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  • Writer's picturegaborscheiring

Book out: The Retreat of Liberal Democracy

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

My book, The retreat of liberal democracy: Authoritarian capitalism and the accumulative state in Hungary, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.



Key contributions of the book:

  • Describes how Hungary’s international economic integration led to an internal socio-economic disintegration, the rise of working-class neo-nationalism, and the revolt of the national bourgeoisie

  • Offers a new conceptualization regarding the political-economic nature and stability of the post-2010 Hungarian regime

  • Presents the results of three years of robust mixed-method empirical research

Further details, full summary, and the reviews:

If you're a member of a university or library that has subscribed to Springer Link then you can download the book for free and you can also buy a personal copy for €25:

Cite as: Scheiring, G., 2020. The Retreat of Liberal Democracy: Authoritarian Capitalism and the Accumulative State in Hungary. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 

I am very happy to talk with you about the book. If you have any means to spread the word (reviews, podcasts, etc), that would be much appreciated. Contact me for a review copy!



This book is the product of three years of empirical research, four years in politics, and a lifetime in a country experiencing three different regimes. Transcending disciplinary boundaries, it provides a fresh answer to a simple yet profound question: why has liberal democracy retreated?

Scheiring argues that Hungary’s new hybrid authoritarian regime emerged as a political response to the tensions of globalisation. He demonstrates how Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz exploited the rising nationalism among the working-class casualties of deindustrialisation and the national bourgeoisie to consolidate illiberal hegemony.

As the world faces a new wave of autocratisation, Hungary’s lessons become relevant across the globe, and this book represents a significant contribution to understanding challenges to democracy. This work will be useful to students and researchers across political sociology, political science, economics, and social anthropology, as well as democracy advocates.



This book is the product of three years of empirical research, four years in politics and a lifetime in a country experiencing three different political-economic regimes. It brings together empirical political economy, social theory, qualitative sociology and comparative politics with a desire to provide a fresh understanding of Hungary’s past three decades, to answer a simple yet profound question: why has liberal democracy retreated? The reader will encounter the lead actors of the story, as well as the voices of everyday people whose fate the elites decided. The lives of everyday people and the life of democracy are tightly interwoven, but it is the powerful who can act upon structural opportunities to steer history. The chance to stop hybrid authoritarianism and create an inclusive and participatory democracy depends on our understanding of the underlying structures that both prohibit and enable action. As Fernando Cardoso and Enzo Faletto (1979, p. 179) said: ‘The course of history depends largely on the daring of those who propose to act in terms of historically viable goals.’

A person acting in terms of historically viable goals believes in action but at the same time dares to ask uncomfortable questions about structural opportunities and predetermining factors. When I began working on this book, action dominated my life. The first written evidence of my engagement with the topic was a political strategy discussion paper dating back to the end of 2014, a few months before I quit politics. Since then, analysis has taken over the place of action. After a decade of activism and four years of being an MP, I became a researcher at the University of Cambridge. I finished my PhD on the human price of the postsocialist transformation, launched a postdoctoral project on the political economy of democratic backsliding and moved to Milan to take up a job as a research fellow at Bocconi University.

These roles all informed this book, which also marks the end of a transition: the transition from politics to academia. Cardoso and Faletto’s book is a crucial source of inspiration for me. Not only because of its pioneering thesis on dependent development but also because it combines the politician’s passion for agency with the social scientist’s dispassionate act of analysis. Fetishising political action and neglecting the binding power of structures are just as erroneous as overemphasising structural determinism. The main purpose of social sciences is to help us understand the structurally limited, yet historically viable goals that are worth pursuing, such as the right strategy to prevent the retreat of liberal democracy and fight hybrid authoritarianism. This is the primary aim of this book.

However, the most important motivation for writing this book was personal. I will never forget when my father—may he rest in peace—told me, smiling, that despite being happy and proud to see me on television as an MP, he turned the volume down when I spoke because what I said irritated him. When it came to politics, we had only one thing in common: he often declared that he would vote for a decent social democratic party if there were any. As there wasn’t, he was left with the centre-right MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) and then Fidesz (Fidesz— Hungarian Civic Alliance).

As a blue-collar worker, my father had an ambivalent relationship to the ‘actually existing socialism’ and to the new capitalist world. When he was young, his aunt, who had emigrated to Australia, invited him to spend a month in her house in Brisbane, Queensland, hoping he would stay there. He enjoyed the sunshine, of course, but decided to return to his home country. He did not understand why his relatives down under were slaving away for the fourth apartment when they already had three. He felt more at home in the test room of the United Electrical Machinery Factory (EVIG), on the industrial outskirt of Budapest. He missed the camaraderie and solidarity of everyday life. I bet he was also missing my mother—may she rest in peace too—who was working as an industrial crane operator at the same factory when they met.

