The passage from 'solid' to 'liquid'modernity has created a new and unprecedented setting forindividual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series ofchallenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutionsno longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as framesof reference for human actions and long-term life plans, soindividuals have to find other ways to organise their lives. Theyhave to splice together an unending series of short-term projectsand episodes that don't add up to the kind of sequence towhich concepts like 'career' and 'progress'could meaningfully be applied. Such fragmented lives requireindividuals to be flexible and adaptable - to be constantlyready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandoncommitments and loyalties without regret and to pursueopportunities according to their current availability. In liquidmodernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate thelikely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) underconditions of endemic uncertainty. Zygmunt Bauman's brilliant writings on liquid modernityhave altered the way we think about the contemporary world. In thisshort book he explores the sources of the endemic uncertainty whichshapes our lives today and, in so doing, he provides the readerwith a brief and accessible introduction to his highly originalaccount, developed at greater length in his previous books, of lifein our liquid modern times.
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Living in an Age of Uncertainty
Copyright © Zygmunt Bauman 2007
The right of Zygmunt Bauman to be identiﬁed as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2007 by Polity Press
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Introduction: Bravely into the Hotbed of Uncertainties
1 Liquid Modern Life and its Fears
2 Humanity on the Move
3 State, Democracy and the Management of Fears
4 Out of Touch Together
5 Utopia in the Age of Uncertainty
Bravely into the Hotbed of Uncertainties
At least in the ‘developed’ part of the planet, a few seminal and closely interconnected departures have happened, or are happening currently, that create a new and indeed unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, raising a series of challenges never before encountered.
First of all, the passage from the ‘solid’ to a ‘liquid’ phase of modernity: that is, into a condition in which social forms (structures that limit individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable behaviour) can no longer (and are not expected) to keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them, and once they are cast for them to set. Forms, whether already present or only adumbrated, are unlikely to be given enough time to solidify, and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life strategies because of their short life expectation: indeed, a life expectation shorter than the time it takes to develop a cohesive and consistent strategy, and still shorter than the fulﬁlment of an individual ‘life project’ requires.
Second, the separation and pending divorce of power and politics, the couple that since the emergence of the modern state and until quite recently was expected to share their joint nation-state household ‘till death did them part’. Much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global (and in many ways extraterritorial) space; while politics, the ability to decide the direction and purpose of action, is unable to operate effectively at the planetary level since it remains, as before, local. The absence of political control makes the newly emancipated powers into a source of profound and in principle untameable uncertainty, while the dearth of power makes the extant political institutions, their initiatives and undertakings, less and less relevant to the life problems of the nation-state’s citizens and for that reason they draw less and less of their attention. Between them, the two interrelated outcomes of the divorce enforce or encourage state organs to drop, transfer away, or (to use the recently fashionable terms of political jargon) to ‘subsidiarize’ and ‘contract out’ a growing volume of the functions they previously performed. Abandoned by the state, those functions become a playground for the notoriously capricious and inherently unpredictable market forces and/or are left to the private initiative and care of individuals.
Third, the gradual yet consistent withdrawal or curtailing of communal, state-endorsed insurance against individual failure and ill fortune deprives collective action of much of its past attraction and saps the social foundations of social solidarity; ‘community’, as a way of referring to the totality of the population inhabiting the sovereign territory of the state, sounds increasingly hollow. Interhuman bonds, once woven into a security net worthy of a large and continuous investment of time and effort, and worth the sacriﬁce of immediate individual interests (or what might be seen as being in an individual’s interest), become increasingly frail and admitted to be temporary. Individual exposure to the vagaries of commodity-and-labour markets inspires and promotes division, not unity; it puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboration and team work to the rank of temporary stratagems that need to be suspended or terminated the moment their beneﬁts have been used up. ‘Society’ is increasingly viewed and treated as a ‘network’ rather than a ‘structure’ (let alone a solid ‘totality’): it is perceived and treated as a matrix of random connections and disconnections and of an essentially inﬁnite volume of possible permutations.
