I have just received a copy of Zygmunt’s 2008 book ‘Does ethics have a chance in world of consumers?’ The image on the cover is quite optimistic I think as it is an oyster shell with a pearl in it. Does the grit of a consumer life produce a pearl of wisdom perhaps? Chapter 4 of the book is titled ‘Hurried Life, or Liquid Modern Challenges to Education’. I will be reading this chapter first given my position and interest in education. Several years ago on some anniversary of other, Zygmunt gave a talk to the assembled alumni of the Leeds University Sociology Department on liquid education. For many of us this was a bittersweet day and brought back many happy memories of our time at Leeds with Zygmunt as our professor. These where the days when you had one professor as, if you were lucky as we were, the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ centre of your academic universe. Zygmunt allowed us to record his talk and I still have the audio files somewhere.
I had a quick look at the opening pages of chapter 4 in bed this morning before the alarm went off. One of Zygmunt’s oft made observations is that the old deferred gratification ethos of early production has given way to an ethos of immediate gratification. Arguably this has come about as the treadmill of production has been perfected and so the emphasis turns to the development of a treadmill of consumption. This was fuelled by Keynesian economic policy at an earlier stage and by readily available almost unregulated credit more recently. One of the things I have been thinking about recently, perhaps a sign of getting older, is to what extent we can see the project of life is, basically, to repress knowledge and thoughts of inevitable death and oblivion. An excercise in denial. It seems to me that the turn to immediate gratification, the new consumerism and the continuous project to define oneself in terms of symbolic and material goods and a life of action is in part a response to secularisation and the loss of the ultimate reward for deferred gratification and denial of immediate pleasure, the life hereafter and everlasting. Given this thought, maybe a return to religion for some people is a way of rejecting and escaping from the treadmill of consumption. It gives a self-justification and a publicly deployable rationale for not obeying the demands of consumerism. Another escape route is via environmentalism. There may yet be others. Maybe there is an emerging counter ethic secreted by the pockets of resistance to the treadmill of consumption. I’ll ask my friends who are currently flirting with radical ecological ideas and Buddhism. I think they are just looking for excuses for not being successful consumers.