The early 2000s was an interesting time to be in England and particularly as a student at the University of Leeds where one of our own social scientists, Hamza Alavi, had taught. But by 2000, Alavi was no more there depriving students of a possible interaction with him. There was another bigger personality, Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish-born sociologist who was interested in almost all branches of social sciences. He had become a professor emeritus after retiring from his regular professorship of sociology; still in his 70s he delivered lectures, supervised doctoral students, and wrote books.
You could see him in the corridors of the university, talk to him in his office, and request him to sign one of his books that you had bought from the university book shop. Even if you were not his student or belonged to another department, he was always welcoming especially towards foreign students.
Bauman was not a glib talker like many other professors; one found him more interested in listening rather than talking. His curiosity to know about other countries’ problems was limitless and most of his questions revolved around how globalisation was affecting the developing countries.
Bauman died on January 9, 2017, in Leeds at the age of 91. He was the author of more than 50 books and hundreds of articles. A prolific writer who on an average wrote at least one book per year, his intellectual sharpness was not blunted even during his last years and he kept writing and presented his analysis on world events and social developments not only in academic journals but also in respected newspapers and magazines. His erudition allowed him to incorporate philosophy and other disciplines within his approach to sociology that became a strong moral voice for the poor and dispossessed.
He was particularly concerned at the ruthless onslaught of globalisation on humans who were losing opportunities for a dignified life and were no more able to make ethical decisions. His critique on modernity was unconventional; rather than praising it, he considered it to be standing on the pillars of industrialisation and a rationalised bureaucracy that could do as much harm as it was capable of producing goods. One of his most notable books was Modernity and Holocaust published during the upheavals of 1989. He differed with the dominant perception about the Holocaust as a breakdown in modernity.
According to Bauman, the barbarism of the Holocaust was not simply a breakdown in modernity, rather it was the very outcome of modernity that was capable of mass extermination through its machinery of bureaucracy and industrialisation. Later events proved him right when in the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist states, modernity did not break down but continued in its exterminations around the world. He thought it was the very ‘rationality’ of modern civilisation that makes such exterminations thinkable. Then he coined the term ‘liquid modernity’ to describe the contemporary world.
By ‘liquid modernity’ he means a world situation in which there is a constant and unending flux that makes individuals feel rootless and bereft of any predictable frames of reference. He goes on to talk about ‘liquid times’ in which human connections are too frail and there is surmounting ‘insecurity’ created by a constantly changing world. His so-called Liquid series with Liquid Love (2003), Liquid Life (2005), Liquid Fear (2006), and Liquid Times (2007) beautifully captures the reality of today; especially with Brexit and the recent election of Trump, most of Bauman’s descriptions sound prophetic.
In Bauman’s words, a liquid modern life has no permanent bonds and people end up having ties that are loosely connected and can be untied at will. This process of untying has become quick and effortless because circumstances keep changing fast — how true even in countries such as Pakistan, if you look around.
Though he was born in Poland, he had to move to the USSR in 1940 after the Nazi invasion. When he was just 15, he joined the Polish resistance helped by the Soviets. When the war ended, he became a communist and supported the newly established socialist government in Poland.
Just like many other intellectuals and artistes such as Andrej Wajda, the film maker, and Leszek Kolakowski, the philosopher, Bauman had much hope in the socialist system. But all three were disappointed at the suppression of creativity and ideas other than the approved ones. All three were targeted by the totalitarian state, became more popular in countries not their own, and produced work that was applauded the world over. Though, after the collapse of socialism, they were kind of ‘rehabilitated’, Bauman still faced anti-Semitic outrage when the University of Lower Silesia in Poland announced an honorary doctorate for him.
If Kolakowski (1927-2007) was a historian of ideas best known for his critical analysis of Marxist thought in his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (1976), Bauman was more concerned with concepts and phenomena such as anonymity, globalisation, fluidity, identity, insecurity, mobility, modernity, and post-modernity, and their impact on the people in the contemporary world. He gradually became annoyed at the loss of identity and privacy in the 21st century. In his newspaper articles, he repeatedly lamented and protested against the increasing use of cameras, drones, and other gadgets that were depriving people of their right to remain anonymous.
He left — or rather was forced to leave — Poland in the late 1960s, went to Israel and then reached England in the early 1970s, got a teaching position at the University of Leeds and remained there for the rest of his life. Unlike Kolakowski who hopped from McGill University in Montreal to the University of California, Berkeley, and then to Chicago, Oxford, and Yale; Bauman remained loyal to Leeds — perhaps being true to his own writings, he hated fluidity. After 2000, when Polish workers started pouring into the UK thanks to the EU visa-free movement, he saw it as downward mobility because many highly-qualified Poles started working as labourers and cleaners.
This was the downside of globalisation that Bauman despised and wrote against. He highlighted short-term employment with long stretches of ‘rubbish jobs’ as the bane of modern world where frustrated hopes are being compensated with high-end consumerism.
He was also a critic of ‘meritocracy’ that to him serves as a fig leaf for naked inequality of human conditions and prospects. His articles and essays — easily available on the Internet — are a marvel to read for the discreet reader. Though he landed in England only in his 40s, his English was comparable to any native speaker, of course with an accent.
He was victimised by the socialist state and harboured by a capitalist country but he remained true to his pro-people ideas and kept criticising the ruthless capitalism. He was not one of those who start off as a socialist and end up praising capitalism; to him the division between the leftwing and rightwing politics had almost vanished with the outwardly socialist and leftwing parties and leaders such as Tony Blair who did more harm to the welfare cause and strengthened capitalism even more than any conservative party could do.
He was a strong believer in civil society, think tanks and pressure groups that could still play a proactive role — probably he was not aware of what has been happening to civil society in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.