(time-capsule notes) András Schiffer leaves – politics can be dirty?
András Schiffer has been a controversial figure. He was first subject to “Two Minutes Hate” sessions by left bloc media in 2006/2007 when he – as a Jewish, progressive intellectual – openly opposed the then Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány and the police brutalities of 2006. By the way, as you can guess, the topic of the police brutalities in October 2006 is also a hot political controversy – some still say it never happened, some say the retaliation was just – however, it might be enough for anyone just to consider whether or not police brutalities could be justified at all.
In Hungary, basically anybody will vehemently agree that Schiffer is a contraversial figure, yet the quality of the discussions – if any – is always very poor. Arguments will consist of statements like “he likes Orban”, “he secretly supports Orban”, etc., and these phrases are not just dumb but equally obtrusive, too, they'll explode any sensible conversation – and that's how controversies are born. This is the power of the media at work, deploying land-mines in the field of public discussions, making it impossible to talk about certain issues (think of climate change for one).
This Orwellian power could be perhaps best illustrated by what happens when you mention such a “small time” incident in Hungarian politics like the privatization attempt of the health insurance fund was in 2007-2008. People simply won't know, or will only vaguely “remember something”, but what you'll most frequently get is one second of silence as your question is being ignored.
the changes of 2008
This privatization attempt, as you can imagine, was really a huge issue. There was even a referendum about it – two referendums, to be exact, the first one being a general one about “paid health care” and “visit fee”, and as this one succeeded, there was no need to hold the second one. When the attempt failed, because of the first referendum, the government coalition broke up, and Liberal Democrats, the most powerful party around the system change in 1989-1990, disappeared. Also, the career of Ferenc Gyurcsány as a PM was (unofficially) over, and this was still not all. This was the time when the IMF lost something of the neutrality of their image, and when “the crisis” kicked in, neoliberalism became exposed, too.
The ongoing changes (especially in consciousness) were really huge, they clearly marked the end of the era which started out in 1989, and they were just as powerful as those changes in the 80s that demolished the old era of cold war and gave free way to the new, post-communist, post-USSR, post-cold-war era. In short, 2008 was really analogous to 1985 when Gorbachev announced the count-down to an upcoming new era.
Among those threads of the changes in 2008, there was one, called “politics can be different” (lehet más a politika), one of the few new political parties which included the Humanist Party, the leading force against the privatization attempt of the health fund. The title “Lehet Más a Politika” was based on the message of the movement “another world is possible”, this new party was born in the context of these changes. Not only the LMP (poltics can be different) was born then, also a whole new generation of Hungarian media, of which later on, Kettős Mérce (“double standard”) became the most influential – the chief co-founder (or founder) of which, András Jámbor, was also in the press/communication department (?) of LMP, which just illustrates the movement-like quality of that wave of changes: everybody, all of a sudden, started to speak a new language and tried to get involved in the new happening.
MSZP's offer, and the splitting of LMP
When Schiffer really came into to focus of left-bloc media was, however, at no other time but when the LMP was splitting. This was a long ongoing happening, spanning over from November 2011 to spring 2013, but to be faithful to the facts, right when they first made it to the Parliament, in May 2010, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) approached them with their offer: let's do politics together (cause together we are stronger), and from then on, LMP had to keep turning down this offer.
When the splitting happened, media played a key role, again, by creating an information-environment in which “the joining”, “the co-operation” (actually: the unofficial fusion) would appear as the one and only solution. IN this environment, as soon as LMP chiefs started to talk about this “co-operation”, the party's membership became supportive of this idea. There was only one glitch in carrying it out: András Schiffer. He was against it. His position was, basically, that it would have been stupid to join a party, the MSZP, which their own party was built as an alternative to. And indeed, why should, anyway, a new green party, which was coming up, mix up with an old socialist party which got corrupted even at the level of the principles – their politics was only called “socialist”? How could anyone mean it seriously that under one flag with the MSZP the LMP could be more successful at the elections than separately – knowing that the whole charm of the LMP came from the fact that they opposed not only right but the corrupted left, too? Of course, the MSZP could have been more successful having the LMP under their flag (i.e. in their stomach), so, Schiffer was definitely a problem for them. He became public enemy in the left bloc of the media, target of Two Minutes Hate on a daily basis – nevertheless, in any serious conversation people would agree that joining the MSZP would have practically meant a suicide for the LMP.
victory vs. survival in 2014
In 2014, Schiffer's plan worked, the LMP survived – at least technically. He wanted to achieve 5-6 percent, and they made it. He knew that it was possible because of the “secondary preferences”, namely that as the results of the elections were pretty predictable (Fidesz victory), voters would be inclined to vote for their secondary party preferences, and LMP as a GREEN party was a great candidate. This strategy proved to be a success, double fold – LMP made it to the European Parliament, too. Sure, Schiffer took LMP through the eye of a needle, but while doing it, he... “reshaped” it, and what this reshaping actually meant was only to become clear later on, at the “unboxing”.
