MAY 2, 2019
IS ANYONE FREE to decide her own destiny? Or is the course of her life determined by prior events? Since so many of our decisions operate under constraints of various kinds — the imperative to do something or be somewhere at a fixed time — is free will an illusion? The question takes on added significance given the overwhelming economic imperative to survive in a vicious world. So much of what we desire nowadays is not so much “unthinkable” — we can always dream — as practically impossible. What hope is there of recovering possibility from a world in which the future has become as predictable as the next rent day?
Srećko Horvat’s task in his short philosophical work Poetry from the Future is to claw back this lost horizon. Decrying neoliberal capitalism’s “slow cancellation of the future,” Horvat advocates a “hope without optimism” for transcending this bad infinity: a philosophy for the front lines.
This approach is ingenious. The book begins by recalling an obscure BBC overseas radio broadcast from Yugoslavia during World War II, where the faction known as Partisans were fighting against the Axis Powers. “For reasons of secrecy, the reporter could not specify any location, name or rank. All the listeners know is that the broadcast is taking place somewhere in occupied Europe, in the Adriatic. All they can hear is the sound of liberation.”
Horvat uses this “forgotten broadcast” as the trope for a series of European dispatches from “occupied territory”: from the deceptive tranquillity of Vis (the island in the Adriatic where in 1944 the broadcast was made) to contemporary front lines: the Hamburg G20 protests of 2017; the refugee camps in Calais, northern France, and those on the Macedonian border; Athens in 2015 during its David-versus-Goliath struggle against the European Union’s austerity attack.
Horvat also has encounters away from the front lines, in the fault lines of the European Union — a political organization that has reneged on its own democratic project and is hostile to any politics that threatens the neoliberal settlement. Recovering a possible postwar future through which common struggle crystalizes in a democratic ideal — free peoples united and unrestricted by borders against the repulsive “fortress Europe” of today — is Horvat’s goal.
Horvat is a co-founder, along with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), which, to paraphrase its manifesto, asserts that “the European Union was an exceptional achievement” that unified a diverse continent of peoples formerly divided by “murderous chauvinism, racism and barbarity.” The idea that Europe is capable of being reformed, or politically salvaged, provides both compass and article of faith for the author’s investigations of a traumatized continent.
The Vis of Partisan resistance stands in contrast to the island today, where tourists flock to a Hollywood film set — Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Game of Thrones have been filmed there — and foreign property speculators have chased the locals from their own villages. One needn’t look very far, Horvat argues, to detect Europe’s fault lines. The fractures exist in the practices of everyday life. This falsified Greek island has become a dyspraxia: a place of bad habits and misfortune, where the contemplative life arrives courtesy of “tourist occupation.”
So Horvat leaves. But what he discovers on the European mainland is no less a “surreal experience.” Hamburg in the summer of 2017 is a city in lockdown as G20 leaders assemble in pursuit of their doomsday agenda. Helicopters circle like alien invaders, and 20,000 armed police sweep the streets of citizens. The G20 is loath to permit any form of protest. Moreover its presence in a city with strong anarchist traditions feels like a provocation. The symbolic resistance of the protestors is met with the real, unjustified, and wholly disproportionate violence of the police. In the end, Europe’s leaders are shown up as hypocrites. In 2013, they condemned the brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, while here, four years later, they resort to attacking their own people, making a mockery of the European Convention of Human Rights.
One wonders whether “Europe” as an invariant democratic ideal is as realistic as we’re often led to believe. One might observe that Europe, or the European Union, originates in a common market: the European Coal and Steel Community from 1952, then the European Economic Community from 1957. It was conceived as a trading bloc by executives to circumvent European democracy, and to cut the postwar gains of organized labor. What if the “forgotten broadcast” were a warning, an extraterrestrial signal that good Europeans were in the process of profoundly misinterpreting? Could we read between the fault lines?
“There are no islands anymore,” no insurgents holding out in liberated zones. Or aren’t there? On a visit to a Catalan commune, the author experiences an epiphany. The question, he suggests, is how such “islands outside capitalism” can be “scaled onto the rest of society,” before recognizing the legitimacy of the communalist experiment “with their social crypto-currencies and alternative economies.”
The CIC [Catalan Integral Cooperative] comprises more than 600 projects and businesses across Catalonia, including freelancers, companies, farms, residences and Calafou, a post-capitalist eco-industrial colony in the ruins of a 28,000-square-metre abandoned textile works just outside the village of Valbona.
The question is not, as David Harvey would argue, a problem of space, or of how surplus capital can expand in a world that is fast running out of it, not to mention time. If space and time have been colonized, then the challenge lies in reimagining their overdetermined dimensions, their spatio-temporal constraints, in “the here-and-now.” Through their patient resistance to the Mexican state, the Zapatistas are the inspiration for this non-chronological time, this winding down of the clock:
If mere presentism […] consists in the reproduction of the present by instant news, real-time politics, society of the spectacle, then the Jetztzeit, the here-and-now, consists in a deconstruction and destruction of the temporal totalitarianism which imposes and enforces a notion of time that necessarily narrows possibilities and potentialities. To act now means to create the conditions for our own future, not to follow the already written script from the past: it means to produce a crack in the present, a disruption in the imposition of capitalist temporality, the rhythm of power.
The time is out of joint. But how amenable is this deliberative method of reimagining the rhythms of everyday life to praxis? After all, reimagining time (“as an open and unfinished process”) sounds suspiciously like merely interpreting the world when the point is to change it. “[I]f the new social revolution,” Horvat responds, “has to draw its poetry from the future, the content of the future revolution can be made only out of the poetry which is at the same time poiesis and praxis.” A dialectical practice, in other words, which is doubly inventive, both productive and transformative of the present.
Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is the source of this poetry of the future, according to which hightailing revolutionaries, instead of channeling the “spirits of the past,” are enjoined by Marx to turn their backs on all past models of revolution: “[L]et the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.” If that sounds like an invitation to a leap in the dark, then it’s worth bearing in mind that Marx was writing about a period of French revolutionary history, not speculating on the future.
For Horvat, meanwhile, the future is thinkable, albeit on condition that we successfully join the dots between those seemingly chaotic events — from extreme weather to political disasters — that infringe on our present, in order to articulate the future as “a whole,” a finite and precious world full of promise, instead of an abyssal doomsday project.
The future, apart from being the source of courageous poetry, can equally be the source of repressive anxiety and allergic reaction. In a dialectical twist, couldn’t the deliberative deconstruction of time amount to the decision of not-deciding, of an anti-decision? Wasn’t this precisely what transpired in the landslide “No” vote of the Greek people in the 2015 referendum on the terms of Greece’s financial bailout by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF (the so-called “European troika”)? Wasn’t the vote against EU-engineered austerity less a vote for any positive course of action than a massive abstention, a refusal on the part of Greeks to decide their own future, and so dance to the EU’s tune? This could certainly be inferred from the outcome of the vote, since the Tsipras government unconditionally accepted the EU’s austerity package in any case, as if the vote had never happened. Did anyone really expect anything else?
Perhaps revolutionaries should draw this same lesson from the poetry of the future, and despite being aware of it it’s a lesson that may not sit comfortably with the author’s convictions. Any revolutionary who is prepared to exit the chronological time of “a succession of dates in the columns of a calendar” is also one who, by definition, must be prepared to exit the electoral cycle of parliamentary democracy. Such an exit ensures that all revolutionary poetry will be conducted with total indifference toward the state. Horvat might wish to consider whether such revolutionary indifference is in keeping with the reimagining of something called democracy in Europe.