On Languages of Power and Powerlessness

Zygmunt Bauman is arguably the most important living sociologist in the world. And yet his work has not been given the recognition it deserves in North America. Bauman is one of those rare intellectuals who not only addresses many of the major theoretical insights and paradigms of our time, but also uses them as a resource to examine, critically engage and respond to many of the social problems facing the globe today. Unlike so many other academics, he functions as a kind of border crosser, moving beyond disciplinary boundaries, forcing theory to take a detour through everyday life, and crafting his discourse in ways that are accessible, but never at the expense of theoretical rigor. Many of his works on the Holocaust, modernity, postmodernism, liquid modernity and the politics of responsibility have attained the status of classics.

In all of Bauman’s work there is a passion for the promise of democracy, and the willingness to struggle for economic, racial and social justice; there is a complex rendering of the historical narratives of those who are often marginalized and excluded by dominant powers; and there is a deep commitment to connect theory to material relations of power as they inform and structure everyday life. There is also an ongoing attempt to translate and bridge private troubles and public issues through an affirmation of struggles that are historically specific, contextual, collective and fiercely resistant in the face of varied forms of oppression, exclusion and injustice. But even more, there is a poetry, a sense of cautious hope and a deep commitment to the unfolding of individual and collective agency as part of the project of emancipation, unfinished but ongoing. Reading Bauman is to be in the world, a call to understand our presence as part of an ongoing task and challenge that connects us all at the deepest levels of compassion and responsibility.

– Henry A. Giroux

The Disempowering

The disciplining force of society is at its most effective when its human origins are denied or covered up. The admission that society – with all its prescriptions and proscriptions, rewards for obedience and punishments for veering off the line – rests ultimately on man-made choices and decisions invites critical scrutiny, dissent and resistance: What has been done by humans can be undone by humans. No wonder that throughout the modern era, attempts were made and continue to be made to represent the grounds for the demands of power-holders as beyond human capacity.

Charismatic leaders claimed to have received, in recognition of their unique qualities and attainments, the equivalent of the anointment that dynastic monarchs inherited through their pedigree. The public image of Stalin contained a suggestion that he possessed direct access to the sources of wisdom that remain stubbornly off bounds for ordinary mortals – the quality of omniscience earlier presumed to be the privilege of gods, thus rendering decisions valid and legitimate despite ordinary mortals’ incomprehension or resentment.

In Tchiaureli’s film “The Oath,” the central character – Russian Mother, the epitome of the whole gallantly fighting, hard-working and always Stalin-loving and loved-by-Stalin Russian nation, visits Stalin one day and asks him to end the war. The Russian people have suffered so much, she says – they bore such horrible sacrifices, so many wives lost their husbands, so many children lost their fathers – there must be an end to all that pain. Stalin answers, “Yes, Mother, the time has arrived to end the war.” And he ends the war…. After the unexpected success of the re-militarization of the Ruhr Basin, Hitler spoke of himself as a sleepwalker treading the path laid for him by providence….

But, whether they are endowed with charisma or not, democratically elected political rulers tend all too often to surrender to the same temptation and resort to similar stratagems. One of the most popular expedients they use is the TINA (There Is No Alternative) formula, suggesting that in no way have their policies been selected arbitrarily; that they are not in fact a result of choice at all, since no other effective policies existed.

Another more widespread stratagem is disguising political choices as expert solutions. President Obama’s advisers said they had found in the campaign that using experts, even those not widely known, rather than employing familiar political faces, was far more effective in engaging grassroots supporters. The lines of expert reasoning, like those of God, are by definition impenetrable and incomprehensible for ordinary minds (neither divine nor risen by training to divine level) – and so, in practice, immune to lay criticism. The data that the experts invoke in support of their recommendations are unavailable to people with no access to laboratories, observatories and whatever other sites they have been derived from.

A few years ago, the British public was treated to the sight of its then-prime minister, Tony Blair, brandishing a booklet … which, he said, supplied all the expertly gathered and collated proofs that Saddam Hussein was in possession of the weapons of mass destruction which would be launched against Britain unless he was stopped by force.

Paradoxically, though perhaps not as paradoxically as it may seem, even democratically elected politicians have a vested interest in presenting society, and so by proxy their own decision-making procedure, as heteronomous. Rather than precede their announcements, as Athenians did, with “in my view” or “in my opinion,” they prefer to preface them with “it is the fact that” or “it is absolutely necessary and unavoidable to…”

The Agora

The autonomous citizen and the autonomous polity are entangled in a chicken-and-egg relationship. They may only exist and survive together – which makes irresolvable the question of where to start to bring (both!) of them about. The genuine question of practical import is where to find the public site fit for their encounter and likely to become a new (or restored) meeting point.

