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Meta vs. Szekszárd
Waiting at a bus station in southern Hungary was an unlikely time to learn that the Postliberal Order Substack had been born. But so it was—with Apple dutifully passing along another notification, from the networks of Telenor HU to my location in Szekszárd. I had just finished speaking to students and townspeople in this city two hours south of Budapest, at one of the regional outposts of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Our conversation had rapidly moved to the crucial point: how does a small region compete in the oft-feted global economy?
Put differently: what hath Meta to do with Szekszárd?
Nestled in the foothills of the Transdanubian Mountains well south of Budapest, Szekszárd lies—somewhat unexpectedly, except for oenophiles—at the heart of the region’s wine country. Looking down on Szekszárd from a nearby hilltop, vineyards carve slices out of the valley to the west; burnt sienna tiles mark the modern city to the east, occasionally punctured by a midsize apartment complex. The hilltop, called Kálvária kilátó for its Calvary scene, now hosts a larger metallic Soviet-era homage to the region’s viticulture. Its shiny leaves used to bear beneath them the names of Soviet leaders—later removed and replaced after the fall of Communism.
First shaped by the settlement of Benedictine monks there in the eleventh century, Szekszárd (seck-sard) has been the regional hub of viticulture since the eighteenth century. American readers can be forgiven for knowing little of delicious secret that is Hungarian wine. While Szekszárd welcomes many tourists, the vintner I visited was proud to say that their wine enjoyed largely domestic customers.
But Szekszárd is asking the same questions many similar regions are asking—particularly after thirty years of slight but accumulating population declines. So much was concern in the air that a local television reporter asked me earnestly: “Can you tell us what you have seen of the effects of progressivism on the countryside, from your vantage point in England?” After suppressing my shock at having been accused of being English, I pivoted to answering the corresponding American question.
But the simple import of the question is all the same: What is happening to us? What is going to happen to us?
In fact the news is far from bad. When I asked my hosts whether the young people of Szekszárd were having children, the answer was blinking disbelief. “Yes! Don’t you know about CSOK?,” the abbreviation for the home formation subsidy at the heart of Hungary’s family policy program. Still, even with functional family life, the question hangs in the air: will the best talent come back here or go?
At my talk I asked the young people what vision of human flourishing was being proposed by the largest, most successful media and social networking platforms—the ones they have interacted with since childhood, that have, more and more, formed their expectations of life and culture. Though Facebook has been social media boomertown for years, its reinvention as “Meta” shows that its intention has been consistent since the beginning: to become an immersive platform on which more and more aspects of analog human life can be recreated digitally. The ideal participant isn’t a proud family man from Szekszárd—but a weak, deracinated, isolated, media-addled, confused, locked down Westerner.
About this vision I asked a simple question: Is the “global marketplace” offering something that highlights and develops the talents, culture and identity of those who become a part of it? Or is it instead offering a standard, depressing program: the resolution and recomposition of human life along the lines proposed by global liberalism? Yes, you can keep your culture and identity—as long as it’s an unrecognizable intersection of incommunicable preferences, understandable to no one except the platforms adept at monetizing and reselling it.
In fact many of the trends of the “global marketplace” are beginning to push against this formula. As Joel Kotkin has written in the pages of American Affairs, there has been a “heartland revival” in recent years that has only accelerated along with the collapse of the major coastal metropolises. And in the New York Times this past summer, my colleague Julius Krein explained how China has harnessed its provinces to coordinate and carry out its larger industrial projects.
For savvy young people and industrial planners alike, regions like Szekszárd are some of the only places where a move orthogonal to the rest of the system is possible.
The cynical reaction Mark Zuckerberg’s “Meta” was met with shows that the old model—“Move fast and break things”—is unconvincing and has run its course. It takes much more work to make the good things last than it does to move to San Francisco and take up a sinecure in Facebook’s “marketing department.” I’ll have much more to say about this dynamic in an essay forthcoming at First Things next week.
Meanwhile, as the internet gazes at ever-shorter videos, the opportunity to build things that last will only grow more apparent. The contrast, and the need for the contrast, is clearest in places like Szekszárd or Arkansas—where talent lies available for building a strong and proud regional economy, away from the bright lights but surrounded by the things that people really want.