The challenge to avoid catastrophe is to reunite power and politics
Philosophy professor Jordi Corominas
has selected texts by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman,
known for his studies on modernity and postmodernity,
to speak of these times in which loves and fears,
surveillance and art are what Bauman terms “liquid.”
In these reflections Bauman warns of the profound changes
that will be required if we are to avoid more violent scenarios
and even wars between nations.
Zygmunt Bauman / Jordi Corominas
Since the publishing of Zygmunt Bauman’s books Joys of Life Made, Not Bought and Does The Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, I’ve thought it would be worthwhile to write a short summary of some of Bauman’s theses and ideas around the issue of cosmopolitanism and the need for alternatives to the current economic model.
As someone saying goodbye to the world
Bauman is the son of Polish Jews. He had to immigrate to Russia when the Nazis invaded Poland. He was in the military and participated in the Soviet regime until 1968, when he left the party due to his critical position and was expelled back to Poland. He ended up living in England, where he has published most of the work that has granted him world fame. Today, 89 years old, he writes books that have acquired a prophetic tinge, as someone who is saying goodbye: “The world seems to be well protected not against catastrophes, but against their prophets,” he says, “while the residents of that well-protected world, as long as they are not brusquely denied the right of residence, are themselves well protected against adding in to the (minute and wan) numbers of prohets scattered, crying, in their respective wildernesses…. Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, were pretty good propagandists, and yet failed to shake their people and to warn them.”
It is very possible that Bauman will also fail, he who, of course does not see himself as a prophet. However, it would do us well to listen to him and to discuss his reasons, accumulated throughout an impressive life and academic trajectory. The panorama he presents us is not very encouraging, but leaves open glimmers of hope. It still depends on us to avoid the worst.
The outrageous increase of inequality
Bauman offers multiple figures to show that the gap between the poor and the rich is increasing at an unprecedented rate: “It is estimated that the 20 richest people in the world have resources equal to those of the billion poorest people.” “After 2007, during the years of credit collapse followed by economic depression and rising unemployment, the tendency [for the ‘big divide’ to be less between the top, middle and bottom than between a tiny group at the very top and nearly everyone else] acquired a truly exponential pace…. The combined wealth of the world’s richest 1,000 people is almost twice as much as the poorest 2.5 billion.” And to underscore just how tiny that group at the top is and how much wealth it has accrued, he cites Julia Kellewe in a November 9, 2012, Guardian article who wrote that just ten of the world’s richest have by now accumulated wealth of US$2.7 trillion, about the same as the French economy, the fifth biggest in the world.
According to the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economic Research, “people in the richest 1% of the world population are now almost 2,000 times richer than the bottom 50%.” “The fabulous growth in the fortunes of a section of society 0.1% strong occurs, to rub salt into the wound, ‘in a time of unparalleled austerity’ for most of the remaining 99.9%.” Moreover, while in 1998, according to the United Nations Development Programme, “20% of the world’s population cornered 86% of all goods and services produced worldwide, [and] the poorest 20% of them consumed only 1.3%,” those figures have gone from bad to worse after nearly 15 years: “the richest 20% of the population now consumes 90% of the goods produced, while the poorest 20% consumes 1%.”
Quoting [human geography professor] Daniel Dorling, Bauman writes: “the poorest tenth of the world’s population regularly go hungry. The richest tenth cannot remember a time of hunger in their family’s history. The poorest tenth can only rarely secure the most basic education for their children; the richest tenth are concerned to pay sufficient school fees to ensure that their children need only mix with their so-called ‘equals’ and ‘betters’ and because they have come to fear their children mixing with other children. The poorest tenth almost always live in places where there is no social security, no unemployment benefit. The richest tenth cannot imagine themselves ever having to try to live on those benefits. The poorest tenth can only secure day work in town, or are peasants in rural areas; the richest tenth cannot imagine not having a secure monthly salary. Above them, the top fraction of a percent, the very richest cannot imagine surviving on a salary rather than on the income coming from the interest that their wealth generates.”
