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

In a modern political landscape yearning for analysis, the concept of immigration to Europe, enveloped in discontent, presents itself as a ripe subject for exploration. This would aim to dissect what could be termed the political psychology or even pathology of contemporary Europe and its inhabitants, marked by a resurgence of narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, and nostalgia for a bygone welfare state. These sentiments have increasingly fueled the rise of right-wing populist movements across Europe. This phenomenon can be seen as a collective yearning for a past idealized for its stability, dubbed ‘retrotopia’ by Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017), a term that also titles his final work, published posthumously.

Bauman’s Retrotopia (2017) delves into the growing sentiment among Western populations of feeling forsaken and redundant in a rapidly changing world. This world is characterized by the disintegration of the stable welfare state, the unpredictability of neo-liberal self-realization, and the dilution of power due to globalization. The resultant disillusionment, Bauman suggests, turns to scapegoating traditional political elites, the mainstream media, and perceived foreign adversaries, often through conspiracy theories and claims of betrayal. This era sees a retreat into tribal mentalities, deepening societal divides and exacerbating violence and economic disparity. Bauman advocates for a revival of civilized discourse as a critical choice for humanity: a choice between unity and division.

Retrotopia is presented through a rich tapestry of references, from Greek mythology to contemporary journalism, arguing that public hope has shifted from the uncertain future to a nostalgically remembered past. Bauman critiques the neo-liberal vision of self-centered fulfillment and suggests that the current trend towards nostalgia seeks a return to community, simplicity, and a presumed ‘civilized order’ lost to modern complexities.

Bauman also addresses the cultural politics of emotion, where nostalgia and a sense of melancholic longing dominate. He ties this emotional landscape to the challenges of globalization, which has untethered power from geographic territory and undermined the state’s monopoly on violence. In this context, he observes a resurgence of tribalism and exclusionary identities, fueled by a crisis of both identity and economic security. The resulting populist anger, as seen in movements like France’s ‘Yellow Vests’, is driven by a sense of disenfranchisement and loss.

The book further explores the implications of global migration and the stark inequalities in wealth distribution, exacerbated by economic globalization and neo-liberalism. Bauman proposes a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a solution to mitigate these issues, suggesting it could address both inequality and the diminishing relevance of traditional labor in the face of technological advancements and global labor shifts.

In “Back to the Womb,” Bauman critiques the core tenets of liquid modernity, highlighting the isolation and transience that plague modern life. He warns against the retreat into comforting but ultimately regressive echo chambers, advocating for a more inclusive and engaged approach to societal challenges.

Bauman concludes with a reflection on the persistent crises of our age, emphasizing the disconnect between global interdependence and our collective consciousness. He questions the recourse to outdated political solutions in a world that requires global, cooperative responses to its challenges.

While Bauman’s Retrotopia offers profound insights into the rise of radical right sentiment and the allure of a nostalgically remembered past, the work beckons for further theoretical development and empirical research to solidify its hypotheses. Moreover, Bauman’s eclectic source selection and occasional ambiguities necessitate a careful reading, ensuring his critique of modern discontents does not inadvertently lend support to the very ideologies he aims to dissect.

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