Fantasy Island

Poetry from the Future: Why a Global Liberation Movement is Our Civilization’s Last Chance Srećko Horvat Allen Lane, 192 pp, 2019

The American intellectual and journalist Walter Lippmann opened his 1922 book Public Opinion with a story about an island. It’s the year 1914 and Lippmann’s fictional island is populated by English, French and German settlers. News from the mainland arrives just once every 60 days with a steamboat delivering supplies. As the boat approaches, the islanders gather on the dock, only to find that their countries have already been at war for a full six weeks. Friends and neighbors morph into potential enemies from one second to the next.

Lippmann uses the anecdote to show that gaps between perception and reality are inevitable. People consume information, synthesize it with their previous understanding of the world and develop what he calls a pseudo-environment—a picture in their head that they interpret as reality. When new information is added, that image is altered. Even when a person receives accurate information about the world, and then honestly interprets that information, the picture they form is outdated even before they can create it.

While today the delay receiving information is rarely 60 days, and may only be 60 seconds, there is nonetheless always a lag between when something occurs, when somebody finds out it occurs and, finally, when a person merges that new information with their pre-existing interpretation of the world.

Horvat argues, Europe is not under military occupation, but the West nonetheless suffers from a “psychical occupation of our emotions, desires and imagination, drowning in the melancholy and
pessimism of the will.”

In his latest book, Poetry from the Future, the 37-year-old Croatian writer and philosopher Srećko Horvat also begins with a story about an island. His is set in the spring of 1944, when much of Europe is still occupied by the Nazis. With the Normandy invasion still months away, the first-ever BBC radio broadcast from liberated territory trickles out from the Croatian island of Vis. Before the broadcast, the German army seemed invincible.

To the public, at least, there was no evidence that Allied armies could retake and hold land seized by the Nazis. Even the most optimistic listeners felt wary about Britain’s prospects in the War. But after the broadcast, within seconds, they are capable of envisioning a future where the whole continent is liberated. As in Lippmann’s story, nothing and everything changes from one second to the next.

Both tales are about how perception can bend time—allowing the past to catch up to the present or the present to project into the future. Today, Horvat argues, Europe is not under military occupation, but the West nonetheless suffers from a “psychical occupation of our emotions, desires and imagination, drowning in the melancholy and pessimism of the will.”

“Our current occupation consists in the widespread sense—or even reality—that there is no alternative, and ultimately, that there is no future,” he continues. The first step to remedying this is to encounter glimpses of what could be, or as Lippmann once put it: “The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined.”

The Progressive Left is Defeatist and Backward-looking

Horvat is cut from different political cloth than Lippmann, an avowed liberal. Though they approach their subject matters from opposite perspectives, they are both preoccupied with the manner mass democracy might solve societal problems. Horvat’s title alludes to Karl Marx’s 1852 essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which reads: “The social revolution of the 19th century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself until it has stripped away all superstition about the past.”

In general terms, Horvat argues that today’s progressive left is defeatist and backwards-looking. Lacking new ideas, leftists revert to regurgitating twentieth-century social-democratic dogma, while tinkering at the edges of capitalism through taxation. They are content with any minor gain in reconstructing a piece of the welfare state that dominant neoliberal policies have crippled and degraded over the past 30 or so years. Something new and much more forward-looking is needed, he says, while decrying the “false dichotomy of the choice presented to us between neoliberalism and fascism”. Politics need not be reduced to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Instead, his Yugoslav roots on full display, Horvat argues we need a “rebooted non-aligned movement” that focuses on “the struggle against all forms of occupation and domination by capital”. In charting this future vision, he uses real-world anecdotes from the Croatian island of Vis, rural Catalonia, the G20 summit in Hamburg and elsewhere as glimpses of potentiality. These snapshots of what is possible are mixed with philosophical asides that use, in a style that evokes the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (the two once co-wrote a book together), pop culture references to illustrate complex points. Films like The Circle, HBO television series like The New Pope and The Leftovers and Margaret Atwood’s novel-cum-TV show The Handmaid’s Tale are deployed as metaphoric material.

A Radical Transformation in Temporality

This combination makes what could otherwise be a heavy text light on jargon and readable, allowing Horvat to largely avoid academic vocabulary. In cases where the terminology gets dense he is able to explain himself clearly. Horvat uses the term fetishistic denialism to refer to people who are willing to ignore the threats posed by global warming or potential nuclear war and go on living as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, fetishistic apocalypticism is the phenomenon which sees billionaires seeking citizenship in New Zealand or constructing elaborate bunkers to hedge against future unrest.

