Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ (part 1/3)

Chapter One  – The Rise and Fall of Labour

This chapter explains that the decline of the labour movement is due the extraterritorial power of Capital.

The industrial revolution led to labour being uprooted from its age old link to nature and then becoming tied to capital in commodity form, thus it could be bought and exchanged. In the era of heavy modernity, where profit derived from Fordist/ Taylorist big scale heavy production, capital and labour were dependent on each other for their well-being and reproduction because they were rooted in place,  hence the historic power of unions and the welfare state. It was in everyone’s interests to keep labour in good condition.

All of the above gave rise to a long-term (and collective?) mentality– as illustrated in collective bargaining through unions and also through the fact that pretty much all nineteenth century thinkers thought that there would be an end point to constant change, even if the means and ends to reach that end point differed.

All that has changed now – we have moved from a long term mentality to a short term one. The features of work today are as follows:

  • Short term contracts – partners no longer intend to stay long in each others company.
  • Flexibility – work is like a high achieving sport (following Geert van der Laan) – the people in it work very hard, but fewer of us actually compete.
  • Working life is saturated with uncertainty – the nature of work is that anyone can be sacked at short notice with no warning signs, and the logic of promotions are less apparent.

Such uncertainties are a powerful indivdualising force – when work is like a campsite (not a home) there is little incentive to take an interest in the organisation, and thus solidarity is lost. We find ourselves in a time of weak ties (Grannoveter) or fleeting associations (Sennet).

This disengagement between capital and labour is not one-sided – Capital has set itself loose from from its dependency on labour, its reproduction and growth have become by and large independent of the duration of any particular local engagement with labour. Extraterritorial capital is not yet completely free of local ties – it still has to deal with governments but, paradoxically, the only way for governments to attract Capital is to convince it that it is free to move away – and to give it what it requires.

Speed of Movement (following Crozier) now seems to be the main stratifier in the hierarchy of domination – ideas are now more profitable than production, and ideas are had only once, not reproduced a thousand times, and when it comes to making ideas profitable the objects of competition are consumers not producers, and this is now Capital’s primary relation – thus the ‘holding power’ of the local labour force is weakened.

Thus (following Robert Reich) we now have four categories of economic activity –

  1. Symbol manipulators – For example those involved in the knowledge economy and marketers.
  2. Those who work to reproduce labour – Mainly teachers.
  3. Those who work in personal services – A whole range of things from Estate Agents to Hairdressers.
  4. Routine labourers – low skilled people who make things – these are the lowest paid and have the least secure obs because they expendable and they know it!

Following Peyrefitte, Bauman now characterises Modernity as an attempt to build confidence and trust – in oneself, in others and in institutions – Modernity did this and work was its primary vehicle – there was trust in the general frame – now this is gone – when de-layering and downsizing is the norm, people no longer invest in it – they would rather trust (e.g.) the fleeting stock market than the collective bargaining power of unions.

Pierre Bourdieu links the decline of politics and collective action to people’s inability to get a hold on the present (because without a hold on the present, we cannot get a grip on the future). This is especially true of today’s mass labourers who are tied to the local while capital is extraterritorial –  means they are apriori in an inferior position – when they cannot control capital, why would they engage with politics?

It is the passage from heavy to light modernity that provides the context for the decline of the labour movement. Other explanations are insufficient.

Summary/ commentary/ questions

In the postmodern era Capital has (and requires) more freedom of movement than in the modern era. The primary reason for this is the growth of consumer markets – rapidly changing tastes mean people buying and throwing away at a faster pace, and to keep up with this Capital needs to be able to shift itself around faster – free to drop old ideas and production practices as they become unfashionable or unprofitable.

As a result workers mass-labourers are powerless – they are rooted to place, as are national governments – both can only compete in a race to the bottom to try and make things as attractive as possible to globally mobile capital.

