Living in Liquid Modernity
How to make sense of ourselves, of Davos, of Trump and populism—all at once.
Posted January 23, 2018
I’ve been following a lot of sociologists lately. ‘How can we best make sense of the moment we’re in?’, is the question I’m asking right now, and the whole field of sociology is always trying to answer it. One of the most thought-provoking books in the field that I’ve found so far is Liquid Modernity, by Zygmunt Bauman.
Zygmunt was a Polish-born sociologist (1925-2017) and one of the world’s eminent social theorists. Born in Poland, he escaped to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded, then returned to Poland after WWII as a committed Communist and lecturer at the University of Warsaw. In 1968, he was kicked out of Poland for being too critical of the country’s Communist regime and moved to the UK. He spent the rest of his career—and life—in Leeds. He died just a year ago. (If he were still living, I’d be knocking on his door right now.) His big ideas—which focus on questions of modernity, consumerism and globalization—reflect decades lived on both sides of the 20th century’s ideological divide.
As a sociologist, Zygmunt passionately believed that by asking questions about our own society, we become freer. ‘An autonomous society, a truly democratic society, is a society which questions everything that is pre-given and by the same token liberates the creation of new meanings. In such a society, all individuals are free to create for their lives the meanings they will (and can).’
On the flipside: ‘Society is ill if it stops questioning itself.’ We become enslaved to the narratives being manufactured all around us, and we lose touch with our own subjective experiences.
Self-questioning our own society is hard work: ‘We need to pierce the walls of the obvious and self-evident, of the prevailing ideas of the day whose commonality is mistaken for proof that they make sense.’
And yet, we must try, because: ‘Whatever safety democracy and individuality may muster depends not on fighting the uncertainty of the human condition, but on recognizing it and facing its consequences point-blank.’
The prevailing ideas of our day box us in. They wall in our awareness of what’s happening in our own society. They limit our sight to the surfaces that have been painted for us. But if we can see the box itself, then maybe we can cut ourselves a window—or even a door…
Trapped inside liquid modernity
Zygmunt labels the box we’re now trapped inside ‘liquid modernity’. He contrasts it with the very different box of ideas we used to be trapped in, which all had to do with ’solidity’.
What’s happening to us today—why everything feels so strange—is that we are struggling to shift our thinking, values and identity, from a solid to a liquid state.
‘Flexibility has replaced solidity as the ideal condition to be pursued of things and affairs.’ The very same day I read that sentence, I received a newsletter from the McKinsey Quarterly titled 'Organizing for the Age of Urgency.'
And I saw, not the article, but the box Zygmunt is trying to make me see.
Liquid individuals (or, making sense of our own selves)
In our personal lives, we now live this shift from solid to liquid daily. In solid modernity, the world of Henry Ford factories and automotive unions, ‘the task confronting free individuals was to use their freedom to find the appropriate niche and to settle there through conformity.’ (If you think about it, our systems of compulsory education were designed to help us achieve that goal, that life.)
But today, ‘such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform…are in increasingly short supply.’ Where once workers unionized and rallied together to humanize labour against dehumanizing conformity, now we struggle with the absence of stable employment structures. These days, ‘patterns to which we could conform are no longer “given”, let alone “self-evident”; there are just too many of them, clashing with one another and contradicting one another.’
Today, the burden of pattern-weaving (and the responsibility for getting the pattern wrong) falls primarily on each individual’s shoulders. ‘Under the new circumstances, the odds are that most of human life—and most of human lives—will be spent agonizing about the choice of goals, rather than finding the means to the ends which do not call for reflection.’
‘What should I do?’ has come to dominate our actions. There are painfully more possibilities than any individual life, however long, adventurous or industrious, can attempt to explore. The most haunting, insomnia-causing question has become, ‘Have I used my means to the best advantage?’
