In creating a new global liberation movement – one that would work across borders and beyond national identities, which would go beyond the false dichotomy of the choice presented to us between neoliberalism and fascism – we have myriad inspiring examples, historical and contemporary, on which to draw. But if we want to build such a transnational liberation movement for our times, with a new name and new language, one that, while remembering the past also avoids its mistakes, then the inspiration has to come from the future. This chronological paradox was best summed up by Karl Marx in the opening pages of his 1852 work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. There, he contrasts the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century and the proletarian revolutions of his own time:
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.
What did Marx mean by ‘poetry’? In fact, he wasn’t talking about poetry as we commonly understand the term, but poiesis, from the ancient Greek verb poiein, which means ‘to produce’ in the sense of bringing something into being. In this sense, Marx himself had already invented the poetry of the future revolutions four years previously in his Communist Manifesto. And, as the French philosopher Étienne Balibar shows, Marx did something else as well. He removed one of philosophy’s most ancient taboos, namely, the radical distinction between praxis (from prattein, ‘to do’ in the sense of acting) and poiesis established by Aristotle. Marx’s formulation is what Balibar calls a ‘revolutionary thesis’, because there is neither praxis nor poiesis any longer taking primacy over the other. Rather praxis constantly passes over into poiesis and vice versa. In other words, if the new social revolution has to draw its poetry from the future, the content of the future revolution can be made only out of the poetry which is at the same time poiesis and praxis. The action (praxis) has to bring into being (poiesis) something that is a new creation of life and society by the very acts which happen in the present and come from the future. The problem with the poetry from the past is precisely this: it borrows from the past. Luther’s Protestant revolution had referenced the apostle Paul; the French bourgeois revolution, Roman antiquity (the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity); the Haitian revolution, the French Revolution; and last but not least many new left parties today draw inspiration from the social-democracy of the twentieth century (wealth redistribution, progressive taxation and so on), instead of offering something much more radical and responding to the future. Instead of breaking into the future with eyes turned to the past, a truly new social revolution must draw its content from the future. This is why, as Benjamin recalls in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, the people on the first evening of fighting in Paris in July 1789 were simultaneously and independently firing at clock towers across the city. The new revolution had – literally – to create its own time. And it is here that we must return to Benjamin’s notion of time:
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; a historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.
While the members of the French Revolution were never contemporaries of their own actions, because they were breaking into the future in the ‘costume’ provided by past moments of emancipation (such as the Roman ‘republican’ or ‘spartacist’ phraseology, or citing the mythic Roman accomplishments of liberty, equality and fraternity), the new revolutionaries have to inhabit the now of history, what Benjamin calls in his thesis XIV die Jetztzeit (‘now-time’ or ‘here-and-now’). In order to draw our inspiration from the future, we must escape from the blandishments of the past: we must shoot the clocks of the present in order to break out into the future. No wonder Benjamin uses the same example as Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire, referring to the French Revolution as one that ‘viewed itself as Rome reincarnate’ and ‘evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past’. While this sort of revolution was, as Benjamin beautifully describes it, ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’ (because ‘the jump takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands’), the new revolution has to make a leap into ‘the open air of history’, imposing its own rules of the game. In this way, the Jetztzeit is time at a standstill, a kind of ‘zero hour’.
Today, as we witness a reincarnation of fascism in different costumes all over the world, we find ourselves in an analogous situation. We can’t be breaking into the future with our eyes turned to the past, for the overwhelming reason that the solution to the world’s problems doesn’t lie in modest proposals for wealth redistribution, social democracy or traditional protests or party politics. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t learn from the past. On the contrary, it is the past and its unfulfilled potentials which point towards the potentiality of the future. But in order to make this crucial leap into ‘the open air of history’ we have to be acting and living in the now-time. It means breaking once and for all with the historicist notion of history understood as kronos: the purely linear and chronological vision of events usually perceived as a succession of dates in the columns of a calendar. What Benjamin teaches us, on the contrary, is an understanding of history as kairos: time as an open and unfinished process.
