About ten years ago, in 2004, Zygmunt Bauman developed the paradigm of “wasted lives”: seemingly powerless lives, placed as they are on the edge of the economic-social system, but always liable to be a non-insignificant gain for whoever, sufficiently clever and unscrupulous, could grasp their latent exchange value. This is the perspective to keep in mind in order to appreciate the reasoning that Bauman now entrusts to the pages of Strangers at our Door, an essay in which it is not difficult to hear the echo of other previous contributions of the great sociologist of Polish origin along the axis that led him to the reinterpretation and new semantics of words such as “fear”, “barbaric” and “dis-equality.”
Although it was promptly published, Strangers at our door at times evokes the alternatives inherent in a past that, even though very near, now seems unavailable. Bauman writes between the end of 2015 and the first weeks of 2016, when the hypothesis of Brexit seemed far from being ratified by the referendum vote and Bernie Sanders’ race for the Democratic nomination conjured up, on the U.S. presidential election scenario, the uncomfortable ghost of “compassionate anti-capitalism.” As we now know, things did not pan out in either case, but it is precisely the triumph of such protectionist-exclusivist populisms (among the phenomena non-surveyed by Bauman we can include, for example, the Swiss-Ticino rhetoric of “Us First” and the further decline of Hungarian helping measures for asylum seekers) to render the alarm that the book is sounding even more relevant.
Who benefits from the moral panic provoked by the migration flows to Europe? Bauman starts from this simple question, but he is not satisfied by equally simple answers. The system to deconstruct, in fact, is not merely political in nature, even though the expectation of “the strong man” – perhaps even in the gilded version à la Donald Trump – is a recognizable constant in the debate of the past few months. Delegating to the harsh manners of rejection and exclusion would not be possible if such manners were not endorsed by subjects otherwise left in the grip of their solitude as global citizens, individuals who have become unable to work out a common project outside of those relying on petty reasons of resentment and short-term opportunity.
As always, Bauman’s discourse alternates references to the latest cultural developments (such as the homo sacer analysis by Giorgio Agamben or the functioning of the “society of discipline” described by Byung-Chul Han) with allusions to the classics. Of particular importance, in this case, is the resumption of the theses expressed by Immanuel Kant in the philosophical project Perpetual Peace (1795), where hospitality is described not as the result of a philanthropic concession, but as “a right to temporary sojourn”, that it, the inalienable “right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another.” It is a universal principle that, as such, should not be subject to revision. Similarly, the waves of intolerance and hatred that accompany the migrations of the new millennium do not constitute a novelty in and of themselves, but should be included in a broader anthropological context in which the changes brought on by the digital revolution play an important role. The binary logic of “us and them” is likely to become even more relentless if the people who adhere to it are the ones accustomed to the constant online / offline commute. The true remedy, Bauman suggests, is the recovery of complexity as the ability not to take anything for granted, such as the desire to build concrete communal horizons and, more than anything else, as the willingness to place dialogue with the other at the base of any attempt to understand reality.
[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]