System Decay

Hindsight from a postulated future as a prediction tool

There are two thought experiments for those who are genuinely interested in predicting the future – and don’t just sell themselves or an ideology under the disguise of prediction.

One of these thought experiments is looking at what political actors are afraid of.

After all, they have much more information than we do. Analysts are deprived of information in a less than citizen-centered regime. When it comes to autocrats who keep us in the dark regarding the workings of power (and thus our future), it is often all that we have.

The other tool of predicting the future is imaginary hindsight. 

This tool was inspired by talking heads who can always explain how the shocking things had happened – the day after they happened. These experts can tell you in detail how exactly the fall of the Berlin wall was inevitable – but only after it happened. Or you can think of experts who could see Brexit and Trump as obvious – but only with hindsight.

The same thing happened after Orbán’s surprise non-victory in October 2019: it took a while but explanations as to why it was obvious started to emerge. All analysts needed to do was to focus on the weaknesses of the regime – and stop being mesmerized by their own fear and the resulting conviction that Orbán would win anyway. Because he didn’t.

Of course, these are mere ex post explanations with the benefit of hindsight – but they gave me an idea.

If Orbán’s regime would lose the next elections, what would these talking heads say the next day? Why did it happen? 

With hindsight analysts would neatly summarize the obvious weaknesses of Orbán’s regime and emphasize them until it looks inevitable that Orbán had to be defeated. But the same thing can be done right now now – and if it’s done well, it can give hints for a strategy.

It is easy to tell what would make the opposition lose the next elections. Give and take a few black swan events, the playbook for yet another opposition defeat is already written. It starts with the jilted election rules and absent campaign finance, the Fidesz-occupied media monopoly in much of the country, the captured institutions that were supposed to be checks on the executive power, but they are anything but. The list continues with the shady proceedings of the elections, the desperate dependence and hysterical political loyalism of the vote-counting public servants – and I haven’t even started on the inner workings of the opposition. They are as much a problem for themselves as the autocracy they are taking on.

With hindsight it was easy to point out the factors that contributed to Orbán’s exposure to defeat in the 2019 local elections. We had most pieces of the puzzle – but we were mentally paralyzed by fear and resignation to believe that they could work in the opposition’s favor. And so was the opposition. So if their analysts want to come up with a strategy based on Fidesz’ weaknesses, they could do worse than imagining what would be obvious with hindsight after a hypothesized Fidesz defeat in 2022.  Here is my preliminary list:

1. Orbán has definitely lost his touch.

Not in the sense that he’s got worse (that, too) but because of the nature of an autocracy.

For one thing, he didn’t see the defeat coming. He took victory for granted. And that is down to Orbán’s men, who are increasingly reluctant (at best) to tell him bad news.

Information doesn’t travel between him and reality anymore, a number of layers of men stand between them, and they all have their own agenda. Most prominently more enrichment, as fast as possible, without risking their own status. And whoever breaks unpleasant news first will likely meet with disbelief by Orbán – or worse: accusations of incompetence, blame or wrath.

Whoever comes up with bad news will meet consequences and can’t hide behind others.

Firing those who said no may have worked for Orbán earlier in getting things done, autocrat-style. As long as it is people he has to influence to get something, it can be done by lies, threats, blackmail, intimidation, or cajoling.

But one day reality will come at him in the shape of lifeless threats to his power, like a radioactive isotope or a virus, and his tried-and-proven tool of cracking down on the naysayers will not work anymore. The radioactive cloud will still glow and the virus will still kill.

And of course there are things in between human and lifeless factors, like the economy. One day it stops being a human perception manipulable by propaganda and statistics – and becomes an undeniable reality that no words of intimidation can’t alter. We don’t know when.

2. Orbán’s false self-image

Orbán fashions himself after many things, among them is Mathias the Just, the fabled Hungarian king who used to travel the land and talk to peasants in disguise. Indeed, after weeks of Fidesz politicians complaining about the lack of channels to get the news to Orbán, he sent one of his ex-ministers to give an interview that served no discernible purpose but to reinforce the belief that Orbán still knows what’s going on. “Orbán used to hystericize me and other ministers by … having his alternative channels,” to find out about things, said his former minister. To the independent media, no less. This is obviously a touchy point if they sent a Fidesznik to make such claims.

But if Orbán keeps insisting on believing the good news his men are bringing to him from planet Earth, he shouldn’t be surprised if his version of reality keeps drifting away from ours. And since he is obviously tired of politics and has no desire to keep doing it in this form for another 20 years, he is especially inclined to delegate and keep the petty, local problems away from himself. But this is where another problem comes in, that of the quality of his loyalists.

The list continues…

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