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Remembering Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017): A voice for the outcasts, marginalized, and dispossessed

By Suheel Rasool Mir

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017), who died at the age of ninety one, counted as one of the most celebrated and prolific European sociologists, was a perceptive observer of modernity. He is also the mind behind the brilliant concept, “liquidity modernity”, which denotes a constantly fluid identity, generating unprecedented anxiety and insecurity. Bauman writes, “In liquid modernity, we have moved from an epoch where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.”

In his book, Liquid Modernity (2000), Bauman examines the effects of consumption-based economies, the increasing disappearance of social institutions that once provided the foundations of human societies, and the rise of globalization. He distances himself from postmodernism and rebrands his approach to understanding the contemporary world as ‘liquid modernity’. He argues that this new ‘liquid modern’ world of ours, like all liquids, cannot stand still and keep its shape for long. Everything seems to change – the fashions we follow, the events that catch our attention, the things we dream of and the things we fear. An increasing polarisation between the elite and the rest, our growing tolerance of ever-expanding inequalities, and a separation between power and politics remain constant themes in his writings. In Liquid Modernity, Bauman talks about self-identity and mass consumer products. He argues that in a consumer society, people wallow in things, fascinating and enjoyable things. If we define our value by the things we acquire and surround ourselves with, then being excluded from those things would be humiliating.

We live in a world of communication; everyone gets information about everyone else. There is universal comparison and we don’t just compare ourselves with the people next door. We compare ourselves to people from all over the world and with what is being presented as a decent, proper, and dignified life. As the state and the market vie for supremacy within the space of global capitalism, the fate of poor and vulnerable people assumes particular importance. As Bauman writes, “When elephants fight, pity the grass.” He also coined the phrase, “Liquid Fear”, which denotes fear flowing in on our own courtyard and not staying in one place. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which we know and are familiar with, is that we don’t know where it will strike from. “We are walking,” to employ his favourite metaphor, “as if on a minefield.” We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can’t tell where and when there will be an explosion. There are no solid structures around us on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promises because they don’t have enough power to do so.

Zygmunt Bauman analyzed diverse sociological themes and topics, which include modernity and the Holocaust, postmodernity, globalization, consumerism, inequality, identity, critical sociology, liquid modernity, fear, death, immortality, culture, ethics, love, individualization, education, freedom, happiness, etc. In many ways, his sociology is altogether different from the mainstream and hardcore/orthodox sociology, and can be seen more as a critical social commentary with a certain literary edge. Bauman has altered sociology, and not the other way around. His place in contemporary social theory has been achieved through hard work, progressive sophistication, a philanthropic attitude, endless enthusiasm, and hermeneutic search for knowledge and truth.

Bauman was a strong moral voice for the outcasts, marginalized, and dispossessed in a world upended by globalisation. He wrote for people, whose chances of a dignified life are destroyed by the new borderless world. Whether he was writing about the Holocaust or globalisation, his focus remained on how humans can create a dignified life through ethical decisions. He wrote that it was the rational world of modern civilisation that made the Holocaust thinkable. In his famous book, Modernity and Holocaust (1989), a work for which he received Amalfi Prize, he argued that the Holocaust could only happen because of the technology and bureaucracy based on modernity. What modernity did was to generate unintended consequences of bureaucratic complexity and thus created the conditions in which moral responsibility disappeared. He also wrote about the crisis of democracy, fight against terrorism, and the migration crisis. In recent years, Bauman analysed the refugee crisis and the rise of rightwing populism across Europe and the US as a “crisis of humanity”.  He argues that there is a shortcut resolution to the contemporary refugee crisis and there is no way out from that crisis other than the solidarity of humans.

Bauman is considered as a theorist of postmodernity and is particularly known for his analysis of the shift from modernity to postmodernity and the resultant ethical issues. He had strong reservations with a fashionable term like ‘postmodernity’. Bauman felt that the term ‘postmodern’ is a misleading, confusing, and problematic term. Instead, he used the term “liquid modernity” to better explain the state of constant mobility and changes, which he witnessed in relations, identities, and global economics. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity, Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life. For him, postmodernity is the result of modernity’s failure to rationalize the world and the amplification of its capacity for constant change. Bauman also diagnosed the crises of social democracy and warned of a ‘liquid modern’ world that put consumption before compassion. Bauman experienced poverty and anti-Semitism that fuelled his commitment to social justice. He fearlessly spoke truth to power, and questioned the concept of globalization. He was of the view that globalization is a projected term meant to advance centralized power and disempower the marginalised and rootless individuals, leading to a furtherance of gap between the rich and the poor.

For Zygmunt Bauman, the responsibility of a social scientist or social critic was that of a “revealer” of reality, even of that part of reality that is not immediately visible or deliberately hidden. He upheld this spirit of inquisitiveness while observing sharp behavioural contradictions in dynamic micro-sociologies in time-space continuum. This is what Bauman’s world of sociological praxis denotes and to continue this tradition would be a fitting tribute to his astute academic odyssey.

 Bauman’s legacy will be remembered forever.

Mir Suheel Rasool 
is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Kashmir.


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