Interview with Vedran Horvat from the Institute of Political Ecology

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“My name is Vedran Horvat. I’m sociologist by background and work as a managing director of the Institute of Political Ecology since a few years. We are a fairly new organisation that has the primary aim to show in which way environmental risks and benefits are distributed in society according to gender, class or any other criteria. So we actually aim to be some kind of troublemakers in the sense that we try to underline the wrongs of the current distribution of these risks. We also try to provide the social context and the power relations behind certain conflicts in resources. We try to build an organisation on the kind of constructive tension between activism and academia, bringing rebellion, academia and scientific knowledge to movements and initiatives, to actors who are socially engaged. On the other side, we try to improve and enhance the knowledge of the movements to deal with certain topics that require more information and in-depth knowledge. We try to mediate in the exchange and also to be some sort of permanent fabric of knowledge for movements and initiatives who fight for social change or try to influence politics, policies or open space for new initiatives to emerge.

 

[Before the Institute of Political Ecology,] we didn’t really have any organisations that would be able to produce data, relevant research, easy statistics or create new narratives that would be scientifically based and confirmed.”

 

We are in a way the results of a very long lasting cooperation between a few organisations like Right to the City and Group 22. It’s next level to be able to have a ‘fabric of knowledge’ for movements. That is how we also want to remain and be perceived. Mainly we work in Croatia, but we also extend to a more regional and even more European level, and cooperate with similar institutions and organisations, collectives, groups and universities. On the other side, we are still a young and new organisation, although, individually, we come from different lives with different experiences.

 

The main idea was to accept that it was a kind of logical continuation of this cooperation that needed to advance and to be developed further. We didn’t really have any organisations that would be able to produce data, relevant research, easy statistics or create new narratives that would be scientifically based and confirmed, whether it’s about climate change, the grow debate, the commons debate or different needs that emerged among initiatives and movements – although in Croatia saying ‘movements’ is maybe an exaggeration. Nobody had the capacity to do it all by themselves, but they sometimes possessed knowledge, time, or money to produce knowledge on a permanent base that would be transported into some sort of political struggle, sometimes against privatisation, sometimes in favour of new legislation or even just to highlight some critical points in what already existed in a certain field.

 

“[W]e try to develop a completely new territory, imaginary and symbolic territory of change, to develop new knowledge and a new language that would be the basis of the social change that would come afterwards.”

 

Also with some sort of meta-narrative, we try to develop a completely new territory, imaginary and symbolical territory of change, to develop new knowledge and a new language that would be a basis of the social change that would come afterwards. So it’s some sort of preparation of the new landscape, which is now more perceived as utopia, but on the other hand, it also prepares actors who are involved to be more in tune with what they collectively think and agree on. So it’s also about building a joined position about the future and these convergences of different interests, purposes and needs. Then appear as some sort of common ground for maybe driving this change in the future.

 

“[The issue of the privatisation of public services] is not a discussion about ownership, it’s more a discussion about how we treat the public infrastructure and how we can use the narrative of the commons to politicise the discussion.”

 

We are a full staff of five, with two or three more temporarily members. We expect that we will grow slowly, but probably, given the current constraints, I don’t think it will be very fast. But surely we will benefit from having more researchers, because we have lots of ideas and there are just a few of us. My main role here is more to work on the organisational development, coordinate other people in our finances, communication and programming. So I am more an executive person, but I’m involved in some of the research, such as trade-agreements or democratisation of public services on which I work with another person, who is quite knowledgeable on this topic. But this is for example where I invest in research, so it’s more about examining how we can prevent privatisation of public companies in the field of waste, water, energy or transport and how we can actually improve the management model of these companies. Also to advance the service and the consumer interests and also public interest that is often not protected sufficiently by these ideas of privatisation that appear as hostile in this case.

