Istvan Adorjan

The Anxiety of Demographic Contamination: Of Post-Fascism, Surplus Populations, and the Retreat from Humanity as Will and Representation

In a recent review article, Adam Tooze refers to the globalizing backlash against the liberal democratic status quo as the “truculent reassertion of popular sovereignty”. I would like to propose a critical discussion of what I see, in fact, as a closely related (if not integral) phenomenon: the “truculent reassertion of demographic sovereignty,” by which I mean the (by now well-documented) retreat from the post-WWII neo-Kantian consensus around the international governance of human rights, mobility, and justice to a world where sovereigns can reassert post-fascist hierarchies of peoples and cultures (conceived of as coextensive, rigidly isomorphous, and separable into distinct moral regimes). While the former was far less often universally applied/implemented in practice until recently, it is only since the so-called European refugee crisis of 2015 that its underlying principles have been overtly challenged in the EU. I will use the case of Hungary as a glaring example through which we can understand better what is at stake in this process.

  1. Background: Hungary, like many other OECD countries, is facing a serious demographic challenge (declining population), compounded by significantly increased emigration in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Ethnic homogeneity + reliance of immigrants from the Hungarian diaspora from neighboring countries (also declining!). Current economic conjuncture: lack of skilled work force, temp and guest workers. Pension system a ticking time bomb.
  2. The critical junction of 2015: large influx of (mostly Syrian) refugees, Schengen and Dublin systems under duress, media spectacle (intimidation/deterrence, justification for quasi state of emergency etc.), leading to physical and symbolic “fencing”. All this created an unexpected opportunity structure for the government to project a new overarching ideology, which is unabashedly Schmittian, versatile, convertible to multiple situational contexts, and de facto guarantees monopoly over exclusionary definitions of legitimate political action.

Some questions:

  1. The meaning of the ‘demos’ in the discourse of the Hungarian ideological state apparatus. Presumptions of ethnic, cultural, religious homogeneity and spatial boundaries. Democratically elected leaders accountable only to the autochthonous population (i.e. rejections of cosmopolitical universalism or transnational conceptions of humanity), but also an internal division of the nation (‘foreign’ elements, ‘traitors’ etc.). Need to triangulate the dichotomy of democracy and demography through demagoguery.
  2. The manipulative, seemingly radical critique of liberal, representative democracy from the perspective of plebiscitarian mass democracy (what are the historical antecedents, what is new?). How is the Völkisch notion of “the people” not only invoked, but actively occluded, selectively rearticulated, and performatively enacted (with effects on the voice of the people too!). The majoritarian tyranny of imagined community (and the constitution of this imaginary). The ‘false universals’: defending ‘Europe,’ ‘Christianity’ (avatars of ethnicist nationalism).
  3. The nature of the beast: beyond “populism”. “Post-fascism” (G.M. Tamas) coming into its own and what that means for the global political landscape. The ‘return of the repressed’ inconvenient truths: Orban as a symptom of the dark underbelly of global capitalism today.
  4. Finally, neo-Malthusian imaginaries and the persistent question of surplus populations in an age of nation-states. Regression, stagnation, or which way ahead?