Interview – Zygmunt Bauman on the UK Riots

How much of an irony is the fact that the riots concentrated on the looting of consumer goods, given your body of work on postmodernism and consumerism?

These riots were, so to speak, an explosion bound sooner or later to happen… Just like a minefield: one knows that some of the explosives will true to their nature sooner or later explode, but one doesn’t know where and when. In the case of a social minefield however, an explosion is likely to spread instantaneously, thanks to contemporary technology transmitting information in the “real time” and prompting the “copy-cat” effect. This particular social minefield has been created by the combination of consumerism with rising inequality. This was not a rebellion or an uprising of famished and impoverished people or an oppressed ethnic or religious minority – but a mutiny of defective and disqualified consumers, people offended and humiliated by the display of riches to which they had been denied access. We have been all coerced and seduced to view shopping as the recipe for good life and the principal solution of all life problems – but then a large part of the population has been prevented from using that recipe… City riots in Britain are best understood as a revolt of frustrated consumers.

There are many arguments analysing the social roots behind the rioting and one inevitably has to analyse the inequality hypothesis. How tricky is the task for the establishment to address such questions when the concept of have and have-nots seems to have shifted so much in the last few decades?

Just like the reaction of governments to the depression caused by credit collapse (that is, re-financing the banks in order to bring them “back to normal”: to the self-same activity that was the prime cause of the collapse and the depression!), the thus far reaction of the British government to the mutiny of the humiliated is bound to deepen the self-same humiliation that caused their rebellion – while leaving untouched the sources of their humiliation, namely the rampant consumerism combined with rising inequality. The hard-line, high-handed measures taken by the government will most probably terminate this explosion here and now, but will do nothing to defuse the minefield that caused it and pre-empt further outbursts. Social problems were never solved by imposition of curfew – they were only left to rot and fester… The reaction of the British government was a misguided attempt at one-off, instant solution to a long-term affliction of society. To really tackle that kind of affliction would require nothing short of a serious reform of the ways society works, and a genuine cultural revolution – something that Edgar Morin suggested on his recent visit to Sao Paulo.

While talking to youths from poorer backgrounds, there is clear resentment over the lack of opportunities in education and work, but we have seen no universities burned, for example. Can we assume there is much more symbology in burning down a Dixon’s branch?

Whatever else those youngsters may say when pressed to explain why they are angry (mostly repeating the explanations they heard on TV and read in the papers…) the fact is that when looting and burning shops they did not attempt to “change society” – replace the present order with another, more humane and more hospitable to decent and dignified life; they did not rebel against consumerism – but made a (misguided and doomed) attempt to join, if only for a fleeting moment, the ranks of consumers from which they have been excluded. Their mutiny was an un-planned, un-integrated, spontaneous explosion of accumulated frustration that can be only explained in terms of “because of”, not in terms of “in order to”; I doubt whether the question of “what for” played any role in that orgy of destruction.

How culpable are the public policies that created the council estates now described as pockets of apartheid?

Successive British governments stopped building “council estates” a long time ago. They left the spatial distribution of population, complete with its troubles and problems, entirely to the market forces. Condensations of dis-privileged and deprived people in certain areas of the city, not much differently from the case of the favelas, is not guided by social policies, but by the prices of housing, while being aided and abetted by the tendency of the better-off sections of urban dwellers to lock themselves up, away from the city troubles, in the so called “gated communities”. Segregation and polarization in the cities is today the result of a free and politically uncontrolled play of market forces; if the state policy makes its contribution, then only in the form of the governmental refusal to be bothered with the responsibility for human welfare and its decision to “contract it out” to private capital.

In your article for the Social Europe Journal, you refuse to qualify the rioting as some kind of social revolution. Isn’t there at least a whiff of a desire for social change in this situation or is there just a massive imbalance between desire states?

So far I failed to spot any evidence for such a desire… Romanticizing humble life of self-denial has been always an ideology of the well-off and comfortable; as far as the collateral casualties of their comforts are concerned however, they crave to imitate them (an irrational dream, which can be only acted upon by irrational means!), not to replace their life-style with one of a self-restraint, temperance and moderation. As pointed out by Neal Lawson, the acute observer of the present moods, “what some have unhelpfully labeled a ‘feral underclass’ is simply the mirror image of the now feral elite” – a distorted and distorting mirror, to be sure, but mirror all the same…

The police won’t be able to be in the streets in such large numbers for much longer and pretty soon life will be back to ”normal”. Given the relative success of the first consumer riots, how fearful of further trouble should Londoners be?

Your guess is as good as mine… But we all know from abundant experience that the punitive expeditions can only extinguish one or another local fire, but they wouldn’t overhaul and rebuild the area currently in flames to stop it being “socially inflammable” for good. The sole effect of extemporary police actions is to render the need of further police actions yet more pressing: police actions, so to speak, excel in reproducing their own necessity. Remember that in the case of the frustrated and disqualified consumers bringing them “to normal” signifies returning them to the minefield-like condition!

Last but not least, and with a nod to the ”New Statesman” famous ending question: given that consumerism is so ingrained in the post-modern society, are all doomed? How to address the ”shop as normally scenario”?

