Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – A Summary of Chapter One

Postmodern MarxismA brief summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, chapter one. A level sociology labels Bauman as a postmodern Marxist.

Chapter One – Emancipation

The chapter begins with Marcuse’s complaint (writing in the 1970s) that most people don’t see the need to be liberated from society, and of those that do, relatively few are prepared to take action towards liberation, and most of those have little idea of how a more liberated future might be different to our current situation. 

Next Bauman outlines his conception of liberation, noting that ‘to feel free means to experience no hindrance, obstacle, resistance or any other impediment to the moves intended or desired’. He then argues, following Schopenhauer, that feeling free from constraint means finding a balance between one’s wishes (or imagination) and the stubborn indifference of the world to one’s intentions. This balance might be achieved in two ways – through either expanding one’s capacity to act or through limiting one’s desires (imagination).

Distinguishing between these two strategies of emancipation makes possible the distinction between subjective freedom (to do with how one perceives the ‘limits’ to one’s freedom), and objective freedom (pertaining to one’s capacity to actually act). This highlights the fact that people may not be objectively free but feel free because they either fail to realise they are not free, or, more worryingly for Bauman, because they dislike the idea of freedom given the hardships that come along with that freedom, which brings him onto the ‘mixed blessings of freedom’. 

(P18) The mixed blessings of freedom

This section begins with an episode from the Odyssey in which Odysseus manages to trap a sailor who had been turned into a hog by Circe. Odysseus (through the use of a magical herb) manages to release the sailor from his bewitchment. However, the released sailor, Elpenoros, is far from grateful and complains:

So you are back you busybody? Again you want to nag and pester us, to expose our bodies to dangers and force our hearts to take ever new decisions? I was so happy, I could wallow in the mud and bask in the sunshine, I could gobble and grunt and squeak, and be free from doubts… Why did you come? To fling me back into the hateful life I led before?’

Bauman now poses two questions (NB this isn’t that clear from the writing!) – firstly, why has freedom been slow to arrive? Secondly, when freedom does arrive, why is it so often seen as a curse?

Bauman explores one type of answer to the first question, which is that men are not ready for freedom. These types of answer tend to be accompanied by either pity for the men duped out of their freedom or anger at the masses unwilling to take up their liberty. Such answers are also accompanied by attempts to explain why men do not perceive the need to be free, with the blame being laid variously at a modern culture which replaces ‘having’ with ‘being’; the embourgeoisement of the underdog, or a culture industry which makes us thirst for entertainment rather than spiritual fulfillment.

A possible answer to the second question (the answer that Elpenoros would have given) is that men are not prepared to face liberty because of the hardships it brings. This type of answer criticises libertarian notions of Freedom such as those outlined by the likes of Charles Murray in which happiness is related to individual resourcefulness. Murray argues that what fills an event with satisfaction is that ‘I’ did it, but this is flawed, Bauman points out, because being thrown back on one’s own resources also portends a paralysing fear of risk and failure without the right to appeal and seek redress.

On a personal note, I would generally agree with this critique of libertarian notions of freedom. The thought of working on projects such as moving house, or clearing my allotment,or, on a larger scale, building an eco-village are much less daunting, and actually only made possible with the co-operation of others.

Bauman now draws on the legacy of Hobbes and Durkheim to argue that we are right to be sceptical about the benefits of libertarian notions of freedom. He seems to sympathetic with the Durkheimian idea that a degree of social coercion is actually an emancipatory force. To quote Durkheim:

The individual submits to society and this submission is the condition of his liberation. For man freedom consists of deliverance from blind, unthinking physical forces; he achieves this by opposing against them the great and intelligent force of society, under whose protection he shelters. By putting himself under the wing of society, he makes himself also, to a certain extent, dependent upon it, But this is a liberating dependence, there is no contradiction in this.’

In other words, there is no way to achieve freedom other than to submit to the norms of society – the individual needs society to be free. Total freedom from society means a perpetual agony of indecision and uncertainty about the will of those around you, whereas patterns and routines condensed by social pressures give us road markings, inform us how to act, and give us a sense of certainty in this life.

Bauman now outlines arguments which support the view that an element of routine is necessary, citing Fromm’s notion that we need certainty, Richard Sennet’s notion of character, and Giddens’ concept of habit.