The end of the middle class: Why did this happen?
In an interview in 2014, Bauman reflected that “the new phenomenon is the future disappearance of the middle class’ expectations for progress. In fact work is an asset that is standing in a field of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter whether one has worked for thirty or forty years for the same business, all of the sudden there’s a merger and the surplus laborers are immediately released. The middle class today is closer to the proletarian and the people who live in poverty. Different from some years back, even though they have a job, the certainty of having it tomorrow has disappeared. They live in a state of constant anxiety.”
Bauman described how “During the last forty years, mutual dependency between employers and employees has been torn away in a unilateral way. Before, the employees, the workers depended on their bosses for a living. But at the same time, the bosses also depended on their employees.
“Mostly after the Great Depression, with massive unemployment, and especially after World War II, a state of welfare was created. There was general consensus in public opinion, between the left and the right, because the majority was in agreement that either you kept your people in good welfare or you’d be defeated in the next war or in the next commercial battle with other countries. Between the 1940s and 1970s, inequality decreased in all of Europe...
“This changed as a result of the economic policies that began to be put in to practice in the 1970s such as deregulation, privatization, subcontracting state obligations in the market (pensions, education, health care and other such benefits).
“And why did this happen? Because the bosses, the owners of the capital, the business owners, saw that they no longer needed nor was it in their interest to look after the neighbors, the people of their country. They felt free to go where ever they wanted to look for their workforce, where they wouldn’t have to worry about pensions or social security for the workers and where there wouldn’t be any strikes to defend salaries or workers’ rights. This way a unilateral dependency was created. Those who live in less developed countries still depend on the owners of the capital to get jobs but the bosses no longer depend on those workers.
“Thereby, the major part of economy today is purely monetary. Money makes more money. All the transactions that are produced in the stock exchange, in the stock market, those that affect the lives of people, don’t have the least interest in the economy, in the living conditions that affect the people who are not capitalist, who don’t play the stock market.
“There is a growing gap separating those who play the stock market, between the world of high finances and the people who do things and the workers who serve the larger part of the population.”
Capitalism has been left alone
In that same 2014 interview, Bauman added that “Marx spoke of the impoverishment of the proletarian and that this would get the proletariat to take to the streets and would unchain a revolution. Intelligent people among the owners of the resources took measures. The need to improve living and working conditions within the capitalist system itself was embedded in people’s minds, without questioning the system itself.
“Now, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there’s no alternative. Capitalism has been left alone in the battlefield and there’s nothing to constrain it, to limit something that is endemic to a system that is based on competition, greed, the will to defeat all the others and the scarce sensibility towards the destiny of the unfortunate, the victims caused by their own actions. It’s a new situation that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years Marx’s predictions could come true, not only in reference to the proletarian, but also the middle class, which has seen how their life style has been impoverished, not only losing their level of income but also their perception of security. The feeling of belonging has broken down for the middle class, the feeling of being part of a community, of counting on institutions that care for them when they suffer an individual catastrophe. The fear that their benefits will be reduced or directly suppressed, having to work more years for less pension increases in this class.”
According to Bauman, the first victim of this deep inequality will be democracy insofar as all needed goods are more and more inaccessible to live an acceptable life, thus becoming the object of cut-throat rivalry between those who have and those who are desperately needy.
Why do we put up with inequality?
In his book Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? Bauman says: “Ask people about the values dear to them, and the odds are that many, probably most, will name equality, mutual respect, solidarity and friendship among the topmost. But look closely at their daily behavior, their life strategy in action, and one can bet that you’ll derive from what you’ve seen an entirely different league table of values.... Most of us, though, are not hypocrites—certainly not by choice; not if we can avoid it. Very few people, if any, would choose to live their life in a lie. Truthfulness is also a value dear to most human hearts, and most of us would prefer to live in a world in which the need, not to mention the requirement, to lie does not often arise; best of all, never. So whence the gap between words and deeds?”
