Avner Shapira
February 16, 2013 - 1:00am

Professor Zygmunt Bauman last visited Israel some 20 years ago, during the period of the second government of Yitzhak Rabin. “I came to Israel during the tragically brief episode of Rabin’s government − the time of hope that the nation was about to come to its senses, stop the rot and follow the road out of the impasse,” he recalls now. “That episode, though, was brought to a violent end shortly after − not by a Palestinian, but by a Jewish bullet.

Since then, in election after election, the majority of Israelis have expressed their approval of high-handedness over high-mindedness, voting into power people who made sure that peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is not on the cards.”

Despite this, and even though the results of last month’s election do not seem to augur a change in approach, the distinguished 87-year-old sociologist and renowned social thinker − one of the preeminent intellectuals of our time − decided to accept an invitation from the Ruppin Academic Center and the Israel Sociological Society to visit. Nor will this be a purely academic visit for Bauman: He has family in Israel and was himself briefly an Israeli citizen, after he fled Poland at the end of the 1960s, before settling in Britain.

His visit will also coincide with the launch of the Hebrew-language edition of his 2011 book “Culture in a Liquid Modern World,” which addresses the malaise that characterizes contemporary culture and analyzes some of its major trends.

Prof. Bauman’s interests have always been wide-ranging: the status of workers and the role of intellectuals in society; the Holocaust; globalization; the consumer culture; and the nature of relationships in our time.

Still, if one element can be said to inform his entire oeuvre, it is his broad moral and political perspective. Bauman’s writings are more than a description and interpretation of social relations. They also call for a discussion of social issues which is not grounded in utilitarian calculations, but rather stress moral issues.

“Bauman wishes to return sociology to morality, and morality to sociology,” sociologist Yehouda Shenhav wrote in the introduction to the Hebrew-language edition of another of Bauman’s books, “Liquid Modernity.” According to Prof. Shenhav, “In a world in which sociologists, like many other technocrats, see themselves as stewards, engineers and guardians of the social order ... Bauman seeks the moral and political sociologist. A sociologist who does not frequent the corridors of power, who critiques war as immoral, who is not infected by the nationalist militancy that pervades his country and who assails the disintegration of the welfare state, xenophobia and the instrumentalization of the social discourse.”

That approach will also be expressed in the lecture Bauman will deliver on February 18 at the Israel Sociological Society’s annual conference. In line with the conference’s theme − inequality in Israel − Bauman will address the question of whether the wealth of the few is beneficial to society as a whole. More specifically, he will examine the illusion that is encapsulated in the “trickle-down theory” fondly espoused by neoliberal economists. It holds that the riches of those at the top of the social hierarchy somehow seep down into the lower strata of society and contribute to their well-being.

“One of the widely used moral justifications for free-market economics is that the pursuit of individual profits also provides the best mechanism for the pursuit of common good,” Bauman says in an interview conducted by email. “This has, however, been cast in doubt and all but belied by a rising tide of research findings and official statistics documenting the fast-growing distance that separates those at the top from those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In jarring opposition to political pronouncements intended to be recycled into popular belief, the wealth amassed at the top of society has blatantly failed to ‘trickle down’ and make the rest of us richer, make us feel more secure and more optimistic about our and our children’s future, or make us happier.

“All studies agree on yet another point,” he continues. “Almost everywhere in the world the rich, and particularly the very rich, are getting richer, whereas the poor, and particularly the very poor, are getting poorer − most certainly in relative, but in a growing number of cases, also in absolute terms. Moreover, people who are rich get richer just because they are rich; people who are poor get poorer just because they are poor.

“Nowadays, inequality continues to increase by its own logic and momentum. It needs no more help or kick from outside − no outside stimuli, pressures or blows. Social inequality seems ever closer to becoming the first perpetuum mobile, which after innumerable failed attempts humans have finally managed to invent and set in motion.

