Babel - Zygmunt Bauman - E-Book

Babel E-Book

Zygmunt Bauman

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We are living in an open sea, caught up in a continuous wave, with no fixed point and no instrument to measure distance and the direction of travel. Nothing appears to be in its place any more, and a great deal appears to have no place at all. The principles that have given substance to the democratic ethos, the system of rules that has guided the relationships of authority and the ways in which they are legitimized, the shared values and their hierarchy, our behaviour and our life styles, must be radically revised because they no longer seem suited to our experience and understanding of a world in flux, a world that has become both increasingly interconnected and prone to severe and persistent crises. We are living in the interregnum between what is no longer and what is not yet. None of the political movements that helped undermine the old world are ready to inherit it, and there is no new ideology, no consistent vision, promising to give shape to new institutions for the new world. It is like the Babylon referred to by Borges, the country of randomness and uncertainty in which 'no decision is final; all branch into others'. Out of the world that had promised us modernity, what Jean Paul Sartre had summarized with sublime formula 'le choix que je suis' ('the choice that I am'), we inhabit that flattened, mobile and dematerialized space, where as never before the principle of the heterogenesis of purposes is sovereign. This is Babel.

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Title Page




1 Inside a dematerialized space


2 Inside a changing social space


3 Interconnected loners




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Zygmunt BaumanEzio Mauro


First published in Italian as Babel © Gius. Laterza & Figli. All rights reserved. 2015

This English edition © Polity Press, 2016

Passages from the Italian translated by Nicolò Crisafi

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-0763-4

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Bauman, Zygmunt, 1925- author. | Mauro, Ezio, 1948- author.Title: Babel / Zygmunt Bauman, Ezio Mauro.Description: Malden, MA : Polity, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2015031613| ISBN 9781509507597 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509507603 (paperback) | ISBN 9781509507627 (mobi ebook)Subjects: LCSH: Social sciences--Philosophy. | State, The. | BISAC: SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General.Classification: LCC H61.15 .B38 2016 | DDC 300.1--dc23 LC record available at

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‘Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality’: a place where ‘the number of drawings is infinite’, ‘no decision is final’ and ‘all branch into others’.

These are Jorge Luis Borges’ words, taken from his short story The Lottery in Babylon.1

The Lottery is an institution that recycles mortal life in an unending string of new beginnings. Each new beginning portends new risks, but in a package deal with new opportunities. None of the beginnings is ultimate and irrevocable. With the Lottery in Babylon, the Greeks invented a way of squeezing the poison out of the sting of that pest, uncertainty. Let us carry on with our reading:

I have known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty. In a chamber of brass, as I faced the strangler’s silent scarf, hope did not abandon me; in the river of delights, panic has not failed me. Heraclides Ponticus reports, admiringly, that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, and before that, Euphorbus, and before that, some other mortal; in order to recall similar vicissitudes, I have no need of death, nor even of imposture. I owe that almost monstrous variety to an institution – the Lottery – which is unknown in other nations, or at work in them imperfectly or secretly.

Thanks to the Lottery, many lives can be accommodated in the life of a single mortal. The awesome, harrowing spectre of uncertainty is thereby chased away – or rather re-moulded from a most horrifying liability into a rapturous, elating asset. Instead of more of the same, you opt, by buying a ticket, for the new; and you sign a blank cheque, which is not for you to fill.

It has, as the narrator admits, ‘no moral force whatsoever’. It ‘appealed not to all a man’s faculties, but only to his hopefulness’. The owners of lottery tickets face a two-edged hazard: ‘they might win a sum of money or they might be required to pay a fine’. No wonder there were quite a few gutless, mean-spirited Babylonians who preferred to settle for what they already had and to resist the temptation of more wealth – and so steered clear of Lottery offices.

