Another End of the World Is Possible

Srećko Horvat, After the Apocalypse

Polity, 180pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781509540082

reviewed by Maša Uzelac

The Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat made his name through his collaboration with philosopher-superstar Slavoj Žižek (in 2013 they co-authored What Does Europe Want? The Union and Its Discontents) and his work as a political activist: in 2016 Horvat along with Yanis Varoufakis founded the pan-European political movement DiEM25 advocating radical democracy and promoting international cooperation. His latest book, After the Apocalypse, continues the line of thought from Poetry from the Future (2019) where Horvat argued that the only way to fight the climate crisis, the rise of populist nationalism, and surveillance politics is through the creation of a global liberation movement. This movement would aim not only at ‘decolonizing’ the planet, by restructuring and reinventing the politics of the commons, housing and migration policies (among other things), but also at liberating human subjectivity — desires, emotions and imagination — from the helplessness ingrained in the neoliberal ‘there-is-no-alternative’ mantra. Horvat writes in a style that is astonishingly accessible, devoid of scholarly dreariness, and at times playful and humorous, combining autobiography, literary and film criticism, journalism, and philosophical essay.

In After the Apocalypse, Horvat now argues that there are only two alternatives for the future of humankind: the ‘radical reinvention of the world’ or ‘mass extinction’ (the latter being an inevitable scenario of the ‘new authoritarian capitalism’). This reinvention, Horvat insists — and this is the strongest point of his book — must expand its focus from the political sphere to the domain of ethics. Horvat uses the term ‘planetary ethics’ to emphasise its non-anthropocentric character. In this line of thinking, he borrows from the French environmentalist tradition, which frames ecology not only as a scientific discipline, but also as a form of social practice and ‘mental hygiene.’ Thus, Horvat extends the environmental struggle from the political and practical domains to the domains of ethics, spirituality, emotions, and imagination. Horvat grounds his ideas in the concepts of ‘ecosophy’ (Guattari), ‘collapsosophy’ (Servigne, Stevens, Chapelle) and ‘catastrophisme éclairé’ or ‘enlightened doomsaying’ (Dupuy). Following Félix Guattari’s dictum from The Three Ecologies that ‘it is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity,’ Horvat debunks the myth of the nature/nurture division by insisting that the biosphere and the semiosphere (the domain of the creation of meaning) are intrinsically interconnected. As he writes in one of his ‘Nine Theses on Apocalypse’: ‘Disaster generates meaning. Meaning often generates disaster.’

Unsurprisingly, this part of the book is replete with references to various ideological interpretations of the COVID-19 pandemic (Horvat sarcastically spurns prominent political figures such as Macron and Trump), but also climate and nuclear disasters from the more or less distant past. Horvat denounces especially those interpretations that represent ecological catastrophes as ‘natural’ processes while overshadowing their socio-economic underpinnings. I’m put in mind of a recent Irish Times article in which the author insisted on the ‘intrinsic unfairness’ of the virus (as if the problem lay with the infective agent’s lack of moral compass) and argued that instead of blaming Nphet (Irish National Public Health Emergency Team) or the Government, ‘it is the virus that we should blame.’ Such a take exemplifies how the dominant ideology Horvat warns against is deeply rooted in the interests of the free market and capital accumulation, camouflaging the socio-political dimensions of ecological disasters, not least the endless expansion, extraction and exploitation by global capitalism.

Horvat acknowledges that the omnipresent process of ‘normalization of the Apocalypse’ ultimately anaesthetises the subject into accepting a perennial apocalyptic reality (the so-called ‘new normal’), but he also invites his readers to embrace the subversive potential of the Apocalypse, embedded in its capacity to ‘reveal’ or ‘uncover’ that which is hidden. What he suggests is to transform the ideological tool into a revolutionary impetus. Inspired by the German philosopher Günther Anders’s ideas on the ethical implications of the Cold War-era nuclear threat, Horvat feels that it is no longer a matter of choice, but of duty, to act in such a way. Claiming that ‘the Apocalypse is an X-ray machine from the future,’ he argues that the emancipatory power of a disaster lies in its potential to suddenly and unexpectedly reveal its true causes, dismantling the ideological décor without giving the power structures enough time to recreate the spectacle of ‘normality.’ One can read Horvat’s well-evidenced book as an urgent call to seize this opportunity before it is too late.

In a postscript titled ‘Revelation of COVID-19,’ Horvat gives us the rather unsettling task of making an imaginative leap into the future and from there look at the present moment (with its collision of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapidly increasing challenges of climate change) as a missed chance. It could be argued that this grim vision contains no progressive or subversive element, but instead perpetuates the hopelessness of our current predicament. It is difficult to think of Srećko Horvat as an optimist: nothing in his philosophy suggests that there are easy, ready-made solutions to the present crisis. His ‘hope without optimism’ — which he defined in Poetry from the Future, borrowing the notion from Terry Eagleton — is grounded not in a particular vision or a blueprint for the future, but in a dialectical process operating between the actual and the possible.

The value of his speculative odyssey through time and space — the three chapters of After the Apocalypse correspond to Horvat’s (real and imaginative) trips to the Mediterranean, Chernobyl, and the Marshall Islands — lies in its aspiration to dissolve the boundaries between fiction and reality, and to bridge the gap between what is and what could be. Only when the two poles are brought together does any change, even the most trivial, become conceivable. Horvat’s dialectics of hope imply that a horizon of possibilities is always entangled with reality itself and that it is our task to create — through an interplay between the intellect and imagination — a new vision for a more egalitarian, ecologically balanced, and sustainable future. Even if the end of the world is imminent and there is no coming back, Horvat might say, there is always ‘another end of the world’ that is possible.

Maša Uzelac is a PhD candidate in French at National University of Ireland, Galway. Her thesis looks at ambivalent representations of Utopia in the works of Aldous Huxley and Michel Houellebecq.