Fourth, the collapse of long-term thinking, planning and acting, and the disappearance or weakening of social structures in which thinking, planning and acting could be inscribed for a long time to come, leads to a splicing of both political history and individual lives into a series of short-term projects and episodes which are in principle inﬁnite, and do not combine into the kinds of sequences to which concepts like ‘development’, ‘maturation’, ‘career’ or ‘progress’ (all suggesting a preordained order of succession) could be meaningfully applied. A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets. Past successes do not necessarily increase the probability of future victories, let alone guarantee them; while means successfully tested in the past need to be constantly inspected and revised since they may prove useless or downright counterproductive once circumstances change. A swift and thorough forgetting of outdated information and fast ageing habits can be more important for the next success than the memorization of past moves and the building of strategies on a foundation laid by previous learning.
Fifth, the responsibility for resolving the quandaries generated by vexingly volatile and constantly changing circumstances is shifted onto the shoulders of individuals – who are now expected to be ‘free choosers’ and to bear in full the consequences of their choices. The risks involved in every choice may be produced by forces which transcend the comprehension and capacity to act of the individual, but it is the individual’s lot and duty to pay their price, because there are no authoritatively endorsed recipes which would allow errors to be avoided if they were properly learned and dutifully followed, or which could be blamed in the case of failure. The virtue proclaimed to serve the individual’s interests best is not conformity to rules (which at any rate are few and far between, and often mutually contradictory) but ﬂexibility: a readiness to change tactics and style at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret – and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability, rather than following one’s own established preferences.
It is time to ask how these departures modify the range of challenges men and women face in their life pursuits and so, obliquely, inﬂuence the way they tend to live their lives. This book is an attempt to do just that. To ask, but not to answer, let alone to pretend to provide deﬁnite answers, since it is its author’s belief that all answers would be peremptory, premature and potentially misleading. After all, the overall effect of the departures listed above is the necessity to act, to plan actions, to calculate the expected gains and losses of the actions and to evaluate their outcomes under conditions of endemic uncertainty. The best the author has tried to do and felt entitled to do has been to explore the causes of that uncertainty – and perhaps lay bare some of the obstacles that bar their comprehension and so also our ability to face up (singly and above all collectively) to the challenge which any attempt to control them would necessarily present.
Liquid Modern Life and its Fears
‘If you wish peace, care for justice,’ averred ancient wisdom; and unlike knowledge, wisdom does not age. Absence of justice is barring the road to peace today as it did two millennia ago. This has not changed. What has changed is that ‘justice’ is now, unlike in ancient times, a planetary issue, measured and assessed by planetary comparisons – and this for two reasons.
First, on a planet criss-crossed by ‘information highways’, nothing that happens in any part of the planet can actually, or at least potentially, stay in an intellectual ‘outside’. No terra nulla, no blank spots on the mental map, no unknown, let alone unknowable lands and peoples. The human misery of distant places and remote ways of life, as well as the human proﬂigacy of other distant places and remote ways of life, are displayed by electronic images and brought home as vividly and harrowingly, shamingly or humiliatingly, as is the distress or ostentatious prodigality of the human beings close to home during daily strolls through the town’s streets. The injustices out of which models of justice are moulded are no longer conﬁned to immediate neighbourhoods and gleaned out of the ‘relative deprivation’ or ‘wage differentials’ by comparison with the neighbours next door, or with the mates next in the social ranking.
Second, on a planet open to the free circulation of capital and commodities, whatever happens in one place has a bearing on how people in all other places live, hope or expect to live. Nothing can be credibly assumed to stay in a material ‘outside’. Nothing is truly, or can remain for long, indifferent to anything else – untouched and untouching. No well-being of one place is innocent of the misery of another. In Milan Kundera’s succinct summary, such ‘unity of mankind’ as has been brought about by globalization means mainly that ‘there is nowhere one can escape to’.1
As Jacques Attali pointed out in La Voie humaine,2 half of world trade and more than half of global investment beneﬁt just twenty-two countries accommodating a mere 14 per cent of the world’s population, whereas the forty-nine poorest countries inhabited by 11 per cent of the world’s population receive between them only a 0.5 per cent share of the global product – just about the same as the combined income of the three wealthiest men of the planet. Ninety per cent of the total wealth of the planet remains in the hands of just 1 per cent of the planet’s inhabitants. And there are no breakwaters in sight capable of stemming the global tide of income polarization – still ominously rising.
