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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 24 March 2018

"Liquid Modernity" by Zygmunt Bauman

This book, written in the year 2000, explores our modern ideas from a sociological / philosophical viewpoint. It has some interesting alternative perspectives and it is written with passion, sometimes anger; it is extraordinarily readable.

His thesis is that the advent of 'liquid' modernity (the internet, the flexibility of new capital, the changing relationships within society) have created substantial and important changes in the way we live our lives.

Thus, he discusses freedom. After all, we live in the 'free world'. But this tends to concentrate on political freedom: freedom of speech, of religion, and so forth. Most of us in the western world enjoy this and it is a very precious freedom. But many people are not economically free. Poor people rarely have control of their own destiny. They may not be technically slaves but they often have little opportunity to determine their lives.

Bauman points out, first, that being free doesn't necessarily mean being happy. This works the other way as well. “what feels like freedom is not in fact freedom at all; that people may be satisfied with their lot even though that lot were far from being ‘objectively’ satisfactory; that, living in slavery, they feel free and so experience no urge to liberate themselves" (p 17) But this is not allowed by the libertarians who suppose "that people may be incompetent judges of their own plight and must be forced or cajoled, but in any case guided” to seek freedom (p 17).

In fact most so called libertarians are very distrustful of the mob. In the past, political freedom and human rights were balanced by the suffocating moral code of society. Even today, one's freedom to speak one's mind may be severely curtailed by the social opprobrium one suffers should one's opinions be deemed politically incorrect. So freedom is a balancing act. Hobbesian libertarians “draw their credibility from the assumption that a human being released from coercive social constraints ... is a beast rather than a free individual ... social coercion is in this philosophy the emancipatory force and the sole hope of freedom that a human may reasonably entertain. ... There is no other way to pursue the liberation but to ‘submit to society’ and to follow its norms.” (p 20)

Identity and Individualism

In the old days, people were born into their identities but now you have to become your identity. (p 32) In early modernity the challenge facing people was to conform to “the emerging class-bound social types and models of conduct.” (p 28) “class and gender were ‘facts of nature’ and the task left to the self-assertion of most individuals was to ‘fit in’ in the allocated niche through behaving as the other occupants did.” (p 33)

Nowadays “we are presently moving away from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ ... the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably undetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before ... the end of the individual’s life.” (p 7) This means that “the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders.” (p 8)

Nowadays Big Brother, the punisher of individuality, no longer exists. Nor does Elder Brother, who guides the individual into their proper channel. (p 61) “Everything ... is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best.” (p 62)

And we need guidance. Bauman points out that TV chat shows are “daily compulsive viewing for millions of guidance-hungry men and women.” (p 68) However the only support offered is the self-help support group. “One may perhaps also learn from other people's experience how to survive the next round of ‘downsizing’, how to handle children who think they are adolescents and adolescents who refuse to become adults, how to get the fat and other unwelcome ‘foreign bodies’ ‘out of one’s system’, how to get rid of addiction that is no longer pleasurable or partners who are no longer satisfying. But what one learns in the first place from the company of others is ... advice about how to survive in one's own irredeemable loneliness” (p 35)

Shifting the blame
At the threshold of the modern era we have been emancipated from belief in the act of creation, revelation and eternal condemnation. With such beliefs out of the way, we humans found ourselves ‘on our own’ - which means that from then on we knew of no limits to improvement and self-improvement other than the shortcomings of our own inherited or acquired gifts, resourcefulness, nerve, will and determination.” (p 28)

That men and women have no one to blame for their frustrations and troubles does not need now to mean ... that they can protect themselves ... if they fall ill, it is assumed that this is happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, because they did not try hard enough to find a job what because they are, purely and simply, work-shy.” (p 34)

The relationship between the governed and the governors:
Modern life is like a caravan site: “Drivers bring to the site their own homes ... each driver has his or her own itinerary and time schedule. What the drivers wants from the site managers is not much more (but no less either) then to be left alone and not interfered with. In exchange, they promise not to challenge the managers’ authority and to pay the rent when due. Since they pay, they also demand. They tend to be quite adamant when arguing for their rights to the promised services but otherwise want to go their own ways and would be angry if not allowed to do so. On occasion, they may clamour for better service ... but it won't occur to them to ... take over the responsibility for running the place.” (p 24)

