Interview with Zygmunt Bauman on Freedom, Inequality and Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman (Photo: Simon and Simon

This interview was conducted by email between 06/09/10 and 27/09/10. A longer version, focusing on the role of the intellectual in liquid modernity, was published in Theory, Culture & Society in 2011 (available here:


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

Simon Dawes asks Zygmunt Bauman for his responses to some of the claims made in the current TCS Special Section on his work, about his forthcoming book on inequality, and why he no longer referees articles for TCS



Simon Dawes: To begin with, I’d like to ask you to what extent you think the liquidity of your own life experiences has influenced (as Martin Jay suggests in his TCS article) your interpretation of (liquid) modernity? Do you recognise yourself, for example, as an ‘ambivalent outsider’ who has ‘learned to walk on quicksand’?

Zygmunt Bauman: An answer to this question I’d gladly (and, I presume, prudently) leave to psychoanalysts, who specialize in tracing these sort of links or just coincidences and re-presenting them as causal connections. Having been in that story a bird rather than ornithologist (and birds, as we all know, being not particularly prominent in the annals of ornithology), I am perhaps the last person to be asked this question in search for an authoritative answer. Beyond a rather banal observation that the experience of frailty of the settings in and through which I found myself moving in the course of my uncannily long life itinerary must have (mustn’t it?) influenced what I have seen and how, I really don’t feel entitled to go… And, to be sure, the art of walking on quicksand is still beyond me. What I learned is only how difficult this art is to master and how hard people need to struggle to learn it.

As to describing me as an outsider throughout, and an outsider through and through (I owe this discovery to Dennis Smith, [in TCS, 1998]) – I have no reason to disagree. Indeed, I did not truly “belong” to any school, order, intellectual camaraderie or clique; I did not apply for admission to any of them, let alone did much to deserve an invitation; nor would I be listed by any of them – at least listed unqualifiedly – as “one of us”. I guess my claustrophobia is incurable – feeling, as I tend to, ill at ease in any closed room, and always tempted to find out what is on the other side of the door. I guess I am doomed to remain an outsider to the end, lacking as I am the indispensable qualities of an academic insider: school loyalty, conformity to the procedure, and readiness to obey by the school-endorsed criteria of cohesion and consistency. And, frankly, I don’t mind…


SD: You rely on the dichotomous metaphor of solid/liquid in your accounts of modernity, but to what extent are these terms mutually exclusive? Could this relation be seen as a dialectic? 
ZB: I did not and do not think of the solidity-liquidity conundrum as a dichotomy; I view those two conditions as a couple locked, inseparably, in a dialectical bond (something like what probably François Lyotard had in mind when observing that one can’t be modern without being post-modern first …). After all, it was the quest for the solidity of things and states that most of the time triggered, kept in motion and guided those things’ and states’ liquefaction. In turn, it was the formlessness of the oozing/leaking/flowing liquid that prompted the efforts of cooling/damping/moulding. If there is something to permit the distinction between “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity (that is, arranging them in an order of succession), it is the change in both the manifest and latent purpose behind the effort.

Originally, solids were melted not because of a distaste for solidity, but because of dissatisfaction with the degree of solidity of the extant/inherited solids: purely and simply, the bequeathed solids were found to be not solid enough (insufficiently resistant/immunized to change) by the standards of the order-obsessed and compulsively order-building modern powers. Subsequently (in our part of the world, to this day) solids are but admittedly transient, “until further notice” condensations of liquid magma. They are temporary settlements rather than ultimate solutions – where flexibility replaces solidity as the ideal condition to be pursued. Even when desired, solids are tolerated only in as far as they promise to remain easily and obediently fusible on demand; before the effort of putting together, firming up and solidifying a structure is undertaken, an adequate technology of melting again must be already in hand. A reliable assurance of the right and ability to dismantle the constructed structure must be offered, before the job of construction starts in earnest. Fully “biodegradable” structures are nowadays the ideal and the standards to which most, if not all structures, struggle to measure up.



SD: Could you explain how the real freedom and genuine autonomy of the Enlightenment differs from the (false, liquid, consumerist) freedom of the market? And what do you make of John Milbank’s claim that you lack a metaphysical basis for speaking of such freedom?

