Zygmunt Bauman on Liberalism and Neoliberalism

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest thinkers of the post-Second World War period, a distinguished sociologist and influential public intellectual, has passed away. He has departed to “liquid eternity”, his family told. This is a sad news and an enormous loss.
During his prolific academic career, Professor Bauman has elaborated significant interpretations of human societies and tremendously contributed to our understanding of present times’ complexity and constitutive events of the past. His scholarship and penetrating wisdom are enshrined in dozens of books and groundbreaking researches such as Towards a Critical Sociology: An Essay on Common-Sense and Emancipation (1976), Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Postmodern Ethics (1994)Globalization: The Human Consequences (1998)Liquid Modernity (2000), Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006), Consuming Life (2007), and many more.
In 2013, I had the honor of meeting Professor Bauman in person, to host two thought-provoking and inspiring events with him, and in-between to enjoy making small talks, listening to his advice about my own study and also telling him about the Economic Sociology and Political Economy global community, the project he found interesting and special, based on his observation of networks and social media. At the end of an intellectually amazing and full of personal grace three-hour meeting with junior faculty, as he walks away lighting his pipe, he turned around and said: “Oleg, keep questioning the ostensibly unquestionable. Goodbye.”


In November of 2016, a week after the election in the US, Zygmunt Bauman wrote for Social Europe (an important digital platform on which he has posted for several years) what apparently became his final essay: “How Neoliberalism Prepared The Way For Donald Trump.” In the dawn of a new era of, what I called, Authoritarian Neoliberal Regime, Bauman looks at the origins on Liberalism and lays out his view on how and why did we get to this critical junction in modern history, following decades of Neoliberalism. Selected excerpts from the essay are presented below:

“The “certainty” of things important to life happening or not is the most avid of dreams dreamed by people harassed and oppressed by their uncertainty (though that certainty might also be, as William Pitt the Younger observed already in 1783, “the plea for every infringement of human freedom” and “the argument of tyrants”). Politics guided by the decisionist principle is the meeting point between the tasty arguments of tyrants and the ravenous appetite of their acclaimers. The new era of liberal democracy whose imminent advancement Pitt was one of the first to adumbrate was to be, we may say, dedicated to preventing such a meeting, for the sake of reason and genuine human interests, from happening.
In the course of the subsequent decades merging into centuries, law theorists and practitioners as well as philosophers of politics joined forces in order to achieve – and once achieved, safeguard – that purpose. To the pursuing of that objective was their thought and ingenuity deployed. Road to fulfilling the purpose (identified for all practical intention with the passage of power from the kings and princes to people) led in prevailing opinion through institutional measures: division between legislative, executive and judiciary sectors of power, simultaneously mutually autonomous and closely, intimately dovetailed – pressing them thereby to permanently engage in negotiation of agreement, while drawing away from the temptations of solitary, potentially absolute, rule.
That tendency was complemented by another – of more cultural than institutional provenience. Its manifestation was the slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité promoted by les philosophes of Enlightenment and shortly later embroidered on the banners carried from one end of Europe to another by French revolutionary armies. Advocates of that slogan were aware that its three elements stood chance of becoming flesh only together. Liberté could yield Fraternité solely in company with Egalité; cut off that medium/mediating postulate from the triad – and Liberté will most likely lead to inequality, and in effect to division and mutual enmity and strife, instead of unity and solidarity. Only the triad in its entirety is capable to secure a peaceful and so thriving society, well-integrated and imbued with the spirit of mutual cooperation.
But to cut the long story short: neo-liberalism, now the hegemonic philosophy shared by almost the whole of the political spectrum (and most certainly the entire part classified by Trump and his ilk as the “establishment” earmarked for annihilation by the popular wrath and rebellion) distanced itself from its predecessor and indeed set itself in stark opposition by doing precisely what the classic liberalism fought valiantly to prevent while leaning over backward to reverse in case it was already done: and that by exiling the precept of Egalité – for all practical intents and purposes, from the three-partite compact of the Enlightenment’s principles and postulates – even if not always from its entitlement to lip service.
After thirty/forty years of undivided and not seriously challenged hegemony of neo-liberal philosophy in a country of great expectations and yet, courtesy of its neo-liberal rulers, also of their no lesser frustrations, the electoral victory of Trump has become all but pre-determined. Given the circumstances, to the mistakes and deformations eagerly searched or construed and so hotly debated by most of the opinion-makers were at utmost left the role of icing the fully baked (over-baked?) cake.
For the self-appointed carriers of great expectations and conquerors of great frustration, demagogues and haranguers of all brands, in short: personages proclaiming themselves and believed to be strong (wo)men whose strength is measured by their capability of breaking rather than observing the rules of games foisted and cherished by the “establishment”, their common enemy – those circumstances amount to a field day. We (I mean here and refer to people worried by their actions and yet more by their not-yet-fully revealed potential), are advised, however, to be sceptical about quick fixes and instant exits from trouble. All the more so for the options we confront under those circumstances having been drawn from the category of choices between a devil and a deep blue sea.
Shortly before his death, the great Umberto Eco drew in his brilliant essay Making an Enemy the following sad conclusion from his numerous studies of the matter: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth”. In other words: we need an enemy to know who we are and who we are not; knowing this is indispensable for our self-approval and self-esteem. And he adds: “So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one”. A codicil: “Enemies are different from us and observe customs that are not our own. The epitome of difference is the foreigner”. […]
The most popular choice among the actual or aspiring strong (wo)men when it comes to the casting the enemy’s role (that is, as spelled out by Eco, to the processes of self-defining, integration and self-asserting) – indeed a fully and truly meta-choice, determining all other choices by association or derivation – is currently establishment: un-packable as a foggy and (felicitously for their choosers and would-be foot soldiers) under-defined collection of have-beens who outlived their time and are grossly overdue to be relegated to history and recorded there in its annals as an aggregate of selfish hypocrites and inept failures. In a simplified rendition: establishment stands for the repulsive, off-putting and unprepossessing past, and the strong (wo)men, ready to send it to the rubbish tip where it belongs, stand for the guides to a new beginning, after which (s)he who has been naught shall be all.”

zygmunt bauman sociology

Join the
Economic Sociology and Political Economy community via
Facebook / Twitter / LinkedInInstagram / Tumblr / Reddit



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s