Retrotopia, Othering, and Belonging

Zygmunt Bauman finishes his final book, Retrotopia, with a chapter, ‘Looking Forward, For a Change’. He gestures towards a cosmopolitan change, but does not fill in the picture. He leaves us with the question of departure, to where?

In this book, the late professor tells us neoliberal modernity has wrought a sense of all-Retrotopia2against-all individualism and insecurity that has fostered a search for security in nostalgic tribal-nationalism. For me, this book suggests that finding a sense of global belonging that is neither utopian nor meaningless, but authentic, is the proper question of our times.

“U-topia” is not only about a time and place beyond scarcity and strife, but is fundamentally about a world beyond the tension of belonging and othering, an imagined polity where everyone fits in, has their place. All utopian fables, from the walled city of Plato’s Republic, to the island of Moore’s Utopia, and distant planetary civilization of H.G. Well’s A Modern Utopia, all depict remote, sealed, cut-off from the world, inherently xenophobic communities whose sense of belonging is based on eluding and excluding others. Utopian futures, be they communist or neoliberal, sought a sense of global belonging, but in their failures they are all but dead in popular belief. The future is either dystopian or a nervous normality, as John Gray argued in 2007.

This vacuum of the future has given opportunity to ‘retrotopian’ thinking. “Make America Great Again” and its European equivalents indulge in the nostalgia of imagined bygone eras that in reality never were beyond the tensions of belonging and othering. The practice of ostracism is as old as the practice of living in groups. Every era of human history, from lives in bands and tribes to the age of empires, nations, and modernity, has struggled with the question of belonging, of who belongs, how, why, when, where.

Utopias, imagined shared lives beyond this question, by definition, cannot exist under any circumstances. The question today is not whether humankind will come to loggerheads in national, religious, and race wars, or whether humankind can return to a laissez-faire globalism. The question is what it means to belong in the world, as part of the world, not apart from it. Finding answers to this question is the kind of change Bauman might have held out some hope for.


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