Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bauman and the case for a social Europe

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist who is Emeritus Professor at the University of  Leeds made his fortune with his original thinking on modern societies. His concept of 'liquid modernity" describes the shift from the rock solid industrial society - whose basic foundation is mass production and the social relations which it created-to the fragile and unstable societies of today.  

In a recent book, he develops the idea of "liquid fear" that is the fear of natural disasters, environmental catastrophes or indiscriminate terrorist attacks, all things that we cannot prevent. For Bauman, the main source of fear is the decline and decomposition of the social organisation which prevailed, sometimes called fordism as the industrial substratum which underpinned the entire edifice. That basis gave security and solidity to the entire society through redistribution of wealth and the ability of the State to cover a wide range of needs.  But the strength of the system was the "propelling and operating force of the society". 

The State and the western society of the Fordist era - which initiated their decline in the 70s and suffered the impact of globalization and deregulation - had a stabilizing role for the individuals and created a context of solidarity for the working class. The Fordist factory was the best example of the 'solid modernity" in which most individuals without capital stood out, the place of a conflict between capital and labour in a hostile but long term relationship. But this allowed those individuals to "think and make plans for the future". Conflict was a sort of investment into the future as well a sacrifice which would bear fruit  while the current condition of  global volatility makes it meaningless. This phase being exhausted, due to the pressure of global forces, and independent of the policies of individual States, has transformed our lives, created an  'open society', -not in the sense of Popper's free society-  but rather in the sense of society 'exposed to the blows of fate". 

The paradox is that the sense of insecurity is widespread in developed societies, which in fact are better off relative to the rest of the world. Insecurity is when individuals are dependent on strong protections," which become fragile and are afraid of losing them" . In recent decades, the whole phenomenology of fear has appeared again in the various segments of society : terrorism, urban crime,  environmental and health risks a and then the influx of the Others and the Diverse, which become the main target of  populist parties  which see in the immigrants the most profitable scapegoat. Even the political capital becomes liquid seeking profits (in terms of votes!) from increasing fear and insecurity. 

Z. Bauman summarized his thinking in this sentence : "Modernity was supposed to be the period in human history when the fears that pervaded social life in the past could be left behind and human beings could at last take control of their lives and tame the uncontrolled forces of the social and natural worlds. And yet, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we live again in a time of fear. Whether its the fear of natural disasters, the fear of environmental catastrophes or the fear of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, we live today in a state of constant anxiety about the dangers that could strike" 

 As Europeans , we are trapped between the horrors of the past and the risks of a distant future. Fear undermines social cohesiveness and  creates tensions between social groups and individuals. To combat the insidious fear that pervades our continent , the solution is to be found outside the national confines in the reinforcement of supra-national institutions. A social Europe is our only hope.

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