The Long and Winding Road to Socialism: a conversation with Srećko Horvat

Srechko Hrovat. Photo by Oliver Abraham

When the reader embarks on reading The Iliad or The Odyssey, she knows quite well what will happen to whom and yet she doesn’t know exactly when. Capitalist financial crises are pretty much the same; we know from past experience that they will happen but we don’t know how and when. The European Debt crisis found the European Union completely unprepared. It showed not only that the European middle class was vulnerable but also that, once conscious of this vulnerability, it would significantly reorient its support for the established political platforms. As a result, Marine Le Pen reached the final round during the 2017 French presidential election. In the same year the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would receive 12.6 percent of the votes in the federal election. Meanwhile, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are now in positions of power. The crisis enabled the far right to do what it has always done best: capitalize on fear and discontent and direct it toward the weak and the marginalized. Parties like The Five Star Movement in Italy have propagandized seemingly a more approachable political line, emerging as an anti-establishment and environmentalist force advocating for direct participation and digital democracy (demands often encountered in left-wing political platforms) while being thoroughly nationalist and opposing emigration.

El Lisitsky, About Two Squares

Gramsci, from his prison cell in the 1930’s, noted that in times of change, all sorts of ill and frightful phenomena arise. I doubt that he excluded the possibility of alternative forces that were neither ill nor frightful but promising and welcomed. Such political forces like Podemos and Syriza resulted from the crisis and managed to come to positions of power in Greece and Spain, but for the left to succeed, national success is not enough. In our globalized, interconnected world change cannot be regional. Syriza is a good example of this; they were unable to resist the Troika and by readjusting their aims lost their radicalism. The situation might have been different if other leftist parties had held positions of power in the European Union.

Unfortunately, the left has systematically failed to produce a successful international movement, this because national ties and false consciousness have overcome class solidarity. Wage-earners in today’s Europe, possessing nothing but their labor, misperceive their position in society. Althusser argued that this is due to the ideological state apparatuses transmitting the ideology and values of the bourgeoisie. Consumerism sustains this false consciousness: being able to buy the latest IPhone on installment, holidaying with low cost companies, purchasing middle class goods on sale, is not an indication of welfare but that somewhere someone else is being exploited and that you have signed up for a life on credit that you can’t afford.

To put it in the simple words of a beloved Italian songwriter Celentano, the situation is not good and yet immediate radical revolutionary change cannot be an option for today’s Europe. The course of history has shown that such changes have derogated almost always in dictatorships. The road to socialism is not an easy one. It is a long process that requires sacrifices and devotion, consciousness and persistence. When the rock rolled down, Sisyphus rolled it back at the top again. Alike, the task of the left may seem laborious and futile. I have a very light hearted cyclical understanding of this myth, it doesn’t matter that the rock rolls back, what matter is that it is always on its way to reach the heights again.

DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) is a pan-European movement, founded in 2016 by Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat and the well-known economist Yanis Varoufakis. Their manifesto goes against the odds by offering a vision of Europe that is unlikely to succeed in the timeframe in which they aim. Yet DiEM25 might be the best thing that has happened to the European political scene in a long time. Srećko Horvat agreed to answer some of my questions that might echo those of many.

Artists, intellectuals and activists – is there place for a working class immigrant in DiEM25’s Advisory Panel?

You are absolutely right that our Advisory Panel could and should be more diverse, in the same manner that our membership already is diverse, with many working class immigrants or emigrants as members. So far the Advisory Panel consisted mainly of people who themselves approached us or we approached them because they were supportive of DiEM25 and wanted to help with their thoughts and experience. But you are not right if you think that many artists, intellectuals and activists are not working class or immigrants themselves. Take for instance my dear friend Bobby who is a true working class hero and, from recently, member of DiEM25’s Advisory Panel. He was a working-class kid growing up in Glasgow, with his father a trade unionist. Perhaps today we know him as the Scottish musician and singer of Primal Scream, but if you listen to Bobby carefully, for instance at a DiEM25-event in London at the end of last year, you will see that he will always insist on his working-class background and struggle for worker’s rights. I also think that the very definition of the “working class” today has to be rethought and redefined. What about “immaterial labor”, what about Automation, what about working for Google or Facebook for free, what about Silicon Valley or the Chinese mode of production? These are all questions which are important if we want to diversify not only the structures of our organizations but our thinking itself.

How does DiEM25 plan to address the disconnect between the elites and the common people (demos) in today’s Europe?