“Space limitations allow for only one illustration of this trend. In 1960, the average pay after taxes for chief executives at the largest U.S. corporations was 12 times greater than the average wage of factory workers. By 1974, the CEO’s salaries and perks amounted to about 35 times that of the company’s average worker. In 1980, the average CEO was making 42 times as much as the average blue-collar worker, doubling ten years later to 84 times. But then, a hyper-acceleration of inequality was set in motion. By the mid-1990s, according to Business Week, wages at the top were 135 times as great, rising to a gap of 400 times as much in 1999 and jumping again in 2000 to 531 times.

“The rise of inequality in Israel ‏(which together with the United States, Mexico and Chile is counted among the most socially unequal countries inside the OECD‏) is following a similar tendency. According to a report by the Adva Center [an Israeli policy analysis institute], in recent years there was a large increase in the income and standard of living of a small percentage of Israelis, combined with few if any noticeable benefits for the majority and a sharp decrease in the standard of living for some.

“The number of people living below the poverty line rose rapidly – including among working people, whose wages stagnated or declined as pensions, unemployment benefits and income protection schemes, meant to defend them against falling into poverty, were all severely cut. In my lecture I will try to pinpoint the social mechanisms responsible for this injustice and for the mess our societies are falling into as a result.”

Modernity in two stages

Themes of inequality and class disparity are not alien to Bauman, who began his academic career as a Marxist researcher. Indeed, in some quarters he is considered a post-Marxist thinker in a dual sense. As for his biography, he lived in an Eastern European communist country during the Cold War, before leaving for the West. In intellectual terms, though his thought and research are no longer grounded in Marxist theory, as his earlier writings were, it continues to resonate in them to some degree, at least in terms of his fierce opposition to exploitation and social injustice.

Zygmunt Bauman was born on November 19, 1925, in Poznan, Poland, to Jewish parents who were not religiously observant. In 1939, at the age of 13, he fled with his parents to the Soviet Union in the face of the German invasion of Poland. Toward the end of the war, he fought in the Polish army, which operated under the auspices of the Red Army, taking part in battles for the capture of the Kohlberg mountain and Berlin.

After the war, he served for a few years as an officer in the Polish army, but was given a dishonorable discharge in 1953, when his father began looking into the possibility of immigrating to Israel. In 1948, he married Janina Lewinson, who survived the Holocaust in Warsaw and became a writer. She died in December 2009.

Bauman studied sociology at the University of Warsaw and afterward at the London School of Economics. Upon his return to Poland, he quickly acquired a reputation and public status. At the beginning of 1968, he took part in attempts to liberalize Poland in the wake of the Prague Spring, but the authorities removed him from his post as lecturer and head of the sociology department at the University of Warsaw, claiming he had been among the spiritual leaders of the insurgent students.

Like thousands of other Jews in the Polish intelligentsia, he too was a victim of anti-Semitic persecution at the time. In the wake of these developments, the same year Bauman, his wife and their three daughters immigrated to Israel, where he taught at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa.

The family left Israel in 1971, disappointed and worried by the winds blowing in the country after the Six-Day War and the conquest of the Arab territories. “It was a nationalistic country, and we had just run away from nationalism. We didn’t want to go from being the victims of one nationalism to being the perpetrators of another,” Janina Bauman told British daily The Guardian.

For his part, her husband obtained a teaching post at the University of Leeds, remaining there until his retirement in 1990. Three years ago, the university established the Bauman Institute, an international research center “informed by the concerns of Zygmunt Bauman’s sociology, namely: consumerism, globalization, ethics, power and the analysis of modernity,” according to the institute’s website.

Two of their daughters − the twins Lydia, now a painter, and Irena, an architect − relocated to England with their parents. The third, Prof. Anna Sfard, remained in Israel. Today she teaches in the faculty of education at the University of Haifa, specializing in learning sciences. Her son is lawyer Michael Sfard, well known for his work on behalf of the human rights of Palestinians in the territories and against breaches of the law committed by Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. He is the legal adviser of the human rights organization Yesh Din.

