Zygmunt Bauman: History repeats itself. We are coming back to the small, tribal states.

We cannot see that the EU is not the cause of the injustices we face. Zygmunt Bauman discusses Brexit and the impact it has on the world.

Helena Celestino: How do you explain the Brexit vote? What must Europe must to avoid losing more members states?

Zygmunt Bauman: To start with your second question: let’s hope that the mess the Brexit adventure has and will  further cast for the vanishing “United” Kingdom will prove to be the best imaginable sobering concoction for those intoxicated enough to support the tribal “Eurosceptics” in other Member States of the EU.

But now to your first and fundamental question on how to explain the Brexit vote. For the millions of Britons left behind or fearing to be left at any moment without warning; for the victims of deregulated labour markets and financial forces, which have been let off-leash; of the reckless rising of inequality; of the fast shrinking of the ranks of the beneficiaries of the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher era and equally fast multiplication of their losers; of the on-going descent of the once self-confident middle-classes into the condition of a frightened, disabled and unsure “precariat”, the British referendum was the rare, well-nigh unique chance to unload their long accumulated, blistering anger against the establishment as a whole, because the system is notorious for failing to deliver on its promises.

Zygmunt Bauman
Zygmunt Bauman is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds. He has published numerous books, articles and essays on topics such as modernity and the Holocaust, postmodern consumerism, globalisation and morality and liquid modernity. He was awarded the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology in 1992, the Theodor W. Adorno Award in 1998 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 2010.

In normal parliamentary elections, such a chance is severely constrained: rejecting one party, one part of the establishment, only to willy-nilly admit the same establishment who is eager to manage it but who is doing very little to change it. In the British referendum, however, all major parties of the establishment were on one side: the voters could manifest their indignation, disgust, resentment with and refusal to trust the whole establishment in one go: to the “order - or rather disorder - of things” as such.

The big question, however, is whether the anti-establishment protesters will grab that chance or if it will be no more than a simple satisfaction of a one-off release of their wrath. The subjects which oppressed and haunted the “Leave” voters were grossly misleading and diverted by the referendum’s organisers and focused on the European Union. In fact the EU with all its failings and misdemeanours served as a protective shield against the genuine culprits of all the woes that made the protesters frightened and angry; a shield that is admittedly far from being foolproof but managing at least to mitigate the damage that otherwise those genuine culprits would have perpetrated.

The real culprits though are financial, investment and trading powers, alongside criminals, terrorists, arms trade, drug trafficking organisations, which are operating globally and cross-territorially. They emancipated from “sovereign” and territorially confined political control. All or most of the injustices and wrongdoings that made the protesters march in the street originates in the confrontation between the powers which are free from effective political control and politics who suffer the constant deficit of power. The decision reflected in the referendum can only exacerbate that conflict, thereby facilitating the uncontrolled powers while further diminishing the politics’ capability of controlling them.

A spike in hate crimes, the financial crash and the crises among the Conservative and Labour Party: does it look like the government failed?

We are but at the very beginning of the, as Americans would say, “new ball game” which none of the voluntary or involuntary players know how to play, having no inkling of its rules if there are any even binding ones. What is sure for now is that all forces of the British establishment shot themselves in their feet and are emerging sorely discredited from the foolish test. Many “Leave” voters are already realising their mistake and regret what the consequences of their action. Up to four million Britons signed the petition asking for a second referendum. I can’t predict whether a second referendum will take place, but I can vouch that many figures in the political elite who heedlessly and for inner-party reasons called the nation to the polls on a matter which was disguised as another, have had (alas, belatedly) second thoughts.

Will nationalism and borders be restored again in Europe? How do you feel about this new order?

“If States ever become large neighbourhoods, it is likely that neighbourhoods will become little States. Their members will organize to defend their local politics and culture against strangers. Historically, neighbourhoods have turned into closed and parochial communities (…) whenever the State was open”, said Michael Walzer who retrospectively concluded over thirty years ago from the accumulated experience of the past, presaging its repetition in the imminent future [1]. That future, having turned into the present, confirms his expectation and thus reasserts his diagnosis.

Courtesy of globalisation and of the ensuing divorce of power and politics, States are indeed turning presently into not much more than larger neighbourhoods confined to the inside of only vaguely delineated, porous and ineffectual fortified borders – while the neighbourhoods of yore, once anticipated to accompany the rest of intermediate powers in their travel into the dustbin of history, struggle to take on the role of “little States” – making the most of what has been left of semi-local politics and of the State’s once jealously guarded unshared and inalienable monopolist prerogative of setting apart “us” from “them” (and of course vice versa). “Forward to the little States” boils down to “back to the tribes".

