The contemporary global elite is shaped after the pattern of the old-style ‘absentee landlords’. It can rule without burdening itself with the chores of administration, management, welfare concerns, or, for that matter, with the mission of ‘bringing light’, ‘reforming the ways’, morally uplifting, ‘civilizing’ and cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of subordinate populations is no longer needed (on the contrary, it is actively avoided as unnecessarily costly and ineffective) – and so the ‘bigger’ is not just not ‘better’ any more, but devoid of rational sense. It is now the smaller, the lighter, the more portable that signifies improvement and ‘progress’. Travelling light, rather than holding tightly to things deemed attractive for their reliability and solidity – that is, for their heavy weight, substantiality and unyielding power of resistance – is now the asset of power.
To ‘liberate’, means literally to set free from some kind of fetters that obstruct or thwart the movements; to start feeling free to move or act. To ‘feel free’ means to experience no hindrance, obstacle, resistance or any other impediment to the moves intended or conceivable to be desired. As Arthur Schopenhauer observed, ‘reality’ is created by the act of willing; it is the stubborn indifference of the world to my intention, the world’s reluctance to submit to my will, that rebounds in the perception of the world as ‘real’ – constraining, limiting and disobedient. Feeling free from constraint, free to act on one’s wishes, means reaching a balance between the wishes, the imagination and the ability to act: one feels free in so far as the imagination is not greater than one’s actual desires, while neither of the two reaches beyond the ability to act. The balance may therefore be established and kept unimpaired in two different ways: either by tapering, cutting down the desires and/or imagination, or by expanding one’s ability to act. Once the balance is achieved, and as long as it stays intact, ‘liberation’ is a meaningless slogan, lacking motivational force.
Such usage allows us to set apart ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ freedom – and so also the subjective and objective ‘need of liberation’. It could be the case that the will to improvement has been frustrated or not allowed to arise in the first place (for example by the pressure of the ‘reality principle’ exerted, according to Sigmund Freud, on the human drive to pleasure and happiness); intentions, whether really experienced or just imaginable, have been cut down to the size of the ability to act, and particularly the ability to act reasonably – with a chance of success. On the other hand, it could be the case that through the direct manipulation of the intentions – some sort of ‘brainwashing’ – one could never put the ‘objective’ ability to act to the test, let alone find out what they really are, and therefore would set the ambitions below the level of the ‘objective’ freedom. The distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ freedom opened a genuine Pandora’s box of vexing issues of the ‘phenomenon vs. essence’ kind – of varying, but on the whole considerable, philosophical significance and potentially huge political import. One such issue was the possibility that what feels like freedom is not in fact freedom at all; that people may be satisfied with their lot even though that lot were far from being ‘objectively’ satisfactory; that, living in slavery, they feel free and so experience no urge to liberate themselves, thus forsaking or forfeiting the chance of becoming genuinely free. The corollary of that possibility was the supposition that people may be incompetent judges of their own plight, and must be forced or cajoled, but in any case guided, to experience the need to be ‘objectively’ free and to muster the courage and determination to fight for it. A yet darker foreboding gnawed at philosophers’ hearts: that people may simply dislike being free and resent the prospect of emancipation, given the hardships which the exercise of freedom may incur.
Not only is there no contradiction between dependence and liberation; there is no other way to pursue the liberation but to ‘submit to society’ and to follow its norms. Freedom cannot be gained against society. The outcome of rebellion against the norms, even if the rebels have not been turned into beasts right away and so lost the power to judge their condition, is a perpetual agony of indecision linked to a state of uncertainty about the intentions and moves of others around – likely to make life a living hell. Patterns and routines imposed by condensed social pressures spare humans that agony: thanks to the monotony and regularity of recommended, enforceable and in-drilled modes of conduct, humans know how to proceed most of the time and seldom find themselves in a situation with no road markings attached, such situations in which decisions are to be taken on their own responsibility and without the reassuring knowledge of their consequences, making each move pregnant with risks difficult to calculate. The absence, or mere unclarity of norms – anomie – is the worst lot which may occur to people as they struggle to cope with their life-tasks.
What is wrong with the society we live in, said Cornelius Castoriadis, is that it stopped questioning itself. This is a kind of society which no longer recognizes any alternative to itself and thereby feels absolved from the duty to examine, demonstrate, justify (let alone prove) the validity of its outspoken and tacit assumptions. This does not mean, though, that our society has suppressed (or is likely to suppress, barring a major upheaval) critical thought as such. It has not made its members reticent (let alone afraid) of voicing it either. If anything, the opposite is the case: our society – a society of ‘free individuals’ – has made the critique of reality, the disaffection with ‘what is’ and the voicing of disaffection, both an unavoidable and an obligatory part of every member’s life-business. As Anthony Giddens keeps reminding us, we are all engaged nowadays in ‘life-politics’; we are ‘reflexive beings’ who look closely at every move we take, who are seldom satisfied with its results and always eager to correct them. Somehow, however, that reflexion does not reach far enough to embrace the complex mechanisms which connect our moves with their results and decide their outcomes, let alone the conditions which hold such mechanisms in full swing. We are perhaps more ‘critically predisposed’, much bolder and intransigent in our criticism than our ancestors managed to be in their daily lives, but our critique, so to speak, is ‘toothless’, unable to affect the agenda set for our ‘life-political’ choices. The unprecedented freedom which our society offers its members has arrived, as Leo Strauss warned a long while ago, together with unprecedented impotence.
We may say that a ‘consumer-style critique’ has come to replace its ‘producer-style’ predecessor.
