With a sharp analysis of gender debates in Hungary, political scientist Eszter Kováts, in her contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” aims to carve out a critical space for East-Central Europe between right-wing anticolonialism and universalizing postcolonialism.
The Orbán government and its ideologues and organizations have been routinely deploying anti-colonial arguments when it comes to their so-called freedom fight against “Brussels,” the liberal elite and the opposition parties presumably “betraying” national interests, as Kasia Narkowicz and Zoltán Ginelli argue in a recent text.
According to this narrative, “Hungarian culture and values” as well as “our” understanding of democracy are not being respected. One of the ideologues of the regime even quotes decolonial scholars from Hungary and other countries including Frantz Fanon to underpin his arguments about how ideas, alien to “Hungarian culture,” are pushed through by power mechanisms from supranational entities.
How hypocritical this freedom fighter rhetoric is can be best illustrated by the widely documented entanglements of the Hungarian ruling political class with German car manufacturing corporations and transnational companies at large – with more far reaching consequences to Hungary’s sovereignty than any European Parliament or Commission declaration on infringement of human rights can be.
However, one cannot so easily brush aside their arguments about the power dynamics that is characteristic of relationships within the EU. In the following I will argue that these arguments need to be taken seriously in order to better understand why they might resonate among parts of their electorate, and, moreover, why a universalizing of postcolonialism is not the way forward to address these issues.
Anti-gender discourse as a right-wing resistance to West-Eurocentrism
Gender debates are a good example for the anti-colonial rhetoric of the Right. Anti-gender politics is a global phenomenon since the beginning of the 2010s. Reproductive rights, violence against women, sexual education, LGBT issues, gender mainstreaming, and gender studies are targeted by social movements and right-wing (populist) parties. What connects them, is, that they are now contested for being representative of “gender ideology,” of a global conspiracy to destroy “human civilization.”
While neither the rise of the anti-gender nor of the illiberal forces is an East-Central European (ECE) phenomenon per se, the relevance of the geopolitical embeddedness of gender equality policies, of gender studies, and feminist as well as LGBT politics in this region cannot be underestimated. For this to assess, we need to go beyond analyzing the right-wing actors’ discourse. The existing material and symbolic East-West inequalities are the anchors the illiberal right-wing forces use for their political ends, and these partly explain the particular ECE drivers of anti-gender mobilization.
To begin with, Hungary is a latecomer. While there were scattered anti-gender incidences from 2009 on, anti-gender campaigns began to unfold only in 2017 around the Istanbul Convention and the de-accreditation of Gender Studies MA programs in October 2018, and since spring 2020 they were continuing around LGBT issues, culminating in the so-called “child protection law” in June 2021 which discursively links paedophilia and spreading information about homosexuality and transgender among minors.
The late-coming may be explained by the fact that the Fidesz-KDNP government, in power since 2010, did not enact any legislation to trigger an anti-gender protest. To the contrary, the discourse intensified when it was of use for the polarizing goals of the government itself. Hence, in Hungary the main actor is the government and its corollaries: fake think tanks, propaganda media, and the NGOs which share its ideology.
Their “key discursive strategy” against “gender ideology” (as in the other Visegrád countries) revolves around the claim that what “we” are up against is an “ideological colonization.” Given the economic and symbolical asymmetries within the EU (and the EU’s gender politics), within social sciences (and specifically gender studies), and within progressive political activism (including feminist and LGBT politics dependent on foreign donors), this claim is not far-fetched and can and should be analyzed as well as tackled from a critical perspective.
In June, there were protests in Germany against Hungary’s ruling coalition’s “child protection law,” turning into a pseudo-political struggle that culminated in the demand that the Munich stadium be lighted in rainbow colors on the day of the Germany-Hungary football game – a form of homoliberalism. As critical scholars like Koen Slootmaeckers and Robert Kulpa have extensively reflected, subscribing to gays’ and lesbians’ rights became a marker of being European. Moreover, it served as a mechanism of Othering with which Western European politicians and activists could redraw internal borders within the EU, reinforcing the narrative that Eastern European member states are “not European enough” and “[only] second-tier member state[s].”
Obviously, there are not only discourses of Othering but also material realities at play. Hence we must be able to qualify places where, for instance, gays’/lesbians’ rights are better or less ensured. However, we must consider how we establish indicators for the ensuring of rights, and distinguish between real actions to better the situation of affected people and symbolic gestures that indeed only serve to set apart morally superior from inferior actors.
This connection of LGBT rights to “European identity” that served as a border delineating “the not-so-enlightened from the East who still need to catch up in civilizational terms,” triggered opposition – it became politically articulated in a polarizing language by the right-wing anti-gender actors.
