October 26, 2023

The Illiberal Professional-Managerial Class in Hungary and Poland

Gábor Erlich

Minister Glinski comes down on the morning after the Polish elections, Warsaw, October 16, 2023. Copyright: Simone de Iacobis.

This piece was originally going to be an account of right-wing cultural elites and the role they play in ossifying the (post-)fascist regimes in Hungary and Poland, using as a label for them “illiberal professional-managerial class,” or “iPMC.”1

However, on October 15, Polish voters ousted the Law and Justice (PiS) government, (hopefully) ending an eight-year nightmare of bigoted chauvinism—something that, from the perspective of the brutally solidified system in Hungary, seemed not only implausible but impossible.

So, while now is a time for celebration, I would nevertheless like to discuss, with the advantage of hindsight, two stages of illiberal (cultural) hegemony-building2 in East-Central Europe (ECE), in order to reveal their significance in the epoch of global culture wars, alt-right counterrevolutions, and rampantly spreading (post-)fascism. Emphasizing the role of the state in the process widely known as cultural capture, as well as analyzing the nomenklatura of ECE countries through the concept of the professional-managerial class, I hope to shed light on some of the reasons behind the end of the Jarosław Kaczyński era in Poland and the interminable reign of “Orbánism.”

But before I contextualize the infamous cultural interventions of these hybrid regimes—especially the hijacking of contemporary art institutions by new cultural elites—I will briefly recap the underlying material conditions that gave rise to a divergent set of opportunities.

The Roots and Rules of Illiberalism

The Hungarian version of illiberalism, also called “the System of National Cooperation” in one of Orbán’s programmatic documents, emerged in 2010 when the once-liberal poster child of systemic change was elected prime minister for the second time.3 Its Polish counterpart emerged in 2015 when PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, won its second mandate. In both cases, conservative forces (re)gained power after eight years of neoliberal/technocratic rule; thus each administration started by launching a thorough purge, fueled by years spent disenfranchised and plotting a comeback. This work involved meddling with the judiciary, public broadcasting networks, and cultural institutions, among other measures.

Yet there were some key differences between the regimes of Orbán and Kaczyński, resulting in distinct approaches to the project of building ultraconservative hegemony.

While Orbán is an opportunistic politician who has eagerly followed the winds of change and public opinion, Kaczyński is an ideology-driven conservative. There have also been key structural differences between the two regimes. Since 2010 Orbán has governed with a constitutional majority (controlling 75 percent of parliamentary seats), while PiS never managed to gain total power over the Polish Sejm, the lower house of the national legislature. In addition, Hungary is a highly centralized polity, with the government controlling virtually all levels of administration, while Poland is decentralized, with municipal governments enjoying significant autonomy from the central government.

So while Orbán and Kaczyński were often dubbed twins, or as the proverb goes, “two brothers” (“dwa bratanki,” “két jó barát”), their regimes were far from identical.

Culture as War

The reason why culture has been decisive for Orbán and Kaczyński in gaining, exercising, and holding on to power becomes clear when we recognize that the dominant narrative of the region, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, has been “liberal consensus”—economically managed by neoliberal technocrats and politically negotiated by mostly liberal intellectuals (the former “dissidents”), resulting in an elitist cultural of “there is no alternative.” In noting this I do not mean to justify what followed. I simply want to highlight a routinely overlooked factor in the rise of illiberalism—the responsibility of liberal elites who, with their technocratic, “anti-political,” elitist politics, neglected fundamental social and cultural issues.4

The rhetoric of PiS and Fidesz (Orbán’s party) has been dominated by the tropes of conservative culture, revolving around supercharged identitarian issues such as ethno-nationalist exceptionalism, religious bigotry, and vicious misogyny. It has also borrowed from the old-fashioned “Kulturkampf” cookbook, updated with a series of modern “antis”—anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-immigration, anti-antifa, and so on.

While the far right’s cultural turn did not come as a surprise, the sheer force of its policies was astounding. The first step was to take control of public TV and radio, still the most prominent mediums for shaping public opinion and framing narratives. These were turned into outlets of ferocious propaganda and official ideology. Loyal apparatchiks were installed, stamping out even a modicum of plurality.