Certainly the bosses no longer want to look after people. “The contemporary global elite can run without burdening itself with the chores of administration, management, welfare concerns, or, for that matter, with the mission of ‘bringing light’, ‘reforming the ways’, morally uplifting, ‘civilizing’ and cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of subordinate populations is no longer needed (on the contrary, it avoided as unnecessarily costly and ineffective)” (p 13)

Instead the prime technique is to relocate the blame for misery. “Being an individual de jure means having no one to blame for one's own misery, seeking the causes of one's own defeats nowhere except in one's own indolence and sloth, and looking for no remedies other than try harder and harder still.” (p 38) As in the Bible, the Israelites are being ordered to make bricks without straw “and the producers of bricks are told that solely their own laziness prevents them from doing the job properly.” (p 49)

But the destruction of collective action and the iconisation of individualism has left the poor, those "limited to their own, individually owned, blatantly inadequate resources.” (p 33)  without a weapon:

Too many opportunities

Bauman suggests that modern capitalism has, in order to keep selling, moved beyond need. In the olden days goods were produced to satisfy need. But "there is a bottom line to what one needs in order to stay alive and be capable of doing whatever the producer’s role may require, but also an upper limit to what one may dream of, desire and pursue while counting on the social approval for one’s ambitions ... whatever rises above that limit is a luxury, and desiring luxury is a sin. The main concern is therefore that of conformity.” (p 76)

We've gone beyond the 'luxury is a sin' point. And now we are moving beyond desire. This is because “it takes time, effort and considerable financial outlay to arouse desire ... Consumers guided by desire must be ‘produced’, ever anew, and at high cost".

In order to keep selling the capitalists must create a mind-set in which we are desperate for endless self-improvement. “The ‘my body a besieged fortress’ attitude does not lead to asceticism, abstinence or renunciation; if anything, it means consuming more - but consuming special ‘healthy’ foods, commercially supplied.” (p 80)

But this pursuit of wishes brings anxieties: “One thing the fitness-seekers know for sure is that they are not fit enough, yet, and that they must keep trying. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and self-deprecation, and so also of continuous anxiety.” (p 78)

We used to admire those who could wait for things. But now we are too busy running to catch up with eternally receding goals. “No longer is the delay of gratification a sign of moral virtue. It is a hardship pure and simple, a problematic burden signalling imperfections in social arrangements, personal inadequacy, or both. ...In the casino culture the waiting is taken out of wanting, but the satisfaction of the wanting must also be brief, must last only until the next run of the ball, to be as short-lived as the waiting, lest it should smother, rather than replenish and reinvigorate, the desire.” (p 159) “To stay alive and fresh, desire must be time and again, and quite often, gratified - yet gratification spells the end of the desire.” (p 160) “One can think of no reason to stick to an inferior or aged product rather than look for a ‘new and improved’ one in the shops.” (p 164)

But there is too much to want.
"The world full of possibilities is like a buffet table set with mouth-watering dishes, too numerous for the keenest of eaters to hope to taste them all.” (p 62)
I just need to look at my bookshelves, stuffed with books I have bought but not yet got around to reading, and the Amazon 'later' list which has over one hundred titles on it, and the poster of a hundred books I 'must' read on which I have nearly half still to be read, to know that there is too much wanting in my world.

