Dad, sociologist, green local councillor and drummer from Malta

Monday, January 16, 2017

Farewell, Bauman

Times of Malta 16 January 2017
Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most influential sociologists of our times, passed away a few days ago, aged 91. His influence in the academic world is immense, and it is no coincidence that a Bauman Institute was set up in Britain a few years ago. He also became a leading voice for global solidarity across the global media sphere, penning articles and giving interviews for public consumption right up to his passing away.

Before becoming the world-famous sociologist based at the University of Leeds, Bauman had his fair share of life experiences. During and after World War II, he was a communist military officer in Poland. Here he encountered sociology and eventually became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw.

In 1968 Poland faced a political crisis. Intellectuals and students protested against state repression and called for democratisation. This social movement coincided with the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia, which was ultimately repressed by Soviet tanks.

Bauman supported the dissident movement and resigned from member of the ruling Workers’ Party. He was consequently purged together with other Jewish Poles, and after some time in Israel, he eventually emigrated to Britain where he assumed the role of chair in sociology at the University of Leeds. The rest is history.

As a sociologist with global influence, Bauman excelled in two main areas: his conceptualisation of modernity and the Holocaust and his conceptualisation of liquid modernity.

As regards the former, he warned about the dangers of prioritising bureaucracy over values such as care and responsibility. Sure, processes, order and efficiency are key aspects of modern societies, but they should not become an end in itself, devoid of ethics.

Bauman argued that if bureaucracy were taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it could be no different from the holocaust: an efficient machine which eliminates those who do not conform to the ruling diktat. And yet, unfortunately, genocide has not been erased from human history after the Nazi genocide that ended in 1945. Which means that any ideology or form of governance that brushes out the discourse of ethics should be treated suspiciously.

More recently, Bauman focused on liquid modernity. Here, he conceptualised contemporary society as one being paradoxically characterised by freedom and precariousness. In the liquid society we are free to construct our own identity kits, whether through consumption, sexuality, education, family life, employment and other social experiences. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to cling to security and stability. Precariousness can affect all these experiences, whether through poverty, unemployment, illness or family breakdown. Love becomes liquid too. It can last, but it can also flow away into nothingness.

Hence, one’s freedom is always relational: it can have a positive or negative impact on someone else’s freedom, identity and aspirations.

In this regard, a pertinent question of our times is how can we reconcile freedom with solidarity. Bauman argues that there never is a final answer to this question, but he warns that a self-interested individualism immersed in the market can tilt the balance too far away from solidarity.

Still, we are living in a globalised marketplace which seems to give priority to consumers’ self-gratification over the plight of those experiencing precariousness. And each and every one of us is at once a consumer with potential or actual precariousness.

Should this lead to the breakdown of society? Bauman argues that politics and social policy have essential roles in redistributing wealth and enhancing egalitarian social relations. In this regard, the welfare state is a key institution which helps us encounter our insecurities and anxieties, through the sharing and pooling of rights and responsibilities.

In his later writings, Bauman also explored the idea of an interregnum – where contemporary society seems to be suspended in a period between major historic shifts.

Bauman reconciled the best of the social democratic tradition with philosophies such as existentialism, without getting stuck into some nostalgic politics of yesteryear. Like philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, Bauman shows how freedom is a leap in the dark. Sure, we are free to improve our life situation, but we also know that things can go wrong. Whether one is a parent, a refugee, a worker or a policymaker, taking decisions is never easy.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading Salvu

It is incredible how some self-appointed political 'experts' fail to see the big picture in the Salvu Mallia phenomenon.

If Joseph Muscat does a trick with his left hand only to deviate us from something real with his right, Salvu Mallia is saying some important stuff beyond what is currently appealing to lazy sensationalism and partisan grudges.

Concerns of European citizens

In our times of turbulence, the European Union faces a myriad of existential and practical challenges. In such a context, it is imperative to understand the concerns of the union’s citizens.
One very important tool in this regard is the Eurobarometer. It comprises social-scientific public opinion surveys which are regularly conducted by the European Commission. These surveys gauge people’s perceptions on a range of topical issues which relate to the European Union and its member states.
The most recent Eurobarometer survey can help us understand why political forces such as those of the populist right are doing relatively well within the EU. Paradoxically, it also shows that the same EU enjoys more popular support than often portrayed by Eurosceptic forces including some from the same populist right.
In a nutshell, the latest Eurobarometer clearly shows that migration and terrorism are top European concerns and that support for the EU and the Euro currency is high.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge by 45 per cent of respondents, while terrorism was cited by 32 per cent. Comparatively, member states’ public finances and unemployment scored 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge in all EU member states, save for Spain and Portugal. Besides, 69 per cent of respondents expressed support for a European migration policy, 61 per cent were positive about migration within EU member states and 81 per cent were in favour of free movement of EU citizens ‘who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU’.
If political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric
On the other hand, 56 per cent of respondents were negative about immigration from outside the EU.
As regards challenges at national level, however, unemployment topped migration as the major concern, scoring 31 per cent compared to the latter’s 26 per cent.
In Malta, migration is seen as the biggest European challenge, at 65 per cent, followed by terrorism at 45 per cent.  67 per cent of the Maltese are optimistic about the future of the EU, and 82 per cent of Maltese feel that they are citizens of the EU.
On a European level, 67 per cent of respondents feel that they are EU citizens. The union’s priorities and polices have strong support, and this has increased compared to the previous survey in spring 2016. The Euro enjoys support of 58 per cent within the EU and 70 per cent within the euro area, and a majority of Europeans support state action to stimulate private sector investment within the EU.
There are various ways of interpreting such figures. In my reading, one conclusion is that people do not simply respond to political parties and ideologies by accepting everything as a monolithic credo. To the contrary,people tend to be reflexive and engage with issues and discourses through their everyday experiences and beliefs.
Hence, for example one can be pro-EU but concerned with migration. In a way this position crosses the political spectrum. Indeed, progressives and liberal parties tend to be more supportive of the EU and its policies, whilst conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian parties tend to be more concerned with issues such as migration and with perceived threats to communities and nations.
In this regard, if political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric which are detached from people’s concerns. Labels such as ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ will simply not brush away many people’s concerns on issues like migration, employment and security.
Blaming ‘the mainstream media’ for ‘duping the people’ should also be avoided. This lazy approach is doubtful on two main counts. First, there is no such thing as one uniform media - for every populist tabloid one also finds mainstream news channels which promote solidarity. Second, people tend to interpret the media in different ways.
Finally, I think that it would be very unwise for political strategists to assume that they have a monopoly of truth. In today’s age of networks, social media, multi-directional communication and plural civil society voices, politicians must respond to public concern just as much as they try to influence the public with their own agendas and policies.