The pressures aimed at the piercing and dismantling of boundaries, commonly called ‘globalization’, have done their job; with few, and fast disappearing exceptions; all societies lie now fully and truly wide open, materially and intellectually. Add together both kinds of ‘openness’ – intellectual and material – and you’ll see why any injury, relative deprivation or contrived indolence anywhere comes topped up with the insult of injustice: of the feeling of wrong having been done, a wrong crying out to be repaired, but ﬁrst of all obliging the victims to avenge their ills . . .
The ‘openness’ of the open society has acquired a new gloss, undreamt of by Karl Popper who coined the term. As before, it means a society frankly admitting its own incompleteness and therefore anxious to attend to its own as yet un-intuited, let alone explored, possibilities; but in addition it means a society impotent, as never before, to decide its own course with any degree of certainty, and to protect the chosen itinerary once it has been selected. Once a precious yet frail product of brave though stressful self-assertion, the attribute of ‘openness’ is mostly associated these days with an irresistible fate; with the unplanned and unanticipated side-effects of ‘negative globalization’ – that is, a selective globalization of trade and capital, surveillance and information, violence and weapons, crime and terrorism, all unanimous in their disdain of the principle of territorial sovereignty and their lack of respect for any state boundary. A society that is ‘open’ is a society exposed to the blows of ‘fate’.
If the idea of an ‘open society’ originally stood for the self-determination of a free society cherishing its openness, it now brings to most minds the terrifying experience of a heteronomous, hapless and vulnerable population confronted with, and possibly overwhelmed by forces it neither controls nor fully understands; a population horriﬁed by its own undefendability and obsessed with the tightness of its frontiers and the security of the individuals living inside them – while it is precisely that impermeability of its borders and security of life inside those borders that elude its grasp and seem bound to remain elusive as long as the planet is subjected to solely negative globalization. On a negatively globalized planet, security cannot be obtained, let alone assured, within just one country or in a selected group of countries: not by their own means alone, and not independently of what happens in the rest of the world.
Neither can justice, that preliminary condition of lasting peace, be so attained, let alone guaranteed. The perverted ‘openness’ of societies enforced by negative globalization is itself the prime cause of injustice and so, obliquely, of conﬂict and violence. As Arundhati Roy puts it, ‘when the elite, somewhere at the top of the world, pursue their travels to imagined destinations, the poor stay caught in a spiral of crime and chaos.’3 The actions of the United States government, says Roy, together with its various satellites barely disguised as ‘international institutions’, like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, have brought about, as their ‘dangerous side-products’, ‘nationalism, religious fanaticism, fascism and, of course, terrorism – which advance hand in hand with the progress of liberal globalization’.
‘Markets without frontiers’ is a recipe for injustice, and for the new world disorder in which the famed formula of Clausewitz has been reversed so that it is the turn of politics to become a continuation of war by other means. Deregulation, resulting in planetary lawlessness, and armed violence feed each other, mutually reinforce and reinvigorate one another; as another ancient wisdom warns, inter arma silent leges (when arms speak, laws keep silent).
Before sending troops to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld declared that the ‘war will be won when Americans feel secure again’.4 That message has been repeated ever since – day in, day out – by George W. Bush. But sending troops to Iraq lifted and continues to lift the fear of insecurity, in the United States and elsewhere, to new heights.
As might have been expected, the feeling of security was not the sole collateral casualty of war. Personal freedoms and democracy soon shared its lot. To quote Alexander Hamilton’s prophetic warning,
The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.5
That prophecy is now coming true.
Once visited upon the human world, fear acquires its own momentum and developmental logic and needs little attention and hardly any additional investment to grow and spread – unstoppably. In David L. Altheide’s words, it is not fear of danger that is most critical, but rather what this fear can expand into, what it can become.6 Social life changes when people live behind walls, hire guards, drive armoured vehicles, carry mace and handguns, and take martial arts classes. The problem is that these activities reafﬁrm and help produce the sense of disorder that our actions are aimed at preventing.
