Igor Štiks: “The Left Must Offer a Different Vision of The Future”
The contemporary political landscape is rather simple, according to the right. On their side are the nation, Christianity, private property, and traditional values. On the other side is the “radical left” that consists of all other political ideas—from centrist to conservative.
That is why right wing politicians start picturing gulags and scare against Stalinism whenever somebody tries to move away from right-wing nationalist ideas, says writer and researcher Igor Štiks. That is what happened during the latest local elections in Croatia in May after the progressive coalition Možemo! (We Can!) won a landslide victory in Croatia’s capital Zagreb.
This coalition has been formed by various political groups and civil society movements that represent some kind of new left, according to Štiks. The Croatian new left is looking up to other similar movements in the region (e.g. in Slovenia and Greece) but is also open to the progressive ideas from the USA and Canada.
Such a victory seemed impossible because the nationalist right has been holding power in most former Yugoslavian republics for the last three decades—since the bloody collapse of their multi-ethnic state. The Yugoslavian experience is therefore extremely important for our understanding of the possible future of the European Union. When Yugoslavian politicians lost their faith in the common political project, nationalism became their new source of political capital.
The EU can face a very similar future if European politicians and citizens lose their faith in united and—more importantly—solidaric Europe. But the global financial crisis of the 2010’s has shown that European nation states are still, above all, very selfish. The outbreak of the new coronavirus has only reinforced this impression, warned Štiks.
Igor Štiks (born 1977 in Sarajevo) is a novelist and scholar. During the Yugoslav wars he was forced to move to Croatia and currently lives in Belgrade, Serbia. His novels The Judgment of Richard Richter and A Castle in Romagna have earned him multiple awards and have been translated into 15 languages. In his scholarly work, Štiks investigated the topic of citizenship and nationalism in the Balkans.
He earned his PhD at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris and Northwestern University and later worked and taught at the University of Edinburgh and the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade. Štiks was honored with the prestigious French distinction Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his literary and intellectual achievements.
You have been studying left-wing political movements in former Yugoslavia for quite a while, both as an academic and as a writer. Would you ever have predicted that a progressive political movement like Možemo! (We Can!) could win local elections in the Croatian capital of Zagreb?
I have been a fellow passenger of the left movements for the last ten years in Croatia and across the region —since I first got involved with the student movement and then with the Subversive Festival where we had been promoting cultural and urban social movements. But this is the first time in my adult life that people I know, trust, and follow got elected to public office.
This is the first time in my adult life that people I know, trust, and follow got elected to public office.
So, it is an exciting but also, I have to say, a surprising moment. It proves that everything is possible in politics. We have to take into account the confluence of several elements, besides the fact that individuals and groups have fought tirelessly over the last decade; namely, the erosion of the main political parties, the death of the longstanding corrupt Mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandić, the coronavirus crisis, and let’s not forget a series of earthquakes.
So the electoral victory of Možemo! can be seen as an earth-shattering event for Croatia?
Absolutely! Zagreb got into this earthquake mode—both physically and politically. The group of committed and enthusiastic people who have spent fifteen years on the street finally got recognized by voters. Their message was clear: Zagreb needs a reconstruction, a transparent government with transparent spending that will be decided by citizens. Not a radical program per se, but the one offered by people who position themselves openly further left from mainstream social democracy. This is the first time after Croatian independence that the true left has won an important public office. Someone openly progressive and left-wing is elected as mayor, winning by a landslide, with such enthusiasm winning by a from the citizens of Zagreb.
That is truly extraordinary because the political right had been holding all the political and economic power for the last thirty years. The right had effectively dominated our way of understanding society, economy and identity. That is why, despite the inspiring victory of Možemo! and the green-left coalition in Zagreb, I have no illusions about the environment in which this little miracle happened. All the nation-states that were formed after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia were formed upon the principle of ethnic exclusivity and this will not change.
Nationalism, you mean?
