The unwinnable war: an interview with Zygmunt Bauman

About the authors
Lukasz Galecki is a journalist with the Warsaw weekly newspaper Polityka.
Zygmunt Bauman is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, England (where he taught from 1972-90) and at the University of Warsaw, Poland. His many books include Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity, 1993), Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2000 ), Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2001), and Liquid Life (Polity, 2005)
The Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s subtle and quietly insistent dissections of the human experience of modernity and globalisation have gradually won him recognition as a foremost scholar of the age – including in his home country. The Polish journalist Lukasz Galecki talks to Bauman at his home in Leeds, England.

Lukasz Galecki: How do you define the borders of globalisation?

Zygmunt Bauman: Globalisation is not a process taking place somewhere far away in some exotic place. Globalisation is taking place in Leeds as well as in Warsaw, in New York and in any small town in Poland. It is just outside your window, but inside as well. It is enough to walk down the street to see it. Global and local spaces can be separated only as an abstraction, in reality they are intertwined.

The main trouble is that the globalisation we are dealing with today is strictly negative. It is based on the breaking down of barriers, allowing for the globalisation of capital, the movement of goods, information, crime, and terrorism, but not of the political and judicial institutions whose basis is national sovereignty. This negative aspect of globalisation has not been followed by the positive aspect, and the instruments of regulation over economic and social processes are not established enough to deal with the reach and consequences of globalisation.

Zygmunt Bauman is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, England (where he taught from 1972-90) and at the University of Warsaw, Poland. His many books include Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity, 1993), Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2000 ), Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2001), and Liquid Life (Polity, 2005)

A fuller bibliography (to 2000) is here. The books about or in collaboration with Zygmunt Bauman include: Richard Kilminster & Ian Varcoe (eds.), Culture, Modernity and Revolution: Essays in Honour of Zygmunt Bauman (Routledge, 1996), Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity (Polity, 1999), and Keith Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman (Polity, 2001)

Globalisation and chaos

Lukasz Galecki: Are there any historical precedents for this situation?

Zygmunt Bauman: Two centuries ago our ancestors were frightened by the naked chaos which could not be tamed by the modest powers of local communities – village, parish, and small town. In those days, the big spaces of action that were about to build nations must have seemed as frightening and open to ambush as the forces of globalisation are to today’s nation-states. Yet our ancestors were capable of building the instruments of political representation and the legislative and judicial means to manage chaos, to coordinate rules and procedures in order to tame this chaos, to make it relatively transparent and more or less predictable.

The pioneers of the modern world were hoping that societies, ruled by reason and moved by its technical means, would prove to be more predictable and manageable than a world subject merely to the whims of, say, natural disaster. This dream turned out to be illusion, and now in a postmodern world we are facing the situation we once faced in early 19th-century England, where local communities lost control over the forces of economic development at a time when only they had the means, albeit meagre, to govern such forces. This industrialising world, spiralling out of local control, found itself in a no-man’s-land very similar to today’s global space where success is determined by naked power, cleverness and unscrupulousness, and where the forces attempting to reign in these developments are clearly insufficient.

Lukasz Galecki: How much time passed before these forces were tamed?

Zygmunt Bauman: It took the whole 19th century and a good part of the 20th century before the modern state could manage this new reality. The modern state had to establish rules and regulations dealing with issues that previous authorities did not have to face, such as child-labour laws, banning the slave trade, regulating the working week, providing potable water and adequate sanitation, and basic medical care. All this, generally speaking, was about repairing the damage created by the unleashed forces of chaos.

A century was needed to allow the negative aspects of this earlier globalisation to become balanced by the positive, at least in the context of a single nation. In today’s world the possibilities for collective action run far behind what is required, although almost everyone agrees that at least something needs to be done. Globalisation has been going on for a long time, but recent events, in a spectacular and shocking fashion, have made us keenly aware of the things that, previously, were latent and easily overlooked.

The means at our disposal to protect the rule of law and defend citizens are clearly insufficient to tame these global forces, which in their essence are extra-territorial. The events of 11 September 2001 and the attacks in Madrid (March 2004) and London (July 2005) have made clear that the traditional means of securing and maintaining respect for law and order, crudely stated, are worthless. It surprised us – all of us.

Enlightenment and trust

Lukasz Galecki: Don’t you think, in view of events in Iraq, that in treating a patient with a light flu, we have instead chosen a major operation – cutting out the liver, a kidney, and half the brain?

Zygmunt Bauman: Yes. However, we must consider why it is happening. Misfortunes produced by people in the course of negative globalisation still happen like natural catastrophes, by which I mean nobody knows when they are coming, and where they come from. As if we were walking through a minefield. It is known that an explosion will occur, although nobody knows when and where. There is a strong temptation to just bomb this minefield, to destroy the mines before they can go off. It is particularly tempting if you possess an unlimited amount of bombs and hardly any other means to handle the problem.

