Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Zygmunt Bauman and ‘The poor will always be with us’

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The real pessimism is quietism – not doing anything because nothing can be changed, argues Bauman: “Why do I write books? Why do I think? Why should I be passionate? Because things could be different, they could be made better. [My role] is to alert people to the dangers, to do something. ‘Don’t ever console yourself that you have done everything you could, because it’s not true,’ says the philosopher Levinas, who believed that you recognised a moral person as someone who does not think he or she is moral enough. That is also how we recognise a just society – a just society castigates itself that there is not enough justice in our society.”

I was quite taken this weekend with a chapter from Zygmunt Bauman, whom I’d never read before. Here are a few quick links to get your own Baumania started:

* ‘The way we define the poor is a reflection of the kind of society we live in, argues Zygmunt Bauman’

The sight of the poor (or at least the portrayal of poverty, for the poor themselves are increasingly swept out of sight, to the periphery of cities, to ghettos and estates) keeps the non-poor at bay and in step. It thereby perpetuates their life of uncertainty. It prompts them to tolerate or bear placidly the unstoppable ‘flexibilization’ of the world and the growing precariousness of their condition. The sight incarcerates their imagination and handcuffs their will. They do not dare to imagine a different world; they are much too chary to try and change the one they have.

* ‘Haunted house: the `work ethic’ was bad enough, says Zygmunt Bauman. But its ghost is even worse’

We have two worlds, at opposite poles, which are becoming increasingly out of touch with each other — much as the no-go areas of contemporary cities are carefully fenced off and bypassed by the traffic lines used for the mobility of well-off residents. The inhabitants of the First World, the relatively affluent and employed, live in a perpetual present. These people are constantly busy and always `short of time’. People marooned in the opposite world are crushed under the burden of abundant, redundant and useless time they can fill with nothing. In their time `nothing ever happens’. They do not `control `time — but neither are they controlled by it, unlike their clocking-in, clocking-out ancestors, subject to the faceless rhythm of factory time. They can only kill time, as they are slowly killed by it.

*’The self in a consumer society’

But you can tell one kind of society from another by the dimensions along which it stratifies its members, and, like all other societies, the postmodern, consumer society is a stratified one. Those “high up” and “low down” are plotted in a society of consumers along the lines of mobility—the freedom to choose where to be. Those “high up” travel through life to their hearts’ desire and pick and choose their destinations by the joys they offer. Those “low down” are thrown out from the site they would rather stay in, and if they do not move, it is the site that is pulled from under their feet. When they travel, their destination, more often than not, is of somebody else’s choosing and seldom enjoyable; and when they arrive, they occupy a highly unprepossessing site that they would gladly leave behind if they had anywhere else to go. But they don’t. They have nowhere else to go; there is nowhere else where they are likely to be welcomed.

* ‘Searching for politics in an uncertain world: Interview with Zygmunt Bauman’

Marx also explained why it is imperative for human survival to reform the capitalist way of running human affairs: that way passes no efficiency and morality tests. It is wasteful of natural and human resources and blind to the suffering it causes. Nothing has changed since Marx passed his verdict – though both the waste and the suffering have now acquired global proportions. Finally, Marx also suggested the reasons why running human affairs the capitalist way was both uneconomical and unethical. It was, he said, because our tools of action were by their capacity and their consequences social, while their management was private. We may say that today the wastefulness and immorality of the new world-wide capitalist disorder comes from the fact that our tools of action are by their capacity and their consequences global, but they are managed locally.

Written by gerrycanavan

October 30, 2007 at 4:00 am

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