Exactly. They have all been based on the ideology of the nationalist right. Citizenship has been constructed according to this model; identity, flags, national symbols and educational programs all correspond to the revisionist, revanchist, conservative, religious and in some instances neo-fascist ideas.
The right has managed to dominate our societies thanks to the support of a determined far right minority, general conservative hegemony, and the passivity of the rest of the electorate. If you look at the past elections, twenty percent of the electorate is roughly enough to win you elections. This means that there was a huge amount of people that, until the global financial crisis of 2008, could not even think outside of the box whose contours had been defined by the right since the late 1980s and early 1990s.
First, some social movements started to question that narrow box in the late 2000s and early 2010s. What we have now with leftist movements in Slovenia that lead to the Levica party, and with Možemo! in Croatia as well as with other social movements in the Balkans, is a different way of understanding society and economy. Over the last decade, these movements have managed to mobilize citizens who do not necessarily come to leftist gatherings or openly subscribe to the left. Maybe this also explains the success of Možemo! in Zagreb: so many people finally found something that they could identify with. Those were the people that usually did not vote or voted pragmatically for a lesser evil.
Citizenship has been constructed according to this model; identity, flags, national symbols and educational programs all correspond to the revisionist, revanchist, conservative, religious and in some instances neo-fascist ideas.
What kind of a green-left political coalition has won in Zagreb? How would you define their programme? Their political opponents tried really hard to present them as extreme leftists.
The coalition is not as centrist as the existing social democratic parties nor does it belong to a radical left. It resembles Podemos in Spain, Barcelona en Comú more precisely, with the green touch centered on the urban commons. The strategy here is to advance progressive causes by trying to form a very wide coalition of people who want to see some concrete changes in their lifetime. Who are perfectly aware that they are not bringing down capitalism any time soon.
You were one of the many young, educated intellectuals that have left their home countries after the war. You have made a successful international career as a writer, lecturer, and public intellectual. Why have you remained so active in regional social and political movements?
My international path turned out to be both an intellectual necessity and an exile that took me to various places from Paris to Chicago to Edinburgh. These new movements, especially the student movement that formed in Zagreb in 2009, brought me back home, to the Balkans, intellectually, politically, and academically.
I was mostly active in Zagreb and Sarajevo, and then my wife brought me to Belgrade. So, I am trying to somehow connect the dots in this region: to advocate, promote, write about these progressive movements. In some instances, I got involved with various initiatives and actions. However, there are limits to such an involvement. Možemo! has shown very clearly that you have to be present physically as well, not only digitally or intellectually by publishing texts written somewhere else. You have to be there on a daily basis to build a community of like-minded people where you live.
If you, on the contrary, happen to be nomadic like myself, then there is still a certain role to play. But if you have been nomadic for so long there is not one single place where you can actually make a life changing decision to move from writing and speaking to concrete political struggles.
Like running for public office in Zagreb, for example?
I can see this with people who were coming of age in the eighties. They have lost romantic ideas about socialism—because they were promoted by the regime—and then fully embraced romantic ideas about liberal pluralism.
In your latest novel W you introduce two charismatic characters. A former leftist activist Walter who later becomes one of the leading French right-wing philosophers and ideologues. And a mysterious left-wing militant Wladimir who becomes even more radical after the student movements of 1968. When I was reading the novel it crossed my mind that—taking your personal story into account— you could also become like Walter: a conservative Paris intellectual. You could have been rightly disappointed with the Yugoslavian version of socialism and you could be a stark critic of everything on the left of the political spectrum. But you are still personally, intellectually, and artistically firmly positioned on the left. Why?
In this respect, I could have turned into a liberal or a neo-liberal based on the fact that I saw socialism crumbling and coming down in the most brutal way. Socialism was over and we went through an absolute disaster: the ethnic wars and the siege of Sarajevo that turned me into a refugee. So I could have easily said: look, this is all because of socialism. It was a mistake from the beginning. Socialism failed and everything we had in Yugoslavia was absolutely wrong. The only alternative for us is to take some sort of a liberal capitalist route with no illusions whatsoever.