Of course this endless choice is only available to the monied. “The more choices the rich seem to have, the less bearable to all is a life without choosing.” (p 88)

Cities and strangers

The modern dream is to live in a community. But other people are dangerous. Defining a city as "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet" (p 94) Bauman suggests that such encounters require us to develop "civility" (p 95) a code of behaviour appropriate for an encounter unlikely to have either a past or a future. He suggests that the spaces we develop where encounters with strangers regularly take place (airport lounges, hotel rooms, motorway service stations etc) "do not require a mastery of the sophisticated and hard-to-study art of civility, since they reduce behaviour in public to a few simple and easy-to-grasp precepts.” (p 102)

But we are becoming so frightened of strangers that we are redeveloping gated communities (going back, perhaps, to the walled towns of the middle-ages) in which civility and community is ensured by the tight surveillance of security guards and CCTV (p 92)

Then we dump everything that is bad outside the walls. The “communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is ... hostile - a wilderness full of ambushes and conspiracies and bristling with enemies wielding chaos as their main weapons. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle which starts on the other side of the turnpike. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter.” (p 172)


Once upon a time, we worked for our tribe. Work was “the collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake." This meant that work became elevated into a moral imperative. "All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that natural condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity; ranking men and women according to the assumed value of the contribution their work made to the species-wide endeavour; and assigning to work the prime place among human activities, leading to moral self-improvement and to the rise of the overall ethical standards of society.” (p 137)

This was a time when labourers were needed. Bauman suggests that the welfare state owes its origin to the need for the bosses to make sure that there was a supply of (healthy) labour ready to be call upon. “The unemployed were fully and truly the ‘reserve army of labour’, and so had to be kept through thick and thin in a state of readiness, in case they were called back into active service. ... More sceptical observers saw the welfare state as a collectively financed and managed sanitation device - a cleaning-and-healing operation to be run as long as the capitalist enterprise kept generating social waste it had neither intention nor resources to recycle.” (p 145)

But now there isn't enough work to go round. “Work can no longer offer the secure axis around which to wrap and fix self-definitions, identities and life-projects. Neither can it be easily conceived of as the ethical foundation of society, or as the ethical axis of individual life. Instead work has acquired ... a mainly aesthetic significance. It is expected to be gratifying by and in itself, rather than be measured by the genuine or putative effects it brings to one’s brothers and sisters in humanity ... let alone the bliss of future generations ... It is instead measured and evaluated by its capacity to be entertaining and amusing” (p 139)

Furthermore, the global economy means that mobile capital can roam the world while the less-mobile workers are stuck in one place. This in turn means that localised governments have to pander to capital. “To an unprecedented degree politics has become a tug-of-war between the speed with which capital can move and the ‘slowing down’ capacities of local powers ... A government ... has little choice but to implore and cajole, rather than force, capital to fly in ... In practice, all this means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a ‘flexible labour market’. More generally, it means a docile population.” (p 150) The only weapon governments have is their markets. “Capital is dependent, for its competitiveness, effectiveness and profitability, on consumers ... a labour force is but a secondary consideration.” (p 151)

Bauman suggests there are now four sorts of work: “People who invent the ideas and the ways to make them desirable and marketable ... those engaged in the reproduction of labour (educators or various functionaries of welfare state) ... ‘skin trades’ requiring face-to-face encounter with the recipients of service ... routine labourers ... the most expendable, disposable and exchangeable parts of the economic system.” (p 153)

Other ideas

  • Reality “is created by ...the stubborn indifference of the world to my intention, the world's reluctance to submit to my will, that rebounds in the perception of the world as ‘real’ - constraining, limiting and disobedient.” (p 17)
  • When authorities are many, they tend to cancel each other out. ... It is by courtesy of the chooser that a would-be authority becomes an authority. Authorities no longer command; they ingratiate themselves with the chooser; they tempt and seduce.” (p 64)
  • Heavy modernity was the era of territorial conquest. Wealth and power was firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land - bulky, ponderous and immovable like the beds of iron ore and deposits of coal. ... Anything lying between the outposts of competing imperial realms was seen as masterless, a no man’s land, and so an empty space - and empty space was a challenge to action and a reproach to idlers.” (p 114)
  • The labyrinth becomes the master image of the human condition” (p 138)
  • If staying together was a matter of reciprocal agreement and mutual dependency, disengagement is unilateral.” (p 149)
  • Leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.” (p 155)
This is an amazing book. I might not agree with many of the things that has been said, and time may prove wrong, but there is no gainsaying that this is a brilliantly argued position and it certainly made me think.

March 2018; 200 pages

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