Men who ran the Lottery resorted, however, to a blackmail of sorts: they managed to cause a man who bought none of the Lottery tickets to be widely censured as ‘a pusillanimous wretch, a man with no spirit of adventure’. Though they didn’t stop at such a halfmeasure. ‘The lottery was made secret, free of charge, and open to all’; most importantly, ‘every free man automatically took part in the sacred drawings’. From then on, The Company (running the Lottery) ‘with godlike modesty shuns all publicity. Its agents, of course, are secret; the orders it constantly (perhaps continually) imparts are no different from those spread wholesale by impostors.’ For all the Babylonians know, or imagine, or surmise, or suspect – ‘the Lottery is an interpolation of chance into the order of the universe’. And so, for them it goes without saying that ‘to accept errors is to strengthen chance, not contravene it’. True, some ‘masked heresiarch’ heretics go on whispering that ‘the Company has never existed, and never will’; other heretics, though – ‘no less despicable’ – argue that ‘it makes no difference whether one admits or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance’.

Are we all Babylonians now, whether by design or by default? Gamblers by decree of fate or by our – and our modern ancestors’ – past choices ossified into the human condition?

Not exactly. Not only. Let us try to integrate this powerful representation by Borges with a short tale that Aristotle relates in his Metaphysics. A man, out of fear of being robbed, hides his treasure in a field. Another one ‘digs a hole to plant a tree but instead finds a treasure’. Each man deliberately performs an action aiming for an end that he intends to reach, and yet chance intervenes, which, mashing the two actions together, has an outcome that is unexpected, unintended, certainly not looked for.

We may thus complicate Borges’ metaphor: even when we do not sign a blank cheque and we do not entrust ourselves to hope, to our decisions, to our actions alone – small or great, private or collective – chance invariably attaches itself to them, with its unforeseen, unexpected, unsought consequences. As Alan Turing pointed out: ‘The displacement of a single electron by a billionth of a centimetre at one moment might make the difference between a man being killed by an avalanche a year later, or escaping.’2

In the end, between the Babylon imagined by Borges and the world that modernity once promised us – which Jean-Paul Sartre captured in the sublime sentence ‘le choix que je suis’ (‘the choice that I am’) – lies the interregnum in which we are living now: a space and a time that are stretched, mobile, immaterial, over which the principle of the heterogeny of ends rules, perhaps, as never before. A disorder which is new, yet still babelic.

Zygmunt Bauman



. Quoted in Andrew Hurley’s translation – see Borges,

Collected Fictions

(London, 1999), pp. 101–6.


. Alan Turing, ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’,


, 69 (1950).

1Inside a dematerialized space

Ezio Mauro Like an invading army in a sleeping kingdom, the crisis, with astonishing ease, marches over the entire material, institutional and intellectual system of democratic structures that the West has raised in the wake of the war: governments, parliaments, intermediary bodies, social subjects, antagonisms, the welfare state, parties, and national, international and continental movements – that is to say, everything that we set up to develop and perfect the machinery of democracy in order to protect ourselves in our life together.

We now know that such machinery cannot protect us on its own, that the crisis penetrates and deforms it as it marches on, emptying it out. In fact, we are discovering that swearing by the forms and institutions of democracy does not protect us: it is not enough. Democracy is not self-sufficient.

We cannot help but wonder, then, to what point the current crisis will take the changes that it has brought about. This crisis is economic and financial, if we look at what triggered it. But it is also political, institutional and, therefore, cultural, if we assess its everyday impact, which can be summed up as follows: democratic government is unstable because everything is out of control.

We all knew right from the start that this would not be a mere blip but a deep transformation, and that the changes that originated in the sphere of financial economy first, then of industry and employment, would soon turn into social and political dynamics whose consequences would affect capitalism and systemic governance as we know them, society’s forms of spontaneous organization – in other words, democracy itself.

But what strikes me today is something else, something to which I would like to draw your attention. I shall call it the autonomy of the crisis. Let us take a look at it. The crisis is indifferent to the democratic process, it moves under its shadow-line, so to speak, taking advantage of its weaknesses and exaggerating them.

