A pessimist on society and religion?

November 28, 2016

Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman sees religion more often as a problem than as a solution. Despite the worldwide emergence of fundamentalist movements, his analysis may be too pessimistic.

Polish sociologist and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds. Photo: M. Olivia Soto, CC

Polish sociologist and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds. Photo: M. Olivia Soto, CC

From postmodern hopes to the moral indifference of liquid modernity
Few sociologists are active when they have passed the age of 90, and few have had so much response in recent years as Zygmunt Bauman. He is indeed a public intellectual among sociologists. Here the main focus will be on Bauman’s more recent texts. In his writings globalization and inequality has now to a large extent replaced the theme of postmodernity from the 1990s. He has moved from criticizing authoritarian traits of solid modernity to the restlessness and moral indifference in what he now calls liquid modernity. He is still critical of religion, but may be a bit more nuanced than 20 years ago.

Some topics occur often in many of his recent books: A globalization has taken place, strengthening markets and economic elites, and without a corresponding development of global ethical-political regulations. Economic power has become an online regime. Welfare states have become dismantled, and civil society has weakened. In a world shorn of traditional bases for identity and social connectivity, goods and markets fill the void. Consuming has become the main mode of connection with others. Consumption is now the main organizing principle in society.

Flawed consumers and official fear  
While solid modernity was characterized by gardening states excluding the impure, liquid modernity marginalizes the flawed consumers, the poor. Bauman insists that inequality is dangerous to society as a whole. Most political elites and a significant part of the electorate will not believe this. One way of avoiding this unpleasant insight is to isolate and encapsulate people in the category of the underclass, implying that these people do not belong to society. This is a result of profit-driven and uncoordinated globalization.

Insecurity is a general fact in human existence. Such fear can be exploited by politicians, and transformed into “official fear”. Politicians and media thus contribute to a permanent state of alert, where the majority marginalizes those who are different. In his recent book Strangers at our door (2016), Bauman claims that the influx of refugees in Europe in 2015 triggered a migration panic, where many mechanisms of marginalization became activated: fear, stereotypes, othering, scapegoating, moral numbness and so on.

Critical remarks to Bauman’s analysis
Bauman depicts liquid modernity too liquid and lets the consumer role become too dominating in his analysis. In several societies the structures of class, ethnicity and gender are still solid. One might add that border fences, built recently in Europe to keep refugees out, are made of quite solid stuff.

In my view Bauman has moved his focus too dramatically from work and production to consumption. He has claimed that the sources of capitalist profit have moved from the exploitation of factory labor to the exploitation of consumers. However, neo-liberal deregulation of work is an important factor behind both migration and xenophobia. Bauman understates the solid significance of class in the society that he calls liquid.

Another possible criticism of Bauman is that he may have become so pessimistic in his analysis that readers may end up in a paralyzed state. Market forces are strong and political elites either powerless or managers of fear, so nothing can really be done. Combined with his refusal to suggest “wonder-cures” and concrete plans, this pessimism may have as a result that people give up hope. This is not his intention. He wants to create moral unrest and engagement, but does he really leave much room for agency? Let us look for strategic remarks in Bauman’s texts, and let us begin with his views on religion.  

Religion as a resource?
Bauman reads the Bible as a valuable book on ethics, and he frequently refers to Biblical stories and metaphors. However, he sees religion more often seen as a problem than as a resource. Human beings are generally helplessly insufficient, according to Bauman, and in seeking ways out of this helplessness, religion is one of several possible remedies. Religion seems marginal in Bauman’s sociological universe, but like others he has been concerned about the emergence of fundamentalist movements many places in the world. Fundamentalism is not an escape into the premodern past, he claims. The individual today is condemned to self-sufficiency, self-reliance and a life of never fully satisfying choice. Those who do not manage to live up to these standards – the poor or the flawed consumers, in Bauman’s term – are potential fundamentalists. Dreading personal inadequacy, some of the not-so-self-reliant come to the conclusion that they need to be guided and told what to do. So, fundamentalism is a child of liquid modernity, promising to free followers from the agony of choice.

Bauman finds fundamentalism both in varieties of Christianity and Islam, and religious fundamentalism belongs to a wider family of totalitarian solutions. The book Of God and Man (2015) consists of a dialogue with the Polish theologian Stanislaw Obirek. Here Bauman mentions secular fundamentalisms, recommending mutually respectful dialogues between secular and religious people. He agrees that one should be both sceptical and open-minded towards religion. This can be a sign of a more nuanced attitude to religion, but this potential change is not yet reflected in his sociology. Bauman offers a choice between two restrictive options, fundamentalism or secularization. This leaves out a vast number of religious people and movements where there is a lot of conviction and dedication, but where nobody would dream of using force to defend or spread the religious message. There may be room for more mainstream religious expressions than Bauman thinks under liquid modernity. There is much exaggerated talk about the return of religion these days. But though there are some openings in Bauman’s most recent book, a main impression is that he goes too far in the other direction, adhering to a traditional, strong theory of secularization – except for religious fundamentalism. Religion’s function in society should be studied empirically. No doubt religion can sacralise ethnicity and xenophobia, but there can also be resources for global solidarity in the notion that all God’s children on earth are brothers and sisters.

Signs of hope?
There is ambiguity in many of Bauman’s texts from the last 15 to 20 years. He still sees institutions as static and unable to solve current global problems, but at the same time he recommends global institutional solutions. He is still sceptical towards universal principles and designs, but he asks for global structures. He depicts a liquid society, but a minimum of structures – in fact, of solidity – is needed to solve pressing problems. Modernity raised human integration to the level of nations, he states. What is needed now is a similar integration on a global scale. So far, the instruments of regulation over economic and social processes are not established enough to deal with globalization’s consequences. However, Bauman does not see the European Union as a positive step on the road to such global regulation. On the contrary, he criticizes Europeans and Americans for turning their backs to the poor, and in Strangers at our door he blames politicians for building walls instead of bridges, and criticizes the EU agreement with Turkey to strengthen the control at European borders.

First and foremost Bauman addresses his message to concerned individuals to make them even more engaged. But does he see possibilities in some movements as bearers of change? Solutions must come on a global level. He does not have much faith in national states, more in extraterritorial and cosmopolitan non-governmental organizations. But so far he has not shown any particular interest in the potential of religious organizations

What’s the use?
Bauman’s current sociology understates some of the structural constraints pointed to in traditional sociology, especially gender and class. As we have indicated, some solid structures and processes may still be around. Furthermore, as we have seen, he may have underestimated the potential for transcending borders in religion and religious movements.

Bauman is vague when he talks about agency. His approach does not furnish us with concrete guidelines for political or moral action. Even the questions he poses are often too big for empirical research. Bauman is a master of metaphors. Metaphors can be eye-openers, but they can also be seductive and replace more boring but more precise ways of doing sociology. Bauman has given us constant reminders that sociology is not value-neutral, and he is an inspiration to formulate important, but more delimited research questions. I do not mean delimited in a geographical sense, for globalization and migration are social realities, and studying minorities’ fate must include studies of transnational processes, as well as of majorities and elites. However, there is a need in sociology for more concrete and researchable questions and answers closer to the empirical world than those Bauman delivers. Theorists with an ambition to shed light on all phenomena in the world tend to move on such a general level that they have to be supplemented by more field-specific theories. That said, the sociological community needs both eagles and industrious ants – and they should communicate.