“The Left that is no longer capable of providing protection”
Zygmunt Bauman interviewed by Elisabetta Ambrosi 27 May 2008

“How can one possible imagine, as the Left did, that it would be possible to stem the tide of unbridled globalisation of capital, trade, finances, industry, criminality, drug and weapon trafficking, terrorism or migration of victims of all those forces – while having at their disposal solely the means of one single State…”, says the author of books such as Liquid Fear and In search of Politics: “The solution, if at all conceivable, is a remarriage of the now divorced power and politics – but this time on a higher, global, planetary, all-humanity level. All forces freely floating together in the global “no-man’s land” space, however antagonistic they might be to each other, seem to be similarly hostile to the imposition of ‘one law for all’. Sooner or later, the ‘answer to globalisation’ will have to be given. The worry, though, is how many human casualties and how and how much human misery will result from our inability/ unwillingness to give it sooner until it is given – later… ”.

With the Northern League’s victory the Italian elections seem to indicate that the real criteria deciding political elections, those in Italy for example (maybe also in Britain?), are no longer those of the Right or the Left but rather a political party’s position regards to globalization. The main values expressed by the Italian Right are: the battle against globalization, defending protectionism, dealing with illegal immigration and protecting the nation’s borders; the newly-created Democratic Party instead is open to liberalization, free markets, immigration, etc.

Your conclusion (that the electors’ choices are no longer between ‘right’ and ‘left’) is absolutely correct. I would only add that this judgment refers to the choice between political parties presenting themselves to the electors (or presented by the media) as respectively ‘right’ or ‘left’. Criteria of such assignment or self-assignment are, increasingly, doubtful: if you take this into account, your conclusion may no longer feel so paradoxical! Two criteria of ‘left credentials’ are currently most often applied – and both are misleading. The first follows the line of the ‘Third Way’ thinking: to be ‘left’ means to be able to do more thoroughly the job that the ‘right’ demands to be done but fails to do properly. It was Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ that laid institutional foundations under Margaret Thatcher inchoate ideas of ‘there is no society, only individuals and families’, of her rampant individualization, privatization and deregulation.

It was the French Socialist Party that did most for the dismantling of the French social state. And as to the ‘postcommunist’ parties in East-Central Europe, renamed as ‘social democrats’ – wary as they are of being accused of their still un-extinguished devotion to their communist past – they are the most enthusiastic and vociferous advocates and most consistent practitioners of freedom for the rich and leaving the poor to their own care… The second criterion is to assemble the notion of ‘the Left’ out of the ‘rainbow coalition’ patched of the scattered and variegated leftovers, rejects and refuse of the political stage dominated by the agenda scripted by the Right. The ‘substance’ behind the notion is in this case purely negative, lacking an inner core and cohesion. Being rejected or not-fully-accepted by the right-wing scriptwriters and directors is the sole adhesive deemed/hoped to hold ‘the Left’ together. This has been recently, for instance, the Italian or to somewhat lesser extent the French way.

Is there another way of grasping and understanding this phenomenon affecting the Left?

This other way starts from two essential assumptions that lie behind the specifically ‘left’ perception of human condition, its prospects and untapped possibilities. The first of the two assumptions asserts that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individually suffered misfortune. And the second avers that just as the carrying power of a bridge needs to be measured by the power of the weakest pillar, so the quality of a society ought to be measured of the quality of life of its weakest members. Those two constant, non-negotiable assumptions set the Left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of human condition under the rule of capitalism – charging as they must the capitalist order with the twin sins of wastefulness and immorality manifested in social injustice. The point is, though, that if judged in the light of those two assumptions, most established parties currently denominated as ‘the Left’ hardly pass the test.

