Living under the modern conditions of “liquidity,” humans know that everything can happen—yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty
In our liquid, digital economy, labor no longer ties down capital. While labor still depends on capital to supply the tools to be productive, capital itself is now weightless, free of spatial confinement.
Zygmunt Bauman was a Polish-born sociologist (1925-2017) and one of the world’s eminent social theorists. Born in Poland, he escaped to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded, then returned to Poland after WWII as a committed Communist and lecturer at the University of Warsaw.
In 1968, he was kicked out of Poland for being too critical of the country’s Communist regime and moved to the UK. He spent the rest of his career- and life- in Leeds. He died just a year ago. (If he were still living, I’d be knocking on his door right now).
His big ideas- which focus on questions of modernity, consumerism and globalization- reflect decades lived on both sides of the 20th century’s ideological divide.
Question everything that is pre-given
As a sociologist, Zygmunt passionately believed that, by asking questions about our own society, we become more free. "An autonomous society, a truly democratic society," he wrote, "is a society which questions everything that is pre-given and by the same token liberates the creation of new meanings. In such a society, all individuals are free to create for their lives the meanings they will (and can)."
On the flipside, he states: "Society is ill if it stops questioning itself." We become enslaved to the narratives being manufactured all around us, and we lose touch with our own subjective experiences. Questioning our own society is hard work. Says Bauman: "We need to pierce the walls of the obvious and self-evident, of the prevailing ideas of the day whose commonality is mistaken for proof that they make sense."
The Davos world as a pivotal exhibit
Given that this week is the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I think now is a good moment for all of us to ask some tough questions of our economic modernity. "In the fluid stage of modernity," Zygmunt wrote, "the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite." (Apt, eh?).
His reasoning is this: In a solid world, the power of capital over labor was demonstrated by the ability to fix in place, to control. In the solid factories of Henry Ford, power was wielded by bolting human labor to machines on an assembly line. But that power came with some responsibility, too. In the world of factories, human labor came with a human body.
"One could employ human labor only together with the rest of the laborers’ bodies…That requirement brought capital and labor face-to-face in the factory and kept them, for better or worse, in each other’s company." Factory owners had to supply some light, some food, some safety at least.
Our liquid, digital economy
That’s no longer the case. In our liquid, digital economy, labor no longer ties down capital. While labor still depends on capital to supply the tools to be productive, capital itself is now weightless, free of spatial confinement.
Now, the power of capital is to escape, to avoid and evade, to reject territorial confinement, to reject the inconvenience and responsibility of building and maintaining a labor force. Bauman’s view of today’s liquid economy is this: "Brief contracts replace lasting engagements. One does not plant a citrus-tree grove to squeeze a lemon."
In liquid modernity, capital travels hopefully (with carry-on luggage only). It counts on brief profitable adventures – and is confident that there will be no shortage of them. Labor itself is now dividing into those who can do the same, and those who cannot.
"This has become the principal factor of present-day inequality…The game of domination in the era of liquid modernity is not played between the bigger and the smaller, but between the quicker and the slower…People who move and act faster are now the people who rule…It is the people who cannot move as quickly, and especially, those who cannot leave their place at all, who are ruled…Some of the world’s residents are on the move; for the rest it is the world itself that refuses to stand still".
Where once we valued durability, now we value flexibility. Because that which cannot easily bend will instead snap.
Welcome to the minefield
As Zygmunt Bauman put it: "Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: Everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be."
Under conditions of "liquidity", everything can happen—yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty.
That’s because "we presently find ourselves in a time of 'interregnum'—when the old ways of doing things no longer work, the old learned or inherited modes of life are no longer suitable for the current human condition, but when the new ways of tackling the challenges and new modes of life better suited to the new conditions have not as yet been invented."
But we’re working on it.
*Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow of the Oxford Martin School with a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford