Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Consumerism in Hungary C O N S U M E R I S M:
Shop till You Drop

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

In the wake of the 1956 Revolution, the Hungarian Communist Party relaxed its iron grip in an effort to avoid a further loss of face. The man who led the country from 1956 to the end of the Communism, Janos Kadar, embarked on a course of compromise, with which his name is now synonymous. The essence of Kadarism, or "goulash Communism" as it was termed in a vulgar, but in many ways apt, fashion in the West, can be characterised as a truce between ideology and consumerism, according to which Hungarians traded off political dissent against increased prosperity. As long as you did not meddle in politics, you would be left more or less alone to spend as you wished, dress in jeans, wear your hair long. Not rocking the boat was the price to avoid the queues and rationing associated with other Communist countries in Central Europe. In fact, it was the cement holding together the walls of the "happiest barracks".

The gulf between official ideology and everyday life led to a kind of schizophrenia. Although consumerism was denounced by the Party, society was consumer-oriented. The gallery of villains included "haracsolo" (the verb haracsolni means to loot or extort money) whose incomes far outstripped those of ordinary Hungarians, who owned their holiday houses on the "Hungarian Sea", Lake Balaton, who were mercilessly pilloried, yet tolerated by the administration because they were needed as a negative example and to cover up the sins of the Party bigwigs who engaged in exactly the same practices, revelling in conspicuous advantage.

Hoarding was frowned upon, the good Communist made donations to the starving poor of the Third World and consumed no more than was needed to sustain everyday life. Yet the TV showed ads encouraging citizens to buy whatever was in a surplus in shops at the time, which in turn benefited the state in the form of tax revenues. From this point of view, Hungarian society prior to the collapse of Communism can be described as a hybrid, a semi-consumer society.

Yes, we have no bananas

Basics, such as milk, bread, cheese were always available and relatively cheap. If shortages did occur, they were temporary. Certain foodstuffs, such as bananas, were deemed luxury items by the state and hence not freely available. Oranges and lemons, by contrast, could be purchased without any restriction, as they contained vitamin C and were deemed essential for good health.

A certain degree of privation (by Western standards at least) was unaviodable, however. The average waiting time for a telephone was about ten years, and applicants could quite literally die waiting for a line. This even gave rise to a Parliamentary debate about whether applications for phones should be made inheritable. Patience was equally a virtue whilst waiting for a car, the average wait lasting some five years. In order to obtain a car, you would have to make a down payment at the time of ordering the car. This comprised half the price of the vehicle and interest would not be paid on it. On receiving notice that the car was available, you had to first pay the outstanding balance, then you could go to the supplier's yard and pick up the brand you had chosen. In 90% of cases, the selection had to be made amongst Eastern European cars (Warburg, Dacia, Lada, Trabant), although occasionally Fiats, Volkswagen and Opels could be acquired (mainly in the mid-60s to mid-70s). There were two options - standard or luxury, the latter with extras such as car radios - and a choice of colours. All preferences had to be indicated in advance. If the colour of your choice happened not to be available on the day assigned for you to collect the car, you could either wait a few weeks longer or make do with an alternative colour.

As far as other consumer goods were concerned, the shelves were stocked with them, but they tended to be expensive. For example, a colour TV set cost about HUF 30,000 (USD 125 at today's exchange rates) in the days when the average monthly wage was around HUF 4,000 (USD 17). Only Hungarian brands were on offer. Banks were generous in offering loans to put these products within everyone's reach. Black markets thrived to cater for any whim that could not be satisfied by state-run retail outlets. Western hit records could be purchased easily on the black market, though the price difference between them and their home-grown Hungarian equivalents was hefty: HUF 700 (USD and HUF 60 respectively. Similarly, on the jeans market, Levis and Wrangler could be bought at a fifth of the price of highly sought-after Italian designer jeans.

An atmosphere of hedonism pervaded Hungarian society, in spite of the tight rein the Party kept on any form of association or club. Even stamp collectors' hobby groups had moles built into them to ensure their discussions remained devoid of political content. The current popularity of civil associations of every hue can be explained in part as a collective sigh of relief at the demise of such constraints. Censorship, however, was not quite so all-embracing as the West imagined it to be: though Voice of America and Radio free Europe were jammed, young Hungarians across the length and breadth of the country could tune into Radio Luxembourg for the latest sounds. The relative freedom and prosperity enjoyed by Hungarians compared with their neighbours positively contributed to the Hungarian self-perception, as well as to their image in the eyes of the outside world. It would be wrong to attribute the nostalgia felt by certain sectors of contemporary Hungarian society to a distorted and unnecessarily rosy picture of the past. Income disparities were minimal, the old elite far smaller than the new and, what is more, the source of the old elite's privileges was more easily identifiable than the dubious practices and shady dealings engaged in by the new).

