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Andrea, you have been working for years on gender and populism/illiberalism, and more recently on issues of academic freedom in illiberal environments. Let’s begin with a broad question. In your 2019 introduction to the European Journal of Women’s Studies, you mention the gendered aspect power relations. How do these relations play out in contemporary politics for the populist/illiberal cases you study?

These two concepts, gender and illiberalism, have been recently connected in new ways, hence producing fundamentally new forms of relationality. Analyzing this connection poses various challenges as illiberalism has re-emerged as a viable and electorally popular response to the 2008 crises and its modus operandi has left academics and politicians baffled ever since. The definition of populism that can be applied to illiberalism as “thin-centered ideology” seemingly suggests that a lack of gender perspective is constituent of this novel phenomenon. As Cas Mudde has pointed out, as a “thin-centered” ideology illiberalism requires a “host ideology” such as neoliberalism, socialism, fascism, authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism–depending on the political context. However, the notion of gender and, relatedly, gender equality, also requires a “host ideology”: it can be attached to or nested into liberalism, neoliberalism, socialism, communism, nationalism; Islam, Christianity, Judaism. The convolution of different host ideologies especially within the framework of the present culture wars makes the relationship of gender and illiberalism very complex. The present form of illiberalism is a joint result of the structural failures of the European (neo)liberal democratic project, the dark legacy of European history, and the complexities of the concept of gender.

The present form of illiberalism is a joint result of the structural failures of the European (neo)liberal democratic project, the dark legacy of European history, and the complexities of the concept of gender.

What are the limits of language in the study of gender? How does the English notion of gender contrast with other linguistic and cultural concepts of the topic?

The definition of “gender” itself is multilayered, which has caused several problems and internal contradictions within progressive emancipatory politics–contradictions that were later ruthlessly and cunningly used by illiberal forces focusing on already-existing cleavages. Gender is a concept, but also a political project, a social practice, and a theory. To make the picture even more complicated, the concept of gender itself has been used with different meanings in the literature: a substitute for biological sex in the English linguistic context, but also an analytical category to describe the social quality of distinctions based on sex (that is, the power structures in a given society between men and women, and the roles, possibilities, and constraints attributed to those being born male or female). Lastly, gender also means gender identity: a person’s felt sense of identity, their (dis)identification being born male or female. These complexities contributed to the fact that “gender” became a “symbolic glue” of illiberal forces.

You write a lot about historical memory and have recently launched a podcast on these issues. Can you discuss the ways in which memory–or non-memory–as it relates to the Holocaust affects Hungary’s contemporary politics?

The illiberal state has constructed, and operates with, a special illiberal memory politics. Implementing this memory politics, the state takes funding away from previously supported initiatives therefore destroying previous memorial practices and narratives. The translation of history and its application, as well as its identity-shaping effects, are becoming geopolitical factors. The memory of the Holocaust has special importance not only because of the universal status of the Holocaust, but because Hungary is home to the second-largest Jewish community in Europe. The government now supports only one, small, Orthodox organization with a large international network, to create an unquestionably “Jewish-looking” representation of Jews in Hungary: men with long beards, black coats, and hats. With this move, the government has established an alternative to the previously hegemonic umbrella organisation of the Hungarian Jews, MAZSIHISZ which took a stand against Viktor Orbán at home and abroad.

The second step for the Hungarian state was to create parallel historical research institutions. These institutes have no quality assurance, as they function without adhering to generally accepted academic standards: publishing often without footnotes, and hiring candidates without doctoral degrees or track records of producing relevant research. It is no surprise that the “scientific” work of these institutions is only noticed when their staff make outrageous claims.

Third, the formerly diverse Hungarian history textbook market has been reduced to one single, state-approved textbook. But more importantly, the illiberal state does not have original ideas, but what is new is both the modus operandi and the fact that these values are only important on the surface to obscure the real purpose: the need to stay in power. The illiberal state is an assemblage of previously existing and well-functioning ideas like nostalgia and anticommunist nationalism. It uses existing concepts, frameworks, and institutions for its own purpose. That is one of the reasons why it is so difficult, on the one hand, to detect, and on the other hand, to fight against it–because it is elusive and a hollow copy of previous existing beliefs, institutions, and values.

The illiberal state is an assemblage of previously existing and well-functioning ideas like nostalgia and anticommunist nationalism. It uses existing concepts, frameworks, and institutions for its own purpose.

In Revisionist Histories you explore the vulnerability of Marxist, modernist, and feminist interpretations of history in the face of the rise of revisionism across the former communist world. But surely this vulnerability cuts both ways; otherwise, those interpretations would not be under siege from revisionists and reactionaries. What threats do Marxist, modernist, and feminist histories pose for present-day right-wing revisionists?

Illiberalism and revisionism were not parachuted in without any prehistory, but they are signs of structural problems. Analyzing post-communist identities, Duncan Light pointed out that they are driven “by the desire to construct new post-communist identities, characterized by a democratic, pluralist, capitalist and largely Westward-looking orientation.” Today’s historical revisionism is not characterized by “a democratic, pluralist, capitalist and largely westward-looking orientation,” but rather by a presentation of national identity as a community of suffering and an anti-pluralist understanding of the collective. The illusion that 1989 would bring a general democratization to Eastern Europe is over. Evaluation of the communist period increasingly draws on pre-1945 concepts.