As for the content of the LMP “box”, no one could know it better than Schiffer what it did – and does – hold. This is part of it what makes his good-bye alerting. I mean, the reason for his leaving the political scene can only be that he knows that LMP can't win anymore, that they can't make it to the parliament one more time. It's that simple. Schiffer is a fighter, a good fighter and a sharp strategist, also an extremely pragmatical one, in the worst sense. He'll fight as long as the project is viable – meaning also “only as long”. That's what his character appears to be, so, basically, that's it for the LMP.
good doctor or bad doctor?
The story, however, doesn't just end here. We have a conclusion to make, we have to decide whether he has been a good doctor or a bad one. Whether he was fighting for the LMP till the very last – the best he could – or he, like doctors at football games, just gave a shot to LMP with which they could stumble through the line of victory in 2014, half live or half dead. Personally, I find this latter version to be the case, and I'd argue that he made no efforts to revitalize the party as a community neither after the break-up, nor after the 2014 victory. That is, he never bothered to resume collective thinking – the discourse – in the party, but instead he apparently enjoyed that he could direct it more effectively, with much less resistance. Some people will even refer to his methods as “mushroom management”. But anyway, in car terminology, he took the vehicle totally under his control, he was owning it.
dead on arrival
He could be called a good doctor if the “package” hadn't been dead on arrival – but the case was not that. He really believed that LMP would be able to replace MSZP on the long run, that is, he trusted Hungarian society, that people would be able to tell a good party from a corrupted one. He was very probably right about that, but he was obviously mistaken assuming that it was the society that mattered, and not the media.
He was wrong in thinking that the media were just doing their business and political parties could just use them. Wrong. His former LMP-comrade (before the splitting), András Jámbor could have explained it to him that the media (as an entity) is the medium of the powers that be, and politicians and parties are only like wind-surfers, they can only go in the direction that media wants them to go. So, for a politician or a political party, the first thing to do when they want to start their independent movement is to set up an independent alternative medium, one at least. Without an influential medium on their own, they are but actors on a stage with strings attached.
When LMP was splitting, their comrade-medium, Kettős Mérce went to the fusionists, the co-operatists, the “togetherists”, and that was it. Although the remaining LMP had big budgets for media activities, including maintaining a paper periodical, and the launching of a new website (which was a bomb), they never reached anywhere near the level of their old state when András Jámbor was running an influential blog that represented the LMP “aspect” (as an unofficial LMP-ally medium).
Without their links to public opinion and the public discourse, LMP didn't stand a chance, and it was only a matter of time when their ship would go down – and I believe this was one of the rare things which András Schiffer was not aware of. Tragically enough, while fighting for LMP's victory, Schiffer was not fighting for their survival, too, he went for the short term goal only and ignored the long term sustainability. As he became more and more isolated in his party – of which the splitting was probably the first phase – he was using more and more of those techniques and methods that traditional politicians would use. That is, he started to play their game which was per se contradictory to the motto “politics can be different”, and eventually, he was completing the deadly process that started out at the splitting.
is it a failure?
The most common approach to Schiffer's step down is taking it as a failure, with or without grace. I personally think it's more important to decide whether he was a good doctor or a bad one. However, this approach about the failure is relevant, extremely so. It's just not exactly how the media puts it, it's not about András Schiffer's failure, not even about LMP's failure, but about the failure of the changes that started out in 2008 opposing modernism (including post-modern), neoliberalism, global capitalism, etc., declaring a new attitude, a new paradigm and a new approach. It is this wave of changes that has failed.
MSZP is still the leading force of the left bloc. Gyurcsány has a new party of his own which was one of MSZP's allies at the 2014 elections (along with ex-SZDSZ Gábor Fodor's Liberal Party). Who would have thought, back in 1989, that after the end of post-modern post-post-modern would come, and at the end of the day nothing would have been changed, and all that Hungarian society would ever gain would be the realization that politics can be extremely dirty, and extremely hopeless? The show really is going on as if nothing has happened in between 2008 and 2016, and this is really a failure. Big time.