In considering how the pension system could be better designed, which is essentially concerned with the provision of security and care in old age, I wanted to learn more about the situation of care work from the workers’ perspective. During this residency with Weird Economies, I started speaking with Kinga Milankovics, a caregiver from Hungary who goes back and forth to the UK for work. Very quickly, I found out that Kinga, who used to work as a lecturer in agricultural economics, has been working with the municipality of Janoshida in rural Hungary to build an ecological care village. Many rural areas in Europe face inequality in development and have become socially marginalized; the vision for the care village is economic development through providing wellbeing in old age for both locals and outsiders.
However, there are several obstacles. To begin with, Janoshida has had almost no exposure to outsiders. While caring is a way of life in Janoshida, it depends on women’s invisible labor as in many traditional social models, and poverty has become a habit that makes it difficult for villagers to imagine alternatives. Many villagers are used to poverty and changes can be viewed as a threat to their valued social fabric; but the young leave and don’t return, and they know things can’t stay the same. The village stands in a delicate spot.
Kinga’s vision of an ecological care village is a holistic one: the society and economy structured around care cannot be exclusionary or oppressive. Fairness is part of the package. She wants to work with art to foster equality and positive relationships between the village and the outside world. And as a permaculture activist, Kinga wants to increase the appreciation of nature against industrialized flora and agricultural methods. You could say it’s a plan to build a stronghold for progressive politics in what some may view as the unlikely landscape of agrarian Central Eastern Europe. I signed up and met with Kinga in Janoshida.
Meeting Kinga in Hungary, I was resensitized to the role culture plays in economic organization. Theoretically, this was already known, but the encounter highlighted the importance again, particularly as to what I personally can do to contribute to new socio-economic organization. I have my own thoughts on how the economy can be better structured, but this is only possible when communities also support it.
When I visited Janoshida, we met with Bela the mayor. Kinga had told me that he was very popular and had been re-elected several times, becoming a constant in people’s lives for over a decade. When we met, Bela was getting ready for a trip while busy preparing to host the Jasz World Meeting, a bi-annual festival bringing together the people from the Jasz region to which Janoshida belongs. It was expected to bring in many regional visitors, and there were challenging logistics to be met with a reduced budget. The village had just held a big party to fundraise. Kinga translated between us, and he was keen to work with art and showed me a tapestry and a painting villagers had made; the painting in particular was commissioned to an unemployed Roma villager. We discussed some of the challenges that the village was going through, and he said it was important to be aware that villagers cherished their way of life despite the challenges. The village’s existing culture is a stability that people were holding onto in a fast-changing world. Any structural changes in their community therefore needs to respond to their sensibilities.
We then visited Peter, who had worked as a caregiver in the UK but always planned to return to Janoshida. He had pulled his back, so was staying at home. After showing us his garden and how he plans to use the excess harvest of plums and apples to make palinka, a kind of Hungarian vodka, we went back inside to chat. He talked about his brief period with the right wing political party during university when he was studying medicine in the city. He felt alone in the city and the party offered a kind of fraternity that he missed from the village. He was also drawn to the promises of transparency and efficiency. But when the party’s xenophobic vitriol against the Roma people started, he wanted to have nothing to do with that and left. He explained that even though he was bullied by Roma children in school, he understood that these children came from difficult family and social situations. As we left so he could get some rest, he reminded us that while Janoshida is still a happy place, big city politics was coming to the village and the government has been strangling the village’s finances. That includes cutting down the available budget for the Jasz World Meeting, which he was personally looking forward to, although he mentioned that people from the nearby Jasz villages were different and not as open-minded.
It was not particularly clear to me who or what the Jasz people were about, but the locals certainly saw it as part of their identity and were looking forward to the event. After we left, I asked Kinga who the Jasz people are, and she wasn’t sure either. Wiki tells me that the Jasz people were an ethnic group that originated from Iran and settled in the region during the 13th century. While they became fully assimilated in the next two centuries, they maintained their identities and privileges, including self-governance. Unfortunately, I did not stay long enough to see the festival myself, but Kinga sent pictures and it seems very much like a traditional crafts fair.
The village’s existing culture is a stability that people were holding onto in a fast-changing world. Any structural changes in their community therefore needs to respond to their sensibilities.
We then visited the Skanzen Museum, an open air museum to showcase the traditional Hungarian way of life. Kinga had been there many years ago and said it was a good place to learn about farming methods. When we got there, she was disappointed at how the exhibits had been watered down from their previous educational content. Rather, it had become a sentimentalized re-enactment of history, with employees dressed as a traveler with a suitcase and a border guard at the Hungary-Romania border. Kinga explained that Romania received all of Transylvania after World War I, which was re-confirmed after World War II, a loss that Hungary would still mourn as encouraged by the present government. As we traversed across this staged border, we walked through a building with flashy multimedia displays of the country’s history and people, before exiting into a square fashioned with new buildings in the Romantic architectural style from the 17th century. It was all so new that you could almost smell the paint. There, we encountered a group of employees dressed up as shopkeepers and citizens of yore in this historical Disneyland, ready to greet a group of visiting school children. I only wish I had taken some photos.