This is so different from the picture of the future world designed at the beginning of the modern era. Enlightenment philosophers dreamed of an orderly world obedient to human will: mild and hospitable. And humans would not be forced to rely on the wisdom of divine creation, but were to realise these dreams on their own.

These thinkers had just experienced the shock of the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and subsequent fire and tsunami, which came so suddenly and wreaked such havoc on both the righteous and unrighteous. Jean-Jacques Rousseau blamed civilisation for this natural catastrophe. He said that if people lived in accordance with nature, if they did not live in over-crowded cities, had not erected tall buildings, and had tried to save themselves rather than their personal possessions from fire and flood, then there would not have been so many victims.

Voltaire by contrast disregarded the “natural state”: he had more faith in the intentions and actions of people. If people acted reasonably enough they would create a civilised society in which people could feel safe. Both thinkers, though on most issues in constant opposition, trusted humans. In this sense, both miscalculated.

Lukasz Galecki: So, the beginning of modernity is a fear of the unknown?

Zygmunt Bauman: The very project of modernity is born out of the desire for a world without surprises, a safe world, a world without fear. The crowning of this 200-year effort, and the achievement of the project-ambition-dream, was the social state – which has always been falsely named the “welfare” state. The whole project was not about welfare so much as it was about a society taking responsibility for each citizen, offering him or her a life free of fear and full of dignity and meaning.

This was a concept of a collective insurance policy against the consequences of individual misfortune. If an individual experienced misfortune, society would be there to help him or her, and the redistribution of resources was a means, not an end. The whole concept is based on an idea that only citizens who feel secure can stand on their own two feet. William Beveridge, who designed the British version of the social state, was a Liberal and not a socialist, and considered the concept of the social state as the realisation of the liberal idea.

Social state and nation-state

Lukasz Galecki: Does that mean that the social state, after so many decades, managed to achieve the liberal goal of self-determination?

Zygmunt Bauman: That was how it was intended to be. There is no individual self-determination without social solidarity. Freedom does not suffice unless there is a guarantee that everyone has means and equal opportunity to utilise them. If the individual has to walk a tightrope, there must a safety-net to catch him or her when they fall.

The negative globalisation has made it almost impossible to find a reasonable balance for human obligations within the framework of the nation-state. It strikes a blow at this concept of human coexistence. If you look around the world – perhaps with the exception of the Scandinavian states – this concept of the social state is in retreat; we are told we cannot afford it. Instead of securing the state’s obligation to protect people against insecurity and the fear resulting from it, governments are calling for more flexibility in the labour market and in all other areas of life regulated by market forces. This means even more insecurity. What they are calling for is not a decrease of risk, but its increase.

A consequence of the retreat of state obligations is a crisis in the legitimacy of state authority. This authority required obedience, discipline, and respect for the law; it promised citizens security and a dignified life. But these promises – that included free education, basic medical care, old-age pensions, and basic unemployment benefits – are being dropped, one by one.

The state has its hands tied; it itself is being delivered into the hands of market forces. If it dares to oppose market forces, then capital will flow to a place where it can easily and comfortably grow. And then a nation will face a plague of unemployment and poverty. Capital can be moved with the push of a button. The question is: what can replace the earlier, traditional foundations of state legitimacy? What is to be the source of citizen trust? It is sad, but the most terrible consequences of this negative globalisation (for example, 9/11) have helped state authorities find a new foundation for their own legitimacy.

Lukasz Galecki: Is the traditional nation-state fighting a losing battle against globalisation?

Zygmunt Bauman: In this battle two processes are taking place simultaneously. On the one hand, we are trying to tame this new element called globalisation, whose powers are beyond what any state can control; the instruments we have at our disposal are too weak to resist the forces opposing it. On the other hand, there is the desperate search for an ersatz political formula, an ersatz legitimacy, which could be used despite the fact that state powers have been reduced. This search is about finding a sphere in which the state can show its citizens that it is able to do something.

More and more often we can see on our TV screens very spectacular scenes such as: an invasion of special forces, tanks sitting at airports, police cordoning off railway stations and subways. This is the lesson the state is trying to teach us: we are on top of the matter – things may be bad, but they could be worse were we not doing our job.

Security and freedom

Lukasz Galecki: Beyond the global perspective and the perspective of the nation-state, there is still a perspective of the individual human psyche. How, within this framework, does the tension between freedom and security manifest itself?