As Lessing pointed out a long time ago, at the threshold of the modern era we have been emancipated from belief in the act of creation, revelation and eternal condemnation. With such beliefs out of the way, we humans found ourselves ‘on our own’ – which means that from then on we knew of no limits to improvement and self-improvement other than the shortcomings of our own inherited or acquired gifts, resourcefulness, nerve, will and determination. And whatever is man-made, men can un-make. Being modern came to mean, as it means today, being unable to stop and even less able to stand still. We move and are bound to keep moving not so much because of the ‘delay of gratification’, as Max Weber suggested, as because of the impossibility of ever being gratified: the horizon of satisfaction, the finishing line of effort and the moment of restful self-congratulation move faster than the fastest of the runners. Fulfilment is always in the future, and achievements lose their attraction and satisfying potential at the moment of their attainment, if not before. Being modern means being perpetually ahead of oneself, in a state of constant transgression (in Nietzsche’s terms, one cannot be Mensch without being, or at least struggling to be, Übermensch); it also means having an identity which can exist only as an unfulfilled project. In these respects, there is not much to distinguish between the plight of our grandfathers and our own.
Though the idea of improvement (or of all further modernization of the status quo) through legislative action of the society as a whole has not been completely abandoned, the emphasis (together with, importantly, the burden of responsibility) has shifted decisively towards the self-assertion of the individual. This fateful departure has been reflected in the relocation of ethical/political discourse from the frame of the ‘just society’ to that of ‘human rights’, that is refocusing that discourse on the right of individuals to stay different and to pick and choose at will their own models of happiness and fitting life-style.
No more great leaders to tell you what to do and to release you from responsibility for the consequences of your doings; in the world of individuals, there are only other individuals from which you may draw examples of how to go about your own life-business, bearing full responsibility for the consequences of investing your trust in this example rather than another.
To put it in a nutshell, ‘individualization’ consists of transforming human ‘identity’ from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’ and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance. In other words, it consists in the establishment of a de jure autonomy (whether or not the de facto autonomy has been established as well). As this happens, human beings are no more ‘born into’ their identities. As Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it: it is not enough to be born a bourgeois – one must live one’s life as a bourgeois. (Note that the same did not need to be, nor could be said about princes, knights, serfs or townsmen of the pre-modern era; neither could it be said as resolutely about the hereditary rich and hereditary poor of modern times.) Needing to become what one is is the feature of modern living – and of this living alone (not of ‘modern individualization’, that expression being evidently pleonastic; to speak of individualization and of modernity is to speak of one and the same social condition).
And so there is another snag as well: as de Tocqueville long suspected, setting people free may make them indifferent. The individual is the citizen’s worst enemy, de Tocqueville suggested. The ‘citizen’ is a person inclined to seek her or his own welfare through the well-being of the city – while the individual tends to be lukewarm, sceptical or wary about ‘common cause’, ‘common good’, ‘good society’ or ‘just society’. What is the sense of ‘common interests’ except letting each individual satisfy her or his own? Whatever individuals may do when they come together, and whatever other benefits their shared labours may bring, portends constraint on their freedom to pursue what they see fit for each separately, and will not help such pursuit anyway. The only two useful things one would expect, and wish, ‘public power’ to deliver are to observe ‘human rights’, that is to let everyone go her or his own way, and to enable everyone to do it in peace – by guarding the safety of her or his body and possessions, locking actual or would-be criminals in prisons and keeping the streets free from muggers, perverts, beggars and all other sorts of obnoxious and malevolent strangers.
The dilemma of vita contemplativa and vita activa boils down to a choice between two similarly unappetizing prospects. The better the values preserved in thought are protected against pollution, the less significant they are to the life of those whom they are meant to serve. The greater their effects on that life, the less reminiscent will be the life reformed to the values that prompted and inspired the reform.
It is hard to remember, and harder yet to understand, that no more than fifty years ago the dispute about the substance of popular forebodings, about what there was to be afraid of, and what sort of horrors the future was bound to bring if it wasn’t stopped before it was too late, was waged between Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The dispute, to be sure, was quite genuine and earnest, since the worlds so vividly portrayed by the two visionary dystopians were as different as chalk from cheese. Orwell’s was a world of shabbi-ness and destitution, of scarcity and want; Huxley’s was a land of opulence and profligacy, of abundance and satiety. Predictably, people inhabiting Orwell’s world were sad and frightened; those portrayed by Huxley were carefree and playful. There were many other differences, no less striking; the two worlds opposed each other in virtually every detail. And yet there was something that united both visions. (Without it, the two dystopias would not talk to each other at all, let alone quarrel.) What they shared was the foreboding of a tightly controlled world; of individual freedom not just reduced to a sham or naught, but keenly resented by people drilled to obey commands and to follow set routines; of a small elite holding in their hands all the strings – so that the rest of humanity could move through their lives the way puppets do; of a world split into managers and the managed, designers and the followers of designs – with the first keeping the designs close to their chests and the second neither willing to nor capable of prying into the scripts and grasping the sense of it all; of a world which made an alternative to itself all but unimaginable. That the future held in store less freedom, more control, supervision and oppression, was not part of the dispute. Orwell and Huxley did not disagree on the world’s destination; they merely envisaged differently the road which would take us there were we to stay ignorant, obtuse, placid or indolent enough to allow things to go their natural way.
‘Order’, let me explain, means monotony, regularity, repetitive-ness and predictability; we call a setting ‘orderly’ if and only if some events are considerably more likely to happen in it than their alternatives, while some other events are highly unlikely to occur or are altogether out of the question. This means by the same token that someone somewhere (a personal or impersonal Supreme Being) must interfere with the probabilities, manipulate them and load the dice, seeing to it that events do not occur at random. In our modern times, with God on a protracted leave of absence, the task of designing and servicing order has fallen upon human beings.
