Zygmunt Bauman provided hope where there was only despair

The Polish sociologist, who has died aged 91, was best known for his idea of "liquid modernity"

January 21, 2017
"A small man with a huge intellect" ©IPA/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images
"A small man with a huge intellect" ©IPA/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

Zygmunt Bauman was often spoken of as the most influential sociologist of the age. He died on 9th January at the ripe age of 91. Born in Poland, he had lived in the UK since 1971, settling in Leeds where he was professor of sociology until 1991, and since then emeritus. It was in his retirement that a crescendo of writing and talking poured out of him. Better known outside the UK, a vast array of thinkers and activists have been guided by his brilliant mind.

Bauman’s big idea is that of “liquid modernity.” He described a society somewhere between the solid modern structures and cultures of the early to mid- 20th century and post-modernity. The era of jobs and institutions through which we navigated with relative ease a secure life, that some saw giving way to the supposed melting into air of post-modernity, where everything was entirely relative. In describing this halfway house as liquid, Bauman echoes Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the morbid symptoms that appear in the interregnum when the old is not yet dead and the new is not yet born. The metaphor deployed by Bauman for these liquid modern times is one of skating on thin ice—a life in which only speed stops us falling through into the icy waters below.

This breathless notion of liquid modernity is then encapsulated in the second big shift identified by Bauman, from a society that essentially reproduces itself through production, to a society based around consumption. Once we knew ourselves and each other by what we did, now it is by what we buy. Here the metaphor is of a society epitomised not by the savings book, with its slow and steady build up of resources to buy cherished or necessary items, but by the instant gratification offered by the credit card. In the consumer world we compete with each other to be the finest purchasers of things we didn’t know we needed, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know. Sadly for us there is no end point to this endeavour. It is a race without end. So why do we run it?

The Bauman book that has had the most influence on me is Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (1998). In it he describes this shift from production to consumption and through it the effect on “the poor.” In a producer society the poor undoubtedly suffered. But they suffered together, in communities of solidarity and were kept just fit, healthy and educated enough to act as a reserve army—for war or any upturn in the economy. It maybe been temporary or cyclical but society needed them. To be poor in a consumer society is to be totally unnecessary. If we are defined by what we buy, then what is the point of you if you cannot afford to shop? The poor in such a society are merely teased as they window shop their way through a life of perpetual humiliation in which even the bonds of class have evaporated. It is why “the poor” cherish the brands they can get their hands on—to be for once “normal.”

But the poor today do have a role, as Bauman identifies. It is to police us. They are “othered,” humiliated and despised to act as warning to the rest of us, to never fall off the consumer treadmill into the abyss of the only thing worse than life on the consumer treadmill—the life of not being on it. More than anything we fear joining the ranks of the undeserving poor.

In Search of Politics (1999) exposes the separation of politics from power, and power from politics as financial flows and corporate investment escaped the nation state and went global. All this and more drew a line under the solid and predictable culture of the 20th century and hurdled us into the fragility and fluidity of a 21st-century culture where everything feels temporary and "until further notice."

In all this work Bauman understood the crisis of social democracy whose success was rooted in solid jobs, fixed identities and bounded nation states. What is the role for a party called “Labour” if what defines us is consumption? How can we be fully human when the bonds of solidarity are stretched to breaking point in a consumer race in which enough is never enough?

Bauman’s books are not easy to read. The language can be opaque, but the shafts of light and insight are intense. The analysis is bleak, but uplifting if you believe it to be accurate. For how can we begin to wrestle with the precarious and insecure world we live in unless we understand the scale of the problems we face?

Bauman’s work is followed by many. He could pack any university lecture hall in Europe and did. His many books and blogs were avidly read, especially amongst the young. But he never influenced the establishment political classes. Not yet anyway. He was close to Ralph Miliband, also at Leeds, and both Ed and David sat in rooms and listened to the two talk through the problems of actually existing social democracy. But Bauman offered little in the way of what to do about our infuriating liquid modern times in which we solve neither our desire for freedom nor our need for security.

This wasn’t his task and he was loath to set out a blueprint for the more humane society he desired. The one idea he would go back to again and again was universal basic income. Today the idea of such a citizens income is featured regularly in articles in the Financial Times, was on the agenda at this year's World Economic Forum at Davos and is being trialled in Canada, Finland and the Netherlands. The Bauman Institute at Leeds will stoke the fires of his ideas, as will myriad thinkers and activists across the globe who have been captivated by his haunting insights.

Bauman was married to Janina in 1948, until her death in 2009, and is survived by their daughters Lydia, Irena and Anna. In 2015 he married the fellow sociologist Aleksandra Jasinka-Kania.

Bauman, right up until the end, kept in touch with contemporary cultural references to make his points and arguments. He was a frail and slight man but had an enormous sense of intellectual power and generosity. In his ramshackle, book and paper filled house on the edge of Leeds, while he served you vodka at noon and brought through an endless supply of Polish snacks, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. The abiding image that fills my mind when I think of this small man and his huge intellect, is that that is of Jedi master Yoda. In all the bleakness of his analysis Bauman provided hope where there was only despair. He told us quite simply that “the good society is the one that knows it is not good enough.”