Zygmunt Bauman: In today’s world people have many reasons to fear. We can easily create a catalogue of risks which a young person faces today, yet it is impossible to complete this catalogue because the real causes of fear are dispersed and unclear and very difficult to define, which makes them even more threatening. A young person who has spent many years getting an education and building professional skills could become worthless on the market because the job he or she was hoping to get when starting his or her studies was transferred to Cambodia. Also, his private life is torn to pieces because his life-partner has found greener pastures.

We could list thousands and thousands of these liquid elements in today’s reality which threaten to sink you. They all cause some kind of general angst, all the more so because the map of this fear is faded and unclear. The more dispersed and indefinite is this fear, the more desperate is the search for concrete objects or persons who can be blamed for it.

The big advantage of transferring this general level of existential uncertainty to the more concrete level of personal safety is that one finally recognises what to do. I can put better locks on my doors, or a monitoring system around my house, sensors that recognise every stranger who approaches. After every assassination, every bomb, every act of terror, new tasks emerge. People find some goals and a concrete occupation on which they can focus. It gives them a sense of participation in an important and useful endeavour.

I cannot prevent my company, who gave me my occupation and my family the means of existence, from moving to Bangalore – but when I see a suspicious person overdressed in a thick coat or carrying a suspicious package, I can go to a policeman, or at least point that suspicious person out. When I get on a bus and see someone with olive skin digging in his bag, I can go and alarm the bus driver. I am no longer helpless. The costs of this are quite high, because the civil liberties that people in England have enjoyed ever since the Magna Carta have been suspended. Step by step, the landscape of freedoms and liberties – which has been the source of so much pride for the English people – is being dismantled. Yet recent research shows that 73% of British respondents think this is a price worth paying in this dark game.

Lukasz Galecki: So, limiting civil liberties is not so unpopular. Maybe the queen’s subjects are not looking for protection against state powers, but rather expect to be protected by the state?

Zygmunt Bauman: Every coin has two sides. The fact that you can communicate via the internet with someone based in New Zealand and discuss the details of some sort of project also has its dark side. Not only terrorist activities, but virtually every criminal activity, could be based on this global net. In this context, a monopoly on the use of force – which, according to Max Weber, formed the basis of the modern state – ceased to exist long ago.

It has become very clear that this monopoly, which the nation-state has long claimed for itself, was designed to fit into the framework of territorial battles and wars. It was about gaining certain territory, and installing your military forces there, subjecting that gained territory to your own administration and preventing others from taking it away.

In the past, sovereignty and authority were defined territorially, and the state-run military force was a sort of guarantee for this order. Today’s terrorism, being a phenomenon of the era of globalisation, is by definition extra-territorial, and it thus eludes such a definition. The most powerful armed forces of all time, using the most sophisticated technical equipment and having at their disposal the greatest budget in history, are helpless against the individual using pocket-weapons weighing a pound.

This is a very peculiar military adversary; it has no headquarters, no military base, no barracks to be bombed. This military force appears from nowhere and then disappears into thin air. Its organisational structures are of only theoretical importance. There is no commander; there are no orders or hierarchy; yet for some reason so many separate individuals follow the same path, even move in a similar way.

If al-Qaida really exists, it is as a global, extremely Manichean conception of the world with a wide array of potential disciples. The Manichean vision of two separate worlds, where the “other” half is ruled by Satan and “our” half is the one where good and truth reign, is by no means an invention of Islamic fundamentalism.

Religion and geopolitics

Lukasz Galecki: The war against the west has been waged in the name of the Russian soul, the Germanic race, communism, and now Islam. But Occidentalism, as an ideology of hate against the west – and when based on religious grounds – turns into a holy war against an absolute evil. In this holy war, true believers must destroy the false god of western materialism with all the powers and means they have at their disposal. Can such a war be won?

Zygmunt Bauman : Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We are facing much more than a politicising of religion, whether Muslim or any other. The issue is the “religionising” of politics, where the normal conflict of group interests is regarded as an eschatological matter, and the confrontation of these interests as having an apocalyptic character.

This is a longing for certainty in an unstable world. It is an escape from extremely complicated problems we cannot even name. It is a longing for the “great simplification”. It is nostalgia for a lost, simple world and the elementary array of tasks within this world.

In this general cacophony – where serious debate about the state of affairs almost never takes place, in which television shows have actors in front of the footlights shouting slogans at one another and using “word-bites” as weapons – one needs some kind of certainty. It can take the form of a simple division between good and evil, in which our hearts are immaculate, and the evildoers are condemned for they have no hope of redemption.

Islam has no monopoly on this vision. Both Palestinian and Israeli radicals, amazingly, use the same sort of vocabulary. Each side presents their conflict as an ultimate clash, not between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, but between Jehovah and Mohammed. A similar kind of vocabulary is present in news coverage of the 2004 American election, although the gods being worshipped had different names. But one must admit that in this vast current of today’s Manicheism, Islam – for geopolitical reasons – has occupied a very important position.

