Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason: A Review


I have to confess that I’m extremely disappointed by Laclau’s 2005 book On Populist Reason. One thing you need to figure out before you start writing is what your audience will be like. Are you trying to address the specialists in your field or do you want the book to be accessible to any reasonably educated person? Once you have decided who it is that you are writing for, then you need to make sure that both the ideas you express and the language you use to transmit them are on the same level.

In On Populist Reason, Laclau seems to have forgotten how important it is to know your audience. He uses extremely complex, jargon-ridden writing style to transmit ideas that are beyond basic. If I am to struggle through the author’s convoluted sentences and displays of erudition, I expect his argument to lead me to something better than the kind of trivialities that Laclau offers in this book.

Laclau begins his study of populism with an overview of the existing definitions of this concept. He points out that  the perception of populism as something that is a priori negative is the only reason why such definitions only succeed in demonizing populism in terms that are as negative as they are vague. Instead of analyzing populism, political theorists attempt to demonstrate how much they condemn it and then allow this condemnation to taint every conclusion they make. Laclau attempts to move away from such facile definitions and offer a more profound analysis of populism. However, he fails at that task quite spectacularly.

More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning. Here is one of the many examples:

The complexes which we call ‘discursive or hegemonic formations’, which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results froman indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions.

This statement concludes over 100 pages of a very convoluted discussion and does nothing more than announce in this extremely technical language that communities are bound together not just by reason but also by emotions. Well, duh. This idea has been studied, discussed and argued ad nauseam for over 100 years now. There is hardly any need to convince those of us who are capable of reading Laclau’s texts of something so banal.

In a similar way, Laclau offers a very plodding discussion that is supposed to lead his readers to the earth-shattering conclusion that – believe it or not – populist movements can exist both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum. I am sure that there are people who are unaware of this fact but these are not the same people who can get through 40 pages on floating signifiers.

I have also discovered from On Populist Reason that in the US populism has been hijacked by the Right that, against all reason, managed to convince farmers and blue-collar workers that the Republicans represent the interests of the regular folks as opposed to the Democrats who supposedly only defend the rights of the long-haired East Coast elites. I know that you must have already yawned twice as you have been reading this paragraph. We all know this, we have all heard this said a gazillion times. Why Laclau believes that it needs to be pointed out yet again is beyond me.

The book is filled to the brim with inanities of the most disturbing kind. On page 177 (close to the end of the book), we find out that in order for the populist appeal to be effective, there have to exist some problems in society. A society where institutional stability is complete, will not respond to populism. But, of course, perfect societies do not exist, so this situation is completely hypothetic. “Surprise, surprise!” I wrote on the margins when I read this. For the most part, this was my reaction to the entire book.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part II


I want to dedicate the second part of my review of Liquid Modernity to those of its parts that I found to be objectionable. My problem with the entirety of Bauman’s work is that whenever he talks of people, humanity, or mankind at large, he always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males. Let’s take, for example, the following statement, in which the erasure of women is so complete as to be shocking:

‘Work’ so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And ‘work’ so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity. (137)

These statements are, of course, completely true if by “humanity as a whole” and “every single member of humankind” we refer exclusively to men. For women, the situation was and still is the exact opposite. Working mothers are routinely blamed for causing “extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity” of their poor, abandoned children. Women are constantly exhorted to “opt out” of the workplace and demonized for not doing so. Working conditions are geared towards making the life of working women as inhospitable as possible. If we keep this in mind, Bauman’s references to “humanity as a whole” become egregiously offensive.
In a similar vein, Bauman bemoans the disintegration of the patriarchal family, which brought about the liberation of all those pesky females he loves to erase. He becomes as preachy as any fundamentalist when he begins to lament the evils of divorce, especially when people who dare to abandon loveless marriages are not rich:

There is little doubt that when ‘trickled down’ to the poor and powerless, the new-style partnership with its fragility of marital contract and the ‘purification’ of the union of all but the ‘mutual satisfaction’ function spawns much misery, agony and human suffering and an ever-growing volume of broken, loveless and prospectless lives. (90)

