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Zygmunt Bauman: an Adorno for liquid


modern times?

Ali Rattansi

Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity


Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013,
paper 15.99, 218pp.
Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?
Zygmunt Bauman, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013, paper 9.99, 101pp.
State of Crisis
Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2014, paper
15.99, 164pp.
Is Bauman a sociologist? Many sociologists have been perplexed by just this
question.Bauman, Donskis says in the introduction to his epistolary exchange,
Moral Blindness, is not a typical sociologist, although he groups him together
with Giddens and Beck as one of the living greats of sociology. What distinguishes Bauman from his contemporary sociologists, according to Donskis, is
that his is a sociology of the imagination, of human relations love, friendship,
despair, indifference, insensitivity and of intimate experience. Donskis fails to
mention that both Beck and Giddens have also written about love and intimacy,
but he is no doubt right to point out that there is something different about
Bauman. And the contrast between conventional academic sociology and
Bauman is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in this e-mail epistolary
dialogue, for it consists of a series of meditations about Evil, not a category
much used by sociologists, although Michel Wieviorka (2012) has recently
ventured into this territory. For Donskis, Bauman is also distinctive in that he
writes for the little man or woman the persons whom globalization and the
second (liquid) modernity has displaced, and here he groups him with historians such as Greenblatt and Ginzburg, rejecting history as a grand narrative,
writing, instead, meaningful narratives about actual people: une petite histoire.
There is enough to disagree with in this characterization of Bauman. As I
argue in my forthcoming book on him, Bauman has certainly not abandoned
grand narratives, and indeed his distinction between solid and liquid modernity, just as much as his earlier epochal division between modernity and
The Sociological Review, Vol. 62, 908917 (2014) DOI: 10.1111/1467-954X.12214
2014 The Author. The Sociological Review 2014 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review. Published
by John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, 02148,
USA.

Zygmunt Bauman: an Adorno for liquid modern times?

postmodernity, is nothing if not an ambitious grand narrative.1 Moreover, it


is archetypes such as strangers, nomads and vagabonds who populate
Baumans world, not the concrete individuals of Ginzburgs history. And as I
also argue in my book, Bauman is best seen as a latter day critical theorist in
the Frankfurt School mode, albeit absorbing much from a huge variety of
sources ranging from Bourdieu to Rorty. But Donskis has a point when he says
that what distinguishes Bauman is that his sympathy is manifestly on the side
of the losers of modernity, and that his books make a powerful ethical
demand upon the reader, traits very clearly manifest in the books under
review.

Moral insensitivity in liquid modernity


There is no systematic itemization of the evils of liquid modernity in Moral
Blindness, although gross inequalities and regimes of state or organizational
brutality and violence come in for particular opprobrium (both the Holocaust
and Abu Ghraib are mentioned, together with loss of privacy in the Internet
age). Bauman is particularly concerned to identify what he has often dubbed
adiaphorization, that is, strategems which intentionally or by default place
certain acts and/or omitted acts regarding humans outside the moral-immoral
axis that is, outside the universe of moral obligations and outside the realm
of phenomena subject to moral evaluation. Bauman refers to stratagems such
as the ends justify the means or evil as the act might be, yet it was necessary
to defend a greater good (p. 40). Sometimes it seems as if both the stratagem
and the immoral acts are forms of evil, so that evil appears to be a category
that functions in a dual manner. Moreover, Donskis argues, the ubiquity of
ambivalence in modernity means that it is difficult to interpret the world in
terms of the categories of good and evil (p. 5), thus also introducing ambivalence into the heart of their joint project. Setting these possible confusions
aside (is one supposed to be ambivalent about the Holocaust and Abu
Ghraib?), Bauman, of course, has a well honed answer to the question of the
underlying causes of modern moral insensitivity; as he puts it, in solid modernity bureaucracy was the principal workshop in which morally loaded acts
were remodelled as adiaphoric.Today . . . it is the markets that have taken over
that role.
Readers who know Baumans famous argument in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) will recognize the first workshop, bureaucracy, and readers of
Baumans work on postmodernity and liquid modernity will also know that
for Bauman it is the corrosive effect of the commodification of all relationships, the marketization of everything, that is the main evil force creating
moral indifference by swallowing up scruples and consciences in a deluge of
consumerism and corporatization. In liquid modern times individuals are
consumers before they are citizens, more interested in marketing themselves
by purchasing the right commodities than in agonizing over the morality of
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their actions or participating in politics. Indeed the death of Politics with a


