The result of independence is utter boredom. This is how the polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who passed away in January at age 91, commented on independence and loneliness in Sweden, in the documentary ‘The Swedish Theory of Love‘ (for the fragment with Bauman, click here). The documentary paints a picture of the overdeveloped individualism in Sweden: while considered a country which has achieved a summit of personal well-being, social organisation and opportunities for development, it also knows great loneliness and social fragmentation. The ‘Swedish theory of love’ is basically that all love, all social relationships, are purely individually chosen. But when radically carried to its ultimate consequences, what results does this have for society and the quality of human bonds? Zygmunt Bauman, famous for his analysis of the present condition of society as one of ‘Liquid Modernity’, comments during the documentary on this situation. He states that happiness is not achieved by being without difficulties, but by being able to overcome difficulties. Not by taking distance from those who are different or difficult to live with, but to learn live together with those who are different. In our ‘liquid modernity’, in which uncertainty has become a permanent condition and in which the skills of socializing, dialogue to construct something together, and living together with differences are not developed, independence becomes a situation in which interdependence weakens, leaving people with a loss of meaningfulness and in the end utter boredom.
Liquid Modernity and the skill of living together
Bauman developed his sociological insights during his long active years after retiring from the university of Leeds. In Liquid Modernity (2000), he described how a ‘solid’ phase of modernity, characterized by ‘heavy’-style capitalism and strong social bonds, was followed by the current ‘liquid’ phase of modernity, characterized by ‘light’-style capitalism and weakness of human bonds. While solid modernity struggled for individual freedom and was concerned about totalitarianism (Bauman takes George Orwell’s book 1984 as a typical example), people in liquid modernity are losing the capacity of social togetherness, while its concerns are those of uncertainty and anxiety. Bauman developed his work on the weakness of human bonds and living together in Liquid Love (2003). In his book Consuming Life (2007) he developed his analysis of consumer society and how consumerism structures more and more relations and weakens social skills. At the end of his life, he looked at how anxiety about refugees is used by populist politicians in Strangers at our Door (2016). In Retrotopia, published in January 2017 just weeks after Bauman’s death, he looked at how anxieties about the present and a lack of trust in the ability to build a better future together, lead whole societies nowadays to look to a return to a perfect past and close themselves from others. The capacity to deal with difficulties in living together through the skill of negotiating and finding solutions to the challenge of differences is being replaced by the logic of walls.
Dialogue between religions to find ‘Paths of Peace’
There is a great need in today’s world of building these skills of negotiation in such a way that it can offer a realistic alternative to the logic of walls in answering to conflict situations or crisis. These days in Münster and Osnabrück hundreds of representatives from the worlds religions came together in a meeting called ‘Paths of Peace‘, organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, in order to discuss concrete challenges of today’s world and find ways to work together, to cooperate to answer these questions, especially situations of war and violence. Secular thinkers, as well as politicians, also participate in these encounters, which are concluded with moments of prayer for peace. Special guests this year in Germany are, for example, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, and Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar university.
Zygmunt Bauman himself participated in two of these annual meetings, which are organized in another European city each year: 2014’s meeting ‘Peace is the Future’ in Antwerp, and 2016’s meeting ‘Thirst for Peace’ in Assisi (in which Pope Francis also participated, and whom Bauman personally got to meet there).
In his contributions in Antwerp and Assisi, he spoke especially of the capacity of dialogue, and the theme of migrants and refugees. In this way, Zygmunt Bauman was a shining example of a secular thinker who put his thought into practice, in dialogue with religious figures to find solutions to some of today’s society’s most pressing problems. With the annual interreligious peace encounters organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, this commitment to building skills of negotiation, conflict resolution and making peace will go on. Bauman’s participation in this process remains an inspiring sign that secular people together with believers from the various religions have a lot to offer in building this future for a society of interdependence, rather than one of isolation and of utter boredom.