Over more than a century the distinctive mark of the Left was to believe that it is the sacrosanct duty of community to care for and to assist all its members, collectively, against the powerful forces they are unable to fight alone. Social-democratic hopes to perform that task used to be however invested in the modern state, powerful and ambitious enough to limit the damage perpetuated by the free play of the markets by forcing the economic interests to respect the political will of the nation and the ethical principles of national community. But nation-states are no longer as powerful as they used to be or hoped to become. The political states once claiming full military, economic and cultural sovereignty over their territory and its population are no longer sovereign in any of those aspects of common life. The condition sine qua non of an effective political control over economic forces is that political and economic institutions operate at the same level – this is not however the case today. Genuine powers, the powers that decide the range of life options and life chances of most our contemporaries, have evaporated from the nation-state into the global space, where they float free from political control: politics has remained as local as before and therefore is no longer able to reach them, let alone to constrain. One of the effects of globalization is the divorce between power (in the sense of the German Macht – capacity to have things done) and politics. We have now power freed from politics in the global space, and politics deprived of power in the local space.

What in this sense is your opinion regards to this strange turnaround, resulting in Left-wing liberal parties increasingly defending open markets and globalization, while the Conservatives appear to be doing the opposite?

The development I was speaking about above left the socialists without the crucial (the only?) instrument intended to be used in the implementation of their project. Simply, a ‘social state’ guaranteeing existential security to all can no longer be constructed, nor survive, in the framework of the nation-state (the forces that would have to be tamed for that purpose are not in the nation-state command). Attempts to use the weakened state for that purpose were in most cases foiled under the pressure of exterritorial, global economic forces or the markets. Increasingly, social democrats revealed their sudden inability to deliver on their promise. Hence the desperate effort to find another trademark and legitimation; Italian Democratic Party or for that matter Polish ‘Left and Democrats’ exemplify the destination to which that search leads: total absence of trademark and legitimation… In that ultimate form, the distant offspring of the past Left can count only on the failures of their adversaries as their sole electoral chance, and on the disaffected and angry victims of those failures as their only electoral constituency.

The first collateral casualty was the issue of ‘existential security’. That past jewel in the Left’s crown has been dropped by the parties wrongly called ‘Left’; it now lies, so to speak, on the street – from which it has been promptly picked up by forces equally wrongly called ‘Right’. The Italian ‘Lega’ is now promising to restore the existential security – which the Democratic Party promises to further undermine by more deregulation of capital and trade markets and more flexibility of the labour market, and by a yet wider opening of the country doors to the mysterious, unpredictable and uncontrollable global forces (the doors which – as it knows from own bitter experience – cannot be locked at any rate). Only, fraudulently, it interprets the causes of existential insecurity differently from the Left of the past: not as a product of the capitalist free-for-all (freedom for the high and mighty, impotence for the lowly and resource-less), but as the outcome of the well-off Lombardians needing to share their wealth with indolent Calabrians or Sicilians and of the need, common to them all, to share their means of living with the foreigners (forgetting that the immigration of millions of ancestors of the 21st Century Italians to the US and Latin America enormously contributed to their present riches).

People, Italians in particular, are very frightened by change, and most change is linked to globalization. Immigration, security issues, competition between rich and poor countries putting pressure on Italian businesses, unemployment, an increase in poorly paid and temporary jobs, and inflation. These, perhaps mistakenly, are all seen as the consequences of globalization; it is however very difficult for ordinary people to understand the advantages of globalization. Are we sure – as some pro-globalization observers say (Stiglitz, for example) – that the good aspects of globalization can also benefit the lower middle-classes and workers, for whom globalization (wrongly or rightly) has only resulted in insecure jobs, increased criminality, and uncertainty? Or should we now admit that globalization is not necessarily an advantage for all of us?

There is an English saying that leopard can’t change its spots; well, the fact is that spots may remain little changed, but leopards wearing them may change, as they are now, on the left and on the right alike. ‘Right’ is by definition a conservative force, defending the status quo or restoring tradition. But by now it is some form of responsibility of the community for the plight of its members that is in Europe the ‘status quo’ and the best remembered and missed ‘tradition’: the real sense of conservative attitude is an intention to save this status quo and this tradition from destruction… The big question, however, is whether any political force can stem the tide of unbridled globalization of capital, trade, finances, industry, criminality, drug and weapon trafficking, terrorism or migration of victims of all those forces – while having at their disposal solely the means of one single state… Well, they may try – as the North Korea does, or China, or Burma, or Cuba, or Kyrgyzstan – with the consequences for their residents only too well known to all of us and resented by most…

