Does ’Retrotopia’ explain the Rise of the Radical Right?

‘Hobbes Lapdog’ by Tea Jahrehorn.

To paraphrase Freud, ‘Immigration to Europe and its discontents’ would represent a fitting title for a much-needed study in the contemporary political climate, with the potential to outline a political psychology, even what one might call a political pathology, of Europe and the Europeans today. Parochialism, xenophobia and ‘welfare nostalgia’ now prevail, and have led to increasing support for right-wing populist parties across the continent. Part of its recent political pathology is an irrational longing for ‘the past as the future’, or ‘retrotopia’, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017), also the title of his last, posthumously published book.

Propelled by a dismantling of the previously solid and predictable modern welfare state, placed in the maelstrom of liquid modern neo-liberal self-realization in a state of unpredictable risk and the decoupling of power and politics due to globalization, Bauman argues in Retrotopia (2017) that larger and larger segments of Western electorates, or more ambiguously ‘the people’, share a sense of being left behind, abandoned, ignored (not ‘listened to’) and made redundant. This demise is blamed on internal traditional political elites, the ‘mainstream media’ and foreign foes, narratives frequently saturated with elaborate theories of conspiracy and high treason. Furthermore, people flock to tribal mentalities, encapsulating societal discourse within mutually exclusive and mutually hostile filter bubbles and echo chambers. To this toxic mix are added a dramatic privatization of violence, stimulating copycat behavior and an almost insurmountable and increasing cleavage between rich and poor. The only way out is to restore a civilized order of the discourse. Humanity faces an existential situation of choice: either joining hands or common graves.

As with most of Bauman’s scholarship, Retrotopia is eloquent and erudite. The reader is thrown into a line of argument that readily shifts between Greek mythology and op-eds in international newspapers. ‘Retrotopia’, Bauman explains, is the outcome of a dramatic U-turn in the public mindset: “from investing public hopes of improvement in the uncertain and ever-too-obviously un-trustworthy future, to re-investing them in the vaguely remembered past, valued for its assumed stability and so trustworthiness” (6). Whereas the modern age, from the renaissance until very recently, was engaged in dreaming, designing and fulfilling utopias of collective realization (symbolized by Pygmalion, the producer), the first serious negation of classical utopianism arrived with the neo-liberal wet dream of non-committal self-fulfillment (symbolized by Narcissus, the consumer). With no other ethical goal to pursue than accumulation of personal wealth, self-gratification and consumption eo ipso, this negation can best be described as an a-topia and a pan-topia in the sense that it has no certain place and theoretically can take place everywhere and as an ego-topia, since it is the self that represents the sole space of its dimensions. However, the pendulum in the eternal human tradeoff between security and freedom has now swung back in favor of retrotopian longing (possibly symbolized by Orpheus, unsuccessfully searching for what was lost). This tends toward a “rehabilitation of the tribal model of community, [a] return to the concept of a primordial/pristine self predetermined by non-cultural and culture-immune factors, and [an] all in all retreat from the presently held […] view of the essential, presumably non-negotiable and sine qua non features of the ‘civilized order’ “(9).

Nostalgia and melancholia have turned into a part of a cultural politics of emotions. In this state people are drawn back to Hobbes, Bauman argues, since the divorce of power from territory, propelled by globalization, also implies an erosion of the conventional state monopoly of violence as associated with solid modern good governance. He sees the international arms trade spiraling out of control and ‘autotelic violence’ (violence making sense only with reference to itself) enhanced by the dynamics of contemporary media and social-media regimes. Copycat conduct is thus encouraged in an increasing fictionalization of politics, where meaning rather is created by fact-resistant conspiracy theories, fueling the imagination of radicalized extremists of all colors.

Another reaction is a movement back to tribes and clear-cut distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Tribalization is intimately linked to the exclusionary camp fires of cultural memory politics. Since the present is perceived as an alienated foreign country and the future appears as an almost certain apocalypse, the only consolation is offered by heritage and tradition. Politics of historical memory have, however, only one principal aim: “the justification of the entitlement of the group (called ‘nation’) to territorially delineated political sovereignty” (62) leading to neo-nationalist constructions of identity. What contemporary politicians of anger exploit is a crisis of identity and income which has fomented the “anger of the excluded and abandoned”, a recipe for the global success of populism (69), an anger we currently see exploding in the French protest movement of the ‘Yellow Vests’. Social boundary practices charged with cultural connotations are employed in order to create the ideal of ‘security’ for the selected ingroup exposed to permanent imaginaries of existential threat and thus fear.

With the contemporary waves of migration as the intrinsic outcome of modernity itself, it is no wonder that we are experiencing tipping points across the globe, according to Bauman. As if this weren’t enough, humanity is also witnessing an imbalance of income and wealth distribution of enormous proportions. The solid modern compromise between capital and labor, upheld by the state, has been disbanded by economic globalization and neo-liberalism. One by one, the constraints imposed on capitalism have been released and, as in the process, have kindled the “sadness of deprivation” felt by the dispossessed into “red hot anger” (93). But the sense of deprivation is also relative to real and imagined reference groups. So even if there are real and material deprivations, it is the ‘relative deprivation perspective’ that fuels grievances related to the increasing gap between expectations and need satisfaction. These emotions of economic loss develop a powerful psychology of sensed discrimination that is directed towards those held responsible for the decrease of standards of living: political and economic elites and outgroups.

