Get Up, Stand Up: When Reggae and Politics Meet

Veteran Polish sociologist was an unlikely guest at a European reggae festival, but his call to arms still resonated.

"My major feeling at the moment is to apologize for being here," the elderly man with the pipe said, affectionately scanning the hundreds of listeners - most of them young people - who gathered one August evening beneath a giant tent in the Spanish coastal town of Benicassim. The boiling hot and humid air trembled lightly in a reggae beat. From a distance, muted sounds of Jamaican music accompanied the words of Zygmunt Bauman. The renowned sociologist was born in Poland and settled in England after being expelled from his homeland in one of the waves of anti-Semitism under communism, and after giving Israel a try in the euphoric post-1967 years and deciding that it wasn't for him.

What has he got to apologize for? For opening with bad news and possibly spoiling the joy and camaraderie that builds over eight days in a multinational, multi-aged community of some 25,000 people. The event - the Rototom Sunsplash European Reggae Festival - was founded in Italy in 1994 but was forced to relocate to Spain two years ago, its entire Italian crew in tow, because the regime of then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was frightened by its subversiveness.

The event combines discussions and lectures, held in a social forum tent, with a wide variety of musical performances that go on until dawn. A program featuring social and cultural content blended with a music festival is a welcome novelty, and the great interest it generates justifies its existence. Bauman was the centerpiece of this year's social forum. His listeners knew what was in store, and his words confirmed their anxiety about the future that awaits them. They listened to him eagerly - and hoped for a recipe for change.

Yes, he said, answering the first question from the event's host, we are living in a transitional period: "An interregnum means, according to the great Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, when old ways of doing things effectively do not work any longer, but the new ways that would work more effectively to serve the purpose have not yet been invented.

"For the last 40 years, we lived under the impression that we had found solutions to all our social problems, and were going from good to better. The magic means to resolve all these problems were, of course, the market, growth of GNP, increased production. We have been trained to believe in it: that the market will somehow restore the equilibrium after every crisis; that it has an invisible hand that guides it and is guided by reason - therefore, the market is the solution for all social problems. Well, it doesn't work like that.

"The market is plagued by the [curse] to exacerbate what caused its crisis," he told the crowd. "The latest example is Greece: People lost their faith in the currency. They started taking money out of the banks, which ensured that the currency lost its market capacity, market value. Markets cannot solve the issues that they create. They need - in case of necessity, when it comes to disaster - the intervention of political institutions. Political institutions up to now have acted as fire brigades; the markets are arsonists which light up the fire here and there.

"When I was young, my generation lived in the shadow of the arms chase, [between] Soviet Russia and the democratic world. We were all frightened by this unresolved but ongoing chase of armaments," Bauman added. "We have a chase going on now of a different kind. There is a chase between the politicians trying to impose some constraints and restrictions on the dangerous moves adopted by the extraterritorial process of finances, investments, capital and so on. But whenever some way of constraining, of controlling, is designed, immediately on the other side there are ways of ignoring, not abiding.

"But there is another tacit belief that is attached to this trust in the universal capacity of the market - the idea we wish to believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary - that economic growth will go on forever. There are many anniversaries lately, one like [the 50th anniversary of] the independence of Jamaica that is being celebrated by this festival now. Congratulations.

"We also have the 40th anniversary of the Club of Rome [global think tank's] document, published in 1972 under the title 'Limits to Growth.' Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the Club of Rome report, was interviewed by Le Monde two days ago and he said that the title, 'Limits to Growth,' is already out of date. The problem of today is not so much the limits of growth but the dynamics of growth."

Marriage on the rocks

Bauman went on to explain that "dynamics of growth is such that it is to be conducted by two contradictory forces. I keep repeating that all political institutions are in very big trouble ... They are operating in a very narrow space of option, because they are under a double bind. You have elected your government and you expect your government to defend your interests and satisfy your desires. That is the substance of democracy actually - democracy is about implementing the will of the people ... Unless they do it, they will not be reelected. That is one pressure. The other one is the stock exchanges, stockholders, banks, wandering finances, who do not agree with what people would like the governments to do."

