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‘To be free is not to be myself’

Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklos Tamás talks to the spiked review of books about how humanity lost the skill of abstract thinking and became mired in identity.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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‘Start not with the good old days, but with the bad new ones.’

After spending a few hours in the company of Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklos Tamás, rarely has Bertolt Brecht’s corrective to nostalgia seemed so apt. Tamás’s resolve to ferret out all that is retrograde about the present situation in the West is unstinting. ‘This is no passing malaise’, he tells me, cigarette smoke wafting upwards, ‘it’s a crisis’. And he’s not just talking about the global economy either; he’s also talking about a crisis of political culture. ‘We don’t seem to have the wherewithal to find the solutions’, he continues. ‘We are not equipped conceptually, emotionally and culturally.’

Tamás has not always been so disillusioned with the politics and culture of the West. As a dissident intellectual in Communist Hungary during the 1980s, fresh from being blacklisted in his native Romania in 1978, Tamás actively fought for a bright, liberal democratic, not to mention capitalist future. In 1989 and 1990 he even served in the newly constituted Hungarian parliament as a Liberal Party MP. Now, though, his judgement is severe: ‘The peaceful revolutions of 1989 have been absolutely defeated and their result is a total failure.’

It didn’t take long, according to Tamás, for the hopes of freedom and affluence to ebb. ‘People wanted participatory democracy and got a pretty rigid party system. And they wanted prosperity and got economic collapse. Within 18 months of democracy almost half of Hungarian jobs had been lost – a black hole exists in the place of the former economy.’

Hungary today is far from the dream of Western liberals. Properly speaking, it’s closer to their nightmares. The right-wing Fidesz party comfortably won the general election in April last year, and Jobbik, a fervently nationalist, far-right party, gained over 12 per cent of available parliamentary seats. Now Tamás himself has his own painful experience of the new political climate: in November, he was ‘retired’ from his position at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by its recently installed head, allegedly at the government’s behest. Officially it’s because he lacks the right credentials; unofficially it’s because Tamás, a regular fixture in Hungarian media, is a little too mouthy.

Yet anyone expecting Tamás, now a self-proclaimed Marxist, to be spitting anti-fascist blood will be disappointed. Instead, he is prepared to take seriously the discontent of which the right has taken electoral advantage. Yes, Hungarian society is riven by a ‘never seen before inequality’, but alongside that there is a ‘feeling that we are not free… a general sense of being dominated by foreigners’. By this, he means ‘an obscure, incomprehensible, semi-invisible network of financial and political influence, such as the World Trade Organisation, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund’. And Tamás’s response to this widespread resentment of unelected, external, opaque authority? ‘In my humble opinion, in this people are right.’

This is not to say Tamás shares the nationalistic outlook of his right-wing foes. Rather, it is to suggest that he understands the source of the right’s current success: people’s feelings of powerless within a society in thrall to such undemocratic powers as the EU, the IMF and the WTO.

Tamás’s preparedness to look the bad new days in the eye is not limited to Hungary, of course. As he sees it, the political culture of the West is in crisis, too. In this regard, he finds the social response to our economic travails telling: ‘People don’t say anymore, as they did before the Second World War, or even during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, “Okay, things are bad, let’s change the system”. Instead, people turn to the state and say: “Why don’t you do something about it?”’ We have a situation, he explains, where relatively isolated interest groups make passionate but particular demands of the state – don’t cut our funding, cut something else, and so on. This contest between different groups for ‘ever-dwindling resources’ is divisive, he says.

Tamás illustrates his point about society’s increasing ‘acceptance of divisions’ with reference to the current situation of the elderly in the West. ‘In developed countries you have murderous feelings against the old. Pensioners are being regarded as parasites. In Eastern Europe, there are now lots of new slang words against pensioners. This is worrying – historically, societies always had respect for the old. But this has gone and there’s now a very strong generational pull in politics.’ It’s not just Eastern Europe where pejoratives for the old have proliferated, as anyone familiar with terms like ‘coffin dodger’ can attest. However, it is in the perfectly acceptable mainstream debate about the so-called pensions crisis where the old are regarded almost solely in economic terms, as ‘a drain on resources’, that these ‘murderous feelings against the old’ are most apparent.

Such divisive special pleading to the state has flourished, argues Tamás, because of the collapse of something like the social-democratic consensus. ‘These divisions’, he tells me, ‘have at least always been papered over by social democracy. And I include the Communist parties of France and Italy in that – portraits of Stalin on the wall but social-democratic policies. This has been a social-democratic half-century. Nixon, de Gaulle, Lyndon Johnson never attacked redistribution – they were social-democratic in their social policies… though not in others, of course. That’s why the mild anti-statist rhetoric of Thatcher’s Tories, for example, was regarded as heretical. For at least 40 years after the Second World War, there was an alliance between different social groups because they had something in common… That has gone.’