Having established that the individual needs social norms, some sense of routine to ground himself, Bauman rounds of this section by introducing one of the central problems of living in a postmodern society – that such norms and routines are much less stable than they once were. Citing Deleuze and Guatari’s and Alain Touraine’s ideas he points out that the time has come when we no longer have a social definition of the self, and individuals are expected to define themselves in terms of their own psychological specifity and not society or universal principles.

The individual has already been granted all of the freedoms he could have ever dreamed of, and that our social institutions are more than willing to cede the worries of self-definition to individuals, while universal principles which might guide our lives are hard to find.

Bauman rounds off this section by suggesting that Marcuse’s pining for communitarianism is outdated because there is no social aspect in which we can re-route the individual, all that is left is the psychologist’s couch and motel beds. The individual has become disembedded and there is nowhere to re-embed.

(p22) The fortuities and changing fortunes of critique

Bauman’s main point here is that our society is still hospitable to critique, but the focus of critique has shifted from criticising society and positing viable ways of changing that society to  criticising ourselves and our life-politics. Today, we are reflexive beings who constantly question what we are doing and express dissatisfaction with various aspects of our lives.

The problem is that at the same time as us becoming more self-critical, we have lost control over the agenda which shapes our life-politics. Our reflexivity is shallow, it does not extend in any meaningful sense to our having control over the system in which we are embedded.

Bauman now provides a ‘caravan park’ analogy to describe the way we tend to interact with society today. According to Bauman, we are mostly content to limit our concerns to what goes on in our own individual caravans, and we only want to engage with other caravan dwellers occasionally and in a non-committal manner, reserving the right to up and leave when we choose. We only ever complain about the caravan park when certain services break down, such as the electricity or water supply, otherwise we are happy to let it run itself, without feeling any need to to commit to it, or question the way it is run.

This is very different to the type of social engagement that was the norm when Adorno developed his critical theory. At that time, Bauman suggests, many more people treated society as if it were their house, and acted within it as if they were permanent residents who could, if necessary, alter the structure of that house.

Moving onto one of the central themes in Bauman’s work, he now argues that this changing mood of critical engagement with society (or lack of it) is because of the shift from heavy to light modernity which has resulted in a profound transformation of public space and, more generally, in the fashion in which the modern society works and perpetuates itself.

Bauman notes that heavy modernity was endemically pregnant with the possibility of totalitarianism – the threat of an enforced homogeneity, the enemy of contingency, variety and ambiguity. The principal icons of the era were the fordist factory, with its simple routines, and bureaucracy, in which identities and social bonds meant nothing. The methods of control in this period were the panopticon, Big Brother and the Gulag. It was in this period of history that the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley made sense to people (which they no longer do) and that the defense of individual autonomy and creativity against such things as mass culture offered by critical theory appealed to a wide body of citizens.

However, in liquid modernity, we are no longer constrained by industry, bureaucracy and the panopticon, and Orwell’s dystopia no longer seems possible. Liquid Modern society, however, is no less modern than it was 100 years ago, because it is still obsessed with modernising, with creative destruction… with phasing out, cutting out, merging, downsizing, dismantling, becoming more productive or competitive, and, just as with heavy modernity, fulfillment is always somewhere in the future.

But two things make the Liquid Modern Era different to the Heavy Modern Era: –

Firstly, the end of the idea of perfectibility: we no longer believe that there will be an end to the process of modernisation – it has become a perpetual process.

Secondly, we are now expected to find individual solutions to our problems. Gone is the idea that reason applied to social organisation can improve our lives, gone is the ideal of the just society. No longer are we to solve our problems collectively through Politics (with a capital P), but it is put upon the individual to look to themselves to solve their life-problems, or to improve themselves.

(p30) The Individual in Combat with The Citizen

Bauman starts off with something of a homage to Norbert Elias (and fair play, History of Manners was a terrific read!) for shifting the dualist sociological discourse of self-society to one which focuses on a ‘society of individuals.’

Casting members as individuals is the trade mark of modern society and this casting is an activity re-enacted daily. Modern society exists in its incessant activity of ‘individualising’. To put it in a nutshell, individualisation consists of transforming human identity from a given into a task and charging actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side effects) of their actions.

Bauman now points to another difference between heavy and liquid modernity. In the period of ‘heavy modernity’, having been disembedded from previous social-locations, people sought to re-embed themselves in society, through, for example, identifying as a member of a stable social class. By contrast, in today’s modernising society, we have no stable beds for re-embedding, we just have musical chairs, and so people are constantly on the move. In the liquid modern world, there is no end of the road, nowhere for us to ‘re-embed’.

