Interview with Zygmunt Bauman (Part II)

This is part II of my (MD) interview with Zygmunt Bauman (ZB) on 29 May 2006 in Leeds, UK. Part I was posted earlier on this blog.

MD: In several recent interviews you seemed quite hopeful that perhaps we have now come to terms with globalization in its more horrendous consequences. We know that globalization is an inevitable trend in the way the world is increasingly organizing itself, and we know its negative consequences. So it is possible to argue that we have arrived at a time when an alternate current may be developing – a more positive consequence of globalization, the emergence of new systems that might counterbalance some of the negativity. Because of my new media bias, I am tempted to look at internet as a potential platform for a renewed global debate, referring to the Web where we can see glimpses of individuals and groups counteracting the negative consequences of globalization. Yet I also realize the dangers of techno-utopianism, so I don’t know…

ZB: "I don’t know either. I have weak spots here, really. I wasn’t quite sure how to bite it, this phenomenon, or the information highway or however it’s called. You’re absolutely right when you mentioned the negatives of globalization. Indeed, so far we’ve had only negative globalization. Negative globalization is a ‘destructive side’ of globalization. What has globalized so far are only such forces like capital, trade, commodity circulation, drug smuggling, criminality, mafia, terrorism. These are very different things but have one thing in common: that they are specialized primarily in destructive and dismantling jobs: breaking boundaries, tearing up defenses, neglecting and playing down territorial sovereignties, making space irrelevant, and so on… They attempt, and often manage to destroy local social settings one by one, or undermine them very considerably, without however replacing them with new structures that could serve as both the catapult for foolproof local undertakings let alone an effective global action.

And I realize as well that the big task - not mine, because being a very old man I will die well before the task may be accomplished, but yours, your generation’s - will be to complement, constrain and balance or outweigh the negative globalization with the positive globalization. And positive globalization would be to do the same, though this time on the planetary scale and for this reason in a different and so far unfamiliar form, what the emergent nation-states did in the nineteenth century with no-man’s land, wide virgin or devastated territories left behind or conjured up by business running loose from supervision of local communities – the sole effective powers of that time. To invade, conquer and colonize that no name’s land ruled by the law of the fist took the nation states something like one hundred and fifty years of pushing through parliaments bills cutting down child and women labor in mines, limit the length of the working week and legalize such organs of popular self-defense as trade unions and strikes and reaching true universality of voting rights.

Once more as in the beginning of that uphill struggle, there is nowadays no address in the directory where society could look for a resolution of its problems through collective undertakings. Once again the most haunting problem is not ‘what needs to be done’, but ‘who has the power and the will to do it’.

I believe that the worst thing to do, the most startling, the most paralyzing question today, is not so much what is to be done, because I think there is a vaguely general consciousness about fighting pollution, the warming of the planet, ending wars, eliminating criminal elements. The real question, unanswerable so far, is who is going to do it; there are no institutions that are able to shoulder this sort of an enormous task.

There are no institutions on the global level equivalent to the nation-state organs in relation to the supervised territory. There is no equivalent of state government, of parliamentary representation, democratic control, universal jurisdiction or universally binding code of law on a global level. It’s a no man’s land over there. And who is the quickest at pulling the pistol is at the top. It’s a hit and run sort of politics.

Can the internet be an answer? Paul Virilio says that currently the ‘information bomb’ is potentially a threat to humanity much more disastrous than even the nuclear bomb… It’s waiting to explode. It’s already ‘exploding’: the dream of ‘complete knowledge’ turning unrealistic, we are doomed to ‘surf’ having no time to dig into anything in depth.

Internet is a wonderful contraption for surfing, yet absolutely unfit to dig into whatever. We haven’t come as yet anywhere near designing a super filter to segregate and sieve away the useful grain from the useless chaff. Internet seems to be as well a good tool for bringing together like-minded people and separating them from other-minding people – but what about making words into flesh?

I don’t believe in the possibility of changing the substantive, hard and fast conditions of human life with the help of creating new blogs and adding to the millions of websites. I even suspect it may be dangerous in the long run: it gives people who are engaged, committed, wishing to change something important in the world, an illusion of action. It is though, I suspect, not an action (certainly not an effective one), but a substitute of action. ‘I signed a petition. I contacted two hundred other bloggers. I am active.’ There was no shortage of internet petitions objecting to the folly and cruelty of Iraq invasion… And yet the politicians could ignore all that and send troops to kill and die nevertheless."

(Part III of the interview follows).