capital P is one of the main themes of the epistolary conversations.
The death of Politics has been the subject of a book by Bauman, In Search
of Politics (1998).And herein lies the problem with Moral Blindness. It consists
primarily of a reiteration, in conversational and anecdotal mode, of arguments
that Bauman has already expounded at greater length in Liquid Modernity
(2000), Liquid Love (2003), Consuming Life (2007), Does Ethics Have a
Chance in a World of Consumers (2008) and other texts on the shallowness
of lives dominated by consumerism (a theme already present during his
postmodern phase). Not surprisingly, a host of familiar examples and arguments make their reappearance, including a critique of Giddenss idea of the
pure relationship, which Bauman sees only as a pure form of commodification of intimate relationships, in which the partners stay together only for so
long as their needs and expectations are being met, to be discarded in favour
of another partner and relationship if not, much as one mobile phone is junked
for a newer model which supposedly promises more, in an endless orgy of
consumption, of relationships as much as of objects supplied by the market
(pp. 148149).
As set out in greater detail in previous books, moral sensitivities and sensibilities are said in Moral Blindness to be numbed by a nowist culture
(p. 143), short on memory, in which the tsunami of information, opinions,
suggestions, recommendations, advice, and insinuation pouring forth from the
mass media, results in the blas attitude that Simmel another key influence
on Bauman had identified as a product of the modern metropolis. The
constant diet of catastrophes and images of poverty fed by the media overwhelm citizens of liquid modernity, leading to compassion fatigue (another
common theme). Mass culture a term more used by Donskis than Bauman,
though the idea is common to both results in an emaciating and enfeebling
of solidarity with the victims, those suffering the wasted lives of marketdominated societies.
But suffering fails to ennoble (another familiar argument). Bauman points
to the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as an example of how the lesson learnt
from the tragedy of the Holocaust seems not to be the need for kindness and
justice, but that the one who strikes first comes out on top, and as long as he
stays on top, he also stays unpunished (p. 35), unleashing a schismogenetic
chain in which tit-for-tat actions deepen the doggedness and pugnacity of
both sides at each stage and widen the abyss that divides them.
Facebook, Twitter, televisions reality and chat shows, the transformation of
news into a catalogue of scandals and infotainment, and other products of
contemporary popular culture come in for much criticism from both Donskis
and Bauman for leading to a sound-bite era, the death of privacy, an ease of
surveillance by the state and all manner of other evils which in turn create a
culture that increasingly suffers a disastrous deficit of moral sensitivity. The
distaste for popular culture is highly reminiscent of the Frankfurt Schools
critique of the popular culture of their day.
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Zygmunt Bauman: an Adorno for liquid modern times?

The occupy movement and the Arab Spring, and the role of the new social
media in facilitating both, do not inspire much hope; their failure, for Bauman,
lies in an inability to articulate any serious alternative vision (p. 62). Meanwhile, liberalism in Europe is excoriated for its moral panic over immigration
and its inability to adjust to more diverse societies, whilst fears stemming from
the enfeeblement of the nation-state in the face of globalization is wrongly
displaced onto immigrants, although this is not in any way linked by Bauman
with the endemic racism of Europe and its imperial past.
Dystopian novels, from Orwells 1984 (2013) to Houellebecqs The Possibility of an Island (2006) come in for much praise. It is no surprise, and in keeping
with my interpretation of Bauman as something of a latter-day Adorno, that he
turns to Adornos thoughts from Minima Moralia for some guidance, citing his
pessimistic conclusion that for the intellectual, inviolable isolation is now the
only way of showing some measure of solidarity . . . the detached observer is as
much entangled as the active participant; the only advantage of the former is
insight into his entanglement, and the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such (p. 47).
Bauman, though, still sees some hope that a Europe that is becoming a
mosaic of diasporas or a collection of overlapping and intersecting ethnic
archipelagos (p. 191) will find a way of peaceful co-habitation both within
itself and with its neighbours, as long as there is no policy of forceful assimilation. The faint optimism notwithstanding, the overall tone of the conversations seems distinctly pessimistic, echoing the post-war Frankfurt Schools
gloomy mood. Bauman would have been even more pessimistic if he had
acknowledged the growing moral panics over Islam and Muslims in Europe
and the USA, which make the prospect of any overall increase in inter-ethnic
conviviality (a term he uses in Richness, having borrowed it from Ivan Illich)
even more problematic. Interestingly, the hopes surrounding the survival of
Scandinavian-style social democracy and the resurgence of the left in Latin
America which Bauman had expressed in Consuming Life (2007: 142143)
seem to have been abandoned.
Anyone wanting an easy to read digest of Baumans current thinking could
certainly read Moral Blindness, although I would suggest that Consuming Life
and Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? have much more to
offer by way of rigorous argument and detailed analysis. Moral Blindness adds
little that is new, but has the merit of readability and Baumans usual sparkling
prose.

