Interview with Zygmunt Bauman on ABC

Entrevista a Zygmunt Bauman en ABC

[…] there is an alternative system, and unfortunately there is nothing to restrict yourself, that limit something that is endemic to a system that is based on the competition: greed, greed, pretending to rise above it, defeat the other, and the low sensitivity towards the fate of the unfortunate, the victims caused by your own activity.

Interview conducted by Alfonso Armada, published in the 25/02/2014

Lucid, warm, direct and agile. At 89 years, the sociologist of Polish Zygmunt Bauman entered the crowded Fundación Rafael del Pinocomo if a rock star intellectual would have landed in Madrid. The public is not lost gravel of this thinker, the father of liquid modernity, bent on thinking this time without corsets ideological. Professor emeritus of sociology at Warsaw, he left his native country in 1971 because of a surge of anti-semitism. Professor in Leeds, Tel Aviv and the London School of Economics, its separation from the communism has done to embrace uncritically the market, on the contrary.

Prince of Asturias award for Communication and Humanities, his last work, does The richness of few benefit us all?, published by Paidós, as almost all his work, collects a multitude of data to show that the system current economic power and perpetuates inequality: “it Is among us to stay,” and that is pauperizando the middle class: “The distance between rich and poor is widening at an unprecedented pace”.

—What is “does The richness of few benefit us all?” an attempt to demonstrate that the invisible hand does not work, that the market is not as wise as presumed?

—It is interesting what raises about the role of the invisible hand, but keep in mind that Adam Smith wrote it in a very different context. What has happened recently, in the last forty years, since the seventies of the last century, is that the mutual dependency between employers and employees has been broken unilaterally. Until then, the employees, the workers, depended on their heads in order to live. But at the same time the heads were also dependent on their employees. It was a mutual dependency. And in the cities where they were hauling in the big factories a large part of the population it was a kind of reserve army of workers. Speaking of this “army” of reserve, ready to return to service, fill the jobs when needed, the “general” in charge of this army of reserve was concerned about the state of the circumstances in which they lived those unemployed. True that were not in service at the moment, but might need them. Hence, there is a social service, a series of entertainment, education, accommodation… especially after the Great Depression, with mass unemployment, and especially after the Second World War, created the welfare state.

What however I would like to highlight is that the introduction of the welfare state was not the fruit of a decision-partisan, there was a general consensus in the public opinion, between the left and the right, because the majority was in agreement that or keep your population in good condition or else you would be defeated in the next war or the next battle, trade with other countries. In such a way that the invisible hand of the market could work in favour of controlling the forces in presence. In fact, between the forties and seventies, the inequality is reduced in all of Europe.

That changed as a result of the economic policies that began to be put into practice in the seventies, such as deregulation, privatisation, subcontracting obligations of the State in the market (such as providing pensions, education, health services and benefits for the style). How and why this happened? Because the bosses, the owners of capital, owners of companies, they saw that no longer was within their needs and interests to deal with neighbors, the local, of the inhabitants of their country. Felt free to go where you would like to find labor, in places far from Madrid or Barcelona, for example, where you do not have to worry about pensions or the social security of the workers, and where there would be strikes to defend wages and the vested rights of the employees. They realized also that it was easy to do business, because all the data they had on their laptop, on their smart phones, and took the work to another party. In such a way that I think unilateral dependence. The indigenous people who lived in the old countries, still depend on the owners of capital to get a job, but the chiefs are no longer dependent on those workers. In such a way that the invisible hand of the market began to function in another way.

—What is to say, that in the end my parents were right when they told me that there will always be rich and poor?

—I’m afraid that yes, they were right, and that the inequality is among us to stay. Had reason. The problem is if the issue of inequality is under control and if we can implement measures to mitigate these differences between the modus vivendi of the rich and the poor. And the data tell us that the distance between rich and poor is widening at an unprecedented pace. The 85 richest people in the world have a wealth equivalent to the totaling 4,000 million of the world’s poorest people. It’s amazing: the 85 in front of 4,000 million. 90 percent of all the wealth produced in the world after the great crisis that began in 2007, with the collapse of the credit and the threat of the disappearance of banks were not recapitalised with money of those who pay taxes, have appropriate 1 percent of the richest people of the Earth. And not only the poor, the proletarians, nor the high class, but the middle class has not only seen how to decreased their income but also their prospects for improvement. The new phenomenon that we have before us is precisely the disappearance of the future for this middle class, from their expectations of progress. Even the work is a well that has been installed in the ground of the uncertainty, will continue to disappear. You may have been working for thirty, forty years to a company, and suddenly a merger, and then cuts the labor surplus. Climb up the shares of the new firm, and you find yourself without a job in a society where those over fifty years have no hope of ever getting a job. On the other hand, and here we are talking about Spain, you have a fifty per cent of young graduates who have no work…

—But at the same time the Spanish Government and the European Union continue to insist that it is necessary to reform the labour market and increasing deregulation because they say it is the only way of getting more work…

—That is absolutely false. Part of a legend, of a falsehood that has been introduced into the public mind: that if the rich become more rich it will be beneficial for all. And it is not so, has not occurred.