When a movement shatters or a comrade dies – someone with whom you were connected through struggle and conviction, going beyond mere friendship – nothing is lost so long as the struggle continues and conviction grows. Yet everything might be lost, if at that devastating moment we are not able to continue, even stronger, as if our comrades and their struggles were still with us. Even if they are not physically among us any more, to carry the spark of conviction and resistance into the future entails a chance of resurrection. The point is not just to remember, but to live as if the comrades and their struggles are here, in the now-time, to debate with them here and now, to quarrel if needed, to think and rethink, to have fun, to laugh and play and dream together, by deconstructing time itself and the prevailing notion that what has passed has passed for ever We have to understand the temporality of struggle as something which is not kronos, a mere succession of events (the Paris Commune, the French Revolution, the October Revolution, the anti-slavery movement, Occupy, the Greek Spring, Tahrir, the Partisans), but another space, another time, another reality which is not past but is here and now. The potentials of the past can only be reactivated by changing the present. And it is in this newly shaped present that the future can be created.
But ‘Time is over!’ We are constantly reminded not only that the utopias of the past century have disappeared, but that we live in an age without any big narratives – except that of ‘there is no alternative’, a negative narrative par excellence. Instead of inhabiting the now-time, we inhabit a vicious ‘presentism’, defined pithily by Enzo Traverso as a ‘suspended time between an unmasterable past and a denied future, between a “past that won’t go away” and a future that cannot be invented or predicted (except in terms of catastrophe)’.
If ‘Time is over’, aren’t we inevitably approaching a deadlock similar to Franz Kafka’s ‘Little Fable’, or what Walter Benjamin would call Einbahnstrasse, a one-way street? If Jean-Jacques Rousseau could proclaim in the prophetic passage from his 1762 Emile that ‘we are approaching the state of crisis and the century of revolutions’, shouldn’t we today accept that we live in an age in which the opposite seems to be the case: ‘Not the imminent return of revolutions, but the exhaustion of the idea, or – which is not exactly the same – the accumulation of factors which make the failure of revolutions their only possible outcome, therefore depriving them of their historical meaning and their political effectivity’? In other words, if the future is cancelled, if time is literally over, how can we draw our inspiration from the poetry from the future? How can we read or write the poetry from the future?
The answer is simultaneously simple and complex: we can do it only in the present, only in the now. Yet this now can’t be confused with the capitalist presentism in which either past or future no longer have any meaning; where ‘fake news’ and historical revisionism have already erased almost all distinctions between reality and fiction. It is this particular moment (Jetztzeit) in which the potentials of the past re-emerge (the first sound from occupied Europe, the Arab Spring and the Greek Spring, all the protests and occupations from Black Lives Matter to Gilets jaunes and so on) not as something gewesene (‘what has been’), but as kairos, an open and unfinished project.
But here it comes again: ‘Time is over!’ We are reminded by the galloping steps of fascism (from the United States to Europe and beyond) and capitalist destruction (from the brutal extraction of natural and human resources to the realistic possibility of a nuclear war or ecological armageddon). And here again, the only seemingly paradoxical answer to the cancellation of the future is now. It is, as counterintuitive as it might seem at first glance, precisely the inevitable collapse of civilization which – today more than ever – makes revolution inevitable. If there is no revolution, it is surely the end of the world.
An obscure text by the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, ‘The apocalypse is disappointing’, published in 1964, during the height of the Cold War, provides a surprising answer. The significance of Blanchot’s text – similar to Kubrick’s exactly contemporary Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – was recently rediscovered by the Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič. Blanchot’s main argument is that the threat of the ‘Bomb’ (the master signifier) and its potential of total annihilation led to the birth of the idea of a whole (of the world), as the whole, precisely, that can be lost, or disappear for ever.
You might ask, why does this shed any light on our current crisis? Because without this sense of the whole, there is no way out. The apocalypse is disappointing in that there is no discernible whole, which is devoid of any concrete content and form. While people bond together in the face of a common threat (lethal hurricanes, wars, terrorist attacks, refugee crises, ecological disasters, or the total annihilation of humanity) there is not yet the sense of a global community. This very whole (totality) of which some of us born after the Bomb became aware for the first time at the beginning of the twenty-first century is about to disappear, but it is not yet a totality in the sense of a human community. The ingenuity of Blanchot, says Zupančič, resides in the following Hegelian twist. Instead of accepting or denying the idea of the apocalypse, it is precisely its inevitability that lays the foundations for a predictable revolution (in the sense that only revolution can prevent the apocalypse, turning it from an unavoidable future event into something that is no longer inevitable). The global threats to humanity that we are now encountering represent an opportunity to build this coming global community. The apocalypse is disappointing because we will lose something (the whole) that we didn’t succeed in building. But it is precisely by creating what we are about to lose that we could eventually prevent the end.
