A world without alternatives

By Zygmunt Bauman, November 12, 2014

Zygmunt Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman

Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw explains the consequences of the steady dismantling of the institutions intended to defend the victims of an increasingly deregulated greed-driven economy.

Over the ruins of the Berlin Wall hovers the spectre of a world without alternatives. It is not the first time such a spectre has appeared; its seminal novelty, however, is the globalised nature of the world over which it hovers.

In the centuries of territorial sovereignty and independence that followed the Westphalian settlement of 1648, the absence of alternatives (in tune with the formula cuius regio eius religio – the religio to be subsequently replaced with natio) was confined within the boundaries of a single state; there were alternatives aplenty on the vast expanses beyond the border, and the primary significance of territorial sovereignty was the prevention of such alternatives from crossing that line by any means.

The breaching and dismantling of the Berlin Wall blended the formerly localised spectres of TINA – “There Is No Alternative” – into a global one.

That process of blending was already fairly advanced well before the fall of the Wall. An earlier blending, undertaken and perpetuated inside the territorially sovereign supra-national camps, was still less than global; it was confined within mutually recognised territorial limits – even if each of the two camps aspired to planetary domination.

By laying wide open the heretofore off-limit sectors of the planet to the neo-liberal member of the spectres family, the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired and fostered a Fukuyama-style sense of the end of history.

The centuries-old sibling rivalry between the spectres, time and again lapsing into fratricidal war, has finally reached its end – or at least it was so implied; and thus the victor, the neo-liberal spectre, found itself alone in the world, no longer challenged and no longer forced to put all its effort into keeping in check, containing or converting rival alternatives; once all too real, alternatives were now conspicuous solely by their conclusive absence.

At least the prophets and apostles of the victorious spectre believed this to be the case. The two Bushes, father and son in quick succession, hand in hand with their respective British amanuenses Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, had to learn the error of their conviction the hard way – the bloody, shameful and humiliating way.

In Europe, however, the brief yet in its time unchallenged rule of the TINA creed left lasting results, whose profundity and durability remain to be fully assessed.

We have seen a steady dismantling of the network of institutions intended to defend the victims of the increasingly deregulated greed-driven economy, and a growing public insensitivity to rampant social inequality, coupled with the incapacity of a rising number of citizens, now abandoned (since no longer viewed as a potential danger to capitalist order or a seedbed of social revolution) to fend for themselves as they might on their own glaringly inadequate resources and capabilities.

This has resulted, among the actual and prospective stake-holders of democracy, in a steady erosion of trust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver on their promises: a stark contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. It has also resulted in an ever-widening gulf and a breakdown of communication between political elites and the man in the street.

The ostensible triumph of the democratic mode of human co-existence, in practice brought a steady shrinking and fading of public trust in its potential accomplishments. Such unprepossessing and depressing effects struck, though in unequal measure, all member states of the European Union; they are however, arguably, most poignantly felt in those places where the sight of the Berlin Wall rumbling raised the greatest hopes: in the countries escaping from the steely grips of the communist dictatorships to join the world of freedom and abundance.

On the condition of Lithuania a quarter of a century after the fall of Berlin Wall, the remarkable Lithuanian political philosopher Leonidas Donskis has the following to say:

“The differences between Western and Eastern-Central Europe in terms of economic might, overall potential, purchasing power, quality of life remained high. The sense of superiority over the rest of the former Soviet Union that the Baltic States shared and enjoyed as ‘the West of the USSR’ began disappearing.

“Instead of a sense of pride and high hopes of reenacting history by restoring social solidarity and a belief in a shared project for the future, Lithuania found itself overwhelmed with the sense of bitter disenchantment with its own state, a rigid and senseless bureaucracy, lack of respect for ordinary citizens, profound problems with human rights, and the like.

“This led to a disturbing development: if we are to believe official statistics (which people say is far from the real picture), nearly half a million people have left Lithuania over the past ten years.

“For large nations, such as Ukraine and Poland, similar figures would hardly pose an existential threat. Yet for the tiny Lithuania (with a population of less than three million) it certainly does. No matter how much lip-service we pay to social and academic mobility, praising to the skies the ambition and brilliance of young Lithuanians, the fact remains that we are in a painful process of slowly losing a vital opportunity to reform, renew and refurbish our academia and political life.

“Losing more than half a million people, some of whom are highly educated and creative individuals capable of changing or at least significantly influencing the moral and political climate in the country, is no joke. It’s a trajectory of the future.” (Quoted from the manuscript  of a work-in-progress.)

And one more view – this time from Poland, a considerably larger and resources-richer neighbour of Lithuania. In the 24 October issue of “Gazeta Wyborcza”, a leading opinion-making daily in that country, its cultural editor Roman Pawłowski suggests the co-presence of two generations between which present-day Poles are divided: he dubs them, respectively, “children of the transformation” and “children of the crisis”.

The first of these two generations, now in their 40s and above, “came to believe, on the tide of enthusiasm of the 1990s, that ‘education and hard work will bring a decent life’, [but now] drudge 16 hours a day, allowing the corporations to mistreat and abuse them, for the sake of repaying the credits and sustaining the family.”

Members of the second generation, presently in their 30s, who “have no families, and not being credit-worthy have no credits to repay. [They] toil in rubbish jobs and live in rented rooms or are stuck in the parental home.”

The members of the first generation, as Pawłowski suggests, still believe nevertheless “in the superiority of private over public ownership and of the individual over public interest, are suspicious of public expenditure which they view as ‘throwing money away’, while viewing the beneficiaries of public assistance (…) as spongers,” he writes, “What counts for them is their own comfort and interest; it is they, after all, who pay taxes and contribute to the GDP.” Members of the younger generation “have no illusions as to the [merits] of global markets” – while the things shared and public are to them as important as individual and private matters.

The growth of GDP does not particularly concern them – they are more concerned with social capital. “Though their attitude to the world is also selfish, they see no problem with helping the weak, aware that they themselves may well find themselves in need of similar help.”

Twenty five years ago people stormed a barbed-wired wall that epitomized their un-freedom, hoping that once that wall was down, democracy would guarantee them freedom and that freedom would assure their well-being.

Twenty-five years after democracy is in a state of unprecedented (and all but unimaginable at that time) crisis. As Ivan Krastev, a most insightful observer of the meanders of our shared condition, recently observed (in the “Journal of Democracy“, Volume 25, Number 4 October 2014):

“Some European countries stand today as classic examples of a crisis of democracy brought on by overly low stakes. Why should the Greeks or the Portuguese turn out to vote when they know perfectly well that, in the wake of the troubles associated with the euro, the policies of the next government will be just the same as those of the current one?

“In the days of the Cold War, citizens could resort to the urns with the expectation that their votes would decide their country’s fate – whether it would stay part of the West or join the East, or whether private industry would be nationalized. Large, imposing questions were the order of the day. Today, the differences between left and right have essentially evaporated, and voting has become more about one’s tastes than about anything that deserves the name of ideological conviction.

“Elections are not only losing their capacity to capture the popular imagination, they are failing to effectively overcome crises. People have begun to lose interest in them. There is a widespread suspicion that they have become a fool’s game.”

And, let me add, there is good reason to suspect that it was courtesy of TINA that we have been fooled…

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Zygmunt Bauman, Professor emeritus of Sociology in the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw. Among his many books, mostly published by Polity Press and translated in many languages: Liquid Modernity; Liquid Fear; Wasted Life and Europe. An unfinished adventure.

This article was originally published in Eutopia Magazine

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