Theater of Cruelty

The escape from the common problems

Forfatter: Zygmunt Bauman
Forlag: Polity, 2017
Recently deceased Zygmunt Bauman is known for his grim social diagnoses. Where is the medicine? 


In the book retrotopia, which was to be his last, gives the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman a contribution to the discussion about the hope of the future, which he, like many others, considers to be on the waning front today. The healthy and robust drive towards the future is weakened when the present appears as a dystopia and the utopias of the future lose credibility. Then it becomes tempting to retreat or look back. "Retrotopia" stands partly for the individual's escape from contemporary problems and partly for the refuge in the imagined idylls and reassuring identities of the past. It is as if the march of history forward stagnates and turns into an disorganized retreat. The sketch of late modern man's various forms of relapse and regression paints a complicated picture of the disease – involving most and most people. Both directly and indirectly, he thus raises profound questions that he is only partially able to answer. What exactly are we escaping from? Can a society at all be healthy and modern at the same time? Why have we lost hope?

The privatization of hope. In keeping with contemporary diagnosis as a genre, Bauman's interpretation is a kind of theoretical caricature in tones of black. It is tempting to object that everything is not hopeless at all – and that man is, after all, a stubborn dreamer. When Bauman's portrayal nevertheless hits, it is because he does not at all claim that people have stopped hoping; Rather, his point is that fewer and fewer people are investing hope in society or humanity as a whole. The dream of a better life has become somewhat private – and thus also detached from history, progress and the future. Fewer and fewer believe in the existence of a community in which hope can be invested. We are increasingly focusing unilaterally on personal happiness, on our own prosperity and safety – at worst at the expense of others. Behind the question of a people's common hope for the future lies thus the question of community fellowship.

Man is characterized by both individualism and a longing for social unity. This range is themed in both Anthanuel Kant's anthropology and EO Wilson's sociobiology. Here, as in other books, he depicts how the old society's laborious tissue is shaved to allow for ever-changing connections and patterns in what he calls liquid modernity. In spite of all the beautiful phrases and good resolutions, today's society presses us inexorably in the direction of desolidation. At worst, the social ties in the wind flutter around disoriented, lonely and seemingly superfluous individuals. The dubious but sought-after gain is flexibility, mobility and opportunities. The trend is clear: more freedom, less security. Forget fixed labor contracts, a secure income, yes, safety net whatsoever.

Can a society at all be healthy and modern at the same time?

Ego war. What about the other longing – the human social side that seeks security, belonging and solidarity? One solution is a retreat to the local, to the "tribe" and pre-modern identities. The second solution is a social life made as diffuse and flexible as the individual's identity. Bauman believes this is what the network community offers. Social media satisfies one basic human need by providing the opportunity to be individual, original and unique. At the same time, they offer a social gain and belonging through being liked and followed by a myriad of friends, acquaintances and strangers. Yet more and more people end up in a form of solitary sociality that is more simulated than real.

There is something a little one-sided and worn-out about pointing out the upbeat self-presentation in social media as a manifestation of the consumer society's morbid narcissism. At their best, however, Bauman saves these points by tilting them in a satirical direction. In some costly passages he starts with self-help books and reads here a kind of total war between battle-ready, semi-paranoid egos. On the one hand, we have a large number of books, from Ayn Rand's philosophy about rational selfishness to how-totitles that encourage us to love ourselves, fuck the others – as others presumptively do – and thus become happy winners. But there are also a number of other self-help books that will help us to defend us against (other) egoists, narcissists and "toxic personalities".

All against all. The key chapter in Bauman's book is entitled "Back to Hobbes?" The political philosophy Thomas Hobbes described as a well-known state of nature before society comes into being, where people are thrown at each other in the struggle of everyone against one another, driven by a panic-stricken fear of losing what is necessary for survival. The only solution to this scary anarchy is to enter into a social contract, in which each gives up some of their freedom – their right to self-assertion and abuse – in return for security under state protection.

The somewhat confusing "Back to Hobbes" credo must therefore be read twice to really make sense. On the one hand, we return to a hardened acceptance of the principle of everyone's struggle against everyone. On the other hand, the generalized state of struggle leads to new social contracts in the form of aggressively protectionist "tribes". Violent distinctions between "us" and "them" thus return as a backlash to globalization and the often involuntary integration of everyone with everyone. But if the longing for such a protected and resilient community is ever so understandable, Bauman points out that it is also regressive. The result of the new tribes is, as always, a repetition of the state of nature at a higher level – in the form of a struggle between tribes, groups and states – as well as dangerous exterminations of imagined internal enemies. Perhaps the problem is that no community smaller than the global any longer appears credible, deepest. The sociological riddle Bauman remains with is whether we are able to create an "us" without a "them" – for the global community is a group with no outside or any contrast class.

The dream of a better life has become somewhat private – and thus also detached from history, progress and the future.

Hope for health. Globalized humanity is a problem community and a destiny, but has the benefit of becoming a compelling political size or entity that can offer security and protection. If neoliberalism has made the market economy's generalized state of competition appear natural and unavoidable to many, the interparanoid game between nation states is perceived as even more inevitable. Those who want to test how vital the global state is to us can even taste the radical vision of the future Bauman quotes from the young historian and author Rutger Bregman: "Citizens' pay for everyone on the planet, fifteen hours of work week and open borders." Certainly utopian, but perhaps the thought can be moderated freely until the performance seems sufficiently reasonable.

Apart from such approaches to discuss positive utopian ideas, most of Bauman's contemporary portrayal seems deeply pessimistic. In spite of his commitment, he risks making matters worse – somewhat in the style of certain naturalistic novels, in which man is portrayed as an incurably ill animal.

However, can Bauman's diagnoses help us to imagine what a healthy modern society should be, we may have to imagine a health at the level of civilization: a future world community prepared to face what he calls "the global survival problem of mankind" well laid out and with new political implements, in everyone's battle – with everyone.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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