Some notes on ‘liquid modernity’

October 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

Samuel Wilson

As argued by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, five seminal and closely connected changes have occurred in the ‘developed’ parts of the planet that create a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits.

These changes, which jointly constitute what Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, have created a series of challenges never before encountered.

It is crucial to understand these challenges because they have profound implications for our ability to enact leadership for the greater good, in general, and to achieve sustainable development, in particular.

Although many individuals and collectives (e.g., organisations, communities) value sustainability and sustainable development, the sustainability movement, as observed by Bob Willard, has fallen far short of what is necessary to avoid dangerous tipping points in climate instability, biodiversity loss, and other threats to ecological and social systems.

The reasons for this are many but one that deserves more attention than it has received is that there is a deep tension between the assumptions, mindsets and practices of sustainability, on the one hand, and liquid modernity, on the other.

To glean insights into the roots of this tension between the assumptions, mindsets and practices of sustainability and liquid modernity, respectively, a brief excursion through the five interconnected changes that jointly constitute liquid modernity is warranted.

In this note, I draw on Bauman’s Liquid Times, in which Bauman argues that there are a number of negative consequences of globalisation including the generation of “surplus people”, of increasingly visible inequalities between the rich and the poor, and the creation of a world in which it is increasingly difficult for communities and nations to provide collective security.

  1. The dissolution of the idea of perfectible social forms

According to Bauman, whereas a hundred years ago, the idea of modernity meant striving for perfection, today it means changing and adapting compulsively with no final state in mind. The meaning of change has changed radically in the shift from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’ modernity.

To clarify, a hundred years ago change was regarded as part of the process of striving for some shared image of perfection; some collective or civilizational ideal.

The social forms that were the objects of change, such as the institutions that guard routines (e.g., the organisations in which we work) and the patterns of acceptable behaviour (e.g., social norms), were understood to ‘melt’ away because they were insufficiently ‘solid’.

Nowadays, as Bauman argues, social forms, such as the organisations in which we work, the social norms that guide behaviour, the idea of a ‘career’ as a linear process through which an individual can expect to progress over the course of her life, ‘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’.

Social institutions such as the family, education and work dissipate faster than the span of one’s life. In this context of rapidly dissipating structures and social forms, it becomes difficult for those individuals most exposed to uncontrollable flux and volatility to construct a coherent life project. The result, for many, is disorientation, insecurity and discontinuity.

  1. The separation of politics and power

A second major change, coincident with the shift described above, is what Bauman calls the ‘separation and pending divorce’ of power (the ability to act) and politics (the ability to decide the direction of action), which were an inextricably linked feature of the nation-state in solid modernity. In essence, power no longer recognises national boundaries.

Their separation in our liquid modern age suggests that this link is not immutable, although the collapse of the ideology of globalism, as characterised by the philosopher John Ralston Saul, suggests that the divorce is neither finalised nor guaranteed.

Nevertheless, as explained by Bauman, the separation of power and politics has meant that ‘much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global space; while politics is unable to operate effectively at the planetary level since it remains, as before, local’.

  1. The demise of community and human solidarity

A third major change has been the gradual withdrawal of communal, state-endorsed insurance – stabilising social forms enacted throughout the last century – to levels below the threshold at which their level is capable of sustaining many people’s sense of security.

According to Bauman, one of the side effects of the erosion of these security nets against misfortune has been the erosion of social solidarity and our sense that common interests – the common, public or greater good – exists in any real or meaningful way.

Bauman argues that ‘it is now left to individuals to seek, find and practice individual problems to socially produced troubles, and to try all that through individual, solitary actions, while being equipped with tools that are blatantly inadequate to the task’.

  1. The collapse of long-term thinking and acting

A fourth change is the collapse of long-term thinking, planning and acting and the weakening of social structures in which thinking, planning and acting related to the long-term could be inscribed.

As argued by Bauman, the collapse of long-term thinking and acting has lead to a ‘splicing of both political history and individual lives into a series of short-term projects’. One of the deleterious effects of this splicing of individual life pursuits and collective action is to negate the utility of individual memory and indeed historical memory.

In this world of rolling discontinuities, where much of our experience cannot usefully accumulate, ‘past successes do not necessarily increase the probability of future victories; while means successfully tested in the past need to be constantly inspected and revised since they may prove useless or counterproductive once circumstances change’.

  1. The great risk shift

Finally, in liquid modernity the responsibility for addressing the challenges generated by volatile, constantly changing circumstances is shifted onto the shoulders of individuals who are now expected to be ‘free chosers’ and to bear in full the consequences of their choices. The political scientist Jacob Hacker calls this ‘the great risk shift‘.

In Bauman’s analysis, the risks involved in every choice may be produced by choices that transcend the comprehension and capacity to act of the individual. Nevertheless, it is the individual’s lot to pay the price for this socially generated volatility and flux because there are no rules that would allow errors to be avoided if they were properly learned and dutifully followed, or which could be blamed in the case of failure.

Tellingly, Bauman observes, the virtue proclaimed to serve the individual’s interests best is not conformity to rules but flexibility, understood as a readiness to change tactics and style at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret. As the sociologist Richard Sennett properly notes, most people are not like this.

Next steps

These five changes, which jointly constitute liquid modernity, have ushered in a sociocultural syndrome that we must address if we are to enact the joint projects required to regenerate, sustain and create commons – the work of leadership for the greater good.

Although the answer does not lie in recapitulating the responses of our ancestors to shared vulnerability, it is nevertheless imperative that we have some sense of where we have come from as we work our way towards sustainability and sustainable development.

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