Under the new circumstances, the odds are that most of human life and most of human lives will be spent agonizing about the choice of goals, rather than finding the means to the ends which do not call for reflection. Contrary to its predecessor, light capitalism is bound to be value-obsessed. The apocryphal small ad in the ‘Jobs sought’ column – ‘Have car, can travel’ – may serve as the epitome of the new problematics of life, alongside the query attributed to the heads of the present-day scientific and technological institutes and laboratories: ‘We have found the solution. Now let us find a problem.’ The question ‘What can I do?’ has come to dominate action, dwarfing and elbowing out the question ‘How to do best what I must or ought to do anyway?’
Living in a world full of opportunities – each one more appetizing and alluring than the previous one, each ‘compensating for the last, and providing grounds for shifting towards the next’ – is an exhilarating experience. In such a world, little is predetermined, even less irrevocable. Few defeats are final, few if any mishaps irreversible; yet no victory is ultimate either. For the possibilities to remain infinite, none may be allowed to petrify into everlasting reality. They had better stay liquid and fluid and have a ‘use-by’ date attached, lest they render the remaining opportunities off-limits and nip the future adventure in the bud.
It would be demeaning, and in addition wrong and misleading, to condemn or ridicule the chat-show addiction as an effect of unleashing the eternal human greed for gossip and pandering to the ‘base kind of curiosity’. In a world tightly packed with means yet notoriously unclear about ends, the lessons drawn from chat-shows answer a genuine demand and have undeniable pragmatic value, since I know already that it is up to me and me alone to make (and go on making) the best of my life; and since I also know that whatever resources such an undertaking may require can be sought and found only in my own skills, courage and nerve, it is vital to know how other people, faced with similar challenges, cope. They might have come across a wondrous stratagem which I have missed; they might have explored the parts of the ‘inside’ which I passed by without paying attention to or did not dig deep enough to discover.
Postmodern society engages its members primarily in their capacity as consumers rather than producers. That difference is seminal. Life organized around the producer’s role tends to be normatively regulated. There is a bottom line to what one needs in order to stay alive and be capable of doing whatever the producer’s role may require, but also an upper limit to what one may dream of, desire and pursue while counting on social approval for one’s ambitions – that is, without fear of being frowned upon, rebuked and brought into line. Whatever rises above that limit is a luxury, and desiring luxury is a sin. The main concern is therefore that of conformity: of settling securely between the bottom line and the upper limit – to ‘keep up’ (or down, as the case may be) ‘with the Joneses’. Life organized around consumption, on the other hand, must do without norms: it is guided by seduction, ever rising desires and volatile wishes – no longer by normative regulation. No particular ‘Joneses’ offer a reference point for one’s own successful life; a society of consumers is one of universal comparison – and the sky is the only limit.
If the society of producers sets health as the standard which its members ought to meet, the society of consumers brandishes before its members the ideal of fitness. The two terms – health and fitness – are often taken to be coterminous and are used synonymously; after all, they both refer to the care of the body, to the state which one wishes one’s body to achieve and the regime which the owner of the body should follow to fulfil that wish. To treat the two terms synonymously is, though, a mistake – and not merely for the well-known fact that not all fitness regimes ‘are good for one’s health’ and that what helps one to stay healthy does not necessarily make one fit. Health and fitness belong to two quite different discourses and appeal to very different concerns. Health, like all other normative concepts of the society of producers, draws and guards the boundary between ‘norm’ and ‘abnormality’. ‘Health’ is the proper and desirable state of the human body and spirit – a state which (at least in principle) can be more or less exactly described and once described also precisely measured. It refers to a bodily and psychical condition which allows the satisfaction of the demands of the socially designed and assigned role – and those demands tend to be constant and steady. ‘To be healthy’ means in most cases to be ‘employable’: to be able to perform properly on the factory floor, to ‘carry the load’ with which the work may routinely burden the employee’s physical and psychical endurance. The state of ‘fitness’, on the contrary, is anything but ‘solid’; it cannot by its nature be pinned down and circumscribed with any precision. Though it is often taken to be an answer to the question ‘How do you feel today?’ (if I am ‘fit’, I will probably answer ‘I feel great’), its real test lies for ever in the future: ‘being fit’ means to have a flexible, absorptive and adjustable body, ready to live through sensations not yet tried and impossible to specify in advance. If health is a ‘no more and no less’ type of condition, fitness stays permanently open on the side of ‘more’: it does not refer to any particular standard of bodily capacity, but to its (preferably unlimited) potential of expansion. ‘Fitness’ means being ready to take in the unusual, the non-routine, the extraordinary – and above all the novel and the surprising. One may almost say that if health is about ‘sticking to the norm’, fitness is about the capacity to break all norms and leave every already achieved standard behind.
Unlike the care for health, the pursuit of fitness has therefore no natural end. Targets may be set only for the current stage of the never-ending effort – and the satisfaction brought by hitting a set target is but momentary. In the life-long pursuit of fitness there is no time to rest, and all celebration of the success-thus-far is but a short break before another round of hard work. One thing the fitness-seekers know for sure is that they are not fit enough, yet, and that they must keep trying. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and self-deprecation, and so also of continuous anxiety.
Identities seem fixed and solid only when seen, in a flash, from outside. Whatever solidity they might have when contemplated from the inside of one’s own biographical experience appears fragile, vulnerable, and constantly torn apart by shearing forces which lay bare its fluidity and by cross-currents which threaten to rend in pieces and carry away any form they might have acquired.
When resources are plentiful one can always hope, rightly or wrongly, to stay ‘on top of’ or ‘ahead of’ things, to be able to catch up with the fast-moving targets; one might then be inclined to play down the risks and insecurity and assume that the profusion of choices compensates many times over for the discomforts of living in the dark, of never being sure when and where the struggle ends or whether it has an end at all. It is the running itself which is exhilarating, and, however tiring it may be, the track is a more enjoyable place than the finishing line. It is to this situation that the old proverb ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ applies. The arrival, the definite end to all choice, seems much more dull and considerably more frightening than the prospect of tomorrow’s choices cancelling the choices of today. Solely the desiring is desirable – hardly ever its satisfaction.
