This week, at a sweet little academic event in Estonia, I got to meet the legendary European intellectual Zygmunt Bauman, arguably the greatest surviving theorist of the old postmodern movement. It was a great collection of moments, giving me among other things a chance to ask if I had properly interpreted his intent with the blogs I wrote about his ideas last summer. I didn’t get particularly direct answers on that, but I would have been rather shocked if I had. Not only does Bauman have better things to do in his late eighties than to contemplate my ideas, but he has a well established reputation for finding ways around talking about things he doesn’t wish to talk about.
Bauman’s trademark term these days is “liquid modern”, which is broadly taken as a euphemism for the same vague collection of ideas as “postmodernism”: the loss of old certainties, borders being washed away, everything being in a state of flux and flow, etc. It remains somewhat of an open question whether this state of affairs should be considered more of a tragedy or an opportunity. That’s one of the things Bauman particularly wants to avoid being pinned down on. In his trademark self-irony regarding his advanced age he merely states that there’s no going back to the past, and the long-term future is really not his problem anymore.
Bauman’s focus in this week’s talks was his current theme of the contemporary Interregnum. This word, he tells us, was first used in dealing with the crisis following the “loss” of Rome’s first king, Romulus. Romulus had ruled for 38 years, which was longer than the average life expectancy in Rome at the time. Thus the vast majority of Romans had never known any form of life where King Romulus wasn’t “guiding their lives”. As far as we know this is also the first case of a legend being established for a ruler not dying but being swept up into heaven while still alive to rule among the gods. But this left the people with the question of now how were they going to turn for direction. Soon enough another king came along and commenced ruling in much the same style as Romulus, and there followed a string of kings of that model which continued until the aristocracy got tired of them and set about to form a republic. That transition involved a whole new form of interregnum. Thereafter history has tossed many other sorts of transitions at us that we can call “interregnums”, some more hectically dangerous than others; with the common feature, to paraphrase Gramsci, of the old ways no longer working, but the new ways having yet to be invented.
In this sense it seems entirely fair to say that we are in a particularly significant global interregnum at present, in terms of both power and ideology. It’s happened before, but not on this scale in quite a while. Bauman theorizes that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the collapse of the final remnants of the Peace of Westphalia. The privileged position of nation-states to determine the religious norms within their borders, to negotiate in a binding way for all of their citizens and to be the ultimate loci of diplomatic and economic authority is effectively gone. It could even be said that the primary role of nation-states had its last hurrah when the Berlin Wall fell. In place of all the grandiose monuments of competing republics from the Cold War era, Berlin is now the site of grandiose monuments of competing multi-national electronics corporations. The de facto ruling principle of the world for the last few decades has been not the state, but the all-powerful “invisible hand of the market,” with its little minions manipulating state governments as they see fit, with impunity.
The market, however, has already proven itself to be an incompetent mechanism of social organization. The rampant inequality, continuous high tech war-mongering against non-state entities, the incoherent “culture wars” brought in as a distraction and the continuous scattered protest movements that characterize contemporary societies together provide ample testimony to the fact that the current crop of sociopaths at the top of the laissez faire economic pig-pile are unlikely to remain there for long. Nor is there any particular reason to defend this dying system other than perhaps out of a general fear of change. Bauman gave a glowing endorsement to South African novelist and intellectual J. M. Coetzee before quoting him as saying, “God did not make the market –– God, or the spirit of history. If we human beings made it, can we not unmake it and re-make it in another form? Why does the world have to be kill or be killed (gladiatorial amphitheater) rather than say a cooperative […] atrium?”
The relevant question, however, is less one of what needs to be done, but rather how we can go about empowering someone to do it. We’re not ready to hand this authority over to Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, David Koch, Vladimir Putin or Martti Ahtisaari, or anyone else you might imagine as a new global statesman. The closest think that Bauman suggests to an answer to this dilemma is to start looking to the pragmatic flow of life in cities in particular as the starting point for democratic solutions. Cities have a dual role in contemporary society: they are the dumping grounds for all forms of socially discarded individuals, and they are the experimental laboratories for developing new means of cross-cultural and inter-cultural cooperation and communication. On this basis Bauman is ready to tentatively endorse Benjamin Barber’s suggestion of letting mayors rule the world.
