The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

Concept of freedom and postmodernist thought
D.R. Chaudhry

by Zygmunt Bauman. World View, Delhi. Pages 106. Rs. 70

FreedomZYGMUNT Bauman is one of the leading lights among post-modernists. In his numerous works like Individualised Society, On Modernity, Post-modernity and the Intellectuals he has focused his attention on the agonising situation of an individual in the modern consumer society. In freedom , Bauman grapples with the concept of freedom, commonly thought to be simple and self-evident, yet highly complex and ambiguous.

Mere lack of restrictions does not lead to freedom. One needs resources to realise its potential. Concepts like class, power, domination, authority, ideology, culture etc. exert external pressure that limits one’s freedom. In the process an individual develops many inhibitions. One’s actions are regulated by forces that come from outside as well as inside. The free individual is not a universal condition of human kind. Freedom exists only as a social relation.

Social control is needed to maintain social order. In the modern consumer society this is done more through seduction than repression. Jeremy Bentham’s concept of Panopticon further elaborated by Michael Foucault signifies a ‘control machine’. It is a parable of the modern society with emphasis on orderliness. Self-interest of the subjects lies in the unconditional surrender to the rulers whose superiority is not to be questioned. Freedom is the domain of those who wield power.


In a consumer society, consumption is the hallmark of individual freedom. The consumer market lends stability to capitalism. However, this market is not open to all. Even in affluent societies, there is a marginalised section which is not a part of the charmed circle. The discontent of this section is tamed through the mechanism of social welfare.

In a consumer society, everybody is defined by his or her consumption. Consumption is the badge of success. Those who do not have access to the consumer market are considered to be flawed consumers. They deserve no respect as they themselves are to blame. However, they have the potential to become a public nuisance. This threat is to be muted through public welfare measures. Those who are outside the consumer paradise may still think in terms of redistribution. Rich nations, keen to prevent such a threat, do everything possible to see that the poor of the world brutalise each other. So long as they are engaged into local prestige contests, the possibility of challenge is minimal.

Post-modernism has been remarkably candid and often convincing in demolishing the myth of solving all existential problems of man by taking recourse to meta narratives. It has brought into prominence issues like ethnicity, gender, ecology etc. The idea that all the issues will take care of themselves once a system undergoes a change has been disproved by history.

Zygmunt Bauman is flawlessly incisive and deeply insightful while critically analysing the present scenario. However, like his peers of post-modernism, he flounders when an alternative vision of society is to be offered. He sees no possibility of reform from within as the system has self-perpetuating capacity. It has virtually found a ‘philosopher’s stone’ in the freedom of the consumers. Individual autonomy pursued through communal co-operation and self-rule is the only ray of hope. However, Bauman admits that this is as yet an unexplored possibility.

There is no possibility of communal co-operation and self-rule so long as the consumer market rules the roost. Bauman’s framework is cast in the matrix of consumption in modern capitalist society that treats man as an animal with unlimited greed. craving and grasping. This is taken as the final stage in the evolution of man in the paradigm of capitalist development.

As opposed to the capitalist framework, there is an alternative worldview as propounded by Buddha, Mahavira, Lao Tzu, Confucious and a host of other seers, saints and sufis in the East wherein austerity, simplicity, frugality and renunciation are the virtues to be cultivated in the pursuit of higher things of life. This kind of vision is the only hope of sanity in the mad pursuit of a consumerist life style of the West.

Zygmunt Bauman’s slim volume is an important treatise on freedom inspite of its limitations. World View has done well in bringing out its Indian reprint at an affordable price.