How dare you, poor and powerless folks, look for satisfaction outside of the confines of the patriarchal family? You need to sit tight, patently bearing your miserable, loveless marriages.
What Bauman prefers to overlook in his anti-divorce rants is that, in the absolute majority of cases in the developed countries, it is women who seek the divorce (in 2010 in the US it was 72% of divorces petitioned for by women to 28% by men). The situation is even more clear-cut among college-educated couples where, according to the data provided by American Law and Economics Review, women file for divorce in about 90% of cases. This is not at all surprising since marriage is still a losing proposition for women even in the most developed countries. Women are still stuck with more housework, the greatest burden of child-rearing and very little gains coming out of being married other than some dubious prestige the TV shows try to convince us exists for women who get married. Married women live shorter lives than single women, while married men live longer than single men. For this reason, in real life (as opposed to what we are being told by television and newspapers) men are a lot more interested in marriage than women. The disintegration of the patriarchal family that bothers Bauman so much is, indeed, robbing men of power. At the same time, it liberates women. Women, however, are not a group that Bauman ever notices. 
It is often difficult for me to distinguish whether on this topic Bauman is being purposefully obtuse or if he genuinely, sincerely does not realize how biased his statements are. This is one of the foremost thinkers of our times. Is it possible that the whole history of women has passed him by? Look, for instance, at the following statement:

It is no longer the task of both partners to ‘make the relationship work’ – to see it work through thick and thin., ‘for richer for poorer’, in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one’s own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. (164)

Can Bauman really not know that to suffer in silence, practice resignation, trim one’s own preferences, compromise and make sacrifices was only and exclusively the task of a woman in patriarchal family structures? Can he possibly have missed the entire history of manuals for married women that proliferated from the Middle Ages until today and that exhorted (and still do) women to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family in the very terms that Bauman employs here? Is he being disingenuous with full knowledge of what he is doing, or is he truly this blind to the situation of an entire half of humanity? Note also the slippage into the Christian rhetoric that is quite unexpected in a Communist and a Jew. Apparently, Bauman’s need to push women back into the confines of the patriarchal family structure is so overwhelming that he forgets even the Marxist dogma that religion is the opium of the people.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part I


Liquid Modernity (2000) is probably Zygmunt Bauman’s most important work. This is where the philosopher introduces concepts that will inform his Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), Liquid Life (2005), Liquid Fear (2006), Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006), etc. Since Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers (probably the second favorite after Žižek), I hope eventually to post reviews of all these books on my blog. As usual, I will dedicate the first part of my review to going over some of the ideas from Liquid Modernity that I found to be useful. Later, I will publish the second part of the review that will discuss what I consider to be flawed parts of Bauman’s argument.
The main idea that Bauman advances in this book is that it is a mistake to see modernity as a monolithic period that stretches more or less unchanged from the late XIXth century until today. Bauman distinguishes between two stages of modernity:
1. The first stage of modernity, according to Bauman, is the “solid” stage. This is the moment in history of our Western civilization where solid certainties of pre-modern times had disintegrated to such an extent that the only thing to do was to sweep these rotten underpinnings of pre-modern societies out of the way completely. The goal of this first stage of modernity was to erect its own solid certainties in the place of the ones that were going to be swept away by change. If we think about the trajectory of the Soviet approach to modernity, we will see that it fits Bauman’s argument perfectly. The transformative push of the first few years of the revolution led to an impenetrable fortress of a repressive Communist regime.
Bauman points out that the main fear of this first stage of modernity was that totalitarianism would emerge from its push to create a new set of certainties on the wasteland of the old society that had been destroyed by the advent of modernity. Orwell’s 1984, says Bauman, is a perfect example of what this solid stage of modernity saw as its worst-case scenario. As we know all too well today, totalitarian regimes did, in fact, flourish during this first stage of modernity.
2. Bauman refers to the second stage of modernity as “liquid.” At this stage, there is no more effort to replace a set of old rules, certainties and identities with a new one. The freedom to switch identities as often as we want, move around, transform ourselves is now seen as an end in itself and the most prized characteristic of our existence. Bauman’s goal in Liquid Modernity is to analyze the main concepts that inform this liquid stage of modernity and to point out the limitations of this freedom.
One of the main struggles of individuals in pre-modern societies consisted of defending their private sphere from the encroachment of the public sphere. People belonged to their families, their clans, guilds, social classes. Their identities that were assigned to them at birth were inexorable and inescapable. If you were born a woman, for example, this very fact implied a set of roles, behaviors and life strategies that was pre-ordained and that you could try to escape at your own peril. If you look at the history of art, you will see that it isn’t until the birth of the Romantic movement in late XVIII century that individual emotions and minute shades of personal feelings start being discussed as something valuable. It is only at the end of the XIXth century that we begin to see a slow process of liberation from identities one is assigned at birth.
Today, however, Bauman maintains, it is the public sphere that needs to be salvaged from the constant encroachment of the private sphere. According to the philosopher, our public sphere has been eroded by a constant parade of exhibitionist private issues that there isn’t any public sphere left to speak of. Think about the following statement by Bauman in terms of what we are witnessing in today’s politics:

