About 100,000 demonstrators came out the other night around the Opera House, the government palaces and the most elegant avenues of Budapest to protest against the new constitution sought by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and voted through by the two-thirds parliamentary majority of his centre-right party.

They were more numerous than ever before, representing a society numbed by the economic crisis. But, like the Paul Street Boys [the famous 1906 novel by Ferenc Molnár] they were fighting a battle that was already lost. Under the gilt and chandeliers in the Opera House, the government celebrated the establishment of the new state, despite the disapproval of the international community.

Under the new Constitution, the Central Bank will henceforth no longer be independent of the government (odd idea in these financially turbulent times), as will the Constitutional Court and the media (many journalists have already been sacked under the new press law). The leaders of the current Socialist Party, meanwhile, can be prosecuted retroactively for "communist crimes" committed before 1989.

Added to this are a rash of laws on subjects ranging from the status of Hungarians living abroad to heterosexual marriage. Hungary has become a more authoritarian state, bucking the modern trend. This is a cause for concern for the European Union and Barack Obama’s United States, as well as the International Monetary Fund, which has suspended negotiations on a massive loan to support the battered forint.

Viktor Orbán (born a liberal but soon infected by populism) and the far-right Jobbik party have revived a reactionary spirit that has taken the West aback. Readers of the novels of Sándor Márai (1900-1989) or Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) will have some difficulty recognising the Hungary of today in the country those authors portrayed. It is precisely this hiatus, however, that allows us to understand the fascist rumblings of the new Hungary.

Market economy gave oxygen

Márai, like many other writers born in the first half of the last century, told stories, particularly in his masterpiece "Confessions of a Bourgeois", from the splendid and opulent world of the great city of Budapest in its imperialist and monarchist era. A brilliant intellectual life, tolerance and good manners were the hallmarks of this civilisation observed by Elias, whose love for his country was balanced by a natural and enlightened cosmopolitanism.

It could not have been otherwise for those who were born in houses lined with books, where three or four languages were commonly spoken at home. Everywhere, including Hungary, the bourgeoisie was the driving force of modern Europe. But there was a problem. Along the Danube, following centuries of wars and foreign domination, the bourgeoisie was born late. And despite the splendour of the Belle Epoque, it was extremely fragile.

At the time Márai was writing, this bourgeois world was already gone, buried under the rubble of the First World War. Terrorised by a brief and bloody Bolshevik revolution, then tranquillised by the fascism of Admiral Horthy (1920-1944), who loved the symbols and slogans of nationalism and feudalism, forty years of people’s democracy was a natural continuation of the euthanasia of the bourgeoisie.

Introduced overnight in 1989, the market economy gave oxygen to the middle classes. But that was not enough. The weak forint quickly disillusioned those who dreamed of well-being, of a rebirth, of Western-style prosperity, and so unleashed the fears and the pride in which Hungary, wedged between the West and the East, has lived for centuries.

Middle classes have been crushed

The values of democracy, pluralism, dialogue and diversity seem superfluous when from day to day it's a struggle to do the shopping and pay the bills. And so there arise temptations to turn inwards, to dream of a Greater Hungary, to add a touch of victimisation to the wounds of history – the wars against the Turks, the Soviet invasion, the Treaty of Trianon at the end of the First World War by which the Allies stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory.

In hard times, this old malaise makes Hungary tend to emphasise proudly its self-destructive otherness, which is confirmed by that sweet Ugric language no one else in Europe understands. Orbán’s challenge to the international community with his new Constitution – "No one can criticise what we do,” he said – was uttered in this spirit.

Reforms, modernity, the market – they can wait. Better to rely on vague myths of purity, the sacredness of the soil (which globalised foreigners can buy for a handful of forints), strong men in command.

Once again, the middle classes have been crushed, by the muddling of the state and by inflation. Once again, the temptation not to defeat political opponents but to wipe them out, to put them on trial and reduce them to silence, takes over. To keep the Hungarian cousins from once again straying from the European family, however, we must understand why they have fallen ill.