In such a situation, argues Bauman, one way out would be to propose a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which accommodates both an alleviation of inequality and a compensation for the disappearance of work itself (interestingly, the M5S in Italy has pledged the introduction of UBI). In the light of the global outsourcing of labor, the advent of artificial intelligence and the inflation of meaningless ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graeber) it is time to say farewell to the ‘utopia based on work’. Moreover, UBI (however according to Bauman apparently only possible to achieve by a coercive welfare state) promises to de-stigmatize those who have dropped out of the labor force in post-industrial economies and who, in their ‘promethean shame’ of social redundancy, turn to political promises to make them great again.

In his chapter “Back to the Womb”, Bauman settles old scores with the ideological foundations of liquid modernity, the merciless commodification of the “deceptively safe shelter of self-concern and self-reference” (121). The sole purpose of consumerist culture in an eternal carnivalization of the now is satisfaction of needs and “illusory gratification of the phantom ones” (122) such as wellness, self-help literature or mindfulness. Ayn Rand is named by Bauman as a major culprit for this increasing cult of narcissism, re-valuing values and with her ‘objective ethics’ “swapping the places assigned in the human condition and in the fundamental dilemma of human existence to – respectively – good and evil” (132). Liquid modern lives are moreover plagued by loneliness and fear of loneliness, the “transitoriness of interim arrangements” (140). The imagined return to the womb is the “liquid-modern precariat’s dream, offering relief from the mindbending triple quandary” of self-identification, of making more choices to repair harms, and of using them both as building materials of meaning-making (145). The temptation is high to retreat into “enclaves of the like-minded”, echo-chambers, zones promising comfort from a scary future.

We live, as Bauman argues in his final chapter, in “an age of persistent instrumental crises” (153). As the gap between power and politics broadens, we are haunted by yet another mismatch, the ‘cultural lag’ between our cosmopolitan condition (a universal, planet-wide interdependence, interaction and interchange) and our cosmopolitan awareness. So how is it possible that people resort to political solutions not adapted to, and in fact contrary to, the interest of the political conditions of contemporary humanity as a whole? To answer this question, Bauman embarks upon a fast forward movement through human history in order to explain the successive raisings of the level of societal integration. This integration, however, was also preconditioned by a separation into different mutually exclusive territorial entities developing on a timeline from 1555-1921. Yet, the “endemic locality and self-referentiality” of the principle of national self-determination is not fit to be reconciled with our contemporary globalized cosmopolitan condition (159). This reconciliation can only be achieved when the dichotomy of ‘us vs them’ is overcome.

In the light of the retrotopian movements as laid out previously in Bauman’s book, there are few signs that optimism about such a reconciliation is warranted. To the contrary, Bauman quotes a fictional ‘Venetian nationalist demagogue’ of a likewise fictional Italian radical right movement (from a Michael Dibdin novel) who delivers a Schmitt-inspired monologue about the necessity of enemies and hatred of “what we are not”. If we deny these truths, we deny our family, heritage, culture and birthright. In Europe of the future, “the periphery is the centre. It’s time to come home. Time to come back to your roots, back to what is real and meaningful and enduring” (Gibdin as quoted in Bauman, 161-62). This sounds indeed like an ethnopluralist radical right rant so common in our contemporary rhetoric of fear and “approved by the demagogues of countries united by their shared distaste for all things tolerant and democratic” (162). It is up to us to turn from such destructive demagoguery, warns Bauman, to a re-validation of the dialogue as the basic unit of political integration on the level of humankind as a whole.

Bauman’s Retrotopia is a refreshing contribution to a deeper understanding of the rise of the radical right as caused by nostalgic longing to a past of security provided by a strong (welfare) state. As compelling his argument might appear, the retrotopian model remains, however, currently under-theorized and is now badly in need of further theoretical development and empirical studies that confirm its basic hypotheses. For instance, Hynek Pallas’s ground-breaking study Vithet i svensk spelfilm 1989-2010 (2011, “Whiteness in Swedish motion pictures”), investigating the aesthetic representations of ‘welfare nostalgia’ in Sweden, deserves urgently to be translated into English and to be expanded into a comparative project pinpointing presumed ‘golden ages’ (now lost in melancholia but open to future re-discovery and exploitation) in a number of populist politics of emotion across the globe.

Bauman’s selection of sources is unfortunately random, to say the least. To make his case, the author quotes from news articles sourced from the internet, art history, mythology, literature and other research without any apparent distinction or hierarchy. This creates the impression of exactly such a self-referential comfort zone he despises. Moreover, Bauman’s argument is charged with significant ambiguities. Whereas his intention, of course, is not to fan the flames of nativism, neo-authoritarianism, illiberalism and xenophobia, some of the passages in the book can actually be read as supportive of such positions, particularly the (not-so-)subtle assumption that we are in desperate need of more Hobbes (than, say, Locke) in order to stem the tide of radical right mobilization. The reader is at times confused if he is being led to understand or actually to endorse the views of the deprived whose only rescue is retrotopian redemption.

Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the History of Ideas, University of Gothenberg. See his profile here:

© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).