To sum up: the mobility and the flexibility of identification which characterize the ‘shopping around’ type of life are not so much vehicles of emancipation as the instruments of the redistribution of freedoms. They are for that reason mixed blessings – enticing and desired as much as repelling and feared, and arousing most contradictory sentiments. They are highly ambivalent values which tend to generate incoherent and quasi-neurotic reactions. As Yves Michaud, a philosopher at the Sorbonne, puts it, ‘With the excess of opportunity, grow the threats of destructuration, fragmentation and disarticulation.’ The task of self-identification has sharply disruptive side-effects. It becomes the focus of conflicts and triggers mutually incompatible drives. Since the task shared by all has to be performed by each under sharply different conditions, it divides human situations and prompts cut-throat competition rather than unifying a human condition inclined to generate co-operation and solidarity.
Community defined by its closely watched borders rather than its contents; ‘defence of the community’ translated as the hiring of armed gatekeepers to control the entry; stalker and prowler promoted to the rank of public enemy number one; paring public areas down to ‘defensible’ enclaves with selective access; separation in lieu of the negotiation of life in common, rounded up by the criminalization of residual difference – these are the principal dimensions of the current evolution of urban life.
In Richard Sennett’s classic definition, a city is ‘a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’. This means, let me add, that strangers are likely to meet in their capacity of strangers, and likely to emerge as strangers from the chance encounter which ends as abruptly as it started. Urban living calls for a rather special and quite sophisticated type of skill, a whole family of skills which Sennett listed under the rubric of ‘civility’, that is the activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company. Wearing a mask is the essence of civility. Masks permit pure sociability, detached from the circumstances of power, malaise, and private feelings of those who wear them. Civility has as its aim the shielding of others from being burdened with oneself.
What does it mean, though, for the urban environment to be ‘civil’, and so to be a site hospitable to the individual practice of civility? It means, first and foremost, the provision of spaces which people may share as public personae – without being nudged, pressed or cajoled to take off their masks and ‘let themselves go’, ‘express themselves’, confess their inner feelings and put on display their intimate thoughts, dreams and worries. But it also means a city presenting itself to its residents as a common good which cannot be reduced to the aggregate of individual purposes and as a shared task which cannot be exhausted by a multitude of individual pursuits, as a form of life with a vocabulary and logic all its own and its own agenda, which is (and is bound to remain) longer and richer than the fullest list of individual concerns and cravings – so that ‘wearing a public mask’ is an act of engagement and participation rather than one of noncommitment, and withdrawal of the ‘true self’, opting out from intercourse and mutual involvement, manifesting the wish for being let alone and going it alone.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the greatest cultural anthropologist of our time, suggested in Tristes tropiques that just two strategies were deployed in human history whenever the need arose to cope with the otherness of others: one was the anthropoemic, the other was the anthropophagic strategy. The first strategy consisted in ‘vomiting’, spitting out the others seen as incurably strange and alien: barring physical contact, dialogue, social intercourse and all varieties of commercium, commen-sality or connubium. The extreme variants of the ‘emic’ strategy are now, as always, incarceration, deportation and murder. The upgraded, ‘refined’ (modernized) forms of the ‘emic’ strategy are spatial separation, urban ghettos, selective access to spaces and selective barring from using them. The second strategy consists in a soi-disant ‘disalienation’ of alien substances: ‘ingesting’, ‘devouring’ foreign bodies and spirits so that they may be made, through metabolism, identical with, and no longer distinguishable from, the ‘ingesting’ body. This strategy took an equally wide range of forms: from cannibalism to enforced assimilation – cultural crusades, wars of attrition declared on local customs, calendars, cults, dialects and other ‘prejudices’ and ‘superstitions’. If the first strategy was aimed at the exile or annihilation of the others, the second was aimed at the suspension or annihilation of their otherness.
‘Non-places’ share some characteristics with our first category of ostensibly public but emphatically non-civil sites: they discourage the thought of ‘settling in’, making colonization or domestication of the space all but impossible. Unlike La Défense, however, that space whose sole destiny is to be passed through and left behind as quickly as possible, or ‘interdictory spaces’ whose main function consists in barring access and which are meant to be passed around rather than through, the non-places accept the inevitability of a protracted, sometimes very long sojourn of strangers, and so do all they can to make their presence ‘merely physical’ while socially little different, preferably indistinguishable altogether, from absence, to cancel, level up or make null and void the idiosyncratic subjectivities of their ‘passengers’. The temporary residents of non-places are likely to vary, each variety having its own habits and expectations; the trick is to make all that irrelevant for the duration of their stay. Whatever their other differences, they should follow the same patterns of behaviour hints: and clues triggering the uniform pattern of conduct should be legible to them all, regardless of the languages they prefer or are used to deploy in their daily endeavours. Whatever needs to be done and is done in ‘non-places’, everyone there should feel as if chez soi, while no one should behave as if truly at home. Non-place ‘is a space devoid of the symbolic expressions of identity, relations and history: examples include airports, motorways, anonymous hotel rooms, public transport... Never before in the history of the world have non-places occupied so much space.’ Non-places do not require a mastery of the sophisticated and hard-to-study art of civility, since they reduce behaviour in public to a few simple and easy-to-grasp precepts. Because of that simplification, they are not schools of civility either. And since these days they ‘occupy so much space’, since they colonize ever larger chunks of public space and refashion them in their own likeness, the occasions to learn the art of civility are ever fewer and further between.
