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Europeanisation of the Balkans or Balkanisation of Europe?


In the following interview, Croatian philosopher and semiotician Srećko Horvat, who was one of the leaders of the Zagreb “Subversive Festival” presents some of the ideas developed in the book Save Us from the Saviours, co-authored with Slavoj Zizec.

Memoire Des Luttes (ML):  1st July 2013, Croatia became the twenty-eighth member of the European Union (EU). As you point out in your book, some argue that Croatia’s integration into the EU, and more broadly that of the countries of the Balkan region, is your hope of salvation because it allows you to escape your own demons, nationalism and Balkanization. In some fashion, the EU brings the promise of civilization. What do you think of these arguments, promoted by your governments, the mainstream media and Europhiles?

Srecko Horvat (SH): In his famous book, published in 1928, Europe (Das Spektrum Europas), the German philosopher Hermann Keyserling noted that “if the Balkans had not existed, they would have been invented.” This formula seems truer than ever. As was brilliantly illustrated by Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova in her book Imagining the Balkans, the region has been linked to various myths and misrepresentations in the sixteenth century, and these stereotypes surfaced during the war of the 1990s.

The Balkans were once again perceived as the “heart of darkness” in the European continent. The situation was first presented as the result of an internal conflict in which it was impossible to identify the perpetrator and the victim. In this context, the passivity of Europe allowed heinous crimes such as the Srebrenica massacre to be committed, perpetrated under the noses of Dutch peacekeepers. So our region was to be submitted to the alleged benefits of a calamitous “civilizing mission”, which was extended in the context of European integration.

During this post-war period, especially during the 2000s, the dominant argument was the following: unlike the EU, the Balkan region is synonymous with corruption, bloody wars and failed states. The most serious is that, in recent years of the so-called “transition”, we have seen an internalization of this inferiority, that is to say a strange process of self-colonization. Just before the referendum on Croatia’s accession to the EU (22 January 2012), the Croatian liberal intellectuals proclaimed : “For us, the alternative is clear: either the Balkans or civilization.” Or again: “The skeptics are a bunch of sectarian obscurantists, obsessed with the homeland, admirers of war criminals and tragicomic visionaries.”

And it is here that we see the return of an ancient myth, reinforced in particular by Emir Kusturica’s films, which presents the Balkans as a backward region, delivered from barbarism and war crimes. But if we observe the EU through the same prism, by choosing to look at the degree of corruption, respect for human rights, stability and the state of the economy, we are tempted to say it is not the Balkans who “Europeanised”, but rather that Europe that has “balkanized”.

ML: Was the process of integration of Croatia into the EU democratic?

SH: Absolutely not. Moreover, the participation of only 43% of Croatian citizens in the referendum on EU membership speaks volumes about this pseudo-integration. After the publication of the first official results, in an outburst of frankness, the Prime Minister himself said: “Fearing the failure of the referendum, we changed the Constitution.” It has unwitting echoes of Bertolt Brecht’s famous formula. “Since the people vote against the government, we must dissolve the people.” Not only were the terms of the referendum in this country modified in 2010 in view of the vote on membership, but a host of other rules (economic, legal, etc) were also adapted accordingly. Just a few days before the consultation, the Foreign Minister went so far as to explain that the government could no longer pay pensions in case of a “No” vote. The “Yes” campaign, which cost some 600,000 euros – a large sum for a campaign in our country – used arguments mainly based on blackmail, the most common being: “If we do enter not in the EU, we will remain in the Balkans. “

ML: In one of your articles, you say, not without irony, that Croatia should say “Danke Deutschland”. What do you mean by that?

SH: There is a fairly cheesy Croatian song from December 1991, when Germany recognized the independence of our country without prior consultation with the other members of the then EEC. The words of the song were: ” Thank you, dear Germany, my soul burns! Thank you, dear Germany, for this precious gift. Thank you, dear Germany, thank you a thousand times. Now we are not alone, and our ravaged country has regained hope.” What is ironic is that, with the exception of the Croatian elite and some liberal journalists, nobody believes that promise any more. Just remember, if you need further convincing, the protests of the Athenians against the arrival of Angela Merkel. As pointed out by the leader of the Greek Left Alexis Tsipras during one of our conversations in Zagreb, he and SYRIZA are often accused of endangering Europe. However, the real threat to the continent is Germany and its chancellor, and the hegemonic position that they embody within the European Union.

ML: Alexis Tsipras prefaces your book. He argues that there are two opposing strategies competing against each other in the European crisis: so-called “fiscal expansion” and austerity. Can you clarify these two ideas?