Prof. Bauman has written more than 50 books. In the past two decades he has concentrated on the postmodern period, or what he calls “liquid modernity.” He distinguishes between the earlier form of modernity, which he terms “solid modernity,” and this later type, which is characterized by fragile social relations that are created and break apart under the influence of neoliberal ideology, and economic and cultural privatization. He speaks of the transition from an economy based primarily on production to a consumer-based economy, offering examples of the means by which the individualist spirit of our time is becoming ever more entrenched and shunting common social interests aside.

In “Culture in a Liquid Modern World” ‏(published in English and Polish‏), Bauman explains, “I use the term ‘liquid modernity’ for the currently existing shape of the modern condition, described by other authors as ‘postmodernity,’ ‘late modernity,’ ‘second’ or ‘hyper’ modernity. What makes modernity ‘liquid’ and thus justifies the choice of name is its self-propelling, self-intensifying, compulsive and obsessive ‘modernization,’ as a result of which, like liquid, none of the consecutive forms of social life is able to maintain its shape for long.”

End of utopia

“Culture in a Liquid Modern World,” the sixth of Bauman’s books to be translated into Hebrew, deals, among other subjects, with the historical changes undergone by the concept of “culture” in the modern era, the forsaking of a social utopia in favor of personal apolitical visions, the place of culture in a globalized world and the cultural mission devolving upon Europe today.

The new book will be launched on February 21 at Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv, with, in addition to Bauman himself, the participation of Prof. Eva Illouz, Prof. Uri Ram and Prof. Amal Jamal. The day before, Bauman will give a lecture at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem on the subject of “Crisis of Agency, or Living Through the Times of Interregnum.”

In the new book you describe the cultural logic of fashion. Why do you think fashion has become a substitute for utopian self-fulfillment?

“Like so many other aspects of the human mode of being-in-the-world, utopia in the last 30 to 40 years has been, by and large, ‘privatized’ and ‘individualized.’ Utopia once meant imagining a well-designed society, guaranteeing a meaningful, dignified and gratifying life for all. Now, however, it means looking out for oneself, perhaps (though not necessarily) with your nearest and dearest, [finding] a relatively safe and comfortable niche within a hopelessly unsafe and inhospitable world that is beyond redemption − something like buying a family shelter in the period of the nuclear war panic.

“One of the foremost functions of commercially boosted fashion is now the servicing of this new form of utopian thinking and pursuit-of-utopia practices. The advance of the ‘individualized’ version of utopia coincides with the collapse and demise of the idea of ‏(and hope for‏) a ‘good society.’”

You write in the book: “A ‘multicultural’ world allows cultures to coexist, but the politics of ‘multiculturalism’ does not make it easier – indeed possibly makes it more difficult – for these cultures to gain benefits and enjoyment from their coexistence.” What is your critique of the popular multicultural approach?

“’Multiculturalism’ is a policy response to the vanishing prospect of the ‘universalization’ of the human condition and the merger of cultures heretofore split along ethnic, religious and many other lines. In the ‘solid’ phase of the modern era, cultural differences were seen as temporary irritants that were bound to vanish as a result of the combination of enforced and voluntary assimilation. That expectation is now gone − in view of the ongoing diasporization of the planet. Big cities all around the planet become archipelagoes of diasporas, with none of the ethnic, religious, linguistic groups intending to ‘culturally assimilate’ and abandon their own cultural tradition, and each demanding recognition for its own cultural identity.

“We find ourselves in an ambivalent situation. On the one hand, cultural variety offers human cohabitation an otherwise implausible dynamic, and creates a setting for unprecedented cultural creativity. On the other, however, it threatens to veer toward ‘multi-communitarianism’ − the propagation of enclosed and fortified communities resisting intercultural communication and exchange, and, in its extreme, leading toward countless jihads and crusades.