One of the consequences of this haunting uncertainty is that ‘shopping’ has extended beyond buying stuff to become the very activity of life itself. ‘Shopping is no longer just about food, shoes, cars or furniture. The avid, never-ending search for new and improved examples and recipes for life is also a variety of shopping. We shop for the skills needed to earn our living, and for the ways to learn them best; for ways of making the new friends we want; for ways of drawing attention and ways to hide from scrutiny; for the means to squeeze the most satisfaction out of love and for the best ways to make money…The competence most needed in a world of infinite ends is that of the skillful and indefatigable shopper.’
Liquid capitalism (making sense of Davos)
In his critiques of capitalism, Zygmunt’s bias, built up over decades as a committed communist, reads plainly. But it doesn’t mean his analysis is wrong. And given that this week is the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I think now is a good moment for all of us to ask some tough questions of our economic modernity.
’In the fluid stage of modernity,’ Zygmunt wrote, ‘the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite.’ (Apt, eh?)
His reasoning is this: In a solid world, the power of capital over labor was demonstrated by the ability to fix in place, to control. In the solid factories of Henry Ford, power was wielded by bolting human labor to machines on an assembly line.
But that power came with some responsibility, too. In the world of factories, human labor came with a human body. ‘One could employ human labor only together with the rest of the laborers’ bodies…That requirement brought capital and labor face-to-face in the factory and kept them, for better or worse, in each other’s company.’ Factory owners had to supply some light, some food, some safety at least.
That’s no longer the case. In our liquid, digital economy, labor no longer ties down capital. While labor still depends on capital to supply the tools to be productive, capital itself is now weightless, free of spatial confinement. Now, the power of capital is to escape, to avoid and evade, to reject territorial confinement, to reject the inconvenience and responsibility of building and maintaining a labor force. ‘Brief contracts replace lasting engagements. One does not plant a citrus-tree grove to squeeze a lemon.’
In liquid modernity, capital travels hopefully (with carry-on luggage only), counting on brief profitable adventures and confident that there will be no shortage of them. Labor itself is now dividing into those who can do the same, and those who cannot:
'This has become the principal factor of present-day inequality…The game of domination in the era of liquid modernity is not played between the bigger and the smaller, but between the quicker and the slower…People who move and act faster are now the people who rule…It is the people who cannot move as quickly, and especially, those who cannot leave their place at all, who are ruled…Some of the world’s residents are on the move; for the rest it is the world itself that refuses to stand still.'
Where once we valued durability, now we value flexibility. Transience. Because that which cannot easily bend will instead snap.
Liquid society (Making sense of our Trump obsession)
Remember George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? In solid modernity, we feared the monolithic Big Brother. We feared the totalitarian state that would lock all of our private freedoms into the iron grip of public routines. The private sphere would be devoured by the public. Now, we fear the reverse: that the unfettered freedom of our private action is eroding, devouring, the once solid-seeming institutions of the public sphere.
The task now is to defend the vanishing public realm.
In the era of ‘solid modernity’, the metaphor for society was that of ‘citizens in a shared household’. The household had norms, habits and rules. And politics was about building awareness of, and tweaking, those features of household life.
But now, it’s like we’re all ‘individuals in a caravan park’. We come and go, according to our own itinerary and time schedule. We all bring to the park our own homes, equipped with all the stuff we need for our stay—which we intend to be short. There’s a site manager, from whom what we want most is to be left alone and not interfered with. We all pay our rental fee, and since we pay, we also demand. We want our promised services—electric sockets and water taps, and not to be disturbed by the other campers—and otherwise want to be free to do our own thing. On occasion, we clamor for better service from the manager. Sometimes we get it. But it doesn’t occur to us to challenge the managerial philosophy of the site, much less to take over the responsibility for running the place. We may, at the utmost, make a mental note never to use the site again and not to recommend it to our friends. But when we leave, the site remains much the same as it was before our arrival.
This shift, from ‘shared household’ to ‘caravan park’, makes for a profoundly different public discourse. Rather than a space to debate our collective problem—how to build the good or just society—the public sphere has become dominated by the private problems of public figures. To fear Big Brother was to fear the few watching the many. ‘But now the tables have been reversed. It is now the many who watch the few.’ (Or the one…Donald Trump)
As the public realm dwindles down to public commentary on private virtues and vices, the collective questions fade from public discourse, until we reach the point we are at today, where ‘politicians offer us their sentiments, rather than their acts, for our consumption’ and we, as spectators, do not expect much more from our politicians than a good spectacle.