—What is a chimera?

—Never happened. The major part of the economy today is purely monetary. The money brings in more money. All transactions that occur on the exchange, in the stock market, and that affect the lives of people like you, do not have the slightest interest in the economy, in the conditions of life that affect people like you, who are not capitalists, they do not play in the bag. There is a growing gulf of separation between those who play at the bag, between the world of high finance, and the people who make things, the employees that serve the greater part of the population. The nature of the game has completely changed, and that is not something that occurred suddenly and from what we’ve noticed from the night to the morning. Inequality has been with us since the beginning of the human species. But that is not the problem, the problem is the different character that is adopted, and the worst thing is that there is today way to control it, to keep it at bay.

—And what happens then with the politicians? What are the service workers, the general population, or are employees of big finance?

—They move in a double obedience. From 1648, after the peace of Westphalia, which created a new political order in central Europe, a concept of sovereignty based on the fact that the rulers of each territory had the ability to say to the population under his command in what god they should believe in, ripped off the period of construction of new states, in which religion was replaced by the nation. It turned out very well in terms of the independence of territorial states, the ability to promote the self-government of a territory. But now the rules of the game have completely changed. Because we live in interdependence, not independence. Formally, nominally, the States remain sovereign in regard to their territory, but in reality they are not. The problem is not that politicians are corrupt; some are, but not all are. The problem is not that they are stupid; some of them are, but not all. The problem is not that they are short-sighted; some of them are, but not all. The fundamental problem that they all have to face, are corrupt, stupid or myopic or not sufficiently wise, is that they are subjected to a double obedience. On the one hand, are the rulers of a particular territory, and the citizens of this territory were elected precisely to govern, so they are forced to listen to their electorate. Have to take into account what their electorates demand. And even should promise you that you will work for them, that will meet your needs. However, what we often are forced to do is they have to look in another direction: what will be the consequences of their decisions in the global market or, as is fashionable to say today, the reaction of global investors. In other words, the free movement, emancipated from all kinds of political control, of the financial market. Friday they decide how to improve the situation of the country and to do this adopt a series of measures, but the weekend can’t sleep, because they fear that the Monday, when they return to open the bags, a new cataclysm in the markets can lead to fret with all your plans, with a new collapse of the State which put to flight capital.

—Maybe what is happening to many governments is that they just wake up and realize that they have much less power than they thought, that they used to have?

—That is the question. They have to maneuver constantly.

—How accurate or inaccurate were the analysis of Marx? Do you are still useful to you?

—Many of the predictions of Marx was proved wrong, in part through the influence of his own predictions. As the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The prophecy that there will be a catastrophe, the people will believe, and takes measures to prevent it. And that is exactly what happens. Marx spoke of the impoverishment of the proletariat, and that this would lead the proletariat to the streets and would trigger A revolution. I think that the intelligent people among the owners of the resources listens attentively and takes action. In the NINETEENTH century, in England, measures were taken to improve the conditions of workers, their pensions, the right to join trade unions and to strike to defend their rights. All of this was aimed at improving the living conditions of the working class. It ended up embedding in the mindset of the people to the necessity of improving the conditions of life and work within the capitalist system itself, without questioning the system itself. Then came the bolshevik revolution, which was based on the idea that we are all equal, which is not true, but it is what people believed or wanted to believe.And managed to stop him from having unemployment, that is true. It provided education for all, which was also true. And was health free to all. And that was also true. On the other side of the iron Curtain, people could see what they had and took precautions. In response to these realities, there is the New Deal of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the welfare state in much of Europe…

Now, with the collapse of the soviet bloc, there is no alternative, capitalism has been left alone on the field of battle, with no enemies in sight, to the point that many governments are seeking eagerly for new enemies to maintain vigilance and unity of the population. But what is certain is that there is an alternative system, and unfortunately there is nothing to restrict yourself, that limit something that is endemic to a system that is based on the competition: greed, greed, pretending to rise above it, defeat the other, and the low sensitivity towards the fate of the unfortunate, the victims caused by your own activity. It is a new situation, which emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the first time in one hundred and fifty years, the predictions of Marx could become a reality, not only in regard to the proletariat, but to the middle class, which has seen how it has been deteriorating, pauperizando, their level of life, losing both their income level as their perception of the security, the bankruptcy of their feeling of belonging, of being part of a community, of institutions that worry about them when they suffer a catastrophe, individual, the fear that it will reduce or direct the deletion of the unemployment benefits, work more years to enjoy pensions more…

Suddenly, the ground has begun to tremble under our feet. Hence, for this concern, there have been movements such as the indignados in Spain, looking so feverish new ways of participating in politics, because they have completely lost faith in the established political institutions. What is certain is that the system has ceased to fulfill its promises, fulfill its obligations.

