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Interview by Thomas Giourgas
Igor Štiks is a writer, activist and researcher at the University of Edinburgh where he works on citizenship, dissent and creativity. Originally from Sarajevo and presently settled in Edinburgh, Igor also lived in Zagreb, Paris, Chicago and Belgrade. His articles and comments often appear in The Guardian and Open Democracy. Together with Srecko Horvat, he was co-organiser of the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, one of the major activists’ gatherings in Europe. With Horvat he edited the forthcoming collection Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics after Yugoslavia (Verso, 2014). He is also the author of two novels, A Castle in Romagna and Elijah’s Chair which have won numerous awards and have been translated into a dozen European languages. We talked with Igor about new progressive movements in Europe and the Balkans as well as about mutual influences of activism, literature and academic work.
1. Does your activism influence your academic work and in which way?
There is an interconnection in what I do between my theoretical interest, my academic work and my activism. Activism is something that could be seen as a social engagement that is at the same time your fieldwork. This is where you meet people, you listen to different ideas and where you experience things that will influence your theoretical thinking or your conclusions. For example, I work on citizenship. Of course you can approach it from a purely legal dimension. Or, you can try to examine the effects of inclusion and exclusion in a certain society. But, if you want to explore the active dimension of citizenship, citizens’ participation then you have to go to the field, you have to go among these active and activist citizens.
And I’m sure you would all agree that active citizenship should not be reduced to voting. And certainly, something that I call by activist citizenship (to borrow from Engin Isin) is this field where we go beyond what is legally prescribed and defined as spaces for active citizens. This is where we open new spaces. Sometimes we go against legality, or against laws and rules in practice, but we do it in the name of legitimacy, and by opening these new spaces we are opening also a space for new democratic experiences and also for the emergence of a new political subject. There is little chance we can create truly new political subjects—that always correspond to already existing social changes—within the limits of what is regulated, prescribed and legalized.
However, there is always a risk when challenging the law and there are many bad examples of doing this. Sometimes people will say: ‘Are not the extreme right-wingers also going against the law as you do?’ However, here I would make a huge distinction between what we do and what right-wing extremists do: Right-wing extremists never open up spaces for everybody. They always exclude—the exclusion being their constitutive moment–, they organize hierarchically because openness and horizontality would defeat their purpose of representing only one group, and certainly what they do is thus not contributing to emancipation that must be universal. And I think that the emancipatory moment is crucial for the definition of progressive activist citizenship.
2. This point is very relevant to what you’ve stated in the past: ‘’we have to listen to what the street has to say’’. But, what’s the principle on which leftist activism and extra-legal leftist activism gains political legitimacy?
One is certainly genuine democracy. If we agree that true democracy is where people actually are in charge, then, we would probably also agree that what we have today, liberal electoral democracy, is not a real democracy. So what the left-wing alternative proposes is the ‘democratization of democracy’. And this is an ongoing process. And we engage in this process willing to accept the risks of this process but also absolutely determined that democracy never ends. It always gets to be democratized more. This is the true leftist agenda.
On the other hand, there is social equality. We cannot have true democracy without equality of socioeconomic conditions of all participating in democracy. So, this is what makes leftist agenda and the left different from all other ideological programmes such as liberalism. Contemporary Liberalism deals with procedural and legal equality and does not tackle socioeconomic inequalities, which in turn undermine both procedural and legal equality. And, of course, not to mention that the more you move towards the right wing the less democracy and equality you get.
-Therefore, is it an egalitarian approach that you endorse?
Yes, definitely. It is about equality in participation and about equality in socioeconomic condition.
3. In Greece, nowadays, along with the rise of Golden Dawn, there is an air of racism and xenophobia. What is the role of writers and literature in this context and do you believe that literature can have a curative contribution?
Well, now you are questioning me on my third activity, that of a writer. So, can writers with their fictional works help us understand better the situation? That’s an old question about the role of writers as activists and their active participation in society. I come from a part of the Balkans where we experienced all the bad consequences of nationalism which are almost always coupled with conservativism and right wing policies. Now, many writers that have declared themselves as “fathers of the nation” are responsible for immense tragedies that happened in former Yugoslavia. I would be suspicious of writers who claim to be the voice of the people. Luckily we do not live in 19th century where they are going to express the “interests” of their “people” and to create a nation.
We should always be suspicious of everybody who has these grandiose claims to define the “soul” of the nation, or all these obscure notions for which people are often ready to die. However, we should engage in critical questioning why this is happening and why these people have a voice and why it is important.
