Work out a new way to live

The Brave New World of Work - Liquid Modernity
November 10, 2000

Both of these books are unashamedly polemical and not very closely connected to careful, painstaking empirical research in sociology. Ulrich Beck describes his book as a work of "visionary non-fiction" and, presumably, he expects it to be reviewed in these terms. Many perceptive journalists would doubtless claim that they, too, write visionary non-fiction. I suppose that Beck's use of certain statistical material in support of his ideas justifies his use of the term non-fiction. However, the way he does this makes me uneasy.

He begins by claiming that there is a "Brazilianisation of the West", taking trends in Germany as suitable indicators of what is happening in western societies as a whole. He claims that there is a newly emerging form of "nomadic 'multi-activity'" that is rapidly spreading and that highly skilled, well-paid employment "is on its way out".

Thus, in Germany, the number of employees holding full-time jobs for long periods of their lives will fall from two-thirds to a half in ten years. The other half, he suggests, will work " à la Bresilienne ". Beck fails to recognise that in Britain, evidence from the Labour Force Survey suggests that the length of time workers spend in the same job is increasing. Nor does he appear interested in the work of researchers at, for example, Oxford, Warwick, Essex and the London School of Economics in Britain or at Berlin, Mannheim and Cologne in Germany, who are concerned with precisely this topic. He is so keen to get on with his vision that well-grounded debates on the nature and meaning of employment flexibility in different western countries pass him by.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to quibble about the significance of the non-fiction part of his work. Visions of the future, which he discusses in his last two chapters, are his main concern. By then, he has come to the conclusion that the work society is dead and will be replaced by the civil labour society.

What is civil labour? It will stand alongside paid work as an alternative source of activity and identity: "housework, family work, club work and voluntary work are prized alongside paid work labour and returned to the centre of public and academic attention". Such a vision is not novel. Polemicists such as Ivan Illich or James Robertson have been arguing along similar lines for more than a quarter of a century and, at a more serious scholarly level, Claus Offe and Rolf Heinze were exploring these issues in the 1980s. Making no reference to Offe's work is very odd.

Civil labour in Beck's vision is not paid in traditional ways but rewarded materially and non-materially through civic money, qualifications, pension entitlements and "favour credits". The idea of a society divided equally between paid work and civil labour (Germany in ten years) seems rather unstable. However, Beck does address the political implications. While civic labourers can receive money, he recognises that attaching civic money to civic labour implies rewarding political service. Giving people social honours in the form of medals and titles, according to Beck, is simply providing the rate for the job in civic labour.

His final chapter adopts a messianic tone, emphasising how we must form transnational interest groups, political parties and a variety of other (to him) self-evidently worthy causes. He looks forward to the time when British people can intervene in a German election campaign because they are members of a party present in every European country. I confess to being dizzy as a result of Beck's visionary flights of fancy, but I recognise that, for Beck, Britain must adopt the euro as a first step towards the self-active civil society of which he dreams.

Zygmunt Bauman has a well-deserved reputation for scholarly and stimulating books on moral dilemmas and social predicaments. His task in Liquid Modernity is to persuade us that his visions of the world we live in are correct. To do this he relies heavily on literary techniques, such as elaborate metaphors or parables.

Such a style, common to the prophets and teachers of the past in all cultures, can be effective. For example, attempting to portray the modern condition, he writes: "New solids were to be conceived and constructed to fill the void left by the melted ones. Things set afloat were to be anchored again, more securely than before... 'Melting the solids' felt like melting iron ore to cast steel pillars. Melted and now fluid realities seemed to be ready to be rechannelled and poured in new moulds, to be given a shape they would never have acquired had they been allowed to flow in the riverbeds they themselves carved".

When he cites other authors he sometimes completely misunderstands what they intended. For example, the American sociologist Mark Granovetter has shown that people are more likely to hear of new employment opportunities from people they see less frequently who work in other labour markets or for other employers. Bauman wrongly uses this research to claim that "ours is a time of weak ties". This is not the point Granovetter was making. On the contrary, survey evidence shows that close friends are becoming more important in people's lives.

This book shows signs of having been written quickly. Some passages are repeated almost word for word. For example, the analogy of modern society as a camp site and the image of modern society as a labyrinth appears twice in the same chapter.

Despite this, there are arresting insights into contemporary society that I greatly admired and enjoyed. For example, "the prime technique of power is now escape, slippage, elision and avoidance" or "in the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial [ sic ] elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics."

Bauman on a bad day is still far more stimulating than most contemporary social thinkers. He is the Georg Simmel of our age, and his books and essays will be read when contemporary exponents of social arithmetic are long forgotten. To wish that he would polish more before publishing is what contemporaries of Simmel also suggested. Bauman's distinction can easily flow over a degree of scholarly carping. He has the capacity to jolt us out of complacency so that we see the contemporary world with fresh eyes. For that we should be grateful.


Ray Pahl is visiting professor, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.

The Brave New World of Work

Author - Ulrich Beck
ISBN - 0 7456 2397 2 and 2398 0
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 208

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