Subversive Forum: What is the future of Europe and its citizens?

Nick Holdstock
Subversive Forum

Nick Holdstock attended the Subversive Forum in Zagreb from May 13th-May 18th. In the following piece he revisits some of the themes and questions that this gathering of intellectuals, academics and activists considered during the Forum.

The European Crisis

The Subversive Forum began by asking ‘What’s Wrong With Europe?’ and there were no shortage of answers. Samir Amin claimed Europe was "the enemy of democracy"; Francine Mestrum argued that "Europe does not exist except as a geographical entity." Bernard Cassen was of the opinion that Europe was primarily a notion that only resonated with elites. Many of the panelists touched on the problem of the lack of popular legitimacy for European institutions, though Mestrum made the instructive point that it is not European politics that interferes with national politics, but vice versa- it is the member states that decide the composition of EU policy. As for whether there could be such as a thing as a ‘European consciousness’, Bernard Cassen thought it would take up to three generations to build, due to historical and linguistic differences. He suggested Italian as an alternative lingua franca to English; my neighbour muttered, “What about Bosnian?”

During her keynote lecture Saskia Sassen spoke about how the wave of urban protests of the last few years, ranging from anti-austerity demonstrations, to the Occupy movement, and the events of the Arab Spring has (and continues to) affect the dynamics of power and territory. She argued that “when territory exits conventional framings, it becomes institutionally mobile, nomadic and can alter the meaning of nation-state membership.”

The question of how citizens should participate in politics was considered by a panel on  ‘Representative or direct democracy?’ Costas Douzinas argued that Europe is dying and that Greece is the future of Europe. Referring to the recent Greek elections results, he argued that Syriza wouldn’t have succeeded without the citizens’ revolts since 2008. Arguing in favour of direct democracy, he said that direct democracy is not only about protesting, gathering and debating, but about the take over of state institutions by people. Barbara Steiner stressed the necessity to exclude radical, xenophobic groups in order to build a fairer, inclusive and just society and system. Giovanni Allegretti drew on his personal experience with groups that occupied public spaces and criticised the egoist left for insisting on talking only to like-minded people and activists. He insisted on the need to broaden the mass of people participating in democracy. Peter Vermeersch and David Van Reybrouck argued that Belgium’s inability to elect a government for more than a year was a crisis of democracy. They also presented an opportunity for political innovation in the form of the G1000 Forum, an alternative form of citizens’ participation in politics and discussions about the future of the country. In general, the panelists concluded that there is more to democracy than elections.

tariq ali.jpgTariq Ali’s lecture The Rotten Heart of Europe provided a witty, astute, and historically aware survey of what Europe was, how it developed, and what it is now. He began by arguing that from its inception, Europe has had two competing views associated with it, the purely economic model associated with Hayek, and the federal, political Europe of Jean Monet, conceived as an independent, non-aligned entity during the Cold War. Though this latter view held primacy at first, there can be no doubt that Europe today is far closer to Hayek’s vision. Ali went on to provide a devastating critique of the moral failings of the European elites, in particular their role in rendition and torture. He also castigated them for their role in the breakup of Yugoslavia - he proposed that the recognition of Slovene independence played an important part in this process, along with internal events. During questions, he went on to argue that one way forward in Europe is for the growth of regional power blocks, such as around the North Atlantic and in the Balkans. His talk offered a passionate and compelling argument for the need for a social and economic vision to counter that of the extreme right, and in defense of socialism he argued that whatever its many weaknesses and failings, it was a project that did not deserve to be wholly characterised by austerity, scarcity and an ‘exultation of the nation’. He urged the audience not to forget that under most socialist regimes there was also a crude equality of sorts, in terms of education, housing, and health. The dictatorial sides are not to be missed, he argued, but the social side is.

The Future of the Balkans

One of the main themes of the Forum was the benefits of dialogue and communal action throughout the global and European Left. Srećko Horvat told an illustrative story about finding books in an abandoned political school which contained a 1983 essay by Samir Amin. He argued that this should remind us that the Balkans once had close connections with progressive intellectuals throughout the world, and it is time these ties were renewed. Igor Stiks went on to argue that the Balkans has an imposed identity as fragmented, provincial, and in conflict. The formation of a Balkan Social Forum offers both the chance, and the responsibility, to challenge this by launching a process of dialogue, action and re-definition. As regards the fragmentation and at times factionalism of the Left, Walter Baier made the point that the diversity of the movement reflects the diversity of the world, and that this is something that cannot be subsumed under a single ideology.

The Current Social Situation in the Balkans’ was summarized in a wide-ranging panel that asked how austerity has been implemented, what have been the consequences, and crucially, what do the different countries have in common? The audience were presented with accounts of the often overlapping experiences of people in Rumania, Slovenia, Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia, which continue to be plagued by high unemployment, privatization and flat tax regimes. During the debate the important point was made that austerity in the Balkans needs to be understood in more than just economic terms. In Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia austerity has manifested in nationalist rhetoric and the politicisation of ethnicity, which have been used as a means of distraction by elites in these countries.

discussion.jpgIgor Štiks summarised the Balkan Forum by first reiterating that another Balkans is clearly possible, not only possible but necessary. He emphasised the main themes of the Forum: social justice, resistance to forces that undermine emancipation, the commons, labour struggles, and democracy. The last two decades have attacked what remained of the welfare state since the break up of Yugoslavia, and there is now an urgent need for an alliance of progressive forces, which face similar problems, though we must not marginalize the differences in our situations, or we will pay a price. He argued that we must tackle the way reactionary forces have used nationalism to mobilize their populations. He went on to say that we cannot win workers’ rights without redefining what social justice means. However, we should take encouragement from the grass roots struggles going on throughout the region. These movements must not forget human rights, or minority rights, or the struggle for gender equality.

During the final session Renata Salecl, Boris Buden and Dubravka Ugrešić, some of the most prominent Balkan and European intellectuals, writers and philosophers, discussed the role and the place of the Balkans in contemporary Europe. Among the questions they considered were such fundamental issues as what happens when one can observe ‘Balkanisation’ within the European Union while the ‘Europeanisation’ of the Balkans is in crisis? They critically examined the meaning of the word “Balkans” in the media and in artistic, literary and academic spheres. The term generates both fascination and fear and its very borders are subject to constant re-imagination, both in the Western media as well as within this region. They agreed that socialist Yugoslavia was a place where similar processes to those we now witness in the European Union were taking place from the 1960s until the final disintegration. However, these lessons from the positive and negative sides of the Yugoslav experience have not been learned in Europe. Today new progressive and emancipatory movements capable of critically examining the socialist past, the nationalist destruction and also contemporary Balkan societies, and which are embedded and fully active within a wider European and global context, might become new agents of change.

For more on the Subversive Festival see


Pictures by Robert Crc.