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