SH: The first strategy aims to allow Europe to emerge from the current recession. SYRIZA has put forward many convincing measures to restore growth (renegotiation of debt, tax the rich, etc). As for the second path, it is of course of austerity. Here is a prime example: a few days after the death of Margaret Thatcher, a leading (neo) liberal Croatian newspaper published a eulogy written by a former finance minister of the government of Franjo Tudjman, which was made famous by the following statement: “Privatisation is a very difficult operation, you have to get your hands dirty. But someone has to do it.” The article, titled “Only Margaret Thatcher can still save Croatia”, in reference to Heidegger’s famous formula, ” Nur ein Gott kann uns retten “(Only God can save us), recites a series of measures which are also those implemented by the current Croatian government: reduction in public spending, privatisation of large state enterprises, deregulation, reform of health and pensions, reduced welfare, etc. “We’re fortunate that [Margaret Thatcher] has done all this, the author writes. Many tributes have also been paid to her, including from political opponents and young people, who owe their current jobs mainly to unpopular reforms she undertook in the past.” It omits only one detail: Croatia ranks third in Europe in terms of youth unemployment (about 51.6 %), just behind Greece (59.1% ) and Spain (55.9%) .

ML: You believe that EU policies have facilitated the rise of the extreme right in Europe, especially in Greece. You also say Golden Dawn is an extension of the system. What do you mean by that? What is your analysis of the evolution of political parties in Europe? Do you think the split between conservatives and social democrats still makes sense today? According to you, the Left no longer has a monopoly on discourse on workers’ rights today. Can you tell us more?

SH: Look at what is happening in Greece: the murder of anti-fascist rapper and militant Pavlos Fyssas by a member of Golden Dawn is much more than a heinous act perpetrated by a right-wing party. Europe can not shirk its responsibility in this matter. When the economic collapse of states, caused precisely by austerity measures, is getting worse, then the time is ripe for the realisation of the famous prediction of Antonio Gramsci: ‘The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.’ Movements and right-wing parties embody this monstrosity. And, as in the past, they do not hesitate to use all means at their disposal, including a pretended defence of the working class. This is the problem of social democrats today, they have given up protecting the last bastions of the welfare state (free health care system, education, social security, etc ) And joined the Conservatives on economic issues. The current Croatian government is a prime example, but this trend can be observed everywhere in the European Union. But the erosion of the social body makes the bed of all extremisms.

ML: In one of his articles, Slavoj Žižek argues that what we need is a left-wing Margaret Thatcher. What does he mean? And how can the radical Left mobilise the people today?

SH: Of course, this statement can be understood as a provocation, yet it is not. Žižek’s thesis has already attracted many reactions. In fact, the idea is this: we do not need a Margaret Thatcher as such, but we must at all costs avail ourselves of the fear of taking power, the classic problem of the Left. It was this fear that led some to describe SYRIZA as a social democratic party, while others continue to sanctify “direct democracy”, which is supposed to be the only sphere of political activity free from corruption.

In this respect, I think that reading an almost forgotten text of the German Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs could still be useful to us, even if it seems to have been written for a very different era. This is the Grand Hotel of the Abyss (Grand Hotel Abgrund), published in 1933. In connection with his criticism of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Lukacs shows a considerable part of the German intelligentsia, including the philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, as installed in this huge hotel, equipped with all modern comforts, but hanging at the edge of the abyss.

Each room is designed to accommodate a certain type of profile of radical protesters. Thus the “loners”, seeking their own way because they feel misunderstood, may choose a richly furnished private room, whereas meeting rooms will be offered to those who wish to worship a common ideology. The macabre dance of doctrines, repeated day and night in this hotel is like a joyful and catchy jazz piece for its occupants. What should the Left do today? Leave its comfort zone and face the abyss.

ML: According to Žižek, capitalism has triumphed in that each worker has been transformed into a kind of entrepreneur. Can you expand on that?

SH: While I was in India recently, one of the most prominent newspapers, The Times of India, published in an article titled “Every Indian must now become an entrepreneur.” This ideology is therefore not limited to the EU, but is present in most developing countries. The underlying goal is simple: the logic of the market driven by the hegemonic neoliberal doctrine should be extended to all spheres of social life. That is why there are now more private clinics in New Delhi or Mumbai, private schools in Croatia, etc. It is a kind of “investment” in yourself.

As shown by the Italian sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato in ‘The Making of the Indebted Man‘, each “entrepreneur” must manage his own employment, debts and reduce his welfare down to commercial and competitive standards. Some intellectuals and liberal newspapers did not hesitate to affirm that the trigger of the Arab Spring was the desire to see the triumph of the market economy – if one is to believe this thesis, it must follow that the only aspiration of Mohamed Bouazizi in sacrificing himself by fire was the establishment of a deregulated market, free from state intervention.

It reminds me of a joke doing the rounds in Montenegro during the 1990s. As the war raged, police arrested a small-time thief who has stolen property in Italy to sell on the black market in Montenegro. “Confess, to whom did you sell perfumes and jeans?” the officers demand. He refuses to cooperate, so they start to beat him. The offender then raises his head, and posing as a national hero, exclaims, “You can kill me, but you will never kill the free market!”

Translation by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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