What are commonly and ever more often perceived as ‘public issues’ are private problems of public figures. . . Not one among the ‘great and mighty’, let alone the offended ‘public opinion’, proposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton for abolishing welfare as a ‘federal issue’. (70-1)

We can see that this tendency has become even more pronounced today, 11 years after the publication of Bauman’s Liquid Modernity. To give just one example, there is a huge group of people whose political activism is limited to a painstaking investigation of whether Sarah Palin’s child is truly hers (I blogged about these folks here), as if her motherhood had anything whatsoever to do with whether she will make a good presidential candidate. We get regaled with endless stories about Michelle Obama’s personality, President Obama’s shoes, George W. Bush’s daughters, Donald Trump’s ex-wives. In the meanwhile, a discussion of what it is they are doing as politicians gets relegated to the realm of the inconsequential. 
While we are concentrated on discussing the private issues of others and exhibiting our own private sphere to the world (blogging and Facebook are a perfect example of this), we fail to notice that the very nature of power has changed. Formerly, those who possessed the greatest masses of land were the most powerful. Power was bogged down by the enormous apparatus of hardware and people needed to maintain it. Today, says Bauman, power has become liquid:

We are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics. (13)

The power today is hard to pinpoint in every sense of the word. As everything else, it has become mobile and uprooted.

(To be continued. . .)

Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part II

The first part of this review is located here.

It took me a while to write the second part of this review because I find the last chapters of the book to be quite inferior in quality not only to the beginning of On Belief but to the philosopher’s entire oeuvre. Žižek’s goal here is to convince us that Leninist terror and the “ideal” Communist society it aims to create can still be rescued from oblivion and taken up as legitimate political projects. Žižek realizes that any Communist project requires a profound transformation in the very nature of human beings: from separate beings trapped in our individuality we should move towards becoming driven by collective needs. Žižek realizes, of course, that in developed countries we are moving in the opposite direction, which is something he laments bitterly.
What Žižek blames for this – and what he hates the most, in a truly Leninist style – is liberalism of a certain ilk:
Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment – recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery … This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
If you are surprised at the virulence of this long quote, you have to remember that there is nothing more hateful for a Communist than a move towards any kind of individualism. Unless we sacrifice what this philosopher sees as our puny personal concerns, interests, and traumas for the greater good (which, by the way, he hasn’t yet been able to specify), we are doomed to become even more narcissistic and alienated than before. Everything that makes our lives more tolerable in the here and now is hated by Žižek for the simple reason that the more content we are with our existence, the less likely is any collective agreement to a revolution and an attendant reign of terror, which Žižek is honest enough to accept as unavoidable.
On Belief  proceeds to attack the fear that a revolution will deprive us of a set of freedoms we have come to cherish and see as necessary to any satisfactory mode of existence. Žižek attacks our belief that we enjoy any freedom that matters through making a distinction between formal and actual freedom:
This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. . . We can go on making our small choices, “reinventing ourselves” thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance.
Of course, you can only see indivdual life choices as small, if individual lives are of lesser value to you than the collective. This is an easy position to take, since any collective is never anything other than imagined. Speaking in the name of the collective is, thus, giving a voice to a non-existent entity, one that you can easily invest with any characteristics, desires and preferences. If the collective isn’t truly there, it will not be able to contradict you.

What especially disappointed me in the second half of this book wasn’t even Žižek’s simplistic approach to Judaism and Christianity. It was the fact that this brilliant literary critic produced the most inept specimen of literary criticism I have encountered in a long time. I have heard quite a few impotent explanations of the Soviet Union’s eventual rejection of Modernism and its replacement with Socialist Realism, but none of them have been as silly as Žižek’s:

The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man – no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology …THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.

This maladroit analysis fails, of course, to account for the Soviet rejection of ANY kind of Modernism, not just the type of avant-garde Žižek describes (which was actually in no way representative of the Russian Modernism as whole). The hatred of all major totalitarian regimes of the XXth century towards Modernist art is an issue that should not be touched upon whatsoever if the best one can do is this ridiculously manipulative analysis.
Žižek’s gaffe in analyzing the predominance of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union makes me wonder what the philosopher imagines his books audience to be like. If he expects his readers to be ignorant enough to miss all the reticences and falsehoods contained in this paragraph (as well as in many others), then how can he expect said uneducated audience to get through the previous 100 pages of his text where Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Freud are referenced in every line?

>Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part I

>I have no idea how I managed to miss Žižek’s On Belief when it first came out. Now, however, I have finally had a chance to read this book by one of the greatest philosophers of out time (actually, the greatest, in my opinion) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, Žižek wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t frame this book as yet another failing effort to rescue at least some sad remnants of the Russian Revolution as a genuine transformative and hopeful event. In On Belief, he does this through a very desperate “Stalin – bad, Lenin – good” sort of argument. Of course, anybody who has even the most superficial knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution realizes that such an argument is non-viable. No amount of quotes from Kant, Hegel and Lacan can dispel the historical reality of Stalin being one of the 4 people who were the closest to Lenin at every step of the way both before and after the revolution. No kind of philosophical casuistry can deny the fact that Stalin was the most faithful  and logical, albeit quite plodding, follower of Lenin. It would be great if Žižek would quit flogging the dead horse of the Russian Revolution and realize that the stench the dead horse’s corpse is producing only makes it fit for a speedy burial. Still, even a great philosopher has a right to a small weakness here and there.

Thankfully, Žižek doesn’t spend too much time on these feeble attempts to resuscitate Lenin for the future of humanity. When he is not addressing the traumatic (especially, for someone of his origins) legacy of the Soviet Union and speaks, instead, of the present and the future, Žižek is spectacular. In On Belief, Žižek virulently assaults the contemporary pieties of certain liberal-leaning intellectuals. Their interest in all kinds of New Age philosophies that are supposed to rescue them from the evils of consumerist society deserves the philosopher’s scorn:

The ultimate postmodern irony is thus the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the “economic infrastructure,” “European” technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age “Asiatic” thought, which, in its different guises, from the “Western Buddhism” (today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the “Asiatic” Marxism–Leninism) to different “Taos,” is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites in today’s global civilization: although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.

We have all met liberals of this ilk. They spend their lives chasing after a spirituality of a higher order that they have found in quasi-Buddhist practices. Sitting in their incense-smelling rooms, surrounded by paraphernalia they bought in a store that boasts of selling items brought directly from Tibet, they pontificate for hours against the evils of Eurocentrism, flaunt their boringly ideological vegetarianism, and celebrate the supposedly pure and miraculous spiritual, medical and sexual advances of the Easterners. Unsurprisingly, Žižek, who is opposed to any kind of hypocrisy, has something to say about that. The very talk of Eurocentrism is an act of orientalism:

Therein resides the ultimate paradox: the more Europeans try to penetrate the “true” Tibet, the more the very FORM of their endeavor undermines their goal. We should appreciate the full scope of this paradox, especially with regard to “Eurocentrism.” The Tibetans were extremely self-centered: “To them, Tibet was the center of the world, the heart of civilization.” What characterizes the European civilization is, on the contrary, precisely its ex-centered character – the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object–cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there, in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to the European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of OUR OWN civilization. This story begins at the very dawn of Western civilization, in Ancient Greece: for the Greeks, Egypt was just such a mythic place of the lost ancient wisdom.

One cannot escape Europeanness through a flight – either imaginary or physical – towards the East. Just the opposite, the more passionately you embrace Eastern practices, the more anchored you become in your colonizing European identity. This kind of a rebellion is not only devoid of any actual transgressive value, it actually reinforces the very practices from which it purports to liberate you. The same sad process of a formerly transgressive behavior becoming a pillar of a repressive establishment can be seen in the realm of student rebellion:

The “truth” of the student’s transgressive revolt against the Establishment is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game, solicited by the gadgets which organize our life as the permanent dealing with excesses.

The irony of the situation is that Žižek, whose every word is aimed at being a transgressive act, is especially loved by spoiled trust fund babies turned Ivy League graduate students who entertain themselves with Žižek’s writings as they are biding their time before taking control of the very establishment they like to imagine themselves as subverting.

In a similar way, the tolerant multi-culturalists who celebrate the Other and spend their lives in a navel-gazing privilege examination are exactly the same as fundamentalist Evangelicals in the US. We all know how much Žižek dislikes such fanatics of tolerance (and how grateful I am to the great philospher for shining a light of reason on them). I only wish that I ever find my way to formulating my objections to their peculiar brand of fanaticism as beautifully and precisely as Žižek does:

Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other’s excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other’s Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN “other,” not to become too much like us.

I have seen these attempts to enforce Otherness by our tolerant comrades more times than I care to remember on this very blog. They hate it when anybody tries to address Otherness with anything than quasi-respectful silence. These fanatics of meaningless tolerance are terrified that a discussion, an analysis, a rapprochement will reduce the Otherness of those they desperately need to be fully and completely Other. Without scratching the itchy scab of their imaginary privilege ona adaily basis, they will have no sense of their own identity, their own self-worth. This is why there is nothing more disrespectful of the Other than a refusal to discuss the limits of its Otherness. The position that “Every choice has an equal right to exist” is profoundly imbued with the capitalist philosophy, which is the reason Žižek hates it so much.

