Friday, September 12, 2014

The unwinnable war: An interview with Zygmunt Bauman

Instead of meeting the state's obligation to protect its citizens, governments throughout the West are calling for more flexibility in areas of life regulated by market forces. One consequence of the retreat of the state is a crisis of legitimacy, which states seek to regain through their response to terrorism. In the Middle East, meanwhile, a gulf has developed between an elite that has profited from Westernization and the impoverished masses. It is the latter who, in the name of religion, are lured into anti-Western extremism, thus perpetuating the vicious circle of insecurity

Much more than a politicizing of religion (regardless if it is Muslim or any other), we are facing the "religionizing" of politics, in which the normal conflict of group interests is regarded as an eschatological matter, and the confrontation of these interests is given an apocalyptic character. It is a longing for certain things in an unstable world. It is an escape from extremely complicated problems we cannot even name. It is a longing for the "great simplification". 

It is nostalgia for a lost, simple world and the simple array of tasks within this world. In this general cacophony – in which serious debate about the state of affairs almost never takes place, and in which television shows have actors in front of the footlights shouting slogans at one another and using "word-bites" against one another – one needs some kind of certainty. One needs a simple division between good and evil, in which our hearts are immaculate, and the evildoers are condemned, with no hope of redemption. Let's remember that Islam has no monopoly on this vision. If we look at Palestinian and Israeli radicals, they both, amazingly, use the same sort of vocabulary.

Lukasz Galecki: How do you define the borders of globalization?

Zygmunt Bauman: Globalization is not a process taking place somewhere far away in some exotic place. Globalization is taking place in Leeds as well as in Warsaw, in New York, and any small town in Poland. It is just outside your window, but inside as well. It is enough to walk down the street to see it. Global and local spaces can be separated only as an abstraction, in reality they are intertwined. The main trouble is that the globalization we are dealing with today is strictly negative. It is based on the breaking down of barriers, allowing for the globalization of capital, the movement of goods, information, crime, and terrorism, but not of the political and judicial institutions whose basis is national sovereignty. This negative aspect of globalization has not been followed by the positive aspect, and the instruments of regulation over economic and social processes are not established enough to deal with the reach and consequences of globalization.

LG: Are there any historical precedents for this situation?

ZB: Two hundred years ago our ancestors were frightened by the naked chaos which could not be tamed by the modest powers of the local communities such as village, parish, and small town. The big spaces of action that, in those days, were about to build nations must have seemed as frightening and open to ambush as the forces of globalization are to today's nation-states. Our ancestors were capable of building the instruments of political representation and the legislative and judicial means to manage chaos, to coordinate rules and procedures in order to tame this chaos, to make it relatively transparent and more or less predictable. The pioneers of the modern world were hoping that societies, ruled by reason and moved by its technical means, would prove to be more predictable and manageable than a world subject merely to the whims of, say, natural disaster. This dream turned out to be illusion, and now in a post-modern world we are facing the situation we once faced in the early nineteenth century in England, where local communities lost control over the forces of economic development at a time when only local communities had the means, though meagre, to govern such forces. This industrializing world, spiralling out of local control, found itself in a no-man's land very similar to today's global space where success is determined by naked power, cleverness, and unscrupulousness, and where the forces attempting to reign in these developments are clearly insufficient.

LG: How much time passed before these forces were tamed?

ZB: It took the whole nineteenth century and a good part of the twentieth century before the modern state could manage this new reality. The modern state would have to establish rules and regulations dealing with issues that previous authorities did not have to face, such as child labour laws, banning the slave trade, regulating the work week, providing potable water and adequate sanitation, and basic medical care. Generally speaking, it was about repairing the damage created by the unleashed forces of chaos. A hundred years were needed so that the negative aspects of this earlier globalization could be balanced by the positive, at least in the context of a single nation. 

In today's world, the possibilities for collective action run far behind what is required, although almost everyone agrees that at least something needs to be done. Globalization has been going on for a long time, but recent events, in a spectacular and shocking fashion, have made us keenly aware of the things that, previously, were latent and easily overlooked. The means at our disposal to protect the rule of law and defend citizens are clearly insufficient to tame these global forces, which in their essence are extra-territorial. The events of 9/11 and the more recent attacks in Madrid and London have made clear that the traditional means of securing and maintaining respect for law and order, crudely stated, are worthless. It surprised us. All of us.

LG: Don't you think, in view of events in Iraq, that in treating a patient with a light flu, we have instead decided for a major operation cutting out the liver, a kidney, and half the brain?

ZB: Yes. However, we must consider why it is happening. Misfortunes produced by people in the course of negative globalization still happen like natural catastrophes; nobody knows when they are coming, and where they come from. As if we were walking through a minefield. It is known that an explosion will occur, although nobody knows when and where. There is a strong temptation to just bomb this minefield, to destroy the mines before they can go off. It is particularly tempting if you possess an unlimited amount of bombs and hardly any other means to handle the problem. It is so basically different from the picture of the future world designed at the beginning of the modern era. 

Enlightenment philosophers dreamed of an orderly world obedient to human will, mild and hospitable. And humans were to realize these dreams on their own, not being forced to rely on the wisdom of divine creation. They had just experienced the shock of the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and subsequent fire and tsunami, which came so suddenly and wreaked such havoc on both the righteous and unrighteous. Jean-Jacques Rousseau blamed civilization for this natural catastrophe. He said if people lived in accordance with nature, if they were not living in over-crowded cities, were not building the tallest buildings and, rather than trying to save their personal possessions, were saving themselves from fire and flood, then there would not have been so many victims. On the other hand, Voltaire disregarded the "natural state"; he had more faith in the intentions and actions of people. If people acted reasonably enough, they would create a civilized society in which people could feel safe. Both thinkers, though on most issues in constant opposition, trusted humans. In this sense, both miscalculated. 

LG: So, the beginning of modernity is a fear of the unknown?

ZB: The very project of modernity is born out of the desire for a world without surprises, a safe world, a world without fear. The crowning of this two-hundred-year effort, and the achievement of the project-ambition-dream, was the social state, which has always been falsely named the welfare state... read more:

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See also: 

Maybe there is a God after all: US Air Force nearly detonated atomic bomb over North Carolina in 1961

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Albert Camus: 'Neither Victims nor Executioners'

'Military Inc' by Ayesha Siddiqa:

Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir by Arif Jamal

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