It’s not that Tamás is yearning for the social-democratic past, nor indeed his own Eastern Bloc Communist past. ‘I grew up in a society that was pretty awful – those were very conformist times’, he says. ‘There is nothing to be tearful about.’ Still, what he is keen to get at is what we have lost ‘conceptually, emotionally and culturally’. And this, if I understand Tamás correctly, can be summed up in one sentence: we are losing the habit of abstraction.

That is, we are losing the ability to abstract from the concrete particularity of experience, and to conceive of what is universal. That, after all, is the key to abstraction: to penetrate the appearance of things and conceptualise what is essential. The desire to make this theoretical effort, to get at what mediates our diverse realities, just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.

Tamás allows himself recourse to the good old days. ‘If you read the continental popular papers [of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century] now, you’d find them sophisticated and serious. They may make boring reading today because they’re very circumstantial and lengthy. But nevertheless, they expected patience and concentration. And this was made possible because people were like that then. It’s not simply a matter of cultural decadence that attention spans are so short these days. People then used to be forced to enlarge their attention span, by school, by the workplace, by the army – endurance [that was] both intellectual and physical.’

Then, people actively wanted to think abstractly, says Tamás. There was a popular ‘capability, inclination and willingness’. People recognised that ‘understanding one’s own situation does not go without saying. It was something that needed thinking about. For example, for someone to recognise him or herself as a member of a social class is not obvious. A cobbler working in a small town was very different to someone working in a colliery in another country. [But through abstraction] people could go beyond their primary identities and refashion them on the basis of what they thought was more real. And this is how traditional ethnic and gender boundaries were dissolved for a while – not just because of social changes, but also because of people’s conscious effort to raise themselves above those immediate identities.’

Various political institutions arose on the basis of this everyday abstraction: trade unions, political parties. Often (though not always) such institutions rose above immediate, particular realities of place and birth, in an effort to grasp what unites people, what interests and values people ought to share. These formal structures, political parties, trades union, even the church, predisposed people to think abstractly; and so today, their withering negatively impacts on that predisposition. Tamás points out that there was has been a great intellectual assault on the very idea of abstraction, treating it as a kind of metaphysical illusion: ‘Postmodernism was a fashionable expression of this rejection of universalism and abstraction. So although much of postmodernism is uninteresting intellectually, it is important as a symptom of a society in which people are very, very reluctant to make an abstraction from their own condition.’

It is little wonder that particularism has thrived over the 20 or so years. Its most potent form is of course multiculturalism. And while this ideology – and its near synonyms ‘pluralism’ and ‘diversity’ – is perhaps not as unquestionable as it was a few years ago, its basis remains socially entrenched. That is, one is encouraged to think of oneself almost entirely in terms of one’s cultural, ethnic background. To suggest otherwise is to court offence. Or as Tamás describes the prohibition: ‘You should not interfere with communities’ habits because the abstract criticism of habits and traditions is intrinsically racist and so on.’ Although Tamás finds the actual multicultural arguments tedious, what is important for him is that ‘both left and right are resisting universalism’.

The effect of this anti-universalist, cultural identity-focused particularism has been deleterious on any kind of politics that aims to transform society. Take the notion of freedom, for example. It has been reduced to that reality-TV, personality-politics mantra of being oneself. ‘“I should be allowed to be myself” What has this to with freedom?’ asks Tamás rhetorically, before shifting tack. ‘What is the Christian idea of freedom? Conversion. Change. To be free is not to be myself. On the contrary, it is to be as little of myself as possible. The same idea permeates the Enlightenment. It is to learn.’

‘[Contemporary] identities – they are fetishes; they are irrational’, says Tamás. He tells me that the idea that ‘people are bound to behave in a certain way because their parents had been Muslims or puritan Methodists or came from an old Communist family’ is nonsensical. ‘[It] should actually be counterbalanced by the rational effort by which anybody can learn multiplication. Show me that tribal person from the rainforest in Papua New Guinea who wouldn’t be swayed by the argument in Plato’s Meno and who couldn’t be taught the multiplication table. It’s absurd, stupid, idiocy. But we live as though this were true.’

In response to what he sees as a prevailing counter-Enlightenment sentiment, where passion is elevated above reason, cultural identity above the aspiration to universality, Tamás makes a simple plea for the social necessity of philosophy. This is not to be understood in the professional academic sense, but as something more expansive: ‘to encourage people to think in stringent conceptual terms about their lives.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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