Fears prompt us to take defensive action. When it is taken, defensive action gives immediacy and tangibility to fear. It is our responses that recast the sombre premonitions as daily reality, making the word ﬂesh. Fear has now settled inside, saturating our daily routines; it hardly needs further stimuli from outside, since the actions it prompts day in, day out supply all the motivation and all the energy it needs to reproduce itself. Among the mechanisms vying to approximate to the dream model of perpetuum mobile, the self-reproduction of the tangle of fear and fear-inspired actions comes closest to claiming pride of place.
It looks as if our fears have become self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing; as if they have acquired a momentum of their own – and can go on growing by drawing exclusively on their own resources. That ostensible self-sufficiency is of course only an illusion, just as it was in the case of numerous other mechanisms claiming the miracle of self-propelling and self-nourishing perpetual motion. Obviously, the cycle of fear and of actions dictated by fear would not roll on so smoothly and go on gathering speed were it not continuing to draw its energy from existential tremors.
The presence of such tremors is not exactly news; existential quakes have accompanied humans through the whole of their history, because none of the social settings within which human life pursuits have been conducted have ever offered foolproof insurance against the blows of ‘fate’ (so called in order to set blows of such a kind apart from the adversities human beings could avert, and to convey not so much the peculiar nature of these blows as such, as the recognition of humans’ inability to predict them, let alone to prevent or tame them). By deﬁnition, ‘fate’ strikes without warning and is indifferent to what its victims might do or might abstain from doing in order to escape its blows. ‘Fate’ stands for human ignorance and helplessness, and owes its awesome, frightening power to those very weaknesses of its victims. And, as the editors of the Hedgehog Review wrote in their introduction to the special issue dedicated to fear, ‘in the absence of existential comfort’ people tend to settle ‘for safety, or the pretence of safety’.7
The ground on which our life prospects are presumed to rest is admittedly shaky – as are our jobs and the companies that offer them, our partners and networks of friends, the standing we enjoy in wider society and the self-esteem and self-conﬁdence that come with it. ‘Progress’, once the most extreme manifestation of radical optimism and a promise of universally shared and lasting happiness, has moved all the way to the opposite, dystopian and fatalistic pole of anticipation: it now stands for the threat of a relentless and inescapable change that instead of auguring peace and respite portends nothing but continuous crisis and strain and forbids a moment of rest. Progress has turned into a sort of endless and uninterrupted game of musical chairs in which a moment of inattention results in irreversible defeat and irrevocable exclusion. Instead of great expectations and sweet dreams, ‘progress’ evokes an insomnia full of nightmares of ‘being left behind’ – of missing the train, or falling out of the window of a fast accelerating vehicle.
Unable to slow the mind-boggling pace of change, let alone to predict and control its direction, we focus on things we can, or believe we can, or are assured that we can inﬂuence: we try to calculate and minimize the risk that we personally, or those nearest and dearest to us at that moment, might fall victim to the uncounted and uncountable dangers which the opaque world and its uncertain future are suspected to hold in store for us. We are engrossed in spying out ‘the seven signs of cancer’ or ‘the ﬁve symptoms of depression’, or in exorcising the spectre of high blood pressure, a high cholesterol level, stress or obesity. In other words, we seek substitute targets on which to unload the surplus existential fear that has been barred from its natural outlets, and we ﬁnd such makeshift targets in taking elaborate precautions against inhaling someone else’s cigarette smoke, ingesting fatty food or ‘bad’ bacteria (while avidly swilling the liquids which promise to contain the ‘good’ ones), exposure to sun, or unprotected sex. Those of us who can afford it fortify ourselves against all visible and invisible, present or anticipated, known or as yet unfamiliar, diffuse but ubiquitous dangers through locking ourselves behind walls, stufﬁng the approaches to our living quarters with TV cameras, hiring armed guards, driving armoured vehicles (like the notorious SUVs), wearing armoured clothing (like ‘big-soled shoes’) or taking martial arts classes. ‘The problem’, to quote David L. Altheide once more, ‘is that these activities reafﬁrm and help produce a sense of disorder that our actions precipitate.’ Each extra lock on the entry door in response to successive rumours of foreign-looking criminals in cloaks full of daggers and each next revision of the diet in response to a successive ‘food panic’ makes the world look more treacherous and fearsome, and prompts more defensive actions – that will, alas, add more vigour to the self-propagating capacity of fear.
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