Globally produced problems can be only solved globally. Local changes of governments won’t bring us closer to their solution. The only thinkable solution to the globally caused tide of existential insecurity is the matching of powers of the already globalized forces by the powers of politics, popular representation, law, jurisdiction. The solution, if at all conceivable, is a re-marriage of the now divorced power and politics – but this time on a higher, global, planetary, all-humanity level. But we are at best at the very beginning of that process, and most of the odds seem to militate against its conclusion; turning one’s back to global affairs (including global misery), locking the doors and keeping the strangers outside, drawing more borders and multiplying neo-feudal estates, won’t bring the improvement of security any closer. The more pulverised is local politics, the smaller (and so weaker) its agencies, the more indomitable and invincible become the already global powers that can ignore at will any kind of borders or any local habits and wishes.

The most important issue concerns security in cities. While immigrants of course, have the right to search for a better life in other countries, and by doing so also raise our standards of living, how is it that (Left-wing) politicians appear to ignore how people really live in the suburbs of Rome, Milan or Naples, where life is grim and dangerous. It also appears to be pointless to tell those frightened members of society that globalization is good. Which immigration policies might address legitimate fears within society?

Fear and the city are Siamese twins since the beginning of modernity (remember the Italian film ‘Neapolitans in Milan’?) City is a place where strangers live among the strangers while remaining strangers to each other (this is a curse, but also a blessing of the city life… People from tranquil rural backwaters flock to the city in search of excitement, opportunities, adventure). And strangers are incarnations of the Unknown, and so the source of anxiety and apprehension. The more the strangers are strange and the less we are used to their presence in the city, the more fearsome they appear. And so it is the latecomers who are ‘naturally’ targeted as the outlet for our resentment of fear-bearing insecurity. But living among strangers was a prolific source of fear long before the present wave of migration and the current ‘diasporisation’ of big and not so big urban centres on all continents of the planet. The very English, but bizarre folk residing in the East End was already in the 19th century a constant source of terror for the better-off Londoners able to shelter in the prototypes of our ‘gated communities’, fortify them and pay the police force to guard the entry. Only the language used then to express their fears was different from the presently fashionable: better-off Londoners spoke of ‘dangerous classes’ and the ‘anti-conspiracy’ policy, not of ‘foreigners’ and ‘anti-immigration’ policy’.

If life in the peripheries of Rome, Milan or Naples is indeed ‘awful and dangerous’, as it is, it is not because people forced to live there in awful conditions and exposed to danger happen to have skin of different hues and go to temples on different days of the week. Life is awful and dangerous because those Italian city peripheries, just like banlieus of Paris or Marseille or the urban ghettoes of Chicago or Washington, serve as dustbins for rejected, humiliated and wasted humans exiled from the ‘greater society’; men and women whom their shared fate notoriously divides instead of uniting. Whatever else they do and feel, humiliated people would never respect their neighbours, other rejects of society who like they have been denied human dignity and right to human treatment. It would be utterly dishonest to blame the ‘immigrant problem’ for their plight. Our ancestors charged the social rejects – the unemployed, the miserable – with contemplating a rebellion and threatening society with revolution. No one however expects a unified resistance against the present sources of social evil to come from the ‘peripheries’… Only the beggars, the drug pushers, the muggers and juvenile delinquents are expected to be groomed there and arrive from there to here…

A further reflection arises from the fact that, while on one hand no-global political forces are winning, on the other, the democratic and liberal ‘no global’ message was unsuccessful. In the last Italian elections, the dramatically no-global and anti-global radical left was completely defeated, we could say nullified. For the first time in Italian history Communists and Socialists were voted out of Parliament. Has the no-global vote become a right-wing vote? Why? Is it because of excessively emphasised ideology, too radical for a moderate country like Italy? And what is the situation elsewhere in the world?

