Modernity's relentless drive for the ultimate answer produced the Holocaust, according to Zygmunt Bauman. But will our postmodern age with its rejection of the illusion of total solutions avoid such evil? He talks to Alison Utley.
Our great-great-grandfathers, says Zygmunt Bauman, lived in a world of certainties. Everyone knew his or her place in society's hierarchies. Today the widely accepted rules that regulated those hierarchies no longer apply and society has failed - so far - to replace them with anything other than a vague notion that everyone has a right to individual liberty. As a result, life in the postmodern world, if not nasty, brutish and short, is insecure, uncertain and unsafe.
Nonetheless, Bauman is more than comfortable with his own existence today. He is exceedingly fortunate, he says, to be doing what he loves most, particularly since his retirement eight years ago as professor of sociology at Leeds University, (where he was a hugely popular teacher whose students sang David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust:
"(Ziggy) played it left hand ... became the special man, then we were Ziggy's band"). Despite offers from abroad, including one from Yale, Bauman has remained in Leeds, describing himself as part of the city's landscape. Now, as one of Britain's leading sociologists, he has the best of academic life - the thinking and writing - without having to bother about running a department as well. "I advise all my colleagues to retire at the earliest opportunity," he says.
Life was not always so comfortable. Expelled from Poland in 1968 with a young family, Bauman has said that his Jewish identity was not hugely significant to him before that date. Perceived by the communist government as a critic and therefore a threat he was sacked from his professorial chair in Warsaw along with several other, mostly Jewish, "dissidents". Until 1968, he says, he saw the Holocaust as a picture on the wall. Suddenly it became a window through which other things could be seen.
One of the books that resulted from this change of focus is probably Bauman's best-known work. Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) caused a sensation (particularly in Germany) because it presented the Holocaust as the result not of the attitudes of anti-Semitic Nazis but as the inevitable conclusion of the phenomenon that Bauman has called "modernity".
So what is this modernity and how could it lead to the deaths of six million people? "First and foremost modernity means being restless - travelling rather than arriving, even if one travels under the impression that it is the arrival that makes sense of the travelling and brings happiness," says Bauman. Modernity is "not something one comes to at the end of modernisation: modernity is modernisation, a continuous modernisation, a compulsive and obsessive modernisation - when Tony Blair repeats his favourite calls to modernise, what he means is that Britain and the British, if they are to stay modern, cannot stay put and take things as they are just because once upon a time they used to work nicely."
To be modern - for a society as much as for an individual - "means to be preoccupied with 'bringing things into a better order', but to accept no existing state of affairs as fully satisfactory or perfect; in other words, being constantly on the move ... And it means acting under conviction that whatever order there is is a human product, takes a lot of thought and effort. Modern minds think of the world, including its human inhabitants, drawing metaphors from architecture (designing, building, constructing), medicine (healing, curing, keeping healthy, making fit) or gardening (planting, sowing, cultivating, weeding out)."
As the description continues, the argument becomes clear. Taken to its extreme you can suddenly see how such an obsessive and relentless drive to change, to order, to transform society might result in nothing short of genocide, the ultimate solution. Like other theories that pointed the finger for the Holocaust away from the German character, Bauman's explanation went some way towards assuaging that nation's collective guilt. Coming from a Jew linked firmly with the left, his argument could scarcely be dismissed, like so many theories before it, as a right-wing smokescreen.
But modernity, according to Bauman, belonged to the first half of the century. Now we live in a postmodern age, in which modernity's certainties can never be reclaimed. (Not such a bad thing, you may feel.) Rather, the postmodern world is characterised by an unprecedented speed of change. Accompanying this is radical uncertainty and anxiety. Freedom is the overriding priority and there is deep resistance to any attempt to impose order on society by inhibiting individual desires. People are expected to choose for themselves how they wish to behave in the face of the collapse of collective moral restraints.
"I myself," says Bauman, "defined postmodernity as modernity without illusion - that is without the comforting yet misleading belief that there is a point somewhere round the corner when all problems will be solved once and for all, no further improvement will be possible or needed, several new discoveries, a couple or more clever contraptions, another big effort - and we will be, finally, there ...
