The illiberal democracy and the revanchist city – The spatial and political transformation of Budapest since 2010

“We need to give back public spaces to the citizens” – argued István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest and a member of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party when he tried to justify the city’s criminalizing of homelessness in most of its public spaces. The message here was clear: homeless people do not qualify for citizen status and therefore the city can legitimately banish them from spaces they could share with „the citizens”, who do not live in public spaces. The limitations on the ways people can spend their time in public spaces signify the boundaries within which homeless people can exist in the city, but also the boundaries of citizenship, of belonging to the political community. The ways cities regulate, plan, and define public space, not only influence the aesthetics of the physical spaces and the laws regulating public spaces, but also set up social and political boundaries for their residents.

The ways in which criminalization of homelessness, gentrification and the privatization of urban spaces limits access of poor and lower middle class residents to public spaces in Europe and the United States have been widely discussed. The revanchist city (to use Neil Smith’s term) seeks to isolate and push out poor residents by criminalizing their everyday activities and the welfare regime itself, arguing that punitive measures are needed in order to bring “traditional values” back to the city, by which a neoconservative ideal of cleanliness and order in both physical and social terms is meant (Smith 1996). Those who fail to match this ideal have no place in the revanchist city and its political community. Both redistribution and the rights-based conceptualization of citizenship are seen as“liberal” values that need to be abandoned; publicness and citizenship are no longer to be considered rights or public goods. This means that it is not acknowledged that public space should be accessible for all social groups; the publicness, the accessibility of public space is not a social value, but an issue of public order. One needs to be orderly to be acknowledged as a citizen and to gain physical access to public spaces. The revanchist city excludes not only people living in housing poverty, but anyone unable to comply with the “traditional values” defined by powerful political actors. Access to public spaces, to publicness and thus to citizenship, is defined,as a privilege a resident gains through material wealth and political compliance, rather than a right.

Before we turn to concrete examples, another term must be introduced. This term did not emerge from academia, but from the political manifesto of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. In the summer of 2014, a couple of months after his re-election, Orbán announced the ruling party’s break with “liberal democracy”, and claimed to be building an “illiberal democracy” that relies on the “traditional values” of the nation,; without abandoning all liberal values, the state’s political ideology puts the nation at the center. Orbán’s phrase “work-based society” makes more clear what the „real values” of the nation are. The “illiberal democracy” and the “work-based society” together undergird a revanchist regime that does not seek to represent or even tolerate (certain kinds of) social actors and their claims that do not comply with the social order of the conservative bourgeoisie. Those who do not participate in economic production and those who represent values that do not reinforce the ideals of this regime will not be tolerated.

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