Srećko Horvat on building on a left transnationalism

"We need transnational cooperation because those we are fighting against are working transnationally"

Srećko Horvat Freddie Stuart Aaron White
14 November 2019, 1.57pm
Oliver Abraham. All right reserved.

Last week, Aaron White and Freddie Stuart caught up with the philosopher, author and political activist Srećko Horvat in London. As well as discussing themes from his latest book Poetry from the Future, and his work at DiEM25, the conversation ranged from building progressive internationalism, to the politics of technology, and taking hope from the youth climate movement. 

What follows is an edited version of the original interview transcript. 

Freddie Stuart: I think a good place to start this interview is with the phrase you use from Terry Eagleton – ‘hope without optimism’. This year, even since your book was published, we’ve seen examples of social mobilisations all over the world, from Chile to Hong Kong, to the climate movement spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, so my question is, what particularly about our current moment is giving you cause for hope?

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Srećko Horvat: All these movements are giving me hope. In my book, Poetry from the Future, I have a chapter on ‘hope without optimism’, and that was written two years ago before any of these movements actually existed.

What we see now, from Chile to Lebanon etc gives me this hope, that people are not ready to accept the status quo. People are protesting, people are coming together, and realising that we cannot just protest against something, we must protest for something. Many of the participants of these movements are aware that they are taking aim not only at the current order, but a much deeper underlying structural problem. So if you listen to Greta, you will hear that she is aware that we have to talk about capitalism for instance, and if you talk to the protestors in Chile, they are well aware that it is not just about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years of Chicago style neoliberal economy, which goes back to the coup d’etat and to Pinochet. 

So that gives me hope. Let us see which way they will go. I am not always so hopeful, especially given the history of similar movements, because very often they can lose their energy. So I use the phrase ‘hope without optimism’; we should be hopeful about all these protests, but not optimistic. If you remember the optimism through the Arab Spring for instance, where philosophers such as Alain Badiou and others were talking about the ‘wind from Africa which will change the course of history’, and a few months later they fell to autocratic regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the IMF came back to Tunisia, and all the energy dissipated. Though it did not vanish. These energies were channelled, very often into melancholy, resentment and depression because they did not succeed immediately in what they wanted to achieve, but that energy can be revived, and I think that is what is happening today in many of these movements. 

Beyond this, what really gives me hope is the children’s movement. Not in a naive sense, but I think the hope here is in the long term. We are constantly imposed with this alter ego saying there is no time, you have to act immediately, but what I am imagining is that, in a few years when these children are older, when they are taking positions in faculties and institutions, they will take steps to radically transform the system. It won’t happen tomorrow, but what gives me the most hope is this long term perspective. We know that we don’t have much time, but it shouldn’t scare us to think long-term. 

Aaron White: In your recent book you talk about how we need a rebooted Non-Aligned Movement, “focused on the struggles of occupation and domination by capital.” So do you see the work that you are doing at DiEM25, how it fuses international horizontality and verticality, as a model for a truly global post-capitalist international? 

Srećko Horvat: I think today we are in a situation that requires something like this. I would call it a Re-Aligned Movement, because it has to be newly aligned on its criticisms and critiques of capitalism. The Non-Aligned Movement mainly consisted of states which didn’t want to be part of the Soviet or American power blocs during the Cold War, so they created a network of countries to cooperate both politically but also economically, particularly in the Global South. 

Today it is difficult to recreate something similar, although some form of the movement still exists. But in our current moment we have so few progressive governments, the countries in Latin America that historically fought for social reforms, nowadays they are bleeding, you don’t have these progressive governments anymore. 

What I think we need is a combination of political parties in government, and also social movements. If you think about another internationalist movement, the World Social Forum, it  was the opposite of the Non-Aligned Movement. It wasn’t a formation of states, but only of social movements. I think we need a combination of these two. 

You mentioned horizontality and verticality, here we need political parties, social movements, whistleblowers, journalists, artists, all different fields, areas and professions, only together can a truly new transnational movement be formed. I see DiEM25 as part of this, we already have more than 100,000 members in Europe and our collective consists of people from Guatemala to Spain, from Austria to Poland, from Croatia to Greece; our membership shows that you can connect transnationally, internationally and work to build power. 

To give a concrete example, if DiEM25 didn’t run in the European elections in May 2019, it would be unlikely that we would’ve managed to get the 9 MPs into the Greek Parliament in the recent national elections. I think this is good proof that internationalism really makes sense. Many people will criticise – ‘oh you’re an internationalist, but how is it really affecting your local community, how is it affecting your politics in your nation-state?’ – but in Greece we showed that it is possible. The energy behind the program we created on a transnational European level was focused on Greece, and our activists and members were able to gain national support. 

DiEM25 started after the Greek Spring, when we realised that it isn’t enough to fight on the national level. We need transnational cooperation because those we are fighting against are working transnationally. 

Freddie Stuart: So you say that transnational campaigning translated into the success you had in the Greek elections, but this is still only a national leverage on power in the Greek state. In your book Poetry from the Future you state: “The movements of 2011 were internationalist in themselves, that is to say their internationalism was implicit potential, but they were not yet explicitly internationalist.” Would you say that the movements we are seeing now, such as DiEM25, and the Progressive International launched last year by Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders, are examples of developing explicit internationalism?

Srećko Horvat: To be completely honest I think there is still a lot of work to be done. It is still relatively implicit. We are still missing a radical transnational movement. The Progressive International, which will be relaunched next year, is definitely a step in that direction. We are aiming at social movements and activists all across the world, because many of us who participated in the World Social Forum are aware that it had certain problems, and one of the biggest ones was its inability to become a political subject. It was a forum of forums, it was a movement of movements, but it was never a movement which was able to initiate big global actions.  