With the art of negotiating common interests and shared destiny falling into disuse, seldom if ever practised, half-forgotten or never properly mastered, with the idea of ‘the common good’ (let alone ‘the good society’) branded suspect, threatening, nebulous or addle-brained, seeking security in a common identity rather than in an agreement on shared interests emerges as the the most sensible, nay most effective and profitable, way to proceed; but concerns with identity and its defence against pollution make the idea of common interests, and most notably negotiated common interests, all the more incredible and fanciful, and the ability and will to pursue them all the less likely to appear. As Sharon Zukin sums up the resulting predicament: ‘No one knows how to talk to anyone else’.
Efforts to keep the ‘other’, the different, the strange and the foreign at a distance, the decision to preclude the need for communication, negotiation and mutual commitment, is not the only conceivable, but the expectable response to the existential uncertainty rooted in the new fragility or fluidity of social bonds. That decision, to be sure, fits well with our contemporary obsessive concern with pollution and purification, with our tendency to identify danger to personal safety with the invasion of ‘foreign bodies’ and to identify safety unthreatened and secure with purity. The acutely apprehensive attention to the substances entering the body through mouth or nostrils, and to the foreigners leaking surreptitiously into the neighbourhood of the body, is accommodated side by side in the same cognitive frame. Both prompt a similar wish to ‘get it (them) out of my (our) system’. Such wishes converge, coalesce and condense in the politics of ethnic separation, and particularly of the defence against the influx of the ‘foreigners’.
‘Do not talk to strangers’ – once a warning given by worrying parents to their hapless children – has now become the strategic precept of adult normality. This precept recasts as a prudent rule the reality of a life in which strangers are such people with whom one refuses to talk. Governments impotent to strike at the roots of the existential insecurity and anxiety of their subjects are only too eager and happy to oblige.
More than thirty years ago (in his classic Bureaucratic Phenomenon) Michel Crozier identified domination (in all its varieties) with the closeness to the sources of uncertainty. His verdict still holds: people who manage to keep their own actions unbound, norm-free and so unpredictable, while normatively regulating (routinizing, and thereby rendering monotonous, repetitive and predictable) the actions of their protagonists, rule. People whose hands are untied rule over people with tied hands; the freedom of the first is the main cause of the unfreedom of the second – while the unfreedom of the second is the ultimate meaning of the freedom of the first. Nothing has changed in this respect with the passage from heavy to light modernity. But the frame has filled with a new content; more precisely, the pursuit of the ‘closeness to the source of uncertainty’ has narrowed down to, and focused on, one objective – instantaneity. People who move and act faster, who come nearest to the momentariness of movement, are now the people who rule. And it is the people who cannot move as quickly, and more conspicuously yet the category of people who cannot at will leave their place at all, who are ruled. Domination consists in one’s own capacity to escape, to disengage, to ‘be elsewhere’, and the right to decide the speed with which all that is done – while simultaneously stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to arrest or constrain their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battle of domination is waged between forces armed, respectively, with the weapons of acceleration and procrastination.
Bulkiness and size are turning from assets into liabilities. For capitalists who would rather exchange massive office buildings for hot-air balloon cabins, buoyancy is the most profitable and the most cherished of assets; and buoyancy can be best enhanced by throwing overboard every bit of non-vital load and leaving the non-indispensable members of the crew on the ground. One of the most cumbersome items of ballast which needs to be disposed of is the onerous task of management and supervision of a large staff – a task which has an irritating tendency to swell incessantly and to put on weight through the addition of ever new layers of commitments and obligations. If the ‘managerial science’ of heavy capitalism focused on keeping the ‘manpower’ in and forcing or bribing it to stay put and to work on schedule, the art of management in the era of light capitalism is concerned with letting ‘humanpower’ out and better still forcing it to go. Brief encounters replace lasting engagements. One does not plant a citrus-tree grove to squeeze a lemon. The managerial equivalent of liposuction has become the paramount stratagem of managerial art: slimming, downsizing, phasing out, closing down or selling out some units because they are not effective enough and some others because it is cheaper to let them fight for survival on their own than to undertake the burdensome, time-taxing managerial supervision, are this new art’s principal applications. Some observers have hastened to conclude that ‘bigger’ is no longer considered to be ‘more efficient’. In such generalized rendition, though, this conclusion is not correct. The downsizing obsession is, as it happens, an undetachable complement of the merger mania. The best players in the field are known to negotiate or enforce mergers in order to acquire more scope for downsizing operations, while the radical, ‘right to the bare bone’ ‘stripping of assets’ is widely accepted as the vital precondition for the success of the merger plans. Merger and downsizing are not at cross-purposes: on the contrary, they condition each other, support and reinforce. This only appears to be a paradox; the apparent contradiction dissolves once the ‘new and
‘Rational choice’ in the era of instantaneity means to pursue gratification while avoiding the consequences, and particularly the responsibilities which such consequences may imply. Durable traces of today’s gratification mortgage the chances of tomorrow’s gratifications. Duration changes from an asset into a liability; the same may be said about everything bulky, solid and heavy – everything that hinders and restricts the move. Giant industrial plants and corpulent bodies have had their day: once they bore witness to their owners’ power and might; now they presage defeat in the next round of acceleration and so signal impotence. Lean body and fitness to move, light dress and sneakers, cellular telephones (invented for the use of the nomad who needs to be ‘constantly in touch’), portable or disposable belongings – are the prime cultural tokens of the era of instantaneity. Weight and size, and above all the fat (literal or metaphorical) blamed for the expansion of both, share the fate of durability. They are the dangers one should beware of and fight against, and best of all steer clear of.
This is the point: ‘Progress’ stands not for any quality of history, but for the self-confidence of the present. The deepest, perhaps the sole meaning of progress is made up of two closely interrelated beliefs – that ‘time is on our side’, and that we are the ones who ‘make things happen’. The two beliefs live together and die together – and they go on living as long as the power to make things happen finds its daily corroboration in the deeds of people who hold them.