Understanding the crisis


Unfortunately, State of Crisis, another set of e-mail exchanges, this time with
Carlo Bordoni, is more disappointing. The title promises much, but any reader
wanting a serious analysis of current crises in Europe and the USA, and the
global fallout from them, will have to turn elsewhere, for example to books by
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Colin Crouch (2011, 2013), to mention only one amongst a host of authors who
have written about these urgent questions.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, entitled Crisis of the State,
has one key idea (explored many times previously), which is filled out with
much padding here: that intensified globalization and the freeing of capital to
roam the planet, seeking profit wherever it sees opportunities, has led to a
disconnect between power and politics. The former is now in the hands of
financial capital, while politics remains ineffectively rooted in nation-states
that have lost almost all semblance of sovereignty when faced with extraterritorial and fleet-footed corporations and wealthy elites. In this respect,
Bauman falls into the fatalistic hyperglobalist tendency that Andrew Gamble
criticizes in his Politics and Fate (2000).
The second part, entitled Crisis of Modernity, reprises much old ground on
the debate around postmodernity and postmodernism. Those who do not
already know why Bauman moved on from a postmodern perspective to one
that privileges the metaphor of liquid modernity, will at least learn what
Bauman has explained in interviews, which they may not have read (Bauman
and Tester, 2001: 9698; Bauman, 2004: 1719); especially, that he was dismayed by commentators and critics who assumed that for him postmodernity
meant the end of modernity, when in fact for Bauman postmodernity was a
phase within modernity, but which signalled a phase in which the illusions of
modernity, stemming from the Enlightenment belief in endless progress and
betterment of the human condition, were finally laid bare for what they had
always been: illusions. Especially, total, all-embracing projects have had their
day; instead, the modern spirit is now following Karl Poppers recommendation to render progress piecemeal, taking one thing at a time and, as far as
the distant bridges are concerned, not worrying about crossing them until they
have been reached (p. 60).
The final section, Democracy in Crisis, repeats much from the earlier
parts of the book on the loss of sovereignty by nation-states, and Bauman
adds to that analysis distinctly well-worn ideas on glocalization, with local
territories left to deal with problems that are globally generated and require
solutions at a global level (pp. 124ff). Baumans empathy with Generation
Y, a term borrowed from an article by Brafman in Le Monde of 19 May
2013, is much in evidence. He reproduces her argument about the predicaments of a generation that has never known a time before the Internet and
lives a life of short-term projects and endemic insecurity as one section of an
ever-enlarging precariat that has even begun to engulf growing sections of
the middle class (pp. 135139). The same argument, in almost identical
wording is also in Moral Blindness (pp. 152156), this kind of verbatim repetition being an unfortunate tendency in Baumans later writings.2 What economic analysis there is, relies heavily on Streecks Buying Time (2014), and
this is no surprise: while Bauman and Bordoni fail to mention this, Streeeck
was a student at Frankfurt University, attended Adornos lectures, and
retains from him, by his own admission, an intuitive refusal to believe that
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crises will always turn out well in the end an intuition that I certainly think
I can find in Adorno too (Streeck, 2014: vii).
Many paragraphs in the concluding pages of State of Crisis, written by
Bauman, are reproduced from Moral Blindness, only serving to add to the
sense of a weary book full of material and ideas from previous books
(compare Moral Blindness, pp. 148151 with State of Crisis, pp. 151153).

Who benefits from inequality?