“Neither the policy of coercive cultural conversion, nor the mutual fencing-off [of] and retreating from the debate about the relative advantages and disadvantages of specific solutions to common human problems offered by various cohabiting cultures are realistic or desirable options. We still need to acquire, earnestly and urgently, the art of living daily and permanently with differences that will allow us to benefit from the contribution each culture may offer to life in common, neither demanding that others abandon their chosen identity nor compromising ‏(let alone surrendering‏) our own chosen identity.”

In your eyes, what change has the concept of culture undergone in contemporary society? Has culture become a conservative element?

“I do not think that culture has become a conservative element. On the contrary, what I am arguing is that the view of culture dominant until quite recently − [that of] culture as a sort of homeostatic contraption, guarding the stable and change-resistant identity by nations − needs to be thoroughly revised in view of the fact that the provenances and itineraries of cultural innovations and stimuli stopped obeying national borders and territorial sovereignties of states.

“Where once the emergent modern states sought to deploy culture as a tool of nation-building and to legitimate nation-state power, culture is increasingly unfit for that role due to its ever-growing cosmopolitan connections. At the same time, the states promoting the former uses of culture can no longer claim genuine cultural domination over their territory. Political and cultural maps no longer overlap. Under these circumstances, culture is more reminiscent of an exterritorial laboratory in which new forms of life are designed, experimented with and tested; a sort of a knife with its sharp edge pressed against the future.”

Collective obligation

Janina Bauman’s work “Winter in the Morning” ‏(based on her wartime memories and later published by Virago Press − together with her post-war memoirs “A Dream of Belonging” − in a single volume entitled “Beyond These Walls,” which was translated into a dozen languages‏) chronicles her life as an adolescent in occupied Warsaw and her survival in the Jewish ghetto and outside it. At the beginning of the book she notes, “War has taught me one thing, which people generally avoid saying: that the cruelest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanizes its victims before it destroys them ... The hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions.”

Such insight is equally applicable to “Modernity and the Holocaust,” which her husband published in 1989 and dedicated “to Janina and all the others who survived to tell the truth.” In this book, a seminal work in the realm of Holocaust literature, Prof. Bauman addresses the affinities between the destruction of European Jewry and modern rationality. The Holocaust, he argues, should not be seen as an act of madness or as a barbaric event, divorced from the values of modernity; it should be understood as a project that sprang directly from the mechanisms and ideas of modernity.

Translated into more than 20 languages ‏(though only a small part of it appeared in Hebrew, in 1996, in the periodical Theory and Criticism‏), Bauman’s book stirred an extensive debate. Its thesis has been critically assailed. Thus, noted British historian Sir Ian Kershaw, author of a monumental biography of Hitler, said in an interview to Haaretz two years ago: “Advances in technology, science and bureaucracy − the last of these especially emphasized by Zygmunt Bauman − have all, naturally, played major parts in radicalizing and extending the capacity for political violence and for genocide as its most extreme form. And all are naturally central features of modern society. But to my mind they are ‘enablers’ rather than prime causes. This is where I differ from Bauman: I don’t see bureaucratic rationality as the cause, but rather as the instrument of genocide − and then more in modern states, like Germany under Hitler, but less so in more underdeveloped countries.”

In response to this, Bauman says now, “I can’t truly comprehend, let alone explain, why such a great and scrupulous scholar as Ian Kershaw has inverted and deformed my thesis. What I argued in ‘Modernity and the Holocaust’ is precisely that modern technology and modern science and practice of management enabled the Holocaust to happen. I never suggested that they were the causes of the Shoah. I followed instead Hannah Arendt’s injunction that anti-Semitism can explain the choice of the victims, but not the nature of the crime. It is in that second part of our query that technology and bureaucracy come into view.