ZB: In a nutshell: if freedom visualised by the Enlightenment and demanded/promised by Marx was made to the measure of the ideal producer; the market-promoted freedom is designed with the ideal consumer in mind; neither of the two is “more genuine” than the other…

This is though, in my view, a socio-political problem, not a metaphysical issue. I was, and remain, and in all probability will stay interested in the socio-political mechanisms that generate the “enabling” and “disabling” pressures in tandem, tie them together and intertwine, and all in all render them virtually inseparable, after the pattern of Siamese twins sharing their pulmonary and digestive systems…

An ideal and flawless freedom, “complete freedom”, enabling without disabling, is I believe an oxymoron in metaphysics as much as it is an unreachable goal in social life…



SD: In her article in the special section, Julia Hell identifies a frequent emphasis on acts of looking in your writing. What is the link, for you, between looking and ‘the other’, or how significant for you is the gaze of/at ‘the other’?

ZB: I guess Julia Hell is right, the visual does seem to me the most thoroughly grasped and recorded among my impressions; sight seems to be my principal sense organ, and “seeing” supplies the key metaphors for reporting the perception. No different seems to be the constitution of Levinas’s, my ethics teacher’s, perception/imagination: it is the sight of l’Autre that triggers the moral impulse and recasts me as a moral subject through exposing me and surrendering/subordinating to the object of my responsibility (this happens already before l’Autre has a chance to open her/his mouth, and so before any demands or requests could be heard by me…) – even if the tactile, the caress, is a better metaphor for Levinas’s model of what follows the awakening of the moral self.

What is in my view unmentioned and missing however in Julia’s awesomely insightful vivisection of the “gaze”, is another variety of gaze – tremendously important in the unpacking of the complex eyes-and-ethics relation. The gaze which she so perceptively and inspiringly focuses on, the Orphic gaze, is so to speak a “killing-through-love” or “murder by love” gaze (though also, potentially, saving/liberating). There is also however a “Panwitz gaze” as experienced, spotted and vividly reconstructed by Primo Levi: a “killing-through-unconcern” or, more adequately, “murder-by-indifference” gaze, a gaze immune to the bacillus of morality, inoculated against the responsibility-awakening impact of meeting-an-Other. I believe that tracing the societal ways and means of replacing Orpheus’ gaze with Panwitz’s, of stripping the gaze of its inborn ethical power (the process I dub “adiaphorization”) is quite crucial to any serious attempt to map the convoluted and contorted itinerary of moral self inside the liquid-modern world…



SD: Moving on to other things: Could you tell us more about your forthcoming book, Collateral Casualties of Inequality (forthcoming, Polity Press)? What’s it about, and how does it connect with your other writings?

ZB: In a nutshell…The foremost strategy of all and any power struggle consists now as before in the “structuring” of the counterpart’s condition, while “un-structuring”, that is deregulating, one’s own, was and remains a permanent feature of modern power strategies; however in the society of producers, the solid-modern settlement as represented by the “Fordist factory” cum “social state” paradigm, both sides of the conflict had vested interests in preventing inequality running out of control – whereas this is no longer the case.

As a result, the odds in favour of those “close to the sources of uncertainty” and against those others, fixed at the uncertainty’s receiving end, have been radically multiplied. It is the efforts to narrow the hiatus, to mitigate the polarization of chances and the resulting discriminations that have been for a change made marginal and transient: they are now spectacularly ineffective, indeed impotent, in stopping the runaway rise of fortunes and miseries at the two poles of the present day power axis. They are afflicted by the chronic deficit of power to act and to get things done, while power continues to be amassed and stocked on the side of forces pressing in the opposite direction. State governments seek local remedies for the globally fabricated deprivations and miseries in vain – just as the individuals-by-the-decree-of-fate (read: by the impact of deregulation) seek in vain the individual solutions to the socially fabricated life problems.

“The inequality between the world’s individuals is staggering” – says Branko Milanovic, the top economist in the research department of the World Bank. “At the turn of the twenty-first century, the richest 5 percent of people receive one-third of total global income, as much as the poorest 80 percent”. While a few poor countries are catching up with the rich world, the differences between the richest and poorest individuals around the globe are huge and likely growing…

In 2008, Glenn Firebaugh pointed out that “we have a reversal of a longstanding trend, from rising inequality across nations and constant or declining inequality within nations, to declining inequality across nations and rising inequality within them. That’s the message of my 2003 book The New Geography of Global Income Inequality” – a message since then confirmed.



SD: What do you make of the recent surge in interest in inequality and the economic and environmental crises, that proposes de-growth, sustainable economies, post-capitalism or for the continuing salience of communism, as solutions to these problems?