This anti-modernism goes hand in hand with a fundamental anti-modernist interpretation of history, one based on the horrible suffering of the past, but which promises future redemption.

In this context, I argue that communist historiography was already a revisionist historiography and in post-communist Eastern Europe. Therefore it is of utmost political importance to analyze how this history-writing works as its anti-modernist variant is gaining in history writing. The memory of communism and the leftist tradition are omitted, forgotten, and denied, while the process of constructing “future memories” works exactly on the same principle as the revisionist, hegemonic communist writing of history. The resurfacing anti-modernism in post-communist Eastern Europe has also appropriated history in order to achieve its aims, namely to create a viable, livable, and desirable alternative. This anti-modernism goes hand in hand with a fundamental anti-modernist interpretation of history, one based on the horrible suffering of the past, but which promises future redemption.

Let’s now move on to the issue of academic freedom. In your article on the influences of anti-gender movements in the Gender Studies field you write that it is often the case that scholars are pulled into engaging with commentators who operate in bad faith. Can you talk about the value of having such discussions with anti-gender movement activists? Is it ever better not to feed the fires they wish to stoke?

Analyzing the reactions to attacks on gender-studies scholars we can see a wide variety of responses: from fierce public debates and mass demonstrations to strategic withdrawal from public debates to renaming gender-studies centers to family-studies centers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; it depends on the local contacts and the resources gender-studies scholars have. Gender studies as an academic discipline found its “paradoxical recognition” via the attacks of illiberal forces: never before was there such a public and scholarly interest in the work of gender-studies scholars, there have never been so many applicants for gender-studies MA programs. This is a great opportunity that will test the relationship of gender studies not only to other disciplines but also to the wider social community of knowledge production. Time will tell if the present reactivity of gender studies can be transformed into proactivity for the sake of a better science for all of us. Bridging political and scientific cleavages previously thought to be theoretically unbridgeable has led to collaborations between secular and religious political forces and academics, which have turned out to be the most promising for creating spaces of resistance to illiberal politics.

How do you see the illiberal attempts at penetrating academic institutions or at creating new parallel institutions that promote themselves as alternatives to the liberal paradigm that dominates higher education? Where are the long-term risks and how can we fight against them?

The European scientific infrastructure was unprepared for the emergence of illiberal science policy and illiberal academic institutions, which may look like any other scientific institutions, but in reality, are not. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the Hungarian Accreditation Committee obtained its European license from the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) only after the Central European University was forced into exile and the two-year master’s program in gender studies was stricken from the accredited study list.

These parallel institutions use the neoliberal language of excellence, competitiveness, impact, social outreach, and indices; however, they are all fraudulent and empty. The available state funding for parallel institutions seems limitless, leading to the non-illiberal state-funded institutions’ further impoverishment. Faculty members of parallel institutions earn at least twice as much as state-funded faculty and furthermore have access to research and travel grants from their institutions. The abundance of national funding replaces EU/outside funding even as it renders it obsolete and suspicious. The difference between these parallel institutions and classic academic institutions is that at the former institutions, academic authority stems not from institutionalized quality assurance but from formal and informal performances of loyalty to the governing party. The lack of quality control in these illiberal parallel institutions has also led to attacks on existing systems and institutions of academic quality control in general in countries whose governments are appointing politically-reliable commissars as leaders and members of quality-assurance institutions. A further characteristic of illiberal science policy is its non-transparent hiring process in which only political loyalty counts. This policy also connects to the re-masculinization of science (reliance on male networks, context of familialism as a state ideology, etc.) and the masculinization of intellectual life.

These parallel institutions use the neoliberal language of excellence, competitiveness, impact, social outreach, and indices; however, they are all fraudulent and empty.

Science and academic research are very similar to COVID-19, they are a transnational phenomenon It does not matter that one keeps the national environment controlled if the outside one is not controlled. The basis of science is trust in standards: if a result is flawed, then it might take millions in research money to correct that mistake. I give you two examples in which the scientific data was fraudulent. In the first case, because of politics, as the wife of the Romanian communist dictator, Mrs. Ceauşescu, was able to publish research in chemistry under her name that she did not do herself. And in the second case, it was one of sloppiness: not doing an experiment built on existing theory. In both cases, academic trust was compromised: namely that the research was actually not done and in the case of Mrs. Ceauşescu it was not done by the person who was listed as the author. Trust was breached by illiberal science. What happens in the illiberal academy in Hungary should concern Europe and the world. Different European countries are hosting and sending Hungarian researchers and students through different exchange programs. The knowledge they are producing cannot be trusted as the quality control is nonfunctional. The fraudulent system infects the higher education system of other countries as they are unprepared for this type of scientific fraud. This will cause millions of dollars of damage to the higher education and research for others.


Andrea Pető is Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Vienna Austria and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She is also a fellow at CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest. She is teaching courses on European comparative social and gender history, gender and politics, women’s movements, qualitative methods, oral history, and the Holocaust. Author of 7 monographs, editor of 31 volumes, as well as 266 articles and chapters in books published in 23 languages. Her articles have appeared in leading journals including East European Politics and Society, Feminist Theory, NORA, Journal of Women’s History, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Clio, Baltic Worlds, European Politics and Society, International Women’s Studies Forum, The Journal of Intelligence History,  Journal of Genocide Research, Contemporary European History.

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.

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