Bauman basically develops five reasons that are spawned by living in a world where our actions and daily routines—more or less consciously, independent of what we say and sometimes totally contradicting our words—are dominated by the obsession of economic growth. These reasons are consumerism; individualism; the belief in man’s innate selfishness; blaming the loser and the rebirth of nationalisms.
Faith in economic growth
In this book Bauman writes that it would seem that economic growth is the only way to face and overcome all the challenges and problems generated by human coexistence.
After examining the effects of economic growth as things stand today, he writes that “economic growth… does not for most of us augur a better future to come. Instead, it portents for an already overwhelming and fast-rising number of people yet deeper and starker inequality, a yet more precarious condition and so also more degradation, chagrin, affront and humiliation…. Instead of passing the test of a universal solution to the most ubiquitous, obtrusive and harrowing social problems, ‘economic growth’ as we’ve come to know it from our collective, increasingly unwholesome experience looks suspiciously like the principal cause of the persistence and aggravation of those problems.”
Bauman calls our attention to the fact that the theoretical precursors of capitalism anticipated that growth would not be unlimited and they believed that in the end would make way for a stationary state in which we could begin to worry about truly human problems. As an example, he quotes John Stuart Mill when he says that “a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”
Adam Smith and J. M. Keynes thought the same: “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion—in other words, problems that are not only ‘real’, but immensely nobler and more attractive than the needs of ‘mere survival’ guiding economic preoccupations to date….”
In another interview in 2014, Bauman referred to quotes from these economists: “They were wrong because they erroneously thought that people were going to purchase what was needed to cover their necessities. So they, with good reason, calculated the products that needed to be produced. Everything was a monotonous repetition of needs in accordance with population growth. They didn’t notice that in a consumer society nobody goes to the stores just to replace what broke or was consumed, but to satisfy their own desires. And desires are infinite....
“And it gets harder to change these behavior patterns over time because of the new generations, raised in an atmosphere of savage consumerism, each time starting to learn the system at an earlier age and frequently in the family. From El Salvador to London, New York and Moscow, families don’t go to mass or religious ceremonies, but instead go to the current great cathedrals: temples of consumerism, the malls. And it’s the family’s great weekly outing. They don’t only go to shop, but enjoy looking, seeing what’s there.”
Bauman affirms that we’ve been made into slaves of consumerism, stores, malls and big department stores. The search for happiness is equal to going shopping. The continuous growth of consumption or more precisely, an accelerated rotation of new consumer objects, is considered the only way to satisfy the human search for happiness.
In Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? he says, “The message could hardly be clearer: the road to happiness travels through shopping; the sum total of the nation’s shopping activity is the prime and least fallible measure of society’s happiness, and the size of one’s individual share in that sum is the prime and least fallible measure of personal happiness. In shops, medicines can be found for everything annoying and inconvenient—for all those big and small nuisances and discomforts of life that stand in the way of a cozy, comfortable and uninterruptedly gratifying mode of being.”
“From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all the illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common…. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions that are no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions.”
Consumerism, Bauman clarifies, is not simply consumption, because consuming is utterly necessary. Consumerism means that everything in our life is measured with consumer standards. It is normal for us to want to be happy, but we have forgotten all the ways to be happy. Only one remains to us, he argues, the happiness of purchasing. When one buys something desired, one feels happy, but it is a temporary phenomenon. A person satisfied with his or her relations, work, creations, is a threat to consumerism, which needs permanently dissatisfied people.
In an interview in which Bauman speaks of “liquid times.” he reminds us that “people were happy” in western Europe during his youth. They didn’t have much to buy, “but lived in sharing communities, with good neighbors who helped each other and cooperated, and that gave them security. Happiness comes from a job well done. The satisfaction that produces is extraordinary. In change, in our society, we define ourselves not by what we do but by what we buy.”