"The postmodern condition," he goes on, "comes with the realisation that there is no end to the road nor a clear, pre-ordained or pre-designed direction: that while solving any problem we are bound to create a whole bunch of new problems, that (as Ulrich Beck famously put it) any choice involves risks which will make new choices inevitable, or that (as Anthony Giddens no less famously put it) the uncertainty under which we act is a manufactured uncertainty, and that our strenuous efforts to overcome it are most likely to result in new, perhaps bigger uncertainties yet."
In such a world how are we to live? This, says Bauman, is a question that can no longer be answered by religion, politics or even art. And yet he celebrates the pluralism that has replaced the old certainties of modernity because of its openness to alternative interpretations. The very value of the vision of a progressing world is in question. The counter-culture of capitalism is out of date and society is at a crossroads. One road points to capitalism and socialism together, married in their attachment to modernity. The other destination is, as yet, unknown.
Formulating new rules and values is the most pressing task facing society today and one to which Bauman is dedicated. Press him on what these might look like and he says he is still working on the problem. His detachment, his unwillingness to be judgemental, give the impression of a scientific approach to his subject. But in fact he rejects attempts to force sociology into an equivalence with the pure sciences: "Sociology is different to physics because physics speaks about phenomena which are not part of our daily lives. We must take on trust what physicists say.'' Sociology, by contrast, is the interpretation of the ordinary, the understanding of human life. It cannot be detached from common sense. Bauman believes it is impossible to apply detached scientific methods to the subjective study of the reality of human beliefs. So is sociology inferior to science? "No,'' says Bauman. "We can understand human beings. Can the biologist understand a tree? No, he can merely describe it."
Human beings, he finds, have succeeded in the postmodern world in achieving instantaneity and abolishing space. The idea is perfectly mirrored by the world wide web. Whether connected to New Zealand or Manchester the user pays only a local rate. Distance, he concludes, no longer exists. Jobs and relationships are temporary, says Bauman, and the future is un-forecastable. We can no longer take a long-term view, even the medium term is becoming rare and globalisation has become the current fad (Bauman's next work is Globalization: The Human Consequences). "When I was a student the buzzword was universalisation,'' he recalls. "That was a task we had to achieve. Globalisation, on the other hand, is something that happens and we can't do anything about it.'' His other concern has been the impact of the culture of consumerism, which he compares unfavourably with industrial capitalism. Consumerism is duplicitous where capitalism was straightforward because there were always going to be bosses and workers, winners and losers. Consumerism promises something it cannot deliver. It promises, according to Bauman, universality of happiness. "Everybody is free to choose and if everyone is let into the shop then everyone is equally happy. That is one duplicity. Another is the limitation of its pretence that you resolve the issue of freedom completely once you offer a consumer freedom. So it is a reduction of freedom to consumerism.'' As a consequence people forget that there could be better ways of forming an identity than buying a new outfit. A mistake their forefathers would never have made.
* ZYGMUNT BAUMAN'S DEFINITION OF POSTMODERNITY
"Postmodernity is not merely an intellectual mood or a more or less common state of mind. Living without an ultimate, perfect model of society or individual life reflects the experience of being in an increasingly 'deregulated', or - as the politicians' beloved cliche has it - flexible world: a world full of uncoordinated, often contradictory chances and voices but devoid of clear-cut standards by which the superiority of any of them can be measured.
"It is not the experience of a world devoid of purpose and values - on the contrary: this is an experience of a world overflowing with a multitude of tempting and seductive possibilities and haunted by the excess of values worth pursuing. Such an experience is both stimulating and unnerving - it may stir into action as well as paralyse, exhilarate or cause despair. Sigmund Freud, were he to write today Postmodernity and its Discontents would perhaps reverse his verdict from Civilisation and its Discontents which he wrote 70 years ago: instead of saying of our psychological and social troubles that they emerge from surrendering a lot of freedom for the sake of more Sicherheit (certainty, security and safety), he would point out that they result from surrendering a lot of Sicherheit in exchange for fewer constraints on freedom of choice and self-expression..."