For such workers, their efforts are in vein – they are expendable and they know it, hence they are less likely to join unions and less likely to get involved in politics – neither of these make any sense when they don’t have a grip on the present – when they do not have any purchase on security of livelihood.

Speed of movement seems to be the main differentiating factor in the post-modern society.

NB – There are some workers who do OK out of these arrangements, mainly the ‘symbol manipulators’ but these have to be extremely adaptable to survive in the era of globally mobile capital!

Q: This could be an untestable theory? How does one measure the ‘mobility of Capital’ and its effects on employment?

Chapter Two – Local Orders, Global Chaos

Order is a situation where you can predict the probability of something happening. Some things are probable, some unlikely. Order suggests a degree of predictability, and it is order which gives rise to the confidence that you can engage in an action knowing what the outcome is likely to be – order boils down to the manipulating the probabilities of events.

The opposite of order is chaos – or a situation where there is always a 50-50 chance of any two events happening.

The manipulating of events and the production of order out of chaos is what culture does on a daily basis.  We speak of a cultural crisis if the order of culture is breached too often.

Culture also differentiates. This is because order is created by categorising, setting boundaries – Difference is the result of this order building activity

However, in every culture there are those who transgress boundaries, who do not fit, those who are ambivalent, and such ambivalences are unlikely to disappear because in reality no attempt to classify the complexities of the world are ever going to be able to accommodate the actual complexity of the world, and hence the more culture or order there is, the more ambivalence.

Culture may well be an attempt to distance chaos by creating order but the result is ambivalence (a self-defeating process!).

Because of their unsavoury yet intimate connections with the state of uncertainty,  the impurity of classifications, the haziness of borderline and the porousness of borders are constant sources of fear and aggression, and these are inseparable from order-making and order-guarding exertions (33)

Order is also important in the global power struggle – Imposing order onto others is one way of gaining power. The more routine and predictable one’s life is, the more order, the less power. Order is something the powerless suffer and which the powerful impose, whereas they themselves (the elite) are relatively free to move as they please.

The above logic is at work in globalisation – Globalisation is a world disorder – It is presented to us as chaotic (a genesis discourse) rather than predictable (a Joshua Discourse) and order is an index of powerlessness. The new global power structure is operated by the opposition between mobility and sedentariness, contingency and routine, rarity and density of constraints. Globalisation may be termed ‘the revenge of the nomads’.

Escape and volatility rather than ominous presence (like bureaucracy and the panopticon) are now the means of power. Normative regulation (which was costly) is no longer necessary in the age of flexibility – what keeps the precariat in check today is their vulnerability – They race to the bottom in an attempt to attract ultra mobile capital, aided in this by state policies of precariatisation. It is irrational for them to mobilise collectively because if they do capital will just take flight.

In terms of knowledge, space matters much less than it did in the past, and according to Paul Virillio, it doesn’t matter at all. In the age of instantaneous global communications, local knowledges which are based on face to face interactions and gatherings have much less authority. We get our information through cyberspace, and thus actual space matters less. However, for those doomed to be local, this is felt as powerlessness.

The elite used to accumulate things, now they discard them and have to be comfortable dwelling in chaos. Bill Gates is the archetype – constantly striving to produce new things in act of creative destruction. Chaos is thus no longer a burden in the culture of the elite, who experience it as play, but this is a curse for those lower down the order, who would wish to slow down the changes that are imposed on them as a result of the elites’ creative destruction.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who cannot live in space. For the former space does not matter, while for the later they struggle hard to make it matter.

Summary/ Comment/ Questions

Culture is an attempt to create order out of chaos – and in doing so it sets rules/ norms/ boundaries. However, this is a self-defeating process, because the result of order building is ambivalence – the more a culture becomes obsessed with order building, the more differentiation occurs, and the more scope for the established boundaries being transgressed.

Order is important in the global power struggle – the ability to impose order on others is a mark of power, to subject them to a routine, to limit them, while the ability to avoid having order imposed on you, to be free, is also a mark of power. Having order imposed is something the weak have done to them.