I would have probably promoted such ideas if I happened to be ten years older. I can see this with people who were coming of age in the eighties. They have lost romantic ideas about socialism—because they were promoted by the regime—and then fully embraced romantic ideas about liberal pluralism. They were horribly disappointed and over the last decade have re-discovered the socialist ideals whose concrete benefits and problems they actually knew from their youth.
But my formative years were the nineties. So what happened to me is that I actually saw the disaster unfolding literally right in front of my eyes when I was watching from my balcony the shelling of Sarajevo’s Old Town. The pluralistic and liberal ideals of the late eighties actually opened the doors wide to ethnic nationalism that not only prevented any kind of meaningful democratization but destroyed the entire world we had, and so many lives. I remember that time very well, year by year: 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992…
When you moved from Sarajevo to Zagreb?
Yes, I came to Zagreb in 1992. Throughout the nineties, I was trying to find some political alternative, in terms of ideas and like-minded people, to either capitalist realism or ethnic nationalism. In my youth, I was never blind to the anomalies of Yugoslav state socialism, let alone the Soviet experience. I read Karlo Štajner, I learned about Goli Otok, I knew Solzhenitsyn. But the ideas that were motivating people to build this society, the ideas that were extraordinarily successful in some respects were: housing policy, public health, urbanisation, modernisation, educational standards, and so on.
I felt that these ideas should be somehow separated from the disaster that we were seeing around us. In the nineties in Croatia, if you read Feral Tribune you were considered leftist already. But Feral was basically saying: do not kill people, respect human rights, and it might be good if there is a room for some social justice.
The Greek crisis has shown them the nature of the EU. There was no European solidarity for the Greeks nor for Southern members. Only austerity and fiscal discipline dictated by the troika and the like.
That was the radical left’s position in Croatia in the nineties?
Now it may seem laughable but that was the case. The only hope for post-Yugoslav liberals and anti-nationalist left was that the Balkans would be pacified by getting into the EU. That was the expectation. We could now be cynical about it but back then the situation was so terrible that you would accept any alternative that promised some kind of a normal life.
So my first real encounter with the true left happened in Paris after I moved there in 2001. There I could meet the remnants of the old radical, post-68 groups and listen to philosophers such as Alan Badiou and Étienne Balibar. Leftist voices were getting marginalised in France as well but you could still see prominent public figures advocating for true leftist political options. There were massive May Day demonstrations and leftist heritage was still present in powerful unions, in social groups and political parties, among intellectuals and in political journals. There was none of that in the Balkans.
But when the student protests happened in Zagreb in 2009 and students joined forces with the Right to the City movement, a different understanding of leftist politics was suddenly possible. There I met people who were younger than myself and who did not live through the nineties in the same way I did, and who seemed liberated from that burden.
And were not putting any hopes in the EU anymore?
The Greek crisis has shown them the nature of the EU. There was no European solidarity for the Greeks nor for Southern members. Only austerity and fiscal discipline dictated by the troika and the like. If you think that by using these policies you will conquer the hearts and minds and advance European integration, then you must be either crazy or you probably live in the parallel world of EU political elites.
The student protesters were also not very interested in other issues typical of their predecessors of the post-Yugoslav liberal left. They did not want to bother much with nationalism, human rights issues or war crimes. They were catapulted right into the 21st century and read critical theory and anarchist pamphlets that people published in the USA and the UK. They simply decided to organize themselves and act.
Now this was the moment that finally brought both some old and new leftist ideas back home. It was an extraordinary, surprising and exciting beginning of the new Balkan Left. I have started to follow similar initiatives in different parts of the Balkans where obviously this tradition of the left and the specificities of Yugoslav socialism and self-management were not entirely forgotten. Krunoslav Stojaković and myself have just written a short book that traces the rebirth of the new left in the post-socialist Balkans from student occupations, via the Bosnian plenums to the election of Tomislav Tomašević as Mayor of Zagreb (The New Balkan Left: Struggles, Successes, Failures, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2021).