Modernity knows of no other life but ‘made’: the life of modern men and women is a task, not a given, and a task as yet uncompleted and relentlessly calling for more care and new effort. If anything, the human condition in the stage of ‘fluid’ modernity or ‘light’ capitalism has made that modality of life yet more salient: progress is no longer a temporary measure, an interim matter, leading eventually (and soon) to a state of perfection (that is a state in which whatever had to be done would have been done and no other change would be called for), but a perpetual and perhaps never-ending challenge and necessity, the very meaning of ‘staying alive and well’. If, however, the idea of progress in its present incarnation looks so unfamiliar that one wonders whether it is still with us, it is because progress, like so many other parameters of modern life, has now been ‘individualized’; more to the point – deregulated and privatized. It is now deregulated – since the offers to ‘upgrade’ present realities are many and diverse and since the question whether a particular novelty indeed means an improvement has been left to free contest before and after its introduction and bound to remain contentious even after the choice has been made. And it is privatized since the matter of improvement is no longer a collective but an individual enterprise: it is individual men and women on their own who are expected to use, individually, their own wits, resources and industry to lift themselves to a more satisfactory condition and leave behind whatever aspect of their present condition they may resent.
For whichever of its many virtues work had been elevated to the rank of the foremost value of modern times, its wondrous, nay magical, ability to give shape to the formless and duration to the transient figured prominently among them. Thanks to that ability, work could be justly assigned a major role, even the decisive one, in the modern ambition to subdue, harness and colonize the future in order to replace chaos with order and contingency with a predictable (and so controllable) sequence of events. Work was assigned many virtues and beneficial effects, like, for instance, the increase of wealth and the elimination of misery; but underlying every merit assigned it was its assumed contribution to that order-making, to the historic act of putting the human species in charge of its own destiny. ‘Work’ so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And ‘work’ so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that natural condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity; ranking men and women according to the assumed value of the contribution their work made to the species-wide endeavour; and assigning to work the prime place among human activities, leading to moral self-improvement and to the rise of the overall ethical standards of society.
Work has changed its character. More often than not, it is a one-off act: a ploy of a bricoleur, a trickster, aimed at what is at hand and inspired and constrained by what is at hand, more shaped than shaping, more the outcome of chasing a chance than the product of planning and design. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the famed cyber-mole who knew how to move around seeking an electrical socket to plug into in order to replenish the energy used up in moving around in search of an electrical socket to plug into in order to replenish the energy... Perhaps the term ‘tinkering’ would be more apt to grasp the changed nature of work cut out from the grand design of humankind’s universally shared mission and no less grandiose design of a life-long vocation. Stripped of its eschatological trappings and cut off from its metaphysical roots, work has lost the centrality which it was assigned in the galaxy of values dominant in the era of solid modernity and heavy capitalism. Work can no longer offer the secure axis around which to wrap and fix self-definitions, identities and life-projects. Neither can it be easily conceived of as the ethical foundation of society, or as the ethical axis of individual life. Instead, work has acquired – alongside other life activities – a mainly aesthetic significance. It is expected to be gratifying by and in itself, rather than be measured by the genuine or putative effects it brings to one’s brothers and sisters in humanity or to the might of the nation and country, let alone the bliss of future generations. Only a few people – and then only seldom – can claim privilege, prestige or honour, pointing to the importance and common benefit of the work they perform. Hardly ever is work expected to ‘ennoble’ its performers, to make them ‘better human beings’, and rarely is it admired and praised for that reason. It is instead measured and evaluated by its capacity to be entertaining and amusing, satisfying not so much the ethical, Promethean vocation of the producer and creator as the aesthetical needs and desires of the consumer, the seeker of sensations and collector of experiences.
According to the latest calculation, a young American with a moderate level of education expects to change jobs at least eleven times during his or her working life – and the pace and frequency of change are almost certain to go on growing before the working life of the present generation is over. ‘Flexibility’ is the slogan of the day, and when applied to the labour market it augurs an end to the ‘job as we know it’, announcing instead the advent of work on short-term contracts, rolling contracts or no contracts, positions with no in-built security but with the ‘until further notice’ clause. Working life is saturated with uncertainty.
The place of employment feels like a camping site which one visits for just a few days, and may leave at any moment if the comforts on offer are not delivered or found unsatisfactory when delivered – rather than like a shared domicile where one is inclined to take trouble and patiently work out the acceptable rules of cohabitation. Mark Granovetter suggested that ours is the time of ‘weak ties’, while Sennett proposes that ‘fleeting forms of association are more useful to people than long-term connections’. The present-day ‘liquefied’, ‘flowing’, dispersed, scattered and deregulated version of modernity may not portend divorce and the final break of communication, but it does augur the advent of light, free-floating capitalism, marked by the disengagement and loosening of ties linking capital and labour. One may say that this fateful departure replicates the passage from marriage to ‘living together’ with all its corollary attitudes and strategic consequences, including the assumption of the temporariness of cohabitation and of the possibility that the association may be broken at any moment and for any reason, once the need or desire dries out.
On the top of the power pyramid of the light capitalism, circulate those for whom space matters little if at all – those who are out of place in any place they may be physically present. They are as light and volatile as the new capitalist economy which gave them birth and endowed them with power. As Jacques Attali describes them: ‘They do not own factories, lands, nor occupy administrative positions. Their wealth comes from a portable asset: their knowledge of the laws of the labyrinth.’ They ‘love to create, play and be on the move’. They live in a society ‘of volatile values, carefree about the future, egoistic and hedonistic’. They ‘take the novelty as good tidings, precariousness as value, instability as imperative, hybridity as richness’. Though in varying degrees, they all master the art of ‘labyrynthine living’: acceptance of disorientation, readiness to live outside space and time, with vertigo and dizziness, with no inkling of the direction or the duration of travel they embark on.