 

This is not a discussion about ownership, it’s more a discussion about how we treat the public infrastructure and how we can use the narrative of the commons to politicise the discussion, because these are not necessarily commons like the railways or electricity, these are public companies with public resources. The resources tend to not be governed properly, and then since it isn’t governed properly, ideas to privatise seem to be the only alternative. We want to show that there is another alternative that is not equal to occupation and is not leading to privatisation. So we actually try to advance it by more participation and control of the people and the citizens about these public resources and to introduce new mechanisms. I also work on networking for the organisation to be present on the regional and European level and to cooperate with similar partners and similar organisations in Europe.

 

I think it is very necessary to have an international level in our model as well. This can be very instrumental in cases when you have several political problems and pressures on a more local level. My main occupation is constituted on this green academy, which is some sort of summer program we’ve been building since 2010. Almost 1000 people circulated through it, it became a very recognisable platform for green progressive and left movements and scholars to meet, exchange, plan together and to develop strategies how we move further, how we can make global topics to be relevant on the local level and how we make the local topics exchangeable on a broader European level. Because we all face similar pressures, driven by this wide capitalism on resources and people. So we tried to reach answers there together. This is the product of the constant and permanent development of this community around this summer program. So it is not just a summer school, it’s also some sort of identity: that people who were also there feel attached to this stream, that has become more and more massive, because in comparison to us ten years ago, this was all much smaller. So we thought that it’s important to expose many more people to have any sort of social support for this change, because we can always be in small circles, understand each other, read literature and share inside our circles, but then, it has no relation to social reality. We’re going in the right direction to show that these topics are not marginal issues but very much related with the overall systemic crisis, with the economy, the social inequalities… I think that those who are successful in doing progressive politics in Croatia have strong connections with what we do.

 

“We divide our work in a fast and slow track. In the fast track we try to influence politics and policies. […] And on the slower track we research fundamentals on how the overall direction of the development in the state or broader can be changed and what we need in order to change this direction.”

 

We started with extended research on electricity companies, on railway companies, on communal companies in different cities, which is now almost finished, and we expect that we can present this research in the beginning of 2018. We also expect that it will not be welcomed by anyone. We divide our work in a fast and slow track In the fast track we try to influence politics and policies, we have our own agenda about what can be done, but we also respond to needs of movements and organisations who sometimes ask something from us. And on the slower track we research fundamentals on how the overall direction of the development in the state or broader can be changed and what we need in order to change this direction. It’s seems like there is always a contradiction between “Do we want to reform or do we need some kind of revolution?”, so I think it’s a false dilemma. Often we are trapped as an organisation: do we want to just improve things, function better, like with companies to deliver better service, to be more ecological, but actually not really changing the system? Or do we want to change the system, and if so, how should we do it? If revolutionary narratives and literature won’t work by themselves, how do we transform them into political action? It is also about time: how much time does change cost? People want fast change.

 

And on the other hand, you see negative change happen really fast and then we are all surprised. Because overall these progressive, green left forces are now being very defensive and thinking about how we actually have to cope with this storm that is coming. This storm is black, big, loud and we just don’t feel strong enough to win. That’s why to me the main challenge is to talk to the majority of people, what we often don’t do. We also have to transform this academic and sophisticated language into plain language of the people on the market, on the street… they actually feel that we, in a political sense, are those who provide another answer.

 

“[W]e don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to invent new ways in social terms.”

Sometimes it’s like working in the mines: you are not on the surface, you need to dig deep and get a lot of material out and stomp it really fine in order to bring it to the surface. This is how I see our work. We need to restructure the whole idea about change and not just allow the NGOs to ask for this or that, but to make a real difference, we need to reformulate how we talk about these results and also improve the methodology how we are actually absorbing these results into our work and into our research. So we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to invent new ways in social terms. I also think that, since we bring this sort of content, we often need to find very peculiar ways to communicate with media. Because media generally don’t want to hear what we have to offer, unless they have a certain agenda to make it worse. The ownership structure of the media in Croatia is very close affiliated to politics and power, which is at the moment conservative and not willing to hear anything progressive. They also have privatisation plans and receive big corporate money from European owners, who push for a very strong liberal agenda through media. And if they give you a little bit of space it is because they want to knock you down. They have this very obvious strategy of making stars and then killing them. This is their usual strategy. At one point they promote what you do, but actually they are not supportive to this kind of change, so they see you as something exotic, new, and young. Generally they don’t have any plan to support you.

