Life in the age of insecurity

In Search of Politics

October 22, 1999

With In Search of Politics , the prolific Zygmunt Bauman joins other European social theorists in seeking to illuminate the current political landscape. It would be wrong to suggest that opinion has polarised around attitudes to the global market, but it is clear there are strongly contrasting views. Anthony Giddens essentially takes the view that globalisation just "is", and government must work within its strictures, while Pierre Bourdieu has sought to expose the conceits and inevitable catastrophe of the "strong discourse" of "no alternatives". It is clear that Bauman's thinking is much closer to Bourdieu than Giddens. Certainly what is implicit is that sociology should retain a critical independence from government, rather than simply delivering bland philosophical endorsements of current policy.

Bauman starts from the paradox that "we" (people of the developed world) assume our freedom, but are not prepared to do anything to defend or extend it. Occasionally people may join campaigns of a more or less rational type, but the issue(s) of concern and their pursuit only serve to emphasise the disillusionment most people feel with formal political structures and their representatives. The participants in a campaign to hound a paedophile, for instance, immerse themselves in something moral and emotive to compensate for the loneliness of their everyday lives. The context for their impotence is the systematic dismantling of security by globalisation. Governments have facilitated globalisation by a retreat from the interface between the public and private to accommodate an enlarged, market-orientated individualism. To impose a vision of a collective future on individuals is now generally considered the first step to the gulag. In any case, the state is powerless to check the turbulence of the global market. The result is that the only defence from fear it can offer to the populace is to identify scapegoats, eg asylum seekers.

However, Bauman argues, "the freedom promised is quite different from that attained". Happiness can never be achieved by consumerism alone. Whatever happiness consists of exactly, it can only be achieved collectively in the context of the pursuit of the common good, the project of a new universal republicanism. By this Bauman means a rejuvenation of citizenship and polity, through state underpinning of security by the guarantee of basic income.

The account is at times persuasive and never less than eloquent. However, herein lies the first of the problems with the book. In both an elegiac prose and the rather contrived philosophy Bauman deploys, he often succeeds in obscuring his cultural observations, for instance in a fascinating discussion of TV talk shows. The second problem lies in the extent of Bauman's pessimism about postmodernity. In relation to culture and identity, he seems to posit its positive aspects. However, even those sceptical of the excessive claims about the potential of information technology to wrest knowledge from its custodians will recognise that, rather than reinforcing a traditional monopoly, it destabilises its access and dissemination. Put simply, many undergraduates arriving at universities this autumn will have far greater proficiency in the worldwide web than the academics who teach them.

Sam Pryke is lecturer in sociology, Liverpool Hope University College.

In Search of Politics

Author - Zygmunt Bauman
ISBN - 0 7456 2171 6 and 2172 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 212

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