Seizing the memes of production: philosopher Srećko Horvat on play in modern politics

Seizing the memes of production: philosopher Srećko Horvat on play in modern politics

25 August 2020
Top image: Oliver Abraham

Croatian political philosopher Srećko Horvat is the most mild-mannered revolutionary you’re ever likely to meet. His warm, soothing voice might seem better suited to a meditation app than a political rally, but don’t let that fool you: the 37-year-old writer and activist is one of the most well-connected left wingers in Europe. Among his friends and collaborators are the likes of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and fellow public intellectual Slavoj Žižek – with whom he co-authored the 2013 book ​What Does Europe Want? The Union and its Discontents​.

As far as revolutionaries go, Horvat comes across as more of an Antonio Gramsci than a Vladimir Lenin. Rather than violently storming presidential palaces, he authors books and leads YouTube discussions with other left-leaning thinkers in which he attempts to outline a more progressive alternative to our current political settlement. He even ​stood as a candidate​ in last year’s European Parliament elections.

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In 2016, he founded the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 alongside the aforementioned Varoufakis, a pan-European grassroots movement devoted to democratising the institutions of the EU. Earlier this year, DiEM25 teamed up with The [Bernie] Sanders Institute to launch the Progressive International, a sister organisation that pursues similar aims on the global level. When he’s not laying the intellectual groundwork for systemic change, Horvat scurries about Europe and the world, building the networks needed to make that change happen. In Horvat’s view, only transnational solutions can save us from our current political malaise.

“I recall an old joke circulating on the streets of Moscow after the collapse of the USSR: people were saying that instead of ‘socialism in one country’ they finally arrived at ‘apocalypse in one country’,” he says with a wry smile. “But for the same reason that there can be no apocalypse in one country, there can also be no socialism in one country. To paraphrase my dear friend Noam Chomsky, who is also a council member of the Progressive International, our only alternative today is internationalism or extinction.”

Born in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek in 1983, Horvat’s path towards political activism appears to have started in the womb: his father was a political dissident who was actually imprisoned at the time of ​Srećko’s birth for demanding democratic reforms to Yugoslavia’s creaking one-party system. When the younger Horvat was just a few months old, he and his family fled to Germany, where they were granted political asylum. The family would remain in exile until the early 1990s, when they returned to Croatia just as Yugoslavia split apart. Horvat says that these childhood experiences of emigration and repatriation had a formative effect on his worldview.

“It was kind of traumatic because at home we spoke our language and German of course, but you were always perceived as a sort of ​ausländer​, a foreigner, even at that early stage and then we returned to Croatia in the early ‘90s, where, again I had the same experience: you come there, you speak better German than Croatian and again they perceive you as a foreigner,” Horvat recalls. “So that was my early experience of a political subjectivation: this feeling of not belonging and from a very early stage experiencing what it means to be a refugee, an outsider and someone who has to adapt to a new situation constantly.”

Hotel Jugoslavija, Belgrade (2018). Image: Saša Savanović

This feeling of otherness stuck with Horvat throughout his life and, as is the case for many generations of disaffected adolesents, drove him into the embrace of his local punk scene as a teenager, where he played bass guitar in a hardcore band, organised gigs, published fanzines, and toured neighbouring countries with his bandmates. He describes this subcultural experience as his “first conscious political subjectivation where you suddenly have a sort of realisation that society doesn’t work and that there are also some alternatives to it.” It is at this point in his life that Horvat translated one of the works of anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin into Croatian, aged just 16.

He would later go on to study linguistics and philosophy at the University of Zagreb and began to build his profile as a public intellectual in the city’s cultural scene, where, in 2008, he co-founded the Subversive Festival, which is a fortnight-long cultural program of films, lectures, and debate panels that was originally conceptualised as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 global student protests. The festival immediately became an annual event and quickly grew into one of the highlights of Zagreb’s cultural calendar by bringing leading international thinkers such as Chantal Mouffe, Aleida Guevara (the daughter of Che), David Harvey and, of course, Slavoj Žižek to the Croatian capital.

