Zygmunt Bauman: globalisation, politics and Europe

Ian Varcoe
29 March 2007

Reading Zygmunt Bauman is a literary experience. His texts offer pleasure - the pleasure of the text and the pleasure of reading. The encounter with Bauman's mind causes his readers and auditors to think, to re-examine themselves and their world, and to see the familiar in a new light.

There are two sides to every coin. Bauman succeeds magnificently in demonstrating this. He holds in balance both his reader's making sense of their new, ever-changing surroundings - so that the fragment drops into place, the unremarked experience acquires significance when seen from a new angle or in a different context from the habitual one - and his assisting them to recognise the limits of this, the points, in other words, where they genuinely are in uncharted waters and they do have to admit that a full analysis must await the further unfolding of whatever trend or phenomenon Bauman is trying to trace or examine. The present global and political situation is of this order.


Ian Varcoe is lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of Leeds. Among his books is (edited with Richard Kilminster) Culture, Modernity and Revolution: Essays in Honour of Zygmunt Bauman (Routledge, 1996)

Also in openDemocracy on Zygmunt Bauman:

Lukasz Galecki, "The unwinnable war: an interview with Zygmunt Bauman" (1 December 2005)

Globalisation and discontent

The reader learns in Bauman about a range of modern processes: the eclipse of the nation-state; the effects of global economic forces that are destructive of human solidarity; the human need, if solidarity is to be the reader's criterion, for global institutions of justice, regulation and politics (needed to produce respectively security and freedom); and about these institutions' crippling absence.

The reader learns too of the cost, again in human terms, of a society which fosters individualism on an unprecedented scale, about the dilemmas this presents the reader with in terms of commitment, identity and security, and about the polarising consequences of the globalising market trends which underpin this "melting of the solids" and rise of private solutions to what would formerly have been public issues pursued through democratic politics.

Many promises of the past have not been fulfilled. The dreams of the Enlightenment remain dreams. And modern practices had a different outcome from what their authors intended. However Bauman was and still is inspired by the socialist hope that a better world should and can still be striven for, albeit as an ideal, even in our troubled times. His problem is this: how to attain freedom, with security and with dignity.

And it is the reader's as well. Steadfastly Bauman has kept and continues to keep himself aloof from what he sees as the panaceas which when critically examined can be shown to threaten this most cherished value balance. These have included artificially created communities, religious certainties, and, of course, violence. The message he constantly conveys is that today people are, quite possibly more than ever, at the mercy of market forces that are beyond their powers collectively to control. They are aware of this, but at risk in seeking to adapt themselves to a liquid, that is, for the individual an increasingly insecure, world. They are in danger of entering blind alleys at the end of which is further fear and isolation, and further dividing themselves off from their fellows. Market society both causes the ills from which people suffer and proffers "false" solutions in the form of marketised or commercially available remedies which in fact prolong the illness. Reading Bauman helps people to insulate themselves from these false solutions to their difficulties.

Living with no alternative

People live today "without an alternative". They live without communal supports and solid and enduring collective actors, identification with which and allegiance to which might guarantee, as once they were believed to do, a move towards a higher, more progressive social existence than the present one.

This is freely admitted by Bauman. It is people's predicament. But people have their values and their intelligence. Bauman is their guide in the process of self-directed analysis and freely-undertaken action which recognises the moral claims of others. But how is this recognition to be effected? Analysis and action, Bauman admits, have no secure bridge to cross into the territory of collective "solutions". These solutions are suspect and the agora or public space no longer exists within nation-states.

Zygmunt Bauman is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, England and at the University of Warsaw, Poland. His many books include:

Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity, 1993)

In Search of Politics (Polity, 1999)

Globalization: the Human Consequences (Columbia University Press, 2000)

Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2000)

Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Polity, 2001)

Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2001)

Identity (Polity, 2004)

Liquid Life (Polity, 2005)

Liquid Fear (Polity, 2006)

Zygmunt Bauman’s most recent book is Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Polity, 2007)

A fuller bibliography (to 2000) is here.

