Some believe that collaborating with the system gives respite from the harassment of being a dissenter. But the nature of an autocracy is that no one, not even the autocrat ever feels safe, secure, or even particularly good about himself.
But let’s put the autocrat aside, he gets quite enough attention. Let us look at the other culprits, those who comply.
Just take the example of the media. It is not even the worst part of Orbán’s system, but it is one of the better documented parts of it – at least in English. Working for the Orbán media may be better than being a politically ostracized, unemployed journalist driving buses or waiting tables in Austria, but it has its own pitfalls.
For a start, you are completely and utterly replaceable. It is in the nature of the system, there is nothing you can do against it. Even the highest level loyalists and ass-kissers, even the top oligarchs get purged – sometimes without visible reason. Of course it applies to you, you’ve heard that message right.
There are plenty of other cowards who can take your place because journalism doesn’t take any thinking skills anymore, only political correctness. There is also no need for people to sniff out stories, because distribution of information is strictly top-down. No wonder that journalists currently employed by Orbán’s media are touchy about the prospect of being made redundant. They know they already are.
For those who weren’t following: Local media outlets have first been taken over by an Austrian front man (the same guy the disgraced Austrian politician was bragging about on his Ibiza tape) and duly passed on to Orbán’s top oligarch. Later on, even the last bit of pretense had been dropped when all local papers had been volunteered into the gigantic media conglomerate of Orbán (called KESMA) – for free.
After the local elections in October many of these news rooms are rumored to be shut down. The reason is simple: What is the point of journalists if the flow of news is no longer bottom-up but the papers are only used to disperse propaganda, top-down? The layoffs will of course be done in the name of efficiency and applauded by intellectually corrupt western politicians and US Republicans. There is always an excuse to look the other way and support the dictator you hope will share the spoils with you.
The people who worked for these local papers and portals were duly concerned from the very beginning of this process. Some have left, many had been fired, some blew the whistle. One talked about politicians who actually have admin rights to local news portals and their social media and can delete even mildly critical pieces without even making The Phone Call. They even delete news about facts like a protest taking place in town, they are very proactive in protecting their master, Orbán.
For those who stayed for now, the message is clear. Stories abound about journalists who have left or been fired – but couldn’t find a safe haven anywhere else, where the long arm of politics would leave them alone. One of them was even fired from the arboretum she found employment in. Another editor in chief was forced out and forced to leave journalism altogether in his middle age. He now sells sausages in a parking lot for a living. For a while, stories about literally every journalist leaving the news room of the former leading commercial TV channel after it was taken over by an oligarch and switched into propaganda mode dominated the independent media. Then it became the new normal. Message received.
The life of the outcasts is not easy. But the political climate in the hornets’ nest of government media is also suffocating.
The degree of nonsense, fear and suspicion for those working for Orbán’s media has first been documented when two journalists of the public broadcaster went on Al Jazeera to talk about the atmosphere of fear at Orbán’s media – with their faces covered and their voices distorted. Seriously.
And it only got worse since. An (also anonymous) journalist of an Orbánist news portal went live with an AMA on Reddit and shared insights on how everyone justifies working there with the need to make a living, or by burying themselves in their niche fields, all claiming not to work on political pieces. (Apparently, no one does, those articles just pop into existence autonomously in the shape of anonymous op-eds.)
She/he also told Redditors that contrary to what everyone believed, it is not the laypeople that are fanatical Orbánists in the news rooms – it is their higher-ups, the political intendants.
Political intendants are like party commissars/secretaries were under communism. They are placed in workplaces to supervise political activities and make the necessary personnel decisions based on it. In our case, they also supervise the political operation of a media outlet, sniff dissenters out, keep the atmosphere of fear alive, and transmit the messages from the Center: which words to use a thousand times in a two-minute segment to emphasize the party line (Orbán’s new palace in the Buda Castle is “a cloister” and “puritanical”, Brussels “attacks our country”, etc.), which images to use to cover stories (dark-skinned, angry males, never women or children re: migration, never mind where those images came from), whom to invite, and whom to shun. On TV, they make sure no opposition sympathizer or politician ever gets to say a word to the audience.
If you remember the hysteria about a bunch of opposition MPs trying to read their points on the public broadcaster – and the public TV sealing its studio to avoid letting them in, while giving a live broadcast about some parrot – that is why it happened. Those editors and intendants were mortally afraid to let an opposition politician in front of a camera, even in an inconsequential program, they were even afraid to report about the existence of a protest outside of their own building – all to avoid being reprimanded from above by even more irrational and unscrupulous political executioners.
Their fear might be overblown, the threat might be much less than imprisonment, but the fear is real and it became a factor in its own right. And so did complicity.
Working in such an atmosphere is hard even for those who went into it willingly, naively, enthusiastically. The atmosphere constant political suspicion is more than just reminiscent of the pre-1989 dictatorship, it works exactly the same, and it is operated and populated by people who know those rules better than the rules of freedom, media independence, or civilization.
In a world like that, even when the bad workplace atmosphere is not political to begin with, politically smearing an unwanted colleague is an obvious way to conduct office politics. Either way, the prospect of the same being done to you is constantly hanging above your head. Mean and evil people are quick to adopt and use the new tools at their disposal to do whatever they were up to anyway. It is those who are not mean to begin with who gasp at the injustice and are running after the events, surprised at every turn for the worse.
Autocracy’s worst legacy is a deadly counter-selection of people. Not just the elites, but everyone. Those who resist the hardest perish first. The weasels get ahead. Even if it is not ultimately rewarding, even if the country sinks into poverty, these people will be the least worse off. And that leaves a mark on generations to come.
And yes, poverty will ultimately happen in an autocracy due to all the social and economic engineering – whether your autocracy is leftism or rightist, whether it is christianist or islamist, whether you see corruption as the feature or a bug of the system. (It is always a feature.)
I often wonder how it is that a society gets to the point when they internalize oppression, without being openly threatened. No one needs to threaten anyone with physical violence (like in Hong Kong right now), or even openly threaten with the loss of their job or that of their family members (but that happens a LOT). Even when no words are spoken and no orders are given, the cowards know what is expected of them and comply. They go above and beyond (or below and beyond, depending how you look at it) even when they disagree with oppression. But they get every help to bend their minds to it, so they won’t disagree for too long.
Those who don’t emigrate swallow the blue pill of autocracy. And those who stay, resist, but get crushed also don’t send a very empowering message. What is the long-term price humanity pays for letting dictators serving themselves at the expense of humanity, at the expense of human dignity, honesty, and backbones.
Some people justify compliance because they want better for their families. Others dissent and fight back – and claim that it is because they want better for their families. Some stay because they want to help their families. Some emigrate because they want to help their families. The decision has nothing to do with the justification.
Opposition existence sucks. You are renders illegitimate, your whole existence is treated as a sin, your views are scorned. But that doesn’t mean that deep compliance and hysterical love of the ruler works in your favor. They can make your life suck – they don’t want to make it better. Because they don’t have to. The unspoken assumption is that deep compliance would get some reward, but think about it for a moment: if it worked, that would mean that you can control what happens to you, after all. It would be control!
But the truth is, the essence of the autocracy is that you never control what happens to you. It is all taken away. Turning your backbone into jelly, humiliating yourself, breaking in, sucking up – these things don’t give back control either.
Featured image: Francis Picabia: Calf worship