—So, what to do?

—My explanation is that at the origin of all these problems that we are going through, in the liquidity of the foundations of this situation, it rests on an event, the divorce between power and politics. The power can be defined as the ability to do things, and the policy is the decision on the things that must be done. Half a century ago all the world was of the agreement, power and politics resided in the hands of the sovereign State. Now, unfortunately -or fortunately, depends on your point of view that we adopt-and the sovereignty of the territorial State has become an illusion. True that the States have some powers that can correct some aspects of reality, but the critical issues that will affect the outlook in life of your children and your grandchildren are beyond the powers of the sovereign State, the territorial State, they are subject to global forces. The sociologist Manuel Castells calls it brilliantly as the “space of flows”, that is to say, they are movements that arise here and there completely outside of the planning of any political force. Represents the divorce between power and politics.

By a part you have powers free from any control, on the other hand you have the policies and politicians that completely lack power. Hence, the old question about what it is that we need to do, I think that the question is not so much that. More or less we know what needs to be done, that should be re-marrying power and politics. The policy should recreate its control of power, and the power should be subject to the control of the policy. But the real big question, for which I don’t have the answer, is who is going to do it. That is the problem. Because nation-States were created by our grandparents and great-grandparents to serve to the independence of sovereign States, but we now find ourselves in a new situation of interdependence. And while it proved useful for decades as independent States, what is certain is that are no longer useful in the age of global society, to control the global interdependence of societies. Is the great question of the moment. Before this there are all kinds of proposals. None of them is entirely convincing. Some show their enthusiasm for the new educated classes with the arrival of the computer and the internet, in which everyone can communicate with everyone, but the problem is that it is not so, that all interface.

The Internet causes more divisions than unication. If you tear through the streets of Madrid you can’t avoid the fact that you’re living in a global society, because you come across people with varied and different, you see multiculturalism, you come across with many foreigners, with people who think differently than you. That happens when you are on the street, disconnected. But when you’re “online” you can disconnect, turn off to others, to strangers, to communicate only with those you care about, in such a way that you just dwell a camera of the echo, where all you hear are no more than echoes of your own voice. Or a hall of mirrors, where everything you see are nothing more than reflections of your own face. It is not pre-ordained that the internet should act in the direction of people to adapt to the multiculturalism, but that would be acting exactly in the opposite direction.

Other options on the table are movements such as the indignados, who sought to resist in the streets until their demands were met, trying to restore the direct democracy, which Aristotle defined with beautiful words. But so far there is no evidence that turn out to be effective. It also happened to the Arab Spring, but we are still waiting, and what we have in great measure is a new winter arab. Wall Street was busy, but not really taken note of it, and continued to operate as before. That is to say, we have no proof that they are effective. Yes I would like to bring up an idea proposed by Benjamin Barber, a scholar of political science, that posits what would happen if the mayors will rule the world…

—Do as the new mayor of New York?

—Also have a mayor in Madrid, for sure.

—Of course.

—What is it that arises? The dome of the political system, who are the rulers of the country, are not up to the task, do not have the capabilities to respond to the demands of an interdependent world, and to resist the forces of globalization, which affect the destiny of its citizens. However, at a scale much lower, to the lowest level, small politicians, and individual politicians, not require them to offer individual solutions to major social problems. We are experts in mobilizing our own energy, our own talent, our own ingenuity, our own resources,… to try to solve for us and for our families and the problems created far away from us. This low level is too impotent to deal with all of this, so the only solution, the only salvation, says Barber, is in the large cities. In developing countries, seventy percent of the population already lives in large cities, and around fifty percent of the world’s population lives in large cities. It is a growing power. The cities have the correct size and population density appropriate to combine the community in which they can make decisions face-to-face, for people to meet, and to assume its moral obligations posed by living with others, to make decisions that take into account the reasons of the other.Society is abstract, morally insensitive, but these divisions may be correct to the scale of the urban communities.

—Saskia Sassen has written about it.

—Yes, there are a lot of people working and thinking on the role of cities as an aggregate human with the right size and the right number of people to respond effectively to the problems that have been created. There are many proposals on the table, and not all are equally convicentes. But this shows us that people are truly concerned about trying to find solutions to these issues are basic and essential, which I’m sure will be the art, the task of the TWENTY-first century: How to put back together power and politics. The ability to do things and to decide how they should be.

—To finish, a question very shortly, who is Zygmunt Bauman?

—Who am I? A person’s very greatest, who has lived in different periods of history. When I look back I realize that I have experienced great moments of hope, of ideas, promises. And that is who I am, what I’ve tried to do: give meaning to everything that I have experienced.


Note: The content of this entry is reproduced with permission of the author of the interview whose original source and date of publication are cited at the beginning.

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