My activist self

Born in a working-class family in the deindustrialising Budapest I witnessed as my parents’ physical health collapsed during post-socialist reforms. In addition to researching the human dimensions of postsocialist change, this experience also drove me to activism. Parallel to studying, I was a social activist, contributing to the then-budding global justice movement and the progressive green-left subculture. The first event I organised in 2003 was a conference/festival protesting against the WTO's drive to privatise public services, such as health. We dressed up one of my friends as a puppet of big pharmaceuticals. My interest in privatisation and health dates back to these days.

 

The movement to stop a military radar on a protected mountain in south Hungary (Zengő) in 2005 was instrumental in creating an umbrella coalition of a diverse group of organisations and activists. It was also an important stepping stone towards politicising the green movement in Hungary. Here I am reading Arne Næss, the Norwegian deep ecologist to a group of protesters in the freezing mountain morning. I later also wrote up my experience as my first academic publication.

As a student/activist I found it important to build a progressive green-left subculture so that separate protest events have a shared ideological framing, common elements of a worldview and forms of self-expression. To this end, I invested quite a lot of my energy into creating popular publications and books that can be used for political education. We translated key texts on globalisation, development and green political theory. I also did a lot of policy-related research. You can find more details about my books here.

I never really planned on becoming a professional politician, so when I started my doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge in 2009 I thought that my life is headed towards work in academia. However, half a year later I was elected as an MP to the Hungarian Parliament for the 2010-2014 term. As a member of the Committee for Economic Affairs, I was responsible for economic policy, shadowing the work of the minister of finance, drafting bills and amendments on economic and social policy, and editing budget proposals. 

In addition to policy work, I took an active part in strategic management, national political campaigns, and daily political communication. I also set up the policy research capacities of the party and its political foundation and managed the economic policy cabinet consisting of five MPs, ten policy consultants and the administrative staff. I was quite active in building up the party. However, ideological and strategic differences led to a split. 

Throughout my years as an activist and my term as an MP, I mostly focused on questions related to social and economic policy and environmental justice. I loved policy-related work, but we had to realise that we need to experiment with new forms of advocacy to achieve change. For example, we organised a sit-in protesting against the criminalisation of homelessness. 

We were enthusiastic as fresh MPs, but none of us expected Orbán's frontal attack on basic democratic rights and institutions. The efficiency of the classic tools of an opposition MP (speeches, proposals, amendments, etc) in a fledging hybrid authoritarian regime is limited. Even though we prepared detailed alternative budget proposals each year, the government never took into consideration any of our amendments. In reaction to the monolithic wall separating opposition MPs from the policy process, one day we hired a bulldozer to deliver our budget proposal.  

Among many other disputed bills, at the end of 2011, the parliament passed an electoral law, which changed the electoral system in favour of Fidesz, making it harder to get rid of them. As the bill was hurried through the legislature, we decided to chain ourselves to the Parliament, protesting against democratic backsliding. This action just a day before Christmas led to a series of bigger demonstrations throughout Budapest in the following weeks.

Eventually, the police came and detained us, but from that day on it became evident that Hungary's democracy is under attack. Today, there is not much left from the institutions of a functioning democracy. In my research project on the political economy of illiberalism, I am trying to make sense of this authoritarian turn.

Creating a group of loyal capitalists and redistributing wealth towards the national bourgeoisie has been central to the politics of Fidesz since 2010. After the chain demonstration at the parliament, in 2012 we protested at the HQ of a company called Közgép, owned by the then most influential oligarch, Lajos Simicska. The police detained us again, protecting high-profile corruption.

As a student/activist I took part in organising all kinds of public education events. I particularly enjoyed organising summer academies. I also regularly attended global demonstrations, and the European and World Social Forums. We were also actively inviting critical thinkers from around the globe to our events. This is a picture from one of the last events I contributed to as an organiser in Hungary in 2016 with Yanis Varoufakis, Timea Szabo, the co-chair of Dialogue for Hungary Party, and MEP Benedek Javor.

I spent more than ten years doing activism and professional politics. I developed skills in communication, project management and strategic planning that I still utilise regularly. When my term ended in 2014, I decided to go back to Cambridge, and focus solely on academic work. Although I am a researcher, politics still catches up with me from time to time. Here we were protesting in Cambridge against the Hungarian government's campaign against academic freedom, specifically aimed at banning Central European University from Budapest.

Travelling throughout the country and spending countless hours at markets and in bars talking with people, I learnt things about the lived experience of economic change that no textbook can teach. This experience in activism and politics profoundly shaped my vision as a social scientist. I no longer protest inside the parliament. But I continue to focus on improving the life chances for working-class and marginalised communities, advancing democracy and health for all.

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© Created by Noemi Scheiring-Olah.