‘To procrastinate’ means not to take things as they come, not to act according to a natural succession of things. Contrary to an impression made common in the modern era, procrastination is not a matter of sloth, indolence, quiescence or lassitude; it is an active stance, an attempt to assume control over the sequence of events and make that sequence different from what it would be were one to stay docile and unresisting, To procrastinate is to manipulate the possibilities of the presence of a thing by putting off, delaying and postponing its becoming present, keeping it at a distance and deferring its immediacy.
To put it in a nutshell: procrastination derived its modern meaning from time lived as a pilgrimage, as a movement coming closer to a target. In such time, each present is evaluated by something that comes after. Whatever value this present here and now may possess, it is but a premonitory signal of a higher value to come. The use – the task – of the present is to bring one closer to that higher value. By itself, the present time is meaningless and valueless. It is for that reason flawed, deficient and incomplete. The meaning of the present lies ahead; what is at hand is evaluated and given sense by the noch-nicht-geworden, by what does not yet exist.
The French theorists speak of précarité, the German of Unsicherheit and Risikogesellschaft, the Italians of incertezza and the English of insecurity – but all of them have in mind the same aspect of the human predicament, experienced in various forms and under different names all over the globe, but felt to be especially unnerving and depressing in the highly developed and affluent part of the planet – for the reason of being new and in many ways unprecedented. The phenomenon which all these concepts try to grasp and articulate is the combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability) and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possessions, neighbourhood, community).
In the absence of long-term security, ‘instant gratification’ looks enticingly like a reasonable strategy. Whatever life may offer, let it be offered hic et nunc – right away. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? Delay of satisfaction has lost its allure. It is, after all, highly uncertain whether the labour and effort invested today will count as assets as long as it takes to reach reward. It is far from certain, moreover, that the prizes which look attractive today will still be desirable when they at long last come. We all learn from bitter experience that in no time assets may become liabilities and glittering prizes may turn into badges of shame. Fashions come and go with mind-boggling speed, all objects of desire become obsolete, off-putting and even distasteful before they have time to be fully enjoyed.
Precarious economic and social conditions train men and women (or make them learn the hard way) to perceive the world as a container full of disposable objects, objects for one-off use; the whole world – including other human beings. In addition, the world seems to consist of ‘black boxes’, hermetically sealed, never to be opened by the users, tinkered with, let alone repaired once they go bust. Today’s car mechanics are not trained in repairing broken or damaged engines, only in easing out and throwing away the used-up or faulty parts and replacing them with other ready-made and sealed parts picked from the warehouse shelves. Of the inner structure of the ‘spare parts’ (an expression that tells it all), of the mysterious ways in which they work, they have little or no inkling; they do not consider such understanding and the skills which accompany it to be their responsibility or to lie within their field of competence. As in the garage, so it is in life outside: every ‘part’ is ‘spare’ and replaceable, and had better be replaceable. Why would one waste time on labour-consuming repairs, if it takes but a few moments to dump the damaged part and put another in its place?
Bonds and partnerships tend to be viewed and treated as things meant to be consumed, not produced; they are subject to the same criteria of evaluation as all other objects of consumption. In the consumer market, the ostensibly durable products are as a rule offered for a ‘trial period’; return of money is promised if the purchaser is less than fully satisfied. If the partner in partnership is ‘conceptualized’ in such terms, then it is no longer the task of both partners to ‘make the relationship work’ – to see it work through thick and thin, ‘for richer for poorer’, in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one’s own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. It is instead a matter of obtaining satisfaction from a ready-to-consume product; if the pleasure derived is not up to the standard promised and expected, or if the novelty wears off together with the joy, one can sue for divorce, quoting consumer rights and the Trade Descriptions Act. One can think of no reason to stick to an inferior or aged pro-duct rather than look for a ‘new and improved’ one in the shops. What follows is that the assumed temporariness of partnerships tends to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the human bond, like all other consumer objects, is not something to be worked out through protracted effort and occasional sacrifice, but something which one expects to bring satisfaction right away, instantaneously, at the moment of purchase – and something that one rejects if it does not satisfy, something to be kept and used only as long as (and no longer than) it continues to gratify – then there is not much point in ‘throwing good money after bad’, in trying hard and harder still, let alone in suffering discomfort and unease in order to save the partnership.
Sociologically speaking, communitarianism is an all-too-expectable reaction to the accelerating ‘liquefaction’ of modern life, a reaction first and foremost to the one aspect of life felt perhaps as the most vexing and annoying among its numerous painful consequences – the deepening imbalance between individual freedom and security. Supplies of security provisions shrink fast, while the volume of individual responsibilities (assigned if not exercised in practice) grows on a scale unprecedented for the post-war generations. A most salient aspect of the vanishing act performed by old securities is the new fragility of human bonds. The brittleness and transience of bonds may be an unavoidable price for individuals’ right to pursue their individual goals, and yet it cannot but be, simultaneously, a most formidable obstacle to pursue them effectively – and to the courage needed to pursue them.
The main appeal of communitarianism is the promise of a safe haven, the dream destination for sailors lost in a turbulent sea of constant, unpredictable and confusing change.