Here, the problem starts: we are accustomed to the line between “the private” and “the public” being drawn and policed by the nation-state – which also bears responsibility for the design and equipment of the agora, a space neither private nor public, but at the same time private and public. But those tasks call for a volume of power and degree of sovereignty which nation-states might have possessed or claimed to possess before, though apparently not in, the present time….

The capacity of the state for effective political action has been severely limited. As a result, quite a few of the modern-orthodox state functions have escaped or have been shifted sideways to the markets, increasingly emancipated from political supervision (let alone direction), or have fallen or been dropped to the area of individually conducted “life politics” – by definition the sacrosanct realm of privacy. Both sites that have taken over and absorbed those functions address problem-solving men and women as individuals: that is, actors concerned with the gratification of private needs and desires while using privately available and privately deployed resources and skills.

While socially produced problems are expected and hoped to be confronted and resolved individually through markets and life politics, the sole polities presently available, those of nation-states, are neither capable (because of the deficit of power) nor pressed (because of the deficit of citizens’ expectations) to serve as the arena for the formulation of “public issues” – except endorsing the market-oriented privatization and radical individualization of interests. While remaining a marketplace, the contemporary “agora” loses its function as the site where private interests are translated into public issues while public interests are translated back into individual rights and duties.

The current government-initiated and governmentally conducted bustle about the “re-capitalizing” of banks and credit companies, proclaimed by many observers as the sign of the revival of the state’s role in the management of society, is in fact aimed at resuscitating the individualization of society and privatization of socially produced problems – with an explicitly proclaimed or tacit expectation that if the one-off salvaging operation succeeds (itself a moot question), then the two power-assisted tendencies will be once more able to proceed undisturbed without state assistance and interference.

Just as the modern era lifted the agora from its Aristotelian city-state level and reconstituted it at the level of the nation-state, the only prospect of its reconstitution under the increasingly globalized human condition is at the level of humanity – the “cosmopolitan” level, to use the term persuasively argued and promoted with great force by Ulrich Beck. Admittedly, this is a daunting task – though perhaps, in an era equipped with information highways, not much more daunting than was the task of lifting [it] from the local to the nation-state level in the times preceding the installation of telecommunication networks…. Daunting or not, the task has to be sooner or later performed, if the present-day ambient uncertainty and ubiquitous fears, those un-detachable attributes of liquid modernity, are to stand a chance of mitigation, let alone a prospect of cure.

Ulrich Beck suggests that the hope for building an agora re-fashioned to match the demands and the potential of the globalized world could be invested in “sub-politics” – politics “decoupled” from nation-state governments – as well as in the “cosmopolitan doctrine of government,” in which domestic and foreign policy overlap. Beck writes, “With the appearance of ecological discourse, the end of ‘foreign policy,’ the end of ‘domestic affairs of another country,’ the end of a national state is becoming an everyday experience.”

He concludes in words that I would whole-heartedly endorse: sociology, he writes,

would no longer be sociology if it tried to interpret the boundary-transcending anticipations of the world risk society in accordance with the inappropriate maxims of methodological nationalism. This holds even if, in the light of the ever newer, more unfathomable risks that are haunting the global village, ever more people are withdrawing and barricading themselves inside the national fortresses with prophylactic trembling and gnashing the teeth.[1]

The Overpowered

A few months ago, I was asked by the Bavarian State Opera to write an essay for the prospectus of the new Munich production of Alan Berg’s Wozzeck opera.… As the essay has been published only in its German version, I reprint here some fragments of the original (English) version:

“Fate” is the name we give to the kind of happenings that we can neither predict nor prevent: events we neither desired nor caused. To something that “occurred to us,” but not of our intention, let alone our making; to turns of fortune that descend on us like the proverbial bolt from the blue. “Fate” frightens us precisely for being unpredictable and unpreventable. It reminds us that there are limits to what we ourselves can do to shape our lives as we would like them to be shaped; limits which we can’t cross, things which we can’t control – however earnestly we try. “Fate” is the very epitome of the Unknown, of something we can neither explain nor understand – and this is why it is so frightening. To quote Wittgenstein one more time, “to understand” means “to know how to go on”; by the same token, if something happens that we don’t understand, we do not know what to do; we feel then hapless and helpless, impotent. Being hapless is humiliating at all times; but never as much as when the “fate” strikes individually: when it was me who has been hit, while others around me were bypassed by the disaster and went on as if nothing happened. Other people seem to have managed to emerge unharmed and intact – but I’ve failed, abominably…. There must be therefore something wrong with me personally – something that has invited the catastrophe, that has drawn the disaster in my direction while omitting other folks, obviously more clever, insightful, industrious than me….

