Melting into chaos: Liquid modernity and other ideas of the late thinker Zygmunt Bauman

Published 24.02.2017 01:18
Updated 13.03.2017 18:16
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

Bauman left us with many ideas, continuing to write and speak until the very last days of his life. Much of his thoughts seem strong enough to survive the test of time and will continue to be relevant for many decades to come

Giving some thought to the current state of affairs around the world may heighten your anxiety levels. So many displaced and deceased around the world, and a constant circulation of less than reliable information, all contribute to a sense of imminent, random danger that might come to your door. This fear is also heightened by political agendas that turn it into the dominant social currency. One contemporary philosopher thought this anxiety was not a passing phase but rather a defining feature of the times we live in.

Zygmunt Bauman, the world renowned Polish sociologist, passed away at the age of 91 earlier this month. Leeds University, where Bauman taught for 20 years (1971-91) named an institute in his honor, and was the venue for much of his work. He was a prolific author of many pertinent books on a variety of subjects including but not limited to the Holocaust, modernity and the refugee crises.

Bauman was a Polish Jew who argued the Holocaust was not a unique tragedy. This is a thesis deemed provocative in the abundance of Holocaust rhetoric that aims to cement it as a completely exceptional event in human history. The Jewish sociologist by no means undermined the legacy of the Holocaust. He was himself a Holocaust survivor, escaping Nazi-occupied Poland. Bauman, however, criticized what he saw as being the opportunistic tentacles of Zionism benefiting off of people's pain to create more suffering for others, namely the Palestinians. He was an outspoken critic of the state of Israel and once said "Palestinian persecution echoes the Shoah" (Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust) Bauman didn't find the Holocaust shocking, but rather an easily repeatable product of modernity.

Though his writings on the Holocaust made noise, what put Bauman on the academic map of ideas was his thesis on Liquid Modernity. Rejecting the notion of post-modernity, Bauman argued we are nowhere near being done with modernity. He instead proposed we have moved away from a solid modernity towards a liquid one. In other words, he believed that we are in a state of permanent uncertainty which subsequently creates a lot of fear for the ordinary citizen. This proved a fertile breeding ground for the rise of the populist right in Europe and the U.S.

In the very last interview Bauman gave before passing, he told Al-Jazeera that populist leaders like Trump or Le Pen asked people to trust them while they promised to change the current situation. This is what brought them success, thought Bauman, especially with the poor and the insecure middle class. Times such as these are especially susceptible to an appeal for a strong charismatic leader. How charismatic Trump is is up for debate. However, inarguably he struck a chord with many Americans, the same way Le Pen has struck a chord with a considerable part of French society, and so did a number of other leaders in their respective countries.

The solid modernity, to Bauman, was a time when the world was relatively stable, and when power and politics resided in the same hands. As we move into the contemporary age of liquid modernity he saw power as moving away from politics, meaning the nation states were put into the hands of those who control the global trade of weapons, drugs and criminality - forces beyond the nation state. In an interview with the Guardian, he likened this realization to being on an airplane and suddenly being informed that there is no pilot in the cabin and no airport to land in.

Modernity thrived on two industries - economic progress and order - Bauman argued. The industry of economic growth signified society's aim to produce the same materials it produced yesterday but with a lower cost of production. Modernization therefore deems many people economically redundant. Many people's personal capital, Bauman says, is no longer useful, so they have to find new ways to make themselves useful again in order to survive. As for the industry of order, it deems itself useful in creating the need for purging. Anyone breaking that order is to be gotten rid of. This could be based on one's identity, or politics, or as explained economics. Millions of displaced people today are a threat to the present order. The influx of refugees is threatening the established social, economic, cultural and even moral norms. Bauman explains, in a somewhat counterintuitive turn, that modernity actually needs these people. He said in an interview if there were no migrants they would have to be invented, because they are so useful to politics. What he means is that they are the seemingly controllable problem, the concrete problem (compared to other global problems like drug trafficking, or weapon trades) The people he called migrants, refugees etc. can be used as political bait to gain votes, to manipulate public opinion and to foster fear or cultivate political support depending on the views of the voter base.

These massive moves of course have consequences beyond the short term crises of the accommodation and reallocation of available resources. Formations of double or even triple identities that refer to multiple versions of "we" in one sitting are increasingly abundant. In other words, the global flow of people on such a large scale has been ongoing since Europeans colonized the supposedly empty lands where Native Americans lived. Today's migrants and refugees are diasporas, says Bauman. Meaning they are not here to assimilate nor to dominate. They have arrived to stay while remaining who they are. To not change at all is arguably impossible. What Bauman means instead is perhaps a sense of resistance. Wanting not to change so much that one's past identity is a ghost version of the self they have become. Much has been written about diaspora and claims to authenticity of course and it is deeply complex if nothing else.

Diaspora is made only more complex by the widespread use of mass communication tools: namely the internet and social media. Bauman writes on this subject as well. He claims one does not simply create a community but rather is born to one and belongs to it. While groups we are connected to online seem like communities, Bauman thinks they are simply networks we curate and own, and he finds it troubling that people on social networks can be easily discarded. His thoughts on the internet can be disputed, but as a brilliant theorist from an older generation, his critique still holds value.

Bauman left us with many ideas, continuing to write and speak until the very last days of his life. Much of his thoughts seem strong enough to survive the test of time and will continue to be relevant for many decades to come.

* Didem Kaya currently works at TRT World. She completed her studies at Yale University, U.S., where she focused on American Studies.

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