2,400 years ago Plato, one of the greatest minds of humankind, quoted Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus in his masterful piece Cratylus, “You could not step twice into the same river,” suggesting that there’s nothing permanent in this world.
But is constant change beneficial in the long-term? Why is our society so obsessed with reinventing ourselves? And can we escape from a world where nothing lasts and uncertainty rules our lives?
Undoubtedly, continuous and unrelenting change has confronted humanity from the misty dawn of our existence to our present times. The only certainty in a human’s foreseeable future is that there will most probably be…more change. Heraclitus also wrote: “Everything flows and nothing stays”.
We as homo sapiens used to go berserk for change. As nomads, we were defined by change. With the arrival of agriculture and the emergence of the state and private property, we have become animals of tradition. The way we perceive life, how we interact with each other and with the world surrounding us changed entirely. Stability and social structures became the common regulator in our lives. Yet, our post-modern lives are completely the opposite. Nomadism has become, again, a powerful characteristic of a modern person.
Let us take as an example Millennials, a generation dealing with one of the greatest challenges our society has ever faced: stability. Young people are the latest victims of a process manufactured by the contemporary post-modern world: The liquid society. Radically transforming, at a great speed, the social forms and the experience of what it means to be human are being liquefied. But what exactly is a liquid society?
According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, author of “Liquid Modernity,” liquids, unlike solids, can’t hold their shape. Liquids are fluid, they flow, spill, drip, ooze, in our society that means that we are “being transformed from the ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’ phase of modernity.” Flexibility has replaced stability and ‘solidity’ as the condition to be pursued.
Fluid modernism has replaced traditional patterns with undetermined existential choices and a wide spread of consumer capitalism where short-term living is a virtue. Technology has also contributed to this dilemma. Constant technological change can no longer be considered a transient phenomenon — it is, indeed, the norm. There is no question that technology has dramatically changed how we live, work, socialize, etc.
Inevitably, we are now used to fast-moving, evolving times, with the conviction that things won’t last long, that new opportunities will appear, immediately devaluing existing ones. This happens in all aspects of our lives. With material objects (fashion); with romantic relationships (tinder); and even with the relationships we have with ourselves.
The current liquid state of life brings distress, anxiety and fear to people because they lack anything that is fixed, ‘solid’ or durable. Everything is ephemeral. The world is ruled by fragility and temporariness and it seems we cannot get away from this fact.
Just as young individuals suffer from the emotional and mental devastation of entering the labor market — feeling unwelcomed, like they cannot add anything valuable to the welfare of society — older folks fear their “stable” jobs might become redundant. Zygmunt Bauman argued that the workplace was traditionally an important source of personal identity. Changes in the economy, though, have rendered the workplace far less reliable, more provisional, a place without a sense of community.
Bauman also worried that a society were “all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast”, is not given enough time to solidify, and cannot serve as the frame of reference for human actions and long-term life-strategies because “their allegedly short life-expectation undermines efforts to develop a strategy that would require the consistent fulfillment of a ‘life-project.’”
When life is characterized by not maintaining a certain direction, because “liquidity” doesn’t maintain the same form for a long time, this causes life to be constantly defined by instability and uncertainty, over and over again. It’s like social media, instant and disposable gratification. In today’s highly industrialized society nothing will ever last.
As Bauman put it: “Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: Everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.”
In a society as liquid as ours, being able to adapt and reinvent ourselves to become a newer, better version involves a vast amount of energy, money and skill. It is consumerism at its best. Want to have a healthier, happier, sexier and more successful life? Then, go out and purchase the next ´thing´.
One of the temporary solutions people often use in the hope of solving their private troubles is by spending a lot of time shopping, in so doing ceasing to act collectively as citizens who share common public concerns and issues. In Bauman’s words: “Can notions of equality, democracy and self-determination survive when society is seen less and less as a product of shared labor and common values and far more as a mere container of goods and services to be grabbed by competing individual hands?.”
But buying stuff not only just entails the purchasing of essential goods that are required for our mere survival. Instead, shopping has become “an activity”, a “lifestyle”. We shop for the avid, never-ending game of getting something new and better. The meaning we give to our lives becomes tied to the produced goods, services and the entertainment we consume, rather than the human values that define us and should be nourished. It’s a vicious circle promoted by globalization and the industrial and technological apparatus.
In addition, this situation of perpetual instability has deeply negative effects on our identities and how we see ourselves. Unsurprisingly, to be part of today’s society means to play the game in order to stay afloat. To change our own identity so that it aligns with everyone else’s. Society forces us, imposes on us the requirement to be unique, original, but at the same time it gives us the guidelines to achieve this individuality.
This individuality, though, is not defined by what is on the inside, but rather what is on one’s exterior where everything is possible, as long as one can afford to buy it. Authenticity and self-identity are found in drinking a certain product, wearing a specific brand of underwear, owning a certain cellphone brand or driving the latest car. Individuality and originality are part of the consumerist commodity. Everyone wants to be different, stand out, excel at what they do. Society tell us that we can be whoever we want to be, but first we need to shop, to adopt a style, a trend.
Consumerism in the form of fluidity vulgarizes and generalizes identity. In the age of technology and information our identities are an important element of the “reinvigoration of the capitalist market.” A well-oiled machine, geared increasingly to the production of attractions and temptations. Contemporary society produces as much misery as happiness with its forms of social design. But in the liquid society, individualism is just another a fake mirror of reality. We are in a constant loop of dissatisfaction and disappointment with what we have, but our dissatisfaction can find no political expression since we process it аs personаl disарроintment in our consumer choices and desires.
Material goods don’t provide us with values nor happiness. Yet, somehow we believe that in order to find some sort of stability, happiness or certainty, it is necessary to impulsively search for external alternatives. This lead us, sometimes, to look for quick solutions to make ourselves more adequate consumers. Bauman argues that we try to learn how to get more out of what we choose and to cut bait with the choices already made. The ultimate goal is to find pleasure in flexibility and adaptability rather than steady progress toward a fixed goal.
As Italian Emma Pelese, professor at the University of Salento, suggests “the individual becomes isolated always looking for new forms of socialization, which instead of providing safety and welfare, increase the gap between man and the Self and between man and the other. It is a social system that — despite being in possession of increasingly innovative means to communicate and interact with their fellows — generates discomfort and loneliness.”
Therefore, the only winners in this “liquid” society are the ones who are agile, quick and volatile — just like trade and finance — selfish individuals, who use insecurity as a value, instability as a force and uncertainty as form of wealth.
Whether we like it or not, we are currently ruled by a universal law of constant “learning”. Anyone who wants to survive in today’s society needs to learn at the same speed that the technology changes. It’s a tremendous pressure foisted on us by the status quo and we continue to praise the system for it, instead of fighting it.
We can’t stop questioning society, its governments and the people who are in power. Why? Well, because when that happens we become enslaved to the narratives being manufactured and sold to us. Bauman wrote that an autonomous society is a truly democratic one where questions to everything is a pre-given token liberates the creation of new meanings. “In such a society, all individuals are free to create for their lives the meanings they will (and can).”
We can’t lose touch with our own perception and subjective experiences. As humans we are more than an ‘entity’ destined to produce and consume. Indeed, it is true that we live in a period of decline of human values, but behind every sunset is a new sunrise, a regeneration. It is up to us to restore those human values that make our lives shine and provide us direction. The challenge of life lies within our own selves.