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  • Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?
  • Horace L. Fairlamb
Zygmunt Bauman. Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Harvard UP, 2008. 288 pp.

In the spirit of critical theory, Bauman’s book stakes out a territory somewhere between sociology and social critique. The work’s particular combination of strengths reflect the man himself: Polish sociologist, author of fifty-seven books and over a hundred articles, influential commentator on modernity, postmodernity, consumerism, and the holocaust. Given so prolific a mind, it is not surprising that the six chapters cover more than the title suggests.

In spite of his lightly worn erudition, Bauman’s aim is modest. Rather than pretend to solve today’s sociological problems, Bauman asks “how our quandaries tend to be shaped [by experience], where their roots lie, and what questions need to be asked if we are to uncover them” (2). Given their novelty, complexity, and occasional obscurity, he concludes, it is worthwhile “merely to help myself and my readers sharpen our common cognitive tools; perfecting the cognitive products remains a do-it-yourself enterprise” (2). Bauman’s favored themes are more or less familiar: the decline of social authority, the dependence of individual freedom on empowering social conditions, the political shift from equality to parity (of respect), the shift from institutions to networks, and the rise of consumerist forms of alienation.

The title chapter takes a broad view of the moral significance of postmodern society’s promotion of consumption. As a privileged moral principle, Bauman considers acceptance of the ideal of loving one’s neighbor to be the “birth act of humanity” insofar as it requires the transformation of egocentric instincts that Hobbes and Freud found so dominant in human nature, instincts which others have analyzed in terms of ressentiment, whether directed at our betters (Nietzsche), at our peers (Scheler), or at foreigners (Bauman). Though Bauman mitigates these pessimistic views by rooting self-love in the desire for esteem from others, he observes how consumerism reverses the thrust of socialization, subordinating sympathy to the ideal of individual consumption, objectifying others and reorienting values according to their satisfaction of personal needs. Whereas early industrialization demoralized economic relations by divorcing business from families (as Weber noted), so globalization accomplishes another divorce on a global scale by freeing corporate agendas from the supervision of national political authorities.

To my mind, the next most seminal chapter is “Freedom in the Liquid- Modern Era,” which examines some of the more paradoxical tensions between postmodern freedom and constraint: “the greater our individual freedom, the less it is relevant to the world in which we practice it” (110); or more specifically, “The more tolerant the world becomes of the choices we make, the less the game, our playing it, and the way we play it are open to our choice.” Much of this can be understood as an updating of Marx’s observation that we make our history, but we don’t make the conditions under which we make it. The notion of “liquidity” refers to the flexibility of contemporary [End Page 392] social arrangements, whose rapidity of change accommodates a twofold mobility of economic resources and individual identities. In the modern period, these tendencies flourished under the aegis of Enlightenment “emancipation,” which has since become problematic. The predominant force at work is the increasing tyranny of the market, whose hegemony appears both in the decline of social-political authority and in the proliferation of increasingly superficial individual choices. Correlative to these developments, the political ideal of “parity” has replaced that of equality, as if justice no longer means a fair share, but only a seat at the table. The impression of increasing freedom is belied, however, by the growing sense of being locked into a game whose costs are high and which brooks no alternative. Bauman sees these trends as an abandonment of the modern social contract and he envisions no protective or corrective power besides a transformed state to guarantee just conditions for individual freedom.

Of the four other chapters, “Hurried Life” is comparably broad, questioning the effects of consumerism on education. Echoing Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s well-known turn from social...


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pp. 392-394
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