While the two approaches may appear polar opposites on the surface (one passive, and the other action-oriented), both exemplify the pessimism of our times in that they concede nothing can be done to change the future.

Serious as the topics in books are, Horvat does not take himself too seriously on the page. Enthusiasm for the subject shines through and his writing comes off as optimistic even as it is cast against a tragicomic backdrop that one is tempted to call style or voice. And yet Horvat is not fully immune to the occasional lapse into leftist tropes of his own. He visits a commune in Catalonia that grows organic food, hosts tourists in its farmhouse and stages “jam session” music parties (sound familiar?) and tries to pass it off as some kind of innovation (these communards are into blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies).

Lacking new ideas, leftists revert to regurgitating twentieth-century social-democratic dogma, while tinkering at the edges of capitalism through taxation.

Horvat contends that such communes represent a “radical transformation in temporality” in that they are initiating radical change now rather than waiting, as the left has so often done, for perfect revolutionary conditions that never come. While this commune sounds a lot like escapism rather than a serious effort to impact the wider world, Horvat goes on to say further transformation will come from the “multiplication of communes, proliferating everywhere, in every factory, every school, every street, every village, every city, block by block, forming a network, a web of connections”. In other words, someday, someway, in the future, eventually, when the time is right, the revolution is coming—you’ll see.

The Pop Culture References Feel Gratuitous

While generally engaging, through-provoking and successful in confronting political melancholia, the book has a few other lapses as well. The pop culture references are great for illustrating complex points, but on occasion they feel gratuitous. A traffic jam on the way to Barcelona evokes Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend. Excellent as the film is, the reference feels like a performative display of cinephilic credentials. Weekend is about a middle-class couple trying to acquire an inheritance from the wife’s sickly father. Godard’s characters encounter the reincarnated spirits of Emily Bronté and Sant-Just and are later cannibalized. Other than cars, it is hard to find parallels with Horvat’s one-paragraph reference to the traffic jam, and he doesn’t bother to explain. He has another commune to visit after all.

Fetishistic apocalypticism is the phenomenon which sees billionaires seeking citizenship in New Zealand or constructing elaborate bunkers to hedge against future unrest.

Along with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, Horvat is one of the founders of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DIEM25). Among other big ideas, they push for a pan-European approach to European politics. In a world where European elections amount to a mash-up of national elections, where Europeans who do vote tend to use their ballot to protest against some element of domestic politics, this feels entirely reasonable and necessary.

But other DIEM25 contradictions come through in Horvat’s discussion. Both the author and the political movement wave the flag of internationalist solidarity but also insist that supporting democracy equates supporting the Catalan independence movement—an extreme, fantastical, nationalist project. Meanwhile, DIEM25’s same insistence on self determination and popular sovereignty does not preclude them from defending Julian Assange, who knowingly cooperated with the authoritarian Russian government to intercede in the 2016 American election with the intent of altering the outcome.

Political and Social Change Requires Horizontal and Vertical Organization

This creates some confusion over what exactly Horvat means when he speaks about democracy. While elections are not the only element of a democracy, they are surely a necessary part. Horvat is advocating organizations constructed outside the bounds of government and the nation-state, because “there are not that many progressive governments, yet”. But less clear are the means by which those organizations are granted legitimacy. It’s as if public support for such movements is inherent because, somehow, Horvat just knows what people really want. He never bothers to explain the “why” promised by the book’s subtitle: “Why a Global Liberation Movement is Our Civilization’s Last Chance”. Instead, it’s taken as a given.

Though Horvat would vehemently insist otherwise this makes his, and DIEM25’s, position close to the aforementioned Walter Lippmann who contended that governance was best organized by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.”

Any successful radical leftist project must blend broad support with hierarchy. In the past, he rightly notes, activist movements like Occupy Wall Street fizzled and have—thus far—failed to foment lasting change.

Horvat concludes his book arguing that political and social change requires both horizontal and vertical organization. Any successful radical leftist project must blend broad support with hierarchy. In the past, he rightly notes, activist movements like Occupy Wall Street fizzled and have—thus far—failed to foment lasting change because they lacked coordination, leadership and management. In short, they were horizontal but not vertical. “Long-term geopolitical, social and economic solutions can be achieved only by a mutually interconnected movement with a leadership structure at all levels: local, national, international,” he writes in a passage that is difficult to disagree with.

“There are no islands anymore,” Horvat adds, before returning to a story about the island of Vis. Once an optimistic projection of a liberated Europe to come, it is now overrun by tourists and served as the filming location for the 2018 film “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”.

Only a Trump sequel could be worse.

Benjamin Cunningham

writes for The Economist, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique and The American Interest. He is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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