Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman's Sociology

January 29, 2009

Who is Zygmunt Bauman? The greatest sociologist writing in English today ..." announces an early chapter in this book. Well, if he isn't, who is? Mark Davis, in his plain, open-minded and admirable study, takes nothing for granted about his grand subject, but works his way through an account of Bauman's enormous oeuvre to a conclusion that leaves us in little doubt about the man's importance.

Davis joins a throng of Bauman commentaries, and in a diction and with a stately and sometimes ponderous tone ("to this I now turn ..."), and elsewhere adorned with Latin tags ("spiritus movens" and "differentia specifica"), guides us through the vocabulary and architecture of Bauman's theory of contemporary consumer society.

That he has to do so without any recourse to grown-up economics is perhaps a criticism of his original, particularly at a time when economic catastrophe has split open consumerism at the seams. I do not doubt that the "inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind" that Wordsworth invokes will restore once-avid consumers to the stolid virtues of daily domesticity and neighbourly thrift deep-rooted in the culture.

I intend no disparagement of Bauman's sombre warnings and dark judgments. Davis slights none of these, taking us carefully through Bauman's sociology, circumscribed by the key concept of "liquid modernity" or the familiar experience of (as Marx put it in 1848) "everything solid melting into air". Desperately trying to catch this ungraspable, quicksilver pouringness of experience, postmodern individuals believe themselves able to find freedom and fulfilment according to the "agenda" of the open market and abiding by the "codes of choice" with which it seduces its guileless victims.

We need to brace ourselves by recalling the familiarity of the experience of lostness. Not long after Marx saw capitalism melting down community, J. A. Froude wrote of "the intellectual lightships all breaking from their moorings", and just around the corner of the century lay T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and D. H. Lawrence's Apocalypse. Lostness and liquefaction have been with us since the first declaration of modernity.

Not that it is much consolation, and Bauman's condemnations of the colossal self-indulgences unleashed by headlong consumerism since the great boom began to resound have dateless force. He picked up (as Davis tells us) the implicit theory of consumer totalitarianism to be found in the works of the old Frankfurters Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (and Davis pertinently adds Erich Fromm to the books of the prophets) and wrote their minatory apprehensions into a curse spoken over the echoing nave of the shopping mall.

Davis, in his shy way, seeks to moderate Bauman's awful severity. He objects that retail therapy has - dash it all - its keen pleasures, and that in any case its customers may well be able to see through its transience even as they take such pleasure in it. In particular, he objects, as well he might, to the confidence with which Bauman ascribes an ethical psychology to what is going on in the minds of millions as they observe the rituals of exclusion (another new and key social function in Bauman's sociology) in those dreadful orgies of narcissism practised in Big Brother and all that.

Surely Davis is right in his reservation? Perhaps he is not robust enough in making the argument turn on the issue of liberalism. Both he and (on his account) Bauman define freedom pretty well as Isaiah Berlin did in his Cold War propaganda essays, as "freedom from ..." and "freedom to ...". This version of freedom then dwindles down to the pinpoint of "choice". The free chooser is, however, hardly the free citizen. In the struggle for liberty before liberalism, as Quentin Skinner has many times reminded us, freedom was found by Milton in self-government and self-reliance. In Amartya Sen's powerful attempts to make freedom the recoverable condition of the world's poor, it is created out of those local "capabilities" that may truly serve a free person's free "functionings".

Nonetheless, Davis is right to put the question of freedom at the heart of the human sciences as it is at the heart of Bauman's mighty labours. Bauman, more a cultural critic in the tradition of John Ruskin and William Morris or, in his native Poland, of Bronislaw Geremek, than a grand theorist, is right to locate the queasiness in the guts of postmodernity as caused by the mixture of fear and freedom. But the great moral tradition of leftist humanism to which both Bauman and his expositor pay their allegiance is a damn sight tougher and more resilient than either of them allows.

Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman's Sociology

By Mark Davis. Ashgate, 198pp, £55.00. ISBN 97807546715. Published 31 October 2008.

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