Why nationalism now, is blossoming in the countries that have been devastated by nationalism itself? A–are they really offering an alternative or basically nationalists and extreme right-wingers are there to take advantage of the current situation? We saw this in other parts of the world where basically capitalist restoration or the creation of enormous inequalities was followed by the rise of nationalism and neofascism. And what they actually do: In the name of the nation they destroy their nations! And this is what we experienced saw in former Yugoslavia as well. In the name of nations they were destroying other nations and their own nation with the final result of –bringing their nations under the control of local elites which of course now exploit those people they say they defend!
And there we should be really precise in analysing the phenomena of nationalism, because nationalism is not going to disappear by itself. Unfortunately, some people on the left are sometimes seduced by nationalistic rhetoric or they use the nationalistic rhetoric themselves. They should always remember, however, that our struggle is international and that solidarity should be always expressed with people who struggle around us. This is a true leftist stance. This does not mean that their nation does not exist, or that is not important. But the only way to emancipate these nations is if all members of these nations could aspire to equal life chances and if all nations around this nation could also aspire to the same status.
4. How important is literature in this socio-political picture?
Well, writers, in the 19th century, were, as I mentioned, the fathers of the nations. In the Soviet Union, Stalin, famously defined them, as “engineers of human soul”! Writers were important before. I’m not sure that they are as important today. However, many writers use their social capital to speak about political issues and then people tend to listen to them. But, no matter if the writer is good as a writer, we should carefully analyze what he/she says publicly and never succumb to any kind of adoration of someone just because of his or her literate talent. I know many stupid good writers, and many smart bad writers. I would always prefer the company of smart bad writers.
5. Inside the current context of the extreme rise of right wing and far right wing dynamic throughout Europe: Do you think that it would be effective to legally ban neo-Nazi or extreme far right parties?
Well, here is a different question, because it depends where you draw the line. The biggest success of extreme right wing all over Europe is that the center right started adopting its ideas. And you could see this in Britain, where we can witness anti-immigration rhetoric even from parts of the Labour. You can see that they influence the whole political spectrum. So, where do we really draw the line regarding what kind of activities are completely unacceptable?
Clearly, violence and the use of violence are going against the elementary laws and basic human rights. No one has the right to go on streets and beat people up. On the political level, what will be the effects of banning these activities? Greece is a very good example of this. What will be the effects of banning Golden Dawn if it is already present much outside their party and within people? All over the Balkans we have similar problems, for example, the revival of neo-Nazi and neo-Fascistic rhetoric and behaviour.
Unfortunately, I think that this will be one of the biggest challenges in the Balkans and Europe that all progressive forces will face. We are witnessing a progressive fascisation of our societies, something unthinkable five years ago. And if we do not mobilize at least on a minimum common denominator of anti-fascism even with the forces with which we might not totally agree in economic and social issues, then I think we will be defeated. A combination of state apparatus with fascistic tendencies might bring us closer and directly into new dictatorships, that will be different from those that we experienced in past, and much more sophisticated in a sense, but yet, quite effective.
6. One last question on nationalism: Do you think that the strong nationalisms that are present in the Balkans might be an obstacle to the integration of refugee and migration flows?
I will just give you an example from Former Yugoslavia. In the 90’s many former Yugoslavs were fleeing to Europe as refugees and looking for asylum, and so we have experience of being refugees. Now in the same countries people are protesting against asylum centres and are afraid of people coming from other places. How ironic and crazy is this! Me, myself, I was a refugee from Sarajevo and I experienced this fate. But many people cannot empathize now with the suffering of people coming from Syria or Africa, or other places.
Where nationalism is strong as a worldview, it is accepted by majority that normal social and political life is possible only in a society where everybody is the same, everybody is of the same stock, identity, language, etc. On the other hand, I don’t think that the Balkan peoples can survive without foreigners. Most of the Balkans is empty. People are leaving. Villages are disappearing together with small cities. So, our only hope is if people continue to come to live with us, no matter from what direction. This is equally true for Scotland.
Unfortunately, I always say, immigrants and asylum-seekers do not want to stay in Greece or Croatia. They want to go to Britain or the Netherlands. We basically have to figure out, how together, in this region, in which we are so interconnected, we can create together, in solidarity and intensive mutual cooperation, a better future. If this doesn’t happen, then I don’t see much future for the Balkans. Unfortunately, what we have been witnessing now is a continuous fragmentation, either territorial or social. And this plays so well with the global capitalism trends. Having really weak states and having weak economies allows you to exploit what there is to exploit.
