Viktor Orbán and his “Globalists”

In his speech before an enthusiastic audience at a 4 August 2022 CPAC meeting in Dallas, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated that “the globalists can all go to hell.” It was intended as an applause line and worked.

But what does the frame, “globalist” really mean, and what is “globalism” supposedly about? Orbán has staked his political career on using globalism as an anti-Semitic slur, in particular against billionaire George Soros who comes from Hungary and is viewed by conservatives as some kind of sinister mastermind behind the development of a global economic system where the wealthy have supposedly pushed their value system on the world to promote their own economic, political, and cultural interests.

The globalists—so the story goes—want the world to be unified in terms of how we relate to one another so that there will be no interference in trade or finance because barriers and borders will no longer matter. Viktor Orbán has repeatedly referred to the system that he has created in Hungary as being an “illiberal democracy.” Elections and voting are possible to select leaders as long as the list of candidates has already been purged of those who believe in liberal values, which Orbán equates to some kind of Marxism and is therefore part of this globalized world in which we now live.

There is a profound misunderstanding in everything that Orbán stands for and gets praised for among both European and American conservatives, including the folks he addressed at CPAC. First, democracy is, in fact, about elections, and in the United States, there has been an ongoing effort to keep extremist candidates off the ballot, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recount in How Democracies Die (2018). Those same forces should have prevented Donald Trump from getting as far as he did politically, but save that discussion for another day.

To not allow candidates to run for office because they believe in liberal values, however, is quite a different matter. Democracy is about the concept of majority rules; the people choose who their political leaders will be, subject to some means by which to keep those selected accountable to the electorate. In a parliamentary system like Hungary, this is done via a confidence vote applied to the ruling government. Accountability in a majoritarian system like the US is more difficult, though some states like California have a recall provision to remove politicians from office.

The concept of liberalism has deeper, earlier roots than does democracy. Liberalism is about placing limits on state power and authority. In principle, majority rules in a democracy, but the liberal side of things is about protecting individual minority rights. In a classic sense, individualized rights protected one from arbitrary political rule such that a a royal or landowner could not imprison or kill someone just because they wanted to, but it also enshrined individualized property as a right that people possessed. Read economist Milton Friedman today and you find that Friedman insists on being called a liberal for that reason.

The Orbáns of the world believe that there can be majority rule but without minority rights. Thus, if one is a woman, a person of color, a Muslim, Jew, or part of the LGBTQ+ community, there should be no legal protection afforded by the state. If people want to discriminate against those “minorities” (keeping in mind that women are majorities in most countries), there is nothing that the government should do to prevent that from happening. In July, Orbán gave a speech where he spoke against racial mixing, potentially raising the political ante with the idea that perhaps the state could or should invoke some authority to keep that from happening, much like the US was prior to the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia (1967) which ended restrictions on interracial marriages.

Though Orbán and people like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in the US intimate that liberalism is part of some global Marxist takeover, the two ideologies are near-complete polar opposites. Liberalism sanctifies the individual while socialists of various stripes (but certainly all influenced by Marx in some way) believe in the concept of social rights where all people have collective rights protected by the state. In most European countries, for instance, access to health care is viewed as a social right that is not part of liberalism but comes from a century of influence from socialists and social democrats across the continent.

For better or worse, liberalism does give some juridical protection to communities that are not white men. Without that protection, those people would be subject to all kinds of abuse and discrimination in systems where the majorities under democracy could run roughshod over minorities without any legal cover that liberalism affords. Why would anyone want that?

Beyond the justification for discrimination and the use of “globalism” as a codeword for “Jews,” we should remind ourselves where globalization began in the first place. As the late sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein said, globalization as a capitalist economic system has been spreading for hundreds of years. When it took the form of colonialism, it was protected by the rhetoric of bringing civilization to people who supposedly had none. It was hardly about isolating oneself from the world, as Orbán now says.

For the past fifty years, globalism has been about the spread of capitalism through technological innovation that has allowed the economic system to take full advantage of reducing production costs by creating production (these days, often called supply) chains, using containerized transportation, and moving manufacturing and agriculture to places where labor costs are lowest. In turn, communications technologies have opened up new financial means by which to create wealth without the messiness of actually making stuff. As Karl Marx says in Capital (Volume 3), it’s about moving from a system predicated on the formula M-C-M,´to one of M-M´. He was right.

The globalists are not the “Jews”; they are the transnational corporations that now dominate late-20th and 21st century capitalism. Those who pushed this system were conservatives from two continents. They were named Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and Ronald Reagan.

If conservatives really want to be against globalism as they claim to be, they must renounce those leaders who pushed the modern iteration of globalization back in the 1970s and 1980s. There is nothing inherently wrong with the promotion of bringing production back to a more localized level. As the climate continues to warm and transport must be cut, it has to happen. Besides, it provides local jobs, so that’s good too. However, it is disingenuous to blame globalism on more recent events and leaders involved with them rather than look at globalization as an economic process that successfully spread as far as it has in the last half-century.

Most people are liberals. I don’t happen to be one, but I do understand that at the very least, liberalism gives some protection for those who are perceived as “different” in a European-North American context. It cannot be surrendered without great hazard or threat to those who belong to protected communities. Orbán comes from a country that was once in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. It is shocking to see him pine for a more closed society like the one he grew up in. It’s even more shocking to see Americans cheer him on.

Edgar Kaskla is a lecturer in Political Science at Cal State Long Beach.