We must therefore acknowledge the fact that the crisis is a force, but one lacking any thinking. This does not mean, of course, that there are no causes, interests, blames and responsibilities in its origin and development, and that there are not those who still reap its benefits to this day. But, as with the wrecking ball that destroys everything at the end of Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, so it is with the crisis: it is a force that asserts its autonomy without any perceivable theory of itself and its action, without a project, but with a force of action whose consequences are painfully visible.

For this reason, I keep wondering whether my country – and in all likelihood yours too – whether this great Country that is Europe, is able, today, to think itself (if, by ‘thinking itself’, we mean here reflecting together upon its future, mindful of the past and scanning the horizons in search of some prospect, now that every great Hope has set). As if now, without the ideologies that we have luckily buried behind us, we were no longer able to look together into our hearts and out to what lies ahead. As soon as everything that helped us create this ‘together’ collapsed – the parties, the great political culture, the modes of expression – the room for thought and discussion suddenly shrank and the current public discourse atrophied. Perhaps we are no longer capable of forming a public opinion, even though we peddle freely in private opinions reduced to pills and pelted around the globe with thousands of daily tweets, and even though we are deep in a sea of comments and shards of judgement spun into jokes, puns, invectives, aphorisms.

You have witnessed the meltdown of everything that was meant to give shape and substance to a solid, wellorganized thought that builds up and develops through debate. You gave a name to this phenomenon. Now we have to ask the ultimate, radical question: we must ask whether even the very thought that thinks the liquid world will end up melting. And then we will have to wonder how we will be able to live under the threat of unremitting waves, with no fixed points or instruments to gauge the weight and distance of things, completely alone on the open sea. Because if democracy is under attack – since this is the issue at stake today – we must wonder whether it is still capable of thinking itself, whether it is still capable of re-thinking itself, so as to re-imagine and recover the power to actually govern.

Zygmunt Bauman You hit the bull’s-eye when pointing out that the present crisis, affecting all aspects of our condition, cuts deep into ‘everything that we set up to develop and perfect the machinery of democracy in order to protect ourselves in our life together’. Indeed, it does. Suddenly, we all feel vulnerable – singly, severally and all together: as a nation, or indeed as the human species. But, as Thomas Paine warned our ancestors in Common Sense (1776), one of the most seminal documents of the modern era:

when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least experience and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.1

The words above were scribbled down by Paine more than a century after Thomas Hobbes – in his Leviathan, another founding document of modernity – proclaimed the assurance and provision of security to be the prime reason, paramount task and inalienable obligation of the state – and hence its raison d’être. We can’t live without governments properly armed with the means of coercion, Hobbes suggested, because in the absence of such governments people would be afflicted with ‘continual fear’; the life of man would then be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.2 The purpose of having a government is to be safe. As Sigmund Freud observed, for the sake of greater security we tend to be willing to sacrifice and forfeit a good deal of another value we cherish – that of freedom. Though, as these two values are in practice not fully reconcilable (for every addition to security one must pay with a part of freedom – and vice versa!), human life is doomed to remain a resented but unavoidable compromise between forever incomplete security and forever incomplete freedom. It lies therefore in the nature of that compromise that it can’t be fully satisfactory; any specific settlement tempts both sides to try to negotiate or impose a different balance of gains and losses. We move, pendulum-style, from yearning for more freedom to yearning for more security. But we cannot get both of them in sufficient quantity. As English folk wisdom sadly concludes, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’. As Paine warned us, we are now ‘exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government’. That harrowing misery from which we trusted governments to relieve us but that haunts us nowadays on governments’ initiative, with governments’ active assistance or resigned indifference, is in the nutshell the sense of existential insecurity. As you rightly emphasize, it is by the democratic system as such, that dense network of institutions which our fathers ingeniously designed and laboriously had woven, that a growing number of their successors and our contemporaries feel betrayed and disappointed.

