Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Prophet of gloom

The left has a new guru. And he hates shopping and mobile phones

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The intellectual left’s general aversion to religion is well known. But it is not immune from its own form of secular idolatry. For much of the 20th century it was enthral to Marxist dogma, despite the self-evident grimness of life behind the Iron Curtain. The collapse of the Berlin Wall finally forced it to give up Marx’s ghost, only to disappear up its own postmodern posterior in search of new and even less rewarding gods.

Now, it seems, the left has a new idol, in the form of 80-year-old sociologist (and former ‘Marxist humanist’) Zygmunt Bauman. ‘We are … seeing the emergence of a potential intellectual guru for [the] next left,’ enthuses Compass chair Neal Lawson in a breathless piece for the Guardian in January, which prompted a brief flurry of profile and comment pieces in the liberal press. ‘He might not thank me for putting him on such a pedestal, but the work of Zygmunt Bauman demands our attention.’

‘His ideas on consumerism, community and our struggle between the need for security and our craving for freedom provide progressives with the intellectual freedom to construct a radical but popular alternative to neo-liberalism,‘ Lawson continues. ‘What’s missing is someone at the top who wants to make all of this work.’

Whether the esteemed sociologist himself will have welcomed his newfound status as the left’s intellectual guru is less certain. Since 1971, when he arrived in Britain from his native Poland, he has lived quietly in Leeds, where he was professor of sociology at the city’s university until his retirement in 1991. It is only in his latter years that Bauman has come to public prominence, following a prolific outproofing of books on subjects ranging from intimacy and globalisation to Big Brother and Eastenders’ plotlines. Some, it has to be said, have been better received than others.

Indeed, it is difficult to see what ‘a radical but popular’ programme for the left could take from Bauman other than an unrelenting pessimism about the modern world. According to the journalist Madeleine Bunting, his books reveal ‘a bitter gloominess, calling into question our very capacity to love, to continue to make moral judgements, the likelihood of future holocausts and what he calls the “liquidity of modernity” in which identity is constantly fluid, generating unprecedented anxiety and insecurity.’ No wonder even hardened critics of the government find his negativity somewhat extreme.

So why have Bauman’s ideas proved so seductive? One reason may lie in his fashionable attack on that modern bugbear of the left: consumerism. In his latest book, Liquid Love, he argues that modern consumer culture has led us to a situation where ‘there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible.’ And, like many grumpy men of a certain age, he sees mobile phones as symptomatic of the breakdown in modern communication: ‘Those who stay apart, mobiles allow to get in touch. Those who get in touch, mobiles permit to stay apart.’

Unfortunately, as the New Statesman remarks in its recent profile, this discussion ‘was apparently prompted by an article on “semi-detached” relationships in the Guardian’s Weekend section’. As profile author Nicholas Fearn notes: ‘We should be sceptical of claims of social revolution when they arise from the work of journalists desperate for new material.’ ‘What’s wrong with a bit of shopping?’ asks his Leeds colleague Ian Varcoe, reasonably.

It would be wrong, of course, to dismiss his entire oeuvre on the evidence of one book. In the early days of the current Labour government his ideas were received sympathetically by the then head of the No 10 policy unit and ‘sceptical fan’ Geoff Mulgan. He concluded, however, that they were just too downbeat to be of any practical use.

In spite of Lawson’s best efforts, therefore, Bauman’s ideas are unlikely to have much of an impact beyond the rarified world of the academy. Fortunately, the man himself seems content with his relative obscurity, saying he ‘sees nothing in the corridors of power’ for his kind of sociology. The mobile phone-owning, shopping-loving majority will no doubt be relieved to hear it.

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