It is easy to be cynical and to critique the construction of a particular romanticized past that is typical of many xenophobic ideologies. But constructing narratives is something museums have always done, and it is not unique to Hungary. Weimar, the quaint German postcard town where I studied, has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on Renaissance architecture in re-building after the war. Likewise, UNESCO world cultural heritage sites and statuses run on the same logic of narrative building. Narratives may indeed be used as propaganda, but looking at the importance of the Jasz identity today, even if it may appear as a diluted craft fair, narratives are not insignificant. We exist within narratives in that it is impossible to exist outside of culture; rationality is just one narrative that is often presupposed to be objective truth, and it is a specific logic that can exclude other forms of knowledge and experiences.
Much of our society currently runs on a narrative of free market efficiency, as if it were a natural law of physics; other narratives underlying our society, in particular that of the social contract, further supports the narrative of free market efficiency. It appeals to the citizen as a rational person who has given up some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of a sovereignty. However, the right to rebel is sterilized through the image of the rational man, in particular of an economic rationality where one’s wellbeing can be gained through means such as work rather than through traditional inheritance. In seemingly benign frameworks, it justifies the need to co-operate by claiming we are all interdependent, but this framework becomes problematic because it can undermine rights-based discourses and poorly accounts for the relationship between “us” and “them”–that is people and beings who might not be dependent upon “us” and their rights to exist independently. In that the possibility to exit the contract does not truly exist and in combination with economic rationality, the notion of the social contract becomes a meritocratic veneer for transactional benefits in democratic society, and distinctly against concepts of care in which one may act simply out of conviction.
We exist within narratives in that it is impossible to exist outside of culture; rationality is just one narrative that is often presupposed to be objective truth, and it is a specific logic that can exclude other forms of knowledge and experiences.
Bela the mayor’s reminder to be sensitive to the villagers’ current values even if they may be problematic reminded me that it’s not simply about how I think a system can be improved, but that there is as much work to be done in existing culture. In sentimental terms, feelings matter and they affect beliefs and decisions. In more theoretical language, Bela had pointed me back to the area of narrative economics, which states that culture affects our economic decisions, whether it’s spending patterns, predisposition for entrepreneurship, or inclination to participate in a new pension fund.
Speaking with Bela and Peter, who were both born and raised in Janoshida and hold progressive political values amid an increasingly right-wing environment, Kinga and I began to wonder why Janoshida is different from the nearby Jasz villages. Perhaps there was a school teacher who invisibly brought up generations of villagers with such values. At least that seems like the most reasonable guess. The first step in our plan is therefore modest, we aim to start by working with the school in Janoshida to consider existing narratives in the village and to incorporate new ones. We aim to change the narrative of care, from a domestic quality to an acknowledged building block of society. Currently, economics’ emphasis on efficiency and productivity cannot fully account for the more human aspects in society. But care is the social fabric of a society, and “duty of care” is a core concept in the legal system. Not only is care practiced by caregivers, but teachers, doctors and engineers also exercise care every time they decide to opt out of routine formulas and approach an idiosyncrasy as a situation worthy of their attention. Could a narrative with a more nuanced understanding of care bring about change, in which the economy is a means to human wellbeing that brings about greater equality for all?
Kinga wanted to learn more about art. l explained that art is more than just visual aesthetics, and that art education includes critiques and discussions to explain why certain decisions are made. Perhaps this is why making art is important to society, to have discussions on why we want certain things in certain ways, why being more efficient or why more profit is not always a priority. It also creates instances when we can become vulnerable with each other and exercise care. In this vein, art can become a counter-force to an economic design based on value extraction that has led to exclusion, oppression, as well as destruction. It seems art education in school is valuable for embedding these capacities into society, and the goal is not necessarily to create more professional artists. This might even be obvious, but in face of cuts to art education at the secondary school level, the professional cultural sector can be more vocal on this front. Perhaps there have simply been too many fires to fight. But what if we transport university level art education into a village school?
With villagers both young and old telling the history and future of Janoshida through art, we aim to change the deeply gendered narratives in rural areas, so that care and care work do not fall onto women through a moral burden. Since the village is a tight-knit community, Kinga and I will grow the project from the school to encompass the elderly center and other villagers in Janoshida. Even if we are wrong in that it was not a school teacher that fostered generations of open-minded villagers, it only seems right that we try to ensure that these capabilities are cultivated in the next generation, if not as a hedge against neo-Fascist politics that relish in market logic, then to at least equip them with a more diverse skill set for their own future. We cannot demand that the well-educated stay in the village, but we should do everything we can to facilitate that choice, even though working with a school may seem like low-hanging fruit.
As an artist interested in socio-economic change, I have moved from speculative designs to consider how these things can become reality. It can tread very finely with the startup discourse; one could build it and hope people will come, an approach that has actually failed many startups. But if we want to talk about socio-economic organization, then whatever design is concerned must allow for change and maybe even disappear for something new. The space is necessarily political. Designs cannot be imposed upon people, and that is part of the current problem. Most people have given up on economic issues and left them to the “experts,” and destructive narratives like trickle-down economics and meritocracy disguising systemic injustices as “work ethic” have grown into a stranglehold on our society, visible in how some object to student debt forgiveness on the grounds of responsibility. In this case, education that opens up the space for other cultural narratives must be part of the answer.