Capitalism through the back door

Gradually, the Communist Party gave recognition to the realities of daily life. Communist self-sacrifice and organised "voluntary" work at the weekends was abandoned at last when "maszekolas" (being self-employed, moonlighting, or having a second job, a phenomenon which had assumed increasing importance as Hungarians devoted more time and energy to spending money on the goods they wanted to buy) was legalised at the beginning of the 80s. Soon afterwards, private individuals were permitted to set up their own businesses, which, although they represented an awkward hybrid, did hold out the prospect of high incomes. Punitive taxation of these firms was eased off in 1986 with the introduction of VAT and income tax. From then on, capitalist and Communist companies were, in principle at least, on an equal footing. The final obstacles to private enterprise were removed in 1989, when it became possible to establish companies of any kind.

Viewed from the perspective of a slow but steady progression towards full recognition of the consumerism which acted as the foundation of a largely apolitical Hungarian society, the relative ease with which Hungary shook off the last vestiges of a communism that had long since ceased to hold sway over the hearts and minds of its subjects. There was no radical caesura in Hungary, the transition to democracy and a market economy was less abrupt: ideological lip service was no longer required, the hypocritical pretence finally cast aside.

Walking down the main pedestrian shopping street in Pest, Vaci utca, is a remarkably similar experience to strolling along such a street anywhere else in the Western world. Many of the shops are the same: Marks and Spencer's, HMV to name but two. Only the language of the signs, impenetrable to the bulk of the tourists, betrays that we are not in London or Paris; that along with the establishments selling local produce, hand-made lace and national costume. The cafes with their standard-issue steel tube chairs and their tables scattered along the pavement could be anywhere with a reasonable climate and GDP. Even the magazines in the newsagents have an international feel to them (last year a Hungarian version of Cosmopolitan heralded a radical change in values, Hungary was considered ripe for the "me first" brand of feminism connected with the name of the monthly), catering to every possible taste and interest. Choice and niche markets had clearly gained in importance.

Palaces of anaesthesia

Two shopping centres illustrate how Hungary has succumbed to the pressure of cultural homogeneity. Firstly, we have Duna Plaza, a sprawling entertainment complex in Buda, conveniently located for Metro. Its architecture is bland and monolithic, with no particular distinguishing feature discernible from the outside. It conceals its treasure within, an atrium, bustling with shoppers protected from the vicissitudes of the weather beneath panels of glass in an artificial atmosphere; a closed sphere, entirely separated from the roads and dwellings beyond its walls. The opening hours are late in order to provide the maximum opportunity for spending: Sundays are not rest days here. Fast food restaurants galore vie with each other to whet the appetite and a multiplex cinema offers equally bland fare - America's prize exports side by side. Here we have a temple to instant gratification, if your wallet can stand the strain, that is. Without the merest effort expended, you are offered a seemingly endless supply of alternatives to stimulate the palate and numb the mind.

Secondly, Mammut Shopping Centre, situated near Moszkva Ter, where tram lines and the Metro converge, linking Buda and Pest. It harbours a sports centre, beauty treatments and a pristine supermarket that could not contrast more starkly with the hubbub on the square. What you are presented with is a world without the ravages of decay and transitoriness, an illusion of immortality and ceaseless pleasure, a realm from which suffering is banished in a massive act of denial and self-deception, a dream into which we gladly buy.

The shopping centre is increasingly the focal point of leisure time, in Hungary too, a venue for young people to congregate, everything exists to pamper and to serve. The subtle moulding of tastes that the malls bring about is imperceptible, the manipulative element suppressed by the overall experience. Mammut is more upmarket than Duna Plaza, its restaurants Greek and Italian with semi-real food instead of burgers and greasy chips. The goods on sale are displayed seductively, arranged to please the eye, to tempt. Western goods still have greater prestige. Following fashion - that constant death and resurrection cycle of the self to suppress the painful awareness of mortality - has perhaps never been quite so important.

