NS Profile - Zygmunt Bauman

His concerns are consumerism, modernity and power. To some he is the greatest living sociologist. An

The late Robert Nozick once expressed puzzlement that works of philosophy are written "as if their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject". If sociologists are more modest than philosophers, there is none more so than Zygmunt Bauman, and his words are so far from final that, by the time you have finished his latest book, the next is already going to press. Bauman's hope is the Freudian notion that we can alter our habits by being made aware of them, something he has accomplished without ever creating a public profile for himself. This may yet change. Now 80, he exerts himself with ever more lecture tours of Britain and Europe and a published output running to two volumes a year.

Bauman was born into a poor Jewish family in Poland in 1925, and fled with them to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of the Second World War. His future wife, Janina, who was left behind, survived the ghetto, and the experiences recounted in her enthralling memoirs had a powerful influence on his thinking. After attending a Russian university for two years, Bauman joined the Polish army in Russia at the age of 18. He was wounded while serving in an artillery unit, recovering in time to participate in the final battle of Berlin, and eventually rose to the rank of major. After the war he worked at the University of Warsaw. As his friend the Australian sociologist Peter Beilharz puts it, his ideals were developed "while engaged in the postwar Polish project of socialist construction, where communism meant reconstruction, lifting cities like Warsaw and their people from ruins, from rubble, from the waste of lives and livelihood".

In 1968 Bauman lost his academic position in an anti-Semitic purge. Before his fall he was involved in the movement towards "humanistic Marxism" that treated men and women as agents of change rather than puppets of historical forces. He attributes to Antonio Gramsci what he calls his "honourable discharge" from Marxist orthodoxy. He became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 and settled in a suburb, from where Janina Bauman writes of "this quiet friendly house" in "this safe remote country". There he remained, refusing all offers of more "glamorous" posts until his retirement in 1991. It was at that point, to many minds, that his real career began.

Beilharz assured me that Bauman "doesn't have a careerist bone in his body". This was just as well: as Bauman's Leeds colleague Ian Varcoe observes, Britain's consensual political culture is "very un-receptive to sociologists" compared to other countries such as Germany, where they are even quoted in the popular press. Perhaps Bauman had a change of heart in his seventies, as his later work speaks to ordinary people rather than academics. To Beilharz, these texts have helped make him "the world's greatest living sociologist".

In Modernity and the Holocaust, published in 1989 on the brink of his retirement from Leeds, Bauman argued that the killing of six million did not represent a simple reversion to pre-Enlightenment bestialism, but an event that could not have taken place without the social structures and technologies the Enlightenment made possible. Along with railways, gas chambers and other tools that facilitated mass murder, the extent of the modern division of labour placed a crucial distance between human beings and the consequences of their actions. The threat was not irrationality, but the bureaucratic rationalism that enabled morally unremarkable men and women to connive in genocide.

There is a danger of mistaking squeamishness for moral considerations here. Perhaps fewer people would eat meat if they had to slaughter their own cattle, but we were dining on flesh long before the division of labour created a separation between consumers and their quarry. The experience of Rwanda shows us that what individuals need if they are to commit heinous acts is not distance in particular, but encouragement and impunity - neither of which was in short supply in Nazi Germany. They were also arguably the deciding factors in the Milgram experiments, cited by Bauman, in which students were happy to administer "lethal" electric shocks to test subjects at the behest of an authority figure. In this case modernity, with its police forces, judicial systems and humanistic values, offers the best hope for a vaccine. It may provide the technological means to industrialise killing, but as we can see from Armenia and Rwanda, these are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for genocide. Nor did medieval popes require modern propaganda outlets to spark successive rampages across the Holy Land. Yet Bauman's logic proved infectious: the horror of the Holocaust was no longer that we could have been its victims, but rather that we might have been its perpetrators.

For obvious reasons, the impact of Bauman's argument was stronger on the Continent than in the English-speaking world. Bauman was a creature of his experience, and his experience did not apply in his adopted country. Britain never suffered the tyrannies of fascist rule and state socialism, so their critique did not call for the same degree of soul-searching. Perhaps a little more would be appropriate, for, as Beilharz points out, we ought to think of Bauman's warning before we trade more of our freedom for security and embark on the detention and deportation of minority groups as part of the "war on terror".

Bauman's call for a renewal of personal moral en-gagement led, ironically, to a collective denial of responsibility. A fierce debate in Germany was to be expected, but its deepest influence was not on the way we think about the far right. Modernity and the Holocaust was received by a political left that was floundering after the collapse of communism and stung by the gloating of neolib-erals over Francis Fukuyama's "end of history". Those who had sought to betray the values of the Enlightenment now had a spurious excuse for the worst excesses of their ideology. They were relieved to discover that the problem lay not with their own way of thinking in particular, but with the Enlightenment itself. Without admitting to faulty reasoning or gullibility, the blame for the myriad crimes committed in the name of socialism could be shifted on to the modern bureaucratic rationality of which we were all culpable.