Martijn Mos, on the basis of an analysis of Hungarian PM Orbán’s speeches, establishes that the EU’s fundamental values are “ambiguous and unenforceable,” and that is the reason why Orbán could interpret them as he wishes. For instance, instead of breaching the EU’s values, he could present himself as the one truly representing them. One can go one step further: Orbán, besides making use of this under-definition of values, is also making use of the space that the radical version of poststructuralism has created: that there are no more objective facts, and no more true or false readings, but only interpretations from different subject positions.
However, the EU’s fundamental values are not only under-defined and ambiguous and therefore easily pliable by authoritarian leaders to their advantage in a “strategic form of interpretive politics,” as Mos formulates it. Moreover, one can observe a double standard: these values are strategically upheld or strategically neglected, depending on what serves the reinforcing of the EU’s imperial ambitions in the peripheries better. Look at, for instance, the debates in Germany about its relations to Russia and the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Thus, the unenforceability of the values in question does not primarily result from a lack of clear definitions and institutional mechanisms but from a lack of political will – that is connected both to political and economic advantages.
Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits put it this way: “While the EU did talk the talk of normative power, it has walked a somewhat different walk. (…) And that precisely this, the EU’s self-stylization as a normative power that talks the talk and walks the walk has had an impact on political actors in eastern Europe; (…) the EU’s self-stylization as normative power also contributes to the reenforcement of the East-West cleavage.” (2019)
To summarize it: If we frame questions of women’s and LGBT equality and the right-wing resistance in civilizational terms of progress/backlash, we miss the very important power relations they are embedded in. We need tools to be able to perceive and describe them, as they feed anti-gender and anti-EU sentiments on the EU’s peripheries that the Right can capitalize on. Even if these asymmetries are not solely characteristic of gender issues, they are characteristic of gender issues too. Hence, they are adequate carriers of the freedom fighter discourse of the Hungarian government.
What can postcolonialism propose to address this situation?
A huge slice of current postcolonial and decolonial scholarship looks only at questions of discourse and representation (“Othering”) which, as I tried to show, does not fully grasp the stakes. Also, in the context of East-Central Europe there is often a decontextualized copy-paste type of application of these theories. For instance, uncritically using the analytical tools that address well the US experience with slavery and racism is not sufficient to analyze some European phenomena, e.g. the current forms of anti-Roma racism in ECE or anti-slavic (and anti-East European) sentiments and economic exploitation in Western Europe. Only look at agriculture, elderly care or meat industry, just to mention the most blatant examples from the COVID-19 period.
Also, when it comes to a postcolonial critique of Europe, what is meant is a critique of the overseas colonial past of several Western European countries and of the superiority of the West according to the universalist thinking of the Enlightenment – in which countries of ECE have played an insignificant or no role. As such, the critical term Eurocentrism is falsely inclusive of ECE in terms of colonialism, as József Böröcz formulated it. Hence, the term West-Eurocentrism seems to be more inclusive of the ECE experience: the relationship to the West is an issue of a “return to Europe,” the conditionalities of the EU accession, and the ongoing asymmetrical relations within the EU.
Also, paradoxically, the queer and postcolonial critique of the kind of scholarship pretending to be objective but in reality entangled in power relationships and contributing to reproduction of hierarchies seems to have become a new universalism: scholars coming from other scholarly traditions (like political economy or soft constructivism, for instance) tend to be labelled as “backward” and “essentialist.” While poststructuralism and deconstructivism as any other social theories are products of and conditioned by the material and geopolitical circumstances they were born in, they became markers of progress in gender studies.
This strand seems to have occupied a hegemonic position within gender studies in the West, while in ECE it is only an achievement of the past years. The late or reluctant adherence to this theoretical approach is sometimes interpreted as “essentialism” or “backwardness.” We can see similar tendencies in postcolonialism, when, for instance, West European experiences and self-reflections with the own colonial or fascist past are universalised, and ECE scholars and their theories rooted in their own historical experiences are either not seen or judged by the current Western standards.
That is why, in my view, queer and postcolonial approaches must be very careful, so as not to reproduce power relations within critical scholarship through the very means through which they had actually intended to “provincialize” (Western) Europe and draw attention to positioned knowledges. But again, the importance of positioned knowledges should not be absolutized. Otherwise we arrive at the dilemma that Martha Nussbaum already formulated more than twenty years ago: if not on the grounds of universal moral criteria, how do we know that the right-wing interpretations and positioned knowledges are worse than ours?
Against this backdrop, I would like to conclude with the following thoughts: Right-wing anti-colonial discourse might be a language to address West-Eurocentrism: real inequalities within the European Union. To address them, academically we need less tabooizing (in form of accusations of similarity with the arguments of the Right) and more critical engagement with the inequalities that underpin the societal demand skilfully fueled by the Right. And politically we need, instead of “resistance” to their polarizing and stigmatizing discourse, effective organizing that addresses the root causes, the real economic and symbolic inequalities.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de