Reducing people to things
In Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? Bauman associates the growing individualism with the reduction of others to consumer goods, a utility. “The ‘things’ meant for consumption retain their utility for consumers—their one and only raison d’etre—as long as their estimated capacity to give pleasure remains undiminished; and not a moment longer. …once the pleasures stop being offered or supplied, or once a chance of obtaining more satisfaction or a better quality of satisfaction elsewhere by their owner/user, they can be, ought to be, and usually are disposed of and replaced.
“It is this pattern of client-commodity or user-utility relationship that is grafted upon human-to-human interaction and drilled into us all, consumers in a society of consumers, from early childhood and throughout our lives. This drilling bears a major responsibility for the current frailty of human bonds and the fluidity of human associations and partnerships—while that brittleness and revocability of human bonds are in their turn a prolific and permanent source of the fears of exclusion, abandonment and loneliness haunting so many of us these days and causing so much spiritual anxiety and unhappiness.”
“[The human relation causes] perpetual tension because of the permanently present possibility of a clash between… two autonomous self-propelling agents…. Frictions are therefore unavoidable, and the protagonists have no alternative but to brace themselves for the prospects of cumbersome and often thorny and prickly negotiations, uncomfortable compromises and painful self-sacrifices…. These risks are the price attached to and inseparable from the unique, wholesome pleasures which human-friendly, cooperative togetherness holds in store. The agreement to pay that price is the magic spell that opens the gate to sesame full of treasures. But it is no wonder that many people may find the price too high and paying it too heavy a burden. And it is to those people that the message of the consumer markets is directed, promising to strip human relations of the discomforts and inconveniences with which they are associated (in practice, to reshape them after the pattern of the client-commodity relation). And such promises are the reason why so many of us find the offer tempting and embrace it wholeheartedly, walking willingly into the trap while blissfully unaware of the losses which the trade-off portends.
“The losses are enormous, and paid in the currency of shattered nerves and dark, vague and diffuse, free-floating fears—as life inside the trap means staying permanently alert: sniffing the possibility, even the likelihood, of malevolent intentions and clandestine plotting in every stranger, passerby, neighbor or workmate. To those who have fallen into the trap the world presents itself as saturated with suspicion and bristling with suspects; every one of its residents, or almost, is guilty until proven innocent, whereas each acquittal is only temporary, until further notice, always open to appeal or instant revocation…. Commitment, not to mention a long-term commitment, tends to be ill-advised; impermanence and flexibility of association (bound to make all inter-human bonds feel uncomfortably brittle and yet more fissiparous) are insistently recommended and much in demand.”
The individual organization of life
“All in all, the world after falling into such a trap is inhospitable to trust and to human solidarity and friendly cooperation. That world devalues and denigrates mutual reliance and loyalty, mutual help, disinterested cooperation and friendship for its own sake. For that reason, it grows increasingly cold, foreign and uninviting; as if we were unwelcome guests in someone else’s (but whose?) enclosure, waiting for the warrant of eviction already in the post or in someone’s outbox. We feel surrounded by rivals, competitors in the endless game of one-upmanship, a game in which holding hands tends to be all but indistinguishable from handcuffing and a friendly embrace is all too often confused with incarceration.”
As a result, Bauman warns us, the new organization of life is more individual, dissociated and deregulated. The possibilities we have acquired have been so directed towards other ways of life that collaboration and solidarity aren’t only unpopular, but become a difficult and costly choice: “No wonder that relatively few people, and on relatively few occasions, find it in their material and/or spiritual power to take and see through such a choice. The great majority of people, however noble and lofty their beliefs and intentions, find themselves confronted with hostile and vengeful, and above all indomitable realities; realities of omnipresent cupidity and corruption, rivalry and selfishness on all sides.
“People can’t change such realities single-handedly, wish them away, argue them away or ignore them—and so they are left with little alternative but to follow the patterns of behavior which, knowingly or not, by design or by default, monotonously reproduce the world of bellum omnium contra omnes. This is why we all too often mistake those realities (contrived, implanted or imagined realities forced with our help to reproduce daily) for the ‘nature of things,’ which no human power can challenge and reform.”
