Are we solid, liquid… or maybe viscous?
When he first described contemporary societies as liquid,
sociologist Zygmunt Bauman created a powerful metaphor.
But, even today, firmly into the 21st century, we in Latin America
are living in countries, cities and societies in general
that still have a lot that’s solid about them
and only traces and specific areas of liquidity.
Reality tells us we’re living in viscous societies.
Following the death of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman on January 9 of this year, his references to “liquid modernity” echoed throughout Latin America. At times it has seemed as if our continent was one of the best examples of the modern fluidity he posited. Unquestionably, it’s gratifying that his work is communicated and celebrated, but it’s also important not to simplistically transplant his ideas. We need to insist on our own way of thought, one that doesn’t copy Bauman, but engages in a dialogue with his ideas. And if we do, I suspect we would agree that current South American modernity is viscous.
Provocative ideas for Northern countries
The metaphor of liquid modernity, also the title of a book Bauman published in 2000, became very popular and he extended it to other areas: Liquid Love, Liquid Life, Liquid Fear and Liquid Times, which became the titles of some of his subsequent books, published in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2006, respectively.
Bauman’s work contains infinite provocative ideas, in both his concepts and his metaphors. Even so, it must always be remembered that his work looks at the condition of industrialized, particularly European, countries.
Born in Poznañ, Poland, in 1925, Bauman worked in its Internal Security Corps (KBW) in his youth. Later he studied and then taught at the University of Warsaw. Persecuted for being of Jewish descent, he left Poland in 1968 to live first in Israel and later in England. He worked as a professor at Leeds University starting in 1971.
The circumstances of Bauman’s life experience are very different from those we know in Latin America. While recognizing this particularity, images and ideas can still be taken from his work, as from that of other intellectuals, to probe our own circumstances.
There’s a lot that’s still solid in Latin America
Bauman described the modernity he observed as liquid, as opposed to a previous “solid” phase of modernity. The solid phase was based on certainties, where order and certainty were maintained, moral codes could be depended upon and society took refuge in civilizing goals. From the late 20th-century context in the North, however, Bauman announced that modernity had become fluid, with widespread uncertainty and moral relativism and without belief in the large civilizing dreams, facilitating a certain level of hedonism. This is how Bauman describes the times of privatization, deregulation and the deployment of global capital.
Many of the articles about Bauman that circulated after his death lead readers to think that Latin America is also experiencing this liquid modernity. But this needs to be thought out more carefully. We can certainly observe several elements of this liquid condition: particularly individualism and relativism. But some attributes of solid modernity are still very present on our continent.
Let’s consider a single aspect as an example. In a chapter about space/time in his book on this subject, Bauman wrote that the former solid modernity was “the era of territorial conquest,” adding that “wealth and power was firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land—bulky, ponderous and immovable like the beds of iron ore and deposits of coal.” Isn’t that a very familiar image for us today in Latin America? Don’t our politicians keep insisting that the national wealth is in the minerals or the oil hidden in the subsoil or in the fertility of the land?
There’s extractivist capitalism throughout the continent
The conquest of land and the obsession to demonstrate state power by imposing it is still very present among us. The new frontier of conquest is the imposition of mining, oil and agricultural extractivism, especially advancing into the tropical forests or over the Andes. There’s also a new conquest of lands that were once kept outside of extractivist capitalism, such as indigenous and peasant lands. These have unleashed enormous local conflicts throughout the continent, including Mexico and Central America.
The State or industries continue to prevail over local communities, especially those of peasants and indigenous peoples. In the last months of Rafael Correa’s progressive administration in Ecuador, that government imposed copper mining in the Shuar people’s Amazonian lands. And in Argentina, Mauricio Macri’s conservative administration is repressing and evicting Mapuche people who resist livestock expansion in Chubut, their lands in Patagonia. Similar situations are repeated in other countries.
Even in the 21st century, we in Latin America are still experiencing a dynamic involving the conquest of territories and of the wealth found in mining or oil deposits or in agricultural lands.
There are many “empty spaces”
Bauman goes a step further in his theory when he says that “anything lying between the outposts of competing imperial realms was seen as masterless, a no man’s land, and so an empty space—and empty space was a challenge to action and reproach to idlers.” Although such writing describes a typical 19th-century picture, we again must wonder if situations such as he described don’t still persist in early 21st-century Latin America.
We can’t forget Alan García, the Peruvian President who once said that the Amazonian jungle was almost empty and that the few who inhabited it would be lazy… comparing them to “dogs that will neither eat nor let others eat.” Nor can we forget the current Bolivian government, which ignores or minimizes the effects of oil expansion on the nature reserves and lands belonging to indigenous and isolated peoples.
