most likely to articulate 'imperial racism'. By contrast, the 'disenfranchised' articulate a kind of anti-establishment nationalism which is not strongly racist. We also show that the elite are strongly internally divided, with a substantial number of the cultural elite being strongly anti-racist and committed to multi-culturalism, so generating strong internal factionalism between elite positions. Our paper therefore underscores how intensifying inequalities have facilitated the volatility and variability of nationalist and racist sentiment.
This book explores the political economy of Hungary from the mid-1970s to the present. Widely considered a ‘poster boy’ of neoliberal transformation in post-communist Eastern Europe until the mid-2000s, Hungary has in recent years developed into a model ‘illiberal’ regime. Constitutional checks-and-balances are non-functioning; the independent media, trade unions, and civil society groups are constantly attacked by the authorities; there is widespread intolerance against minorities and refugees; and the governing FIDESZ party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, controls all public institutions and increasingly large parts of the country’s economy. To make sense of the politico-economical roller coaster that Hungary has experienced in the last four decades, Fabry employs a Marxian political economy approach, emphasising competitive accumulation, class struggle (both between capital and labour, as well as different ‘fractions of capital’), and uneven and combined development. The author analyses the neoliberal transformation of the Hungarian political economy and argues that the drift to authoritarianism under the Orbán regime cannot be explained as a case of Hungarian exceptionalism, but rather represents an outcome of the inherent contradictions of the variety of neoliberalism that emerged in Hungary after 1989.
This article conducts a critical discourse analysis of the Hungarian government’s National Consultation campaign on ‘immigration and terrorism’ in early 2015. The analysis draws on a discourse-historical approach to illuminate how the language and contents of the consultation draw on the discursive and political repertoires of the post-2010 Orbán governments and how, at the same time, they are underpinned by particular elements in the history of migration and diversity in Hungary. The consultation framed immigration as both an economic and security threat and conflated asylum seekers, economic migrants and terrorists, as well as regular and irregular migration. Nevertheless, these discourses would later feed into the government’s response to the large number of asylum seekers who entered the country in the summer of 2015 and would be used to legitimize the actions subsequently taken to tackle what would internationally come to be defined as a ‘crisis’.