The belief that inequality and selfishness are innate
In Does The Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, Bauman states a “few tacit presumptions commonly accepted as ‘obvious’… [among them that] inequality of humans is natural, and adjusting human life chances to its inevitability benefits us all, while tampering with its precepts is bound to bring harm to all.
“Rivalry (with its two sides: the elevation of the worthy and the exclusion/degradation of the unworthy) is simultaneously a necessary and the sufficient condition of social justice as well as of the reproduction of social order.
We have been trained and drilled to believe that the well-being of the many is best promoted by tending to, grooming and honing, supporting and rewarding the abilities of the few. Abilities, we believe, are unequally distributed by their nature; some people are thereby predisposed to achieve what others could never attain however hard they tried.
“Those blessed with abilities are few and far between, while those having no ability or only its inferior variety are many; indeed, most of us, members of the human species, belong to that latter category. This is, we are insistently told, why the hierarchy of social standings and privileges has the likeness of a pyramid: the higher the level attained, the narrower the group of people able to climb it.
“Placating to pangs of conscience and ego-enhancing as they are, such beliefs are pleasing and welcome for those up the hierarchy. But as arguments that reduce frustration and self-reproof, they are also good news of sorts for all those on the lower rungs of the ladder. They also deliver a salutary warning to all those who did not heed the original message and aimed higher than their inborn ability would permit them to achieve. All in all, such news prompts us to reconcile ourselves to the eerie, uncannily swelling inequality of the points of arrival by alleviating the pain of surrender and resignation to failure, while stretching the odds against dissent and resistance.”
Based on these beliefs, according to Bauman, we are challenged to the game of one-upmanship, that is, “try to outdo and outscore the next-door neighbor or workmate in the game of inequality of social standings. One-upmanship presumes inequality. The game of one-upmanship implies and insinuates that the way to repair the damage perpetrated thus far by inequality is more inequality. Its attraction rests in the promise of turning the inequality of players from a bane into an asset; or rather of turning the social, jointly suffered bane of inequality into an individually enjoyed asset—by measuring one’s own success by the degree of others’ failure, the extent of one’s advancement by the number of others lagging behind, and all in all, one’s rise in value by the scope of the devaluation of others.”
Losers are blamed for their failure
In the same book, we read that [the message that the road to happiness travels through shopping is presumed to be universal. In practice, however,] it splits society into an aggregate of bona fide, fully fledged consumers (a graduated quality, to be sure), and category of failed consumers—those who are unable for various reasons, but first and foremost for lack of adequate resources, to live up to the standards the message prompts and instigates them to match, insistently and assertively hammering itself home and in the end recycling itself into a no-questions-asked and no-exceptions-allowed obligatory commandment.
“The first group are pleased with their efforts and inclined to consider their high scores in the consumer tables to be a right and proper reward for their inborn or hard-won advantages in coming to grips with the intricacies of the pursuit of happiness. The second group feels humiliated, having been assigned to the category of inferior beings: at the bottom of the league table, facing or already suffering relegation. They are ashamed of their poor performance and of its plausible causes: lack or insufficiency of talent, industry and persistence—any of these inadequacies being recast now as disgraceful, demeaning, degrading and disqualifying…. The victims of the competition are publicly blamed for the resulting social inequality; yet more importantly, they tend to agree with the public verdict and blame themselves—at the cost of their self-esteem and self-confidence. An insult is thereby added to the injury; the salt of reprobation is rubbed into the open wound of misery.”
“For defective consumers, those updated versions of have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life unfulfilled, a mark of nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just of the absence of pleasure, but of the absence of human dignity. Indeed, of the absence of life’s meaning.”
