Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age

Les Gofton considers a worldview of broken dreams and thwarted projects, tempered by hope

June 9, 2011

"Anyone here work in marketing?" The late Bill Hicks often opened his act with that seemingly innocent question, but only the terminal ingenue would put up a hand. Looking out at those who did, the comedian would peer over his glasses and say: "Kill yourselves. Do it now."

Zygmunt Bauman leans in the same direction, although his is a more nuanced response to consumerism's evils. He includes the idea of "collateral damage", the phrase describing the accidental or incidental deaths at the hands of military personnel that accompanies the latest cycle of intervention and regime regulation. He fits it into a world picture where the dream of order, of nature and humankind brought within the domain of reason, has melted into the uncertainty and randomness of "liquid" modernity.

This is a world of broken dreams and disappointed projects. The extension of the agora, the realm of democratic representation, has not empowered those at the margins, but fostered a defensive exclusivity on the part of the most favoured. As much as it has opened up the public realm, the communications revolution has corroded the realm of privacy, and with it the institutions vital to the maintenance of human bonds; consumerism, built on capitalism's wager on the infinity of human needs, makes the attempt to solve humanity's problems by finding or imposing ordered solutions an impossibility, given a permanent state of recasting needs and desires.

Power in this world rests not on bureaucratic rigidity, as Max Weber prophesied, but on managerial capacity to impose a constant state of insecure uncertainty. Fear, the product of this uncertainty, becomes another channel for power as we increasingly find the Other - any other, weak or strong - potentially threatening, whether as terrorists, economic migrants or muggers.

Which returns us to marketing. As individuals caught in this world, we nevertheless seek a sense of self-worth and aim to nurture those for whom we care. In a world shorn of traditional bases for identity and social connectivity, goods and markets fill the void. Consuming becomes a moral act; a mode of connection with, and commitment to, others. Tie this in to communications technologies dissolving the boundaries between private and public, while diminishing the capacity of users to express complex ideas and arguments, and a world of increasingly unequal populations, and you glimpse the scale and range of the victims - the "collateral damage" of disenchanted modernity.

Hicks died a disappointed young man. The baby boomers' "radicalism" was soon converted into markets. Bohemians transmuted into moguls, rock rebels and punks have become nostalgists or performers at "events" opportunities. Bauman now sees the same consumerism as the engine driving humanity away from the possibility of an ordered or stable solution to the crises surrounding modernity. For him it had been a real possibility - at least before communism (the "God-that-failed") was revealed as a busted flush in the face of satellite TV and the demise of the Trabant. The logic and rationalisation so central to what he calls "solid" modernity also led to a view of social order where the destruction of the undesirable marginal other becomes "cleansing", and those dispensing the pellets of Zyklon B become "sanitary officers". "Collateral damage" is the latest progeny of this degenerate line.

The handmaiden of such work is language, and these perversions, unchallenged, become the lebensform - "bad" language surely drives out good. Theodor Adorno saw Auschwitz as the end of poetry; George Steiner saw it as the cultural event of the 20th century. A consistent focus of Bauman's attention here is the liquidity and fluidity of language. Internet "communities" have none of the virtues associated with the term, while death-dealing military force becomes a set of "assets".

As the US historian Martin Jay has argued, the idea of "liquid modernity" with which Bauman has replaced the depleted "post-modernity" may arise more from his heritage as a "mercurial" non-Jewish Jew than as a genuine derivation from empirical analysis. It is a heritage focused on survival in alien and swiftly changing settings by skilful analysis, insight and understanding of disparate cultures and languages.

Yet Bauman's humanity remains admirable. As a chapter here reveals, his requiem for communism insists that its core vision persists in spite of the perversions it spawned. A wise old man, raging against the rise of new evils and yet retaining a passion for a redemptive and transformative mission for sociology and its concerns, is something laudable. Hicks would have approved.

Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age

By Zygmunt Bauman

Polity, 224pp, £50.00 and £14.99 ISBN 9780745652948 and 652955

Published 6 May 2011

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