Saturday, 18 February 2012

Collateral Damage

Zygmunt Bauman’s (2011) Collateral Damage has its origins in a number of his recent lectures, hence the issues raised in the book appear as a cross-section of his recent preoccupations: the overarching theme of the precariousness of the liquid modern condition, the rise of the underclass, i.e. large numbers (though, as Bauman insists, not groups) of people excluded from society and societal discourse, and the collapse of the modern beliefs in certainty (of pretty much anything). That is not to say that the book is a retread of earlier work: as almost always in his recent work, there are fresh insights and novel observations to be found on almost every page.

The discovery that a new Bauman book is thought-provoking and fun to read is hardly an astonishing finding, and as such does not really merit a post in a blog updated as infrequently as this one is. What prompts this post, then, is the realization that some of Bauman’s points might be more than usually relevant for org.theory musings, and some even to discussions of utopia that have been fascinating me for a while now.

The obvious link is Bauman’s discussion of the rise of managerialism (which he locates as stemming from the trend in 1930s when company owners started hiring managers to supervise line workers and machine operators. Bauman’s source on this is James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution which I, regrettably, have not yet read (though I plan to remedy this failing shortly). My sources suggest that the book was written in early 1940s rather than the late 1930s Bauman suggests, but that might be a difference between the dates of composition and publication. Of the accounts I am familiar with, Shenhav’s (1999) is particularly interesting (and strengthens Bauman’s musings about managerialism): the author suggests that early managers were recruited from among the engineers, and that managerial techniques often stem from the engineering techniques used to control machines the proto-managers were used to dealing with. This is a fairly minor point, as Bauman’s focus lies in the present world rather than in the 1930s: we are now witnessing the second managerial revolutions, wherein managers divest themselves from the last vestiges of responsibility: for employees as well as to shareholders. I am not entirely sure if I share Bauman’s appraisal of the inevitability of the process: in my ever-hopeful perspective I see this (and the surrounding social bewilderment and protests) as a possible sign of the managerial order overreaching itself, leading to the possibility of an actual revolution (rather than the “revolutionary” entrenchment Bauman discerns).

Also of note is the tone evident throughout the book: that of resigned exasperation combined with just a hint of optimism. For a long time now, Bauman has worked diligently to trace the roots of the outrages and suffering in the present world to the solutions of problems encountered in times past. Most of the time, this involves showing how liquid modern (postmodern, in earlier writings) fears and injustices can be linked to successful, in their own way, answers to problems encountered in the modern age; sometimes, Bauman ventures further into history to uncover the sources of modern anxieties. Thus, the all-pervading fear of strangers (of any kind) is presented as stemming from all-to-successful attempt at building (or, at the very least, fetishizing) a notion of community. For Bauman, our present circumstances are almost invariably the result of past successes rather than past failures, the problem being that all these successes cause involve the eponymous collateral damage as an inherent part of their implementation, usually unforeseen or at least unanticipated. The implication, even if Bauman is careful never to make actual predictions, is clear: we will solve the problems that plague us today. But there will be a steep price to pay, and we do not begin to imagine what it is. Whether to receive this as an optimistic or a resigned claim remains at the discretion of the reader, but some notes of optimism are unmistakeable: Bauman sees sociology (his lifelong vocation) as stemming from the desire to make the world a better place, and presents its future as “cultural politics in the service of human freedom” (Bauman 2011: 170).

Which brings me to the notion of utopia. Where Jameson (2005) seems to see utopia in every dream of a better future, Bauman emphatically insists on a hopeful future already burdened with sorrows and problems not yet imagined. Our present despairs will, he insists, be alleviated, but will not leave any vacuum behind: while we can only barely intimate the fears of the future, we can confidently bet on their presence. Is this a thoroughly anti-utopian vision? Or just a vision of utopia(s) imagined in human terms?

Bauman, Zygmunt (2011). Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Jameson, Frederic (2005). Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London, Verso.
Shenhav, Yehouda (1999). Manufacturing Rationality. Oxford, Oxford University Press.