The most gruesome manifestation of that frustration is the distance growing between those who vote and those who are put in power through their vote. Less and less do voters trust the promises made by the people whom they are electing to govern; bitterly disavowed by the broken promises of old, voters hardly expect that this time the promises are likely to be fulfilled. More and more often, voters just go through the motions – guided more by their learned habits than by hopes of a change for the better that their voting will bring. At best, they go to the ballot boxes to choose the lesser between evils. For a large majority of citizens, a prospect of turning the course of events in the right direction – a possibility that used, in the past, to make democracy so attractive and active participation in democratic procedures so desirable – is now seldom, if ever, believed to be on the cards and within reach. As J. M. Coetzee noted in his Diary of a Bad Year:

Faced with a choice between A and B, given the kind of A and the kind of B who usually make it onto the ballot paper, most people, ordinary people, are in their hearts inclined to choose neither. But that is only an inclination, and the state does not deal in inclinations. [. . .] The state shakes its head. You have to choose, says the state: A or B.3

We witness these days that traditional choice between ‘placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other’ falling into disuse, and failing to grasp the present-day attitude taken by most of the electorate towards those whom they elect to govern: a third attitude is fast growing in popularity and is by now ‘chosen by thousands of millions of people every day’ – a stance described by Coetzee as marked by ‘quietism, willed obscurity, or inner emigration’. A breakdown of communication between the political elite and the rest?

Let us bear in mind José Saramago’s Seeing,4 that brilliantly insightful 2004 allegory, or rather premonitory intimation – written ten years ago – of where the present gradual though persistent falling of democracy’s integrative powers may eventually lead us.

EM You use a word that may well define the whole phase we are living in currently, which will last who knows how long. ‘Vulnerable’: we the lost individuals are indeed vulnerable, and so is the weakened social structure, and ultimately democracy itself, which is exhausted. This is not merely a political concept but one that is material, physical and psychological at the same time. It shows us how deeply the crisis delves, touching us in the flesh and in the spirit, which our societies have rendered so fragile. And you are right to extend the notion of the crisis, because the economic–financial disorder has been able to spread out of all proportion only insofar as it has found the gates of our democracy already flung wide open and off their hinges, and it was thus able to infiltrate easily the weak spots in the democratic machinery, like rust. The short circuit is clear: perceiving one’s vulnerability triggers fear, but if the duty of governments is first and foremost to guarantee security, then the governments become the main suspects in the face of this new, spreading insecurity. In fact, politics ends up being the champion of a world that does not work – its overturned totem.

There is even method in it. The exchange you refer to, which has characterized modernity (I, the citizen, sacrifice quotas of my freedom; you, the state, give me increasing quotas of security, which to me are more valuable) – well, that exchange has stopped. The state has no interest in my quotas because the Stock Market of power does its fixing elsewhere, in the impersonal spaces of financial flows. Most importantly, public power has no certainties and safeguards to offer or trade in, and at any rate it can hardly guarantee what it sells, because government is deteriorating and everything is now out of control.

Originally, however, we had handed over the monopoly of force to the state precisely so that it might defend us as individuals and as a group; we had built, through the free play of politics, a common way to legitimize the political–juridical power and the roles that derive from it. But if that mechanism stops, then the state gives in to the crisis, finance turns out to be an independent variable, labour becomes unstable goods and not a means of setting oneself in relation to others, globalization blows the arena of the crisis out of all proportion, and eventually the role of the citizen and the bonds of mutual dependence that link individuals to public power end up collapsing too.