What does the problematic event teach us? This: that insofar as it puts into question the human species in its totality, it is also because of this event that the idea of totality arises visibly and for the first time on our horizon – a sun, though we know not whether it is rising or setting; also, that this totality is in our possession, but as a negative power. This singularly confirms the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: the power of understanding is an absolute power of negation; understanding knows only through the force of separation, that is, of destruction – analysis, fission – and at the same time knows only the destructible and is certain only of what could be destroyed. Through understanding, we know very precisely what must be done in order for the final annihilation to occur, but we do not know which resources to solicit to prevent it from occurring. What understanding gives us is the knowledge of catastrophe, and what it predicts, foresees, and grasps, by means of decisive anticipation, is the possibility of the end. Thus man is held to the whole first of all by the force of understanding, and understanding is held to the whole by negation. Whence insecurity of all knowledge – of knowledge that bears on the whole.
What this Hegelian reading of the apocalypse enables us to become aware of is that the future is now. This is the dark future of disastrous hurricanes which leave whole islands and countries devastated, in response to which Trump throws paper towels into Puerto Rican crowds. Yes, it is the totalitarian future in which people gather to demand their basic democratic rights, and are the victims of a brutal crackdown by the security services. What if this dystopian future which is our daily present can give rise to a collective, global awareness about the whole: an awareness that might allow us to shape the future? What if the coming apocalypse opens up a chance, maybe for the first time (since the threat is not only the Bomb any more but a multiplicity of global threats), not only to understand humanity as the whole, as a totality, but to create a totality in the sense of a global community that would be structured in a radically different way from the one we are inhabiting now? And this ‘avatar of totality’, which necessarily comes from the future (aus der Zukunft), is actually our only chance to avoid the apocalypse?
As paradoxical as it might sound, when the Caribbean was pummelled by destructive hurricanes in September 2017, this was our chance; when, that same month, Mexico was hit by a massive earthquake this was our chance; and when, halfway across the world, the people of Catalonia, demanding their democratic right to vote over independence, were slapped down by the police and special forces: this, too, was our chance. The same goes for all the fascist movements, walls and detention centres rising like mushrooms around the globe; for the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica revelations, for the war in Syria or in Yemen, for the refugee crisis, for the record heatwaves in Europe and microplastic-filled oceans. Each of these events represented an alarm call from a catastrophic future that is inevitable – inevitable only if we are not able to create a global community which would perceive and treat each of these tragic events (from Puerto Rico to Florida, from police brutality in Hamburg to Catalonia, from rising fascism in Budapest to Charlottesville) as part of a whole.
But, here again comes the devil’s advocate with his alarming ‘There is no time!’, ‘Everything is going to collapse if we don’t act right now!’ And this is exactly what we should be avoiding. We should always distinguish between the fake now and the now as Jetztzeit. If mere presentism (the fake now or the nowness of the fake) consists in the reproduction of the present by instant news, real-time politics, society of spectacle, then the Jetztzeit, the here-andnow, consists in a deconstruction and destruction of the temporal totalitarianism which imposes and enforces a notion of time that necessarily narrows possibilities and potentialities. To act now means to create the conditions for our own future, not to follow the already written script from the past: it means to produce a crack in the present, a disruption in the imposition of capitalist temporality, the rhythm of power.
This sort of temporal subversion is nicely encapsulated in an event that happened in May 1995 during the Zapatista negotiations with the Mexican government. The government officials put forth a proposal and demanded a quick response from the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas, however, replied that a response would take some time as they needed to consult with their communities: ‘We as Indians, have rhythms, forms of understanding, of deciding, of reaching agreements.’ The government negotiators started making fun of the Zapatistas. ‘We don’t understand why you say that because we see you have Japanese watches, so how do you say you are wearing indigenous watches, that’s from Japan.’ To which the Zapatistas said, ‘You haven’t learned. You understand us backwards. We use time, not the clock.