In your novel W you are also exploring a very important period of the French leftist movement. Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his famous political book The Gulag Archipelago in the early seventies—a devastating criticism of Soviet state communism. According to the late Danilo Kiš—another Yugoslavian writer who found his place in Paris—many French leftist intellectuals and post-68 activists could not accept the dark reality of the Soviet regime and convincingly separate their leftist ideals from Stalinist terror. What should the new left learn from that period?
Thank you for bringing Danilo Kiš into the discussion. My novel W corresponds to and communicates with his book A Tomb for Boris Davidovič, especially when it comes to the conflict between the necessity of the revolutionary struggle and its dark realities. I am also trying to understand what happened to French leftist movements after 1968, and why so many of them progressively abandoned the struggle altogether in the 1970s, moving towards the right.
Kiš himself had no illusions about the Soviet Union because the early Yugoslav communist activist Karlo Štajner published his biographical book Seven Thousand Days in Siberia in which he described his experience as a gulag survivor. The book became a national bestseller in Yugoslavia and everybody could read about Stalinist terror a few years before Solzhenitsyn.
In other words, Solzhenitsyn was not news for us. The French were quite shocked on the contrary. Many radical Marxists and Maoists first became anti-totalitarianists and then ended up as neoliberals and reactionaries. Solzhenitsyn was later appropriated by the right-wingers who used Stalinism and the gulags as a carte blanche to discredit everything on the left side of the political spectrum.
What we also need to fight against is the so-called anti-totalitarian liberal paradigm that has been constructed over the last thirty years. The paradigm goes like this: we had two totalitarianisms, fascism and communism, and now our beautiful free world prevailed over these two evil twin brothers.
Or that is anywhere left of their position.
Definitely. You cannot justify a huge number of crimes that some people have done in the name of socialism or communism. It is childish to avoid discussing it on the left as well. But blaming general socialist ideas for mass killings in Cambodia is a simple propaganda spin whose aim is to de-legitimize or even demonize the political opposition to capitalism today. We should instead study such regimes and also various socialist movements in the 20th century very thoroughly to learn what went wrong, how and when, in order to prevent similar mistakes by future leftist movements.
What we also need to fight against is the so-called anti-totalitarian liberal paradigm that has been constructed over the last thirty years. The paradigm goes like this: we had two totalitarianisms, fascism and communism, and now our beautiful free world prevailed over these two evil twin brothers. But there is a problem with such a liberal fairy-tale. It has been mostly used to rehabilitate fascist regimes by portraying them merely as a slightly exaggerated reaction to this subversive and violent revolutionary utopian movement called Bolshevism or communism.
It completely negates the fact that socialists were crucial for the victory over fascism and Nazism and the huge transformative influence socialist movements had over the so-called Capitalist West. Socialist ideas influenced, changed, and socially improved almost all societies in this world including those that that were staunchly anti-communist such as the USA. All this has been forgotten under the blanket of totalitarianism.
But we could hear such anti-totalitarian calls during the elections in Zagreb. Political opponents tried to present the leaders of Možemo! as historic successors of former gulag builders.
We have to be absolutely clear that totalitarianism as a concept has a limited explanatory value. Such attempts are even more outrageous in post-Yugoslav states. The notion of totalitarianism is useless for this purpose. Anyone who has ever studied a single ordinary day in the life of socialist Yugoslavia during these forty-five years of its existence cannot explain anything apart from well-known episodes of regime repression of dissent by using the notion of totalitarianism.
While I was giving a lecture in Ljubljana back in 2019, I pronounced that Yugoslav socialism was, arguably, the most successful socialist project in the 20th century. Sure, this provoked quite a bit of discussion. But Yugoslav self-management was a project of economic and institutional democracy trying with all its contradictions to find an alternative to both the oligarchic liberal representative system and to the Soviet top-down rule.
Yugoslavia was all about managing a huge number of contradictions: between South and North, rural and urban, between different ethnic groups, different regions, between secularism and religions, between rapid modernization and strong traditional influences… In its bad moments the system could not stand this complexity. There would then be political interventions and purges, new constitutions, another set of “reforms” that couldn’t simply work their magic any longer in the specific local and global circumstances of the second half of the 1980s. But in its great moments, it simply let its contradictions live and thrive.