“The sentiments of injustice that could otherwise be deployed in the service of greater equality are refocused on the nearest outposts of consumerism, splintered into myriads of individual grievances resistant to aggregation and blending—and in sporadic acts of envy and vengeance targeted against other individuals within sight and reach. The scattered outbursts of wrath offer temporary release to the poisonous emotions that are normally tamed and blocked, and bring an equally short-lived respite—though only to make the placid, resigned surrender to the detested and hated injustices of daily life somewhat easier to bear.”
The trap of the nation-State < /h2>
Bauman points out that there was a time when there wasn’t any notion of identity, nor identity as a problem. For most people “society” was equal to their immediate neighborhood, the existence of a society of mutual consciousness, in which their whole lives went on within a network of familiarity. As a consequence each person’s place, in a way, was evident and close, no need to reflect upon it and much less negotiate it.
It wasn’t until after the slow disintegration and the decrease in the power of control of the neighborhoods, along with the revolution of transportation, that identity became a “problem.” The rising State, faced with the need to create an order that the well-established and united “societies of mutual consciousness” weren’t reproducing automatically anymore, began echoing the issue and started to use identity in its work to put in the foundation for the new and unknown vindications of state legitimacy.
In this way, the idea of “national identity,” in concrete, is not conceived or incubated within the human experience in a “normal way.” nor does it arise from the experience of a clear “vital happening” of its own. In the quoted book, Bauman affirms that for people who are insecure, confused and terrified by the instability and contingency of the world they live in, “community” turns into a tempting alternative because it covers the illusion of a lost paradise: tranquility, physical security and spiritual peace, this is the base for the fundamentalist re-communitizing and new nationalism phenomena.
In an interview, Bauman reflected: “Since 1648, following peace in Westphalia, where a new political order was created in the center of Europe, a concept of sovereignty based on the fact that each territory’s government had the capacity to tell the population under their command which god they should believe in, a period of building new States began, in which religion was substituted by the nation. It turned out well as the territorial independence of the States had the capacity to promote self-government in a territory, however now the game rules have completely changed. Because we live in interdependency, not in independence. Formally the States continue being sovereign in regards to their territory, but in reality they no longer are”
The separation from power and politics
“The problem is not that politicians are corrupt. Some are, but not all. The problem is not that they’re stupid. Some of them are, but not all. The problem is not that they’re nearsighted. Some of them are, but not all.
“The fundamental problem is that all of them have to face, be they corrupt, stupid or nearsighted or not wise enough, that they are submitted to a double obedience. On the one hand, they are governing a concrete territory, and the citizens of this territory elect them precisely so that they can govern, so they are obliged to listen to their electorate. They have to keep in account what their electorate demands of them. And they even have to promise that they will work for them, that they will satisfy their needs. However, what they are frequently forced to do is to look in another direction: what would be the consequences of their decisions on the global market or as they say nowadays, the reaction of global investors.”
In other words, as stated in Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, “‘Deregulation’ of banks and of the movement of capital allow the rich to move freely, to seek and find the best of profit-generating terrains for exploitation and so to get richer—whereas the ‘deregulation’ of labor markets renders the poor unable to follow the exploits, let alone to arrest or at least slow down the peregrinations of the owners of capital (renamed ‘investors¡ in stock-exchange parlance) and so is bound to make them poorer.
“In addition to the damage done to their level of income, their chances of employment and of a living wage are now exposed to the vagaries of wealth-seeking capital, with the prospect of competition making them chronically precarious and turning them into causes of acute spiritual discomfort, perpetual worry and chronic unhappiness—banes that won’t go away and won’t stop tormenting them even in the (brief) periods of relative safety.”
He completes this idea in an interview: “Politicians are subject to a double obedience: on Friday they decide how to improve the country’s situation and to adopt a series of measures to do so, but they cannot sleep over the weekend because they fear that on Monday, when the stock exchange opens, a new cataclysm in the markets can throw out all of their plans, with a new state collapse that would send capital fleeing.”
This century’s labor: To wed power and politics
According to Bauman, the origin of the problems we are facing lies in the divorce between power and politics and in the life styles that the system promotes.