There are those on the Left who still believe that the main task of radical politics today is the construction of a “people”. I belong to those who think that the fundamental category of so called “left populism”, which is the category of “the people”, raises more questions than it answers. What is the “people”? What is the “people” of one country, and what is “the people” or demos of Europe? Very often the category of “people” is being reduced to a homogenous subject (a population) of a particular country and its territory. But what if the “people” is precisely the opposite, a heterogeneous moving composition rather than a fixed point? What if even in one country there can be more “people”, parallel realities as it were, even seemingly disconnected realities. Let me give you a recent example because I happened to be here these days when Vladimir Putin visited Serbia. Only a day before this event, there were massive anti-government protests, taking place for weeks now, while on the day when Putin came, Vučić succeeded to stage an even more massive gathering, with around 100,000 people in Belgrade supposedly “warmly welcoming” the great hero Putin – the truth being that poor segments of the population were organized by Vučić’s party and hundreds of organized buses arrived to Belgrade from all around Serbia. Even Putin himself was surprised. But he himself needed this for his geopolitical positioning in the heart of Europe – can you imagine Putin greeted by 100,000 people anywhere else in Europe? Aleksandar Vučić, on the other side, needed Putin’s presence not only because of Kosovo or “energy security” (natural gas from Russia), but to “calm down”, or better to say to “spin down”, the anti-government protests. The question who or what is “the people” here is not so simple. You can’t simply say it is a “tale of two cities”, a tale of two Belgrades which one day were anti-government and the other day pro-Putin, you also can’t say that “the people” of Vučić’s gathering, compared by the pro-establishment media as “the biggest event since Gazimestan”, were a homogeneous group of people. Among them were those who were literally ordered to go, otherwise they would lose their jobs. Others came along because they were, quite literally, promised free sandwiches (there is no such thing as free lunch!). Others, the rural poor who don’t use social networks but mainly watch television and read daily pro-establishment newspapers, probably really believed Putin is the new Saviour of Serbia, because for days on television they could only consume this message – no anti-government live-streams or coverage, of course. So the real question is, at least for me, not so much how to address the disconnection between the elites and the demos, but how to inter-connect the existing dissatisfaction of people themselves in a united front against those who are, once again, successful in turning them against each other. So the crucial term, once again, is rather “class conflict” and the question is how to address the main conflict in society, namely the internal stasis (or “civil war”, as interpreted in the work of Giorgio Agamben) between the oligarchic forces and the democratic forces.

Yanis Varoufakis in an interview for the Transnational Institute said that anyone could join DiEM25, independently of their political party affiliation or ideology because democracy can be a unifying theme. Does DiEM25 aspire to surmount class conflict and differences?

Karatani’s “Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy” (in Turkish). Source: Kabalca Publishing House.

Class conflict was always part of democracy itself. I don’t know how many DiEM25-ers would agree with me, but I think, speaking from the perspective of political philosophy, democracy is not just the answer to a problem, but part of the problem itself – especially if our source of inspiration is still the Athenian role model of democracy. I am much closer to the heterodox understanding of democracy proposed recently by Kojin Karatani, who in his book Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy convincingly shows that taking Athenian democracy as a model will never allow us to solve the problems modern democracy is facing: being the composite of liberalism plus democracy, it is not able to resolve its basic contradiction, one between equality and freedom. While Athenian democracy sought to equalize people via the redistribution of wealth, it was at the same time rooted in the homogeneity of its members. Not only did it exclude heterogeneity, but it was realized by relying on internal exploitation (of women, slaves and resident foreigners, the so called metic) and external exploitation (the colonization and subjugation of other poleis). Sounds like Europe today? In order to get out of this deadlock of democracy, I think, today more than ever, we need to return to the ancient Greek concept of Isonomia, which already lays the foundations for cosmopolitanism (in the sense of Pre-Socratic philosophy) and citizenship that goes beyond the current class conflict of our societies.

One of your aspirations (as presented in the Manifesto) is the achievement of a decentralized Europe that uses power to maximize democracy locally. Murray Bookchin too advocated a political culture built around citizen assemblies and decentralization of power. How much of his libertarian municipalism vision does DiEM25 share?

Allow me first a personal answer to your question. When I was gaining my political subjectivity as a teenager in post-communist Croatia, during the period of the 90s which was marked by a brutal war and nationalism on steroids, my generation’s answer to this was, it might surprise you – punk and hardcore. There was an incredible underground music scene in Croatia, which wasn’t just about kids playing at clubs or homes, but about anti-war activism, veganism, publishing DIY fanzines, anarchist pamphlets and books. Actually, back in those days, at 16, me and my friend, who is a Croatian cardiologist today struggling with the deteriorating Croatian health care system, translated and published Peter Kropotkin’s “Law and Authority”. The writings and ideas of Bakunin, Malatesta, Emma Goldman, and, of course, Bookchin were part of this growing up in the ruins of “really existing” socialism, in the desert of “transition”. What we didn’t know at that time, because we were too young, is that our country itself, namely, Yugoslavia developed a system called “self-management” which was precisely about maximizing democracy not only locally but at the sites of production.  Luckily with the recent work of Yugoslav scholars like Darko Suvin, Boris Buden, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica and others, the legacy of “self-management”, with its good and bad sides, is being revealed again. At the same time, the recent MoMA exhibition “Concrete Utopia” about architecture in Yugoslavia revealed that the historic modernization project of socialist Yugoslavia included not only amazing (utopian) architecture but the planning of democratic spaces (like social housing). What we need today is a combination of “self-management” and municipalism. At the moment DiEM25, until the Yugoslav experience gets the attention it deserves (not only in DiEM25, but the rest of progressive movements), is mainly going in the direction of municipalism (with Luigi de Magistris of Napoli and Ada Colau of Barcelona), while at the same time aiming at providing the links between different municipalist movements on the global level, as part of the Progressive International in the making (https://www.progressive-international.org).