A few months ago François Flahaut published a remarkable study of the idea of common good and the realities for which it stands (Où est passé le bien commun ?, Éditions Mille et une nuits, 2011). The major message of the new study, focused on the current shape of our radically “individualized” society, is that the idea of human rights is currently utilized to replace and eliminate the concept of “good politics” – whereas that idea, to be realistic, cannot but be founded on the idea of “common good”. Human coexistence and social life constitute the good common to us all from which and thanks to which all cultural and social goods derive. Pursuit of happiness should for that reason focus on the promotion of experiences, institutions and other cultural and natural realities of life-in-common – instead of concentrating on indices of wealth, which tends to deform human togetherness into individual competitiveness and rivalry.

The point, therefore – and a point to which we don’t have as yet a convincing and empirically grounded answer, is whether the joys of conviviality are capable to replace the pursuit of riches, enjoyment of market-supplied consumables and one-upmanship, all combining into the idea of infinite economic growth, in their role of the well-nigh universally accepted recipes for happy life. To put it in a nutshell: can our desire for the pleasures of conviviality, however “natural”, “endemic” and “spontaneous” they might be, be pursued inside the currently prevailing kind of society without falling into the trap of utilitarianism and by-passing the marketing mediation? Well, if we don’t choose it by our own will, we may well be forced to accept it by the consequences of our refusal…

Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, in his latest book Redefining Prosperity, alarms: the present-day model of growth produces damages that are irreversible. And this is because “the growth” is measured by the rise in material production, rather than services like leisure, health, education… Tim Jackson is warning that by the end of this century “our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migration and almost inevitably war”. Our debt-driven and zealously abetted/assisted/ boosted by that powers-that-be consumption “is unsustainable ecologically, problematic socially, and unstable economically”. Another of quite a few chilling observation by Jackson – that in a social setting like ours, where the richest fifth of the world gets 74% of the annual planetary income while the poorest fifth has to settle for 2%, the common ply of justifying the devastation perpetuated by the economic growth policies by the noble need to put paid to poverty cannot but be sheer hypocrisy and offence to reason – has been almost universally ignored by the most popular (and effective) channels of information; or relegated, at best, to the pages/times known to host and accommodate voices reconciled and habituated to their plight of crying in wilderness.

Jeremy Leggett (in The Guardian of 23 January 2010) follows Jackson’s hints and suggests that a lasting (as different from doomed or downright suicidal) prosperity needs to be sought “outside the conventional trappings of affluence” (and, let me add, outside the vicious circle of stuff-and-energy use/misuse/abuse): inside relationships, families, neighbourhoods, communities, meanings of life, and an admittedly misty/recondite area of “vocations in a functional society that places value on the future”. Jackson himself opens his case with a sober admission that the questioning of economic growth is deemed to be the act of “lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries”, risking/fearing/expecting not without reason to be one or all three of those categories assigned by the apostles and addicts of grow-or-perish ideology.

In the market, as Adam Smith pointed out, we owe our daily supply of fresh bread to the baker’s greed, not to his altruism, charity, benevolence or high moral standards. It is thanks to the all-too-human lust for profit that the goods are brought to market stalls and that we can be sure to find them there. Even Amartya Sen, who insists that the well-being and freedom to lead decent human lives need to be seen as the ultimate objective of economy (see his essay “Justice in the Global World” in Indigo, Winter 2011), admits that “it is indeed not possible to have a flourishing economy without extensive use of markets, so that the cultivation, rather than the prevention, of the development of necessary markets has to be a part of a prosperous and fair economic world”. What follows is, first, that to take the lust for and chase after profit away, means making markets to disappear, and goods together with them. Second: markets being necessary for the “economy to flourish”, selfishness and avarice can be eliminated from human motives solely at our shared peril. Finally, a third conclusion: altruism is at loggerheads with a “flourishing economy”. You can have one or the other, but hardly both of them together…

Jackson by-passes this quite serious hurdle by putting his wager on human reason and power of persuasion; powerful weapons they both are, no doubt, and such as would be indeed effective in “remodelling of the economic system” – if not however for the unfortunate fact that the dictates of reason depend on the reality reasoned about, and that those realities, when reasoned about by reasonable agents, dispose of a “power of persuasion” much stronger than any arguments which ignore them or play down. The reality in question is a society which can resolve (however imperfectly) the problems it itself creates (social conflicts and antagonisms menacing its own preservation), solely through uninterrupted beefing up of the “appetites for novelty” – and thereby appealing to the greed and avarice that keep economy “flourishing”…

Jackson proposes a three-point programme: making people aware that economic growth has its limits, convince (oblige?) capitalists to guide themselves in distributing their profits not only by “financial terms” but also by social and environmental benefits of community, and “changing the social logic” by governments manipulating the arrangement of stimuli that currently induce people do expand and enrich their lives in other than materialistic fashions. The snag is, though: could all that be seriously contemplated without tackling those aspects of human condition that have prompted people to seek redress in the markets in the first place? That is, grievances finding no remedies, genuine or putative, and anxieties unattended to by society: finding therefore no outlets except in market offers and redirected to the consumer markets in an insistent even if vain and deceptive hope of finding a medicine or solution?

This interview was conducted by Fernando Duarte for O Globo, where a Portuguese version was published.

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    A paleisngly rational answer. Good to hear from you.

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