Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Obituary: Zygmunt Bauman

I was sorry to hear leading social theorist Zygmunt Bauman passed away on Sunday. For a generation of sociologists who came of age between the late 80s and, well, now, Bauman was a permanent presence in the specialist journals and book catalogues. From around his important Modernity and the Holocaust in 1989, Bauman churned out one or two books a year and came to be regarded as one of Britain's A-list thinkers. As a Polish exile and a Jew, he was eventually reviled among the nationalist right back home - for a reactionary politics premised on nostalgia and essential national characteristics, Bauman's social thought treated nationalism of all stripes as a contingent phenomenon that waxes and wanes with the movement of what he eventually termed 'liquid modernity'. This metaphor denoting the runny, viscous, impermanent state of the modern condition.

I came across Bauman as an undergrad student. In our second year, we were introduced to the debates around modernity and postmodernity, and it was fair to say my mind was well and truly blown. For someone hitherto schooled in A-Level sociology's holy trinity of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim (with a little bit of feminism squeezed in around the sides), the debates around postmodernism and the existence of postmodern social theory came like a revelation. What the hell did it mean? Is it something that exists? Where did it come from? Can we speak about the truth any more? Is class and socialism dead? It captured my imagination and for months my crammed but tiny desk was piled high with texts. Some legible and straightforward, others symptomatic of social theory's tendency to disappear up its backside - especially if it's not grounded in some way. One of the books that did make sense was Bauman's collection of papers on this very topic, Intimations of Postmodernity.

This was interesting because it introduced themes that would preoccupy Bauman for the rest of his life. In one part, he located the favourable reception and the dissemination of postmodernism among sociologists as a result of the changing status of intellectuals in late 20th century capitalism more generally. This shift was a result of the modified functions discharged by professional intellectuals - it had gone from a strata that legislated and become a layer that interpreted. In classical, or what he would later call "solid" modernity, which you might describe the period 1871-1979, states played the leading role in nation building. Huge national bureaucracies were erected to undertake public works, manage populations, perform the general duties of the state and, after the Second World War, assume responsibility for economic performance. This was the golden age of the intellectual. As a strata it oversaw plans and drew up new ones, guided the hand of government by monopolising specialist knowledge, and enjoyed the benefits of professional status. Then, as the post-war social order came unstuck and a sense of crisis set in, so the status of intellectuals were steadily undermined. This accelerated in the 1980s in Britain under a Prime Minister famously distasteful of intellectuals and experts. For Bauman then, postmodernism articulated this professional angst. If, in Lyotard's famous words, postmodernism was an incredulity toward metanarratives (in plainspeak, cynicism toward big ideas), then what role for the custodians of these discourses? This was as yet undetermined - clearly, complex societies require intellectuals to acquit specialist roles, but not with the same privileges and power they enjoyed previously. 20-odd years on from this book, we now have a good idea: professions everywhere subordinated to the anarchy of markets and the tyranny of managers, as well as punchbags for successive governments.

This was just one aspect of the shift from modernity to postmodernity. The cultural and linguistic turn in 1980s and 1990s philosophy and social theory was accompanied by a keen focus on consumption and consumption practices. In his preface to the English translation of Baudrillard's The Consumer Society, George Ritzer argued that postmodern societies were organised around consumption rather than production. And this sentiment is certainly something Bauman largely brought into. It's not the ludicrous idea that production isn't important, but rather the axes of social integration, of meaning generation and subjectivity construction had been displaced for the workplace and was now found in the designs of life we are all pretty much inculcated into. Class identities were comprehensively fractured, and that meant radical politics premised on the industrial worker would have declining purchase and could never again form the locus for a universal project of socialist transformation.

Also, like all good social theorists, Bauman was ambivalent about modernity. Modern civilisation has unlocked the world and provided us with undreamt of abundance and opportunity, but it is not without its dark side. This was the topic of Modernity and the Holocaust. At the time of publication, in many ways the Holocaust was regarded as a unique evil and awful aberration, a black spot in modernity's journey toward the better life. Bauman disagreed. In his book, he made the argument that the Holocaust was made possible because of the means of industry and the organisation of modern bureaucracy. The victims that poured through the gates to Auschwitz were delivered there by the timetables of a modern transportation system. Their belongings systematically sorted, arranged and recorded by modern administrative systems. And their ends met by a method of execution and disposal planned out by architects, delivered by the German chemical industry, and all according to the clock. Just as Max Weber spoke gloomily about the illiberal, freedom-sapping tendencies of instrumental rationality and the bureaucratic imaginary, for Bauman genocide could also be counted among its dreadful potential. He also, controversially, made the point that how the Nazis arrived at the Final Solution was entirely according to bureaucratic logic. The Jews were identified as a problem that must be removed, and gradually the Nazis came to the solution of industrialised mass murder as deportation, resettling, ghettoisation and so on were regarded as cost-prohibitive and impractical. This isn't to take away from their brutality and murderous intent. It rather underlined their complete moral bankruptcy and inhumanity.