According to Habermas, constitution-making has hitherto been a response to situations of crisis; in 2005 two European member states said no to the constitutional treaty bringing the ratification process to an end. Clearly the constitutional moment was missing. Do we have a constitutional moment nowadays? Of crisis we have plenty, the rise of inequality, the rise of far right parties, the refugee crisis and global warming…

Even if I think we should always be careful not to fall into something that we might call “fetishism of constitutionalism”, as if the mere act of drafting a new constitution could get us out of Europe’s current deadlock, we need a constitutional process, which is why following the 2019 parliamentary elections, the European Spring coalition will call for the very first Pan-European Referendum on its Constitution, asking citizens a simple question: “Do you want a European Constitutional Assembly, elected by all citizens with a mandate to draft a new Democratic European Constitution?” If you follow what is happening in France with the Yellow Vests, it is precisely a constitutional desire, an attempt which is much more radical than Macron’s recently staged “national debate”. And it is happening all across Europe were citizens are already, even if not fully aware, taking part in a sort of constitutional process. The logical next step, which is difficult because it needs real Pan-European cooperation among progressives, would be a Constitutional Assembly, so that instead of just articulating constituent power, this power could actually be exercised. That’s why the European elections, whatever the outcome will be, have to be understood just as one – nevertheless, important – step and historical battlefield, but the true battle is long-term. Peter Niesen from Germany has recently written about constituent power and DiEM25, in an article called “Reframing civil disobedience: Constituent power as a language of transnational protest”, published in the Journal of International Political Theory in 2018. As an answer to his theoretical work, I would add that this is an ongoing and long-term process of bringing constituent power back into the heart of the political debate – and change – we need to have in Europe today. But at the same time, which might seem as a contradiction, I think we should also be exploring and enacting what is called “destituent power”, as developed by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, which means imagining completely different strategies beyond the mere electoral process or even constitutional process.

A Soviet stamp featuring Nikolai Chernyshevsky.

Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux might have been among the very first who talked about solidarity not as a legal concept but as a political and social one, with Leroux remarking that solidarity should be neither Christian charity nor an obligation, but an act through which love of others undergoes a metaphorical transformation and one is able to put oneself in the other’s place; for example in Chernyshevskys’s What’s to be done?, Rakhmetov allows himself to eat oranges while in St Petersburg, because there ordinary people could afford them, but he wouldn’t do so in the countryside where the ordinary people couldn’t. In Camus’ The Fall, Clamence tells about a man “whose friend had been imprisoned and who slept on the floor of his room every night in order not to enjoy a comfort of which his friend had been deprived.” Has the center of Europe failed in being able to put itself in the place of the periphery?

I don’t think that a mere “metaphorical transformation” is enough, or that it is necessary for us even to go through an act of self-punishment, like Rakhmetov who was also sleeping on a bed of nails. If it was just a case of putting oneself in the place of someone, as a sort of solidarity projection or identification, which already has the structure of a phantasm (like “the crazy Balkans”, or “the lazy Greeks”, to use just two prevailing stereotypes about Europe’s periphery), then our job would be a sort of psychanalytical treatment of Europe. But the problem goes much deeper, directly into the heart of political economy. The very architecture of the EU, not to mention the Eurozone with the Euro group, is composed around the center and periphery. The center has not only failed in being able to put itself in the place of the periphery, it could be said that the center itself produced the periphery by imposing austerity measures and massive privatizations (of public companies, infrastructure, resources), by what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” and by the extractivist logic of monopoly capitalism. Take the internal labor market of the EU, not only do you have the center (Germany, France) exporting to the periphery (with big Western monopolies dominating the South-Eastern European markets), but you have a wasteland in the periphery, literally empty villages across Croatia, while the young population is emigrating, mainly to Germany. At the same time, the countries of the periphery – Portugal, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania – are heavily depended on tourism and indebted to Western European banks. In other words, the center and periphery relationship is constitutive for the current architecture of the EU and the Eurozone. Unfortunately, not many among the Left deal seriously with geopolitics, where the experience of the Non-Aligned Movement could be of use again. Geopolitically speaking, we live in highly interesting times, in the times of what the late Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “global realignment” (https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/). It is not the case anymore that the periphery is just depended on the (Western European) center and in a subordinated position towards it. With the decline of Europe and its global geopolitical significance, there are new global players in the periphery, take for instance the presence of Russian, Arab, Chinese and Turkish capital and political influence in the Balkans, from the “One Road One Belt” project to the Turk Stream (via Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Hungary) or huge urbanistic projects like the one currently taking place in Belgrade being turned into a Balkan Dubai (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/29/world/europe/serbia-belgrade-waterfront-uae-aleksandar-vucic.html). In other words, Europe is losing its geopolitical ground due to the utter short-sightedness of Europe’s political centre, by weakening the periphery (just take the austerity imposed on Greece which was forced to sell its port to the Chinese), Europe is rapidly losing its geopolitical significance. And let me add that this doesn’t have to be necessarily bad, but it’s just sad to see how incompetent and lost Europe is.