As a descendant of Austrian farmers, my father nurtured an inherent dose of anti-communism. He was very much looking forward to the regime change, but in a span of only a few years, he got disillusioned. He had to work more and more to maintain the quality of life he had previously been accustomed to. After a few years, he had to pay the consequences of the many hours of overtime: in the spring of 1995, he got a stroke and became semi-paralysed. As a bittersweet turn of events, this saved my mother’s life. She went on sick leave to be able to look after my father, which is how she found out she had cancer. Both of my parents experienced the transition from socialism to capitalism as a perpetual downfall, eventually contributing to their premature deaths.

For a long time, I thought their story, our story, was unique. Now I know that, unfortunately, it is very typical. Although I have met many great people over the last decades for whom the regime change brought not trauma but opportunities, I stand in solidarity with those who got on the wrong train of history in the new capitalist world. Understanding their fate and their political opportunities is the primary source of motivation for my scientific and public activities.

From the first draft to printing the English edition, the book took six years to complete. During such an extended period, the position of the author is bound to evolve, so is the subject of the book. The theoretical framework took shape over the years, as the work progressed. At the same time, others were also working on interpreting the fate of democracy in Hungary; unfortunately, I could only partially follow their work. Finally, the evolution of ‘empirical reality’ presents the most significant challenge. One could always extend a text, at the same time, I had to draw a line and finish the work. All in all, I hope that these changing elements did not undermine the value of the book. My aim was not to get into the daily battles but to enrich the analytical debate in the long run.

The first edition of the book was published in Hungarian in 2019. The English edition is not a direct translation, the two versions differ in several aspects. The Hungarian edition had a separate chapter reviewing the international political economy debate on the postsocialist transition, which was not necessary to include in the English version. The English edition also benefited from the reviews and feedback on the Hungarian edition as well as on the journal articles that are incorporated in revised form into the English version. The wording and argumentation became tighter, especially in the introduction, the theory chapter, the description of the methodology and the concluding chapter, but every chapter changed to a degree. I also dropped some details that were only relevant for the Hungarian audience and updated the data wherever it was possible, so the chapter on the accumulative state covers a longer period in the English edition.

The world is facing a new wave of democratic backsliding. The theories of democratic consolidation and regime change need improvement if we want to understand this illiberal wave. Hungary was long heralded as a champion of political and economic liberalisation in postsocialist Eastern Europe. However, the country recently emerged as a striking example of the current illiberal turn. Why is liberal democracy retreating? Understanding structural opportunities and ‘historically viable goals’ is a prerequisite for competent political agency.

This motived me to construct a new causal narrative on the retreat of liberal democracy in Hungary and to propose a new concept to interpret the political-economic nature of the post-2010 state. Challenging and extending existing interpretations, this book argues that Hungary’s new authoritarian regime emerged as a political response to the tensions of globalisation following the example of other hybrid authoritarian state capitalisms. In addition to theoretically reorienting the scholarship on democratic backsliding in Hungary, the book also represents a methodological innovation, combining quantitative and qualitative approaches in a theory-building process tracing framework, relying on a rich and diverse dataset, which is the result of three years of empirical research.

The primary audience of the book is social scientists and policy experts. However, journalists seeking background on Hungarian politics and autocratisation, as well as politicians, activists and advocates in think tanks, foundations and NGOs working on democracy might also find it relevant. Given the book’s multidisciplinary approach and the author’s experience in politics, the book might hold insights for political scientists working on democratisation and autocratisation, sociologists working on populism and nationalism, economists working on the politics of economic reforms and globalisation, social anthropologists working on the lived experience of economic change, international relations and area studies experts specialising in Eastern Europe.

In fact, my hope is that practitioners will also read the book. If my enquiry into the strategic case of Hungary drove just one nail into the imaginary coffin of hybrid authoritarianism, then my efforts were worth it.

Cambridge–Milan, 2020 Gábor Scheiring


Cardoso, F. H., & Faletto, E. (1979). Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Many people and organisations contributed to the completion of this book. I am grateful to the Hungarian Institute of Political History and the members of the Social Theory Research Group (György Földes, Attila Antal, and Viktor Kiss in particular), which provided an ideal context to develop the early versions of this book. I would like to thank my Hungarian publisher, Napvilág, for their cooperation with Palgrave, and the editors of Palgrave for their thorough editorial work. After I submitted my PhD thesis in 2017, the Political Economy Fellowship of the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) allowed me to continue working on this book affiliated to the Department of Sociology in Cambridge, for which I am immensely grateful. Being a member of ISRF’s network of fellows is a genuinely inspiring experience. I am equally thankful for the six-month Democracy Fellowship of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which allowed me to carry out research and have discussions with leading analysts, democracy activists and the editors of the Journal of Democracy. The research fellowship at Bocconi University as part of the POTES project co-financed by the Cariplo Foundation and the Lombardy Region provided an ideal environment to continue my work on the political economy of illiberal populism and finalise this book.