Shopping malls are the collective spaces of the consumer society. They do not impose moral obligation, nor do they encourage even notional solidarity. Compare the effort and investment put into them with that put into churches in ages past. They too represent a refuge from the cares and demands of external existence, they offer solace and relief (temporary and superficial though it may be). They are monumental in scale, dwarfing the puny human body, hinting at something greater which lies beyond. Music is played in them, albeit in the background to create the kind of relaxed atmosphere conducive to parting with donations for a higher good (the profit of the manufacturer). The rows and rows of empty pews in churches do not merely testify to our supposed greater rationalism, but to a deeper shift in values. It is no coincidence that shopping malls and banks are the most common construction projects.

The losers

The openly admitted triumph of consumerism in Hungary has led to changes not only to the physical landscape, but also to the mental landscape. In Hungary, alongside the appearance and proliferation of city centre shopping malls, we see Western urban features replicated in the huge retail parks mushrooming on the outskirts of the capital and of provincial centres. At the same time, Hungarian society is becoming increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nots. The losers are the old, the weak, the disabled and the homeless who are pushed even further into the margins due to their relatively small share of wealth. The germ-free atmosphere of the malls is very intolerant of difference, of frailty, of infirmity, mirroring the concerns of the mainstream. To be included, you must conform to expectations generated by the advertising agencies. The greatest sin of all is poverty. Wages in Hungary are light-years behind wages in the EU. Pensioners and families with young children struggle to make ends meet, whilst state benefits are minimal.

A whole litany of Hungarian woes can be listed: poverty, low life expectancy, poor health, pollution, unemployment, under education, lack of prospects for the young, alcoholism, drug addiction, infertility, bank robberies, hold ups at petrol stations, illicit trade in firearms, child prostitution, extortion of protection money, organised car theft, selling inferior paprika and wine as the genuine article, usury, art theft in Pest, embezzlement, forgery of diplomas, pirating, charging hundreds of dollars for a glass of wine, dumping new born babies in rubbish bins, desecration of graves, domestic violence, the murder of British tourists in a lay-by, beating to death of homeless people, and drink-driving and football hooligans (cf the article by Gyula Teller in Magyar Nemzet, 24 December 1998). None of the items here are unfamiliar to Western readers, but they have not lost their ability to shock in Hungary, and the right-wing is happy to attribute them to the emergence of unfettered consumerism (interpreted as the ultimate expression of a liberal ideology that prizes individual freedom above any collective duty of solidarity), the erosion of traditional values taking the blame as the source of all evil. Whereas it is true that many of these phenomenon were always present in Hungarian society, the difference is that they have assumed hitherto unprecedented proportions and they attract more publicity than ever before.

Consumerism, in short, does have its opponents. The example of the Auchan Department Store in Budaors illustrates the dilemma between short-term gain and long-term losses that can give rise to conflict (see Magyar Nemzet, 2 February 1999). Peter Dudas, representing the local Mayor's Office, was delighted by the arrival of the French-funded shopping centre. "The local authority could not have made a better deal," he enthused. The hypermarket had led to a major improvement in infrastructure, as far as he was concerned. This had not cost the town a penny. The fact that none of these so-called improvements (such as building a flyover for pedestrians to cross the busy motor way) would not have been necessary if the hyper market had not been built was lost on him. Mr. Dudas was interested in the tax revenue generated, the new jobs that had been created and the town's enhanced role as a regional centre resulting from the Auchan development. Half of the town's total income now came from the hyper market, and plans to construct two further shopping centres on the town's periphery had already been given the official seal of approval. When quizzed about the environmental impact of the hyper market, Mr. Dudas praised the noise protection barriers, allegedly far more generous in scale than strictly necessary.

A quite different appraisal of the situation is given by the representatives of Levego Csoport (the Air Group National Environmental Protection Association), chief opponents of the hypermarket. On the basis of air samples taken, Budaors already had a serious pollution problem to contend with even before the hyper market arrived on the scene. According to experts, traffic is the source of the dramatic decrease in air quality. Needless to say, the shopping centre attracts greater volumes of traffic to the town, the ensuing deterioration of the environment cancelling out any material gains it may have brought. The situation will be exacerbated by the completion of the new developments, which, it is estimated, will be visited by between 20 and 42,000 shoppers every day.

