Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most influential sociologists of our times, passed away a few days ago, aged 91. His influence in the academic world is immense, and it is no coincidence that a Bauman Institute was set up in Britain a few years ago. He also became a leading voice for global solidarity across the global media sphere, penning articles and giving interviews for public consumption right up to his passing away.
Before becoming the world-famous sociologist based at the University of Leeds, Bauman had his fair share of life experiences. During and after World War II, he was a communist military officer in Poland. Here he encountered sociology and eventually became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw.
In 1968 Poland faced a political crisis. Intellectuals and students protested against state repression and called for democratisation. This social movement coincided with the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia, which was ultimately repressed by Soviet tanks.
Bauman supported the dissident movement and resigned from member of the ruling Workers’ Party. He was consequently purged together with other Jewish Poles, and after some time in Israel, he eventually emigrated to Britain where he assumed the role of chair in sociology at the University of Leeds. The rest is history.
As a sociologist with global influence, Bauman excelled in two main areas: his conceptualisation of modernity and the Holocaust and his conceptualisation of liquid modernity.
As regards the former, he warned about the dangers of prioritising bureaucracy over values such as care and responsibility. Sure, processes, order and efficiency are key aspects of modern societies, but they should not become an end in itself, devoid of ethics.
Bauman argued that if bureaucracy were taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it could be no different from the holocaust: an efficient machine which eliminates those who do not conform to the ruling diktat. And yet, unfortunately, genocide has not been erased from human history after the Nazi genocide that ended in 1945. Which means that any ideology or form of governance that brushes out the discourse of ethics should be treated suspiciously.
More recently, Bauman focused on liquid modernity. Here, he conceptualised contemporary society as one being paradoxically characterised by freedom and precariousness. In the liquid society we are free to construct our own identity kits, whether through consumption, sexuality, education, family life, employment and other social experiences. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to cling to security and stability. Precariousness can affect all these experiences, whether through poverty, unemployment, illness or family breakdown. Love becomes liquid too. It can last, but it can also flow away into nothingness.
Hence, one’s freedom is always relational: it can have a positive or negative impact on someone else’s freedom, identity and aspirations.
In this regard, a pertinent question of our times is how can we reconcile freedom with solidarity. Bauman argues that there never is a final answer to this question, but he warns that a self-interested individualism immersed in the market can tilt the balance too far away from solidarity.
Still, we are living in a globalised marketplace which seems to give priority to consumers’ self-gratification over the plight of those experiencing precariousness. And each and every one of us is at once a consumer with potential or actual precariousness.
Should this lead to the breakdown of society? Bauman argues that politics and social policy have essential roles in redistributing wealth and enhancing egalitarian social relations. In this regard, the welfare state is a key institution which helps us encounter our insecurities and anxieties, through the sharing and pooling of rights and responsibilities.
In his later writings, Bauman also explored the idea of an interregnum – where contemporary society seems to be suspended in a period between major historic shifts.
Bauman reconciled the best of the social democratic tradition with philosophies such as existentialism, without getting stuck into some nostalgic politics of yesteryear. Like philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, Bauman shows how freedom is a leap in the dark. Sure, we are free to improve our life situation, but we also know that things can go wrong. Whether one is a parent, a refugee, a worker or a policymaker, taking decisions is never easy.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.