So I think what we are trying to do with the Progressive International is to go a step further. First of all to reconnect all these movements which lost cohesion and a common vision after what happened in Latin America, what is happening now after the decline of the World Social Forum. We urgently need to recreate that and we are working on it. 

Freddie Stuart: So you say there is still a long way to go, and we can see that both with the state of national politics at the moment, and also the dearth of international progressive movements. That brings us nicely on to your theory of change, and how we practically manage to move forward from the world we live in now to the poetry that we want to write in the future. 

Here I’d like to focus on technology. Marx says that that humans create history but not under conditions of their own making; they build within the parameters of technology available to them. Do you think that the fantastic developments in tech, and the ability they give us to work internationally, albeit within certain property relations, mean the kind of the movements you have been talking about are more likely than ever?

Srećko Horvat: It is a good question. Let me start by saying I am completely against what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘technological solutionism’. In the sense that technology will solve all of our problems, we will get to a point of singularity and all live happily in the clouds. That isn’t going to happen. 

Unfortunately I do not think the Left has been good enough at understanding or using technology. Of course it has to do with property-relations, and you mentioned Marx, today we have to seize the memes of production. The Left has to find a way to use the current available technology, if we are not able to create our own. Of course there are some examples where we are successful, encryption both for communication and exchange. But for the most part we are forced to use the existing technology, and I think it can be used against the system itself. This is the concept of subversion, on which I have a book, and I took part in the Subversive Festival, both of these discussed the ways that we can use the existing technology to fight against the system. 

Aaron White: One of the lasting legacies of neoliberalism is Thatcher’s statement that “there is no such thing as society.” Something that the Left in the US has done relatively well recently is to challenge this notion by attempting to tap into a collective imagination and build a sense of community through creativity. So how do you see the task of re-building “society” within this internationalist project?

Srećko Horvat: It is a crucial political question. The sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato has this pertinent term ‘self-entrepreneur’, and his main thesis is that out of Thatcher’s philosophy we have to come to a stage where everyone is forced to become an entrepreneur. Even if you are going to university, you go as an entrepreneur, you are commodifying yourself, and selling yourself as a product on the market and competing with others. A consequence of this is that, if something happens to you, for instance a car accident or you are ill, it is your own responsibility and not that of society. If you want the help of society, then you have to deal with a privatised healthcare and education system. You are alone as an individual. 

From this perspective, it is really crucial for the Left to recreate society. As you said, the US Left are doing well on this front, and we are making progress in other countries as well. One of the big failures of the Arab Spring movement is that they failed in this regard. The example I often use is Egypt, why was it that the Muslim Brotherhood was successful after the protests? Because they were the ones who were trying to create a society, going from village to village. If someone needed help or medicine, they were there to help out. I am not saying we have to be like them, I am just saying that this was traditionally the role of the Left – the trade unionists movement, the workers movement, the women’s movement and so on, they were doing precisely that – if you had a repressive system or an individualised society that forced alienation, they would try and build an alternative which promises to provide solidarity both in power but also before, and we have to now work in that direction. 

Freddie Stuart: To end maybe on a more personal note, I’d like to ask you, where do you get your inspiration from, and where do you get most of your news from?

Srećko Horvat: Well, I travel and research like a madman. To be honest, I think the decision to not immediately accept a job as being a professor was a good one, academia is very important and it enables you to get funding for research, and I have to self-fund from my books etc, but I think a precondition for creative working and thinking is free time. It’s not so much a talent, if you have a lot of free time and you use it for research for instance and you’re disciplined enough and crazy enough, even if you don’t have talent you might succeed. It’s not about genius, it’s about accumulating experience and interacting with people, and I’m really happy that I am lucky enough to travel constantly, meet people at the source of change and when you have this you can think better in the way you can connect concrete situations with something universal. 

Last week I visited Chernobyl because I am writing a new book about the apocalypse, and that was really useful because it is inspiring, especially for my writing. I am not saying you always need practice. I am a philosopher, and very often pure theory is more beautiful than practice, but if you have the luck to visit these places it gives you a different perspective and you can learn for yourself. 

What really gives me hope is when I see the two of you here now, this gives me hope. I am not giving you a false compliment, I really think so, because I think people are becoming more and more aware that traditional forms of education are not enough – we have to connect on different levels and we can learn not only from books but from traveling and meeting other activists. This is not an individual job which we have in front of us, it is a collective, and any progress we make is a consequence of collective action. 

Freddie Stuart: So last thing. You talk about collective action. We know DiEM25 and the Labour Party have a Green New Deal conference coming up in January, but what else can people look forward to in the coming months in terms of international collective action?

Srećko Horvat: What I am looking forward to with DiEM25 is our first assembly which is taking place at the end of November in Prague. It is the first time that all our members are coming forward with proposals on which way the movement should go. This means changing the organising principles if needed, basically giving a boost to DiEM. I am really looking forward to it, because after three years I think we need to change some things, the situation has changed, we are not just a transnational movement anymore, we also have an electoral wing. And we can connect this to some of the new projects we are developing, going deeper with the Green New Deal, developing new pillars – we are seriously considering developing a theme on post-capitalism. All of these will come together and become a coherent single program. 

I am also looking forward to relaunching the Progressive International next year; to the conference with Labour in Brussels; to cooperation with the new movements – with the children’s movement Friday’s for Future, and with Extinction Rebellion we cannot forget that we are just part of a bigger picture, and hopefully this bigger picture will be a beautiful and hopeful one. 

This interview was originally published by The Junction

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