Zygmunt Bauman's Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?

by Rob Horning

17 July 2008


Prolific Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written several books over the past decade about consumerism—which he for some reason prefers to call “the world of consumers”—hence the verbose title of his most recent book, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?—in what he has dubbed the “liquid modern era.” (He also dislikes the term postmodern, and this is his way of avoiding semantic arguments about what it precisely means.) There’s not much suspense about the question the title poses: The answer, as you’d probably guess, is basically no.

It’s a not a question you’d ask if you were actually optimistic about it. Bauman, while not as thoroughgoingly pessimistic as such past consumer-society critics as Jean Baudrillard, is still left dispiritedly positing utopian scenarios after laying out his grim analyses of our social situation—he calls it a “battlefield” in the introduction—which, in his view, technology is rapidly worsening. The characterological changes brought on by consumerism are accelerating, he argues, turning the democratic ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood into the diminished qualities of security, parity and networking.

In Bauman’s account—and it is a familiar, comfortable story to anyone schooled in leftist, Adornoesque social theory—the liquid modern world’s problems start when aspects that traditionally limited our possibilities in the world (religion, geography, class, occupation, family, ethnicity) gradually became less restrictive, thanks mostly to capitalism’s modus operandi of creative destruction. Things once regarded as more or less permanent or unmarketable were subsumed by the market, reified, branded, and made subject to neoclassical economic truths about privatization, rational choices, and marginal utility. No longer assigned a specific role in the community from birth, we are alienated, atomized, cut free as an individual, forced to make our place. This has tangible benefits, obviously, in expanding our freedom to act. But it also brought with it the scourges of insecurity and boundless responsibility. (This is Frankfurt school orthodoxy—not unlike Erich Fromm’s and Herbert Marcuse’s ideas about freedom, in Escape From Freedom and One-Dimensional Man respectively.) “As Alain Ehrenberg convincingly argues,” writes Bauman, who frequently selects choice quotes from other thinkers (one of the nice things about Bauman’s book is that it serves as a kind of index to recent theoretical trends), “most common human sufferings tend to grow from the surfeit of possibilities, rather than from the profusion of prohibitions as they used to in the past”—an insight he may have attributed to any number of behavioral economists as well. Overt coercion in the pre-consumerist world was replaced by the regime of flattering persuasion, which is just as coercive, only we feel like we are in control, volunteering to participate in it (we shop because we want to), making the meaningful choices (between the things supplied by the market to satisfy the needs it has trained us to adopt). “As Pierre Bourdieu had already signaled two decades ago, 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.”

At this point, I’m nodding in agreement, but none of this is new—this is more or less the case that all left-leaning thinkers have made about consumerism. It seduces us to control us, replaces the ideal freedom of citizens in the public sphere determining a future for society collectively with that of a a bunch of individuals free only to choose among doodads after having their brains filled with bafflegab.

But Bauman turns an interesting corner. He cites philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of society as not a limit on our selfishness, as Freud, for instance, claimed in Civilization and Its Discontents, but as a limit on our boundless ethical responsibility to our fellow humans. “Using the vocabulary of Levinas, we may say that the principal function of society, ‘with its institutions, universal forms, and laws,’ is to make the essentially unconditional and unlimited responsibility for the Other both conditional (in selected, duly enumerated, and clearly defined circumstances) and limited (to a select group of ‘others,’ considerably smaller than the totality of humanity and, most important, narrower and thus more easily manageable).” Society may be not the force that stops the Hobbesan war of all against all, but “an outcome of tempering their endemic and boundless altruism with the ‘order of egotism.’ ” (It’s like bizarro Ayn Rand.) That altruism—that feeling of ethical responsibility to others—is an impossible, crippling burden. Only by curtailing it can we accomplish anything. But in doing that, we also curtail the spontaneous impulse Levinas believes that we have to trust and help others. And possibly we curtail the source of life’s meaning.

The way consumer society allows us to escape from that responsibility—its innovative method, perhaps—is to train us to fix it on ourselves. “Responsibility now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘You owe this to yourself,’ as the outspoken traders in relief from responsibility indefatigably repeat), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, such moves as serve well the interests and satisfy the desires of the actor and stave off the need to compromise.” The celebration in consumer society of individualism and our “right” to convenience mean that we have a duty to free ourselves from having to consider other people’s needs—and the market works to supply us the tools to avoid impinging human contact. It sells us ways to avoid having to deal with other people and the hassle they represent. “The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course),” Bauman explains, “a kind of empty space of which the liquid-modern consumer, bent on solo performances and solo performances only, never has enough. The space consumers need and are advised on all sides to fight for can be conquered only by evicting other humans—and particularly the kind of humans who care for others or may need care themselves.” (This ties in another subject Bauman has written about frequently: the systematic exclusion from society of the victims of the Holocaust.)