But this is endorsement is quite tentative. “The only certainty is uncertainty.” The analogy he uses is one of “primeval mountain climbing”: “When you’re climbing a steep slope you know one thing for sure: you can’t settle there, because there are gusts of wind blowing from all directions that can destroy your camp in no time. So you have to keep going, you have to keep climbing if you want to stay alive. But, and that’s a very big but, until you reach the mountain pass you have no idea what is on the other side of the mountain. …We can’t rely on any temporary traction settlement.”
Meanwhile, while we’re climbing, waiting to see what is on the other side of this historical mountain and hoping for the best in terms of whatever sort of reign comes next, there remains the question of “Which way is up?” How can we maintain some sort of climbing momentum? How do we act in a morally responsible and constructive way in terms of our political participation, in the broadest sense of the word?
I put the proposal to Bauman that his take in On Education seems to imply that building active citizenship skills in the next generation might be a valid starting point. I didn’t get a direct answer. Here’s how he responded:
“I admit that I am here making virtue out of necessity, because the ability to dialog –– the ability to live profitably with others holding to different views, others holding to different predilections, different preferences, different values and so on –– that is effectively required. The problem with liquid modernity, since I’ve already used this term, is that it erodes the social or the foundation or morphology of solidarity.
“The choice state of modernity could be charged with very many crimes, very many mis-doings, but one advantage it had over the present time, and that was precisely that the massive industrial production created by the imperial side of modernity, whatever these factories produced, they also produced, in addition, also human solidarity. They were cast into the situation where spontaneously, automatically almost, created this feeling of being in the same boat, sharing faith, necessity to come together, solidarity and so on. It was a time of collective bargaining, and what’s important really, mutual dependency. If you take the typical Fordist factory, of course the workers working for Ford were dependent on Ford for their living, but Ford on his side was dependent on his workers for their work. They were mutually dependent. He couldn’t pack up his Detroit factories and transfer them to Bangladesh or to other places where there is more docile working class and where people are prepared to work like those …who were killed in the recent catastrophe in a Bangladesh factory, working for $38 per week. He wasn’t able to do that. He knew that his future, his work depended on his workers. When both sides know that they are doomed to live together, that they are bound to meet again tomorrow and next week and next month and next year, and for the next ten years, then they sit around the table and they quarrel and they go on strike or whatever, but they quarrel and fight in order to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi which is acceptable to both sides. So those factories were factories of solidarity, not by desire but by default. That was their nature.
“Today places of employment are factories of mutual suspicion. There is no collective bargaining. There is no ‘one for all, all for one.’ It is everyone for himself. When it comes to the next round of redundancies you have to prove that you are working better than the next person, and therefore the next person rather would be the victim of redundancy, not you. That’s a situation which puts you under a condition of enforced antagonism or suspicion. So we are losing our ability of spontaneous solidarity. We are also losing another ability. (I’m not a prophet. I’m only noting the present day tendencies. I am trying to bring them to your attention.) We are losing the skills of dialog.
Allegedly, and this is my great, great frustration, universal access to Internet is already happening. It should precisely do the opposite –– open the variety of the human species in front of everybody, expose them to different arguments, to variegation of the human condition, and so on. Ladies and gentlemen, we have replaced communities with networks. Networks have the one great advantage over communities that they are created and re-created constantly with two activities. One activity is connecting and the other is disconnecting. Internet gives you the perfect opportunity to connect with the world, while virtually all researchers of actual use of Internet by people document exactly the opposite: that it is a very powerful instrument of separating yourself from the differences in the world.
“It is so childishly easy on Internet to do what is tremendously difficult to do on any street of a big city. If you go to the street of a big city today and you cannot avoid the trial of coming face to face with different colors of skin, different views, different ways of behavior, different ways of dressing or whatever. When you are spending your average, according to the latest research, 7½ hours in front of a computer screen, not another human being. It is childishly easy to switch to another website and forget about all of the differences in the world. You are closing yourself into what can be called an echo chamber. The only sounds that you hear are the reflections of your own voice… You listen only to like-minded people. Therefore Internet, the network, is a trouble-free area. You don’t have any trouble. You don’t have to dialog. There’s no one to dialog with. You just go on through the rules of repeating the same views, the same slogans, the same ideas of what is interesting, and so on.