ZB: Poignantly and succinctly, the great José Saramago has answered already your question, pointing out that “people do not choose a government that will bring the market within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions governments to bring the people within its control”. Several decades ago, in Legitimation Crisis, Jürgen Habermas spelled out the function of capitalist states as assuring that the meeting between capital and labour takes place, and that both sides come to the meeting place fit and willing for transaction. As the run-by-capital society of producers turned since into the run-by-capital society of consumers, I would say that the main, indeed “meta”, function of the governments has become now to assure that it is the meetings between commodities and the consumers, and credit issuers and the borrowers, that regularly take place (as with the governments known to fight tooth and nail over every penny which the “underclass”, that is the “flawed (useless) consumers”, need to keep their bodies alive, but that now miraculously find hundreds of billions of pounds or dollars to “re-capitalize the banks”, have recently proved, if a proof was needed…).

I have pointed out recently, following Keith Tester’s hint, that we have found ourselves in the period of “interregnum”: the old works no more, the new is not yet born. But the awareness that without it being born we are all marked for demise, is already much alive, as is the awareness that the hard nut we must urgently crack is not the presence of “too many poor”, but “too many rich”. Let me quote Saramago once more: “I would ask the political economists, the moralists, if they have already calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization, to infantilization, to despicable ignorance, to insurmountable misfortune, to utter penury, in order to produce one rich person?”. I suppose that such and similar calls will in the coming years gather in pitch – and in audience…



SD: Could you say a little about what you’re reading at the moment, or what you’ve read recently that you’ve been impressed by?

ZB: For me, the last couple of years discouraged voyages of discovery… Not many attempted, even fewer seen through.

But as you can gather from our chat thus far, Saramago was one (regrettably, late) discovery. I am sad that just a couple of his oeuvres, yet unread, wait for me to be savoured – as he won’t write more of them…

Another discovery were the first dystopias composed for the liquid-modern world, codifying and extrapolating and bringing to their logical (that is, if our collective art of the illogical and the unexpected won’t interfere in time) conclusion. In film, Michael Hanneke. In literature, Michel Houellebecq. Bound to do for the 21st century what Zamiatin, Orwell and Aldous Huxley did for the 20th.

The latest discovery, not in the same class, yet great all the same: Sarah Blackwell’s study of Montaigne under the enigmatic title “How to Live” (mind you, emphatically not “How Should One Live”…)

I am fascinated by the already published and the forthcoming Keith Tester’s studies in film art. They open quite new vistas where one would think everything that could has been already said. I am still trying to come to grips with their import.



SD: One final question: TCS is committed to the process of peer-review, and many of our (both rejected and accepted) contributors are grateful for the feedback given by our editors and anonymous reviewers, and for the subsequent strengthening of their articles, but you are critical of peer-review and no longer act as a referee for us. Could you tell us why?

ZB: There are, by the most conservative counting, two grave and deeply regrettable collateral victims of the peer-review gruesome stratagem: one is the daring of thought (wished-washed to the lowest common denominator), and the other is the individuality, as well as the responsibility, of editors (those seeking shelter behind the anonymity of “peers”, but in fact dissolved in it, in many cases without a trace). There are of course many more harms done: like the deceptive safety which the ‘committee resolution’ suggests, dampening thereby the readers’ critical impulse, or the temperance and sometimes also honesty of the “peers” provoked by the assurances of anonymity into actions they otherwise would desist. The overall result is the reinstating of the state of affairs bluntly described by Hannah Arendt as one of “floating responsibility” or “responsibility of nobody”.

Last but not least, I would single yet another collateral damage: the multitude of the trails blazed, and heterogeneity of inspirations. I suspect that the peer-review system carries a good part of blame for the fact that something like sixty percent or more of journal articles are never quoted (which means leaving no trace on our joint scholarly pursuits), and (in my reception at any rate) the “learned journals” (with a few miraculous exceptions that entail, prominently, TCS) ooze monumental boredom. To find a new enlightening and inspiring idea (as distinct from finding a recipe for getting safely through the peer-built barricade) browsing through thousands of journal pages is all too often called for. With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that were our palaeolithic ancestors to discover the peer-review dredger, we would be still sitting in caves…

So perhaps the stratagem under discussion is in addition guilty of massive time-and-intellectual-power waste… In short, not the sort of game of which I’d be inclined willingly to partake…




Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds. His most recent publications are Has Ethics a Chance in the Society of Consumers? (Harvard University Press, 2008), The Art of Life (Polity, 2008), and Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo (Polity, 2009). Collateral Casualties of Inequality (Polity) is forthcoming.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society


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