However, at the same time, this is cementing us in our peripheral position. Before we could claim –and still we claim- that we are some sort of semi-periphery, but I’m afraid that we are not anymore. We will be a place where there are some natural resources to be exploited and where a cheap labor force could be found. They are not promising us a better life in the Balkans, growth or better education. They don’t need educated people; they don’t need societies of a thriving culture and ideas. And there will be some sort of local administrations that will cooperate well with the global capital. Now, this sounds to me like a dystopia. It’s not the right moment for us to realize our utopian visions; we first need to fight against this really existing dystopian reality out there.
7. It’s quite possible that the party of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, will be in the office after the next Greek parliamentary elections. Do you think that this is a chance for a leftist domino effect in Europe? Do you think that a truly democratic and egalitarian economic policy by SYRIZA would be feasible inside this very complex and deep-rooted capitalistic system?
Regardless of intra-Greek debates and especially on the left, SYRIZA winning the elections, meaning, using the institutional road to power, will be a significant victory for the European Left. It will, also show that there is an alternative that has been thought through to the current austerity regime that we have in Europe. I’m not sure about the domino effect, because social contexts in Europe are different, and SYRIZA seems to be the only left political party at the European landscape with such a strong popular support.
However, having a government that has, maybe not a revolutionary programme, but rather a programme of repairing social damage, and reconstructing domestic economy is a big step further towards a possible revolutionary social and political change in the future. So, I would be happy to see this and then for us to thinking what’s the next step. Clearly, we have to deal with the debt, and Greece must show a way how peripheral countries might get out of the debt trap by refusing to pay illegitimate debt, or demanding a haircut on the accumulated debt by previous governments.
This is an important and courageous step to be done. Again, Greece cannot do it on its own. We need much wider European alliances. However, there are risks related to the possible SYRIZA government, in the context of hostile environment, from the Brussels administration and the deep state apparatus in Greece. SYRIZA will win only if the popular movements continue to support its programme and if SYRIZA continues to respond to the demands of popular movements. This is the only formula, I think, that could be successful in the current situation.
8. In Greece, there is a heated debate regarding the theory of the two extremes. The conservative political forces and the majority of the press attempt to link SYRIZA and leftist movements in general with terrorism. Do you believe that this propaganda attack will affect the election outcome?
Basically, it’s an old trick. Conservative forces that are so closely linked to extreme right wing are ready to declare a state of emergency to protect the law and order. For that, they need not only Golden dawn, but they need also to invent an enemy on the left, to show that if they don’t intervene there will be another civil war.
At the same time, for years now, they have been supporting the right wing terrorism — killing people on streets is terrorism—and they are inventing enormous left wing threat by citing examples of incidents done by small groups, or like we had in Italy, incidents done in the name of the left, but actually by the secret services close to the right wing. So we saw that before. There are some people, who might be tempted by violence, usually in very small groups without popular support. This, in past, did not prove to be a good political strategy.
Small groups should not be allowed to kidnap the voice of the whole left, no matter what their program is. Luckily, we are not in this situation, but the propaganda machine wants to scare middle class population, not to vote for SYRIZA. They do not offer an end to this (economic) devastation, but a fear that if you vote for any radical changes, the situation might get even worse. Let’s see, if people get scared by these tactics. I hope in the case of Greece, this propaganda will definitely not work.
9. Let us finish with a personal question. Apart from your acclaimed academic work, you are the author of two novels. Both books were a big success and they won literature prizes in Croatia, and have been widely translated abroad. Should we wait something new from you?
I would rather answer to this question, maybe by saying something about these novels, because people in Greece may not know. I would just say some things about literature and my relation to literature, rather than to promise anything, (because writers are not to be trusted!). Literature for me is something that has a strong knowledge producing function in out attempts to “discover” and understand the world.
We could and we do experience the through literature. And it’s not just the past times. It has the strong influence on our understanding, and on our power of understanding ourselves and others around us. For me, when I have something to say, I have to answer the question in what form I can say what I have to say. So when I want to know what is really happening, then academic scholarly might be better. You decide to build your arguments in the most rational possible way and based on a rigorous research. When you want to make a point, to influence and possibly change things then you go into more activist mode.
However if you want to understand how people experience reality, how they live day by day, what affects, for instance, the political, social, and economic reality, then there is only one way and that’s fiction. In this respect, combining these three activities, social and political activism, academic work and literary creation, I think helps me to complete my general intellectual work. I see it as one and unified intellectual work that has simply different expressions.