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Reviewed by:
  • Liquid Fear
  • Sherryl Vint (bio)
Zygmunt Bauman , Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity, 2006. 188 pp. £14.99 (pbk).

Liquid Fear analyses the pervasiveness and consequences of fear in contemporary Western life. It builds on the insights of Bauman's earlier Liquid Modernity (2000), a book which describes the failure of the modernist project of increased human emancipation, defining our current society as neither modern nor post-modern but 'liquid'. Liquid society is characterised by instability and ambiguity, by the erosion or disappearance of what had seemed to be stable or solid categories of identity, and by the fragmentation of life and experience under conditions of such rapid change that social forms and institutions no longer have time to solidify into meaningful sites of human identity and collective action. Instead, we live in a world increasingly focused on monadic individualist identity, our subjectivity cobbled together by the products of mass consumer society, able like capital to engage only in short-term projects and to 'flexibly' shift loyalties and human social bonds in response to changing conditions. Life in liquid modernity is distinguished by endemic uncertainty, and Liquid Fear analyses in detail the nature and shape of the fear such uncertainty brings into our lives and the consequences for our ability to engage in meaningful social action and to produce a viable future.

Liquid fear is a fear without apparent source, a derivative fear that results from the interiorisation of 'a vision of the world that includes insecurity and vulnerability' (3); such a condition, Bauman notes, 'even in the absence of a genuine threat' (3) will produce a reaction appropriate to the presence of real danger. Derivative fear thus acquires 'a self-propelling capacity' (3) and, decoupled from its putative cause, is used by the state to compel citizens' obedience in exchange for supposed protection against threats to their existence. In liquid modernity, the state can no longer effectively deliver on its promise to protect people because the social stability on which its claims depend has been eroded by the uncertainties of global capitalism, and at the same time the inequities of this system have produced a context of physical threats to personal safety in the form of so-called terrorist violence. Liquid Fear analyses the state's methods of using this culture of pervasive but detached fear to ensure social passivity and thus secure the status quo.

Bauman finds symptoms of liquid fear in a number of features of contemporary Western life. The credit-driven consumer economy is a sign of a desire to [End Page 115] 'consume the future, so to speak, in advance – while there is still something left to be consumed' (9). A society that no longer believes in the future lives on credit, while a culture focused on saving 'grow[s] out of, and feed[s] on, a future one can trust – a future certain to arrive and, once it has arrived, to be not so dissimilar to the present' (9). A failure to save for or invest in the future is apparent also in our unsustainable levels of resource consumption and the refusal of the affluent West to recognise that its lifestyle is predicated upon the impoverishment of most of the world's population. Bauman insists

Deepening inequality is not an accidental, neglected but in principle rectifiable side-effect of certain uncalled-for, recklessly embarked on and insufficiently monitored undertakings, nor a result of a regrettable but rectifiable malfunctioning of an essentially sound system. It is rather an integral part of a conception of human happiness and comfortable living, and of the strategy which that conception dictates; the conception and strategy can be contemplated and entertained only as privileges, and are blatantly unsuitable for stretching wider – let alone for being stretched widely enough to be shared by the whole of humankind. To be so stretched, they would require the resource of at least three planets, not one.


The culture of liquid fear and uncertainty about the future allows us behave without consideration for the future consequences of our actions. This failure to sustain a notion of meaningful and ongoing human sociality is one of the most pernicious effects of liquid modernity.

Drawing on the...


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pp. 115-119
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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