Having established what individualisation is, Bauman now goes on to make three further points –

  1. In the age of liquid modernity the option to escape individualisation and to refuse to participate is not on the agenda -Individualisation is not a choice – to refuse to participate in the game is not an option.

  2. In the Liquid Modern society, how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions – risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.

  3. A gap is growing between individuality as fate and the ability for genuine self-assertion. The self-assertive capacity of men and women falls short of what genuine self-constitution would require..

Bauman now distinguishes between the citizen and the person – the former seeks their well-being in the city (read ‘society’), while the later is unconcerned with collective well-being. and basically makes the argument that part of individualisation is the ending of citizenship.

Another unfortunate aspect of the Liquid Modern era is that, rather than being used to discuss public issues, public space is brimming with private problems – where people’s individual problems and their individualised biographical solutions are discussed, without any consideration of the social conditions which gave rise to those problems.

Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that in today’s society, the chances of being re-embedded are thin, and this means that new communities are wandering and fragile, and he alludes to the fact that newly-emerging networks with low commitment are not sufficient to empower individuals.

 He ends with a rather bleak quote from Beck ‘On the Mortality of Industrial Society’… ‘

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened aggressive ego, in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self.. Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isoloation, this solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence’.

(p38) The Plight of Critical Theory in the Society of Individuals

The modernising impulse means the compulsive critique of reality, and the privatisation of that impulse means compulsive self-critique, and perpetual self-disaffection. It means that we look harder and harder at how we can improve ourselves.

I’m in two minds about what to make of Bauman’s idea of perpetual disaffection – On the one hand I’m impressed by the sympathy for the basic plight of the individual – it is, after all, an experience of the perpetual suffering that accompanies the human condition; on the other hand I’m concerned that what Bauman’s going to try and argue later on is that this disaffection will disappear once individuals gain some greater degree of control over the process of their self determination. In Buddhism, the fact the individual seeks to self-determine in the first place is the source of the disaffection, so this won’t be remedied through merely reinventing one’s relations with one’s social context (although this is part of the process in Buddhism – through right livelihood) – this disaffection is probably better seen as individuals en mass realising their true nature – and this needs a deeper solution, which will combine the various factors found in the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with this is that there are no ‘biographical solutions’ to systemic contradictions – except for imaginary ones, and as a result, there is a need for us to collectively hang our fears on something – and so we scapegoat ‘strangers’, and go along with moral panics, it is these kind of fears which fill the public space voided of properly public concerns.

The job of critical theory is now to repopulate the public sphere – to bring back politics with a capital P – to bring back the two groups of actors who have retreated from it – The person and the elite.

People do not engage because they see the public sphere as merely a space in which to private troubles without making any ‘public connections’. The elite meanwhile now exist in ‘outer space’ and remain for the most part invisible, their favourite strategic principles being escape, avoidance and disengagement.

The job of critical theory is to figure out how to empower individuals so they have some level of control over the resources which they require for genuine self-determination.

(p41) Critical Theory Revisited

Bauman starts with a section devoted to Adorno’s view that the act of thinking is itself freedom, but that any attempt to give thoughts a market value threatens the genuine value of thought.

He then talks about the tension between ‘the cleanliness of pure philosophy’ – drawing on the notion of the withdrawn intellectual contemplating life and refining systems of thought and the problem of then applying the ‘truths’ found to the ‘dirty business’ of getting involved with the world of politics as one attempts to enact one’s ideas. He essentially argues that thought in isolation from society is useless – In order for it to have any value at all, thought has to be applied to society.

Bauman concludes this section by pointing out that the unfortunate corollary of this is that whatever truths come to power will inevitably be tainted by those in power.

(p48) A critique of life-politics

In this summative section Bauman points out again that it is up the individual as an isolated actor to themselves find individualised solutions to social problems… He points to a range social situations, from us being called upon to adapt to neoliberal flexibalisation at work, to our efforts in seeking romance, and he rounds of my reminding us that any search for liberation today requires more not less public sphere, so any critical theory today must start from a critique of life-politics – a critique of the paucity of individualised solutions to systemic contradictions.

Zygmunt Bauman

Part Two – Individuality

Part Three – Time/ Space

Part Four – Work

Part Five – Community


Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity, Polity Press.

This entry was posted in Book summaries, Marxism, Postmodernism and Late Modernsim, Social Theory (A2) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – A Summary of Chapter One

  1. Pingback: Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy | ReviseSociology

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