Zygmunt Bauman's impact on me – and I think many others has been profound.
Let me be clear. I am not an academic, a theorist and certainly not a sociologist. I can’t do his prolific output of work – but what I want to do is tell you why it matters to me – why this Octogenarian, polish émigré is today in 2010 relevant to the world we face and the hopes, dreams and fears we have.
I first came across the work of Zygmunt Bauman in the mid 1980s when he wrote series of highly charged essays for the News Statesmen. Then I was a very politically undeveloped undergraduate, with hair, more used to listening to and quoting Benn rather than Bauman – I understood little of what he wrote in those handful of essays but got a sense not just of great significance but excitement at the ideas they contained.
From Benn I ended up with Blair. After 18 years in exile the desire to win overcame desire to do right. I worked for Gordon Brown and for Peter Mandelson in the heart of the New Labour machine. Ends were busy shaping means. In winning becoming everything Labour was losing touch with what it wanted to win for. But something gnawed away. I could shed fully neither Benn nor those echoes of Bauman. Naively I thought New Labour was being pragmatic– that idealism was being tempered by reality rather than just being junked. That the attempt to reconnect with the British electorate was so a new social democratic moment could eventually be forged. I was wrong. Blair said ‘we have won as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour’. In the confidence of greater maturity I would know that we won as not being the hated Conservative government. Much was still possible. But by then it was too late. New had been used to brand the Party as Not Labour.
Shortly after Labours victory in 1998 I wrote an essay, which also happened to appear in the New Statesman, asking the question whether New Labour was really part of the social democratic project. It was billed as New Labour’s first revolt. I have been revolting ever since.
In the late 1990s I restlessly and hesitantly moved further from New Labour as the wild goose chase of the third way became more apparent. Around 2000 two books lifted the scales from my eyes. The first was Noberto Bobbios Left and Right which reacquainted me with the basic but fundamental concept of equality and the second and the one that had the more profound effect on me was Work, Consumerism and the New Poor by Zygmunt.
In reading it I not only felt I understood the world much more clearly, I felt a sense of anger that my party was playing a part, as we will see, in the demonization of the very people it claimed to represent. And from that anger came a sense of determination to do something about it.
Now they say never meet your heroes. I think its good advice. They often don’t match up to unrealistic expectations. But sometimes possibilities are too tantalising to miss out on. I met my hero once. A mutual friend fixed for me to go round and have afternoon tea with Zygmunt. It of course turned out to be afternoon Vodka. I think I just sat and stared as this Yoda like figure dispensed wisdom and gentle guidance.
He struck me then, as he does in every interview I have read before and since, as a man of immense charm, warmth, dignity and above all humanity. He writes generously for a massive range of publications and outlets. He does so because he cares. It feels like he is in a race to both download his prodigal knowledge and insights but also to keep up with events. He still has his finger on the pulse of modern consumer and celebrity culture – sighting the likes of X Factor in his critique of actually existing capitalism.
But this desire to stay in touch, to stay relevant is what gives him his vitality. So he rewrites because he is asked and sought out, because he is popular on campuses around the globe, because he offers a unique take on our world – a take the hovers all the time between those twin pillars of optimism and pessimism, hope and despair.
It is these twin pillars I want to say something about. Let's start with the dark side – the pessimism.
Zygmunt pulls no punches in telling it how it is. He describes a bleak world of wasted lives. The vicious cycle – of less collective belief and influence, leading to greater withdrawal from the social scene. The more we withdraw, the weaker our bonds become. The more we individualise the tighter the knot gets. In his description of the shift from the world defined by producers to a world defined by consumption he reveals a landscape of quicksand, with few friends but tragically even fewer enemies. The rich are not to be hated and pulled down but fated and held a loft for their consumer success.
Bauman uses the consistency of quicksand a lot. For it is one of the best images of the liquid modern world his work heralds. It is the world between the solid offering of modernity in the shape of one job, one community, an all-powerful state and a proud and independent nation. Between that and the vagaries and relativism of a post-modern world. In this liquid modernity things are in constant flux, forming new shapes and then morphing. Nations, economies, states and people are constantly shape-shifters.
In his journey from analysing communism in Poland to analysing consumerism in the West the game does not change – it is about social control and the systematic reproduction of authority and privilege. Socialisation by secret police turns into socialisation by seduction. You can fight the secret police but how on earth do you fight seduction – why would you even want to? As capitalism shifts from the exploitation of the physical virgin territory of empire to the emotional virgin territory of our minds – the space for profit accumulation expands exponentially. When I read Zygmunt I am reminded again and again of the Worchasky brothers film The Matrix, where people are made to believe they live a consumer reality but their bodies are just batteries for a machine.
There are two goals of this world in which we are first and last consumers – the first is our unhappiness – if we are unhappy then we will seek comfort from the only place we can – the market – literally in retail therapy.
And second – the eradication of alternatives. There is only one way to be – the turbo consumer – drilled and disciplined by the urgent desire not to fall off the treadmill – to stay normal in the never ending race to form ever new identities. To belong, to be different, to be unique, to be the same. And when we fail – when we fall short – we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Consequently Bauman talks about a society under siege for three very good reasons. First, because power has been divorced from politics and now resides, as we witness every day, in the realm of business – whether that is financialised capitalism, big oil or the media. Second, because of the crisis of agency and the decline of the salience of the working class, and therefore of the labour movement. And, third, because of the secession of power away from the nation state.