An anti-capitalism backlash

An eloquent summary of the principle arguments against monetarism (and, by extension, consumerism) is to be found in Laszlo Tokeczki's article in Magyar Nemzet (11 August 1999), which criticises the reductionism indulged in by any ideology, including that of what he terms the "business International", contrasting it in this respect with Communism:

Unfortunately, the bulk of members of Hungarian society have had bitter first-hand experience of the 'humanism' of 'scientific' Socialism and its lies, of the desire of fanatics and grasping individuals to adjust the complex world of reality and of humanity to fit in with 'scientific' fictions. This is one more reason why it is deeply distressing that these days there is a manifest belief within 'authoritative' intellectual and influential political circles that the practical implementation of the principles of monetarist economics holds the key to the future, that is, to a healthy economy and, of course, to a harmonious (market-oriented) society.

All science is nothing more than a tool that depends on who uses it and for what purpose they use it. It has been apparent for some 200 years or so that the most amazing scientific results can also be used for destruction, employed against man and nature. Unlike the natural world, there are no eternal and universally valid laws that apply to the human world and to the world of society. The realisation of eternal values is all that is open to every individual, to every society and age.

The foundation of scientific trends that are supposed to offer redemption to humanity is always a reduced or even fictitious image of what a human being actually is. The 'scientists' who strive for objectivity, therefore, always presume too much or too little of human beings or of humanity in general, their assumptions upset by individuals, that is, by real people 'burdened down' by subjectivities. As a result, the recommended 'objective truths' that take shape on the political plane either regulate and organise every aspect of life as is the case with dictatorships or... grant total freedom (anarchy). So they either 'know' what is permitted and what is prohibited, or, deeming anything possible, presuppose that (market) order and harmony will emerge spontaneously. This freedom to allow everything is, however, an illusion, since striving for material gain, more precisely, the maximum possible gain, is the only normal and natural ambition within this unlimited freedom. Intellectually, only one kind of 'free thinking' is allowed within the far stricter strait-jacket of political correctness.

On the basis of this, modern humanity must transform society into a unit which creates money and profit. There can be no exceptions. Everything which is not useful, which cannot be sold, which, in other words, does not serve the ends of promoting a general feeling of material well-being, of ownership and of consumption must be eliminated, because, according to this school of thought, these form the essence of man. Even intellectual and spiritual requirements must be transformed into goods and services so that they may be expressed in terms of GDP and maybe even listed on the stock exchange. Monetarist "science" in its guise as the salvation of the human world is extremely simple and rational. Everyone must be an actor on the market and economical at the same time. Society, therefore, must equal a self-regulating market, which will solve the problem of equitable distribution of resources by operating in the same way as 'enterprises' in constant competition with each other with the most effective receiving the biggest slice. It will also result in the enjoyment of individual liberty without the need for a state and, as a result, compulsion. Beyond financial and market success, the individual need take nothing else into account. Mind and spirit are reduced to commodities and services. The brave new world eliminates all 'prejudice', demolishes all 'provincialism', erases all pasts, everyone united and universalised in the business of making money.

The popularity of the business International's idea of salvation is huge at the present moment, as it corresponds perfectly both to the requirements of completely atomised, well-off individuals and to those of Godfather-style "premodern" business players, who at most acknowledge obligations based on family or blood bonds. In this world, community laws and obligations above the individual are superfluous restrictions, indeed, the state, which represents the interests of the community, is regarded as an enemy to be minimalised. Parallel to the dismantling of the state, the establishment of so-called civil society is demanded. Civil society is a bogus concept that engulfs everything in its path, based on voluntary action and consequently devoid of the competence and the strength needed to make it work. Originally conceived as a means of complementing and balancing the state whilst existing in parallel with it, civil society is bogus because it does not stand a chance against global entrepreneurial and bank capital neither of which are bound by any constraints at all...

The picture of society which emerges under monetarist "science" is one in which we are confronted with immense global financial powers that be on the one hand and incidental "civil society" groupings on the other, the latter unable to join forces because they lack common (state, national, religious) values".

According to this gloomy vision, the world is divided into winners and losers, the ranks of the losers swelling continuously because life operates at a loss, calling for much useless (from an economic point of view) expenditure, for many personal "investments" with no guarantee of a return. Simply in order to keep a community ticking over demands massive investment, none of which is recognised by monetarism. Covering such costs becomes the responsibility of the private individual or the local community itself.

The feelings of powerlessness and disappointment vented here strike a chord amongst many Hungarians. For them, the triumph of democracy seems a singularly hollow victory. In the meantime, those who can afford to can seek solace in spending sprees have almost infinite opportunity to quell their existential angst. "Shop till you drop" is the maxim that increasingly rules our lives.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 14 August 1999





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