Learning to live in ‘liquid modernity’

“Liquid modernity” is a phrase I came across a couple of months ago.   It is an expression that makes a lot of things fall into place.   It expresses how things that once seemed solid and changeless are now fluid and ever-changing.

The expression was coined by a Polish philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017).    My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of LIQUID TIMES: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007), one of Bauman’s many books on the topic.   A 2016 interview with Bauman is shown in the video above.

I came of age in the 1950s in a world dominated by big organizations that offered security in exchange for conformity.   Social roles, including sex roles, were well-defined, although starting to change.  Science was regarded as the source of true knowledge.

Today’s world offers no security.  Social roles, including the biological distinction between male and female, are in a state of flux.  Post-modern philosophers tell us that nobody knows anything, and you have to figure things out as you go along.  We are at the mercy of economic forces that we don’t understand.

We are free of many of the constraints that hemmed us in back then.   Instead we constantly have to make choices without having any way to know the consequences of these choices.

Our great fear back then was of totalitarianism.  Now our great fear is of terrorism and the collapse of social order.

Bauman wrote that the great dissolving force is globalization—the ending of  restrictions on international movement of goods, services, information and money. along with unsuccessful attempts to restrict the international movement of people.

Politics becomes divorced from power, he wrote.  Politics is national and local, while the power lies with international corporations and organizations not subject to political control.

Governments are helpless before global economic forces, and turn over their historic functions to private organizations.   Individuals find less support either from government or from communities.  Instead of communities, there are networks.

Responsibility for coping with change is solely up to the individual, Bauman wrote.  But change is unpredictable.   Long-range planning is impossible.


In an age of liquid modernity, you can be affected by events that happen anywhere in the world.  There are no safe havens.

The present era is not more dangerous than earlier eras—at least not for middle-class property owners in North America and Europe.  The difference is that today’s dangers are unknown and unknowable.

If there are wolves in the forest, you can stay out of the forest or be on guard against wolves when you go in.  But there is no way to guard against disruptive economic change that may wipe out your livelihood, or terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

Bauman said liquid modernity gives rise to free-floating fear, which politicians and demagogues can direct at any plausible object.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the war on terror would end when Americans feel safe.  That means it will never end.  Each U.S. attack on foreign countries increases the chances of a blowback terrorist attack on Americans.

Millions of people are driven from their homes by war and persecution.  Economic disruptions destroy their livelihoods.   Environmental disasters, like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that drove the Okies off their land, will increase.

Refugees find themselves outside the structure of any society or legal system and therefore without any rights whatsoever.  A refugee who is innocent of any crime will be treated worse than a citizen who has been arrested and charged with murder.

What happens to the criminal who is a citizen will have some connection with what he or she did.  As Hannah Arendt remarked, concerning the  refugee crisis following World War One, the refugee is outside the protection of any law.  There is no recognition of basic human rights as such—only the legal rights of people in their particular societies.


Zygmunt Bauman in 2014

Bauman contended that liberal democracy originated as a means by which men who were already free, by reason of education and the economic independence that came from owning property, sought to protect their rights.  They believed that people who lacked education and property—enslaved people, women and the property-less, illiterate working classes—would either be the tools of their masters or enemies of society.

Over time, liberal democracy changed its meaning.   It became the means by which the excluded classes could demand the economic security and access to education that enabled them to free and responsible citizens.   President Franklin Roosevelt defined the four basic freedoms as not only freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Under liquid modernity, there can be no guarantee of freedom from want, because there is no continuing governmental structure.  Fear becomes the norm.   Society’s losers can no longer count on a social safety net.   The rest of us fear the lower classes and also fear being pushed down into the lower classes ourselves.


Typically cities are divided into a wealthy ruling elite, an established middle class and a class of immigrants and newcomers, either from the countryside or foreign countries.   The threat of city life is the threat of the unfamiliar, the Other.  The attraction of city life is the chance to encounter the new and unfamiliar.  Bauman called this the tension between mixophobia and mixophilia.

What’s different in the age of liquid modernity is that the urban elite are no longer heirs of long-established families who derive their wealth from the cities where they reside, and so have a stake in the cities’ prosperity.

Today’s urban elite seldom have such a stake.  They are typically more connected with their counterparts in other cities than with the permanent residents of their own cities.

Free movement within cities is disappearing.  There are guards, barriers and checkpoints to control access to public buildings and prevent access to the residences of the rich.  Parts of the great metropolises are effectively off-limits to the urban poor, and to the migrants and refugees that keep flooding in.


Bauman wrote that, historically, there have been two utopian ideals.  One is what he called the gamekeeper, whose aim is to preserve the existing natural balance of nature and society.  The other is what he called the gardener, whose aim is to refashion the world into something better.

Liquid modernity, he wrote, turns us into hunters, pursuing short-term goals without concern to protect either wilderness or garden.  Instead of trying to preserve something good or achieve something better, hunters care nothing of consequences, so long as the hunt goes on.


Zygmunt Bauman was pessimistic about alternatives to liquid modernity.  I myself don’t think human beings will long tolerate institutions that generate perpetual uncertainty.  I think we would prefer injustice, provided that it is predictable enough to adapt to.   People are likely to seek structure and permanence by embracing authoritarian nationalism or authoritarian religion.

Sometimes when I read books like this, I go outside, and look up and down the tree-lined street where I live.   I see children playing, people walking dogs, people working in their yards, and I wonder whether the dangers I fear exist only in my imagination.  It would be nice to think so, but on a world scale or the scale of history, fortunate lives like mine are not the norm.


Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Social media are a trap’, an interview with Madrid’s El Pais

Living in Liquid Modernity by Chris Kutarna for Psychology Today.

Zygmunt Bauman obituary by Mark Davis and Tom Campbell for The Guardian.

Adieu, Zygmunt Bauman by Irfan Ahmad for Al Jazeera.

Liquid Modernity? by Daniel Little for Understanding Society

Passion and Pessimism by Madeleine Bunting for The Guardian

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2 Responses to “Learning to live in ‘liquid modernity’”

  1. Fred Says:

    My greatest fear is still the soft tyranny of the nanny state.


  2. Henry Lewis Says:

    Excellent post Phil! You’re channeling some of my thoughts this week as well.


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