From the Millennium onwards, Bauman discarded the postmodern vocabulary and diagnosed ours as liquid times. Liquid modernity still possessed the same features attributed to postmodern society - the centrality of consumption, the indeterminacy of meaning and truth, the cult of the individual - and was interested in tracking how these were affecting and bedding down in social life. Bauman was, for instance, very interested in the transformation of intimacy and relationships, and how this was conditioned by the ceaseless invention and reinvention of identity and personhood as well as the angst of living an uncertain, liquid life. All these undermine capacities for long-term commitments but simultaneously multiply the possible points of connection we can make with others, especially in the age of the internet and social media. And because this risky, uncertain world lends itself to a generalised lack, that missing something, politics drawing from the well of community have a nostalgic appeal. That Polish nationalists, for instance, are crippled with insecurity is probably a diagnosis they'd rather not know.

Bauman's work is incredibly broad, and touches on a much wider range of material than that discussed here. His books and papers are accessible to a lay audience, and you can pick up his general thesis by starting anywhere - particularly among his liquid-themed books, of which there are a fair few. That isn't to say there aren't problems with his work. In a number of ways, Bauman styled himself as a Post-Marxist. In Poland and then in exile in Britain, he turned out a number of books in the Marxist mode looking at class and capitalism, and gradually came to leave Marxism alone (without ever repudiating it). He argued that Marxist categories had come to be empty and reified into models that distorted rather than describe the phenomena they were supposed to make sense of. Needless to say I'm not convinced. For instance, he argued that the passage from solid to liquid modernity requires an approach to social investigation that is sensitive to human experience and teases out the tendencies and trends running through society's currents. Theory has to be as dynamic and fluidic as the stuff it seeks to describe. I would probably accept this argument if he was talking about Weberian sociology and its mania to classify and model things, but we're talking Marx and Marxism here, a body of thought founded on the movement and impermanence of things. Marx's method and Marx's concepts come to life in situations like these, where society is undergoing profound change, where capitalism's contradictions are coming to a head.

By making this criticism, Bauman lapses into idealism. Ideas do not have lives of their own, they're practices and as practices their implementation and use is conditioned everywhere and always by relations of forces and material circumstances. Christianity as a doctrine of universal love and non-violence has never prevented it from being the credo of murderous organisations and regimes. Marxism, as a tool of social investigation and theory of revolution didn't stop it from being the alibi of stupidly brutal bureaucracies and dictatorships. There is nothing essential in Marxism that prevents it from being used to analyse the passage from modernity to postmodernity, or from the solid to the liquid, nor make sense of the eclipsing of class politics by consumption, individuation and risk. What does change, coming back to Bauman's discussion of legislators and interpreters, is what Marxism can command and prescribe. Like it or not, as Marxism ekes out a subterranean existence in Western intellectual life post-1989, its adherents are one trend among many jostling for position. It can issue the kinds of proclamations previous generations of socialist revolutionaries and communist parties did, but the audience is small and without influence. Marxists now have the status of interpreters not dissimilar in manner to this blog vis a vis all the other daily hottakes in internet land.

Bauman will not just be missed because of his influence on British sociology and his ubiquity, but because he focused the sociological gaze on pressing problems and emergent phenomena. To retain its standing and build up new audiences for the sociological enterprise, more of us could do a lot worse than follow his example.


Matt W said...

Ooooooohhhh !


Lidl_Janus said...

Yeah, but Bauman was in a safe Tory seat, so it's not really an opportunity.

Dave said...

He was trained by the NKVD in the Soviet Union 1939-41, saw active service in the military against the Germans. When he was being recommended for promotion to Major in a unit run by the NKVD in Poland post war, explicit mention was made that Bauman run a unit that liquidated many "bandits". Think about that one - the KGB killing bandits in Poland post war. The same recommendation said that he should now pursue a career in university lecturing - which he then did. Continuing the repression. He never felt any remorse for his actions that helped impose misery and slavery on millions for decades.