Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most prominent philosophers of our time, passed away last week. Last year, he gave his last major TV interview to Al Jazeera. It was a conversation that took place while strong winds of change swept across the world. We talked to him shortly after the UK voted for Brexit and while the refugee crisis in Europe and the emergence of Donald Trump was happening. Phenomena that raised many questions perfect at that time for Zygmunt Bauman to talk about.
In Western Europe it has been a summer of great change and discontent.
The European Union is facing major upheaval as the United Kingdom gets ready to withdraw its membership, in the process possibly jeopardising the composition of the country itself.
In fact, under the surface, people across Europe seem to be on edge. As European nations deal with migration and various economic uncertainties, the political landscape is changing, and a feeling that old social structures are being replaced or challenged is widespread.
It’s the same for the United States, where the race for the White House is anything but ordinary. Political rhetoric this year is tougher and there’s a feeling the country is seriously divided on race and economic prosperity.
What has brought us to this situation? And what are the possible scenarios going forward?
We are walking as if on a minefield. We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can't tell where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures around us on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promise. They don't have enough power to do so.
One of the most prominent thinkers of our time is Zygmunt Bauman.
Born in Poland 90 years ago, he has thought and written extensively about the modern era, and what it is doing to us, coining the phrase, “liquid fear” – a tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.
We sit down with Zygmunt Bauman on Talk to Al Jazeera and take a step back to discuss what is happening in the world.
“Liquid fear,” Bauman explains, “means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place but diffuse. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.
“We are walking, that’s my favourite metaphor, as if on a minefield. We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can’t tell where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures around us all on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promise. They don’t have enough power to do so.”
Bauman discusses different relational structures – the personal, the employer-employee dynamic and people and their governments – and the precariousness which defines them today.
“On every level of human life, you have the same situation. Uncertainty,” he says.
Dangers have always existed, Bauman argues, but today things are different. He says we live in a state of “continuous uncertainty, which makes us afraid”.
Bauman also discusses the proliferation of populist politicians. In answering why Donald Trump has amassed such a following, Bauman says it partly boils down to this:
“There are two crucial values without which human life is simple inconceivable. One is security, a measure of security, feeling safe. The other is freedom, ability to self-assert, to do what you really would like to do and so on. They are both necessary. Security without freedom is slavery. Freedom without security is complete chaos where you are lost, abandoned, you don’t know what to do.
Hospitality possibilities are not limitless. And the human ability to endure suffering and rejection is not limitless either. So we have to exercise what is called empathy, but ... unfortunately there is no shortcut solution ... Dialogue is a long, long process. Coming to an understanding takes some time - the whole generation or even more than one generation - so we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult time coming.
“So you need a measure of one and the other. We are incredibly more free than our grandfathers or great grandfathers were. But we paid the price. We had to exchange it for security.”
Now, he says, “People find themselves uneasy, lost, incapable of acting with certainty, with assurance. What’s happening today, I think, is the turning of the pendulum. Among other things, it means Donald Trump. Donald Trump is in the limelight because who knows, perhaps the future president of the great United States. But you see the same trend in virtually every other country.”
Increasingly, Bauman says, people want politicians who assert: “Give me the power and I will take responsibility for your future.”
According to Bauman, such leaders are capitalising on the feeling that “democracy is very strong in its mouth but not in its deeds”.
The memory of totalitarianism and strong leaders has faded among a younger generation, he says, so the current stage we find ourselves in means that many people accept the rhetoric of politicians such as Trump.
People are looking for “magic” in leadership, which he says is a waste of time, but “understandable” in the current climate.
Bauman talks about those facing the largest uncertainty in our time: the refugees fleeing war and seeking new to build new lives in Europe.
He says there is a “psychological explanation” for what he deems a nervous reaction in Europe to refugees coming to the EU.
“These people who are coming now are refugees not from people hungry, without bread and water. [They are] people who yesterday were proud of their homes, were proud of their position in society, were very often very well educated, very well-off and so on. But they are refugees now…
Refugees, he says, “embody all our fears” of losing everything. “Yesterday they were very powerful back in their country, like we are here [in Europe] today.
“I think the shock is only beginning,” Bauman says.
Bauman sees both sides of the story. “Hospitality possibilities are not limitless. And the human ability to endure their suffering and rejection is not limitless either. So we have to exercise what is called empathy, but – and that’s a big but – unfortunately, going through that, there is no shortcut solution … dialogue is a long, long process. Coming to an understanding takes some time, the whole generation, even more than one generation, so we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult time coming.”
He says: “You have to accept this is the situation. Let us come together and find a solution.”
You can talk to Al Jazeera too. Join our Twitter conversation as we talk to world leaders and alternative voices shaping our times. You can also share your views and keep up to date with our latest interviews on Facebook.