The Popularity Of The Consumerist Culture
Is Imported From The West: Prof. Zygmunt Bauman
Interview By Kourosh Ziabari
14 April, 2013
Prof. Zygmunt Bauman is a world-renowned, award-winning sociologist, philosopher and historian. He was born on November 19, 1925 in Poland and has been living in the UK since 1971. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Leeds and is best known for his work on modernity's struggle with ambiguity, postmodern ethics and consumerism. He is influenced by such people as Max Weber, Jacques Derrida and Anthony Giddens. The Guardian described Bauman as “one of the world’s most influential sociologists.”
“The rising popularity of the consumerist life-model has been imported from the West or rather imposed by the globalization of Western standards... conspicuous consumption had been cut off from the task to satisfy survival needs and put in the service of positional rivalry and cut-throat competition for social standing, renown and prestige,” said Prof. Bauman in an exclusive interview.
Bauman has written 64 books the latest of which was published in 2012 titled “This is Not a Diary.” His books have been translated into a dozen of languages, and several authors and academicians have written articles and books about his life and his work.
In September 2010, the University of Leeds launched The Bauman Institute in its School of Sociology and Social Policy to recognize his decades-long services and contributions to the science of sociology and philosophy.
He received European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences in 1992 and the Theodors W. Adorno Award of the city of Frankfurt in 1998.
Q: In one of your articles, you have alluded to the fact that today they are not the parents, bosses or public authorities who can give compelling answers to the many questions and challenges of our youths. They encounter problems and find the solutions on Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter. What’s the reason for the emergence of this addiction to technology? Does it have plagues and entail perils for the young generation, as well?
A: You write “find the solutions”. More prudent would be to say that the young are seeking solutions on “social websites”. Whether they found them or not is a moot question; at any case this is not a question that can be answered by an unambiguous “yes” or “no”.
Why “the addiction to technology”, you ask, but also provide one part of the answer, when you say that “parents, bosses and public authorities” (what they have in common, is having been formed in times that changed considerably since) can no more “give compelling answers”. When online, the young are among their age-mates with whom they share their life experiences and the challenges they meet in their life pursuits. Another part of the answer rests however with the digital or informatics technology itself. Major attraction of that technology is the speed with which responses to queries crop up and the deceptive facility of the “solutions” such responses offer. Off-line reality calls for a lengthy and time-consuming reflection, while it renders all and any action risk-ridden and uncertain as to its results. Online, on the other hand, everything seems easy to perform, calling for little if any effort, and risk-free. Answers seem to be much more straightforward than the offline realities. And every action on internet, unlike the actions conducted in that other, offline reality, is in principle revocable – so the actors avoid mortgaging their future and so appear to be insured against unpleasant consequences of what they have done.
Q: What do you think about the growth of the consumerism culture, especially in the developing world? It seems that it was the civilized West that exported consumerism to the developing south. Do you see any relationship between the rise of consumerism and the deeper penetration of materialism in the Western societies? Do you agree with Thorstein Veblen that people are lavishly spending their money on inessential goods and commodities just in order to attain higher social status and displaying their economic affluence?
A: I answer “yes” to all those questions; you got all the answers right. Indeed, the rising popularity of the consumerist life-model has been imported from the West or rather imposed by the globalization of Western standards. And yes, as in Veblen, conspicuous consumption had been cut off from the task to satisfy survival needs and put in the service of positional rivalry and cut-throat competition for social standing, renown and prestige. But you need add other functions for which consumer markets promise to cater, and for which public demand is growing fast: shopping lifted to the rank of universal substitute for morally inspired deeds, or perceived as a prime strategy to deploy in human search for happiness and “good life”.
Q: In one of your articles, you wrote that even in some resourceful countries, people witness the government’s obedience to the market and the fact that it waits for permission by the market to put into effect its decisions and what it intends to do. Why is it so? Which countries are you specifically referring to?
A: The cause is the on-going divorce between power (i.e., ability to have things done) and politics (i.e., ability to decide what things are to be done). Much of the power previously possessed or at least supposed to be possessed by a sovereign territorial state has evaporated into the no-man’s land of extraterritorial, global space – whereas politics remains, as before, a thoroughly local affair, unable to reach the terrains where reside and act most of the powers setting and confining the set of options open to political decisions. That applies, even if in varying degree, to all states (all of them being territorial). Powers of numerous (and a growing number of) states have been reduced to the role of police precincts – supervising the obedience to law and order on their territory but playing little or no role in their selection.
Q: The gradual globalization of economy and the elimination of geographical borders, as manifested in the socio-political and economic integration of European nations in the mould of European Union have contributed to the diminishing and disappearance of the Westphalian society and the independent nation-states. Can we say that the indigenous cultures are immune to such unification? How do you analyze this development?
