Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?

June 5, 2008

How on earth does Zygmunt Bauman do it? He published 15 or 16 books in Poland before he was chucked out in an anti-Semitic purge soon after the brief hopes of 1968. Since 1971, a book a year, and now at 82 here's the 40th or so since he arrived in Britain, laden with honours, a Military Cross and the irremovable distinction of having been right about former President General Jaruzelski.

Over the past 15 years, Bauman has been intent upon his analysis of the peculiar conditions of postmodernity, its "liquid" (his key concept) life and ethics into which - as Marx warned - it melts everything solid on which we count for handholds. This liquefaction dissolves the bonds of love and solidarity, weakens beyond repair the force of sympathy, blinds the fortunate to horrors new and old in the lower depths, makes each one of us a fearful little atom, bombarded by time and chance, held in a force field at once incomprehensible and omnipotent, deprived of the succour of history and tradition.

You can't say he's wrong. You can say he is repetitious, neglectful of particularity, unbraced, above all, by critical resistance to the crude or sweeping generalisations he declares it to be the duty of the clerisy to oppose and, if possible, destroy.

This new book goes through his Apocrypha once again. Nobody who wants still to count themselves on the side of the best Enlightenment values - freedom, equality, fraternity, non-utilitarian reason (yes, yes, I know all about Adorno, Weber and the iron cage) - can just reject Bauman.

No one who wants to keep faith with whatever it is the Left has deposited in our forms of thought about the hatefulness of global capitalism can turn down thumbs on the book.

But no one who wants to keep a clean, sane and affirmative tongue in his head can let it pass either. The prose is so often a clunking mixture of heavy sociologese ("the multivocality and cultural variegation of urban environments in the globalisation era"), cumbrous and unnecessary neologisms ("schismogenetic", "adiaphorizing"), untranslated and unobvious German or Latin tags, crashing cliche ("the jury is still out", "we will need to make many stark choices") and irremediable tripe ("promises ... seem to be made only to be broken", "in a liquid-modern world ... few if any worthy activities ... retain their worthiness for long").

The pattern of the book is a bit weird as well. Mostly it comprises a long malediction spoken over consumerism and its managers, but Bauman adds a strange excursus into the theory of genocide that, however hideous, is not exactly a managerial objective. Mostly, no doubt, he is right: right but uneditably garrulous; preposterously gloomy in a complacent sort of way; for family love is not extinct, nor happiness become vacuous, nor reality TV and Hello! magazine worth more than a moment's notice.

If only Bauman had taken a bit more time over his Benjaminish musings on modern art, as well as putting some grit into his deep blankness to the facts of life, the book would find a style and a stance. Above all, if he is looking for trouble, how can he so ignore the roughest beast of all slouching our way with the weather?

Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?

By Zygmunt Bauman
Harvard University Press
288pp
£16.95
ISBN 97806740800
Published 1 May 2008

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