Each regime then sought to reset the entire field of cultural production in a similar fashion: theater, film, literature, music, dance, scientific and research institutes, as well as contemporary visual arts.

Contemporary Counterrevolutionaries

These “reforms” were engineered and carried out through different tactics in each country. In Poland, one key figure was responsible for orchestrating the cultural coup: Piotr Glinski. He was a strongman who occupied the post of Minister of Culture and National Heritage for the entire eight years of PiS’s reign.5 In Hungary, the reforms were contrived by a diverse group of officials responsible for various subdivisions, with the supreme leader, Orbán himself, in charge.6 So in otherwise decentralized Poland, the exercise of power in the cultural field was centralized, whereas in centralized Hungary, it was carried out by diverse branches of government.

PiS, through Glinski, appointed loyal cronies to the top of state-funded cultural institutions. These anti-democratic but legal maneuvers were necessary to assert power, since in decentralized Poland, many important and progressive institutions are funded and overseen by municipalities, where PiS never had a majority. Hence direct intervention was an option only in state institutions. Glinski, between 2016 and 2022, replaced the directors of six of these vitally important institutions with loyal allies who lacked qualifications and professional experience, but who shared a belief in the official ideology. For the realm of contemporary art, the three most significant institutions impacted were the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Art in Łódź. The infamous appointment of Piotr Bernatowicz as the director of the Ujazdowski exemplifies illiberal cultural policy in its purest form. Bernatowicz is an ultraconservative culture warrior: an art historian with a PhD and years of academic teaching experience, a journal editor, a curator, and a well-known public intellectual and radio host infamous for his racist, misogynist, and homophobic views. In an interview with the New York Times shortly after his appointment, Bernatowicz stated that “most of contemporary art galleries look like left-wing ideological ghettos … dominated by a left-wing, precisely neo-Marxist ideology.” This rhetoric is straight out of the classic culture-war playbook, frighteningly akin to allegations thrown around in the 1930s, but stopping short of using the term “Kulturbolschewismus” (cultural Bolshevism). Bernatowicz goes on to claim that “artists who do not adopt this ideology are marginalized.” This is what he wants to change, with the aim of “restoring the right balance and building a fair system, in which every artist, regardless of his/her views, can count on the support of the state.”7

And change things he did. He axed a series of seminars organized by the group Antifascist Year. He cocurated shows such as “Political Art,” an attempt to canonize the far right’s post-truth hodgepodge, and “The Influencing Machine,” which fabricated a narrative about the role played in Eastern Europe by the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art in order to “reveal the hypocrisy of the art world.” Both exhibitions were accompanied by events that provided platforms to global chauvinists, turning the Ujazdowski into a hub of recuperation, a castle of “perverse decolonization.”8

In Hungary there isn’t a similar singular example of a hijacked cultural institution, due to Orbán’s strategy of diversification, which doesn’t grant absolute power to individual actors but instead creates a network, the respective branches of which are “restructured” differently. The most impactful of these restructurings has been to turn the hyper-conservative Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA) into a public institution with sweeping authority over cultural matters. The MMA, however, seems less interested in becoming a global hub for counterrevolution than in taking over public funding of the arts in Hungary, making it virtually impossible for progressive artists to access public funds and creating a climate of “collaborators vs. dissidents” that sabotages not only the production of art but also any attempts at collective dialogue and unionizing.9

To puzzle out the motivation behind this diversified scheme, we should note that in Orbán’s blueprint for building right-wing hegemony, culture war is not an end goal but rather one of many tools, insofar as his System of National Cooperation is first and foremost a “semi-peripheral regime of capital accumulation.”10 Culture as such is often used to cover up the dodgy affairs of accumulation. On a material level, rechannelling public funds toward loyal groups not only cuts progressive practitioners out of the game, but also creates a new elite of loyal cadres. On an immaterial level, this intervention seeks to install the illiberal canon at all levels of public discourse, from elementary school curricula to memory politics and academic knowledge production. As revealed by one of the chief ideologues of the Orbán regime, the “conservative intellectual” Márton Békés, hegemony-building rests on the counterrevolutionary co-optation (perverse decolonization) of the lineage of radical praxis, from Gramsci to Rudi Dutschke.11