You identify the breaking point with the widening gap between electors and elected – that is to say, with the evident crisis of representation. People do not vote any more, or they do it with indifference, without passion or at least without much conviction; they do not believe in the right to vote as the most effective way to reward and punish, and to choose. It is true that the problems of representation are ancient and cyclical. Walter Lippmann wrote as early as 1925 that ‘the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake’.5 But it is all the more true that this weary, drowsy and puzzled deafness has now paradoxically become a form of reversed politics, as if the disillusion came full circle and the rejection of politics gave shape to ‘real anti-politics’, just as there once was ‘real socialism’. Jacques Julliard phrases it thus: when the system of representation becomes a ‘bad conductor of the general will’, at a deeper level the ‘rejection of politics reveals the individual’s blind aspiration to autonomy, a sort of allergy to the notion of government itself’.6

But now, right now, we are one step beyond: the disappointed citizen’s allergy to government confuses and defies the fundamental concepts of modern political philosophy; it spreads from governments and parties to the state and its institutions – until it reaches the final stage, which we have already reached: allergy to democracy itself. We see its signs, from the consensus for Putin’s neo-imperialism to the success of Orban or Erdogan. After all, what does that disappointed fundamental need of security amount to, nowadays? Essentially, the fear that democratic governance may not have any form of control, because it cannot manage the crisis and its collateral phenomena. We are facing therefore a political instability that is first and foremost a political solitude, a political incommunicability.

I am talking about a new solitude, a new incommunicability. In the eyes of power, the traces of information that I leave behind as I live are more important than my actual life and problems (except if I am in the red) which instead interrupt the virtual traces and raise an alarm. Here is the new couple of post-democracy – the state and the citizen – forced to live together without having any reason to, all passion for each other ultimately extinguished. The citizen who, as you say, feels betrayed and frustrated by the democratic promises that the institutional and cultural nets set up by our fathers are not fulfilling (thick nets at that: James Fishkin reckoned that he has elected as many as 101 representatives, from the governor to the sheriff, the senators, the president of the United States, the school scouncil) has no interest in the state, not even in the traditional race for power, because he believes he cannot take part in it, since it feels so distant from him.

He does not feel disappointed, but rather rebellious, the protagonist of a sort of republican secession, almost a new political subject in the counter-politics of rejection. But he does not realize that he too is of no interest to the state, as we were saying, except as a number to account for in the polls, with no face and no history. He does not realize, in other words, that the moment his freedom becomes a private matter and he starts exercising his rights only as an individual, the moment freedom and rights are both unable to coalesce in any sort of project with others, then they become irrelevant and sterile in the eyes of power, since they have lost the ability to set anything in motion. The state knows that I am there statistically, but it also knows that I only count as one and that I have lost the ability to add up with others.

The concept of a public collapses, and it is an unprecedented democratic void, the extent of which we are not yet able to assess. We are missing the element in which an opinion may originate and grow. Perhaps sentiment resists: but more importantly, on closer inspection, what resists is resentment, which truly is the white noise of a defenceless epoch.

ZB The incipient modern state’s plea for the legitimacy of its claim to authority was the promise of security (as you rightly observe, in all its political, corporeal and psychological meanings); there are reasons to believe that – as Alexis de Tocqueville suggested – the whole ‘modern project’ was launched in response to the bankruptcy of the ancien régime: its ever more glowing and blatant incapability of effective governance and so also the growing sentiment of chaos and uncertainty. One is tempted to characterize that sentiment as an early case of an interregnum – the feeling that the extant modes of acting were no longer working properly while better modes, fit to replace them, were conspicuous by their absence. That was – we may say, with the benefit of hindsight – the first era to experience an overwhelming sense of vulnerability; it simultaneously (and, I am tempted to say, for that very reason) turned into a hothouse in which the seeds of modernity sprouted – or a workshop in which fears were to be recycled into hopes, and hopes into adventurous experiments destined to ossify into the institution of the modern state: that is, a state starkly distinct from its pre-modern predecessor which the great anthropologist Ernest Gellner described as a ‘dentistry state’, to wit a power engaged in extracting (of added value) by torture, in the form of taxes, homages, spoils of war or downright robbery, but otherwise indifferent to the modes of life the value-producers had practised, or indeed to the ways in which value was produced. The modern state was far more ambitious: it aimed to interfere in every aspect of human life in order to control it – to monitor, to record, to regulate, to administer and to manage aspects of life previously left to life’s practitioners to worry about. Building such a state must have appeared to provide the