European Union

Horvat: There is no messiah

Jaroslav Fiala speaks to philosopher Srećko Horvat about the new pan-European movement DiEM 25.
Horvat Varoufakis DiEM

Srećko Horvat is a Croatian philosopher and co-founder of the Pan-European Movement DiEM 25. We met in Berlin on the very day of the announcement of DiEM. The aim of this movement is to democratize Europe and create an alternative between the retreat to a “cocoon of the nation state” and the neoliberal system of austerity.

Jaroslav Fiala: Yanis Varoufakis said that DiEM 25 has “one simple, but radical idea: to democratise Europe.” In what particular sense should be Europe democratised?

Srećko Horvat: To be brutally honest with you, if several years ago someone had come to me and said “We have to democratise Europe”, I would probably have laughed, since democracy really became a joke in the last decade. Democracy became an empty signifier that could be filled with very different meanings. The West was “importing democracy” to Iraq or Afghanistan, now to Libya and Syria, and, of course, we know how this “democracy” ended up. Look at our post-communist countries. Did the concept of “Open Society” and so-called “transition” bring more democracy? It ended up with a parliamentary system in which you can vote for different parties but the problem is that all these parties belong to something that Tariq Ali calls the “extreme centre.” So even if you vote for the centre-left or centre-right, they actually have almost the same economic policy. In this sense, democracy is missing. Democracy has been beaten by austerity measures, by new privatisations, and by new laws that affect our privacy, especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Politicians actually use the word “democracy” to get rid of democracy. And it is precisely because of this that it still makes sense to fight for democracy, especially today.

is a philosopher, author and political activist. He is regarded as one of the central figures of the new left in post-Yugoslavia. His most recent books include The Radicality of Love (Polity, 2015), Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism(edited with Igor Štiks, Verso, 2015) and What Does Europe Want? (co-authored with Slavoj Žižek, Columbia University Press, 2014). He is one of the co-founders of the pan-European movement DiEM 25

Since 2015, Europe has been experiencing a refugee crisis. This is also connected with democracy, but not necessarily in a positive way. If you announced a referendum, people especially in Central and Eastern Europe would vote against the acceptance of refugees. How can we deal with contradictions like that?   

I think that Angela Merkel did the right thing when she invited the refugees to Germany, and thousands of people all around the EU who, instead of building walls, helped them. But I also think that we should go one step further. If you asked people in a referendum “Do you want one million refugees?” they would probably have said “No”. But if you asked them “Do you want more investments in arms, do you want new wars, or to import democracy to countries such as Libya or Syria and, as a consequence, do you want the inflow of refugees?”, people would probably – I hope – say “No” as well. But we are not being asked if we want new conflicts. These days,  the European Council has been discussing behind closed doors how to deal with the refugee crisis, but did any EU citizens have the opportunity to follow this discussion, was there a live-stream, a transcript? At the same time, WikiLeaks released a classified document about “Operation Sophia” – the EU’s military-led campaign to stem the wave of refugees coming to Europe and preparation for a new conflict in Libya. Are you sure European citizens would approve these decisions if they had a right to vote on it?

For the first time in the past few years, people with different political convictions are coming together and are ready to leave behind their differences and particularities.

Does DiEM 25 fight mainly for direct democracy and the participation of citizens?

Democracy without participation is not real democracy. But we should avoid the classical trap of making a fetish either of direct democracy or of party politics. What we have learned from the last years of struggles (e. g. from the so-called Arab spring, or from the occupation of squares in Greece and Spain) is that we need a combination of both. DiEM 25 is not going into any of these particular directions – it provides an infrastructure for both, verticality and horizontality. It provides a pan-European platform for radical political parties such as Podemos in Spain or Labour in UK, as well as for the Greens that have already supported us (e. g. the Greens from France and the UK). And on the other hand, it is a platform for movements such as Blockupy or trade unions. For instance, one important participant in DiEM is the big German trade union IG Metall with more then two million members. I think that DiEM can provide something that has been missing in Europe in the last years. Leftists, liberals, and workers had limited options. And we are trying to change this.

Are you considering founding a pan-European political party?

If DiEM just founded a new political party at this moment, it would be a dead-end from the beginning. Which does not mean that we exclude this possibility in the future. However, the electoral model for the European parliament is founded on the concept that first you enter the parliament, and then you build blocks and alliances. Maybe we need an opposite model. Before deciding if DiEM can become a political party, we want to form strong alliances on a pan-European level. And it is only by a democratic and open process that DiEM could be formed into a party, depending on the decisions of its members and supporters, not without them.

One might say that the DiEM is trying to challenge the “internationalism of capital” with “internationalism of labor”, if I may use this old-fashioned vocabulary. Am I right?

I think this vocabulary still makes sense. And it is precisely what DiEM is trying to do. There is a beautiful scene in the last Costa Gavras movie, Capital.  At a family dinner, the chief executive of a large French bank gets into a quarrel with his uncle, a 1968 leftist, who accuses his nephew of indebting European citizens. The young banker answers: “But you should be glad.” The perplexed uncle asks: “Why?” And the nephew answers: “Because I’m fulfilling your childhood dreams. You lefties wanted internationalism, and we’ve got it.” We really see that Capital can move freely over borders but people cannot. Ten thousand refugee children disappeared in the last year – which means that they were kidnapped or have become victims of prostitution. And why did Syriza not succeed against the Troika? Because it was alone. We have to challenge capitalism on a European and a global level, to seize power in any particular country is not enough anymore.

You come from Croatia, which is a “post-communist” country. Recently almost all these countries have experienced a significant rise of nationalism and xenophobia. Do you see any prospects for change?

