Conference day two – first reflections

Day 2 was a real roller coaster for me and my head is still buzzing. I thought I would get some impressions down while they are still fresh in my mind less than 24 hours after the end of a truly inspiring conference. To begin at the end, the first of the final two sessions was a panel of Zygmunt’s old colleagues (including Janet Wolff who also taught me in the late 70s along with Zygmunt). Each told personal stories of knowing and working with Zygmunt that were especially characteristic and memorable. I must admit one of the reactions I had to the panellists’ stories was of unashamed jealously! How amazing to be so intimately a part of his life and part of his story and to have had such direct influence on their own work, ideas and career trajectories. I would like to have heard some of the recollections of his students too but there is a limit to what can be done at one event. Perhaps there will be other opportunities to share our stories. I found Zygmunt’s presentation that followed the panel session especially relevant and inspiring, to which I will return.

Unfortunately I had to miss the 9.00 sessions but the first I went to was interesting and not a little unsettling. Two papers looked at Zygmunt’s intellectual development, from humanist marxian to postmodern sceptic and on to a partial retrieval of the marxian diagnosis but without the hope of the progressive prognosis – a sort of sceptical post marxist. A companion paper claimed that Zygmunt’s three year not altogether happy and successful experience in Israel after leaving Poland rather hurriedly could account for important characteristics of his sociological orientation. This all felt rather strange to me knowing Zygmunt was in the room. He was given the opportunity to respond which he accepted. He said that the subject of these sorts of evaluations was probably the last person to say how accurate they are so he left that to the speakers and others to judge. On the other hand he took it as a compliment that the first speaker should summarise his development in terms of the embodiment of a classic Hegelian triad!

The other two papers that made up the session commented on the transition of Poland from a Marxist society to part of the ‘planetary frontier land’ in the global neoliberal project. From the start, in Poland, it was an elite project that did not include or engage the public. The guiding Gods for the transition were Hayek and Friedman. The heroes are Thatcher and Regan. Free markets are the answer to everything and if they seem to fail it is because the markets are as yet insufficiently free. There is no effective left wing discourse. Neoliberal economic theory is objective and not up for discussion. There is no society. Rights have pretty well been abolished. The homeless cannot vote. The collateral victims of  the neoliberal consumer society have only themselves to blame. Their failure is down to their own inadequacies. Warsaw has 300 gated communities and more are planned and being built. In the space of 20 years Poland has changed from being one of the most equal societies in terms of distribution of wealth to one of the world’s most unequal on a par with Mexico. The speakers’ message – this is coming your way so look out for and fight for your rights. Poland is in the vanguard of the project to demobilise society and shows us the future. We laughed (somewhat nervously) when Thatcher said ‘there is no such thing as society’ but as we know from W. I. Thomas (to paraphrase) “if powerful alliances between politicians and corporations define something as real then it is real in its consequences”.

George Ritzer’s presentation came as a welcome relief. He related his intellectual development to that of Zygmunt but with Zygmunt always, humiliatingly,  getting there 2 or 3 years before George! The presentation was informative but also very amusing. Given the comments and discussion about the commodification and MacDonalidisation of academic life, higher education, publishing and conferences I hope I will be forgiven for saying George Ritzer is very good value for money! I especially like George’s insistence that all good sociology comes from passion and anger. Rather like Zygmunt, he often has to put up with the charge that there is no hope in his sociology. His answer, that he hopes he is wrong, echoes what I have heard Zygmunt say on a number of occasions. I also liked his tongue in cheek apology that, despite recognising the strictures(!) of post-modernism, he always seems to come up with something that looks a bit like a meta-narrative!

Which brings me to the final address from Zygmunt Sociology – whence and whither.  He started off by telling us that he was rather ambivalent about getting involved, at Mark Davis’s suggestion, in the setting up of a Bauman Institute. However, this was a couple of years ago and on hearing the launch would be at the end of 2010 and consulting a web site called the Clock of Death he was assured, on the basis of the data he entered, he would no longer be around by then, and so agreed. So much for science.

I am currently writing a paper about the normative basis of a critical sociology in the conditions of liquid modernity. I have no publisher in mind yet and may even publish it in some form here if Mark agrees. The question is where do we go if, as Zygmunt describes, the sort of scientific pretensions of orthodox sociology are now seen as untenable, in fact just a fantasy, and we cannot provide the scientific basis for prediction and social control asked for by the State and policy makers? In fact, as a Government Minister said at a British Sociological Association event about climate change last February, if sociology cannot demonstrate its applicability to the government’s policy agenda, then it is merely polemical and ‘of no use to policy’. As one of the sociologists, Tim Jackson, remarked at the time, it may still be of some use to humanity. Zygmunt sees sociology’s role today, in conditions of liquid modernity,  as supporting civic society and servicing a continuous dialogue, a dialogue with no predetermined outcome, that clarifies issues and accommodates multiple voices. Our job is to “defamiliarise the familiar and make the familiar unfamilar”, to make visible the invisible links and connections that lie behind the life world and to keep the conversation going. The importance of this task cannot be exaggerated. It is worth every ounce of our energy and effort. “We cannot stay neutral or indifferent when the future of humanity is at stake”. The journey he is recommending for us will be difficult and he wished us bon voyage. But much too soon for good bye.  I, for one, went home even more determined to take up the challenge.