Power can be defined as the ability to do things and politics as the decision of what things should be done. Half a century ago, everybody was in agreement that power and politics walked hand-in-hand with the sovereign State. Today, the sovereignty of the territorial State has turned into an illusion. It is true that the States have the power to correct some aspects of reality, but the fundamental issues that would affect our children and grandchildren lie beyond the powers of the sovereign State, the territorial State and are submitted under global forces.
On the one hand, we have powers free from any kind of control and on the other, we have politicians that completely lack power. Therefore the question is not so much the great ancient question of what should we do, but instead how should we do it. We all more or less know what needs to be done: get power and politics wedded again. Politics should recreate its control over power and power should be under politics’ control.
The nation-States were created by our grandparents and great-grandparents to serve the independence of sovereign States, but now we find ourselves in a new situation of interdependence. They may have been useful for decades as independent States, however, the truth is that they’re no longer useful in these times of a global society, when it comes to controlling the global interdependence of societies.
The result of all of this is that we are divided between power that has freed itself from the control of politics and politics itself, which suffers a deficit of power and therefore cannot do the things that are settled on. The task of our times is to reunite power and politics. It is a very difficult task, but if we don’t do it we will not solve the problem.
The work of this century: A change of life-style
Bauman sees a glimmer of hope in that globalization has reached a point of no return and we find that each of us depends on the other more than ever before and we can only choose to mutually guarantee our shared security. For the first time in human history, interest in one’s own self and the ethical principles of mutual care and respect that we all have are pointing in the same direction and demand the same strategy.
In his book Identity, Bauman says that globalization could go from being a curse to turning into a blessing. We find ourselves in a threshold of another great transformation: the global forces are on the loose and their blind and harmful effects should be placed under popular democratic control forcing them to respect and observe ethical principles of human coexistence and social justice.
The other big and difficult challenge for Bauman is to promote the search of experiences, institutions and cultural and natural realities of living together, instead of concentrating in the index of wealth, which tends to turn human coexistence into places of individual competition, rivalry and internal struggles: “The point, therefore—and a point to which we don’t a yet have a convincing and empirically grounded answer—is whether the joys of conviviality are capable of replacing the pursuit of riches, the enjoyment of market-supplied consumables and one-upmanship, all combining into the idea of infinite economic growth, in their role of the well-nigh universally accepted recipes for a happy life.”
Is there still time to avoid the catastrophe?
The questions presented by Bauman are: Will we be able to unite power and politics? Will we be able to govern the uncontrollable forces of capital that make the world move? Can we incline ourselves towards the pleasures of living together overcoming the intervention of the market and without falling into the trap of utilitarianism? Can we substitute the game of everyone against everyone, rivalry, competition and greed for a coexistence based on friendly cooperation, reciprocity, generosity, mutual trust, acknowledgement and respect?
In any case, nobody can deny that in a crisis situation it’s necessary to develop visions of the future, projects or ideas that have not been thought of. In his book Does The Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, quoting Welzer, Bauman writes: “‘What could be more naïve than to imagine that the train bringing destruction on a mass scale will change its speed and course if people inside it run in the opposite direction? As Albert Einstein said, problems cannot be solved with the thought pattern that led to them originally. It is necessary to change course, and for that the train must first be brought to a halt.’”
And he concludes: “It seems that one needs catastrophes to happen in order to recognize and admit (retrospectively alas, only retrospectively…) their coming. A chilling thought if there ever was one. Can we ever refute it? We will never know unless we try: again and again, and ever harder.” Even earlier in the book he pursues the same thought: “Well—when (if) it comes to the crunch, do not say you haven’t been warned. Best of all, though, for you as much as for me and for the rest of us, is to stop the crunch from materializing when stopping it still remains within our conjoined human capacity.”
Jordi Corminas, professor of inter-cultural dialogue in Barcelona, is a specialist on philosopher Xabier Zubiri.