Have you read the novel E baš vam hvala—a huge bestseller by Serbian writer Marko Vidojković? A group of conspirators kill all important politicians in the eighties because some leaders of Yugoslavian republics start showing nationalist tendencies.
And Yugoslavia then avoids the wars…Well, I think that many of us thought about this at some point; that we simply needed to get rid of these crazy nationalist guys and maybe we could have continued to function as a loose federation or at least we could have avoided all the bad consequences of the fall of socialism.
But on a serious note, the problem was that so many people stopped believing in the political project that was Yugoslavia. At the end of the eighties, this political project was replaced with the ethnic solidarity project.
In other words: with nationalism.
The crisis of Yugoslavia as a common South Slavic state was of much greater importance than the fall of “communism”. Nobody was fighting for the “tyranny” to end and for “democracy” to come, as was superficially understood in the West. During the crisis years of the 1980s, nationalists were becoming vocal but the majority of people would be quite happy with an economically more performative system—constant market-oriented “reforms”, as they called them—and more democratic socialism.
Socialism or capitalism was not the major dilemma of the final years of a Yugoslavia that did not have its 1989 moment. But increasingly, in the years from 1988 to1991, the choice between the common state— and under what conditions—and the realization of irreconcilable nationalist aspirations. That is: ethnically pure states. As big as possible.
But such nationalist tendencies also indicated that the old regime was already losing its former power. Yugoslavian authorities would have crushed such nationalist attempts in the 60s and 70s without hesitation since nationalism was one of the biggest political taboos in the Yugoslav project.
This does not mean that the demise of socialism didn’t play a huge role. Yes, but it was a sign that our own modernist, supranational, internationalist, secular project was coming to an end. Its values will be subsequently defeated by the anti-Enlightenment euphoria of ethnic folklore, religious “renewal”, and nationalist obscurantism of “pure blood” and “purified” territory. In building a common future in which all will be equal, everyone could be a brother; in building ethnic states for only ethnic members, the “other” is the enemy that must be expelled or destroyed.
This worked relatively fine in Slovenia—although the unacknowledged trauma of the lost South Slavic state could still be observed—where the Slovene ethnic area coincided with the Socialist Republic of Slovenia. But in other places it had immediate disastrous consequences by basically putting people in the position in which someone that they never met and who lives in a different republic was presented as closer than their own neighbour. At that point, political elites certainly did not work under the assumption of a minimal Yugoslav political solidarity that would presuppose the continuation of the common project.
Instead, in the late 1980s they realised that ethnicity, and not socialism, was a new, powerful resource of political power. From then on, the groups or rather their leaders were supposed to negotiate or fight. We in the former Yugoslavia thus offered a preview of that tribal world to come, unfortunately.
Liberals are issuing desperate cries to values and procedures unwilling to fundamentally address the roots of the problem, which is the scandalous and violent inequality of our societies.
There you get some similarities with the EU. It seems that many European citizens as well as their political elites do not believe in the European political project any more.
A grand narrative of economic prosperity promised by neo-liberalism and then promoted by some actors in the European Union or the US is certainly not working for as much as 90%, and everyone is painfully aware of that. It actually destroys any meaningful solidarity, without which there is no successful political project.
What can replace the European project?
We are being told over and over again that we can only choose between conservative nationalists and the liberal centre. But this liberal centre cannot hold, obviously, because that very liberal political centre has de-centred itself towards the right in the last few decades. Faced with the fact that right-wingers successfully mobilise the electorate across the EU and the US, liberals are issuing desperate cries to values and procedures unwilling to fundamentally address the roots of the problem, which is the scandalous and violent inequality of our societies.