“Real dialog is confrontation with otherness, in which you are acting with a dual role. You must be some sort of a teacher, otherwise there would be no point for the other person to engage in dialog with you. You must bring some sort of a dowry, otherwise there’s no meaning. But also the role of a disciple, of a pupil. You must be prepared to learn from the other. You must assume from the start not that you are starting your speech at a university seminar, where the assumption is ‘I am right and I will prove that they are not.’ You have to be open to share your own experience and be prepared to be shown to be wrong –– to take the risk of being proved to be not as good as your other member of the dialog. So dialog is a confrontation, but because of being a confrontation it is also a non-zero-sum game. A real dialog does not divide the conversationalists into winners and losers. Everyone emerges from the dialog a winner. Everybody’s enriched by adding another experience to your whole and by getting rid of some mistakes you have made before. So you are richer than before. That’s the art of dialog, which is tremendously important in contemporary life and we all need that meta-task in a sense. Without learning the art of dialog and practicing it, I think we can’t really seriously, earnestly ever come towards resolving otherness.”
So yes, education is key to moving forward through the current interregnum, and philosophical education in particular is key to this process –– but perhaps not in the sense of pressing set facts and formulas into young minds, but rather teaching them to confront otherness without fear and to find ways to be enriched by it. This isn’t easy, because there are indeed many who have vested power interest in maintaining hatreds and tensions over areas of difference. That too is part of the challenge of the current interregnum. But another thing that can be both a prerequisite for dialog and the fruit of dialog is a “fusion of horizons”, according to which we realize that the other is a lot more like us than we thought, and that in order to get what we want out of life it seriously helps to enable the other to also get what he wants.
It would be more than a little naïve to assume that dialog will always work this way. Borrowing from folk wisdom in the field, Bauman allows himself the cynicism of admitting, “We never resolve an issue, we only get bored with them and take them off the agenda.” Nowhere is this more relevant than in regard to the uses and abuses of religion in the western world today, which another audience member asked the venerable old professor about. That question, however, he ducked even more thoroughly, stating the Europeanness as such is sociologically shown not to be that big a deal to anyone in particular, and that its relevance is not so much in terms of cultural heredity markers by rather in terms of the same “fusion of horizons” he spoke of earlier.
Besides the thrill of meeting an important intellectual celebrity there was a lot to chew on from this lecture and the following formal and informal discussions. The interregnum theme applies in many different areas of life as I know it: old restrictions and certainties having crumbled to the point where we can neither restore them nor trust depend on them as a basis for cultural certainty; new rules and identifiers still taking shape, without any clear image yet of how they will work once they’ve properly taken hold. In the case of Finnish culture this relates quite directly to the transition out of the Nokia era, with its cultural emphasis on the whole PISA shtick, into God only knows what comes next. In African culture and post-colonial culture as a whole we have just come to the end of the Mandela era, with all that he symbolized for so many –– coming entirely expectedly and yet in a way that still felt sudden this winter. There is a distinct lack of a replacement moral hero for those who Madiba inspired in the world today. Then in the world of Christian influence on society we are arguably seeing the major implosion of the Fundamentalist reaction against modernism in general, seen in the US in particular in the way that the progression from the Moral Majority to the “Tea Party” has so thoroughly discredited itself with its moralistic lack of interest in anything that Jesus ever taught. People continue to need a sense of existentially significant shared identity as God’s people, and neither “New Atheist” nor Muslim fantasies about the demise of Christianity as the world’s largest religion in terms of meeting that need for people are likely to come true any time soon, but within Christianity we could easily now be facing the greatest era of re-definition of the faith since the time of Luther. That too may deserve to be called an interregnum.
So while we wait and watch to see what forms the new bosses take, I believe Bauman is entirely right that we need to keep building our dialog skills and keep actively involved in promoting the values of solidarity and sustainability. These exercises will have value regardless of what we happen to find on the other side of the mountain pass. Do I hear an Amen?