[The second part of the review is located here]

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, Bauman’s vision of today’s world is, at the very least, flawed. The impression his analysis often makes on me is one created by a person who is so afraid of certain aspects of life that he never ventures outside of his ivory tower. He hides from reality and theorizes about it from the
place of his fear. As a result, a lot of what he has to say bears no relation to reality. For instance, Bauman sees us as constantly moving away from coercion and towards freedom. He observes (or he believes that he observes)

the ever more evident dismantling of the system of normative regulation, and thereby the releasing of ever larger chunks of human conduct from coercive patterning, supervision, and policing, and relegating ever larger numbers of previously socialized functions to the realm of individual “life politics.”

I thought about this statement for a long while, but for the life of me I can’t see how anybody can say that the world today is moving away from supervision and policing. I don’t want to keep belaboring the point of those new airport scanners ad infinitum, but what about the US Patriot Act? If that is non-invasive and non-coercive, I honestly don’t know what is.

Bauman spends quite a lot of time attempting to construct an argument on the basis of this perceived disappearance of coercion and its substitution with something else:

Coercion is being replaced by stimulation, forceful imposition of behavioral patterns by seduction, policing of conduct by PR and advertising, and the normative regulation, as such, by the arousal of new needs and desires.

I have no idea why Bauman needs to present PR and advertising on the one hand and policing and coercion on the other as mutually exclusive. Coercion and advertising are part of the same system, two sides of the same coin. The arousal of new needs and desires is a product of both PR and policing. If we know that we will be policed (say, at an airport), we are very likely to provide ourselves with a kit that will make the process of being policed easier. People who travel a lot nowadays have a special personal grooming and make-up kits that come in small bottles and that are packaged separately. Before your trip, you can just grab your pre-packaged kits and head to the airport. In a similar fashion, one could give many examples of coercion and stimulation working together to impose new behavioral patterns. Advertising often serves not so much to provoke new desires as to give us a justification for accepting the needs imposed on us by coercion.
Another topic where Bauman’s argument is wide of the mark, is his description of an ideal employee for big corporations. For some reason, he has decided that in order to be competitive on the job market one has to be single, unattached, and not burdened with responsibilties:

Bosses tend nowadays to dislike having employees who are burdened with personal commitments to others-particularly those with firm commitments and especially the firmly long-term commitments. The harsh demands of professional survival all too often confront men and women with morally devastating choices between the requirements of their career and caring for others. Bosses prefer to employ unburdened, free-floating individuals who are ready to break all bonds at a moment’s notice and who never think twice when “ethical demands” must be sacrificed to the “demands of the job.”

Nothing in this statement makes sense. A commitment-free individual, unburdened with a mortgage and dependent family members, is the worst nightmare of repressive employers. Such an employee feels free to leave the second she feels unhappy with the conditions of her employment. A “free-floating” individual doesn’t scare as easy as the one who is the only breadwinner for a group of people. If I have several mouths to feed, I am more likely to swallow a lot of shit coming from my bosses in order to keep my job at any cost. If, however, I don’t owe anything to anybody, I will leave the company without a second thought and will have no trouble moving to a different city, state, or even country. This is precisely why we are so constantly brainwashed into marrying and having children. Free people pose the greatest danger to the system. Why Bauman would wish to claim the opposite is incomprehensible to me.
In his desire to signal his rejection of the way the world is today, Bauman allows his argument to become sloppy. For instance, the philosopher bemoans the lack of interest in politics in today’s world:

All over the “developed” and affluent part of the planet, signs abound of fading interest in the acquisition and exercise of social skills, of people turning their backs on politics, of growing political apathy and loss of interest in the running of the political process.

He fails to mention, however, when that happy age of political participation that is “fading” today actually took place. I believe that any argument about things getting much worse absolutely has to mention the time period with which today’s reality is being compared. Otherwise, there is no value to this line of reasoning.
To summarize, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? offers an insightful discussion of identity construction. However, as soon as Bauman begins to theorize about the subjects of ethics and consumerism, he cannot avoid the need to massage reality into the confines of his flawed system.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part I

Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.

Bauman’s recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody’s life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today’s reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman’s lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman’s argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.

Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:

Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity “final” There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in “nonfinality,” the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.

The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman’s analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.

By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today’s world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:

The act of selecting a group as one’s site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: “I am P” always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that “most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on.” “Belonging” is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an “entity of belonging”-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community “integrates,” gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.

Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.

After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:

In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.

It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.