Written by Alfonso Elizondo
A few days ago, the eminent Jewish-Polish thinker Zygmunt Bauman, creator of the concept of ‘liquid modernity’ in the 1970s, passed away with complete lucidity at the age of just over 90. From a sociological perspective, Bauman used the term to define transitionality and market deregulation and to try to account for the poverty of human relationships in an individualistic and privatized society marked by the volatile and transient nature of personal relationships arising from the use of social networks.
Bauman used to say that love is lacking today; there is no responsibility for others and relationships are reduced to the faceless link offered by the Web. Human beings today are floating on the waves of a liquid society that is changing every day and becoming more unpredictable because the welfare state is in total decline. In liquid modernity the certainties of the men who fought during the Enlightenment to achieve civil liberties and get rid of tradition no longer exist; now people are faced with the need to be free coupled with the existential fears and anxieties that freedom implies. Consequently, in this new age forecasting the future has disappeared completely.
Although social networks are very effective for grabbing attention, due to their fluid nature and their volatility (liquidity) they are not suitable for shaping a political discourse. One of the terms most used by social networks is ‘precariat,’ a neologism that combines the adjective ‘precarious’ with the noun ‘proletariat’ and was popularized by University of London professor Guy Standing. Bauman used it very often in his talks, so much so that that he ended up becoming a champion of that group of ‘precariats’ who celebrated him so much at the time of his death and who have become a social community that is taking shape.
In Marxist terms, ‘the precariat’ would be a class in itself that is not yet aware of its strength, a dangerous class that is growing fast and does not question the differences between left and right and believes that the blame for their situation lies with the ‘establishment’ or ‘those at the top’ and that is why Bauman was so close to ‘the occupiers’. The precariat lacks a work-based identity when they are employed, but their employment is not of the type that allows for a professional career, so they don’t have social memory and they seem to belong to a mere occupier group.
‘The shadow of the future’ does not hang over them because this precariat has a characteristic that Bauman called ‘negative globalization’. This group has developed as a new social trend with the tools of social networks that they use to share their experience of that situation and sometimes to compete among themselves. These are the elements that make up the ‘liquid modernity’ concept made famous by Bauman.
So liquid modernity would be that period in history when the fears that dominated the life of the past were going to be left behind and the citizens would be able to control their lives. But it hasn’t happened and a period of fears is being re-lived where the fear of natural or environmental disasters is added to the panic caused by indiscriminate terrorism as well as to fear of the powers that be in the economic and political spheres.
Bauman said again and again that our triumphal society was like the story of the Titanic, where everyone assumed that somewhere in the future waiting for them was an iceberg against which they would crash and die to the sound of the vibrant rhythm of a musical composition. Bauman said that there’s a hidden trap in social networks because the issue of self-identity has been transformed from being something that already existed to become a task in which human beings have to create their own communities. However, social networks cannot create a community; it can only create a mere substitute for it in each case.
Bauman believed that Facebook, Twitter or any other Internet platform can add or remove friends and recruit the people you relate to and make you feel a little better since loneliness is the great threat in this age of individualization where people are able to interact without having social skills. But that’s a lie because the only way to develop social relationships is when the individual walks down the street and meets people and engages in a reasonable interaction with them.
Bauman said that social networks do not teach you to engage in dialogue because it is very easy to avoid controversy. Most people use them to lock themselves into comfort zones where ‘the only sound they hear is the echo of their own voices and all they see are the reflections of their own faces’. Bauman concluded by saying that social networks are very useful since they provide very satisfying services, but they are a trap. In fact they are the space for voluntary self-surveillance that is preferable to espionage carried out by professional surveillance agencies.
Addendum: What we do not yet know is whether the liquid modernity of the next few years will use social networks and all the other tools of the new digital world to create a more cohesive and happy human society or it will simply continue its function of separating human beings more and more by creating hatred and quarrels between them.