However, the elite no longer have to be present to impose order – they manage to do this by being free-floating – it is volatility which keeps people individualised and thus powerless and doomed to be local. (Limited to only certain types of freedom, but not the freedom to construct a more stable society).

Furthermore, local knowledges facilitated by face to face communications are undermined by global communications networks. This further undermines the ability of the precariate to act collectively.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who do not live in space.

Question – Doesn’t this somewhat overlook Glocalism – especially Permacultural elements of the green movement – albeit extremely fringe?

Chapter Three – Freedom and Security: The Unfinished Story of a Tempestuous Union

Starts with Freud – In order to be happy man must fulfil his desires (individual freedom) but he exchanges these in ‘civilisation’ for security, so that he can be free from the suffering of his own body, other men, and nature. Security is gained when the impulses are tamed and replaced with order in the form of culture which imposes compulsive (habitual) action on individuals. However this compulsive action restricts our freedom, and human life is a situation in which the urge for freedom constantly battles against the damn put up by culture.

In other words, there is a trade-off between the need for freedom and the need for security – we need both, but to get one we have to sacrifice the other, and the sacrifice of either results in suffering. It follows that happiness can only ever be a fleeting thing as we flit between too much freedom or too much security, and finding the best-trade off is an ongoing process.

Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.

Alain Ehrenberg suggests that rather than unhappiness stemming from man’s inability to live up to cultural ideals, it is rather then absence of any clear ideals which results in a not knowing how to act, this is the source of mental depression – and not knowing how to act rationally in particular. This is the malady of our post-modern times.

Impotence and inadequacy are the diseases of our late modern, post modern times. It is not the fear of non-conformity but the fear of not being able to conform, not transgression but boundlessness which are our problems. (Unlike in modern times, big brother is gone and there are numerous Joneses who couldn’t care less about our quests for our ‘true selves’).

This is freedom, but the cost is insecurity, unsafety and uncertainty (Unsicherheit) – We have the freedom to act but we cannot know whether our actions will have the desired result, yet we do know that we will bare the costs for bad decisions.

Individually we stand, individually I fall.

Following Norbert Elias’ book title ‘The society of individuals’ – society consists of two forces locked in a battle of freedom and domination – society shaping the individuality of its members, and the individuals forming society out of their actions while pursuing strategies plausible and feasible within the socially woven web of their dependencies.

However, it is important to note that the process of individualisation is different today from modern times.

In modern times class divisions arose out of different access to the resources required to self-assert – The working classes lacked the means to do so and turned to collectivism to assert themselves, while the middle classes were able to be more individualistic – yet they generally responded to being disembedded through attempts to re-embed.

However, individualisation today is a fate and not a choice. In the land of individual freedom of choice the option to escape individualisation and not participate are not on the agenda. We are told that if we fail it is our fault, and we must find biographical solutions to problems which are socially created.

There is a difference between the self-asserting and self-sustaining individual and the individualised individual.

Can there be politics in the individualised society?

The Self-Assertive ability of men falls short of what genuine self-assertion would require – the choices we are free to make are generally trivial.

There are two consequences of individualisation for politics – Individuals by decree do not seek to solve their problems collectively, they just look to others for advice about how to cope with their problems (e.g. chat shows), and they tend to to view committing to acting with others as too limiting on their own freedom. Individuals by decree do not see engaging in public life as a duty, they tend to see it as an investment and only do so when they can get something back, and as a result the only thing individuals by decree tend to ask of society is minimal – to protect their bodies from danger and to protect their property rights.

Hence why networks are the new norm in the postmodern society – which consist of shallow connections (weak ties) as they are easy to access and easy to leave. As a result, in the individualised society the individual is not really a citizen because they have invested so little of themselves in that society.

Togetherness, individual style

The gap between the right of self assertion and the ability to influence the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible or unrealistic seems to be the biggest contradiction of second modernity, and we would do well to tackle this collectively.