“But what Kershaw overlooked in addition ‏(at any rate he gave no sign that he didn’t‏) was another, in my view decisive, link connecting the Holocaust to modernity and the paramount ‘enabling factor’: the modern ‘We can do it therefore we will do it’ posture, ambition and determination to surrender the world to the demands of comfort and convenience however defined, and whatever the moral transgressions are which the meeting of such demands would require. As Götz Aly and Susanne Heim amply demonstrated ‏(in their “Vordenker der Vernichtung”‏), the destruction of the Jews was part and parcel of the grandiose program to relocate or otherwise move out of the way virtually every nation or ethnicity from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea − in order to bring those expanses into line with the comfort and convenience of the German ‏(in this case‏) part of the human species.”

Bauman has decried Israel’s exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust in order to serve immediate political interests. In his opinion, the logic which guides Israel − namely that the Jews are constantly facing “a looming Holocaust” − leads to insularity and isolationism, and thwarts attempts at reconciliation with the international community. It is precisely this approach which caused eyebrows to be raised at a comment he made in an interview to the Polish newspaper Polityka in 2011.

The paper quoted him as ostensibly drawing a comparison between the separation barrier built by Israel in the West Bank and the wall the Nazis built around the Warsaw Ghetto.

Bauman, however, says the quotations, as they appeared in the Israeli media at the time, were inaccurate. “This is a travesty ... The ‘comparison’ of the two things would indeed be inane,” he says, “though I suspect that in the unlikely case of the wall having been built on the initiative of the Palestinian autonomy instead of the Israeli government, the Israeli establishment would be the first to resort to such a comparison.

“But I did not ‘compare’ the two walls. I just surmised that the idea of a separation wall as a solution wouldn’t perhaps occur to Israeli leaders were it not for the ghetto walls being so deeply ingrained in the Jewish collective memory ... Angry reactions to the very mention of the two walls in one sentence proved perhaps the fact that such psychical, conscious or subconscious connection between two walls is too close for our spiritual comfort; but I admit that my intention in the interview was indeed to render that spiritual comfort a bit more difficult to achieve.

“What I also said, but was not picked up by my opponents, is that the decision to build a wall between Jews and the occupied population of the Palestinians could be seen as Hitler’s posthumous triumph. It almost attained what Hitler wished but did not succeed to achieve: to set Jews and the rest of the world at loggerheads and make their peaceful coexistence all but inconceivable or impossible.”

Bauman adds that he also undertook something of a “psychoanalytical diagnosis”: “In our collective unconscious, the image of a wall is established as the archetype of exclusion, break of communication, degradation, denial of human rights. Were that not the case, it is doubtful whether the idea of building a wall around Israel and its settlements on the occupied land would occur to Israeli leaders as the means to deal with a vicinity of undesirables, and become an ultimate symbol of unilateral but irrevocable separation and refusal to communicate. The higher and tighter the wall, the slimmer the chance of talking to each other, empathizing with each other’s pains and sufferings, and coming to terms with each other − let alone working toward a mutually agreeable and beneficial mode of coexistence.”

What are your personal feelings about your visit to Israel after many years of shunning the country?

“My feelings today are not much different, alas, than they were as I spelled them out in an article in Haaretz ‏(“Israel must prepare for peace,” August 8, 1970‏) more than 40 years ago; the sole difference being that what was then a gruesome prognosis ‏(that the enmity would acquire a self-propelling momentum, that protracted occupation would morally denigrate the occupiers as much as, if not more than, the occupied, and that having ‘militarized’ political thought, debate and action, Israel would turn its back on its social problems and lose the capacity and skills to tackle them‏) has since become a gruesome reality.

“It pains me, pains me tremendously, to watch the forgetting and abandoning of our collective mission and duty, imposed upon us by the tragic Jewish history: the duty to alert the world − lest it forget − to the evil endemic in all and any nationalist hatred, and to be in the forefront of the ongoing fight against its breeding. And of the ambition of the founders of Israel to serve as ‘a light unto the nations.’”


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