On a territory populated by tribes, conflicting sides shun and doggedly desist persuading, proselytising, converting each other. The inferiority of a member – any member – of alien tribe is and must remain predestined, eternal and incurable, liability, or at least seen and treated as such. Inferiority of the other tribe must be its ineffaceable and irreparable condition and its indelible stigma beyond repair, bound to resist all and any attempt of rehabilitation. Once the division between “us” and “them” has been performed according to such rules, the purpose of any encounter between the antagonists is no longer its mitigation, but a gaining of yet more proof that mitigation is contrary to reason and out of the question. To let the sleeping dog lie and avert misfortune, members of different tribes lock in a superiority-inferiority loop and don’t talk with one another but past each other.

Is the post 1945 order imposed on the world by the US and their allies unravelling?

The post-1945 “order” has been irretrievably unravelled with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then, the US tried repeatedly to replace it with a new order of pax americana. It failed abominably. At the moment, we all live on a multi-centred globe with no forces in sight that are alone or together capable or earnestly trying to “order” it. As Ulrich Beck, one of the greatest thinkers of the past century prominent for his unique insight into the shape of future things put it, we are already cast in a cosmopolitan condition but so far we have not yet started to develop a cosmopolitan awareness (not to mention, as I would add, the institutions inadequacy to deal with that cosmopolitan condition).

Europe failed to develop policies to receive refugees which was one of the reasons why Britain voted to leave together with Angela Merkel’s and François Hollande’s political difficulties. What could be done to balance the moral obligations and political reasons?

In the book “Strangers at our door”, published a few weeks ago by the Polity Books, I am referring to  “universal and extemporal problems” with “strangers in our midst” appearing at all times and haunting all sectors of the population with more or less similar intensity and in more or less similar ways. Densely populated urban areas inevitably generate the contradictory impulses of “mixophilia”, i.e. the attraction to variegated, heteronymous surroundings auguring unknown and unexplored experiences and for that reason promising pleasures of adventure and discovery on the one hand, and “mixophobia”, i.e. the fear of the unmanageable volume of the unknown, untameable, off-putting and uncontrollable on the other hand.

The first propulsion is the city life’s main attraction, the second, on the contrary, its most awesome bane; especially in the eyes of the less fortunate and resourceful, who, unlike the rich and privileged who are capable of buying themselves into the “gated communities” to insulate themselves from the discomforting, perplexing, and time and again terrifying turmoil and brouhaha of crowded city streets, lack the capacity to cut themselves off from the numberless traps and ambushes that are scattered all over the heterogeneous, and all too often unfriendly, distrustful and hostile urban environment and to whose hidden dangers they are doomed to remain exposed to for a lifetime. As Alberto Nardelli informs in The Guardian, “Nearly 40% of Europeans cite immigration as the issue of most concern facing the EU – more than any other issue. Only a year ago, less than 25% of people said the same. One in two of the British public mentions immigration as among the most important issues facing the country”.

It is a human, in fact an all too human habit to blame and punish the messengers for the hateful contents of the message they carry from those baffling, inscrutable, frightening and rightly resented global forces which we (for a sound reason) suspect to be responsible for the agonizing and humiliating sense of existential uncertainty, which wrecks and grinds down our confidence as well as wreaks havoc with our ambitions, dreams and life plans. And while we can do next to nothing to bridle the elusive and faraway forces of globalisation, we can at least divert the anger they caused us and which they go on causing, and unload our anger, vicariously, on their close to hand and within reach products. This won’t, of course, reach anywhere near the roots of the problems, but might relieve at least for some time the humiliation of our haplessness and our incapacity to resist the disabling precariousness of our own place in the world.

That twisted logic, the mindset it generates and the emotions it lets lose, provide highly fertile and nourishing meadows tempting many political vote-gatherer to graze on. This is a chance, which a growing number of politicians would loathe to miss. Capitalising on the anxiety caused by the influx of strangers, who are suspected to push further down the wages and the salaries already stagnating and to lengthen yet more the already abominably long queues of people lining up, to no effect, for the stubbornly scarce jobs, is a temptation to which very few politicians already in office or aspiring to an office are able to resist.

[1] Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality, Basic Books 1983, p.38.


This interview was originally published in the Brazilian weekly newspapers „Valor”. The English version of this article was first published on PoliticalCritique.org - Central and Eastern European magazine of progressive cultural and political ideas. It is part of our dossier Europe's future after Brexit.

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