Different recipes for a common overheated world: an interview with Prof. Thomas Hylland Eriksen

A world out of control, accelerated and overheated: an analysis of contemporary issues from migration to populism and some possible solutions by the anthropologist, professor at the University of Oslo and president of the EASA Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

1. “We are all in the same boat, divided by a shared destiny.” Is the last sentence of your book, is it still relevant for our current political and cultural situation?
Yes, I certainly think so, because such shared destiny can be described as the future of humanity, in which we should wonder how we can live together on this planet and how we can reduce inequality and war. Furthermore, the expanded version of this question is not only about our human reality, but also about our shared environment, where it becomes clear to us that you can´t do whatever you like in China because it is going to affect people in South America. We are all ecologically interconnected, which creates a real need for a common human identity and makes us all sit in the same boat.
The division originates from opposing interests and competition, from different versions of how the world looks like, from the struggle for knowledge, from the fight against fake news, rumors, misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

2. Mentioning boats, could you say a few words about the situation in the Mediterranean Sea regarding the Migrant Crisis?
Yes, this situation really illustrates the fact that we have a shared destiny but are divided. People in European countries are divided regarding what to do with the refugee crisis and the situation in Syria and elsewhere. The division between “us and them” becomes very visible in terms of opportunities. It is often thought that Globalization creates a smoother mobility, as traveling, for example, has become much easier and much cheaper. However, such privilege concerns only us, wealthy middle-class Europeans and it is not the case for refugees from the Middle-East.
This aspect very much illustrates the point and the fact that Human Rights are not equally distributed. In fact, the idea that you may have learned in school – that all human beings have the same value – in practice is not true: some people are clearly much more valuable than others.
In this perspective, the migrant crisis is a big challenge for our humanity. I am not saying that I have the solution to it, only that it has been handled with fear and with withdrawal in most European crisis. We have seen many country’s closing their borders or even building a wall. This is something new: it will not help in the long-term and it shows fear and paranoia.

3. In the double bind of Human Rights and neoliberalism that produces human wastes like migrants and indigenous in the landfills, how is it possible to include them in the creolization of cultures?
These are big questions and many books have been written about them, so it is hard to see if I have the final word. Let me chip in a little bit, maybe we should think a bit more like Hindus in this precept. In Hinduism, for all its flaws and difficulties difference is not considered as a problem. The fact that we are different, that we are complementary, that we do different things, that we have different skills, different knowledge and so on, is considered a good thing. Because that is how it was meant to be: we were not meant to be the same.
One way of trying to include people who are now considered outcast is by looking at what they want to do, what they can do. The myth that people, especially immigrants, just want to be a parasite and receive welfare is not true, because we all want to be useful, we want to make ourselves indispensable and to show that we have something to contribute. We must think more in terms of social cohesion: not in the sense that we should all be the same, but in the sense that we can be complementary.

4. Do you think politics has been influenced by the general overheating process? Especially regarding the current rise of populism and the decline in ideologies?
Yes, very much so and I think it is worrying, because it is perfectly understandable that people react to the feeling of being overrun by large scale processes. It is understandable and acceptable if in politics or in the economic field, people react by asking some power back. What is worrying is that these very legitimate sentiments are now being fed into political movements based on an “us and them” and anti-intellectual ideology. This happens because people are just fed up with those insisting that they know how to solve their local problems, without actually changing the situation. There is a big challenge there, meeting those objections without withdrawing into anti-intellectualism, populism and nationalism.

5. Being here in Italy, is there a clash of scales you could compare to the one you mentioned in the book or to a growing gap, as you defined it in your talk today?
Every country is unique, every country is interesting. We all have something unique and we all have something in common. There is a number of things unique about Italy.
One of them is the strong regional identity and pride of the region, which is not something common. In many countries, you have this sort of umbilical cord between the people and the state, whereas here the region can be much more important.
Another interesting aspect is the balance in the relationship between the formal and the informal. A large proportion of the Italian Economy is informal, which means that the state loses quite a lot in taxes and control, but people may feel that they are in command of their own lives and that they can rely on a person-to- person relationship more trustable than an institutional one. Like everyone else, people are complaining about Brussels because you have to put the blame somewhere, although Brussels could be innocence. If I can say something about Europe, the European project ought to have been a project about politics and identity, but, instead, it has become a project about economics. This means that you have winners and you have looser and, as we have seen, in southern Europe we have more losers than in northern Europe. It was a big mistake to introduce the Euro and standardize the currency, because it created the false impression that the Greeks would become like the Germans. But they cannot, as they have different ways of doing things and they should be allowed to continue doing so, following the principle of diversity.

6. What would you say then about having a European Identity and a Federal European State?
I think it’s a great idea. It would have been a greater idea to have this common identity in addition to the members’ peculiar ones. We can be Europeans and have a European identity, decentralizing the power at the same time: this was a hope people had in the early 90´s, before the realization of the project turned it into a market place.

7. Talking about Europe, do you think the rising of the rightwing parties particularly in Eastern Europe can be understood as an overheating process, in term of anger and fear?
Yes, definitely. The right perspective is one of the subtopics of overheating.
For example, in England in the old mining communities, people were unemployed all their life, although the UK is doing rather well, and the cooling of the economy here led to heating up of the identities.
It is possible to see that this happened in countries like Hungary and Poland as well: people there had expectations over fast economic growth, but they feel treated as second class citizens of Brussels. This leads to the need of showing themselves in a different way, thinking that if they can´t have the same kind of wealth, they can have a strong identity.

8. Can we relate the growing gap to the concept of “grobalization” (growth +
globalization) of nothing and “glocalization” (local + globalization) of something? And how can we cool down growth in a sustainable and fair way?
Those concepts are taken from the sociologist George Rickson, who has written a couple of very enlightening books about globalization. However, the missing bit is how do people actually feel about it locally. These two terms are great and there is a relationship here with what we were talking about (Europe, identity, nationalisms, standardization and uniqueness). My only regret is that many of the people who reject standardization, target the wrong scapegoat: they target the political an intellectual élites and not the economic élites actually running the world.
Nevertheless, I think there is a real chance for various kinds of local counter-movements which do not degenerate into nationalism or populism. If you try to decentralize your economic actions – and in Italy you are pretty good at this, in terms of local wines, sausages and so on – they can´t be recuperated and they are unique. There is a book, turned into a movie, called “The circle”, that is very much about the tension between standardization and what is only “here and now” and is private.

9. What has developed in the last two years since you wrote the book? And how can we improve in the future, can Anthropology help?
The most striking thing that has developed is politics, in particular in the form of identity politics, from Islamism to rightwing populism. This is a fairly heavy brew in which it is possible to recognize a pattern of the overheating process, which is turning out to be more visible and clear. Such a trend has to be taken seriously or it will become stronger and even more anti-intellectual. Thus, anthropology can contribute as it has always done, playing a role that nowadays is fundamental. First of all, it faces this problematic situation by showing that diversity is good, because each way of life represents a unique and extremely valuable recipe for living.
If we lose one of them, we lose a unique language, some unique ways of seeing the world and some unique solutions to life questions.
Secondly, thanks to the bottom-up approach, for Anthropology every single person and every peculiar life is important. We try to develop our theories by talking to the people and it is a different approach than many intellectuals have: different recipes for living and taking people seriously no matter who they are.

Interview by: Clara Saglietti, Giorgio Severi and Selene Grube

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