It was argued well before the recent rise of communitarianism that there was a precious gem inside the ugly and prickly carapace of modern nation-building. Isaiah Berlin suggested that there are human and ethically praiseworthy sides to the modern ‘homeland’ apart from its cruel and potentially gory side. Fairly popular is the distinction made between patriotism and nationalism. More often than not, the patriotism of that opposition is the ‘marked’ member of the couple, the unsavoury realities of nationalism being cast as the ‘unmarked’ member: patriotism, more postulated than empirically given, is what nationalism (if tamed, civilized and ethically ennobled) could be but is not. Patriotism is described through the negation of the most disliked and shameful traits of known nationalisms. Leszek Kolakowski suggests that, while the nationalist wants to assert the tribal existence through aggression and hatred of others, believes that all the mishaps of his own nation are the outcome of a strangers’ plot and holds a grudge against all other nations for failing to admire properly and otherwise give its due to his own tribe, the patriot is marked by ‘benevolent tolerance of cultural variety and particularly of ethnic and religious minorities’, as well as by his readiness to tell his own nation things it would not savour or enjoy hearing. Though this distinction is fine and morally and intellectually laudable, its value is somewhat weakened by the fact that what is opposed here is not so much two options equally likely to be embraced, as a noble idea and an ignoble reality. Most people who wished their appointed brethren to be patriots would in all likelihood decry the features ascribed here to the patriotic stance as evidence of two-facedness, national betrayal or worse. Such features - tolerance of difference, hospitality to minorities and courage to tell the truth, however unpleasant - are most widespread in the lands where ‘patriotism’ is not a ‘problem’; in societies secure enough in their republican citizenship not to worry about patriotism as a problem, let alone to view it as an urgent task.
We may say that, in a stark opposition to either the patriotic or the nationalistic faith, the most promising kind of unity is one which is achieved, and achieved daily anew, by confrontation, debate, negotiation and compromise between values, preferences and chosen ways of life and self-identifications of many and different, but always self-determining, members of the polis. This is, essentially, the republican model of unity, of an emergent unity which is a joint achievement of the agents engaged in self-identification pursuits, a unity which is an outcome, not an a priori given condition, of shared life, a unity put together through negotiation and reconciliation, not the denial, stifling or smothering out of differences. This, I wish to propose, is the sole variant of unity (the only formula of togetherness) which the conditions of liquid modernity render compatible, plausible and realistic.
In the long and inconclusive search for the right balance between freedom and security, communitarianism stood fast on the side of the latter. It also accepted that the two cherished human values are at odds and cross-purposes, that one cannot have more of one without surrendering a bit, perhaps even a large chunk, of another. One possibility which the communitarians will not admit is that broadening and entrenching human freedoms may add to the sum total of human security, that freedom and security may grow together, let alone that each may grow only if growing together with the other.
After the Nation-tate
Under the new conditions little can be gained by the nation from its close links with the state. The state may not expect much from the mobilizing potential of the nation which it needs less and less as the mass conscript armies held together by the feverishly beefed-up patriotic frenzy are replaced by the elitist and coldly professional high-tech units, while the wealth of the country is measured not so much by the quality, quantity and morale of its labour force, as by the country’s attractiveness to coolly mercenary forces of global capital.
In a long series of challenging studies, René Girard developed a comprehensive theory of the role of violence in the birth and perseverance of community. A violent urge is always seething just under the calm surface of peaceful and friendly co-operation; it needs to be channelled beyond the boundaries of community to cut off the communal island of tranquillity, where violence is prohibited. Violence, which would otherwise call the bluff of communal unity, is thereby recycled into the weapon of communal defence. In this recycled form it is indispensable; it needs to be restaged ever again in the form of a sacrificial rite, for which a surrogate victim is selected according to rules that are hardly ever explicit, yet nevertheless strict.
What unites the numerous forms of ritualistic sacrifice is its purpose of keeping alive the memory of the communal unity and its precariousness. But to perform this role the ‘surrogate victim’, the object sacrificed at the altar of communal unity, must be properly selected – and the rules of selection are as demanding as they are precise. To be suitable for the sacrifice, the potential object ‘must bear a sharp resemblance to the human categories excluded from the ranks of the “sacrificeable” ‘ (that is, the humans assumed to be the ‘insiders of the community’) ‘while still maintaining a degree of difference that forbids all possible confusion’. The candidates must be outside, but not too far; similar to ‘us rightful community members’ yet unmistakably different. The act of sacrificing these objects is meant, after all, to draw tight unsurpassable boundaries between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the community.
Girard’s theory goes a long way towards making sense of the violence that is profuse and rampant at the frayed frontiers of communities, particularly communities whose identities are uncertain and contested, or, more to the point, of the common use of violence as the boundary-drawing device when the boundaries are absent, porous or blurred.
On Writing; On Writing Sociology
It is not true, the novelist and the philosopher suggest in unison, that great art has no homeland – on the contrary, art, like the artists, may have many homelands, and most certainly has more than one. Rather than homelessness, the trick is to be at home in many homes, but to be in each inside and outside at the same time, to combine intimacy with the critical look of an outsider, involvement with detachment – a trick which sedentary people are unlikely to learn. Learning the trick is the chance of the exile: technically an exile – one that is in, but not of the place.
To quote from Le Délabrement de l’Occident of Cornelius Castoriadis, An autonomous society, a truly democratic society, is a society which questions everything that is pre-given and by the same token liberates the creation of new meanings. In such a society, all individuals are free to create for their lives the meanings they will (and can). Society is truly autonomous once it ‘knows, must know, that there are no “assured” meanings, that it lives on the surface of chaos, that it itself is a chaos seeking a form, but a form that is never fixed once for all’.
Living among a multitude of competing values, norms and life-styles, without a firm and reliable guarantee of being in the right, is hazardous and commands a high psychological price. No wonder that the attraction of the second response, of hiding from the requisites of responsible choice, gathers in strength. As Julia Kristeva puts it (in Nations without Nationalism), ‘It is a rare person who does not invoke a primal shelter to compensate for personal disarray.’ And we all, to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes more and sometimes less, find ourselves in that state of ‘personal disarray’. Time and again we dream of a ‘great simplification’; unprompted, we engage in regressive fantasies of which the images of the prenatal womb and the walled-up home are prime inspirations. The search for a primal shelter is ‘the other’ of responsibility, just like deviance and rebellion were ‘the other’ of conformity. The yearning for a primal shelter has come these days to replace rebellion, which has now ceased to be a sensible option.