Gang wars and Zygmunt Bauman

Faruk Wasif | Update:

The young boy Adnan died in clashes between his gang and another in Uttara. Around the same time, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman passed away. And on the Russian coast, a bottle was swept ashore, containing an indecipherable message.

What incites one gang of young boys to gloat over the death of another? What way out is there from such violence among social communities? What does that message in the bottle have to say?

There really is no link between the two deaths. The only link could be that Bauman’s task was to devise solutions to contemporary crises. He would question why a normal person would turn to violence when under pressure. Bauman ranks at the top among twentieth century sociologists. This exiled thinker would teach at Leeds University in England. His concept is known as liquid sociology. He would say we are all in the same boat and this is mankind’s fate. But those who thrive on violence, think quite the contrary.

The gangs in Uttara reveled in terrorizing people. Bauman said they thought like autocrats, terrorizing gave them joy, a sense of power. The rule of fear exists in the family, the society, right up to the state. The criminals imitate the state’s exercise of oppression, crossfire, gunfights, abduction and killings. The gang culture of the young boys is a reflection of the rule of fear. This gang culture is not restricted to rich kids, but has spread out to the youth of the middle and lower classes.

Adolescent boys want to be ‘macho’ and ‘cool’. In a healthy society this is manifest normally, in adventurous expeditions, in standing up against wrongdoings and in working for good causes. But this society has become a minefield. Gunpowder simmers in the minds of the young, and there is no knowing when it will explode.

In instances of social violence, friends are killings friends, a son is killing his father, neighbours are killing neighbours. Both the victims and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly amongst the youth. Bauman claimed both security and independence are needed, they are complementary. Society can be protected like a prison, but then freedom is diminished. With the increase of crime and terror the world over, governments are snipping away at citizens’ freedoms. Bauman was searching for a balance.

Drawing on the biblical example of Cain killing his brother Abel, Bauman said, one actually needed the other for independence. Did Adnan’s killer manage to retain his humanity? He too needs that freedom. A sociologist is, in a sense, a leader of ethics and thought. Just as it is the police’s duty to catch a criminal, it is a sociologist’s task to see how a criminal can be rehabilitated in society. Bauman’s preoccupation was with the social orphan, the rootless refugee, the hapless frustrated youth, the consumer consumed by consumerism, the fallout of globalization, that is, the state of human reality as it stands today. Bauman’s research is like an x-ray of mankind, bereft of love and harmony.

In his book Liquid Modernity he shows how civilization is becoming lost in the journey from solid modernity to liquid post modernity. In the sixties (for us up till the eighties), there was a trust amongst people, there was reliance on the state, there was hope for emancipation of mankind. He called this solid modernity. But all this dissolved in the globalised world. Solid beliefs, relationships, institutions, states, all seem to be melting. The society is itself orphaned, man stands alone. The state has become cruel and uncaring. The new generation can’t fit into the family or any institution. Like spiders, they are caught up solitary in their webs. Some emerge from broken relationships to become killers, drug addicts or militants. This is how redundant, rejected and expendable persons are being produced.

Bauman’s Liquid Love speaks of the frailty of present day human relationships. In the past, relationships were stable and plugged in like a land phone. Today’s love is like a mobile phone, unplugged, mobile and changeable. In Liquid Fear he speaks of post modern life’s uncertainty fraught with fear. His work has led to a branch of social science called Liquid Sociology.

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was a kindred spirit of Bauman and both believed ethics was the first philosophy. What was the aim of such ethics? Do not kill your brother, your neighbor. Levinas would say the essence of language is friendship and hospitality. War and killing do not require language or words, hatred will do. That is why hatred is blind and weapons of destruction are inanimate. Had the gangs held negotiations with Adnan to resolve their enmity, there would have been no need to use weapons. This truth holds for parties, nations and states as well. As long as we keep up discussions, we don’t pull out the guns. They remain in the holsters.

Levinas says when coming near, people look at the face, open, unprotected and vulnerable. When encountering an unknown person, the thought first arises as to whether that person can be trusted. Just as a sleeping face is simple, man can be as straight and simple is envy and arrogance can be put to rest. When a known man comes with a different face, he is not trusted. Adnan’s killers came with unknown faces. Levinas says a man’s face comes with an inbuilt sense of propriety. Then our consciences tell us not to say ‘no’ to anyone’s face, not to insult, not to hurt anyone’s face. But they hurt Adnan’s face before killing him.

There is dire need for politics in such circumstances of overall crisis, said Bauman. This will be a liberating politics focused on people. This will not foster untimely deaths of the young, the exodus of refugees or expendability of human life.

The language of the note in the bottle at sea could not be deciphered. But answers to the questions which wash up on today’s shores must be sought otherwise the future is bleak. Bauman always called himself a leftist. He spoke of keeping old hopes alive with new thoughts and commitment. He believed it was the task of intellectuals down the ages to seek answers to the burning questions.


*The article origninally published in Prothom Alo print edition is rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir. Faruk Wasif could be contacted at

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