Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age

Polity Press, 182pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745652955

reviewed by Abigail Rhodes

The riots that took place from 6th – 9th August 2011 made Britain sit up and take notice. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham, North London, over the police shooting of Mark Duggan soon descended into a free-for-all frenzy of theft and violence which resulted in the deaths of five people. The speed with which the riots spread across the country was shocking. Social networking sites and mobile phones aided those involved to communicate rapidly with each other and led to the widespread coordination of theft and damage in major cities all over England. The riots are over, but the question of ‘why’ still remains. Why did any of this happen at all?

Many possible answers have been put forward. A report by researchers at Essex University and Royal Holloway outlines three main types of explanation: socio-demographic, normative or value-based and political. The proponents of the first of these argue that the reasons for the riots are primarily the economic conditions that those involved find themselves addled with on a daily basis and suggest that these are exacerbated by a rising inequality evident in society. The second type of explanation places the responsibility firmly at the feet of the parents – Cameron’s ‘broken society’, whilst the political explanation emphasises the rioter’s’ disillusionment at the bankers and politicians and the so-called ‘middle-class looting’ that took place in 2008-09.

Trust in the banks and politicians has steadily, but deeply, been eroded over the past 20 years. According to the British Societies Attitudes Survey, 90% of people had a positive opinion of the banks in 1983, by 1994 this had fallen to 63%, and today only 19% of the populace trust big institutions. This mistrust is in part based on the view that those in positions of power have abused and misused the trust invested in them by those that put them into power in the first place. The leaked expenses scandal and the bail-out of the banks lifted the rose-tinted spectacles to reveal a society in which those with privilege, money and power (the haves) can retain their position through cheating and gambling with the money of the have-nots. For the first time the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor was revealed in startling clarity.

In his latest book, Collateral Damage, Zygmunt Bauman provides a critique of contemporary social inequality that could answer the question posed at the beginning of this review. He argues that it is the mistrust of our political and financial institutions coupled with the helplessness felt by the have-nots (their inability to close the gap) that feeds the insecurity felt by all those living in a what he calls a ‘liquid modern society’. The insecurity felt by members of this fluid world relates directly to their social status, which is based on their monetary value, and their inability to change their situation by climbing the social ladder in order to become more ‘valuable’ (richer). Yet it is this ‘human uncertainty and vulnerability [that] are the foundations of all political power’ and, furthermore, political policies tend to be based upon controlling the fears of the masses – their fears of losing their possessions and therefore their social status.

Throughout Chapter Four of Collateral Damage, Bauman discusses the politics of fear, immigration issues and the vilifying of ‘the Other’. He claims that the more the politicians try to make us feel secure through their policies (immigration, Prevention of Terrorism Act, detention centres, ASBOs, etc.) the less safe we actually feel. All the rhetoric about threats to our personal safety, both on the streets and at home, formulates a sense of impending doom and fear. This fear and anxiety about the loss of personal possessions, and therefore social status, is directed toward groups of people named, by Bauman, as the Other. Once this perception is in place it becomes all too easy to dehumanize the groups who are ‘responsible’ for this fear and ‘once stripped of “face”, the Other invites violence naturally and effortlessly.’

The Other in Western society is, for Bauman, all too often distinguished as that group at the ‘bottom end of the social distribution of wealth and income’ or the ‘underclass: a congregation of individuals who, unlike the rest of the population, do not belong to any class – and so in fact do not belong to society.’ This section of the population lies outside the main body of society and is largely ignored. But society is rarely measured by this weakest link (read poorest/bottom) because it is rounded up to incorporate the strongest link (read richest/top), and the gap between the bottom and the top is not taken into consideration ‘when the state of society is checked and evaluated.’ Furthermore, it is because the ‘weakest links’ are not considered part of society that they are simply discarded and isolated – they become unimportant to society as a whole. For Bauman they are considered ‘collateral damage’ because they are already considered unimportant and are thus expendable when those in power are drawing up their policies.

Eventually, however, the isolated and expendable make their voices heard, and this could be an answer to the question of ‘why’ as posed in the first paragraph. Perhaps those involved in the riots of August 2011 had had enough of watching those who already have plenty take more and decided to take more for themselves, albeit only for a few nights, with a view to perhaps closing the inequality gap. Collateral Damage was published a few months before the riots in England took place but the author’s critical insights shed light on the long standing issues behind the unrest. As always, Bauman’s examination of modern liquid society is lucid and accurate, whilst at the same time it provides crucial insight into the workings of that society – a must-read for all those interested in further reflections on liquid modernity.
Abigail Rhodes is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.