TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Zygmunt Bauman, the Left, and Modernity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Monika Lemke looks at Zygmunt Bauman’s “The Left as the Counter-Culture of Modernity” from Telos 70 (Winter 1986).

Premised on the Left’s fundamental inability to dissociate itself from the ideals of the bourgeois revolution, Zygmunt Bauman’s “The Left as the Counter-Culture of Modernity” introduces the notion of reconstituting “the Left as the counter-culture of modernism,” rather than as the “counter-culture of capitalism.” Bauman makes the case for this repositioning because, in his view, there is no historical agent to carry out an anti-capitalist program. However, by continuing to defend and maintain the Left’s core values of individual autonomy and political democracy, Bauman believes that the Left can identify the barriers preventing their realization in the present neoliberal paradigm. Bauman recounts the Left’s courtship with various strategies, namely, the heterodox critique of capitalist practice and professed affinity with the industrial working class, and the recent flirtation with postmodern theory. By examining each as it addresses the present historical paradigm, he emphasizes the need to rehabilitate the values of the Leftist program and search for alternative strategies to realize them.

Bauman’s survey of leftist strategy begins from a position of agreement between the Left’s values and the capitalist passwords of “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.” The Left, having taken capitalism at its word, and with slight variation in emphasis, treated le bourgeois as the author of a worthwhile project that has not yet been fulfilled. While the Left therefore refrained from critiquing capitalism’s premises, it maintained that the capitalist administration of social production failed to achieve a just distribution of resources. The Leftist critique of capitalist practice proceeded on either moral or rational grounds: either that material wealth has not been used wisely or that capitalist administration has generated—or made available—less wealth than was necessary to put an end to poverty. The Left realized that as long as the profit motive determined the production of wealth, access to resources and technological opportunities would be limited and would produce erratic, wasteful, and irrational outcomes for the system.

Disenchanted by the capitalist administration, the Left sought alternative routes, all of which return to an underlying appeal to capitalist values. The most popular alternative prompted the Left to seek out the industrial working class as an historical agent, while the more marginal approach sought postmodernity as a means of interpreting history. The first alternative, Bauman claims, is no longer viable. Not only has the laboring class been fettered by an internalized bourgeois ideology, what Bauman calls “the poverty of flawed consumers,” it has lost much of the leverage it held over capital.

Instead of the emancipation of labor from capital, what happened was the emancipation of capital from labor. Today capital depends less and less on labor for its reproduction and growth. . . . Instead of engaging the rest of society as producers or servants of the productive process, capital today engages society as consumers or servants of consumption. (87)

A politics in retreat, the Left in this scenario is challenged by the task of either uncritically supporting organized labor, whatever its interests and demands may be, as “by definition” anti-capitalist, or ignoring the behavior of “really existing workers” by privileging an orthodox philosophy of history.

Dissatisfied with such a formulation of history, some on the Left have pursued an alternate approach that leads away from universal projects and into postmodernity. Bauman, however, understands postmodernity as invariably a “philosophy of surrender.” He argues that when the Left shed its belief in “universal standards of truth, justice, and taste” it resigned itself to the impossibility of improving the world. While a postmodern critique allowed the Left to condemn the notion that bourgeois values could be universalized, Bauman alleges that a postmodern framing confirmed the futility of the Left’s position as well. Bauman wounds the postmodern position most deeply when he challenges it as antithetical to the Left’s core convictions.

There can be no Left as a counter-culture, i.e., a positive and effective critique of neglects, drawbacks, and mismanagements in implementing the cultural promise of a better society, without the conviction that this cultural promise is viable and in principle realizable. There can be no Left without the belief that society can be improved and history brought to our side. These can be no Left without the idea that among different things, some are good and some are wrong, and that the first can be made more numerous than the latter. Postmodern theory is an invitation to intellectuals to make the best of their freedom bought at the price of irrelevance. (86)

For Bauman, the Left’s flirtation with postmodern theory is evidence of its failure. He cautions the members of the Left not to claim a monopoly on morality. The premises of postmodernism are incompatible with the Left’s essential moral and teleological aims. Even while postmodernism condemns the notion that bourgeois values are universal, it simultaneously pronounces the futility of the Left.

Bauman’s survey culminates in his assertion that the Left must reposition itself away from “the possibility of the emancipation of labor from capital” as the counter-culture of capitalism. Rather, the Left must challenge the encroachment of capitalist bureaucratic practices into the life-world, and identify the logics that hamper the exercise of individual autonomy and political subjectivity. The current paradigm has driven individuals to seek redress in the market, often as consumers. Although Bauman believes that “rolling back the bureaucratic invasion of the life-world may relieve the pressure to seek the kind of autonomy the market can provide,” he holds that as a provisional course of action. This focus, however, is suggestive of Bauman’s intention to lead the Left towards an approach that privileges the activities of the individual in the private sphere.

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