In the past few weeks, I’ve had the good fortune of listening to a lecture by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Bálint Magyar, and reading a draft of his latest book. Magyar is a Hungarian sociologist who was once a member of the post-Communist Hungarian government. As his country transformed into an autocracy, he became both a dissident and a student of the transformation. Magyar pioneered the term “mafia state,” which he has argued is a distinct approach to government. A lot of Magyar’s argument has to do with terminology. Quite simply, he says, if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing. If you use the language developed for describing fish, you cannot very well describe an elephant: words like “gills,” “scales,” and “fins” will not get you very far.
In his upcoming book, Magyar introduces the term “autocratic attempt.” It is the first of three stages of establishing autocracy—the stage where it may still be reversible. (The next stage is “autocratic breakthrough.”) It is a useful term to borrow. In the past week, what we observed was a desperate battle between the autocratic attempt and the institutions’ defensive fight to reverse it. Magyar has analyzed the signs and circumstances of this process in post-Communist countries and has proposed a detailed taxonomy. How it happens here is uncharted territory. We have to invent a way of thinking and writing about it in real time.