Imagine sitting in a plane, flying high above the clouds when suddenly the passengers realise there is nobody in the cockpit. The plane is flying itself, but it is unclear where the aircraft is headed and whether it will land.
This hypothetical situation, according to Polish socialist Zygmunt Bauman who died last week at the age of 91, exemplifies the fears that define contemporary society. Security concerns dominate nations around the world and yet individuals don’t feel secure. The media exploits the collective feeling that freak events such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks are beyond our control.
“Fear,” Bauman wrote in one of his late essays, “is arguably the most sinister of the demons nesting in the open societies of our time. But it is the insecurity of the present and uncertainty about the future that hatch and breed the most awesome and least bearable of our fears.”
In the course of Bauman’s life, the world changed dramatically around him. Born in Poland to a non-observant Jewish family just before the Second World War, he fled with his family to the Soviet Union to avoid Hitler’s gas chambers. He then served in the First Polish Army and took part in the battle for Berlin in 1945 along with the Soviets.
Following the war, Bauman’s family emigrated to Israel despite his vociferous anti-Zionist objections informed by an adherence to Marxism. Instead, he chose to pursue a life as a sociologist of modernity and eventually ended up in the United Kingdom after being forced to leave Poland during a political purge in 1968. Publishing more than 50 books on critical theory and modernity, he is regarded as one of the eminent European thinkers of the late 20th century.
It is his association with critical theory that made Bauman a sought-after celebrity scholar on contemporary society. With the rise of far-right political movements in Europe and the United States in the past decade, critical theory has become popular again.
The philosophy was first defined by the scholars of the Frankfurt School for Social Research in the late 1930s as an attempt to understand the social, historical and ideological forces that produce culture. Made up of largely German Jews of the Marxist political persuasion, the Frankfurt School was forced into exile to escape Hitler.
Popular contemporary philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek and even Alain de Botton would not exist if it weren’t for the work of early critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer who analysed how culture is born out of and perpetuates ideology. For example, critical theorists are less interested in the definition of happiness but rather how society has arrived at our definition of happiness and what role culture plays in constructing such a definition.
The bulk of Bauman’s early work concentrated on social movements, modernity and socialism. Later in life, he turned his focus on the notion of liquidity as a signifier of modernity. In what became his most famous work, Liquid Modernity, he argued that in an increasingly interconnected, globalised and affluent world, the individual can now shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. This liquid environment allowed individuals to free themselves from several traditional burdens but also created new problems, namely a suffocating form of anxiety and fear along with the desire to escape.
But how can we understand these esoteric concepts in our own lives? Last year, Bauman gave an insightful interview to Al Jazeera in which he deployed his thinking to analyse one of the major challenges we face today: the Syrian refugee crisis.
Before the civil war, he argued, many Syrians lived proud and secure lives. They had jobs, homes, business and families just as people in Berlin or Paris do. Today, they are refugees at home and abroad. Many who have left the country for shelter in Europe are now homeless, stripped of the ability to work and uncertain about where they will rest their head at day’s end. Because we see ourselves in their plight, we can’t omit their presence from our subconscious. It’s not that they are coming for our resources, it’s that we fear that, at some point, we could be those people.
“My radically opposite way of ‘commemorating’ the Holocaust can be summarised as follows: it is forbidden to stay silent in the face of Israeli crimes and their persecution of Palestinians exactly because the fate of Jews in Europe had similar beginnings – discrimination, pogroms, ghettos, concluding with the Shoah.”
We are in the midst of profound uncertainty, and the outlets that traditionally help us make sense of things, such as the media, are failing. In such a climate, the work of Bauman and other critical theorists take on new urgency and necessary perspective. Despite his death, Zygmunt Bauman’s theories on society and modernity will far outlive him.