The sociologist said that it is impossible to reconcile these two kinds of pressure - of the people on the one hand, and the tycoons on the other. "That is a contradiction, and why dynamics of growth is beyond control. You would think that the growth will resolve all the troubles that we have now," Bauman said. "That reminds me of a Japanese proverb: When you have a hammer as your only tool, everything around looks like a nail. That is the logic of having economic growth as the only solution to all sorts of problems.

"The other discrepancy, lack of coordination, exists between power and politics. When I was young, like you are now, I was convinced - like all of my contemporaries - that power and politics was a marriage made in heaven and no human effort could dissolve this wedding and they would both live at the level of nation-state.

"Power, in a nutshell, is the ability to get things done, and politics is the ability to decide which things need to be done," he said. "The situation today is that this marriage made in heaven is suffering the danger of divorce; they are already separated, but in a danger of final divorce. Power has left the level of nation-states and has gone upstairs, to cyberspace ... while politics remains as before at the level of nation-states. The hands of politicians are too short to reach the real power, which operates somewhere in 'the space of flows.' It is a very serious crisis of the democratic system."

Bauman compared the commodities market to codfish, which have to lay millions of eggs to ensure that one of them makes it to maturity: "They have to throw hundreds and thousands of new products into the market, until one of them will be found attractive enough and make millions. That rule works everywhere and adds also to the same danger of exhausting the available resources of earth.

"We are using, every year, one planet and a half - each year we consume 50 percent more than the biocapacity of the planet earth that we inhabit," the sociologist continued. "If we do nothing about it, by 2030 you'll be consuming two planets; and by 2050, when supposedly the population will be 9 billion, you'll be needing three planets to keep everyone alive.

"We already have - thanks to technology, development, skills, the efficiency of our work - enough resources to satisfy all human needs. But we don't have enough resources, and we are unlikely ever to have, to satisfy human greed. What is required now is not just a reform but an amputation.

"Behind the growing inequality, climate change [endangering earth's sustainability] - they all have a common denominator: that we have grown to believe and practice the belief that increased consumption, and therefore increased production, and therefore also increased use of resources of the planet, is the only way to human happiness ... There are many ways, believe me; shopping is not the only recipe for happiness," Bauman said.

"And this is the good news I promised: We can find our way to prosperity without growth. This is the title of the book published [in 2009] by Tim Jackson, in which he warns that ... our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, destruction of habitat, decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost an inevitable war."

Bauman then recommended another book, "Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed for in the 21st Century," by the German sociologist Harald Welzer: "He tells us that in the time of the 20th century, people were murdered because of ideologically inspired wars; people will be murdered in the 21st, I quote, 'because other people will claim resources that their victims have or would like to have.'

"The good news is that we don't have to continue the way we are behaving now," Bauman said. "There are other ways of finding satisfaction, recipes for human happiness, enjoyment, dignified and meaningful, gratifying life, than increased consumption that increases production."

When a woman in the audience sought his opinion on the protests in Spain and other countries, Bauman replied that what humanity needs is lasting solidarity, whereas "mass manifestations by their very nature are one-time events." He added that people go to mass demonstrations in order to show "that in spite of all the alleged differences and factors that force them to compete with others for jobs - in order not to be the victims of the next cuts - in spite of all that, we are all humans who share the human interest."

But that is misguided, in his view: "To just use this energy of longing for missing solidarity in one event is wasting the resources. Sorry, this is my calculation. It needs to work at the grassroots, making new institutions, making new ways of everyday living, of societies for mutual credit, mutual help, some sorts of cooperatives ... And getting there, unfortunately, my dear friends, will take years, not your Twitter messages to your neighbors: 'Come to the square.' But be very patient, dedicated, full of sense of sacrifice, resistance against all the market pressures, political pressures, even media pressure, in order to achieve that.

"I am not a prophet," Bauman concluded. "I avoid making prophecies. But one of the few certainties which I would take to my grave - I'll soon die - is that the 21st century will be dedicated, whether you like it or not, to the building of new ways of human life."

Zygmunt Bauman speaking at the Rototom Sunsplash European Reggae Festival this summer.
Amira Hass