Readers of The Sociological Review will hardly need reminding that social
inequalities in recent times have been rising rapidly and that despite the
recession that set in after the financial crisis of 2008, indeed to some degree
because of that economic crash, have reached grotesque proportions both
within societies and between them. In Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us
All? Bauman draws upon much readily available evidence on current inequalities from Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), Dorling (2011), Stiglitz (2012) and
Lansley (2012).
Given the availability of these books, therefore, Bauman seems to have
written his short book for two main reasons. First, to point out to perhaps an
even wider readership what has been documented in these and other publications: that the trickle down theory, which states that the growth of
wealth and income at the top gradually spreads downwards because those at
the top create greater wealth and jobs for the economy and labour force as
a whole, improve productivity, and so forth, is simply wrong. And second, to
find the causes of a puzzling phenomenon that follows upon the demonstration of growing inequalities: why does some or other version of the trickledown theory still have a grip on the popular imagination when even the
middle classes have been reduced to the level of the precariat (p. 10)?
Bauman argues that there are several reasons why the myth continues to
have credibility.
However, in setting out his analysis there are tensions between two sets of
different propositions advanced by Bauman. On the one hand, Baumans
discussion assumes that we are all in thrall to the idea that the richness of the
few does benefit us all. However, he also argues that these prevailing views are
not that dominant after all. For instance, he cites an inquiry by the High Pay
Commission in the UK which showed that amongst members of the public
four out of five of those questioned believed the pay and bonuses for the top
executives were out of control, while two-thirds did not trust companies to set
pay and bonuses responsibly (p. 76). In other words, contrary to the trickledown view, most people believe that inequalities are actually out of control, thus
undermining the basic thrust of the trickle-down theory as well Baumans
belief that everyone accepts it.
In addition he argues that few people now accept that those who have
succeeded in amassing large amounts of wealth or earn high incomes are
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naturally more talented than the rest of the population (p. 77). This comes as
something of a surprise, because earlier in the book and this sets up another
tension in his argument he says that we believe and We have been trained
and drilled to believe that . . . Abilities . . . are unequally distributed by their
nature; some people are thereby predisposed to achieve what others could
never attain however hard they tried (pp. 7071). This belief prompts us to
reconcile ourselves to the eerie, uncannily swelling inequality . . . by alleviating
the pain of surrender and resignation to failure, while stretching the odds
against dissent (p. 70). The tensions and self-contradictions in the analysis are
somewhat perplexing, to say the least.
It is no surprise to learn that another reason cited for the perpetuation of
the current systems of injustice is the consumerism that has in his view completely overwhelmed contemporary Western societies. And the ideology of
consumerism is underpinned by another, which exalts economic growth as the
overriding goal of productive activity. From the many passages in the book on
the way consumption has taken over the lives of Westerners I will cite only
two. We are all consumers now, consumers by right and duty. The day after the
9/11 outrage, George W. Bush, calling on Americans to get over the trauma and
go back to normal, found no better precept than to go back shopping
(p. 59). (Incidentally, Bauman gets the date of Bushs extraordinary injunction
wrong: he actually said those words in 20063). From cradle to coffin, Bauman
continues, we are trained and drilled, to treat shops as pharmacies filled with
drugs to cure or at least mitigate all the illnesses and afflictions of our lives . . .
Fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop therefore I am.
To shop or not to shop is no longer the question (p. 60). Shopping, then, numbs
sensibilities to such an extent, presumably, that feelings of outrage at presentday inequalities are assuaged by the purchase of more and more commodities.
Consumption takes over our psyches to the extent that they set standards for
both entering into and exiting love affairs; but electronic gadgets such as
mobile phones and the kind of relationships they lead to are not in the last
account . . . about love; products of consumer technology catch their clients
with the bait of . . . narcissism. They promise to reflect well on us (p. 51).
And those who are too poor to consume, the failed and flawed consumers, internalize an ideology in which they accept responsibility for their own
failure; lacking the talent, industry, persistence to be successful, they tend to
agree with the public verdict and blame themselves at the cost of their
self-esteem and self-confidence (p. 55). So this, then, is another reason for the
lack of dissent, that the ideology of blaming the victim has been internalized by
the victims of consumerism. Bauman does not provide any evidence that this
is indeed how all failed consumers see themselves; the reader is simply
invited to consume Baumans views.
The urban disorders of 2011 in English cities provide more grist to
Baumans mill. For him, those who took part were merely failed consumers
taking the opportunity to grab consumer goods that they could not afford, but
wanted desperately because of an internalization of the dominant ideology of
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consumerism (pp. 5759).There is clearly an important truth here, but Bauman