Liquid identity (or, Making sense of populism)
Immigration is a good thing. ‘A mixing of cultural inspirations is a source of enrichment and an engine of creativity.’ At the same time, ‘only a thin line separates enrichment from a loss of cultural identity.’
Faced with the fluidity of this modern moment, it’s not surprising that we respond to the ‘other’, the strange, the foreign by pushing it away. Separation and escape from difference is so much easier, so much more natural, for us now than engagement and mutual commitment.
‘Don’t talk to strangers’, parents used to tell their children. Today that advice is redundant. Who does that anymore? ‘Civil spaces’—spaces where we met strangers and did some mutual thing together—are shrinking.
Public spaces—movie theatres, shopping streets, restaurants, airports—are proliferating. But such spaces ‘encourage action, not interaction.’ In public spaces, genuine encounters with strangers are an annoyance; they keep us away from the actions in which we are individually engaged. However crowded these spaces may be, there is nothing ‘collective’ going on among the crowd. These crowds are accurately called gatherings, but not congregations; clusters, not squads; aggregates, not wholes.
Because civil spaces are shrinking, ‘the occasions to learn the art of civility are ever fewer and further between.’ And civility—the ability to live with differences, let alone to enjoy such living and to benefit from it—is an art. ‘It does not come easily. Like all arts, it requires study and exercise.’
If we lack the art of civility, ‘seeking security in a common identity rather than in an agreement on shared interests emerges as the most sensible way to proceed, because no one knows how to talk to anyone else.’
Patriotism and nationalism are the easiest ways to construct a shared sense of safety. But given the messy, tangled reality of humanity today, they’re also the least stable. ‘In a stark opposition to either the patriotic or the nationalistic faith, the most promising kind of unity is one which is achieved, and achieved daily anew, by confrontation, debate, negotiation and compromise between values, preferences and chosen ways of life and self-identifications of many and different people. This is a unity that is an outcome of, not a prior condition to, shared life.
‘This, I wish to propose, is the only formula of togetherness which our liquid modernity renders plausible…And so the choice stares us in the face: to learn the difficult art of living with difference.’
This line of thinking led Zygmunt to conclude (in 2012, four years before Brexit and Trump): ‘The big question, likely to determine the future of civilization, is which of these two contending “facts of the matter” will come out on top: the life-saving role played by immigrants in slow-growing, fast-ageing countries, or the rise in xenophobic sentiments, which populists will eagerly recycle into electoral power?’
Connecting the dots
All of the above is just one person’s way of making sense of the changes we’re all going through. But it’s remarkable how similar his sense-making is to others’ attempts. In language that reminds me strongly of Marshall McLuhan, who described living in ‘a state of terror’, Zygmunt writes: ‘Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.’
Under conditions of ‘liquidity’, everything can happen—yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty. That’s because ‘we presently find ourselves in a time of “interregnum”—when the old ways of doing things no longer work, the old learned or inherited modes of life are no longer suitable for the current human condition, but when the new ways of tackling the challenges and new modes of life better suited to the new conditions have not as yet been invented.’
But we’re working on it.
More from Zygmunt Bauman
‘Passion and Pessimism’ (2003) — a long essay-interview in The Guardian, in which Zygmunt confronts the accusation of being too pessimistic about the present and describes the ‘restless moral energy’ that made him an intellectual maverick his whole life.
‘Liquid Fear’ (2016) — one of Zygmunt’s last video-interviews, given just a few months before Trump’s 2016 election victory. He talks (in a thick accent!) about ‘how we live today in a state of constant anxiety about the dangers that could strike unannounced at any moment’ and how to cope as passengers in an airplane with no pilot.
‘Social Media are a Trap’ (2016) — an interview Zygmunt gave with the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Regarding social networks, he points out: ‘The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the network that people fail to learn the real social skills that you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people with whom you need to enter into sensible interaction.’
Bauman, Zygmunt. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.