Books about or in collaboration with Zygmunt Bauman include:

Richard Kilminster & Ian Varcoe (eds.), Culture, Modernity and Revolution: Essays in Honour of Zygmunt Bauman (Routledge, 1996)

Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity (Polity, 1999)

Keith Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman (Polity, 2001)

One might say that the problem for people today is how to resist consumer society, to find ways of caring for others, and to find a new politics that is above the nation-state. The globalisation phenomenon requires this if it is to be encountered by humanity in a more balanced form than at present when its negative side predominates over its positive side. The European integration project may offer some guidance.

All this has to be achieved without erecting barriers of exclusiveness. There can be no return to "solid modernity". The political institutions of this are parliamentary democracy and the public sphere; the former has been eroded and the latter hollowed out. Insecurity has appeared in the workplace and the welfare state has become attenuated. No ready-made theoretical solutions can be offered. These belonged to a "modern" past the observer can now see in a somewhat clearer light than in former times. People live in a world where they are forced to make choices and in which their only resources are their critical faculties and their determination never to rest on their moral laurels.

Europe and diversity

Bauman urges people continually to ask two questions: have I done enough? Could I do more? Let us see how the foregoing requirements might be met or otherwise within the project of European integration.

Bauman has recently turned his attention to the European Union (see Europe: an Unfinished Adventure, Polity, 2004). Although it started life as a principally economic arrangement one can see in its current political, economic and social life many of the themes that so concern Bauman being played out. Perhaps it is here in the heartland of classical sociology that the issue will be decided. At any rate it is a great drama, a human adventure, where not alone certainly, but potentially in a world-changing way, the shape of the future will in part be decided. This is nothing less than the shape of human being-together in the world , where diversity must be negotiated and a common fate turned - possibly, just possibly - into a shared destiny.

Bauman is a declared European (on 19 March 2007 he delivered the opening lecture - entitled Making the Planet Hospitable to Europe" - in the Festival of Europe, a London event designed as an intellectual and cultural counterpoint to the EU's fiftieth anniversary celebrations). He values the unique diversity of the continent that has made dialogue a necessity. Dialogue has been cultivated to a unique degree once the aim of uniting Europe in first religious, then military terms through conquest of one part by another, was abandoned or failed. The European Union promises the valuing of difference which is ethically so important to him. Communal allegiance is the danger to be avoided. The ideology of multiculturalism threatens to turn this into the order of the day; however it is equally expressive of a "washing of the hands" over the prospect of wider solidarities. Fundamentalism likewise is an often unscrupulous, manipulated offer of security in a single exclusive community. Both threaten the human brotherhood. The beginning of this one might say one sees in the European idea. If communism was a failed experiment Europe is an unfinished project, one fraught with difficulties morally and sociologically.

The measure of thought

In terms of intellectual lineage the moral dimension of Bauman's sociology owes something to Karl Marx (1818-18) in that a collective solution to humanity's predicament is promised as the only possible one. But like Max Weber (1865-1920) moral goals are posited as human choices, and in consonance with Weber and in contradistinction to Marx it is underlined that there is simply no guarantee that humanity's condition will improve, that a truly human life will be possible.

The two axial options were set by Bauman's two great predecessors. They were salvation by society" (Marx) and "no salvation by society" (Weber). Bauman's thought, it may be suggested, revolves within this single, central dilemma. We may regard his ideas as a synthesis, albeit a partial and incomplete one (as he would be the first to admit), of the two possibilities. These are the "solution" (in underdetermined moral choice) of a great liberal (Weber) and the solution of a great socialist (Marx). Bauman is arguably both - a liberal and a socialist.

Is Bauman's a balanced diagnosis of contemporary reality? Is it an adequate strategy for the present time? Or is it overly general, excessively rhetorical, and despite its dialectical mastery, at bottom a survival of the thought patterns of a now finally exhausted Marxism?

In my experience he tends either to be dismissed by sociologists as a social philosopher, moral critic or pessimist, or to attract followers who do but repeat his analyses and offer adulation and unqualified approval rather than rigorously selective and creative appropriation of his ideas. This is a great shame. Unfortunately it is possibly a reflection of the qualities that make his writing so attractive. These are its suggestiveness, the rapid changes of theme and direction, a strong and prominent basis in values, and the claim that it makes on the moral and political feelings. Bauman still awaits a commentator of weight, one who would do him the justice his stature as a social theorist and his sheer industry over three-quarters of a century so clearly merit.

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