Globalization may be, as you (in my view rightly) suggest, at the core of the present troubles and of the impossibility to go on as we went before, choosing between the same targets and evaluating the status quo and the future prospects by the same criteria – but I do not think that mass electorate is in their choices guided by their attitudes towards globalization. At least as the bulk of the electorate is concerned, political leaders, present and aspiring, are judged by the severity they manifest in the course of the ‘security auction’. They try to outdo each other in the promises of being tough on the culprits of insecurity – genuine or putative, but such as are near, within reach, can be fought and defeated. Forza Italia or the Lega wouldn’t win election under the slogan of fighting globalization and global corporations… They may win elections promising to defend the hard-working Lombardians against being robbed by lazy Calabrians, to defend all of them among newcomers that remind them of the shakiness of their own position, and to defend everybody against obtrusive beggars, stalkers, prowlers and muggers. The threats of globalization will emerge from all that unscathed.

The last Italian election has shown that workers, and also industrial workers, vote increasingly less for the Left (even if in the States and in Great Britain for example African and Asians vote mostly for Democrats). Why is this in your opinion? Do you think there is a Democrat responsibility (here in Italy many political observers – and electors of course – have said that the radical Left was far more engaged in drinking champagne than protecting poor people), or are there broader economical, social and cultural reasons?

Yes, there are broader reasons… Today’s ‘workers’ or ‘industrial workers’ are not the same social category as fifty years ago. Only small and shrinking minority is attached to the companies for which they work ‘permanently’, ‘for life’; only minority have stable jobs and anticipate that ‘we will meet again, and again and again’ – only a minority therefore have a stimulus to develop mutual bonds and loyalties. Most importantly, collective bargaining, collective labour contracts and collective endorsed terms of employment are all in demise, victims of deregulation. Rising majority of employees are now ‘flexible’ workers, who could hardly invest their life plans in the (expectedly stable and durable) firms (which now are likely to merge, be ‘taken over’, or declare insolvency) and in the company of their workmates (whose composition is in constant flux). What used to be, by the logic of their social setting, a ‘working class’, has been atomized, and has turned into loose and fluid aggregate of individual wage-earners in competition, rather than in solidarity, with each other. The new situation does not favour joining forces, marching arm to arm, class loyalties, common causes… It does not favour either the search and the struggle for a more beneficial ‘modus vivendi’ with the employers – who may stop offering employment or just disappear at any moment. There is little chance therefore for ‘class politics’. It would be strange indeed if the individuals currently employed as industrial workers made their political decisions in reference to their class status.

To conclude, I would like to ask you how a political force should articulate its political message about globalization. How is it possible to truly answer people’s fears, while not proposing a conservative program, and accepting global challenges? The answer to globalization is a very complex one, but politics rejects complexity, does it not? Moreover, why is this task more difficult for the Left than for the Right, and especially for the Democratic party in Italy, which is more engaged in a process of change and of attempting to become pro-reform than ideologically revolutionary?

‘Answer to globalization’ is not so much ‘complicated’, as it is difficult to put in practice. It is relatively easy to say what needs to be done; the real mystery is who is able (potent and determined enough) to do it. As long as it remains ‘wild’, free-floating, uncontrolled, globalization is bound to play havoc with human projects, hopes and anticipations, and bring consequences more reminiscent of a tsunami or an earthquake than of a motivated human actions. Such consequences are unlikely to be mitigated, let alone prevented, as long as there is no agency matching the territorial reach and the powers of the already globalized powers. The snag, however, is that all the odds seem to conspire against the emergence of such agency.

Like in the ‘Wild West’ of the Hollywood westerns, where the rich cattle barons and bandits, even if at war with each other, shared the interest in continuation of the state of lawlessness and the absence of firmly biding rules – all forces freely floating today in the global ‘no-man’s land’ space, however antagonistic they might be to each other, seem to be similarly hostile to the imposition of ‘one law for all’ or even making the globalization processes a bit less ‘wild’ that they have been so far. Sooner or later, the ‘answer to globalization’ will be given. The worry, though, is how many human casualties and how and how much human misery will result from our inability/ unwillingness to give it sooner until it is given – later…