Along with that championing of individuality and training of responsibility on ourselves instead of others comes a newfangled responsibility for shaping and projecting our own identity, which used to be dictated entirely by our circumstances but is now subject (seemingly) to our control. As a consequence, we are now all required to continually fashion our identity and project it in social symbols, which are supplied by the language of consumer goods and brands. In order to keep the consumer economy dynamic, the meaning of these symbols are constantly in the process of redefinition, and we adapt our identities to follow suit, let our identities function as brands for ourselves. What Bauman doesn’t mention, but is sort of implied, is that in making identity formation a never-ending process, consumer society sells that process as pleasurable. Actually, it probably is in fact pleasurable—it makes real life into a kind of daydream in which we can impersonate anyone and fantasize freely and openly, playing pretend games in public. And when you embrace novelty as an end in itself, it becomes a need easily (albeit temporarily) gratified. If you’re a dog who likes chasing your tail, you’ll never want for entertainment. The point is that pleasure comes not in some final achievement of the right identity, but in the multiplicity of identities always available to us, and the freedom we feel in swapping them out. If we were easily satisfied, it would take a lot to motivate us as workers (we could just sit in the park and watch butterflies rather than work overtime to buy a flat-screen). Not accidentally, our consumerist refusal to be easily pleased, to demand more, is routinely portrayed as a positive trait, a testament to our superior discrimination.

Bauman argues that we all are forced to become pseudo-artists, with our identity as our chief work, a kind of temporary installation in our own bodies. At the same time, any continuity between identities is discarded, leaving us living through a series of discrete moments in which it is possible for us to be anything. Bauman argues,

What follows is that the sole skill I really need to acquire and exercise if flexibility—the skill of promptly getting rid of useless skills, the ability to quickly forget and to dispose of the past assets that have turned into liabilities, the skill of changing tacks and tracks at short notice and without regret, and of avoiding oaths of life-long loyalty to anything and anybody.

As individuals, we need to embrace capitalism’s creative destruction at the personal level, seizing upon a moment’s given opportunities with no recourse to past or future inclinations or sentimentalities. The most important aspect of that flexibility is the ability to forget—to believe that we have always been at war with Eurasia. Skirts have always been knee-length. Crocs have always been stylish.

The institutionalized contempt for continuity encourages us to replace friendships with the network: “relations set by and sustained by network-type connectedness come close to the ideal of a ‘pure relationship,’ one based on easily dissolvable one-factor ties, with no determined duration, no strings attached, and unburdened by long-term commitments.” What this gives individuals is “the comforting (even if ultimately counterfactual) feeling of total and unthreatened control over his or her obligations and loyalties.” Of course, if you control obligations, they aren’t exactly obligatory—they are voluntary. That is what conceals from us the larger dimensions of our cultural obligations.

Bauman implicitly likens this situation to the notion of “groups of belonging” and the conditions of exclusion that set up the parameters of the Holocaust. The illusion of control may mask our obligations to play the game. The coercion to be a consumer is experienced generally as freedom (our ideology’s accomplishment), but if you resist it, you run the risk of social exclusion—not on a stateless-person-headed-to-concentration-camp level, but moving in that direction. “All of this may be intuited,” Bauman writes, “from the dark premonitions that haunt them at night after a busy shopping day—or from the warning that goes off when their bank account falls into the red and their unused credit reaches zero.” To be without credit takes on multiple meanings—you become worthless as a human being.

This is a roundabout way of point out that in a society where purchasing power is how we experience freedom, being poor means being very unfree. In other words, poverty really sucks, moreso than it did when society was less open. (Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation explores this simple truth at length.) The poor, and those who are sympathetic to them, or nostalgic for old roles, or repulsed by the identity shuffling were expeced to relish, perhaps “do not view this life as a kind of life that they themselves, given genuine liberty of choice, would wish to practice.” But these people obviously need reeducation. “Those who go solely by what they believe they need, and are activated only by the urge to satisfy those needs, are flawed consumers and so also social outcasts.” If you aren’t worried about keeping in tune with the zeitgeist, you are seen to be expressing some kind of contempt for the socially-agreed-upon way of being happy.

It is often said of such people that they are indifferent if not downright hostile to freedom, or that they have not yet grown up and matured enough to enjoy it. Which implies that their nonparticipation in the style of life dominant ... tends to be explained by either ideologically aroused resentment of freedom or the inability to practice it.

If they only loved freedom a little more, they wouldn’t be concerned with how the system is basically rigged to assure that they will never be regarded with dignity in the public sphere, that they will always seem helplessly out of touch. Their fashion backwardness seems to justify their social exclusion, as we are invited to see how they manifest their identity as an expression of their own poor opinion of themselves. “If ‘to be free’ means to be able to act on one’s wishes and pursue the chosen objectives,” Bauman notes, “the liquid-modern, consumerist version of the art of life may promise to all, but it delivers it sparingly and selectively.”

So what do you do if you don’t want to include yourself in the consumerist economy, you want to preserve an ethical code, but you don’t want to risk living as a semi-persecuted outcast. Do you “go live in a jelly jar”?  Bauman’s text doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. He urges that we become better educated in the sorts of things I was taught in civics class—fundamentals about the how politics works and so on—and that we become citizens instead of consumers. But it seems that in order for that to happen, citizenship will have to assume some of the technique of consumerism—it will have to be able to generate the personal, individualistic pleasures we have come to expect from consumerism and which we now regard as the guiding purpose of our lives. We need to make the pursuit of happiness an explicitly political matter once again.


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