Review by John Holmwood
Zygmunt Bauman’s sociological imagination was formed in post-war Poland where, in the 1950s, an independent sociology was beginning to develop (Bucholc 2016). Paradoxically, the dominant functionalist approach of US sociology could be described as ‘ideology’ when applied to capitalist society and its contradictions, but as an objective science when applied to a communist society where social problems were understood by the authorities to be contingent and not deriving from an underlying contradiction. This sociological flourishing – in which Bauman’s book, Socjologia na co dzień (Everyday Sociology, published in Polish 1964 and later translated as Thinking Sociologically) was an important counterpoint – was short-lived. It came to an end when reform movements across communist regimes in Europe were suppressed after the Prague spring in 1968. In Poland, this coincided with a resurgence of anti-semitism, following which Bauman left for Israel and thence to England where he remained at the University of Leeds until his death in 2017.
Notwithstanding Bauman’s renown as a prolific sociologist and social theorist, there are few systematic and critical studies of his work. Ali Rattansi’s book fills this gap and does so with clarity and rigour. It is no fault of Rattansi, but Bauman himself remains elusive. Moreover, despite his extensive output, the substance of his work is revealed to be rather thin. It is not only that there is very considerable repetition, there is also great inconsistency and little development. For example, although Bauman criticises standard approaches associated with professional sociology, he does not develop an alternative set of categories, as, for example, did his contemporary, Giddens, with the theory of structuration.
Rattansi regards Legislators and Interpreters (1987) as one of his most important books, albeit flawed and derivative. It is clear that professional sociology is being criticised as a ‘legislative’ project. In this way sociology in liberal democracies and in communist societies are implicitly brought into alignment. However, the role of the sociologist as interpreter is less clear. Rattansi suggests that Bauman’s analysis of the ‘legislator’ owes a debt to Foucault on ‘power/knowledge’. However, Bauman is not endorsing an engaged sociology as part of a deeper commitment to democratic knowledge. The ‘interpreter’ appears no less distant from the passions and interests of everyday life, than does the legislator. Bauman expresses moral outrage at the different forms of suffering produced by the modern world, but that outrage is not directed toward any social movement of amelioration. The ‘individualisation’ he attributes to late modernity is expressed in his own response and that of sociology as a generalised call to ‘action’, but a call that is to be responded to by each who hears it on the basis of their own ethical commitments.
Like Foucault, Bauman is also uninterested in the colonial context of modernity and its racialised structures. Indeed, as Rattansi points out, this is not simply something that is all too typical of sociological commentaries of their time, subject to a postcolonial ‘correction’. The avoidance looks deliberate and even occurs when Bauman is discussing a topic that all other writers understand as racialised. For example, in Work, Consumption and the New Poor (1998), there is a discussion of the ‘underclass’ that draws on Gunnar Myrdal’s Challenge to Affluence (1963), who was re-visiting his earlier treatment of race in the US in An American Dilemma (1944). Bauman’s chapter discusses the US experience and, despite references to ‘ghettoisation’ and imprisonment, has no explicit discussion of race as a central issue in the development of the US welfare state and its creation of an underclass. As Rattansi also points out, he is also uninterested in gender, too. Bauman is a theorist of class relations, albeit of their decomposition and the decline of solidarities.
In this context, the coinage of a new form of modernity – whether ‘postmodernity’ (about which Bauman is ambivalent as Rattansi shows) or ‘liquid modernity’ – is a far from innocent device. It represents some issues as lying in the past and orients the sociological imagination toward a sociology of the present and the future. The processes of modernity are argued now to produce new and different consequences – a shift from traditional to self-chosen identities, for example, and from order to uncertainty, and from production to consumption as the primary mode of experience.
In these respects, ‘liquid modernity’ might be regarded as similar to Ulrich Beck’s idea of ‘risk society’, except that the latter is much more restricted in its specific scope. The ‘liquid’ of ‘liquid’ modernity flows into all of modernity’s nooks and crannies as indicated by the phenomena to which it is appended – ‘love’, ‘evil’, ‘times’, ‘fear’, etc. It is, then, more akin to Beck’s idea of ‘second modernity’. As with the latter, the concept of liquid modernity lacks detailed engagement with sociological research and is offered more as a series of promissory notes on research that might confirm its claims. However, as Rattansi argues, much of what is claimed is already negated by research that preceded it and the various iterations do not involve revision and reformulation. In this way, the construction exists as a background reference in the literature reviews of many studies that go on to develop a different account of the issues in question. ‘Liquid modernity’, then, does not really pass muster as an expression of sociology in the interpreter mode. The content of the idea itself drains away.
Ultimately, according to Rattansi, one book stands out in Bauman’s extensive oeuvre. This is Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), where Bauman develops the view that it expresses one of the possibilities intrinsic to modernity itself, deriving from bureaucratic rationality operating in concert with an atavistic racism represented by European anti-semitism. Rattansi comes into his own in his dissection of Bauman’s argument and its relation to a wider scholarship on the holocaust. This is so, not least because it is Bauman at his best, too. Ultimately, though, the thesis of the primacy of bureaucratic rationality is rejected – ideology is more important than Bauman allows, while anti-semitism should be aligned more closely with colonial modes of racialisation. As Sven Lindqvist put it, “when what had been done in the heart of darkness was repeated in the heart of Europe, no one recognised it. No one wished to admit what everyone knew” (1997: 172).
The puzzle, as Rattansi sets out, is that Bauman presents a largely functionalist explanation and downplays agency and intention. At the same time, liquid modernity’s denial of state-organised collective projects suggests that the forms of late modern suffering will be radically different from the systematic genocide of the holocaust and open to individual ethical responsibilities. In this way, the enigma of Bauman and his sociological ‘personality’ are inscribed in the very construction of his sociology. The Polish past, modernity’s past, is beyond individual responsibility; while the future is returned to us as requiring an ethical response. This is an excellent book and Rattansi has performed a great service in writing it. It is the first book-length critical engagement with Bauman’s work. But it is the nature of that work that makes the task so difficult. I have come away with the view that the work is a powerful testament of our times and the tasks confronting sociology, but it is also built on an evasion that seeks to cover its own tracks by an excessive repetition of the idea of modernity as a ‘memory’ even as it continues to be lived.
John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair (Bristol, Policy Press. 2017).
You can also listen to Ali Rattansi discussing this book in one of our podcasts (interviewed by Mark Carrigan). Listen here.