Short termism and selfishness are rational responses to a precarious world – We have all been hit by global economic forces over which we (or seemingly no one else) has control, or we know someone who has (downsizing etc.) and so the rational response to this is to look to oneself, not invest in collectivism. No one seems to be discussing the fact that this uncertain world is human made, and that what we are dealing with is the ‘the political economy of uncertainty’.

The root of the problem is the flight of power from politics – capital is extraterritorial and politics remains rooted to space – and the political solutions to the problems mobile capital creates is yet more freedom for capital – because there is no global institution that is capable of doing the job of regulating it. No one seems to have any solutions!

When individals accept their impotence en masse (following Cornelius Castoriadis) – society becomes heteronomous – pushed rather than guided, plankton like, drifting, it is like people on a ship who have abandoned any attempt at steering the vessel, and so at the end of the modern advernture with a self-governing, autonomous human world, we enter the era of mass confromity

Making the individualised society safe for democracy

Democracy is an anarchic force – one best recognises democracy when it is complaining about not being democratic enough. Democracy is a constant battle to find the right balance between freedom and security. For most of modernity the fight has been for more freedom, now we need to focus more on security. However, the biggest danger of all is that we call off the fight to get the balance right by opting out of the social process (and engage with society only as indivduals).

What is to be done? We need global instituitons to limit the flow of capital, at the state level – basic income. However, a bigger question is who is to do it?

Summary, Comment and Questions

I think Bauman is trying to say too much in this section – It’s much easier to understand some of what he says by cutting out about a third of it and reording it….

Capital is freefloating and the average person’s job is more precarious, and there are no global or national institutions capabable of controlling International Capital (power, says Bauman, has departed from politics). Because of this, people see no point people getting involved in politics, and thus we no longer seek collective solutions to social problems and we only ask society to do the bare minimum for us.

In short, structural changes in the nature of Capitalism have altered the way we perceive politics – we now see it as pointless and thus we are no longer contributing to the construction of our society.

Instead, we seek biographical (personal) solutions to these systemic problems – . Rather than getting involved in long-haul politics, we limit our range of vision, our range of options to choosing how to better surviving or cope in this precarious world – we spend our time re-training, or improving our C.V.  (marketing) to make us more employable or promotable, for example. (Bauman says that selfishness and shortermism are a rational response to a precarious world). We are spured on by our efforts because we know that if we fail in our efforts we will be held responsible for the the consequences of our inability to keep ourselves employable.

The key thing here is that this limited range of choices we are choosing between is forced on us – we haven’t actively decided to not engage with society as political beings, the social structure has changed in such a way that politcs is now (objectively?) pointless, and we don’t know how to fix it, thus we narrow our range of vision to focussing on that narrow range of events we think we can control, and doing so, Capital becomes freer, and so our lives become even more unstable.

This is why Bauman says…. The gap between self-assertion and the ability to affect the social settings which make that assertion realistic (which is required for ‘genuine self-assertion’ ) is the biggest contradiction of second modernity.This is because what we are currently witnessing is individualisation by fate which falls well short of genuine self-determination – In general the choices we are free to make are relatively trivial.


Firstly, Interestingly, this theory does not depend on there being a false consciousness  – whether we fail to see that there are systemic contradictions which are causing this need to continually update ourselves to keep ourselves employable or whether we see it but simply cannot see any alternative is moot – the point is the important thing is whether or not we perceive the systemic contradictions, we KNOW that if we do not try we will be held responsible for our failure by society, and it is this ‘responsibilisation’ which is compelling us to keep on keeping on.

Secondly, I guess this links back to why Bauman perceives the decline of the Welfare State is so bad, because it’s very existence assumes that it is not our own fault that we sometimes might suddently find ourselves unemployed.

Chapter Four – Modernity and Clarity – The Story of a Failed Romance.

When reason tells us that the world is an uncertain place, indecision of the will is the result. Ambivalence is a mixing of the doubts of reason and this indecision of the will.