A: On the contrary, very few existing states are capable of defending or promoting their “indigenous culture”, and more generally their identity, on their own – using their own, mostly inadequate, resources. That task is made somewhat easier by uniting their forces; European Union is an armour inside which the national identities of member states stand a greater chance of surviving that they would be able otherwise to contemplate, let alone to achieve and make safe.
Q: Talking about the Machiavelli’s instruction to the Prince on how to rule the people, you wrote about the U.S. military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq: “the U.S. killed about one hundred thousand uniformed and un-uniformed Iraqis, but lost millions of sympathizers.” But it seems that the superpowers don’t much pay attention to the fact that their popularity and international standing steadily decreases as they wage wars and kill innocent people. Can we say that lawlessness and irresponsibility are two essential components of the superpowers’ behaviour?
A: All power corrupts, and the greater is the power differential the more insidious is the temptation of irresponsibility and lawlessness. The difference between “superpowers” and other, minor powers is one of quantity, not of quality – of degree, not the substance. This is in no way the uniqueness of superpowers; all powers would be inclined to submit to that temptation in as far as being able to get away with it. The danger of resorting to lawlessness and irresponsibility can be countered only with setting an effective web of checks and balances – but in our globalized and disorganized, multi-centred world of divorce between power and politics, we have not as yet seriously embarked on weaving such a web.
Q: You have spoken of the dichotomy of hard power and soft power the governments resort to in order to further their objectives. We know that the hard power is referred to the military capability and economic strength of a nation. What about the soft power? What elements represent this soft power? Can we say that the media are crucial to the consolidation of the nations’ soft power? Are the media outlets used in a morally decent way to contribute to the empowerment of the governments, especially when they are used as propaganda instruments for attacking the “enemies”?
A: Instead of “yes or no”, one needs to speak of “yes and no” in any attempt to answer that question. “Media”, as their name suggests, are indeed tools, instruments, techniques, methods of transferring and delivering information – but as all tools they may be used for diverse loads – are, so to speak, indifferent to the contents of information they carry; just like the trains may be used to carry holiday-makers or the resorts they selected or the condemned to the concentration camps that have been for them selected for them. Don’t blame the messenger (or at least not him alone) for the contents of the message.
Q: In assessing human’s individual and communal behaviours, do you give priority to lawfulness and legality instead of morality and ethicality? Let’s look at the recent shooting rampage in a Connecticut-based elementary school. Bearing arms is legal according to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but what has happened is actually the result of resorting to a legal excuse for doing an illegal and immoral action. Do we have to postulate that moral behaviour should be dismissed simply because it is not quantifiable and concrete while we can formulate tangible laws and regulations and so it should be only law that rules our behaviour?
A: The difference between morality and law cannot be overcome. One cannot be reduced to the other. Any code of law is composed on the tacit assumption that any conduct, unless explicitly prohibited, is “innocent” (allowed, tolerated) in the eyes of law. Morality would not, however, accept such premise; it could not accept it without becoming something else than morality. Besides, moral conscience would allow itself to be in such a way deceived. Moral responsibility, unlike the precept of law, is by its nature unlimited and unconditional – it requires much more than obedience to the law of land; ethical conscience, the “supreme court“ in the realm of morality, wouldn’t take the verdicts pronounced by the supreme court of the land as the sufficient proof of innocence.
Q: You have compared capitalism’s capacity of resurrection and regeneration to that of the parasites. Why do you think so? Do you also share the viewpoint of the progressive thinkers who believe that capitalism can no longer respond to the needs and demands of the human society? They cite the Occupy Wall Street movement protests as a sign that capitalism is not sustainable anymore and that the people are fed up with it. What’s your take on that?
A: Being “unsustainable” (as it indeed is) is not tantamount to being “at its end” (which it is not). I wrote about the capitalism’s evident ingenuity in finding or creating ever new “host organisms”, or “virgin lands”, after the previous ones having been used-up and exhausted. The last “virgin land”, exceedingly profitable and sufficient to keep capitalism alive for thirty of more years, was people-not-living-on-credit, saving instead of borrowing money and not spending money-as-yet-unearned. That land has been however stretched to its limits and beyond, causing the 2007 banking system’s collapse. At the moment capitalism is desperately seeking a replacement, thus far in vain. And so the economic depression continues.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and media correspondent. He writes for Global Research, CounterCurrents.org, Tehran Times, Iran Review and other publications across the world. His articles and interviews have been translated in 10 languages. His website is http://kouroshziabari.com
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