“[Subversive] had a significant impact on politics as well,” says Horvat. “For instance we had Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis at the Subversive Festival before becoming part of the Greek government. We had Oliver Stone meeting the Croatian president, so we were really acting with the Subversive Festival on this very high stage of politics but trying to subvert it, trying to put our message through and trying to connect and organise.”

The Subversive Festival is illustrative of the way that Horvat approaches politics. Instead of simply penning op-eds in the ​Guardian​ and the ​New York Times​, who often preach to the already-converted, he creates cultural platforms that act as vessels for his political values, which helps open them up to a wider audience. A prime example of this is ​Political Theatre, which Horvat has hosted at the National Theatre in Zagreb since 2014 after he split with the organisers of Subversive due to a disagreement over the “goals and direction” of the festival.

Thomas Piketty & Srećko Horvat, Philosophical Theater, Croatian National Theater, Zagreb, (2015). Image: Mara Bratoš / HNK

Political Theatre aims to reclaim the theatre as a public space where issues and ideas are freely discussed by bringing politically-noteworthy individuals to the stage in Zagreb (and at the National Theatre in Belgrade, where it’s part of the annual Bitef Festival). The format consists of sprawling one-on-one interviews where Horvat and his guest sit opposite one another in plush red velvet armchairs where they discuss the issues of the day in depth. His previous guests have included the economist Thomas Piketty, writer Tariq Ali, and rapper M.I.A., to name but a few. It’s an incredibly accessible format that introduces progressive ideas from leading thinkers to an audience that might not necessarily have a background in critical theory and, according to Croatian National Theatre, it attracts roughly 5000 visitors from a wide range of backgrounds every year. This broadness of appeal is of supreme importance for Horvat, who believes that if the left is to be successful in winning hearts and minds, it needs to be less preachy or academic and more fun.

“I believe that the left has to become a storm of fun. Because this sense of joy, of sharing joy, creates unpredictable possibilities which materialise through the concept of play – because play isn’t directed towards profit as the very act of playing is profit in and of itself,” he says enthusiastically.

“I think anyone who would travels to Bosnia, for instance, to Sutjeska, or to Vis in Croatia, would be able to see that something significant was built here and something significant was destroyed here”

“I think that instead of using just the means of production, we also have to use the memes of production, and I think the populists and the so-called alt-right have been much more successful in that,” Horvat continues. “The left has to understand this much better and it has to use it much better than it has up until now and there are many historical examples that show that it was successful using it [in the past]. It was successful in attracting people to the cause through some sort of play, fun, subversion — remember the Situationists, for instance, and [Guy] Debord and the concept of ​dérive​, or what Bertolt Brecht would call the ​Verfremdungseffekt​, this sort of defamiliarisation of what is known. And you can defamiliarise, ​verfremden​, through a sort of play, which again can become a sort of directed ideological deconstruction of the current dystopia.”

When he’s not shifting the Overton window, Horvat can usually be found on the Croatian island of Vis. Located far off the deep southern coast of Dalmatia, it’s one of the furthest islands from the Croatian mainland and has, in recent years, become both a base and a muse for Horvat.

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The history of the island features heavily in ​his new book​Poetry from the Future: Why a Global Liberation Movement Is Our Civilisation’s Last Chance.​ During the Second World War, Vis was used as a base by the communist partisans who fought against Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia and local legend has it that the partisans’ leader and future Yugoslav president, Marshal Tito, used one of the island’s caves as a hideaway. For Horvat, the partisans against-all-odds struggle against fascism that, in his words, built “a new society based on the revolutionary struggle” is a frequent source of inspiration. But while he is full of praise for the Yugoslav experiment, Horvat is insistent that he is by no means a Yugonostalgic.

“I’m not being nostalgic,” he says resolutely. “But I think there’s certainly something to learn from [Yugoslavia] and I think anyone who would travels to Bosnia, for instance, to Sutjeska, or to Vis in Croatia, and all these parts where the anti-fascist struggle took place, they would be able to see that something significant was built here and something significant was destroyed here. But I’m also very critical of people who glorify it. I think we have to be very critical and self-critical to make something different and fulfil the unfulfilled potentialities or possibilities of this historical sequence ... And I think the only way to change it is to confront ourselves with it with open eyes and look into it. Not in order to go back, but in order to go into the future.”

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