The more my freedom grows in terms of the greater the range of future possibilities, then the less grip on the present I have. The less freedom I have, the greater my grip on the present.

In considering freedom we need to consider the difference between the range of viable possibilities on offer, which possibilities I wish to achieve and my ability to achieve them. If the volume of possibilities exceeds the capacity of the will then restlessness and anxiety are the result, but if I lack the means to attain a possibility I desire then withdrawal is the result.

Freedom, Ambivalence and Scepticism seem to go together.

After a few pages outlining the historical development of sceptisism in philosophy, Bauman points out that modern sceptics were pretty much universally obsessed with order building, as exemplified in the popularity of order building – Modernity was fundamentally a legislative process.

The mission of modernity was (in Freudian terms) was to restrain the pleasure principle with the reality principle, or (in Durkheimian terms) to socialise the individual so that they would never want what they couldn’t achieve  and would want to do what was socially useful – real freedom meant to live like a slave (to one’s desires), society’s job was to get people to agree to acceptable freedoms and duties. In short, Modernity was about cutting the ‘I want’ down to the ‘I can’. Restricting people’s desires was the way Modernity dealt with the problem of ambivalence.

Or to sum up – The modern project was about society determining what freedoms were possible and then legislating and socialising so that people internalised these legitimate wants. Here we can see the origins of modernity’s totalitarian tendencies.

Two things in retrospect – this project has failed, and it has been abandoned. One reason this battle with ambivalence failed because the powers of creative destruction and the individual’s desires played second fiddle to the ‘objective’ constraints imposed on them.

Today it is desire itself which fuels social change – Needs creation seems to be the main thing which Capitalism does (following Bourdieu). The way we integrate into society is as consumers – and we can only integrate if our wants constantly exceed our current level of satisfaction. (The only exception to this is the underclass, but they are the minority – their wants are managed, limited).

(p68) The permanent disharmony between wants and the ability to achieve them is for the postmodern era functional – hence why we have a high degree of ambivalence in identity formation, social integration and systemic reproduction.

Today the market requires ambivalence and we are free to enjoy its wares, but we are unfree to avoid the consequences (downsizing etc.) because the only solutions on offer to help us deal with the downsides of the free market are market-solutions.

A second reason why modernity failed to tackle ambivalence is because modernity was always local, and it resulted in many localities with different solutions to ambivalence. Hence why we have neotribalisms and fundamentalism – these aim to heal the pain of ambivalence by cutting down choices – but the nature of these responses is that they are unpredictable.

The 300 year war against ambivalence is not over, it has just changed its form – it is no longer carried out by conscript armies but by guerrilla units which erratically erupt occasionally between the brightly lit consumer malls.

Summary, Commentary and Questions

When we have too much freedom, ambivalence is the result (ambivalence is a mixture of the doubts of reason (uncertainty over the probability of events) and the resulting indecision)

Modernity attempted to reduce ambivalence by order building – society determined what freedoms were necessary and desirable and then socialised people into thinking in this way – restricting their freedom, replacing the ‘I want’ with the ‘I can’. People’s desires came second to the social.

With consumer-capitalism, however, things are now reversed. Needs creation is the main thing Capitalism now does – profitability requires us to desire things, and once we have those things to tire of them quickly and desire new things. Fuelling Individual desire lies at the heart of modern Capitalism.

However, there is a growing gap between our growing (unfulfilled) desires and our ability to achieve them, and this creates ambivalence, which today is functional for Capitalism.

There is nothing in mainstream society that offers us an escape from this, nothing that offers us structure and certainty and a limt to our desires – at the level of social integration, we integrate as consumers, at the level of identity construction we must make choices based on consumption, and at the level of societal reproduction, this requires people to be consumers. The message is clear – you are free to consume, free to make a choices.