To grasp just how far “advanced” the Hungarian regime is in its hegemonic project, we should examine Orbán’s most recent grandiose undertaking, the annexation of Matthias Corvinus Collegium. This is a private educational institution, a college for advanced studies founded in 1996 that provides state-of-the-art education for exceptional students, from elementary school to the post-doc levels. It has been a focus of attention since the Orbán regime assumed control of the institution and allocated to it a gargantuan $2 billion endowment.12 The activities of Matthias Corvinus Collegium are not confined within the borders of Hungary, as it has been rapidly expanding throughout the Carpathian basin. Similar to MMA, here the regime seized an already existing institution and injected it with new staff and capital, putting it in service to Orbán’s ideological goals. This is “perverted upward redistribution,” a phrase that many scholars have used to describe an increasingly common practice of the Orbán regime that creates legal loopholes for snatching public money and channelling it towards chosen elites. Matthias Corvinus Collegium currently educates eight thousand students in twenty-five locations (the number is set to reach ten thousand shortly).13 As these students, along with investigative journalists, can attest, the level of education there is significantly higher than at any public institution, due not only to its massive endowment but also, ironically, to the implementation of progressive pedagogical methods. The takeover of Matthias Corvinus Collegium is a long-term project to ensure the reproduction of new elites—creative leaders with an impeccable education, predestined for roles as post-fascist social engineers.

Elites, or Strata, or Class?

How do we analyze the diverse group of perpetrators behind this system—power-hungry managers, ideology-driven professionals, wounded revanchists—and their roles in the anatomy of these autocracies? It is clear that contemporary far-right elites do have solid projects of (cultural) hegemony,14 contributing to the rapid success of illiberal regimes in ECE, twenty years into the project of free-market liberal democracy. But should we describe these perpetrators as a social strata, in Gramscian fashion, or should we rather talk about a class, à la E. P. Thompson and Barbara Ehrenreich? I believe that the contested notion of the professional-managerial class (PMC) provides a useful analytic lens, particularly when supplemented by the work of Márk Á. Éber, who contextualizes the notion for the semi-periphery that is the ECE.15 He splits the PMC into two, the “intermediary” and “mediator” classes, to distinguish between those “white-collar wage-laborers” employed by private enterprises, and the “mediators” who are not only employed by the state but created and reproduced by it. It is important to stress that in this region, education and culture have historically been maintained by the state, and the role of private enterprise has been marginal. The “mediator” class is composed of cultural professionals, teachers, medical and social workers, public servants, army and law enforcement personnel, and so on. “They contribute to the reproduction of citizens’ labor, … maintain public order, ensure a flawless production process, and manage and administer state and public tender.” From this perspective, it’s safe to say that the “illiberal PMC” is exactly this mediator class, which normalizes society for the new order.

In the case of Hungary, due to the absolute power of the Orbán regime, we can say that the numerous branches together make up a class, one that has the means to reproduce itself through institutions such as the Matthias Corvinus Collegium. In the case of Poland under PiS rule, it would be more accurate to talk about professional-managerial elites who could never form a class due to a lack of resources.

Interestingly, the two regimes, despite their avowed friendship, did not really understand each other well: rumor has it that some factions within PiS are now blaming Orbán’s campaign advisers—who aided their Polish counterparts in the recent elections—for offering tactics used in Hungary during the 2022 elections without tailoring them for the local context. As I’ve been arguing, equating the two systems can easily backfire.16

Whether what follows will be mere liberal-professional revisionism, or something more progressive, remains to be seen. But in this moment of hopeful celebration, I cheer for the latter.