There are no given recipes. But I see prospects in self-organisation and internationalism. If you self-organise but are not connected with other progressive forces on the European or global level, you will fail. And if you’re an internationalist but don’t work on self-organisation in, for instance, the Czech Republic, you will fail as well. I can give you an example from Croatia, which now has an ultra-right wing government. In the last months, we’ve seen that a common enemy provides the opportunity for different political forces to come together. From liberals to the Greens, from NGO’s to the radical left – all people are working together. We can see the same trend in the case of DiEM. All progressive forces came to Berlin. Because if we don’t change something in the next years, Europe will move in the direction of a new fascism – without any exaggeration. We have already seen, from Poland to Hungary, fences, walls, the confiscation of assets, the suspension of Schengen and so on. We are going in a very dangerous direction. And a common enemy could unify us.

I think the new left movement should avoid the feeling that there is a messiah. No, we are the messiah ourselves.

As you know, people in the post-communist world often sincerely believe in neoliberal capitalism, they believe in the myth that “the Greeks should pay their debts”, and so on. What are the chances for a progressive movement in such an environment?

I think the crisis has brought one good thing. The notion that the EU is the solution in its current form is over. As a consequence, there is a gap. And it reminds me of a wonderful quote by Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” I think we are precisely in this kind of interregnum. The Eurozone as it is constructed today with the dictatorship of the Eurogroup and private banks is not going to work. It will create coup d’etats, civil wars, and so on. Thus, either we will go in this direction, or the left, including the Central and Eastern European left, together with the Greens and other movements, will provide the answer. That’s why DiEM insists on democracy not as an abstract term, but on democracy in the sense of more transparency, handling the refugee crisis or fighting tax heavens, but at the same time, we also need to create new democratic tools and deal with the development of new technologies.

Horvat Varoufakis DiEM press conference
Photo by Jaroslav Fiala.

German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck calls the Eurozone “a neoliberal straightjacket”. He said that it is a “re-education effort especially for the Mediterranean countries, to make ideas of a good life appear inefficient.” Isn’t it too naïve to suppose that you can reform these institutions?

I think if you destroy the Eurozone, the left isn’t strong enough to provide a different model. At least not at this moment. And it will be the nationalist right that will benefit from it. On the other hand, if you try to reform the Eurozone, I am not sure you won’t end up like Joshka Fischer or Daniel Cohn-Bendit. By that I mean you had lots of radical energy like in 1968, then modest proposals, and then the so-called “march through the institutions”. However, it ended up not with a change to those institutions, but by becoming part of them. This is not something DiEM aims to do.

Could you be more specific?

There is no “outside” of capitalism today. Even if you try to retreat into a nation state, you will still be part of the global system. During the first half of last year, there was a possibility that Greece could take a loan from BRICS countries. And you might think it would be better for Greece to have Chinese or Russian capital. But no, this is a dangerous illusion. For me, capital doesn’t have a nation. The idea that you can live outside capitalism today is a joke. Even if you go to the moon, you will still remain within capitalism. That’s our problem. I don’t think it is possible to directly attack capitalism, at least not at this very precise historical moment. What happened with the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s or what is happening with Islamic fundamentalism today is that you get a very strong reaction from the system – a surveillance state, the destruction of civil liberties, etc. And neither do I believe we can reform capitalism. We have to admit that the system is here. For example, we all use mobile phones and computers. We have to find ways and create cracks inside the system itself in order to change it. That is what WikiLeaks is doing, using technology – the means of the very system – in order to fight the strongest power centres of today. And we can and must also use technology. This is why one of the first big campaigns and petitions of DiEM, in the following weeks, will be Transparency.

Does DiEM have an anti-capitalist agenda?

DiEM is a very pluralist movement. Personally, I would describe myself as an anti-capitalist, but not all people inside DiEM would agree with me. And I don’t have a problem with it. The interesting thing is that for the first time in the past few years, people with different political convictions are coming together and are ready to leave behind their differences and particularities. The convictions we share are stronger than the differences, which can only pull us apart. Our common aim is to bring democracy to Europe.

How did you succeed in building such a broad coalition?

I would really like to stress that DiEM should be an open process, not a given formula. You cannot found a movement. It cannot be you or me who says: “We are now founding a movement.” It’s a kind of paradox. The movement can only form itself. But how does the movement form itself? Well, there is no answer to that. You can only know it when the movement is formed. There is no central committee, which makes decisions and says what to do. Ideally, you have self-organised groups that start to work by themselves and don’t ask for permission. In psychoanalysis you have a phenomenon called transfer. The patient transfers his or her emotions and expectations to the psychoanalyst. I think this has been the situation with Syriza, where you had a sort of a “projectionist left”. Alexis Tsipras was perceived as a new messiah, and a lot of people projected their expectations onto him. Jeremy Corbyn and Pablo Iglesias are now perceived as new messiahs for certain people as well. And I think this is dangerous. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, then it is that there is no Big Other! I think the new left movement should avoid the feeling that there is a messiah. No, we are the messiah ourselves. We are the ones who we were waiting for.

Featured photo by Nikos Pilos.


Jaroslav Fiala
Political scientist and editor-in-chief of the Czech progressive daily website A2larm ( He publishes essays and articles on Czech and world politics and lectures in history and political science at Charles University, Prague. He is a Fulbright alumnus and deals with the modern history of Latin America, United States and Europe.

1 Comment

  1. “I think the new left movement should avoid the feeling that there is a messiah. No, we are the messiah ourselves.” You are wrong, Messiah is here