I am grateful to David Stuckler, a professor at Bocconi University, for his continuing support and encouragement. I have yet to meet someone who is not intimidated by David’s Google Scholar profile. Having a mentor like him is a real privilege. Peter Evans’s encouragement to publish my research on illiberalism and his constructive criticism of my doctoral dissertation was also invaluable. Don Kalb and Chris Hann not only helped to improve the articles that are part of this book but also aided me at various stages of my studies and postdoctoral research. Their approach to economic anthropology had a considerable influence on me. I appreciate the dedication of Erzsébet Szalai, Iván Szelényi and András Bozóki, who read and thoroughly commented on the first version of this book when it was launched. I am immensely grateful to Larry King, who supported me in everything during my zig-zagging early academic career and had confidence in me that I would return after the end of my term as MP, so he kept the door open at Cambridge University. My PhD thesis, prepared in the framework of the Privatisation and Mortality research project under Larry’s leadership allowed me to conduct the qualitative interviews that form part of the empirical material of this book.

I was fortunate to be able to work with a great team of research assistants. Milán Falta, Ágnes Fernengel, Péter Harsányi, Eszter Mátyás, Eszter Turai and Boglárka Vincze helped me conducting the interviews, while Krisztina Anderlik assisted with typing them. Szilárd Gulyás and Eszter Turai took part in collecting data for the two databases on the elites, which are analysed in the book. Gábor Borsos and Miklós Kis contributed to the analysis of reforms in the education and social sectors. Thank you all very much! I am genuinely thankful to Orsolya Polyacskó for her help with the translation. The first version of this book was published in Hungarian, and it would have been a nuisance to translate my own words.

In the past years, many colleagues and friends commented on the text as part of conference presentations in Cambridge, Budapest and around the world. Fortunately, I received feedback from so many that it would be too long to list them all here. The discussions as part of the political economy research group at the Department of Sociology in Cambridge, the Social Theory Research Group in Budapest and at the Centre for Social Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organised by Zsolt Boda and Miklós Szanyi helped me to root out some of the inconsistencies.

Last, but by no means least, I am grateful beyond words to my wife, Noémi, not only for her support with this book after my doctoral dissertation but also for our countless conversations and her editorial suggestions of pinpoint accuracy. One learns a lot as the husband of a writer.



1 Introduction

The Retreat of Liberal Democracy

Democratic Backsliding in Hungary

Alternative Explanations of Democratic Backsliding

Debates on the Nature of the New Regime in Hungary

The Aims of This Book


2 The Political Economy of Illiberalism

Globalisation and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

Class and Power Structure Analysis

The Power Structure of the Competition State

International Integration, Domestic Disintegration

Workers and Neo-nationalism

National Bourgeoisie and Economic Nationalism

The Power Structure of the Accumulative State

Research Methodology


3 The Competition State

Revolving Doors in Action






Policy Preferences of Transnational Capitalists


4 International Integration, Domestic Disintegration

The Dominance of Transnational Capital

The Marginalisation of National Capital

The Marginalisation of the Working Class

Vestigial Welfare State

Disillusionment with Dependent Capitalism

The Collapse of the Hungarian Socialist Party


5 Workers and Neo-nationalism

Fieldwork Context

Moral Memories of Socialism

The Experience of Class Dislocation

The Rise of Neo-nationalist Narratives


6 National Bourgeoisie and Economic Nationalism

Market Transition and the Business Class

The Factions of the National Bourgeoisie

Political Capitalists

Committed Conservatives

Emerging Capitalists

Co-opted Capitalists


7 The Accumulative State

The Instruments of the Accumulative State

Conflicts Within the Power Bloc

Social Disintegration

Economic Disintegration

Institutional Authoritarianism and Authoritarian Populism


8 Conclusions

The Causal Narrative

The Competition State and Simulated Liberal Democracy

Dependent Development: International Integration, Domestic Disintegration

The Countermovement of the Working Class

The Countermovement of the National Bourgeoisie

The Accumulative State

Varieties of Authoritarian State Capitalism

Insights for the Theory of Illiberalism




Further details, full summary, and the reviews:

If you're a member of a university or library that has subscribed to Springer Link then you can download the book for free and you can also buy a personal copy for €25:


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