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Security State Replaces Social State

"The political realm has largely uncoupled from the everyday life of people.. The wheel of social development was turned back.. The social state is degenerating into a security state.. Governments have abandoned the existential protection of citizens.."


Interview with Zygmunt Baumann

[This interview published in: Freitag 34, 8/26/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.freitag.de/2005/34/05340301.php. This interview was broadcast September 7 on Deutschland radio in the interview series "End of Politics."]

Freitag: When one considers politics and society today, a nearly schizophrenic division is striking. The political realm has largely uncoupled from the everyday life of people. Politics seems sealed against the hopes and fears of people. What caused this deep estrangement?

Zygmunt Baumann: Schizophrenia is the right description. The tear runs through society and through the psyche of most people. At the beginning of the last British election campaign, 77 percent of eligible voters were very interested in politics according to a study of the independent Hansard society. Only 27 percent believed they could change anything through the election. On one hand, there is great interest in what happens in the country and the firm belief that personal fate is immediately affected by national events. On the other hand, there is a feeling of great powerlessness. An insurmountable gulf separates possibilities of individual action from real events on the political plane.

The capability of social communication and control was largely destroyed. Politics and power diverge enormously. Once they formed a life community and dwelt in the same house called a nation state. A mutual adjustment between power and politics occurred as long as politics was a means and controlling social developments was the goal. This is no longer true today. We witness the definitive separation of power and politics.

Q: Are we witnessing something like the end of politics?

Z. Baumann: No because the individual still experiences the things outside in society as very significant. The political will not end as long as people live together in large groups. However there is certainly a deep crisis of politics manifest in this lack of influence on events in the neighborhood, the particular society, the country and above all the planet as a whole.

Q: Dethronement or loss of power of politics and politicians is meant when we speak of the crisis of politics. How did this transfer of power away from politics happen?

Z. Baumann: I believe power moves in three directions. It moves vertically in the globalized area. Transnational corporations have seized power there. They decide over the living conditions in nation states. When governments ignore their rules and demands, capital simply makes a getaway. Thus governments ultimately only have the choice between destruction of the economy and destruction of society.

In another movement, power runs sideways and makes possible deregulation. So-called free trade demands the renunciation of governments on controlling many political fields that formerly were in the authority of nation states. This sideway movement is handed over the power of the markets - the consumer markets above all - and their private businesses. These markets evade democratic control. Many areas of politics lie outside political control. The third movement of power runs downward. Governments urge their citizens to assume responsibility for their own future. Many tasks today have skidded into that sphere for which my colleague Anthony Giddens coined the term "life politics." Through skilful conduct, individuals must try to elude the socially produced abysses and tidal waves threatening their lives again and again.

Q: What are the social consequences?

Z. Baumann: Quite simply, the wheel of social development was turned back. The consensus on the social state was the logical development of the democratic state in the "stable" phase of the modern age. A kind of insurance was based on mutuality against blows of fate that can strike anyone, an insurance policy set up by the government as society's representative. Beside all redistribution of wealth, the social state was an indispensable therapy against existential fears. Only very few dare high-wire acts when no security net exists. That is the reason for this longing for trust in politics. People need trustworthiness. Tony Blair waged his first election campaign entirely without a political program. His only message was: Trust me! That brought great success because have a strong need for someone whom they can trust. After years of political mumbling and disappointed hopes, there was suddenly a sympathetic young politician who radiated confidence. This hope has now burnt out after eight years. There is simply no secure refuge any more for the trust people seek so much.

Q: Does existential fear explain the towering role of the theme security in the political landscape of western democracies?

Z. Baumann: Authorities must be established. Since the times of Bismarck in Germany or Lloyd George and Richard Atlees in England, the promise of security was an increasingly important element for establishing state authority. The German term "Sicherheit" joins together three meanings that diverge in the English. "Certainty" is the assurance that the rules of conduct remain unchanged. "Security" means above all protection from the sudden loss of social position, protection from loss of the job - the aspect of existential security. Lastly, "safety" has a much narrower meaning as bodily intactness, inviolability of personal property and security from criminal incursions.

The modern state rested on the promise of guaranteeing "security" in these three different meanings: reliability based on legal continuity, protection from the existential risk of unemployment - full employment is one of the basic promises of all European states - and assurance through combating criminality. The origin of insecurity was always outside politics. Its causes were the blind forces of the market, cyclically recurring crises that destroy jobs.

Government promised effective protection against this outward insecurity. This is very different today. Governments untiringly urge more flexibility from their citizens. Ultimately this means more insecurity against the hardly bearable uncertainty. This is a very poor medicine that is swallowed when one cannot continue though no one is really healed. The only security that governments can still seriously offer today is security in the most rudimentary sense, protection from criminality.

Q: Is this also an explanation for the security paranoia that dominates our states?

Z. Baumann: The true reason lie in the ostentatious struggle against illegal immigrants who may be criminals and in the struggle against asylum-seekers who may be terrorists or against the lower classes who outrageously lie in social hammocks. Risks are projected where they do not even exist. I recall the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein supposedly wielded that were made out to be a terrifying danger necessitating immediate action.

Risks are not only instrumentalized by politics in this way. Risks are also a tried and tested marketing instrument for the economy. Firstly, fears are fomented. Then a product is offered supposedly excellently suited for averting these imaginary risks. Guard duty, extensive video surveillance, alarm equipment and gated housing behind walls and barbed wire - the whole security industry is one of the fastest growing branches. Great profit can be made with human fears. The social state is degenerating into a security state. Governments have abandoned the existential protection of citizens and instead act as the last protective wall for the individual survival of citizens against ominous dangers lurking in impenetrable darkness.

Q: This suggests that a strategy is behind the constantly growing complexity of post-industrial societies and that the new inscrutability is artificially produced.

Z. Baumann: The ideal of the modern age was clarity. Underlying structures should be transparent so predictions are possible. Clear relations between cause and effect should be presented everywhere with the advance of the sciences and collection of new information. In the meantime we have removed ourselves from relatively transparent political processes. The times when politics still had political programs about which people could discuss and vote are past. The elected no longer control a sovereignty based on the three pillars of military, economic and cultural independence. That epoch is past. Each of these three pillars is very unstable today. There is no longer political sovereignty in this sense. With political sovereignty, transparency has also disappeared. Many naive commentators welcomed the advances of information- and communication technologies as strengthening individual freedom. Everyone should now have access to all information. The actual result was the "information bomb" as Paul Virillo described that is far more dangerous than the atomic bomb because it threatens to extinguish human culture. Knowledge drowns in the spring tide of information.

Q: In other words, the confusion of people increases.

Z. Baumann: I would not say there is an underlying strategy. The loss of orientation is lonely an unforeseen consequence of technological developments. There was certainly no conspiracy intent on plunging the world into chaos. Capitalist production has now left the national plane and assumes planetary dimensions. The new inscrutability is a result of this process. Past rule systems were all designed for the nation state and are not suited for expansion to the planetary plane. It could possibly take 150 years and far greater efforts to invent new institutions of political control on this higher plane over the arising no man's land. The fateful question is: How many errors will we make before it is too late? What resulting damage will arise? How many people will lose their foundation of existence, their social standing and their lives before it succeeds?

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