It seems that we live in some sort of a collective amnesia in which institutional politics purposefully forgot that a real political alternative emerged two centuries ago. It is known under the general name of socialism and it is based on the idea that humans could make a different society based on their collective efforts and on sharing instead of giving everything that we produce to less than one percent of population; and that it is also possible to invent mechanisms that will advance the cause of entire society vis-a-vis individualistic short term goals. This alternative has been mostly denied to us, in institutional politics and in the media. And without this alternative, I would argue, there won’t be any European project left worth fighting for.
Now we are slowly coming out of the induced coma. Within the ruins, we are rediscovering some old messages. This is why we are moving from enthusiasm about past revolutions and brave people who made them to reinventing the wheel by suggesting the same policies that were already written in the Communist Manifesto. We are also getting some new fashionable prophets with every new season to tell us pretty much what has been said in various ways over the last two hundred years.
But there is another problem as well that might seriously limit emancipatory politics. Our society is not only narcissistic, but it is becoming a society of hypochondriacs.
It has been plainly revealed during the pandemic, but it is with us for some time now. Social hypochondria means that the other represents an external and internal danger. That you should stay away from others and think about yourself, about your health, your well-being, and about how to advance your life chances.
This is a classical neo-liberal trap. Hypochondria grows on narcissism and hypochondriacs cannot make collective actions or trust anyone, but they are forced to live in a society, which is necessarily “contaminated”.
How to reconcile the two, widespread individual hypochondria—much beyond usual Woody Allen-like stereotypical health concerns—and the need for other human beings? Well, by a collective hypochondria. The world now is a great example of this curious mental state, and right-wing fundamentalists from all parts are trying to fill the vacuum of meaning. What is the meaning of our lives and our political community, how to live safely and understand this complex, dangerous and confusing world in which people more often than not feel like victims of forces they cannot control?
The right is, as always, ready to offer us the same simplistic answer: that there is us versus them, and that us is in danger and are already victims, precisely because they are at our borders, or among us already; that we have to fight for survival, in order not to be “replaced” by them. The world is thus a huge battlefield and you have to strike first before you get struck.
Who will vote against such a world view? Brexit has shown that the political landscape has changed radically. Many voters who supported Brexit and voted for conservatives during the last elections used to support the Labour Party—namely the blue collar workers who traditionally represented the working class, who are now giving their votes to the right wing nationalist parties.
The working class still exists, of course, but its perception has changed over time together with the self-perception of workers. Whoever still keeps only manual workers in mind obviously does not understand the contemporary class dynamics and does not see why so many people that sociologists would put into the middle class are actually working men and women, in other words working class— who for the most part would reject that label. Let’s not forget the precarious workers that neo-liberals successfully branded as “creatives” only to distract them from the brutal reality—that they are hardly making their ends meet by occasionally selling their labour.
Therefore, class relations have been redefined, true, yet at the same time, the old conflict between capital and labour is still valid as it was before. It is still those who hold the means of production and financial capital against those who need to sell their manual or cognitive labour to survive. In other words, the basic duality of capitalism does not prevent complex class compositions, depending also where you happen to be, in the centre, the semi-periphery, or in the periphery.
But how to present the reality of today’s existing hybrid class war? How to politically present this transformed battlefield so that people understand their place in this war and position themselves not as victims but as political subjects?
Let’s not forget the precarious workers that neo-liberals successfully branded as “creatives” only to distract them from the brutal reality—that they are hardly making their ends meet by occasionally selling their labour.
For now, workers in my broad understanding are losing and see themselves as victims of the new globalized order that they cannot grasp. So, instead of constituting themselves as political force for itself, they are desperately trying to get some crumbs, some concessions, a slightly better position than the others or the “foreigners” who live in “their” countries and cities, and thus some security that is today deceivingly offered by the right-wing parties precisely through identity issues.
The radical left has failed to mobilise because it has been using the old vocabulary and has not developed a sophisticated analytical apparatus for these complex class configurations I mentioned. The old slogans do not have much appeal to the exploited masses, obviously, under the circumstances that I have just described. On the other hand, today’s progressive, green-left speaks rather to those workers that are slightly better off—they are usually called middle classes—but are rightly worried about their own insecure position. It believes that the old class-based vocabulary might hurt their chances of gaining wider support, or of getting elected.
