January 14, 2017 at 08:51PM
In a book published in 2000, the Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who has died aged 91, deployed a metaphor since taken up by the anti-globalisation movement around the world. Liquid Modernity analysed the disappearance of the solid structures and institutions that once provided the stable foundations for well-ordered modern societies, and the consequences for individuals and communities.
Bauman, professor of sociology at Leeds University (1971-91, and then emeritus), argued that our “liquid modern” world was unable to stand still and keep its shape for long. Everything seems to change – the fashions we follow, the events that catch our attention, the things we dream of and the things we fear. A growing polarisation between the elite and the rest, our growing tolerance of ever-increasing inequalities, and a separation between power and politics remained constant themes in his writings – in all he produced more than 60 books. As the state and the market vie for supremacy within the space of global capitalism, the fate of poor and vulnerable people assumes particular importance. As he put it: “When elephants fight, pity the grass.”
His work was especially influential among progressive young activists in Spain, Italy and across central and South America. “See the world through the eyes of society’s weakest members,” he said, “and then tell anyone honestly that our societies are good, civilised, advanced, free.”
His best-known book, Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), provided a stark warning of the genocidal potential latent within every modern bureaucratic society to privilege process, order and efficiency over morals, responsibility and care for the other. It was shaped by the memoir Winter in the Morning (1986) by his wife, Janina (nee Lewinson), later revised as Beyond These Walls: Escaping the Warsaw Ghetto – A Young Girl’s Story (2006), and his own experience of many 20th-century horrors.
Always wary of offering any alternative blueprint for the future, Bauman declined to profess any concrete solution to our common plight. But he retained a passionate commitment to a form of socialism that remained counter-cultural, even when an avowedly socialist government was pulling the levers of power. He believed that a truly good society was one that could never be satisfied that it was good enough.
As people choose to manage their increasingly individualised concerns as consumers, hoping to find solutions to their private troubles by shopping, they have largely ceased to act collectively as citizens who share common public issues. In his words: “Can notions of equality, democracy and self-determination survive when society is seen less and less as a product of shared labour and common values and far more as a mere container of goods and services to be grabbed by competing individual hands?”
With the evacuation of trust from political leaders has come a loss of faith and a demand to “take back control” from self-interested elites. Bauman pointed, for instance, to the bank bailout of 2007-08 as the instantaneous creation of “a welfare state for the rich”. Having lived through two forms of totalitarianism, he warned that the change demanded would be authoritarian in character.
A native of Poznań, in western central Poland, he was first a victim of the Nazis, then the communists. The son of Moritz Bauman, an accountant, and his wife, Sophia (nee Cohn), he fled with his family at the outbreak of the second world war to the Soviet Union, and was awarded Poland’s Military Cross of Valour for fighting against the Nazis.
He married Janina in 1948 and lectured in sociology at Warsaw University, becoming professor in 1964. Four years later he and his family – now with three daughters, Lydia, Irena and Anna – were exiled as a consequence of an antisemitic campaign by the communist regime. He thus became a refugee for a second time and his experiences of poverty, marginalisation and exile led him towards an explicitly morally driven sociology.
After temporary posts at universities in Tel Aviv (despite being an outspoken critic of the treatment of Palestinians), and then more briefly in both Haifa and Melbourne, Australia, in 1971 Bauman and his family settled in Britain. There he headed the sociology department at Leeds.
A prolific and disciplined writer, he started before sunrise. In the 1980s, those tidying up after a staff-student party recall him striding purposefully into the building at 4.30am and into his office to start work. He continued to publish for the rest of his life.
In recent years Bauman analysed the refugee crisis and the rise of rightwing populism across Europe and the US as a “crisis of humanity”. The promise of a socially progressive Europe meant a great deal to him. He believed ardently that the European Union stood as a safeguard for hard-won rights and for shared protection against war and social insecurity. He drew parallels between the Holocaust and the capacity of today’s populism to “other” everyone, without compassion or remorse, in what proved to be his final lecture at Leeds last October.
His many honours included the Theodor W Adorno prize (1998). For the award ceremony in Frankfurt, neither the Polish nor British national anthems seemed appropriate to him, feeling a stranger in both lands, and so he settled on the Ode to Joy, the anthem of Europe.
His work serves as a reminder that our world has been made by human hands and so it can be remade by them too. For all his passion and pessimism, he wrote because he believed that that challenge could and should be confronted.
Janina died in 2009. Six years later Bauman married Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania, also a sociologist. She survives him, along with his daughters, three granddaughters and three grandsons.
• Zygmunt Bauman, sociologist, born 19 November 1925; died 9 January 2017
from Education | The Guardian http://ift.tt/2jkZCO9