Disillusionment led a section of the left to postmodernism, a phenomenon that fascinated Bauman himself after his retirement. He eschews the common term, talking instead of "liquid modernity". This is partly to distance himself from other writers whose relativism he does not share. He also calls it a "post-Panoptical" age. Those in charge of Hobbes's Panopticon were always assumed to be present nearby in the control tower, whereas modern communications technology has enabled the wielders of power to escape beyond reach. Far from spelling the end of bureaucratic rationality, such technology has brought about the demise of mutual engagement - between the supervisors and the supervised, capital and labour, armies and their leaders. In 1999 Bauman wrote of how warfare was no longer a means of controlling territory, but of breaking down barriers to global power - "a promotion of global free trade by other means". The following summer he remarked in a series of conversations with the sociologist Keith Tester that "power is measured by the speed with which responsibilities can be escaped".

Who today can dispute that, when Britain and the United States are enfeebled by their inability to extricate themselves from Iraq? These nations have found themselves victims of the culture they created. However, the true power, Bauman would argue, lies not with the British and American governments, but with the bureaucratic structures that sustain them. The invasion of Iraq is to be explained by the momentum of the military-industrial complex. Bureaucracies must take on a life of their own if they are to function effectively. It helps if the value promoted by an organisation - be it a corporation or a modern army - is not a living issue in the minds of the individuals who comprise it. This follows even where that value is a positive one, even where the ends are ostensibly good ends, for in that case foot-soldiers might take it upon themselves to object to them or, worse, to believe that they know better than their superiors how to further them.

For Bauman disengagement is also the defining characteristic of modern relationships. The theme is again of life lived at one remove in an age when not just workers but capitalists, too, suffer from alienation. "In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds," he writes, "and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change - as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again." So, for example, young people today favour internet dating over discos and singles bars because affairs fostered by e-mail are easily terminated. Bauman despises the mobile phone: "Those who stay apart, mobiles allow to get in touch. Those who get in touch, mobiles permit to stay apart." Travelling on a train, he laments that "many of these young people eager to inform invisible listeners of their whereabouts were shortly, upon arrival, to hurry into their separate rooms and lock the doors behind them". Shallow consumerism, it seems, is about far more than material goods.

Unfortunately this discussion in his 2003 work Liquid Love was apparently prompted by an article on "semi-detached" relationships in the Guardian's Weekend section and by a close reading of newspaper advice columns. We should be sceptical of claims of social revolution when they arise from the work of journalists desperate for new material. Trend-spotters do not just look outside their window, they also make liberal use of the telescope and the magnifying glass. Other influences are the plot lines of EastEnders, yet while Bauman denounces emotional vagrancy in soap opera, he does not seem to acknowledge that it is not real life. Before despairing of the world, we should ask how many real people live in this way for any length of time. The philosopher Simon Critchley once said: "Don't talk to me about the postmodern age. We're not even in the modern age yet, for Christ's sake - 150 million Americans still believe in Genesis."

It is no surprise that armchair theorising and anecdotal evidence harm one's sense of proportion. They certainly seem to have led Bauman to a pessimism that even Varcoe finds extreme - "What's wrong with a bit of shopping?" he asks in jest. To his friend, the political and personal forces characteristic of liquid modernity are propelling us towards a form of dystopia that Orwell and Huxley never dreamed of. "Zygmunt is a central and east European high-culture man appalled at the waste and frivolity of modern life and at the casual violence done to people through indifference to their plight," explains Varcoe. One is reminded of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's complaint in Nation of Rebels, their critique of the postmodern left, that "Consumerism . . . always seems to be a critique of what other people buy . . . [The] so-called critique of consumerism is just thinly veiled snobbery or, worse, Puritanism." But one would also find Bauman on their side. While standing with them in the Marxian tradition, he is not afraid to enunciate positions that look conservative. Varcoe recalls his interrogation of feminists for ignoring the interests of children in their pursuit of new rights, and his wry comments on the student revolts of the 1960s as "self-indulgent carnival culture". Bauman even heaped praise on Pope John Paul II for his efforts to restore morality's "lost sovereignty" over our lives.

Like Bauman's other friends and interpreters, Varcoe advises a different way of reading his work. Thinking philosophically consists in working out the permutations of what is possible - in Bauman's case, of what might make us more free as morally responsible individuals. Determining which permutation is the actual one is then a task for someone other than the philosopher. According to Keith Tester, Bauman's role is one of suggesting ideas and asking questions in the tradition of the critical theorists. This explains why he rarely acknowledges the positive fruits of consumerism and bureaucratic rationality - for example, one can easily get a tooth pulled or a computer mended. "It is not his business to provide balance," says Varcoe.

New Labour, in the form of Geoff Mulgan's forward strategy unit, flirted with Bauman's ideas, but found them too downbeat in days when things could only get better. Bauman once assured Tester that "this world of ours needs socialists more than at any other time. Like the phoenix, socialism is reborn from every pile of ashes left day in, day out, by burnt-out human dreams and charred hopes." Someone else seems to think so. When I contacted Varcoe, he had recently been asked for an introduction to Bauman by a representative of Jacques Delors.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon