Special Reports / The 21st Century. A World Without The Left?

Future for the left?

Zygmunt Bauman in conversation with Adam Puchejda · 20 August 2013
Adam Puchejda talks to Zygmunt Bauman

What will, in your opinion, the future left look like? Conservative in terms of social manners, placing emphasis on redistribution of wealth, disinclined to Europe, or maybe avant-garde, ecologically radical, fighting for the human rights?

None of these. The characteristics mentioned by you do not encompass all the complexity of the concept of the contemporary left. For a long time we have had two approaches to building the left, each of which is unfortunately wrong. Still the influential idea is the idea to create the left by making it similar to the right, of course, adding the promise that we will do the same what the right is doing, but simply better and more efficiently. Let’s have regard to the fact that the most drastic moves to disassemble the social state were taken under social democratic ruling. Although the prophet  and the missionary of the neoliberal religion was Margaret Thatcher, it was Tony Blair, a member of the Labour Party, who made that religion a state religion.

The second method of constructing the left was based upon the concept of so-called “rainbow coalition”. This concept assumes that if all the dissatisfied can get together under one umbrella, no matter what troubles them, a strong political power will emerge. But, among the disappointed and the frustrated there are violent conflicts of interest and postulates. To imagine the left as, for example, consisting on one hand of the discriminated promoters of single-sex marriages and on the other hand, of the persecuted Pakistani minority, is a solution for disintegration and powerlessness and not for integration and power for effective acting. The concept of ‘rainbow coalition” must result in dilution of the left identity, dilution of its programme and the disabling of the postulated “political power” as early as at the moment of its birth.

What can the left base its programme on? Jacques Julliard who in his latest book Les gauches françaises 1762-2012,) critically analysed the heritage of the French left, claims that the left can refer only to the idea of fairness. It cannot even talk about progress since it gives a worried look at technology which the progress is identified with, but exhibits friendly attitude towards ecology, which ex difinitione aims at conserving and not at changing.   

Certainly, the collapse of communism had a considerable impact on the left potential.  For decades “the day order” for the rest of the world was prescribed by the simple fact of the existence of communism propagating the social alternative programme. That rest regardless whether being enthusiastic or not, led by self-preservation instinct, embarked on initiatives described in that programme, such as combating misery, humiliation and human disability, appropriate compensation for the role of working class in the process of accumulating wealth, fighting off inequalities and fighting for social justice, education and health care accessible by all, secure old age, or the security against life misfortune experienced by an individual. Hence, for the social democracy paradoxically having a powerful ally as its fierce enemy, was easier to force a social programme. It shall also be admitted that “the rest of the world” fulfilled the tasks enforced by the communist threat much more successfully than the communism itself! Today there is no communist “scare crow”, so the programmes for improving the quality of human life are in retreat…

Gerhard Schroeder put it straight to the point though laconically, saying: “There isn’t anything like capitalist economy, or socialist economy. There exists either good, or bad economy”. In this sense the rulings of the central right and the central left compete for dignity of the most faithful congregation in GDP Church. Both sides of the political fan when being at the helm are compatible on the status of economic growth as a remedy for all social ailings as well as on the growth of the consumption as a determinant of good ruling. The rest is an election propaganda. In other words, the left practically speaking, does not have a programme in addition to bidding against the right to determine who will speed up the process of withdrawing from life improvement programmes and who will win the coming elections. It is not mentioned at all about the creation of an alternative to the social instruments which are sick and unfriendly to people.

So, we lay the left in the grave?

No way. The left has not lost its capability of preserving and strengthening its identity. Let’s quote just two rules, inseparable with the “left” approach related to human cohabitation. The first is the responsibility of the community for all its members and specifically, securing each member against life misfortune, refusal of dignity and humiliation. The social model which complied with that rule was, at least in its intentions and original form, a model of “welfare state”, which stipulated not that much of income bringing, but more basing on solid pillars and documenting the co-dependence of the community members, the commonality of the law for social recognition, decent life and resulting from that social solidarity. So, it will be more reasonable to call it a “social state”. The second rule is the valuation of the quality of the society not by the average income, but by the well-being of the weakest of its branches (similarly to the chain loops, of which the resistance is not measured by the average resistance of the loops, but by the resistance of the weakest loop).

Who will be able to implement such programme?  The left-wing parties which in previous years referred to the working class interests, practically speaking disappeared from the political scene. On the other hand the new left-wing party attaches bigger importance to culture and custom rather than to economy and redistribution. As for now, an attempt to link a sort of moral liberalism with the economy regulation has not been successful. The old working class seems to be too conservative and backward orientated for the aristocratic left and the left orientated to individual rights is afraid of the collectivism of working classes, nationalism, reluctance to anything what is different and shares other similar worries. How can the Left find its way out from this clinch?         

