Wednesday, January 28, 2009


A couple of readers have expressed interest in reading more by Zygmunt Bauman.

Bauman's most important book, the one that introduced themes he has since explored in many that followed, is Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman argues that the Holocaust was a by-product of certain features of modernity: the extreme specialisation, the breaking down of work into small narrowly defined tasks whose relation to the whole is not evident, the incorporation of these tasks into highly hierarchical structures (so that part of doing a good job is not simply performing the task but facilitating the smooth transmission of commands and responses up and down the hierarchy) - all these appear to be necessary to a particular kind of rationality, that which enables a society to provide goods and services for very large numbers of people and to direct the labour of these people effectively.

These features, however, are precisely those which made possible the abdication of personal responsibility documented in Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority. Milgram's series of experiments is probably best known for the brute fact that subjects, told to administer a test and to punish wrong answers with what they were told were electric shocks, in a large number of cases proceeded to administer shocks which would, if genuine, have been fatal; for Bauman's purposes, however, the point of interest is the fact that results varied dramatically depending on the distribution of authority, the visibility of resistance to authority. (If there were two 'scientists' administering the experiment, and they appeared to be in disagreement over whether the shocks could continue, many more subjects refused to go on; if two subjects were in the same room and one resisted, the second was likelier to do so; and so on.)

When I was in school the Holocaust was THE event in modern history that everyone was expected to study - but as far as I can remember no attention was paid to the machinery which makes such an event possible, or how one might put safeguards against abuse into the institutional structures of one's own society. I'm afraid no school or university I ever attended showed any awareness of the moral implications of its bureaucratic structures; I've never dealt with a government agency anywhere that showed any such awareness; never dealt with any kind of health facility that showed any such awareness. So, yes, a book everyone should read.

The problem with being an obsessive reader is that one's response to reading a book is likely to be to read more books. If one reads Modernity and the Holocaust, one's immediate response is to rush out and pick up Liquid Modernity, Modernity and Ambivalence, Life in Fragments, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (I could easily go on, but you get the picture). It would probably be better to rush out and join one's local LETS (Local Exchange Trading System), for example, but old habits are hard to break.

Madeleine Bunting's profile of Bauman in the Guardian in April 2003 was the piece that introduced me to his work, here.

The Guardian has also published a couple of interviews of ZB:

April 2007 (Aida Edemariam)
November 2005 (Stuart Jeffries)


Rachel said...

I was lucky enough to study public policy in a university with a course on 'power and bureaucracy', with Milgram and Bauman as core curriculum; I thought it was a wonderful thing to try to teach to aspiring civil servants - the dangers inherent in modern bureaucracy.

dave said...

Rachel - I think it would be a wonderful thing to try to teach aspiring citizens.

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries approach power in a related way - I wrote about his 1968 film High School from a related stance here.

Glen S. McGhee said...

I just spent 2 weeks with Bauman, and really appreciate the well-done summary posted here. It reminds me of what I liked about the book. And why it was so unsettling regarding our modern bureaucratic culture.

But I have to admit -- even though few recognize that Marx's first encounter with alienation was in the div of labour context -- I had not given a thought to it being a mechanism of moral displacement, or, the "social production of moral indifference."

It is, of course, just a short jump to the kinds of groupthink that threaten the global financial system.

And this is where Bauman can be extended, I think: what he calls "moral" is really also cognitive, and the creation of the kinds of moral deficits by effective bureaucracies that he describes, for example, the upwards displacement through a hierarchical chain of command, and the deficiencies that accumulate at its base, also describes the accumulation of cognitive deficits as well. The implications of this should be obvious.

But Bauman misses a chance on page 22 of having Max Weber blow his horn for one of Bauman's key concepts: the required moral neutrality of the small cog in the large bureaucratic machine -- Viz. "Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces" (Gerth/Mills 95). Bold not quoted by Bauman! Wow! Without this moral indifference, "the whole f****** apparatus would fall to pieces." Indeed!

Yes, everyone should read Bauman, especially if they are interested in bureaucratic theory (see link).

Bauman isn't interested in power, as say Foucault is. He wants to understand moral collapse, and genocide. He is somewhat interested in taken-for-grantedness, and social institutions, but not power.

If there is room, I wanted to post some Norbert Elias, whom Bauman uses, for Rachel:
More and more groups, and with them more and more individuals, tend to become dependent on each other for their security and the satisfaction of their needs in ways which, for the most part, surpass the comprehension of those involved.

It is as if first thousands, then millions, then more and more millions walked through this world with their hands and feet chained together by invisible ties. No one is in charge. No one stands outside. Some want it this way, others that. They fall upon each other and, vanquishing or defeated, still remain chained to each other.

No one can regulate the movements of the whole unless a great part of them are able to understand -- to see, as it were, from outside -- the whole patterns they form together. And they are not able to visualize themselves as part of these larger patterns because, being hemmed in and moved uncomprehendingly hither and thither in ways which none of them intended, they cannot help being preoccupied with the urgent, narrow and parochial problems which each of them has to face.

--- Norbert Elias, British Journal of Sociology, 1956.