The feeling of humiliation always erodes the self-esteem and self-confidence of the humiliated, but never more severely than when humiliation is suffered alone. It is in such cases that an insult is added to the injury: an intimate connection between harsh fate and the victim’s own, individual failings is surmised. This is why Wozzeck desperately tries to “de-individualize” both his misery and his ineptitude, and recast them as but one case of suffering common to the multitude of arme Leute. Those who castigate and deride him attempt, on the contrary, to “individualize” his indolence. They would not hear of arme Leute and the fate they share. As desperately as Wozzeck seeks to de-individualize his misfortune, they seek to place responsibility on Wozzeck’s individual shoulders. By doing so, they will perhaps manage to chase away (or at least stifle for a time) that awful premonition that emanates from the sight of Wozzeck’s misfortune (premonition that something like this may happen to them, if they stumble…).

Wozzeck, they loudly insist – hoping to silence their own anxiety – brought his bad luck upon himself. Through his actions or inaction he have chosen his own fate.

We, however, his critics, choose a different kind of life, and so Wozzeck’s misery cannot be visited on us – just as a London millionaire tried recently to convince two inquisitive journalists that the disparity between his wealth and the poverty of others is due entirely to moral causes: “Quite a lot of people have done well who want to achieve, and quite a lot of people haven’t done well because they don’t want to achieve.”[2] Just like that: who wants do well, does – who doesn’t, doesn’t. Doubts, premonitions, pangs of anxiety, all of them, of whatever kind, are placated, at least for a time (they would need to be put to rest again tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow…). Just as the failures of the failed are due entirely to their own volitional shortcomings, my achievements are due entirely to my own will and determination. Just as Wozzeck must hide behind the fate of arme Leute to salvage whatever has remained of his self-esteem, so the Captain and the Doctor must strip Wozzeck’s fate down to the bare bones of individual failings to salvage whatever has remained of their self-confidence….

It strikes individuals, all too often bypassing their next-door neighbours. Its itinerary is no less irregular than ever before, but the frequency of delivered blows look regular (monotonous, even routine) as never before. Just like in “Big Brother,” officially described as, and commonly believed to be, a “reality show,” in which, come what may, one of the protagonists, just one, must, just must, be excluded (voted out) from the team every week – and the only unknown thing is who it will be this week and whose turn comes a week later. Exclusion is in the nature of things, an un-detachable aspect of being-in-the-world, a “law of nature,” so to speak – and so to rebel against it makes no sense. The only issue worth thinking about, and intensely, is staving off the prospect of myself being excluded in next week’s round of exclusions. No one can claim to be immune to the meanderings of Fate. No one can really feel insured against the threat of being excluded. Most of us have either already tasted the bitterness of exclusion, or suspect that they might have to, in some undisclosed future. It seems that but few of us can swear that they are immune to Fate, and we are allowed to suspect that eventually most of those few will be proved wrong. Few only may hope that they’ll never learn how it feels going through Wozzeck’s kind of experience. One aspect of his experience in particular: How does it feel to be snubbed and to suffer humiliation?

Today, the stake of the cutthroat individual competition, including the exclusion lottery, is no longer the physical survival (at least in the affluent part of the planet, and at least currently and “until further notice”) – not the satisfaction of primary biological needs which the survival instinct demands. Neither is it the right to self-assert, to set one’s own objectives and to decide what kind of life one would prefer to live, since to exercise such rights is, on the contrary, assumed to be every individual’s duty. Moreover, it is now an axiom that whatever happens to the individual cannot but be the consequence of exercising such rights or of abominable failure or sinful refusal to exercise them. Whatever happened to the individual would be retrospectively interpreted as another confirmation of the individuals’ sole and inalienable responsibility for their individual plights: adversities as much as successes.

Cast as individuals by decree of history, we are now encouraged to actively seek “social recognition”’ for what have been already pre-interpreted as our individual choices: namely, for the forms of life which we, the individuals, are practicing (whether by deliberate choice or by default). “Social recognition” means acceptance, by “others who matter,” that a form of life practiced by a particular individual is worthy and decent, and that on this ground the individual in question deserves respect owed and normally offered to all deserving, worthy and decent people.