However, we are not free to escape from this because the only solutions to our confused state of having too much choice are market-solutions. This is why Bauman said we are compelled to make these choices, forced into making more and more choices by a system that requires us to make choices.

There are movements which offer alternatives to consumerism – Fundamentalisms and Neotribalisms – but these do not offer the possiblity for systemic reproduction because they tend to be local, and are thus only ‘guerilla movements’ between the brightly lit shopping malls which perpetuate ambivalence at the levels of the system and the lifeworld in general.


Again I think Bauman here is extremely verbose – He’s basically saying that the system requires that we keep on buying and discarding, buying and discarding at ever faster rates and so we are sort of forced into making consumer choices. This ‘built in obsolence’ is the very basis of the system and it destabilises us, bewilders us, makes us uncertain of what we should be doing and uncertain of who we are.

I think Bauman maybe ignores elemts of the green movement and the anti-consumerist movement – these have the potential to resocialise people into constraining their desires on the basis of a global ethics of responsibility for the other, and do, in fact, specifically focus on how the local and the global intersect.

Chapter Five – Am I my brother’s keeper?

The concept of the welfare state has changed from being a safety net to a springboard. Its success is judged by the extent to which it renders itself unnecessary – by getting people back into work. The unspoken assumption behind this is that dependence is something which is to be ashamed of – ‘decent people’ simply do not entertain the idea of being on welfare.

According to Levinas, our starting point should be ethics – I am my brothers keeper, because his well-being hinges on what I do and refrain from doing. He is dependent on me. To question this dependence by asking the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’, asking for reasons why I should care, is to stop being a moral being, because morality hinges on (internalising?) this crucial dependent relationship.

The need of the other and taking responsibility for meeting that need is the cornerstone of ethics according to Levinas. This has been the basis of the Judaeo-Christian form for a long time, and the idea underpinned the welfare state, but this idea is now well and truly under attack.

The welfare state came into being because of a conflation of factors – simultaneously a result of ethical intentions, labour movement struggle, and the need to diffuse political tensions, but also because it was in the interest of both labour and capital. Both industry and the state benefited from having a reserve army of labour – because profit was derived from the number of people employed and state-power was derived from the size of the reserve national-army.

However, the nature of unemployment has changed today – They are not a reserve army of labour because downsizing means they are unlikely to be recalled by industry, and they have no social function – they are not needed for work and they are not useful as consumers – because the products they need are low profit and they cannot afford anything else. Hence the recasting of them as the underclass – society would be better off without them, so best to forget them! Free floating capital has no need to keep local-underclasses nourished. To illustrate this Bauman draws on Beck’s ‘The Brave New World of Work’ – only 1 in 2 Europeans have regular, full-time employment.

We hear nothing of people’s lives turned around by social security,  but we hear a lot about the minority of welfare scroungers. The underclass in popular imagination is demonised.

Why? Because the life of the average worker is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety – as is the consumer lifestyle he adopts — Ordinary life in short is miserable – Cynically the creating of an underclass whose lot looks miserable and who we can look down on – a life even worse than our own – makes us a little less miserable. However, they do get some stability – in the form of welfare cheques and it is this that the average flexible worker perceives – rather than their suffering on account of their not being able to access the many opportunities on offer. This also means the prospects for solidarity with the poor are slim. To the average person, the welfare state gets no support.

Because there is no rational economic reason for the welfare state, we should go back and make the ethical argument for it….. I am my brothers keeper, we are all dependent on each other and a society should be measured by its weakest link.

What moral duty implies is inherently ambivalent – it requires constant communication, it is not open to measurability (bureaucracy etc.) – It is always asking the question what is best for that person, what do they need, without me becoming a mere tool of that person, and how do we negotiate around things when our ideas about what is good comes into conflict with theirs.

To sum up – there is no rational reason to support the welfare state, but the ethical argument does not depend on rationality – it is its own starting point – It is better to live for other other, it is better to stand in misery rather than to be indifferent – even if this does not make a society more profitable. This should be the starting point!