The roots of the phenomenon, as you describe, reach even deeper. These are not the mutual relations between “the left” and “the working class” that have changed, but the subjects of those relations. The number has changed, the social importance and the “morphology” of the basic electorate for the left that was the working class. At the Marx’s times the most brilliant individuals expected that the world is heading for the split into workers and their superiors and for the third category there will be no place in that world. But, the industrial working class is undergoing the same process now as the farm workers in the 19th century came through, who at the beginning of the century constituted 90 per cent of the population and at the end of the century only 9 per cent. At present it is visible that the class of industrial workers is more of a past. If it still exists anywhere, then it is far from Europe, in so-called developing countries and even there it is for the time being because at the moment when the preliminary accumulation of capital comes to an end and the cheap labour force stops being discouraging for investments into machinery, the working class would shrink quickly. It is said today half humorously, but perhaps more half seriously that in the future industrial plant a man and a dog will be employed. A man will be employed for feeding a dog and the dog will guard the man not to touch anything.

In Jacques Julliard’s opinion one of the first steps on the way out from that situation is the change of the way of thinking about the shape of the societies, advancing from their perception as a number of groups which have their interests to perceiving them as consisting of a few individuals who have not only economic, but also religious and cultural needs. In other words, the left would be supposed to make a bridge between the community requirements and the aspirations of the individuals.  

At present such society seems to be purely a dream… The morphological basis for collective, hence, solidarity acting disappeared in the course of individualisation process. Once the workplaces no matter what they were producing, were also a solidarity plants as Ford plant, or Gdańsk Shipyard. Conversely, at present, they are the factories of competitiveness and mutual distrust. Some observers transferred too jumpily the hopes for solidarity political actions to public squares in line with the rule “one for all, all for one”, once located in big industrial plants, but today being homeless. Those gatherings on public squares, or in public parks taking place often recently, putting up tents there for several days, or weeks to stay in them as long as the goal had been reached, demonstrated attempts to find, or to conjure the alternative ways for effective acting in the situation when the trust to state is withering and the doubts arise about whether it can do a good job. Hope vanishes that the salvation will flow from the top, the salvation may come if we ourselves without any intermediaries would contribute to its fulfilment? Those, however, were the expressions of solidarity, so as to say “explosive”, or “channel” aiming at the burst-out of the accumulated resentment and protest against unbearable course of matters, only for the purpose of sinking into the everyday life which remained unchanged and was as unbearable as before.

But, do such initiatives serve the purpose of building the intrageneration solidarity? Will they not be a prelude to further and better organised movements?

I would warn against drawing as optimistic as too hasty and too premature conclusions from such experiments. As for now the alternative movements only proved that they may lead to (but not always!) removing any one object which all the participants regardless the interests and views which divide them, consider consensually as unacceptable, or unbearable. If they succeed, they will at most clear the site for other construction… But what other construction? No movement has made itself famous of putting up a building on the site that they managed to empty. In fact, very few of them managed to clear the site itself. The New York Stock Exchange occupied only in the minds of the occupants, was the first stock exchange which reached profit exceeding the pre-crisis quotations, not changing the policy condemned by the protesters at all. Probably, it was the only one as opposed the journalists thirsty of sensations and sociologists hungry of historic discoveries, which did not notice that it was under occupation.

So, there is not any group, or institution today which could initiate some serious changes. Additionally, we face a deep crisis of the idea of representation since large number of people do not take part in politics at all.

You see yourself that you describe society and politics which is an absolute opposite of what was before. These days the society gets closer to atomisation, internal discord and dispute rather than to solidarity. Something disintegrates for what our grand and great-grandparents fought for a long time. They were struggling for decades to complete the tasks of stretching the social integration and human solidarity and hence, the co-operation from the local community, parish, commune, or ancestral wealth to considerable bigger fields  of “the imaginable whole” state/nation. To do so the conflicts were unavoidable which were not less horrible or painful for the generations exposed to them than the challenges that we face. It took the entire 19th century for the modern state growing in power and ambitions to curb the uncontrollable freedom of business which got out of the family, or local community guardianship and settle down on politically and also ethically undeveloped territory.

Today we live in the epoch of “deregulation”. This neutral word by appearance, of which more expressive (and fairer) equivalent would be “disorganisation”, hide dispersion of responsibility and the replacement of relatively foreseeable and hence structuralized situations by unforeseeable situations, filled with uncertainty, fear of the unknown tomorrow and others alike. “Deregulation” is conducted under the label of making each individual, or coalition of individuals masters of their own fate, but in practice, it made only a few chosen individuals masters of their own fate (and in the same time masters of others’ fate), leaving the rest to the caprices of fortune which none knows how to overcome. Leaving the individuals to themselves makes them be competitors, instead of promoting solidarity, their position gives rise to mutual distrust and competition. In such a situation “closing ranks”, standing shoulder to shoulder ceases to make sense. It is not clear how a bigger chance might emerge for the fulfilment of interests if the individual interests have been merged.

What is the lesson to be learnt by the left?

In the environment unfavourable for collective work and uninspiring with hope, the left faces a big challenge: to ascend the politics having so far only a local dimension to the level of global issues which our contemporaries are to wrestle with. So, it is not surprising that the left does not dare to say openly to its co-citizens, including its own electors, that they challenge, as the rest of the human race does, a task of remaking the big accomplishment of our ancestors from national and construction era; however, with such difference, that they will have to make it on incomparably bigger scale, a universal human scale. It does not mean that the left should be absolved due to the lack of brevity (and sense of responsibility!). It lacks in virtues of brevity, perseverance and ever-lasting hope, which its ancestors, luckily for them and for the rest of the human kind, had in abundance.