A viscous modernity
All of this indicates that our modernity is still more solid than is believed. What surrounds us in Latin America would rather seem to be a mixture of components that, to use Bauman’s terminology, would be both solid and liquid. We live in a viscous modernity.
The continent still relies on development strategies tied to the land, whether with conservative or progressive governments. There’s a culture—replete with its beliefs, images, myths and narratives—that assumes that being immersed in enormous ecological wealth can and should be intensely taken advantage of, and sees any obstacle to this proposal as retrogressive and dangerous thoughts that can justifiably be combated or destroyed.
Although, with few exceptions, no massive industrialization took place in Latin America in the form of vigorous Fordism, which is another attribute of solid modernity, the State’s role in many countries is still overloaded with vices inherited from the 19th century: a lifeless political dynamic full of strongmen and a society tolerant of authoritarianism.
Here the liquid and the solid coexist and merge
In spite of its solidity, components of fluid modernity are also seen in Latin America, accepting individualism and relativism as well as hedonism tied to consumerism and openings to moral plurality. There are also social groups that enjoy globalized hyper-connectivity and esthetics.
All the solid and liquid components are mixed together, entangled, even generating their own expressions used in no other part of the planet. This explains the viscosity of our creole modernities.
It’s important to note that this heterogeneous condition isn’t because we’re in transition, evolving from an earlier stage of solid modernity towards a more liquid modernity. We’re not in a linear evolution.
Latin American modernity is organized and reproduced differently. We’re characterized by our own combination of solid phenomena—such as stories of marvelous progress, the necessary conquest of Nature and a rigidity in public morality—and liquid dynamics such as individualism, private moral relativism, the replacement of the citizen-being by the consumer-being, the lack of protection and security and, of course, globalization.
Modernity’s central elements—the pursuit of progress and the Society-Nature duality—are unquestionably still there but in the Latin American version they are organized differently from the way Bauman describes it and the result is a mixture of the components: viscosity.
In addition, our modernity’s viscosity isn’t homogenous on the continent or even within each country. The modernity that takes place, let’s say, in São Paulo’s upper-class neighborhoods isn’t the same as that experienced in Southern Mexican communities.
Our violence isn’t the same as over there
A particularity of Latin America’s viscous modernities is that they’re immersed in various forms of violence. On this topic, Bauman’s approaches are different. Although he ventures into issues such as evil and the Holocaust, perhaps his better known proposals are about Unsicherheit, a German term that combines the ideas of uncertainty, insecurity and lack of protection. He explores this issue in his book In Search of Politics (1999), a denser conceptual work with fewer metaphors and, therefore, much more provocative.
Latin American violence reaches levels of tragedy in some countries, for example, Mexico. But something similar is repeated in all our countries. Urban criminality is scandalous in many Central American cities and also in Venezuela and Brazil.
This violence goes far beyond urban robberies, trigger-happy police or wars between drug-trafficking gangs. It penetrates all areas of daily life in all corners of the land.
The very development strategies themselves, especially extractivism, are imposed by using violence. Sometimes it’s a subtle violence: to force the approval of certain economic projects. But it can also be a more direct violence, such as the upsurge in murders of local social leaders.
The most recent Global Witness report points out that Honduras is the most dangerous country for environmental activists in the world with more than 120 people have been killed there for resisting mining corporations, hydroelectric dams or logging companies causing deforestation, including the emblematic activist Berta Cáceres..
We shouldn’t repeat or copy
This proliferation of violence, its persistence over such a long time and its diversification are aspects of a heavy solidity that indubitably contains the uncertainty, insecurity and lack of protection that concern Bauman, but also transcends these three aspects he attributes to violence.
It’s for these kinds of reasons that Zygmunt Bauman’s work can’t be transplanted to Latin America, as if the whole continent were following, or even should copy, the same historical path as the Northern countries. In spite of this, his writings offer conceptual provocations and challenging images that are very useful for contemplating our own reality.
Reading Bauman to take up our own circumstances, is possibly the best tribute to this sociologist’s work. The novelty isn’t in repeating or copying, facilely stating that Latin America is there in some of Bauman’s liquid images. It comes from using those images to further our own analysis. We can use some of his ideas, changing some or discarding others, creating new syntheses. And that’s where the interest in Bauman lies.
All this enables me to argue that our continent is immersed in some viscous modernities, where the old is mixed with the new. But beyond whatever image we use, modernity still clearly delimits Latin American social life.
Eduardo Gudynas is the chief researcher at the Latin American Center of Social Ecology (CLAES) in Montevideo. This piece was published in Palabras al Margen in February 2017 and has been edited by envío.