The alternative to social recognition is the denial of dignity: humiliation. In Dennis Smith’s recent definition,[3] “the act is humiliating if it forcefully overrides or contradicts the claim that particular individuals … are making about who they are and where and how they fit in.” In other words – if the individual is, explicitly or implicitly, denied the recognition that s/he expected for the person s/he is and/or the kind of life s/he lives, and if s/he is refused the entitlements that would have been made available or continued to be available following such recognition. People feel humiliated when they are brutally shown, by words, actions or events, that they cannot be what they think they are…. Humiliation is the experience of being unfairly, unreasonably and unwillingly pushed down, held down, held back or pushed out.[4]

That feeling breeds resentment. In the society of individuals like ours, the pain, peeve and rancor of having been humiliated are arguably the most venomous and implacable varieties of resentment that a person may feel, and the most common and prolific causes of conflict, dissent, rebellion and thirst of revenge. Denial of recognition, refusal of respect and the threat of exclusion have replaced exploitation and discrimination as the formulae most commonly used to explain and justify the grudge individuals might bear towards society, or to the sections or aspects of society to which they are directly exposed (personally or through the media) and which they thereby experience (whether firsthand or secondhand).

The shame of humiliation breeds self-contempt and self-hatred, which tend to overwhelm us once we realize how weak, indeed impotent, we are when we attempt to hold fast to the identity of our choice, to our place in the community we respect and cherish, and to the kind of life we would dearly wish to be ours and remain ours for a long time to come; once we find out how frail our identity is, how vulnerable and unsteady are our past achievements, and how uncertain must be our future in view of the magnitude of challenges we face daily. That shame, and so also self-hatred, rise as the proofs of our impotence accumulate – and the sense of humiliation deepens as a result.

Self-hatred is, however, an unbearably harrowing, unendurable state to be and stay in: self-hatred needs, and desperately seeks, an outlet – it must be channeled away from our inner self, which it may otherwise seriously damage or even destroy. The chain leading from uncertainty, through feeling of impotence, of shame and humiliation, to self-disgust, self-loathing and self-hatred, ends up therefore in a search for the culprit “out there, in the world”; of that someone, as yet unknown and unnamed, invisible or disguised, who conspires against my (our) dignity and well-being, and makes me (us) suffer that excruciating pain of humiliation. The discovery and unmasking of that someone is badly needed, as we need a target on which the pent-up anger might be unloaded… Pain must be avenged, though it is far from clear on whom… Exploding, self-hatred hits targets, just as Wozzeck did, at random – mostly those closest to hand, though not necessarily those most responsible for one’s fall, humiliation and misery….

We need someone to hate because we need someone to blame for our abominable and unendurable condition and the defeats we suffer when trying to improve it and make it more secure. We need that someone in order to unload (and so hopefully mitigate) the devastating sense of our own unworthiness. For that unloading to be successful, the whole operation needs however to thoroughly cover up all traces of a personal vendetta. The intimate link between the perception of the loathsomeness and hatefulness of the chosen target, and our frustration seeking an outlet, must be kept secret. In whatever way hatred was conceived, we would rather tend to explain its presence, to the others around and to ourselves, by our will to defend good and noble things which they, those malicious and despicable people, denigrate and conspire against; we would struggle to prove that the reason to hate them, and our determination to get rid of them, have been caused (and justified) by our wish to make sure that an orderly, civilized society survives. We would insist that we hate because we want the world to be free of hatred.

It does not agree perhaps with the logic of things, but it chimes well with the logic of emotions, that the “underclass” and others like them – homeless refugees, the uprooted, the “not belonging,” the asylum-seekers-but-not-finders, the sans papiers – tend to attract our resentment and aversion. Si non è vero è ben trovato….

All those people have been as if made to the measure of our fears. They are walking illustrations to which our nightmares wrote the captions. They are living traces (sediments, signs, embodiments) of all those mysterious forces, commonly called “globalization,” that we hold responsible for the threat of being forcefully torn away from the place we love (in the country or in society) and pushed onto a road with few if any signposts and no known destination. They represent admittedly formidable forces, but are themselves weak, and can be defeated with the weapons we have. Summa summarum, they are ideally suited for the role of an effigy in which those forces, indomitable and beyond our reach, may be burned, even if only by proxy.

The leitmotif, composed by Alan Berg, introduced by Wozzeck to the words “Wir arme Leute,” scripted by Georg Büchner, signals the inability of the opera’s characters to transcend their situation; an inability which the characters on stage share with the audience. Romantic artists wished to see the universe in a grain of sand. Wozzeck’s detractors – as much as Wozzeck himself – might be but grains of sand, but if we try we will see in them, if not the universe, then surely our Lebenswelt…

This piece was compiled from excerpts of an interview by Italian author Giuliano Battiston with Zygmunt Bauman, originally published in Battiston’s book, “Modernita e Globalizzazione.”


[1] Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press 2008, ppp.95, 91, 177.

[2] Polly Toynbee and David Walker, “Meet the Rich”, The Guardian of 4 August 2008.

[3] See Dennis Smith, Globalization: the hidden agenda, Polity 2006, p.38.

[4] Ibid., p.37.