New Labour was born of this moment and this profound sense of pessimism and crisis for the left. Why go on fighting a system that feels not just unbeatable, but can be painted as inevitable and even desirable. If you can't beat them – then join them.
In Tony Giddens New Labour found a theoretical rational to do what it wanted most – to win – through a post-class sociology – made feasible in their eyes through the new weightless economy. In the merry world of middle England we could all be winners – except those who, by their own acts, failed to work hard and play by the rules. The shift to a world beyond left and right, beyond struggle was complete.
But for or all the happy talk of a New Britain – this was the darkest politics possible – for in its version of Thatcherism with a human face it locked into our psyche the notion of TINA – that there is no alternative.
So ironically – Zygmunt was ignored – despite some attempts to introduce his ideas into Downing Street because he offered no short-term nourishment for the New Labour project – his was no happy meal. He was deemed to be too bleak for a project that itself offered little more than the modernisation of neo-liberalism.
How could it be otherwise? New Labour failed to offer any genuine and meaningful sense of alternative because in their embrace of the market as the singular solution to all our ills they lost sight of one critical factor – our humanity. And here we turn to the optimism of Zygmunts work.
New Labour forgot, as I had painfully learnt, that means cannot be separated from ends. So the market could not be used for progressive ends. Economic efficiency is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for social justice. Markets are for profit – not for people. And they forgot or ignored that a project that isn’t founded on the rock of humanity – of an ability to look into the eyes of others and see yourself and know yourself – not as competitors but as co-operators - was doomed to much greater darkness than Zygmunt Bauman could ever conjure up.
Zygmunt offers hope – for two reasons. First because he describes how strong the chains are that keep us in place – and therefore informs us how big and strong our bolt cutters need to be. And second he provides the prospect of much more meaningful freedom than we find as pressurised shoppers on the high street. He identifies freedom based on the sense of autonomy – the ability to shape our lives and our society as we see fit because and only because we do it with others.
Zygmunt forces us think about the notion of utopia – the place that is not yet – but through striving for it – we find our purpose. To be a realist – we must first be visionaries – to be pragmatists we must know what we are being pragmatic about.
He is criticised for not offering much of a route map. Well we can’t do it all. But there are two practical concepts I think that are important which Zygmunt returns to again and again.
The first is the idea of the social state, which we can counterpoise to the failures and limitations of the post-war bureaucratic state and its successor: the market state. The social and democratic state is not just about the provision of welfare but the creation of an accountable and responsive realm in which we can be citizens and not solely consumers.
The second hard policy he espouses is that of a citizens’ income or a basic income. This is a payment made to everyone in society as the means to both establish the resources necessary to live a free life and to enshrine our sense of shared citizenship. It is a truly transformative idea.
In 2005 Zygmunt delivered three lectures in London – the Miliband lectures in the presence of David and Ed. It was not the first time they met, Ralph would bring young David and an even younger Ed round to the house for political discussions in Leeds. Now someone called Miliband will be the next leader of the Labour party. Will either brother will have the wisdom to dig deep to build high and start reading the work of Zygmunt Bauman. If they do they will start to learn to deal with the causes of lives that are anxious, insecure and exhausting – and not just the symptoms. If they don’t then the backward march of Labour will to continue apace.
Our relationship with leaders is fraught with complexity. As Gramsci almost said – the challenge of liquid modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned.
Like rivers cascading down the side of a mountain, leaders take the path of least resistance. The job at hand is to build the dams of ideas and the aqueducts of a movement to channel them in the direction which will deliver greater equality, substantiality and democracy.
That is what Zygmunt has helped inspire me to do.
I read out this quote to 1,500 activists and thinkers who met in London last June at the Compass annual conference. Compass is an organisation of over 40,000 members and supporters – people from Labour, the Greens, Liberals, from unions and pressure groups concerned about the triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy.
I said this from him:
“Like the phoenix socialism is reborn, from every pile of ashes left day in day out by burnt out dreams and charred hopes. It will keep on being resurrected as long as the dreams are burnt and the hopes charred, as long as human life remains short of the dignity it deserves and the nobility it would be able, given a chance to muster”
The left is in a big hole and has been for some time. The left is those people and their institutions that believe in humanity, that trust the people, that think we were born different but equal, that know the answers to our problems will come from democracy and not markets – people who know that we live just a pale shadow of what we can be.
This is the challenge that Zygmunt sets us. To find our way out of the darkness and into the light.
Someone once said to me that you should never have a job you want to retire from – Zygmunt Bauman seems to have that job. Or rather and better still he has used his working life to build a platform for the serious business of the rest of his life. Since his official retirement his output has been an incredible average of around two books a year, as well as many articles, lectures and interviews.
I feel remarkably ambivalent about our times – both hopeful and realistic. Like monks in the monastery in the dark ages – are we simply but crucially keeping the flames alive – stopping the books for being burnt – waiting for the enlightenment? Or is the triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy the moment for transformative advance? We simply don’t know. We make history – but not in conditions of our own choosing.
We do what we can. Zygmunt has done more than most. We stand on the shoulders of giants – my giant – is Zygmunt Bauman. Long may he write and inspire me and thousands of others. Never may he retire.
Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass and author of All Consuming (Penguin, 2009) a book dedicated to the work of Zygmunt Bauman. This is an edited version of the opening plenary speech given on the 6th of September at Leeds University to mark the opening of the new Bauman Institute.