ignores the fact that for many of the black young men involved in the riots,
resentment of the police and their heavy-handed stop and search methods
played a significant role (Murji and Neal, 2011; Briggs, 2012). Baumans failure
to grasp the racialized character of the disorders is in keeping with his general
neglect of racism against British ethnic minorities, as I argue in my forthcoming book.
Consumerism and social inequality plant the seeds of one-upmanship. It
totally undermines any possibility for conviviality and human-friendly
cooperative togetherness (p. 87). The competitive, individualist fragmentation
that results from the present social arrangement creates free floating fears
ready to turn into hostility to stranger, passersby, neighbour or workmate.
The only alternative to this dystopia that Bauman points to, citing a Wikipedia
article, is the Slow Food movement, our only hope against destroying the
planet in a consumerist orgy.
But how has consumerism taken hold? Bauman points to no particular
agency, although the mass media and politicians speeches are vaguely
referred to. In effect, the roots of this pathology appear to reside, with few
mediations, in capitalist relations of production and exchange and the accompanying fetishism of commodities, something that Marx analyses in the first
chapter of Capital and which is generalized in Lukacss concept of reification
and further taken up by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.4 There is thus
a transplanting of the model of subject-object relations . . . on to the relations
between human beings (p. 82, emphasis in original). This leads to a mode of
treating human beings as commodities, dehumanizing them and tending
therefore to treat humans according to the pattern elaborated and reserved
for things (p. 82).
Thus, we are left with an implied economic determinism, for it is this
pattern of client-commodity or user-utility which is grafted upon human-tohuman interaction and drilled into us all, consumers in society of consumers
(pp. 8485).
Moreover, the sense that there is no alternative, no possibility of winning
the war against the system appears to be another reason why a social arrangement predicated on endless growth and consumerism is self-perpetuating
(p. 93). All we can do, before the catastrophe of climate change and resource
wars engulfs us is to try: again and again, and ever harder to resist (p. 96).
There is much to sympathize with in Baumans critique of the deregulation
of financial and other markets, grotesque inequalities, the endless pursuit of
economic growth, the orgy of consumerism, and his argument for the need for
conviviality. But this is an argument Bauman himself and many others have
already made. Bauman adds little that is novel. And his analysis of why this
system persists, in my view, is simplistic and contains a whole host of assertions,
especially about the numbing consequences of consumerism which lack the
nuance suggested by the evidence (Sassatelli, 2007; Smart, 2010). Add to that
the contradictions in the argument and the economic determinism of his
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analysis and what the reader is left with is a surprisingly unconvincing book
written for the already converted, which rather undermines the probable
intention of writing a short, punchy and compelling analysis for a wider public
puzzled by the current and burgeoning inequality.
And on the evidence of these three volumes, it seems that Baumans hopes
for progressive social and political transformation have now drowned in an
overwhelming Adorno-esque pessimism. He is certainly not alone in feeling
despondent about the future and one does not need to be in any way influenced by Adorno to feel that way; it is just that in Baumans case, his critique
of contemporary popular culture and his analysis of a total reification in which
social relations become nothing but relations between commodities is such
that to see him as a latter-day Adorno is far from fanciful.
Visiting Professor of Sociology, City University, London

Notes
1 Zygmunt Bauman: A Critical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury Academic, in preparation).
2 Bauman has also been involved in a controversy over his alleged plagiarism of Wikipedia: see
Jump (2014).
3 See George W. Bush (2006), Press Conference, 20 December, cited in Smart (2010: 148, 229).
4 See, for example, Jarvis (1998: 5255).

References
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Bauman, Z., (1998), In Search of Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Bauman, Z. and Tester, K., (2001), Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Bush, G.W., (2006), Press Conference, 20 December, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/
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Lansley, S., (2012), The Cost of Inequality, London: Gibson Square Books.
Murji, K. and Neal, S., (2011), Riot, race and politics in the 2011 disorders, Sociological Research
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Do Better, London: Allen Lane.

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