By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Although he was recognised as an enormously important figure in sociology, there was a sense in which the discipline had left Zygmunt Bauman behind in his later years. As it realised the importance of advanced quantitative methods, and vanished into what Alvin Gouldner had years earlier called ‘methodolatry’, Bauman became a kind of peripheral figure. Everybody knew of his great achievements (particularly his book Modernity and its Holocaust), but many saw him as a kind of spectre of a past marked by ideological conflict and old fashioned debate about social structure. Through the 1990s many sociologists came to more or less accept the basic structures of neoliberal capitalism, however violent and destructive these might be, and began to work within its coordinates seeking to make things slightly better by suggesting reform based upon evidence-based research. Bauman was, of course, a very different type of sociologist.
As a social theorist he focused upon the big picture, massive social-historical change, and the ethics of different models of society – socialist society, fascist society, capitalist society. Although many came to see neoliberal late capitalism as a kind of inevitability, and a good number still do even though it appears to me to be irretrievably broken and bankrupt (at least in the British context), Bauman was like every good theorist always looking further ahead. There was no inevitability about late capitalism in his view. There was always an alternative over the horizon. Despite this Bauman never predicted the collapse of neoliberal global capitalism, but he did realise that it would eventually produce an increasingly violent, inhuman, Hobbesian society, which would eventually lead to the end of this barely social model. This is more or less what we live with today, with all its corruption, bankruptcy, exhaustion, and bottomless cynicism.
On the basis of his profound humanity, and sense of ethics developed over the course of living through most of the 20th century, Bauman was deeply sensitive to the violent tendencies of capitalist society, which many of the rest of us simply normalise and live with. Against the cynicism of the present, where our elites speak of their opposition to sexism, racism, and all kinds of discrimination, yet continue to profit from the endless proliferation and repetition of systemic violence, which they feel able to ignore on the basis that it seems to come from the ‘no place of social structure’, Bauman knew that that there is no escape from responsibility, however hard one may try. Now it is precisely because of this refusal to turn a blind eye to systemic violence on the basis that this is simply ‘the way things work’ that I think Bauman became unfashionable in a discipline that came to accept the status quo in the name of its own survival (the state is king because it has all the money) and why I also think that his passing represents such a profound event for sociology and the social sciences. Bauman’s passing challenges us – what next?
That is to say that Bauman’s passing in the context of a marked swing to the right in Britain and America raises profound ethical questions about the role of sociology and the social sciences more widely. What are the social sciences for? Are they about facts and collecting data for the state and whatever government happens to find itself in power? Do they set the agenda and should academics simply follow? Or should sociology have a different mission, a mission concerned with values and the ethical defence of the poor, the miserable, and the abject in the face of a violent social system (global capitalism and all its institutions) that is happy to accept racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination, so long as it can continue to make a profit and present these violent conditions as somehow accidental by-products of a quasi-natural system that needs to keep going. Of course Bauman knew how objective violence works, and would never be fooled by ‘global capitalism with a human face’ (here violence and power are always simply neutral economic effects that we can’t avoid), and I think this is his continuing challenge to his successors – how long can we continue to support a system that accepts violence, misery, and poverty as a condition of economic efficiency? Is this acceptable?
Even though he was Polish by birth, only working in the UK at University of Leeds from the early 1970s onwards, I would argue that Bauman was in many ways the last great British social theorist, simply because he refused to accept the macroscopic coordinates of late capitalist British society as somehow given, and as the outer limits of a kind of natural order one must work within. He came from a different age, but it was precisely this difference that gave him perspective, and that made him great. Given the current state of the nation the challenge Bauman’s passing throws down to his successors is, therefore, to resist the present and particularly methodolatry, which in itself represents a form of systematisation and objectification that obscures real violence, precisely because of the way it translates humans into so much data, and think about the real humanity caught in the system. In this way Bauman challenges sociologists to theorise in the name of sketching the outline of the social system, understanding how it functions, and to never accept systemic violence on the basis that this is simply ‘the ways things work’. All of this in the name of real people who suffer.
Of course, critical readers might point out that theory itself is often violent, burying the student under mountains of concepts and big words that have no obvious relation to real life (what’s the point?), but I don’t think this is the kind of theorist Bauman ever was or ever became. I never experienced reading him in this way when I was a student. He was never a punishing writer. On the contrary Bauman wrote to be read because he was ultimately a humanist and taught his reader to think. His theory never lost of sight of humanity and the ethical compulsion to take care of the poor and the defeated was always at the heart of his project. Having spent many hours reading Bauman’s work in my own undergraduate days, I think my own basic, fundamental understanding of the discipline of sociology was formed by his thinking, and the influence of his ethical approach has never left me. Alongside my own teacher John O’Neill, who introduced me to phenomenology without telling me and taught me that my own experiences were worth something, Bauman taught me all about ‘being sociological’, ‘thinking sociologically’, and trying to understand the bigger picture and at the same time keep hold of the real situation of those being destroyed, ruined, and wasted by the social system.
Essentially, this is the view of Bauman I contributed to the special section of Cultural Politics devoted to his work and legacy. It was a great honour to be part of this section because it was edited by one of Bauman’s former students (Professor John Armitage) and included contributions from many of the key commentators on Bauman’s work over the years. Taken together these articles explain Bauman’s profound impact upon sociology, the social sciences, cultural studies, and cultural theory and, I think, raise important questions about what happens to critical thinking and the testing of the limits of what it is possible to think in a given social context after Bauman.