This is another enactment of Benjamin’s struggle against kronos or, more precisely, a deconstruction of the notion of time as a set of chronological and linear events, a struggle against the most powerful of all powers (time). Of course, you could claim that the rapid technological and ontological acceleration of capitalism and its total colonization of time will inevitably affect also those, from Mexico’s Zapatistas to the island of Vis and its philosophy of pomalo, who live on the fringes of capitalist temporality. The Zapatistas have an answer to this as well. In April 2017 Subcomandante Galeano (formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos) delivered a lecture in San Cristobal de las Casas, a town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, entitled ‘Prelude: Timepieces, the Apocalypse, and the Hour of the Small’. In contrast to the predominant capitalist concept of time according to which the Zapatistas and all other groups and societies that are not living in the capitalist temporality are usually perceived as ‘anachronistic’ (literally, in ancient Greek, ‘against time’), ‘backward’ or ‘lazy’ (stereotypically the Greeks), Subcomandante Galeano compares the Zapatistas to the hourglass:
An hourglass that, although it doesn’t request an update every 15 minutes and doesn’t require you to have credit on your phone to work, does have to renew its limited countdown over and over again. Although not very practical and somewhat uncomfortable, just like us Zapatistas, the hourglass has its advantages. For example, in it we can see the time that has gone by, the past, and try to understand it. And we can see, too, the time that is coming. Zapatista time cannot be understood without understanding the gaze that keeps track of time with an hourglass. That’s why, on this one and only occasion, we’ve brought here for you, madam, sir, other, little girl, little boy, this hourglass which we’ve baptized the ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ model.
It is difficult to not be affected by Subcomandante Galeano’s subtle irony and his gentle way of translating something from Zapatista philosophy into our Western language through the culture of Hollywood. Here we have someone who has devoted his life to the fight against the capitalist colonization of time, but instead of taking refuge in anachronistic explanations, he uses a quote from Game of Thrones. He chose it with care: it comes from a scene of utter misunderstanding, in which the wildling girl Ygritte tells Jon Snow – who asked why she was crying because of a song about ‘the last of the giants’ when he had just seen hundreds of them – how little he knows about the real world. Why did the Subcomandante call the hourglass the ‘Jon Snow model’? The answer is that Zapatista time cannot be understood without understanding the gaze that keeps track of time with an hourglass. The Western, capitalist notion of time demands that we pay attention to that brief instant in which a tiny grain of sand arrives in the narrow passage, to fall and join the other moments that have accumulated in what we call the ‘past’. This is the prevailing presentism which commands us to live in the moment: don’t look back, because ‘a second ago’ is the same as ‘a century ago’ – and above all, don’t look at what’s coming.
In opposition to this prevailing presentism, the Zapatistas, as Subcomandante Galeano says,
… stubbornly, against the grain, just to be contrary (without insulting anybody in particular, to each his own), are analyzing and questioning the tiny grain of sand that exists anonymously in the middle of all the others, waiting its turn to get in line in the narrow tunnel, and at the same time looking at the grains that lie below and to the left in what we call the ‘past’, asking each other what the heck they have to do with this presentation about the walls of Capital and the cracks below. And we have one eye on the cat and the other on the meat hook, or rather the dog, with which the ‘cat-dog’ fn1 becomes a tool of analysis in critical thought and ceases to be the constant company of a little girl who imagines herself without fear, free, a compañera.
What the subcomandante unfolds here is nothing less than a philosophy of struggle, in which Zapatismo – for the Zapatistas themselves – is one struggle among many, perhaps a small grain of sand that exists in the middle of all the others: it is the poetry from the future in which many worlds fit: all of them, those that existed, those that exist and those yet to be born. The struggle, says Subcomandante Galeano, is something ‘that requires you to pay attention to the whole and to the parts, and to be ready because that last grain of sand isn’t the last, but rather, the first, and that the hourglass must be turned over because it contains not today, but yesterday, and yes, you’re right, tomorrow too’. In other words, the Zapatista understanding of time is that of kairos. It means that all our emancipatory struggles, the ones of the past and the ones to come, with all their differences and outcomes, have to be perceived as one and the same struggle. And even if some of these struggles, with all their dreams, hopes and achievements, might appear as nothing more than a tiny grain of sand in an hourglass, we always have to remember that even this tiny grain of sand can at the same time already be a mountain. It just depends on the gaze. And from where we draw our poetry.
Srećko Horvat, POETRY FROM THE FUTURE

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