Multiple Modernities and the Nazi Genocide: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, pt. II

Natan Sznaider, Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo

This is the second half of Natan Sznaider’s critique of Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust. You can find the first half here. 

Multiple Modernities and the Memory of the Holocaust

We do need to talk about modernity (the concept as such makes sociologically no sense), but about multiple modernities and multiple Enlightenments.  One of the clues is Arendt’s book “On Revolution” where she compares and contrasts the French and the Anglo-Saxon traditions of Enlightenment

When we look at the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance, it is grounded on the sentiments or a moral or common sense as a kind of intuitive judgment. Capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, exercising power of judgment, anchored in religion and balancing between morality and utility in the basis of a liberty seen as granted to all. Look at Adam Smith’s exploration of virtues like compassion and benevolence. Arendt was working in this tradition when she in her “On Revolution” takes side with the legacy of the American Revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment against its French contender. Thus, in the French tradition (and we are talking caricatures) there is a strong opposition between reason and religion, while the Scots tried to reconcile reason and faith. I think these distinctions are important even though they do not play much or a role in Bauman’s text.

Bauman characterizes modernity as an overwhelming urge to replace spontaneity seen as meaningless by an order drawn by reason and constructed through a legislative and controlling effort. Does this mean that spontaneity is pre-modern or even pre-social as Bauman wants it to be? I’m not sure about that. This is a rather romantic point of view which refuses to see how “spontaneity” grew out of social structure. Then there is the bureaucratic argument and it is never actually clear with Bauman if he thinks that the Holocaust is inherent to bureaucratic culture or does it to its job prescribed by others. Don’t we have to take into account the Nazi’s fantastic vision or the ecstasy (as the historian Saul Friedlander has done in his work on Nazi Germany) of their doings?  Does the use of technology contradict the fact that the killing was done with passion?

Surely, there must be more than a cost-benefit analysis involved here. That is not Weber, but rather a caricature of Weber. There is no dialectic involved here, but a line heading directly from rationalization to genocide. Clearly, the setting was modern, but was modernity really the driving force? Yes, the Holocaust occurred in the modern age, but what does this actually tells us? If he tells us that the Holocaust was a possibility rooted in essential aspects of modernity itself, then he must allow for other possibilities of modernity.

Thus against the two principles which Bauman proposes: modernity as civilizing and modernity as barbarism, I would like to suggest a third option: the project of modernity is being defined as such as long that modernity can become conscious of its own potential of barbarity and tries to overcome it through a civilization process. In short, modernity is modern the moment it becomes self-reflexive.

What does that mean: if we look at phenomena which are, nasty, brutish and violent, we need a moral baseline to argue that and recognize it as such. We need an ideal of civility, and this ideal is the product of a historical and social process. The civilization process contains self-criticism – the self-criticism of modernity. Thus, we do not need to accept the equation that modernity equals barbarity, but that modernity is able to recognize barbarity in a self-reflexive process (human rights, for example). Thus, we should ask Bauman, what the origins of his own moral sensibilities are. I assume that as a sociologist he would be suspicious of thinking that he is a saint standing outside the social order.

Look at the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Now, we can dismiss this as ideological mumble jumble or as discourse of power, but we can also take this seriously as Bauman’s own Minima Moralia.

A society that is able to identify barbarity in its midst is a true modern society.

Finally, this brings me to my last point, which is Bauman’s sociology of morality.

Bauman looks at the individual as outside of society, even as opposed to society. This view is not only a-historical, overlooking the historical and structural pre-conditions for the emergence of individualism (as was done by Elias). This abstract relation to other is being confused by Bauman with an a-sociological point of view. Simmel, Mead and Elias knew otherwise.

To conclude, this despairing farewell to modernity doesn’t have to be the last word on the matter.  Present-day European pessimism forgets the break with the past that lies at the bottom of the post war European project.  In doing so, it produces an anti-modernism. It is in this elevation of pessimism to permanent despair that post-modernity joins hands with nationalistic Europe. Both deny the possibility of struggling against the horror of history by radicalizing the idea of modernity.  Nevertheless, Bauman has awakened us from our illusion that mass murder and racism can be conveniently outsourced to an “alien” nation.  This is his true challenge.

Natan Sznaider is professor of sociology at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo in Israel. His books include Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order(2011), Human Rights and Memory (with Daniel Levy) (2010), The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (with Daniel Levy) (2005). His forthcoming book is titled Memory and Forgetting in the Post-Holocaust Era. The Ethics of Never Again (co-authored with Alejandro Baer) (Routledge, 2017).


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