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Zygmunt Bauman on the potential for political change


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For El País, Ricardo de Querol interviews 90-year-old Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman comes off as skeptical about the potential for change amid our current political and economic realities. Read the interview in partial below, or in full via El País.

EL PAÍS: You have described inequality as a “metastasis.” Is democracy under threat?

BAUMAN: We could describe what is going on at the moment as a crisis of democracy, the collapse of trust: the belief that our leaders are not just corrupt or stupid, but inept. Action requires power, to be able to do things, and we need politics, which is the ability to decide what needs to be done. But that marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation state has ended. Power has been globalized, but politics is as local as before. Politics has had its hands cut off. People no longer believe in the democratic system because it doesn’t keep its promises. We see this, for example, with the migration crisis: it’s a global phenomenon, but we still act parochially. Our democratic institutions were not designed for dealing with situations of interdependence. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of democratic institutions.

EL PAÍS: In which direction is the pendulum that you describe between freedom and security swinging at the moment?

BAUMAN: These are two values that are tremendously difficult to reconcile. If you want more security, you’re going to have to give up a certain amount of freedom; if you want more freedom, you’re going to have to give up security. This dilemma is going to continue forever. Forty years ago we believed that freedom had triumphed and we began an orgy of consumerism. Everything seemed possible by borrowing money: cars, homes… and you just paid for it later. The wakeup call in 2008 was a bitter one, when the loans dried up. The catastrophe, the social collapse that followed hit the middle classes particularly hard, dragging them into a precarious situation where they remain: they don’t know if their company is going to merge with another and they will be laid off, they don’t know if what they have bought really belongs to them… Conflict is no longer between classes, but between each person and society. It isn’t just a lack of security, but a lack of freedom.

EL PAÍS: You say that progress is a myth, because people no longer believe the future will be better than the past.

BAUMAN: We are in a period of interregnum, between a time when we had certainties and another when the old ways of doing things no longer work. We don’t know what is going to replace this. We are experimenting with new ways of doing things. Spain tried questioning things through the May 15 (15M) movement, when people took over public spaces, arguing, trying to replace parliamentary procedures with a kind of direct democracy. This hasn’t lasted long. Austerity policies will continue, nobody could stop them, but they could still be relatively effective in finding new ways to do things.