It is beyond the scope of this text to dive into the contemporary debate on fascism vs. post-fascism, but I will use the term “(post-)fascism” throughout and suggest two excellent pieces for further consideration: G. M. Tamás, “On Post-Fascism,” Boston Review, June 1, 2000 ; Ewa Majewska and Kuba Szreder, “So Far, So Good: Contemporary Fascism, Weak Resistance, and Post-artistic Practices in Today’s Poland,” e-flux journal, no. 76 (October 2016) . The term “illiberal,” which was used by Fareed Zakaria in the 1990s to describe certain countries in East-Central Europe, was revived by Viktor Orbán in 2014 to label the system he is building. Since then the term has been used by many thinkers to theorize the Hungarian and Polish regimes and beyond.


Throughout this text I use “hegemony” in a Gramscian fashion, taking into account the plethora of literature by scholars in the region who have reinvigorated the Italian revolutionary’s ideas while offering a thorough understanding of contemporary ECE. These scholars include Ágnes Gagyi, Márk Á. Éber, Márton Szarvas, Kristóf Nagy, and Luca Kristóf, among others.


See “Programme of National Cooperation” document . Orbán’s first term as prime minister was 1998 to 2002.


This debate over the responsibility of liberal elites could fill a whole library, so I cannot do it justice here. I will just point you to the important work of the aforementioned scholars.


Notably, he was also deputy prime minister, underscoring not only his personal authority within the system but also the significance of culture and its institutions for the main ideologue and mastermind, Kaczyński.


It’s telling that between 2010 and 2022 in Hungary, culture did not have a dedicated ministry but was subordinated to the monstrosity that is the “Ministry of Human Resources.” The series of officials responsible for culture were either failed poets or mediocre managers who regularly displayed their cluelessness when it came to culture.


Alex Marshall, “A Polish Museum Turns to the Right, and Artists Turn Away,” New York Times, January 8, 2020 .


Perverse Decolonization?, Ekaterina Degot, David Riff, Jan Sowa (Archive Books, 2022).


See Edit András, “Hungary in Focus: Conservative Politics and Its Impact on the Arts,” Art Margins, September 17, 2013 ; and Luca Kristóf, “Cultural Policy in an Illiberal State: A Case Study of Hungary after 2010,” Intersections 3, no. 3 (2017) .


Drawing on the seminal work of József Böröcz (“dual dependency”) and Attila Melegh (“the East-West slope”), a new generation of Hungarian researchers, such as Ágnes Gagyi, Tamás Gerőcs, and Gábor Scheiring, argue for this understanding of Orbán’s System of National Cooperation.


The cover of Békés’s 2020 book, Cultural Warfare: The Theory and Practice of Cultural Hegemony, features a flaming Stratocaster with a large Gramsci sticker on it.


An amount equal to what the state spends annually on the entire higher-education sector.


There’s a shortage of English-language articles on the takeover of Matthias Corvinus Collegium, since it’s a recent development, but see Bence X. Szechenyi, “Viktor Orbán’s Pet University Is All About Propaganda—I Know, I Was There,” The Guardian, September 11, 2023 .


Contrary to certain shallow leftist narratives that claim otherwise, for the far right does manage to win elections and remain in power for long periods.


The 2022 essay in which Éber discusses the PMC is only available in Hungarian as of now (see ). All the following quotes from the essay, which is entitled “The Notion of the ‘Middle Class’ and the Intermediary Classes: Class Positions and Mobilizing Ideals in Semi-peripheral Hungarian Society,” are translated by the author.


On Hungarian state television, presenters have warned that “we” must be vigilant ahead of the 2024 municipal elections, since behind the defeat of PiS is the international “Soros army” network.

Fascism, Contemporary Art
Eastern Europe, Ultranationalism

Gábor Erlich is an artist/activist (a post-artistic practitioner) from Hungary. He is a founding member of the advocacy-action groups Free Artists and United for Contemporary Art, art-research collectives Third Sector and Bookfriendship, as well as the Participatory Democracy Initiative—PDI Georgia. He is currently a researcher at FEINART (Future of European Independent Art Spaces in a Period of Socially Engaged Art), where he investigates the possibilities and challenges of counter-hegemonic anti-capitalist praxis in the Eastern European (semi-)periphery.


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