Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

The name of Zygmunt Bauman has been coming up a lot in some recent reading I've been doing in history and political theory. Monday the news was that he had just passed away.

Matthew Gindin writes about him in Renowned Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman Heard Echoes of World War II in Trump The Forward 01/09/2017:

Bauman lived in England since 1971 after he was driven out of Poland by a purge engineered by the communist Polish secret police. Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds, Bauman was one of the world’s most revered social theorists, publishing 57 books and well over a hundred articles. Most of these address common themes: modernity and postmodernity, consumerism, morality, and the sociology and political culture of fear.

Bauman is known for coining the term “liquid modernity” to describe the unstable and ever-changing nature of post-modern life, as well as many neologisms such as the “precariat” (the mass of people living precarious existences) and “allosemitism” (the ambivalent attitude towards Jews in many modern societies which cannot be summed up as either philo- or anti-Semitism).
This animated video is narrated by Baumann, though I don't know if he wrote the text. It does make use of his concept of the "precariate."

Why the world fears refugees (Narrated by Zygmunt Bauman) Al Jazeera English 10/13/2016:

He did a pamphlet commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the German Social Democratic Party (PDS) in 1863, 150 Years of German Social Democracy (2013): "The ADAV (General German Union of Workers) was founded [by Ferdinand Lassalle], an organization which became the prototype of all subsequent workers’ associations in the whole of Europe."

Most of Lassalle’s contemporaries expected industrialization to last forever, just as we expected consumerism to last until 2007. Thus, a stage would be reached where society is divided into two parts: Workers, and those who supervise and exploit them. So, given the general right to vote, it seemed obvious that the workers would gain power in the state.

But what to do with that power? The state had to compel the banks to subsidize manufacturing cooperatives. Instead of factories owned by one man, each worker was to be co-owner of a factory – a cooperative of manufacturers. This was meant to be an alternative to the emerging industrial society. Industry – yes, scientific progress – yes, modernization – yes, but not in the manner pursued by capital, devoid of political control.

These postulates need to be updated, but as far as the objective is concerned, Lassalle’s vision is a vision of a just society in which people live together in harmony and cooperation instead of competition and suspicion. This is on the agenda today just as it was 150 years ago.

Bauman critically describes these major aspects of the neoliberal worldview. He uses the French term imaginaire, which the philosopher Jacques Deleuze to describe "how we imagine the world order, what the conditions for our actions are, and for what values it is worth struggling or, if necessary, make a sacrifice." In the following, I think it's safe to say that "bourgeois imaginaire" can be used interchangeably with "neoliberalism."

The bourgeois imaginaire has triumphed.I shall now present its most conspicuous features. A panacea for all social ills [according to neoliberal claims] is an increase in output measures in terms of GDP – there are no other ways to improve mankind’s lot. But behind this assumption there lies a hidden, silent condition – one can increase the production of industrial commodities to no end, one can deliver more and more goods.

The second assumption is that human happiness consists in visits to the shops – all roads to happiness lead via shopping, in other words an increase in consumption. At the basis of this thinking lies the conviction that consumption can be increased ad infinitum and that one can forget about other simple, primitive pre-industrial methods of achieving happiness. And there were such methods.

The search for happiness is recorded in the results of our natural and cultural evolution, and is universal to all members of the human race. Maybe we forget the methods that were applied in the past, even 1,000 years ago, such as satisfaction from a job well done, an “instinct of workmanship” as Thorsten Veblen described it, a pleasure from working with other people, from friendly neighbours, from partnership, from a common march through life. All this we set aside. The shops provide us with all the pleasure.

The third assumption of [the] bourgeois imaginaire is something called meritocracy: Although people are and will always be unequal, inequality in itself is not an evil. It is a means with which to increase prosperity. However, “people get rich through honesty and work”. If you try hard and work hard, you will find plenty of room at the top. Poverty and impairment are a sentence imposed not by fate, but by indolence or negligence.
Bauman explains the consequences in practice for the SPD in having embraced the neoliberal worldview full-on during the red-green government headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroder (1998–2005): "Since the adoption of Agenda 2010 by Chancellor Schröder, the SPD has lost one third of its members – a disastrous downturn in the party’s history. The SPD is in huge difficulties." But he describes how a similar problem affects other social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere.

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