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Poetry and politics

When two books on the same topic hit the bookshops, there’s something happening. Franco Berardi and Srecko Horvat have both written books on poetry.


Franco Berardi. Photo MACBA. Flickr CC

Steve Latham


But not really. The Italian and Croatian have produced meditations on the need for a poetic attitude to the closure of political options in our globalised neo-liberal world.

Both identify the apocalyptic nature of our times: the increasing impoverishment of the poorest, and the seemingly unstoppable ecological crisis.

How do we maintain hope in such a situation? How does the Left preserve its oppositional stance, when no initiative appears to succeed?

For both of them, the answer lies in the inspiration of the poetic; not just writing actual poems, but an inventive, intentional, living out of future hope in the present.

The system speaks in political prose: boring, isophrenic, flattened. It confines our imaginations within a smorgasbord of acceptable opinions.

We are thus disempowered from undertaking, or envisioning, radical actions, because we fear, in advance, that they will fail.

Photo: Pixabay

We need only look at the historical failure of Communism: it’s collapse in Russia, it’s capitalisation in China.

But also the evaporisation of protest movements before the immoveable face of reactionary entrenchment: the anti-globalisation movement, Occupy!, the Arab Spring.

Despite the hopes raised by these sparks of resistance, and their use of new technology to mobilise, they disappeared into the ether of techno-capitalist marketing atmospherics.

However, instead of the prosaic, the poetic may help us to conceive and create fresh forms of living, which can promote change. For this they consciously borrow theological language: the description of our present crisis as ‘apocalyptic’, the need for openness to ‘grace’, unexpected positivity.

They have, of course, denuded such concepts of their original content, in their search for culturally-based metaphors, which energise the emotions.

In a way, they are advocating an eschatological posture, of incarnation; living now as if the future kingdom is at least partially realised in the present.

They are anticipating models of human flourishing, which they hope, sometimes against hope, will be realised one day.

Whether such belief can be separated from its religious substrate is, of course, questionable. Can a thoroughgoing atheism ever generate transcendent hope, when all that is real is the what is.

Photo: Pixabay

Their proposal rests on a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, but in the absence of any assurance. Without a rational basis for activism, activists resort to the irrational. Berardi is honest about this. He accepts that hope lies in the bringing together of ‘illusions’, through which we may construct new potentialities. But these dreams remain ‘illusions’.

His austere realism about the failure of recent social movements is well-suited to longterm struggle, reminiscent of his Italian confrere, Gramsci’s ‘’pessimism of the intellect’ and ‘optimism of the will’.

Horvat is, by contrast, much more optimistic. He really seems to believe that a ‘global liberation movement’ is possible.

Perhaps this is due to their difference in age: he is 36, Berardi is 69. Maybe the latter has learned, in the end, some sad truths?

Franco Berardi, “Breathing. Chaos and poetry” (Semiotext[e], 2018)

Srecko Horvat, “Poetry from the future: why a Global Liberation movement is our civilisation’s last chance” (Allen Lane, 2019)

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