17 May 2007 (Link added 19 November 2007)

Fear and loathing in an insecure world

By Tapani Lausti

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press 2007.

Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences. Polity Press 1998.

In our part of Costa del Sol it has been impossible lately to avoid negative conversations about immigrants. A reminder that we ex-pats here are all immigrants cuts no ice. "We" bring money to the economy, "they" don't. "We" have the right to choose our place of domicile, "they" should stay where they are.

Zygmunt Bauman would be interested in these conversations. In his earlier book, Globalization, he uses the metaphore of "tourists" and "vagabonds": "The tourists stay or move at their heart's desire. They abandon a site when new untried opportunities beckon elsewhere. The vagabonds know that they won't stay in a place for long, however strongly they wish to, since nowhere they stop are they likely to be welcome." Bauman adds: "The tourists travel because they want to; the vagabonds because they have no other bearable choice." (pp. 92-93, italics in the original)

In the conversations we hear among the local ex-pats, it is sometimes difficult to understand the aggression shown towards "other" immigrants. Bauman explains it thus: "A world without vagabonds is the utopia of the society of tourists. Much of the politics in the society of tourists — like the obsession with 'law and order', the criminalization of poverty, recurrent spongers-bashing etc. — can be explained as an ongoing, stubborn effort to lift social reality, against all odds, to the level of that utopia." (p. 97, italics in the original)

In his new book, Liquid Times, Bauman further explores the culture of fear which is endemic in modern societies. People instinctly know that politicians make false claims of being able to cope with the forces which shape the modern world. Bauman writes: "Much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global (and in many ways extraterritorial) space; while politics, the ability to decide the direction and purpose of action, is unable to operate effectively at the planetary level since it remains, as before, local." (p. 2)

And this is what is demanded from citizens of modern countries: "The messages addressed from the sites of political power to the resourceful and the hapless alike present 'more flexibility' as the sole cure for an already unbearable insecurity — and so paint the prospect of yet more uncertainty, yet more privatization of troubles, yet more loneliness and impotence, and indeed more uncertainty still." (p. 14)

Bauman concludes: "All in all, the new focus on crime and on dangers threatening the bodily safety of individuals and their property has been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be intimately related to 'the mood of precariousness', and to follow closely the pace of economic deregulation and of the related substitution of individual self-responsibility for social solidarity." (p. 17)

So, in this insecure world people focus their fears on where it is easiest: asylum seekers and refugees. As Bauman writes: "Refugees and immigrants, coming from the 'far away' yet bidding to settle in the neighbourhood, are uniquely suitable for the role of an effigy through which the spectre of 'global forces', feared and resented for doing their job without consulting those whom its outcome is bound to effect, can be burnt. After all, asylum seekers and 'economic migrants' are collective replicas (an alter ego? fellow travellers? mirror images? caricatures?) of the new power elite of the globalized world, widely (and with reason) suspected to be the true villain of the piece." (p. 48)

Currently these scenarios are being played out in France. Nicolas Sarkozy has been aggressively exploiting people's feelings of insecurity. He won the presidential elections on an anti-immigrant and law and order ticket. By "change" he means that people should surrender to the interests of the corporate world. The social state needs to be downgraded. In his inaugural address Sarkozy said that the country needed to "rehabilitate the values of work, effort, merit and respect". The message is clear: Relish your wage slavery (that is, if you have a job). There is nothing else.


See also:

Visit the archive: Society and social thinking, World economy and environment, Jeremy Seabrook


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