Lukasz Galecki : Is geopolitics a servant of religion, or is it the other way around?

Zygmunt Bauman: The Islamic world is sitting on oil. It is quite obvious that energy resources will play a key role in shaping the new geopolitical order of the 21st century, and the resources available in the middle east are the only ones that could be operational by the middle of this century. The economies of the great powers of the world, and particularly the largest economy, are based on cheap fuel. The situation becomes more serious when we consider that China as well as India are both in the process of motorising their billions of inhabitants. Imagine a world in which every Chinese and Indian family decides to buy a car and fill it up with fuel!

Whoever has control of the world’s oil resources will be able to dictate global conditions. The world of big business is perfectly aware of this fact; so too are people living in the oil-producing regions. Thus, there’s nothing amazing about the fact that America is trying to have a major influence over the middle east.

The story starts just after the second world war, from the CIA plot against Mossadegh in Iran (1952), the leader who was brave enough to nationalise Iranian oil resources. After that, quite nasty authoritarian regimes obedient to the Americans were installed in the region, and often they used religious fundamentalism as a source of legitimacy for authority; the most prominent examples are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Arab elites are perfectly aware of the fact that their oil resources allow them to control the west, and although the west has an enormous economic and military advantage, they can always think up new ways to raise the stakes. Their societies are divided between this elite, gradually gaining in self-confidence, and the impoverished mass of the population that lives in insecurity and has not benefited from the distorted process of westernisation. All these factors put together are a truly explosive mixture.

The west should remember its own prophets of terror: Mikhail Bakunin, Sergei Nechaev and the devils invented by Fyodor Dostoevsky. They shared the same fertile ground, where the frustrated and disillusioned intelligentsia meets the impoverished and humiliated masses. It is easy to make such people – who in fact have no chance for a life of dignity – believe that they also have a chance to make a mark in this world. The American-Israeli Satan, the story goes, will not allow you to have this life of dignity, but you can make your mark in this world by wounding this ogre. It is a very cynical concept to misuse a religion for the realisation of goals which have nothing whatsoever in common with religion.

Violence and politics

Lukasz Galecki: Is this narrative just another example of religious propaganda, or is it a concept for political action?

Zygmunt Bauman: It is just an ideology. But the crucial difference to the political ideology produced in intellectual salons is that its aim is not to inspire the masses to think, but to take action – the murdering of the unfaithful through a suicide of the faithful. As with every ideology, it channels the emotions. It also simplifies the vision of the world and narrows choices; and in any case the recipients of this ideology are candidates for a suicidal death.

I am not quite sure if Osama bin Laden uses exactly the same phrasing with his closest collaborators, or applies the same vulgarised schema of conflict, but the world is full of this sort of thing. The teachers of future suicide-bombers are intellectuals: people who, according to our own criteria, are well educated and have earned degrees, quite often from elite western institutions.

In our disorganised world, the struggle currently taking place is not about the shape of the future world order, but rather about who is going to decide this shape. Each side in this dispute is using all the resources at its disposal. America is using all its military power and economic might. But Islam has its own trump card, which is going to be decisive in this dispute: the fact that in around thirty years – maybe even sooner – it will become evident that there is nothing more precious or essential for the maintenance of civilisation than oil.

Lukasz Galecki: Don’t you think that terrorism depends on western weakness?

Zygmunt Bauman: If terrorists’ goal is to sow the seeds of doubt in western societies about their own power, to spread panic, or to incapacitate these societies, the terrorists can count on help from big television broadcasters, who tirelessly spread the pictures of horror. Terrorists also know that the state’s prevention measures create an atmosphere of constant oppressiveness and propagate the notion of a besieged fortress, of the enemy being at the gates. We are facing a situation where every person with a rucksack or any driver of a minivan could be a murderer in disguise.

We also discover that the monitoring powers of the state are growing. Two or three people with very primitive devices can produce a paralysing effect. The world is full of such explosive material. Yet the military powers of the west find themselves in the opposite situation; even their own billions of dollars and countless victims cannot wreak such havoc. The anti-terrorist coalition has to use an axe for shaving, but the terrorists can use a razor blade to chop down a forest. This war is unwinnable.

Lukasz Galecki: The range of activities the state can undertake in the name of security actually has no limits. Can this escalation of arms be stopped?

Zygmunt Bauman: This is a process with its own momentum, which will not stop without intervention by citizens. Both sides are inflaming the atmosphere of confrontation. We have to become reasonable, and understand that typhus cannot be treated with a rash cream. Without getting at the root causes, nothing can be done.


This interview, first published in slightly longer form in Rzeczpospolita, was translated from Polish by Alex Shannon