I don’t think this needs any translating, for once just summarising it once makes it understandable.

Chapter Six – United in Difference

Many aspects of modern living contribute to a feeling of uncertainty – the feeling that the world in which we live, and the future is uncontrollable, and thus frightening – Thus we live today in a culture of ambient fear (following Doel and Clarke).

The things which contribute to this are as follows:

  1.  The capacity of the nation state to put things in order, to classify things and set the future has dramatically declined since the collapse of communism (this is basically the collapse of metanarratives applied to politics). Moreover the rest of the world does not look to the ‘civilisational centre’ (the developed world) for guidance any more. The main relation between the two seems to be that the rich supply weapons to facilitate numerous tribal conflicts – The New Barbarism might be an apt way to describe globalisation.
  2. Universal deregulation – the tearing up of all other freedoms other than those granted to capital – so that everything else gets subjected to the irrationality of market forces. The freedom of capital benefits from weak states – this is a new world disorder. The vast majority lose out in this process – inequality increases but it is not only the marginalised who are harmed, very few of us feel secure in our homes or our jobs – human rights do not extend to the right to a job, the right to social secuirty, or the right to dignity.
  3. The self-woven safety net of the family and the community, based on people connections and indigenous knowledges (connections for the sake of connections, with long term commitments) have been severely weakened – at this level of social integration we are increasingly dependent on technologies and the market, and so such bonds reflect the uncertainties inherent to these things. Also, we increasingly cast the other as sources of pleasure, asking what we can get from them, rather than what we can do for them.  4. Culture is soft and indeterminate – human connections are cast into successive encounters and Human identities are fragmented, a series of masks. Rather than our identity being like us building a house, it is rather that we put up a series of pre-fabricated buildings, tear one down and then put up another. The fragments of life do not necessarily relate to the other fragments… In our culture the art of forgetting is more useful than remembering.

These are some, not all of the features of postmodern life which result in uncertainty – anxiety.

Modern cities are places of perpetual strangers – Strangers are by definition messy, they do not fit in with your system of order – and thus cities are patchwork places in which no one will feel comfortable everywhere. The chief stratifier in the modern city is the extent to which you have freedom of movement – the extent to which you can avoid the areas you don’t want to go into and get to the areas where you do want to get to. In other words, city dwellers are stratified by the extent to which they can ignore the presence of strangers.

For the better off the messiness of strangers can be avoided – For those in the suburbs, strangers are an occasional pleasure when they want to interact with them, and those who provide services for them. For the poor, however, dealing with strangers cannot be avoided, and they are experienced as a threat to their sense of orderliness. They live in areas where they are not able to choose, and lack the money to escape, so they vent their frustrations in other ways – everything from racism to riots for example. Following Cohen, people feel as if they are losing their sense of home because of the stranger (but the strangers are not the real cause of course, they are just a symptom).

Bauman now proposes  that specific forms of postmodern violence stem from the privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation of identity problems – the dismantling of collective institutions through which people can come together means people no longer discuss what the root causes of their shared identitity problems might be.

We have an opportunity here – of bringing to a conclusion the disembedding work of modernity – now the individual has been set free, we can move beyond nationalism and tribalism and rethink what it means to live as humanity – and here the rights of the stranger are fundamental. This will be an involved process… the sole universal guiding principle should be the right to choose one’s identity as the sole universality of the citizen/ human – we should celebrate this,and then work on how unity might be achieved with this new diversity. However, there is also ample scope for the balkanisation of politics and tribalism as a response.

We tend to see strangers as either exotic pleasure sources or as exaggerated threats… and this in turn stems from polarisation of wealth and life chances, but also of the capacity for genuine individuality… until we sort this out the detoxification of strangers and a move forwards to genuine new global concepts of citizenship are a long way off.


I guess it’s passages like this that demonstrate Bauman’s Late rather than Post-modern attitude to a postmodern world – there is still hope for the future!

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