 

“It is also very important to fight against populism, because it often does not provide solutions and it frames the debate in a very strange manner, which tends to be anti-expert and very hostile.”

 

We manage to get 2000 people together who believe in this change, but it isn’t enough. Now with the local elections a couple of hundred people worked very hard during several months to get four people in the city assembly, that’s 8%. This is, I think, a huge amount of work and energy and the result is disproportionate to this social energy that was accumulated into the campaign. Because the constraints and the forces on the other side are often too strong and too well organised to prevent appearing as an aggressive political actor. So actually, you really need to find a way on how to put your foot between the door. It’s also very important to fight against populism, because it often does not provide solutions and it frames the debate in a very strange manner, which tends to be anti-expert and very hostile. But on the other side, we actually need this stuff to show we don’t need to talk about who is gay, who is an immigrant and other identity elements. We need to talk about why we don’t want to privatise. These identity politics are very often used as a kind of smoke screen for dirty business, which take place while people are quarreling about abortion and gay marriages, which are again very important questions, but they are often fueled by the right wing and populists to put a smoke screen and to cover up the deals that happen behind closed doors.

 

I would be inclined to support something like left populism, but I would not call it like that. When I say that we have to talk to the majority, I am actually on that line. But the language should not include exclusion and hate. That would be a really big difference. So in that sense, if that would be populism, I would be quite supportive, although there are currently many debates that have also very consistent arguments against populism and I understand them. On an intellectual level, I would even agree with them, but on the political and social level, I don’t think we have time to be so puritan in our approach.

 

We need some victories that are milestones for us to move further. And I don’t think we are doing badly in terms of collecting these victories, but we often fail to capitalise on them on a higher level. Because we are always right; ten years ago people were put to jail, but now it is clear, the punctuality was always there, the analysis was right, all the time, but people forget. And if you have to fight with loss of memory, this doesn’t really work.

 

“Even if we can’t change thing in the world because we are to small, we need to change our way of life and decrease the pressure on nature and decrease emissiond and introduce pore progressive politics in the environmental field.”

 

Generally we know that every government – whether they be social democratic or conservative – they all have a common position on privatisation with small nuances: they want to get rid of public infrastructure and sell it. So for us this is a very relevant topic from many angles, from democratisation, from an ecological angle… Also climate change, for us is an urgent issue, but not so many people or movements share this is as equally urgent. Some say that it is more urgent to fight fascism, or that we fight capitalism. But everything is related. We also have a fight about the relevance of the topic among ourselves, within the society, in order to prioritise what is more urgent. And some issues appear to be very urgent, but also we have short hands in Croatia to fight for example climate change. We can do things on a level of national industry, energy, but on a global level this is evolved. So we won’t stop climate change, we are just too small. But we have to maintain the discourse that we shouldn’t contribute to climate change, we can’t continue as we have been living before and that we have to stop with unsustainable production and consumption. Even if we can’t change things in the world because we are small, we need to change our way of life and decrease the pressure on nature and decrease emissions and introduce more progressive politics in the environmental field. That is very difficult to explain to people who maybe don’t care about environment at all and particularly to people who think that economic growth is a necessity and that’s the only thing we have to care about.

 

There are many grounds for this struggle at this symbolic level, also to show that if you have right-wing populists emerging and you talk about global index or climate change, people think that you are not really able to make any substantial change at a global level, addressing climate change, but on the other side, on adaptation, when we for example had fires and floods last summer, people understand much more easily that this is related to climate change because the extreme weather is more frequent. And they think about how they will live in the future with this sort of environmental change that affects our lives. Will we be able to fish? Will we be able to have tourism? So some vital parts of life will be affected by climate change on the coast particularly and people feel it.”

Interview and photo by Sonderland