But there is a lot of traditional leftist signaling on the anti-government protests in Slovenia, for example. Che Guevara and Tito t-shirts, red flags, partisan iconography, Yugoslavian symbols, political slogans on how to bring down capitalism …
Signalling can help you get a bit of group coherence, true. But we have to be honest: such signalling cannot help you win against the right, not today. In the world that brings so much insecurity, right wingers are offering an idea of an ethnic, racial, or religious community that is clear-cut. It is simply not for everybody and this false sense of exclusivity gives people some confidence. I am born into it, I belong to it, I should have more rights than the “others”, and I would try to advance my chances, here and now, with this simple idea rather than to experiment with some kind of a global socialist utopian project that tells me how beautiful the entirety of humanity is, apart from some evil capitalists, that is.
Instead, the left will have to provide a different vision of the future. That does not only mean addressing urgent political, social, and economic problems such as the environment, the pandemic, or rising inequality. The role of utopian politics is to open up different ways of understanding collectivity, individual and social life, that will potentially bring about an entirely different model worth fighting for; the model that will, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, make the existing one obsolete.
Even staunch neo-liberals are now aware that things are not going well. They admit that capitalism will break apart without some social cohesion.
If we go back to your two protagonists from the novel W: Walter and Wladimir. If they were still alive to see and survive the coronavirus crisis what would they say? Would Walther still defend the status quo and would Wladimir still be blowing things up?
I guess that Walter would be forced to revise his belief that neoliberal democracy is the best possible political system and the only defence against the forces of extremism. Even staunch neo-liberals are now aware that things are not going well. They admit that capitalism will break apart without some social cohesion. I guess that Walter would probably be ready to criticise greedy brokers or even support some elements of the Rooseveltian New Deal such as stronger regulation, public works, financial and tax reform. But he would still insist that all excesses could be fixed within capitalism.
Wladimir, on the other hand, would try to keep the revolutionary ideas alive. He went through a radical and terrorist phase and has been hiding underground for quite some time. He probably does not think that bombs and assassinations are a good idea because you cannot change the system just by replacing people. He is probably trying to secretly infiltrate into the new left political movements where he will wait for the opportune moment to offer his expertise.
And most importantly: what would Igor Štiks do?
You mean my literary character? (laughs)
Yes, let us first start with the fictional Igor Štiks.
My character Igor Štiks has been disillusioned with his fruitless intellectual activities and he had to face the trauma of the failures of leftist politics in the 20th century. I guess he would opt for a calmer existence now. But you cannot easily get off certain drugs and the drug of utopia is extraordinarily powerful. So, Igor might be a marginal political character for a while, but he will not abandon his memories nor his dreams.
And if the real Igor Štiks would get out of literary mode and start campaigning for public office, what would be his—or your—political manifesto in three points? I am offering you … What?
Oh, you got me with this one. It would be great to have these three points but it depends on where I should run for office, in what kind of a political system, and in which community.
You already sound like a politician!
You are right, I have to try harder. Let me think …
I am offering you… the joy of rediscovering life in a community that is not going to be based on exclusion so everyone could participate. I am offering you the joy of rediscovering yourself as political subjects capable of changing this world. Finally, I am offering you the joy of rediscovering imagination.
I would also add the rediscovering of loving. We put everything else but loving in the heart of political life. If you really want to change things, you need to win both the minds and the hearts of a given society. Emancipatory loving means that you cannot love in an exclusionary fashion—to love only your own group and to care about its protection, in a paranoid hypochondriac way, as I described it here. Emancipatory loving is the one we still have to try, in spite of the risks that it might transform us beyond our usual self, and in spite of the fact that the health and safety procedures might not be fully respected.
But as George Orwell once noticed, it is really hard to love the people that you are, in principle, fighting for.
That is why loving is so difficult. But it’s worth every second of it.
Foto: Ema Bednarž