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Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?

Zygmunt Bauman
Harvard University Press, 272 pp

Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? 'The possibility of becoming someone else' is the present day substitute for the now largely discarded and uncared-for salvation and redemption.

In this beautifully produced collection of essays the great Polish intellectual and emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds gives a 'report from the battlefield' of the 'insoluble problems of the modern world'. The core of his message is that old beliefs have not prepared us for living in the new world of flows and fluid identities that characterise the era of mass global consumerism and travel which Bauman describes elsewhere as 'liquid modernity'. The collapse of old notions of belonging to an integrating community has produced an 'unprecedented degree of emancipation from constraints'.

Consequently for Bauman the primary project of the postmodern individual is self-creation. Instead of hierarchy postmodern individuals need to embrace hybridity; instead of solid identities they need to embrace fluid roles; instead of an ethics of rules they need an art of life for all are now fated to fashion their own fate with the failure of the old grand narratives.

Bauman is however far from convinced that this new world of self-construction through consumer choice is one in which people will find more happiness or experience less hardship than those in previous eras. On the contrary, the long chains of cause and consequence that characterise liquid modernity ratchet up global inequality as rich elites use the flows of global capital to enhance their power while these same flows eviscerate local ecologies of human and other than human life.

Bauman suggests that the consequent growth in global inequality and risks calls for new kinds of global fora in which the ethical demand of each to other can be adequately realised in the new era of global interconnectedness. But the fleeting encounters and transitory identities and roles that characterise modern social life provide a poor basis for the construction of the kinds of politics that are needed to recover a shared conception of moral responsibility. Increasingly the sense of moral responsibility shifts from a concern for the community to a concern for the self and the first duty of the modern self becomes self-fulfilment. Declining participation in politics rises with growing engagement in consumption activities that become the contexts in which meaning is constructed.

Bauman reads widely and well and introduces his readers to a range of classic and contemporary readings from Hobbes to Habermas and Locke to Levinas. However, in insightful essays on the forgetting of the past involved in the hurried life, or the substitution of disposal for making as the core practice of the consumer society, Bauman is better at diagnosis of disease than at identification of panaceas. Does ethics have a chance in a world of consumers? The only hope Bauman finds is in the European project, and in particular in the possibility that in its broadening scope Europeans may be able to mobilise their energy for discovery and innovation in promoting 'an effective planetary policy based on a continuous polilogue' instead of a 'soliloquy of a single planetary government'.

But Bauman offers his readers no grounds for hope that his cure is any better than the disease. And the reason is the inherent atheism of his project. For Bauman, as for most social scientists, there is no life but this life, no morality but that of personal encounter, no moral orientation other than that which may be constructed by postmodern self-construction. In reality the freedoms that excess and waste have given a global elite have been won at the cost of the ecological and social destruction of local communities and households, as recent events in the financial markets have made all too evident.

But while Bauman senses the injustice of this, he cannot bring himself to say that it is unjust, for in the end all life, and all morality, are social constructs. The social, like the biological, is a social construct; they have no transcendent reality beyond the sum of individual choices. In what he characterises as the global inferno of declining trust and stranger danger that liquid modernity has brought about, Bauman assures his readers that resistance is not futile. But on his account it is hard to see why.

Michael Northcott