Sunday review on Thursday: Has the future a left? The thoughts of Zygmunt Bauman

by Ben Cobley

The European left “is probably taking an afternoon nap”. That’s what the brilliant eighty-six year old Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman told a capacity crowd which included David Miliband, in London last night.

Speaking on the subject “Has the future a left?2 at the London School of Economics, Bauman gave a typically all-encompassing account of the challenges posed by contemporary capitalism and the left’s relation to them, bursting with ideas and full of luminous turns of phrase.

Though sticking to the broad brush and characteristically not pointing the finger at individuals or particular institutions, Bauman’s thesis was clear: the left “has sold out to the right” and become “a fake replica of what it was” in its “appeal to the poor, needy, and also the dreamers”.

He posed a question that he said he asks himself a lot: Do social democrats know where they are going and what they are aiming for? Do they have a vision for the good society?

In place of this, he said, the left has been defining itself in two different ways:

1) in terms of ‘whatever the right can do we can do better’

2) from collecting people who are discriminated against and trying to compose a “rainbow coalition” out of them – a perspective that is probably now losing ground.

Referring to the occupy movement and its Spanish forebears, the indignados (the outraged), Bauman said, “Some people think that if governments cannot do things, perhaps we can do them ourselves. The jury is still out on that.” In fact the signs are that such street protests are more effective in totalitarian regimes, he added, asking: “Where is the inch of change in Wall Street because of ‘occupation’? I wonder if they even know they have been occupied.”

Instead, Bauman made a plea for leftist politics that stick to principles, that we be self-assertive in defending our values, while measuring the quality of a society by the quality of life of its weakest members – something that is very distinctive from the right’s way of seeing things.

“The left is best defined by a state of permanent criticism about social life,” he said, but it is not committed to a specific social model. What is wrong with our self-satisfied society is that it has stopped questioning itself.

In terms of contemporary capitalism, Bauman sketched out a picture in which capitalism has come full circle, having successfully adapted to the challenge of communism but then regressed back to type following the fall of the Berlin wall and stopped questioning itself, even via the medium of politics.

“We are back to square one,” he said, emphasising that Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto now reads like something “punctual”.

However, Bauman said, contemporary capitalism exhibits significant differences to before, specifically in terms of modernisation gone global, the way that capital (in the West at least) is no longer created so much through a factory-based system as through the techniques of seduction and marketing, and the new phenomenon of “diasporisation”.

Modernisation is a compulsive addiction in his view; consisting of the impossibility of, and inability to, stop modernising. Yet, he said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, the whole world has been modernised”. It also unavoidably produces redundant people, since wherever you build and order the world with a certain image and design in mind, some people will not fit with this better, new system that you have created.

This is characteristic of modernity. Bauman compared the process to a gardener tending their garden and finding that certain plants – weeds – keep on planting themselves in the wrong places. They need to be got rid of for the garden to be what it is meant to be.

The challenges for the left are significant, not least because the social tissue that maintained solidarity “has been almost completely dismantled” – partially through the decline of the natural solidarity that came from workers living in the same geographical spaces next to the mines, factories and other heavy industry and drinking in the same pubs where they discussed common problems.

“Diasporisation” is something altogether new, and something the left has not even begun to address in policy terms. Bauman said that the idea of living with difference and strangers used to be assumed to be a temporary irritant, as differences were gradually assimilated away within society. However, he said, “The era of assimilation is over,” giving the example of Turkish gastarbeiter who see no contradiction between being good Germans and being Turkish, and the presence in London of around 70 diasporas, all of whom want to maintain separate identities.

He said so much more. But it was great to see the old master in such fine form, leaping around the auditorium to listen to questions from close-up, and with his angry and humane leftism still burning bright.

Zygmunt Bauman was speaking as part of the London School of Economics’ Ralph Miliband series on the future of the left, in association with its department of sociology. A podcast of the speech should be available on the LSE website soon.

Ben Cobley is a journalist and writer, based in South London

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7 Responses to “Sunday review on Thursday: Has the future a left? The thoughts of Zygmunt Bauman”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its that word ‘identity’ again.
    A good Turkish immigrant can in fact be a good German, and given 2 generations will probably be so as ties with the homeland lessen.
    And ‘identity’ is not restricted to just one area but exists in many overlapping areas. We are all part of various communities, and so we shuld be.
    The problems occur when solid barriers exist between communities erected by that community themsees or by the settled community. This often happens with newly arrived communities who tendd to sick together; in the course of time and with experience their networks are broadened, and the interrelate with other communities. We hope. So rather than asmilation, lets have integration.
    Many of the German and Polish emigres that fled Hitler’s Germany have been successfully integrated into Britain, and regard Britain as their home. And that’s the way it should be.

  2. paul barker says:

    What a pathetic catalog of nostalgia. The communist manifesto, 1848, fresh as blood ? How can anyone mention marx without commenting on the tens of millions murdered ?
    There were always 2 “lefts” & your one isnt sleeping its in a coma, kept alive on the drip of vested interests & a yearning for a mythologised past.

  3. Indigo says:

    “How can anyone mention marx without commenting on the tens of millions murdered ?”

    That’s like asking how can anyone mention the Bible without commenting on the tens of millions murdered, or how can anyone mention the American constitution without commenting on the victims of American foreign policy since 1900. In other words, complete rubbish.

  4. Neal says:

    It was a beautiful speech and thanks for reporting on it Ben. I was lucky and got the last seat in the house. 100 or so didn’t. Bauman’s analysis of the plight of the left is bleak because he tells us how it is but bright because once we know how deep the hole is we can do something realistic to get ourselves out. He fires the imagination of so many idealistic young people. It is a rare service these days.

  5. Ben Cobley says:

    @ swatantra

    You are arguing against an opinion that no one has put forward. Bauman himself was a Polish Jew who found sanctuary in this country. He is now a sociologist who does sociology – albeit heavily Leftist. He wouldn’t disagree with much of what you say, and nor do I (though what I think is mostly irrelevant here since I was just reporting what he said).

    @ paul barker – Indigo put it better than I ever could – it’s a book for God’s sake! I know you are not a fan of freedom, but I’d hope we wouldn’t be in to burning books.

    @ Neal. Yes I count myself very lucky too; I got there 15 mins early as planned and was just squeezed in at the back. It was a huge privilege to be there.

    Bauman really points once more to the need for the Left to start inspiring people again with principles and ideals, as opposed to our present dull technocratic reality.

    It is difficult though for the likes of him to break beyond the silos of their own profession into the wider world, even if they are as inspiring as he is. We are all so busy and pre-occupied and have such short attention spans that analysis of the sort that he does is shied away from – something he himself clearly feels deeply.

  6. Brumanuensis says:

    Dear Ben,

    Thank you for bringing this very interesting talk to our attention. Just to say first of all, thank you for your thoughtful and interesting reply to the comment I posted on your article about identity. I still don’t agree with you, but I have a much better understanding of your thinking here and I feel more sympathetically inclined to your views after reading it.

    I agree with what Baumann says about ‘the left is best defined by a state of permanent criticism about social life’. I think this lack of self-criticism – a phrase that regrettably acquired unpleasant connotations due to its use in Cultural Revolution-era China – has definitely been harmful to the left, encouraging what Ed Miliband has well-described as ‘managerial’ tendencies. I’m cautious about the erosion of ‘natural solidarity’ though, as I think this is more a consequence of mass culture eroding local culture, rather than ‘natural communities’ disappearing through changes to labour patterns. The working class hasn’t really gone, it’s just transformed, from miners into check-out assistants – so to speak.

    Would you think of the United States as a good example of a country where ‘diasporisation’ has gone hand-in-hand with a strong national identity. My experience of diaspora communities – only second hand admittedly – has been that they tend to be well-integrated and their cultural identity is a companion to a pre-dominate ‘British’ national identity. Interestingly, it seems that people in these groups tend to be more willing to identify with ‘Britain’, rather than ‘England’ – within England at least. Why do you think this might be?

    Kind regards,


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