Review of ‘Living on Borrowed Time’ by Zygmunt Bauman

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person looking forward to Zygmunt Bauman’s reading of the financial crisis. I imagined that such an analysis might represent the culmination of his work on liquid modernity, decisively unpicking the antinomies which led the global economy into its precipitous collapse and signposting potential pathways out of it. Therefore it was a little disappointing when Bauman’s first treatment of the crisis didn’t come in the form of a monograph. Living on Borrowed Time consists of a series of dialogues between Zygmunt Bauman and Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo. These cover an eclectic mix of topics ranging from genocide and biotechnology to love and utopia.

Bauman offers his analysis of the ‘credit crunch’ in the first dialogue. Drawing on Rosa Luxemburg’s account of capitalist imperialism as involving a unceasing search for new lands to exploit, Bauman suggests that the debt-financed consumer boom in western societies represented the colonisation of our intimate hopes and desires. As such he argues that, far from being any end to capitalism, the recent crisis merely represents “the exhaustion of the latest grazing pasture”. It is not an outcome of the banks’ failure but a fully predictable consequence of their drive to engender a pervasive and ongoing indebtedness across the populace.

Central to this process was the introduction of the credit card which normalised the continuing servicing of debts rather than the expectation of their prompt repayment and, as such, altered our existential orientation towards the future. As with much of his recent work, Bauman is offering little which is analytically new here but is rather thematizing generally familiar social ideas in his own moral philosophical style. In doing so he offers an evocative portrayal of the ethical limitations of consumer capitalism:

“Today, in a setting successfully transformed form one of a society of producers (profits made mostly from the exploitation of hired labour) into one of a society of consumers (profits made mostly from the exploitation of consumerist desires), the ruling business philosophy insists that the purpose of business is to prevent needs from being satisfied and to evoke, induce, conjure and beef up more needs clamouring for satisfaction and more potential customers prompted into action by such needs.”

Another highlight of the book is his compelling analysis which situates the 21st century national security state in terms of the collapse of the post-war welfare settlement. He argues that whereas the state once grounded its legitimacy on the alleviation of “market-produced insecurity”, it now seizes upon personal security as a basis for legitimation. However unlike the insecurity produced by the market the existential dimensions of the ‘terrorist threat’ must be “artificially beefed up, or at least highly dramatized, to inspire sufficient ‘official fear’ and at the same time overshadow and relegate to a secondary position the economically generated insecurity about which the state administration can and intends to do nothing”. The effect of this ‘beefing up’ is that the non-materialization of threats can be presented as a “result of the vigilance, care and goodwill of state organ”. Bauman offers a potent image of western societies cycling into fear and despair, as every non-materialized threat serves to affirm the underlying fears of the populace and the illiberal measures taken by the state to counteract these ‘threats’.

Overall though the book seems to lack coherence. It is difficult to see how the ‘conversations’ fit together as a whole beyond the slightly vacuous claim in the blurb that they cover the ‘pressing moral and political issues of our time’. Similarly it is often hard to follow the  thread within particular conversations. The responsibility for this deficiency rests with Bauman’s interlocutor who often fails to pose her questions clearly and, at times, exhibits an intellectual enthusiasm for the exchange which detracts from its clarity. I don’t think she can be blamed for this, as I imagine I’d probably react quite similarly to the opportunity of an extended dialogue with Bauman. Nonetheless it does detract from a book which, though unlikely to persuade Bauman’s detractors of the value of his recent work, offers enough periodic insight so as to outweigh its deficiencies.

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1 reply »

  1. I think an observation by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism, relates to you review rather nicely, that the primary forms of social control under current capitalism are indebtedness and fear. You and your readers may be interested in the forthcoming conference for the launch of the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds – web site and details Before the end of July a Bauman Institute community section in the web site will be launched which interested individuals can join and participate in.

    Incidentally the Website field in this comment form seems to only accept a limited number of characters, too few for me to add my Uni staff page.

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