Capitalism’s natural economic outcome is rich and poor; by aspiring toward an Egalitarian Europe, are you aspiring toward a non-capitalist mode of production? (This would also sustain your objective for an ecological Europe and green transition.)

I am not among those who still believe there is an “outside” to capitalism, that with a reatreat to local economy or municipalism you can somehow get out of the capitalist mode of production. Perhaps, even if you can, as a sort of “temporary autonomous zone”, you are still part not only of the capitalist world-system, but live on a planet which, whatever you do, is going into the direction of total destruction.  To rephrase the famous quip by Fredric Jameson, nowadays it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of the socialism for the rich, libertarian utopias and tax-heavens on distant islands, “golden visas” and New Zealand citizenship for the Silicon Valley billionaires who would survive even the end of the world. If not on Earth, then on Mars. Without changing the capitalist mode of production, which relies on the exploitation of the Future itself, like a vampire from the future sucking humans and the planet of its resources, there is No Future, as the Sex pistols were singing in 1977, precisely during the financialization of capitalism. It might already be too late even for a “green transition” or a Green New Deal, but it seems that a sort of “planetary thinking” is re-emerging, take the Extinction Rebellion and their actions for instance, or the Progressive International in the making. And again, the point is to inter-connect and coordinate the local struggles, which aspire to or even enact certain non-capitalist modes of production, and connect them with a global struggle that can only succeed if it properly understands the political economy of technology. In other words, what if today instead of seizing “the means of production”, we have to seize the “memes of production”? Not only in the sense of using technology for the political struggle (something Trump, Steve Bannon and Bolsonaro were obviously good at), but in the sense of radically re-thinking the modes of production in a world of Automation, AI, bio-engineering, and offering a viable solution – beyond the capitalist mode of production – for the 21st century.

The Chorus, in Brecht’s unfinished play on Rosa Luxemburg, chants: Here is a world/It is in Disorder/who is then ready to put it in order? 100 years after Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s execution, daring to want to put the world in order, does it still comes at a high price?

When a movement shatters or a comrade dies – like the giants of the World Social Forum days like Vinod Raina or Samir Amin, who died recently – someone with whom you were connected through struggle and conviction, going beyond mere friendship – nothing is lost so long as the struggle continues and conviction grows. Yet everything might be lost, if at that devastating moment we are not able to continue, even stronger, as if our comrades and their struggles were still with us. Even if they are not physically among us any more, to carry the spark of conviction and resistance into the future entails a chance of resurrection. The point is not just to remember, but to live as if the comrades and their struggles are here, in the now-time (Jetzt-Zeit), to debate with them here and now, to quarrel if needed,  to think and rethink, to have fun, to laugh and play and dream together,  by deconstructing time itself and the prevailing notion that what has passed has passed for ever We have to understand the temporality of struggle as something which is not kronos, a mere succession of events (the Paris Commune, the French Revolution, the October Revolution, the anti-slavery movement, Occupy, the Greek Spring, Tahrir, the Partisans), but another space, another time, another reality which is not past but is – here and now. The potentials of the past can only be reactivated by changing the present. And it is in this newly shaped present that the future can be created. The price is high, but so is the price of forgetting or conceiving past struggles as “failures”. We always have to remind ourselves, literally when we wake up in the morning, of Walter Benjamin’s words: “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.”

Griselda Qosja is a PhD candidate at the Europa-Universität Flensburg (EUF) researching on European constitutionalism. She is currently working at the University of Hamburg, Faculty of Law.

 

 

Comments are closed.

LeftEast is a platform that supports free expression in a climate of equally free speech for all persons that want to participate. This is why we shall moderate any comments that engage in discrimination, fighting words, or lead to an obstruction of dialogue and we shall ban the involved user from our community. Unless signed by the editorial board, articles do not necessarily express the opinion of the editorial board as a whole, but are positions within larger debates we would like to bring to the attention of our readers.